Monday, 29 July 2013

'The Social' and the Philosophy of Action

A post I wrote a while ago is getting a lot of hits (a lot for this blog, anyway!) and the source isn't showing up in my stats.  It was a bit of a throwaway post about the idea of economic transactions and any other interpersonal activity being 'embedded' in 'the social', an idea I have a number of problems with.  I said that what I find objectionable about the concept is not the predictions it makes (that, for instance, markets will be found at the boundaries between groups) or the idea that interpersonal relations are an important variable in determining human actions of most kinds, but rather the idea that 'the social', whatever that is, is something of a different order to other human actions and is not reducible to beliefs and desires, making it a defiantly non-naturalistic attempt at understanding how people work.


Complex central nervous systems, apparently capable of holding enormous numbers of beliefs about the world (some of them mutually contradictory), cause bodily actions (which just are human actions), on the basis of beliefs about the world inferred from sensory data.  That seems to be how people work in the most general terms possible.  All human actions are caused by a cocktail of beliefs and desires (materially existent in the form of the brain), among them beliefs about other people, and beliefs about their beliefs, and beliefs about their beliefs about your beliefs, and so on.  This is what 'the social' is; this is what it reduces to.  It is not some intangible milieu in which actions take place, but is rather a set of mental states in the heads of individual humans that are among the mental causes of their actions.

A human action is generated by a belief and a desire - a desire not to die combined with the belief that stepping in front of a fast-moving train will kill you will lead to your avoiding stepping in front of fast-moving trains.  Of course, human action is often more complicated than this, involving many more beliefs and desires.  And almost all of your beliefs and desires are held sub-consciously, which further complicates things.  But ultimately all actions have to result from combinations of beliefs and desires found inside the central nervous system of the individual concerned.  'The social', so-called, is nothing more than a particular set of beliefs and desires that affect what people do, and the desire to please another person or communicate something to them is not a desire of a different kind to the desire to avoid death.  The idea that there is a thing called 'the social' that is different to human mental states about other people (and other people's mental states) is decidedly unnaturalistic and not a reasonable path to solving the problem of how humans work.

Perceptions of the world cause beliefs about it.  These beliefs, in combination with desires, cause human actions.  These mental causes are discovered only through observing actions and inferring and ascribing to the actor, given the information available, the beliefs and desires that would causally explain the action.  This is what it is to interpret an action: to explain it causally in terms of a certain set of beliefs and desires that appear the most reasonable ones to ascribe.  These include 'social' beliefs and desires, those that relate to other people and their beliefs and their desires.  These causes ought to be sufficient to potentially account for any given instance of human action.

I realise this isn't the easiest thing to comprehend, and it certainly doesn't help that most social scientists - let alone most anthropologists - don't have a background in the philosophy of action or Davidson's position on it.  'Akrasia' is not, for some reason, part of the standard jargon of the social sciences, which is odd given that it seems rather fundamental to me to resolve the issue of whether a human can act against their own judgement as to what is right (i.e, whether they can act irrationally, knowingly in defiance of what they conclude is the right thing to do).  Given the solutions that have been proposed, Davidson's view, that actions are caused by intentions, which just are beliefs and desires, is the most sensible and the one most likely to lead to a plausible naturalistic understanding of human action.  It mystifies me slightly that this hasn't been noticed by anthropologists at any point in the last few decades.

1 comment:

  1. Generally speaking, do you think there is a practical, constructive way to get more cultural anthropologists, sociologists et al. to engage with analytic philosophy and cognitive psychology?

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