Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Theoretical and Practical Transitions

Let us refer to all belief-yielding psychological transitions (e.g., the transition from a perceptual experience to a belief) as theoretical transitions, and all intention-yielding psychological transitions (e.g., the transition from a desire to an intention) as practical transitions. A transition qualifies as psychological, on the present view, only if it has representational content. The distinction between theoretical and practical transitions hinges on the recognition of two distinct kinds of representational content. The first is associated with psychological states that represent a certain state of affairs as being the case and are legitimately deemed faulty if the state of affairs in question is not the case. The second is associated with psychological states that do not represent a certain state of affairs as being the case and which are therefore not deemed faulty if the state of affairs in question is not the case.

I maintain that a psychological state is good just in case it is not legitimately deemed faulty, and bad otherwise. The conditions under which a specific psychological state is legitimately deemed good or bad constitutes that state’s correctness conditions. Thus, I hold that goodness and badness (i.e., goodness conditions) are the primary and most basic form of correctness conditions for a psychological state. Moreover, I hold that truth is simply one instance of the good, relative to psychological states that represent a certain state of affairs as being the case (i.e., those that fall under the umbrella of theoretical transitions). A psychological state represents truly just in case it represents a particular state of affairs as being the case and the state of affairs in question really is the case.

Because of the important role played by the notion of truth in our ordinary discourse, we often find it necessary to speak about truth in ways that set it apart from other forms of goodness. Truth is primus inter pares. In this regard, the concept of truth is analogous to the concept of the human; for while human beings are considered a type of animal, the important role played by the notion of the human in our ordinary discourse often requires that we speak about humans in ways that set them apart from all other animals. Hence, just as we may juxtapose humans and animals, although strictly speaking, humans are a type of animal), so too we may juxtapose the true and the good (although, strictly speaking, truth is a type of goodness).

The juxtaposition of humans and animals is legitimated by the fact that humans have a special characteristic (i.e., the ability to respond to reasons as such) that all other animals lack, and this characteristic plays a special role in our ordinary discourse. Similarly, the juxtaposition of truth and goodness is legitimated by the fact that truth has a special characteristic (i.e., its identification with states of affairs that are the case) that all other forms of goodness lack, and this characteristic plays an important role in our ordinary discourse. Hence, we may refer to the correctness conditions of a psychological state that represents a particular state of affairs as being the case as truth conditions, and I will describe all other psychological states as having goodness conditions.

It is often observed that the specification of the content of a perceptual experience or perceptual belief is worded in terms of a that-clause. One may, for instance, see that there is an apple on the table, or believe that there is an apple on the table. By contrast, the specification of the content of a desire or intention typically takes the form of a to-clause. One may desire to eat an apple or intend to eat an apple. However, while such grammatical details are suggestive, they are far from conclusive. For example, Myles Brand observes that the content of an intention may often be specified in terms of a that-clause; a claim he illustrates with the example: “Richard intends that he vote in the next election.”(Italics mine)

I believe that a more philosophically interesting way of unpacking the difference between theoretical and practical transitions is to note that an ideal rational agent that holds a belief (i.e., a psychological state resulting from a theoretical transition) to the effect that S obtains, when confronted with conclusive evidence that S does not obtain, will revise her belief, whereas an ideal rational agent with an intention (i.e., a psychological state resulting from a practical transition) to bring S about, may retain this intention even in the face of conclusive evidence that S does not obtain.

One upshot of the claim that theoretical and practical transitions have different kinds of content is that the content of a theoretical transition could not feature in a practical transition, and vice versa. Dennis Stampe commits himself to such a view when he notes that it is impossible to transition from the propositional content of a belief to the content of an intention. He writes:
Starting from It would be good if p, and perhaps Only my doing A will make it the case that p, by what logic do we pass to I will do A? All that seems to follow is that It would be good to do A—and this neither denotes an action nor the content of an intention; further premises would yield I ought to do A, but to believe that is not to do A. We confront a logical gap. And it cannot, it seems, be bridged by the addition of further beliefs.
Here, Stampe observes that practical and theoretical transitions are distinct types of transitions with their own respective types of content. Any attempt to reduce the content of an intention (or desire) to that of a belief or judgement is therefore moribund. In the discussion that follows I take Stampe’s observation, along with the definition of practical transitions as intention-yielding, seriously. A transition that is belief-yielding, but which happens to have practical content (i.e., happens to be about some action the agent is performing) does not qualify as a practical transition on this view.


Ben M-Y said...


This is very interesting and nicely presented. I look forward to further posts on the topic.

I have two questions, appeals for clarification, really.

First, it seems correct that a rational agent will revise her belief that p in the face of conclusive evidence that not-p. It also seems correct that a rational agent will not revise her intention to p in the face of conclusive evidence that not-p. But it also seems plausible, to me, that a rational agent would revise her intention to p in the face of conclusive evidence that p. Consider: I intend to go to the bus stop. I am at the bus stop. So I no longer intend to go to the bus stop.

Might there be an asymmetry of sorts here between beliefs and intentions? The first are faulty in the face of conclusive evidence that the represented state of affairs has not obtained, but the second are not. The second are faulty in the face of (some?) conclusive evidence that the intended state of affairs has already obtained, the first are not.

Second, I am having a hard time with the Stampe example. How does it show that it is impossible to transition from the content of a belief to the content of an intention? It seems to me that the quotation demonstrates that the transition from belief to intention cannot be made by the addition of further beliefs alone. And this seems plausible.

The issue, if I understand your terms correctly, is whether a transition can be made from a psychological state that represents p as being the case to a psychological state that represents p as not being the case (specifically, that represents p as to be brought about). Consider: I believe that I am at the bus stop. I receive conclusive evidence that I am not at the bus stop. So I intend to bring it about that I am at the bus stop.

Here we have the modification of a belief that p into an intention to p on the basis of a belief that not-p. Perhaps we need a bridge, like a desire to bring about p, to make the transition. But if we let p be 'I am at the bus stop', then we have different attitudes towards the same content, no?

I'm surely missing something here.

Pierre-Normand said...


I've just been reading the recent exchange between Ben, Avery and a few others, starting with Avery’s _Rational Transitions and Hurley’s Monkey_ post. I found the discussion most stimulating and rife with good insights on all sides. The discussion often made close contact with many of my current philosophical interests, which include the issue of the relation between theoretical and practical reason, and the issue of locating rationality and self-determination in the broad context of an animal life-form. (Following Sebastian Rödl, I restrict the use of the phrase 'form of life' specifically to rational life-forms like our own.)

Regarding the second topic, I am also trying to work out a distinction that cross cuts both of two traditional distinctions: (1) the duality of modes of explanation that involves locating things in the empirical/causal order on the one hand and the mode that make actions and mental states of agents intelligible on the other hand. This lines up with the duality of the natural scientific world in which objects occupy non-normative causal nexuses and the “space of reasons” within which agents occupy rational normative standings; and (2) the distinction between inanimate matter on the one hand and living things, paradigmatically self moving animals, on the other hand. More specifically, I am struggling to single out the sort of autonomy animals enjoy in a way that respects the philosophical insights that sustain the first distinction mentioned above. I do not hold that non-rational animals can manifest acts of self-determination but I do not hold either that they are subject to the same sorts of laws ('laws of heteronomy', following Roedl and Thompson) that the rest of inanimate nature obeys.

But right now I would rather focus on an issue relating to the first topic. It doesn't seem correct to me to suggest that intentions, actions, or whatever states can issue from practical transitions, can share propositional intentional contents with theoretical attitudes. Their objects have categorically different logical forms, I think. I am most influenced by Michael Thompson here (See his _Life and Action_).

I appreciate Avery's suggestion that truth is the respect in which beliefs are assessed as correct while goodness is the respect in which practical attitudes are so assessed. Both the True and the Good (either prudential or moral) are the 'formal aims', as some philosophers have put it, of theoretical and practical reason, respectively. Partial indifference to any one of those aims from an agent is a mark of irrationality and total indifference to those aims undermines the very attribution of agency to some putative agent (I am leaving the topic of animal agency asides for now). I can grant that much...

Pierre-Normand said...


...The misleading thought, I think, stems from assimilating the content of practical attitudes with a states of affairs that one thereby strives to make actual, wishes would be actual, or deems it good that they would be actual. But my model for a practical transition is the Aristotelian practical syllogism and this issues with something that has the logical character of an action. "I am doing phi" or "I intend to phi" conjoins "I" with something that has this character. Thompson calls this an 'event- or process-form'. Avery also mentioned to-clauses, as contrasted with that-clauses. In order to do or intend to do something I must have (or believe to have) the relevant practical power or skill. Practical skills, I would surmise, ground actions in the way perceptual skills ground perceptions. I can't gain empirical knowledge on the basis of experience without knowing that *I* am the one perceiving and I can't do something without knowing that *I* am the one bringing about some state of affairs. Of course, I can intend to do something I don't actually have the power to do but then realization that I lack the requisite power abolishes my intention just like realization that I lack a perceptual skill abolishes my putatively empirically grounded knowledge.

The offshoot, I think, is that while my intending to bring about that P is actual (or see to it that P) can be the outcome of a practical transition in me (the conclusion of a practical syllogism), the object of the ensuing 'state' always is something categorically distinct from P. It is rather one particular determination of the many ways *I* could see to it that P obtains, given my particular skills and my determinate embodied situation in the world. There is much more I would like to say but this will do for now.

Ben M-Y said...


You bring up some interesting and complex points. It's been a while since I read Thompson. And I have yet to read the Rödl. So I don't have much to say about the overall context in which your thoughts are raised.

But I do have a question about your objection to the claim that the contents of the attitudes arrived at by theoretical and practical transitions might be the same. Your final paragraph seems to assume that intentional attitudes are all of a piece. That is, it seems to disregard the insight that there are different levels of intention. (I'm thinking of Bratman here, but there might be stuff in Raz that suggests a similar point.) Take Bramtan's view, on which (mere) intentions, plans and policies are all types of intentional attitudes. Now if we accept that intentional attitudes are arrived at by practical transitions, then, conjoining this with something like Bratman's view, it follows that practical transitions can yield attitudes of various contents. Some contents might be states of affairs one aims to bring about, others specific plans to bring SOA about, and yet others standing policies regarding what to treat as reason-giving in practical deliberation.

If this picture makes sense, then it is not just the claim that the different sorts of psychological transition can share contents that is at issue, but also claims about what the relevant attitudes themselves are like. Different conceptions of intention combined with different conceptions of psychological transitions can yield various views. Not all will agree on every point. But the distinctions, it seems to me, will rarely be clear-cut.

Pierre-Normand said...

Hi Ben,

I haven’t read Bratman at all (and I very much like Raz) and I hope my tentative answer will not be too far off the mark.

Rational animals are both agents and perceivers. Bodily movement and perceptual activity are loci of the ultimate grounding of intentional attitudes. There are no possible inferences to a perceptual states and no possible inferences from an action, I would hold, although, following McDowell, I also hold that such acts or performances fall wholly within the sphere of the conceptual. Many intentional states are located at a remove from content conferring sensory perceptions or bodily actions. Perceptually grounded empirical beliefs and many intentions (that aren’t yet 'intentions in action'), for instance, are thus removed from our loci of direct engagement with the world.

The case of plans and standing policies that you bring up is most interesting in this respect. When an agent revises a plan or policy this may have both practical and theoretical imports. The revision may be viewed either as a theoretical transition--a change in belief about what must be done--, or as a practical transition--issuing in new protracted actions and intentions, or both. I agree that the distinction need not be clear-cut in many actual cases one seeks to interpret. The question is hermeneutical and asking it may be part of the agent’s own deliberative process. But whatever one’s stance is on the status of such transitions (that occur at some remove from both sensory perception and bodily movement)--that they belong to the theoretical kind, the practical kind, or to both—can we agree that when the times come for implementing some plan, then, what results is an action (or some phase of an action) and this can’t have propositional form (for reasons I indicated in my previous post)?

Most actions and perceptions are protracted acts that involve more perceptions and more actions as proper components, respectively. Constructing a bookshelf, for instance, or observing plant cells through a microscope, involves many perceptual acts (e.g. finding tools), and actions (e.g. adjusting the focus), respectively. Such protracted acts must be viewed at some molar level before they can be characterized to be either theoretical or practical. They will that have contents that can be fitted into propositional form (or maybe ‘intuitional form’, as McDowell recently argued) or action-form respectively. Different hermeneutic standpoints may issue in different ways one can carve up some segment of the life of a rational animal even from her own standpoint, into determinate component actions and perceptions. The different views can be compared and assessed in point of pragmatic relevance and/or perspicuity. I am skeptical myself of the view that there might be atomic actions and atomic perceptions where the atomic/molar distinction isn’t relative to a hermeneutic standpoint. But the point remains, I think, that the agent herself must settle in practical reasoning on some definite hermeneutic standpoint and this will necessarily terminate in action-form lest she is to revise her plans and her standing policies endlessly and never actually act.

Pierre-Normand said...

Note: I use 'action-form' in the way Thompson uses 'event- or process-form'. Also, I just saw that Roed'l uses the phrase 'practical life-form' when speaking of rational forms of life, contrary to what I said earlier.