Intention (book)  

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Intention is a 1957 book by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. It is generally recognised as her greatest and most influential work, and the continuing philosophical interest in the concepts of intention, action and practical reasoning can be said to have taken its main impetus from this work.

Summary

Anscombe argues that the concept of intention is central to our understanding of ourselves as rational agents. The intentions with which we act are identified by the reasons we give in answer to questions concerning why we perform actions. Such reasons usually form a hierarchy that constitutes a practical syllogism of which action itself is the conclusion. Hence our actions are a form of active practical knowledge that normally leads to action. Anscombe compares the direction of fit of such knowledge to a shopping list's relation to one's purchases, and contrasts it with the direction of fit characteristic of a list of those purchases made by someone observing one shopping. She contends that the mistake of post-medieval philosophy is to think that all knowledge is of the latter kind.


The aim of Intention (1957) was to make plain the character of human action and will. Anscombe approaches the matter through the concept of intention, which, as she notes, has three modes of appearance in our language:

She is X'ing intentionally intentional action
She is X'ing with the intention of doing Y
or ... She is X'ing to Y
intention with which
or further intention in acting
She intends to Y
or ... She has expressed the intention to do Y
expression of intention for the future;
(what Davidson later called a pure intending)

She suggests that a true account must somehow connect these three uses of the concept, though later students of intention have sometimes denied this, and disputed some of the things she presupposes under the first and third headings. It is clear though that it is the second that is crucial to her main purpose, which is to comprehend the way in which human thought and understanding and conceptualisation relate to the "events in a man's history", or the goings on to which he is subject.

Rather than attempt to define intentions in abstraction from actions, thus taking the third heading first, Anscombe begins with the concept of an intentional action. This soon connected with the second heading. She says that what is up with a human being is an intentional action if the question "Why", taken in a certain sense (and evidently conceived as addressed to him), has application. An agent can answer the "why" question by giving a reason or purpose for her action. "To do Y" or "because I want to do Y" would be typical answers to this sort of "why?"; though they are not the only ones, they are crucial to the constitution of the phenomenon as a typical phenomenon of human life.The agent's answer helps supply the descriptions under which the action is intentional. Anscombe was the first to clearly spell out that actions are intentional under some descriptions and not others. In her famous example, a man's action (which we might observe as consisting in moving an arm up and down while holding a handle) may be intentional under the description "pumping water" but not under other descriptions such as "contracting these muscles", "tapping out this rhythm", and so on. This approach to action influenced Donald Davidson's theory, despite the fact that Davidson went on to argue for a causal theory of action that Anscombe never accepted.

Intention (1957) is also the classic source for the idea that there is a difference in "direction of fit" between cognitive states like beliefs and conative states like desire. (A theme later taken up and discussed by Searle). Cognitive states describe the world and are causally derived from the facts or objects they depict. Conative states do not describe the world, but aim to bring something about in the world. Anscombe used the example of a shopping list to illustrate the difference. The list can be a straightforward observational report of what is actually bought (thereby acting like a cognitive state), or it can function as a conative state such as a command or desire, dictating what the agent should buy. If the agent fails to buy what is listed, we do not say that the list is untrue or incorrect; we say that the mistake is in the action, not the desire. According to Anscombe, this difference in direction of fit is a major difference between speculative knowledge (theoretical, empirical knowledge) and practical knowledge (knowledge of actions and morals). Whereas "speculative knowledge" is "derived from the objects known", practical knowledge is – in a phrase Anscombe lifts from Aquinas – "the cause of what it understands".


Scholarly reception

Intention initiated extensive discussion of intentional action and its explanation.





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