Practical agency

How should we try to characterize the mental processes of the real human actor as he or she proceeds through life activity? One individual decides to stop by a retirement home to visit an elderly friend; another individual breaks into a car to steal a briefcase; another has an argument with her boss and decides to quit her job. What sorts of thinking go into these choices and innumerable others?

These are all actions that are to some extent deliberate and considered; and yet they are also complicated responses to shifting circumstances and events that have prudential and emotional meanings to the actors in question. Here I’m not asking the question, “What sorts of factors motivate people, and how do they process their motivations?”, though these are interesting and important questions. Rather, I’m asking a more basic question: what categories and concepts should we use in attempting to analyze deliberate action in the first place? What features of mental experience need to be highlighted? Should we expect there to be a best framework of analysis of the components of practical mentality? Or is this fated always to be an open question.

Think of the range of vocabulary that is relevant to our discourse about the kinds of examples mentioned above: decision, belief, desire, emotion, fear, habit, norm, obligation, reason, impulse, weakness of will …. These terms and others constitute something like a mental ontology, a set of concepts that we attribute to the agent as he/she acts. And some of them bring presuppositions that are debatable. Take “decision,” for example. Did the thief “decide” to break into the car? Or was the action an impulse, prior to thought and deliberation?

Here is one way of approaching the issue. What are the questions we would like to answer about the human actor?

  • What motivated the action?
  • What was the actor thinking?
  • What was the actor feeling?
  • What beliefs were highlighted in the actor’s conscious thoughts?
  • What memories played a role in the actor’s decision?
  • What rules of thumb did the actor make use of?
  • What emotional stream occurred?
  • How did the actor process emotions?
  • What scripts were salient?
  • What unconscious biases and impulses were operative?

Our ordinary “folk psychology” provides a range of simple theories available of the agent’s mentality.

  • Desire-belief-opportunity
  • Emotion-dynamics of psychology-action
  • Habit/practice-context-performance
  • Environment scan-rules of thumb-action

And we might incorporate all these factors into a large composite model: desires, beliefs, habits, emotions, past experience, and moral conviction all play a role. But the key point is this: we need to have richer modes of representation of consciousness and agency than we currently have. Further, it seems that novelists like James Joyce or Henry James do as good a job of conceptualizing these processes as any philosopher has done.

One influential set of ideas on this question of practical agency is that offered by Pierre Bourdieu in his theory of “habitus”. Here is how he describes action and habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972):

The habitus, the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle, while adjusting to the demands inscribed as objective potentialities in the situation, as defined by the cognitive and motivating structures making up the habitus. (78)

In practice, it is the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such, which accomplishes practically the relating of these two systems of relations, in and through the production of practice. (78)

What I understand by this concept is a more fluid conception of thinking-experiencing-doing on Bourdieu’s part than is characteristic of a more Aristotelian conception. There is a suggestion of a sort of tacit knowledge underlying activity, with action looking as much like the smooth, intelligent motions of a soccer player as a deliberative chess master. It is a less epistemic view of the human condition — less a concoction of explicit beliefs and reasonings than a smooth coordination of tacit understandings and movements in the situation. It is less about deliberation and decision and more about intelligent doing.

This interpretation is born out in a cryptic passage a page or so later:

If witticisms surprise their author no less than their audience, and impress as much by their retrospective necessity as by their novelty, the reason is that the trouvaille appears as the simple unearthing, at once accidental and irresistible, of a buried possibility. It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know. (79)

There are many uncertainties about how to think about this most intimate of human facts — the ways our thoughts process our needs and movements. And it seems to me that the choice of ontology surrounding action — the concepts and entities we use — is important and difficult, and worthy of careful attention.

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