putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence

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Innate Ideas


Okay, so I haven’t posted anything exactly philosophy-related in several weeks. So in order not to disappoint and stay true to the bio of the guy who set up this blog, I thought it would be fun to revisit some John Locke! He is most known for, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, his treatment of innate ideas. This concept of innate ideas was especially important to those who took up the position that there are foundational truths in our network of knowledge, which are essentially given to us at birth, which we use to further reason out and understand all of the things which we perceive in the world. It doesn’t take any sort of previous experience with the associated concepts or phenomena to come to a knowledge of these truths. Locke wants to reject these kinds of claims outright for many different reasons, but I will take a closer look at one of his more interesting objections in what follows.

To be as clear possible, it’s always a good idea to start with definitions. Here is Locke’s for innate ideas: “some primary notions, koinai ennoiai, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it.” As one of the central figures in empiricism – or the idea that sensory experience is to be the main source of human knowledge – Locke is concerned with how we can explain the acquisition of knowledge in terms of impressions or imprints which we receive from perceiving objects in the world. Innate ideas are one of the first challenges which Locke seeks to overcome in developing his philosophy in the Essay. They are problematic in that it would seem that the foundational truths which we are given are outside of our capacity to know through perception, in virtue of us already being given them.


Locke finds cause for concern in all of this talk and goes on the defensive in arguing against innate ideas. He puts an emphasis on the faculty of reason, saying that it is this which is first required in order to recognize and assent to any truth that one can conceive of. His examples are a couple of the logical absolutes: an object, a, is what it is (a=a) and the same object cannot be both what it is and not what it is (a =/= b & ~b). He argues that there is no denying, upon discovery via reasoning, the truth of both of these two claims. But this is exactly the point – that it requires one to first reflect, and in so doing it is posing a threat to the notion of innate ideas. Locke more or less argues that something which is innately imprinted on the understanding need not be discovered, because it should be a truth which the subject is already actively conscious of, if it is to be considered innate. It needs to meet this condition if the truth is considered to be an impression naturally (innately) made on the understanding. Otherwise, the impression is without any substance and cannot be said to have made any real imprint. Locke draws a further distinction, stating that if we are restricting our focus to just the capacity for having knowledge – as it is fleshed out through the application/discovery of reasoning – this would still be insufficient for an innate idea, because, then, “all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate.” He thinks the actual innate ideas, if they exist, are the ones which deserve proper philosophical inquiry and this former line of reasoning only amounts to an “improper way of speaking.” It distracts us from the main question at hand.


He justifies all of this further by making counterexamples, which are a child and an idiot. Both of these subjects have rationality, to some degree, even in its developmental or affected stages, and so each can use one’s mind to make inferences, deduce further pieces of information from a set of given facts. But there will always be a subset in any given population, he argues, that will not be conscious and/or assent to the truth of either of the two claims above. There are two points here: One, of there not being universal assent, and two, a reliance upon others to help them along in learning the relevant pieces of information (names, concepts) in order for them to understand the truths for themselves. As far as the former point, Locke believes that an innate idea must be universally imprinted on man’s understanding for it to be truly innate. But, as I’ve said before, there are always outliers, people who simply don’t readily know or understand what seem to everyone else to be elementary truths. Hence, the child or the idiot just doesn’t have ‘it’ in them, in this case, to know that a red light means stop when they cruise on by; that being, the innate idea. But also, there is a stumbling block lodged up within someone when they just can’t be taught something. It’s hard to think about, but we can intuitively agree in saying that some things will just never get through to someone, despite our best efforts and careful presentation of the facts. Locke would suggest that if it were really innately imprinted on their soul, then one wouldn’t need assistance to discover the truth for him/herself. All of these points are ones which he thinks stand as evidence against the claim that innate ideas exist.


My take on Locke’s argument is that it is cleverly constructed, and that there are several good points made, but unable to dismiss the position completely. The thought here is that there are certain dispositions which we all have which often subconsciously get expressed in our actions. To be sure, these are altogether separate from the capacities which Locke argued against, in that a disposition would be defined as a product of a thought which, while not necessarily deliberate, is drawn out from preexisting ideas and their associated desires. Even the newborn child, whose brain had not developed enough to qualify as rational, still somehow primitively knows that s/he desires the love and affection of his/her mother, despite not having a concrete thought in mind which reflects this. It somehow is “wired” to react in a favorable way when it experiences the love of its mother. So I think that although it might not necessarily be termed, in the strict sense which Locke offers us, an innate idea (as something derived purely through reason), I believe that there remains a comparable concept which we can use to describe our observable behavior. There is a psychological component to the question which is clearly pertinent, and it is always a learning experience if a question such as this is analyzed through the perspectives of various schools of thought.


I’m in agreement with Locke’s claim that we don’t always universally assent to intuitively true maxims. The problem here in not assenting, which would make us doubt the notion of an idea’s innateness, is appropriate to the question. What I mean is that we need to necessarily assent, or positively affirm, some idea – so as to make it our belief – for it to be actually present in our understanding, because part of what it means for such an idea to be understood, is that it needs to be a part of us; it needs to be positively taken up within our mind anytime it is recalled in our memory. In short, the idea must be believed. And beliefs, by traditional standards, necessarily are more than passive tendencies to agree or disagree with a claim if asked about it. They need to be unfettered in all of our daily dealings, being sparks of our own initiative. So with Locke’s suggestion, I can’t see any way around the point that innate ideas must be assented to, in order for them to be innate. The issue interestingly transitions into being one of personal identity more than anything, and I think that this is the foundation for the epistemology which Locke depends upon. It is an important question in any case, but here we cannot go any further in assessing the concept of innate ideas from Locke’s perspective, as a mind which takes in phenomena through impressions and sensations, because of the pattern by which our personal beliefs are formulated. I must say, his argument is surely sound in this regard.


So after all of this, I think that we’ve brought the subject of Locke’s Essay into the fray, thrown him into the crosshairs of the debate on innate ideas. I would argue in the end that while he may have certain dispositions based on our human nature, we should side with Locke insofar as to say that these are not innate to us until we have done some of the work and reasoned out the impressions which we receive to fashion a set of beliefs for ourselves. This is a bit of a tangent to the question of whether humans, from the outset, are imprinted with certain innate ideas. General speaking on the latter point, I believe that Locke was incorrect, and that we do have, in a very abstract sense, some very broad ideas about love, justice, beauty, etc. – because this is what it means to be human. Whether or not these principles are innate in us, or if it is societally/culturally inherited is what we may disagree on, but even so, there is value in having the discussion. I personally find it gratifying, and I hope to someday chip away at that tabula rasa enough to see the core of my beliefs etched in the model of truth as it really is, as it actually exists.

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Defending Anti-Intellectualism in Ryle’s Regress



In “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Gilbert Ryle takes a stance against one of the prevailing ideologies of his time: Intellectualism. In this paper, I will work to explain Ryle’s regress argument and show why it initially seems to be a plausible attack against intellectualism. I will then focus on a strong counterargument in defense of the intellectualist position, given by Stanley and Williamson, reasoning that Ryle makes the mistake of equivocating between two distinct senses of action. Finally, I will object to this counterargument and defend Ryle (and anti-intellectualism) by pointing out how his regress model is mistakenly accused of this fallacy of equivocation and that the meaning of intentional action is actually fixed between the argument’s premises.


Let me first more clearly define the intellectualism which Ryle is concerned about before moving on to his regress argument. Intellectualism is a theory which states how practical knowledge, or knowledge-how, really just fits under the framework of knowledge-that – where this knowledge-that is nothing more than knowledge of propositional truths. This theory, in addressing knowledge-how, also answers the following question: “How does one act intelligently?” Here, we can think of acting intelligently as the expression of the sorts of propositions that constitute one’s knowledge-how in either a clever, skillful, humorous, etc. way. Furthermore, for the intellectualist, knowing-that these propositions necessarily and sufficiently satisfies the issue of F-ing intelligently, because they contain all of the information which would answer the implicit question of how to F intelligently. For example, a good marathon runner knows-how to pace herself to clock the best possible time in a race. She is aware ahead of time of the race’s milestones and a successful strategy to follow – to keep a certain distance from the pack to conserve energy and to speed past them at a later time. These are among some of the mere facts that the runner knows-that in terms of running a race, and properly knowing-that all of these propositions are true leads to a runner knowing-how to intelligently run a marathon.

Ryle, however, believes that the intellectualist faces a serious obstacle, because it would seem that acting on knowledge-that intelligently is something that requires one to employ more and more intelligence the more one thinks about how to act. In other words, Ryle thinks there is an infinite series of more and more complex propositions of knowing-that, all of which would need careful consideration to qualify an act as intelligent. I will put this regression into the form of the following argument:

(1)   If intellectualism is true, then in order to act intelligently, one must first have considered and applied the relevant knowledge-that; in the form of maxims (reasons for acting) or propositions.

(2)   However, any such consideration or application is itself an act, which can be performed more or less intelligently or stupidly.

(3)   Therefore, if intellectualism is true, then one acts intelligently iff one’s maxim or proposition for acting is also intelligently decided (acted on).

(4)   But if one’s maxim or proposition for acting is to be acted upon intelligently, then one must perform the act of considering and applying an even higher-order proposition, which itself must be acted upon intelligently, and from there, another which is intelligently acted upon, ad infinitum.

(5)   Therefore, if intellectualism is true, then one must have considered and applied an infinite number of high-order propositions to ensure that an action is intelligently executed.

(6)   The consequent of (5) cannot be logically carried out, so, by modus tollens, intellectualism is not true.


Ryle makes a strong argument for a number of reasons. First, it is consistent with the intellectualist view, since the steps are broken down in terms of propositional knowledge-that. Also, Ryle makes a good point by suggesting that any active selection for a particular maxim to motivate one’s action must itself also be motivated by a more complex maxim. This is because if first-order maxims were to act as the sole arbiters of intelligence, then there would be something left unconsidered; namely, an intelligently thought out maxim that goes into deciding this first-order maxim. If the intellectualist is to make a feasible objection against Ryle’s regress, he is thus precluded from arguing that a maxim can be both spontaneously and intelligently acted on. Intellectualism would demand a regulatory proposition to be behind any given maxim if it is to be considered intelligent.

Now I would like to consider Stanley and Williamson’s intellectualist response to Ryle. The issue that they present is that Ryle’s regress argument is equivocating between two distinct meanings of the word “action” integral to two of his premises. Let me briefly reconstruct their version of Ryle’s argument:

(1)   If one F’s, one employs knowledge-how to F.

(2)   If one employs knowledge-that p, one contemplates the proposition that p.

These premises mirror the implication of the regress, because the act of contemplating propositions is something which needs to be continually repeated intelligently in order to employ knowledge-how; since, for intellectualism, knowing-how is just knowing-that. The objection here, however, is that when we dig deeper into what it means to employ knowledge-how in premise one, Stanley and Williamson say that we must restrict our focus to intentional acts. Their example of digestion supports this claim, in that one’s body can digest food, but one doesn’t know-how to digest food – there is no active thought process of considering propositions. So in order to save this notion and for premise one to be true, Stanley and Williamson argue that one can only act intelligently if one intentionally acts; the latter is a necessary condition for knowing-how on this premise.


Stanley and Williamson then show that, with premise two, one cannot be so quick to just ascribe intentionality to the act of contemplating propositions, because there are cases where one does not reflect on a proposition and yet still knows-that it is true in regards to an action. For example, when a factory worker repeatedly operates on a machine, he may begin to no longer contemplate what he should be doing after a period of time. Nonetheless, he still has the knowledge-that that what he’s doing is a true way to operate the machine. Stanley and Williamson are trying to demonstrate here that premise two of Ryle’s argument is false if it is understood on the same reading of intentional actions which made premise one seem plausible. They believe his argument now simultaneously holds two very different senses of acting between premise one and two: necessarily intentional on the first, but not necessarily intentional on the second. They cannot converge into either one of these because a uniform substitution instance of unintentional action would render premise one false, while substituting in intentional action for both would make premise two false in some cases. For these reasons, Stanley and Williamson think that Ryle’s regress argument is unsound and they remain unconvinced of its force against intellectualism.

Here is where I would like to offer my own argument for why I believe Stanley and Williamson to be giving intellectualism a weak defense against Ryle’s regress. In showing this, I will provide an original argument as to why Stanley and Williamson were incorrect in part of their equivocation objection. I will note from the beginning that I will be using the words “deliberate” and “contemplate” and all of their grammatical tenses synonymously.

Stanley and Williamson had claimed that premise two of their version of Ryle’s argument could be false if the act of contemplating the proposition was interpreted as intentional. But I would argue that it is not false, but rather always (necessarily) true that employing knowledge-that entails intentionally contemplating a proposition. Let me draw this out by giving the following argument:

(1)   If knowledge-that is employed, then the proposition in question is being deliberately acted on.

(2)   If a proposition is deliberately acted on, then this proposition must also be intentionally contemplated.

(3)   Therefore, by hypothetical syllogism, if knowledge-that is employed, then the proposition is also intentionally contemplated.

This is a valid argument which is written under the intellectualist view. Recall that they had claimed that one could be employing knowledge-that while, at the same time, not intentionally deliberating on the relevant proposition. My conclusion, however, has employing knowledge-that entailing intentionally contemplating a proposition. The consequence of all of this is that, if my argument is sound, Stanley and Williamson’s objection fails, and Ryle’s argument can no longer be charged with equivocating between senses of intentional action in premises one and two. This is because, leaving premise one of Stanley and Williamson’s argument to be read as they had originally presented it, premise two now can be read on the same meaning of intentionally contemplating a proposition as premise one.


In order to support premise one, let’s return to my example of the factory worker. Earlier I said that the factory worker’s actions may stop being deliberately executed but that he still has the relevant knowledge-that; that is, he still has access to it and could reiterate to himself the proposition of how to operate the machine if he so desired. However, the premise reads that “if one employs knowledge-that…” This notion of employing knowledge-that plausibly demands more than simply having access to a proposition, since there is the idea at work here with the instantiation of the subject’s propositional knowledge-that into his acting. The factory worker, however, surely isn’t employing his knowledge-that, because his habitual response is the kind of act which doesn’t engage, in any clear sense, with his propositional knowledge-that. And it would be incorrect to judge, as Stanley and Williamson might, the worker to be employing his knowledge-that through the manifestation of operating the machine because this would give no explanation of the origin of the worker’s intelligence; which is the key issue of Ryle’s regress argument. Rather, it presupposes it within this manifestation.

So in order, on the intellectualist view, to further explain how one can intelligently employ knowledge-that, I take it is a necessary condition to at least deliberate on one’s relevant proposition in acting. Here, at least I am doing more philosophical work by offering a mechanism of intelligently employing propositional knowledge rather than evading the regress by presupposing it. More will be said about this soon. At any rate, the worker doesn’t deliberate – he simply goes through the motions, and in so doing he is not actively aware of his knowledge-that. Furthermore, he does act, but his act is not intelligent. In short, what it means for the factory worker to actually employ his knowledge-that is just this – to deliberately choose to act based on his knowledge-that x is a true way to F.

I don’t think Stanley and Williamson would have an easy time objecting to my second premise, because it seems that the act of deliberating a proposition always involves some sort of intention which is integral in this very act of deliberation. In other words, any time that one sorts through her options on how to act, she implicitly also is thinking about what it is she would like to do (her intention). It doesn’t seem plausible that someone can knowingly be motivated to act based on something that one would have no interest in doing; that is, unless we were speaking about cases of compulsion. But this compulsion doesn’t fit in with what we have been focusing on, since it cannot be understood in terms of acting intelligently. This is because considering and applying propositions becomes irrelevant here – one will inevitably just be moved by her basic desires, no matter which maxim she would intend to act on.


However, Stanley and Williamson may perhaps object to my claim that it is necessary to deliberate on one’s propositional knowledge-that when employing it. They could point out, for example, a case of a professional artist who knows-that the best way to give his painting texture is to start by painting with faint colors and gradually build to more vibrant colors. While he is painting, however, he is in a sort of “zone,” wherein he no longer is conscious of this true proposition. Here, Stanley and Williamson could argue that the artist employs his knowledge-that reflexively. But I would respond that this is not a potential solution to the problem since it does not add any extra insight into the relevant question to the regress – acting intelligently. Employing a proposition of knowledge-that unintelligently would not properly object to the challenge posed by Ryle’s argument. But Stanley and Williamson seem to be making exactly this mistake by making the suggestion that one can employ knowledge-that while bypassing conscious awareness of a proposition by mere reflex, because this is insufficient in intelligently employing an action, since the act of considering and applying a certain proposition is altogether lacking. Again, intellectualism is committed to the view that one acts intelligently iff one has considered and applied a relevant proposition of knowledge-that. As I mentioned earlier, though, reflex would need to have an additional proposition backing it saying that “Acting on reflex is an intelligent means to painting.” So this objection is simply getting away from the question which is at stake; namely, how intellectualism can account for acting intelligently without the consequence of the regress. Deliberation can theoretically account for employing knowledge-that – though not in a way that necessarily gets around the regress – since, in deliberating, a proposition is continually being considered and/or applied. However, reflex, under intellectualism, cannot account for this. In short, my necessary condition of deliberating should be salvaged while the objection should be dismissed.

In conclusion, I have given a defense of Ryle’s anti-intellectualist position by supplying an original argument and raising a number of objections to Stanley and Williamson’s intellectualist counterargument to Ryle’s regress argument. I have shown that their objection does not do what they claim that it does; namely, there is no fallacy of equivocation. Furthermore my evaluation gives us further reason to believe that Ryle has successfully undermined the intellectualist position with his regress argument and given us all the more evidence that knowledge-how is not something that can be absolutely understood in terms of knowledge-that.


Judging by What You Know


Plato raises an important philosophical question of how we should define knowledge. He makes use of interesting analogies, told through the voice of Socrates, to argue that making a true judgment about something is insufficient for knowledge in certain cases.  In this paper, I will first point out the reasons why Plato thought that this distinction necessarily should be made between knowledge and true judgment and how he uses Socrates to capture this idea through analogies. I will argue with and against Plato, evaluating aspects of his two analogies. At the same time, I will sketch my own idea of justification and argue that it is this which accounts for rendering true judgment into knowledge.


Plato offers a potential epistemic view in the Theaetetus, through his writing of the dialogue between Socrates and Theaetetus. At this point, the definition which Socrates wants to critically analyze is the following: x knows y iff x reaches a true judgment about y. He draws a distinction between the two by making an analogy to a lawyer who is able to rightly persuade a jury of a perpetrator’s guilt in committing a crime. Socrates emphasizes that, in persuading the jury, the lawyer doesn’t teach the jury anything, but rather causes them to make a true judgment for themselves (Theaetetus 201b). However, Socrates wants to argue that the jury doesn’t know that the perpetrator is guilty because they reached this verdict merely by hearsay (i.e. testimony of an eye-witness), and that the jury intuitively must have actually seen the crime being committed for themselves to know their verdict to be true (Theaetetus 201c). Thus, Socrates analogy acts as a counterexample to the definition in that knowledge and true judgment come apart when personal experience is posited as a necessary condition to knowledge. Namely, this is so since true judgment is not reached by personal experience while knowledge is – thus, violating the double entailment in the biconditional above.

My objection to Socrates’ analogy is that it becomes less convincing when adding in the premise of personal experience as a necessary condition. We are interested in what knowledge actually is and how one acquires it, and adding in certain conditions to test it is a useful practice. But I would argue that Socrates is simply mistaken that each individual jury member has to see the crime being committed in order to make their true judgment an instance of knowledge because the testimonies of several independent witnesses, the perpetrator’s criminal history, his/her alibi, his/her possible relationship with the victim and motivation for being guilty can act as sufficient secondary source evidence to persuade a jury to make the right judgment over the perpetrator’s guilt, and this judgment still has knowledge along with it to a high degree. I will elaborate on this point soon.

In short, I’m suggesting here that Socrates is right that there is a distinction between knowledge and true judgment, but his jury analogy surely doesn’t specifically target what is missing. It only goes as far as making us realize that there is something else which is necessary to add to true judgment for it to become knowledge. This may include personal experience, but it is not limited to just that – as I have shown above. In what follows, I will supply my own argument for what I believe to be a component of knowledge which Socrates overlooked.


My idea is that justification needs to be exercised in order to support our true judgments. By justification, I mean that there are individual reasons or pieces of evidence which interact with one another to form a methodology which explains to one how or why one’s true judgment is true. By methodology (or method), I am referring to a notion of patterned organization of reasons or explanatory information. The point is not what type of methodology is implemented in one’s justification, but rather that it is there and shown to be reliable.

Let me make this clearer by giving an example: A simple farmer and a botanist both have a true judgment on how to grow corn. They take very different approaches, however: the former plants the corn in the field using proper machinery and insecticides while the latter cares for the plant cells in a laboratory. But regardless of their differences, the farmer has knowledge of growing corn just as the scientist does because they are both justified by their methods. The farmer knows what to do to grow corn well because he has been persuaded over time working on the family farm that it traditionally harvests well in the right soil, climate and field conditions, whereas the botanist knows this because she is convinced from her study of biology and repeatable experiments that it will grow when given the right amount of sunlight, air pressure, temperature, etc. The conclusion here is that the reasons at play in each of their respective tested methods give sufficient justification for the farmer and botanist’s true judgments, making them – while not cases of certainty – cases of knowledge, nevertheless.


Also, there is a difference in value which separates knowledge from true judgment. Plato addresses this point in the Meno, when he writes of Socrates’ dialogue with Meno and his analogy of the statues of Daedalus. He insists to Meno that true judgment is like one of Daedalus’ beautiful statues, which is good in every way until it escapes (Meno 97d). The comparison here that Socrates is making is that true judgment is also good, but this doesn’t last very long since it is soon forgotten – escaping from a man’s mind (Meno 97e). Knowledge, however, is more secure. It is like the same statue, but now tied down to ensure that it lasts for all to enjoy its beauty and goodness. For Socrates, this quality in knowledge is attributed to recollection, and serves to make knowledge superior in value to true judgment (Meno 98a). Recollection works to tie knowledge down within the subject, since it is actually innate within the soul. When one recollects, one demonstrates that one has subconsciously known something all along as the knowledge is summoned out of one’s soul. It will not be my purpose here to get into a long discussion over Plato’s theory of recollection, but to make a connection now with how this notion of tying down in knowledge relates to my argument for justification.

Being justified has a comparable function as with recollection, since justification helps one to confidently arrive at the conclusion that one’s true judgment is in fact true. In other words, justification is essentially good in making one firm in one’s knowledge. This is accomplished through tracing the reasons in one’s methodology to the point where one can understand why something is the way that it is. Justification, furthermore, is an adhering mechanism which fastens one’s judgment to the truth. One’s true judgment, in being justified, latches itself on to knowledge in just the same way as how recollection securely ties down the statue of Daedalus. Or in the case of the jury analogy, the jurors’ tracing of all of the reasons or pieces of evidence provided by the witnesses makes them resolute in their judgment that the perpetrator is guilty – they know from this why their verdict must be true. It would be very difficult to make them budge in their determination once they have been justifiably persuaded.


In conclusion, I have considered different analogies of Plato to help me form my own argument for how justification resolves the distinction between knowledge and true judgment. Admittedly, our methodologies may vary, but even Socrates wouldn’t deny that justification is a universally applied truth in how humans commonly construe knowledge.

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Can we act for reasons we don’t have?

In recent developments in action theory, there have been two major philosophers who have disagreed over the specific questions of the nature of reasons that one has to act, and whether these reasons are traceable to an individual’s motives. On the one hand, Bernard Williams suggests that all reasons one has for acting are reasons given that they derive themselves from elements from the individual’s inner motivations – or subjective motivational set (S) (which includes her: desires, wants, values, commitments, etc.) This is the internalist approach to reasons. On the other hand, John McDowell argues against Williams with the opposite interpretation. He believes that there are reasons that are untraceable, or outside of, one’s existing motivations, which yet and still act as reasons for the agent’s action. This is the externalist position. These views are clearly mutually exclusive because of the fact that an individual is relying on his S to produce reasons in one case and not in the other. While this may be so, I will show that McDowell’s contention with Williams over the possibility of external reasons is a good one, and furthermore makes the notion of an external reason more plausible. I will also increase the conceivability of one’s having an external reason by demonstrating how that these allow for one to perform certain kinds of actions that wouldn’t be otherwise possible under an internalist approach – thus giving a more holistic picture of action.

The contention alluded to above between Williams and McDowell is based, in large part, on the idea of how an individual can be moved to form the belief that she has an external reason. Williams holds that any reason one has for potentially being motivated to act in a certain way must arise through rational means, which he calls deliberation. As Williams point out in his paper entitled Internal and External Reasons, deliberation is of the “rational processes, [that] can give rise to new motivations,” (Williams, 108). What he means here is that, by reflecting on one’s S in a way that advances some of its aspects while at the same time pushes back others, the agent redefines her motives by producing new beliefs as to what is a proper reason for her to be guided by in action, in light of this deliberation.

Applying this notion of deliberation to external reasoning, then, Williams would go on to say that if an individual was to be moved to form a belief regarding an external reason, deliberation would have to be the necessary pathway for the belief to be thought of as rational. But the trouble presents itself when one attempts to conduct this deliberation since, at the time of deliberation, the individual cannot consult her current S in acquiring such a belief. Again, this is because an external reason is brought about independently of any reference to an agent’s S, and therefore precludes any deliberative route to forming the belief.

McDowell enters the argument by writing a written response piece to Williams called Might There Be External Reasons? McDowell, essentially charged with irrationality for favoring an externalist position, responds to Williams by suggesting that deliberation need not be the sole means by which one can have an external reason for acting. McDowell emphasizes that it is the end result of having the belief in an external reason that matters; not necessarily the pathway or means to getting to this conclusion. Using William’s terminology, McDowell would argue that the matter can still be “considered aright” (Williams, 109) regardless of how the belief concerning an external reason is formed, since the conclusion that was arrived at (the belief) was a true conclusion (McDowell, 72-73). In other words, an individual who has “considered the matter aright” is one who has established reasons-beliefs from which one is motivated to always act in the right way; similarly to if she had rationally deliberated. These reasons are in line with serving a motivation that, by its expression through action, fulfills their goal in any given situation.

Instead of resorting to an agent’s deliberative route for forming the foundation of the beliefs for an external reason, McDowell proposes a few alternatives that he thinks serve just as well in bringing about this belief. A couple notable examples he uses are: a religious conversion and/or inspiration from rhetoric. Albeit that all of these examples are irrational (McDowell, 74), they still, in his view, make it so that an individual can arrive at the belief pertaining to the external reason. Specifically, the individual, through any one of these kinds of experiences, transitions from a state of not being motivated by an external reason to being motivated by it (McDowell, 74), because each of these provide a means for her to gloss over her existing S in the process of forming the belief relevant to the external reason. In the wake of undergoing such a radically self-altering experience, the individual becomes enamored by a new belief that would ordinarily not be said to have belonged to her prior to her conversion. This belief, again, isn’t rationally explicable, yet it works in her favor if it leads her to see, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the “matter aright” and furthermore enables her to become motivated by the external reason.

My take on McDowell’s objection to Williams is that it succeeds in distinguishing between what one has reason to do, in virtue of whom one is, and what one has reason to do, in virtue of what is ultimately reasonable. By reasonable, I am entertaining the idea that there are reasons that are simply right reasons for acting, despite one’s desire to be motivated by them or not. For example, if an anti-patriotic, cowardly man was faced with the choice of either staying with his family during wartime by means of performing illegal activities or enlist in the draft that mandates him to serve, the man would plausibly have no inherent motivations that would be satisfied by his act of going to war. Let’s presume here that he knows that his entering into the army will result in certain, immediate death on the front-line. Nothing in him would suggest that he cares to die for his country or wants to be instantaneously killed (hence, his anti-patriotism and cowardliness), so his S doesn’t contain any elements that would serve as precursors to his forming a reason to be motivated to go to war. Yet this is what he does because of the fact that it serves a universal purpose that is reasonable beyond himself and even his country. In other words, despite not personally having any motivations that would be furthered by his development of such a reason, the man, in a profound sense, still reasons to go to war – being motivated by a reason that could be said to be external to him.

What this example and McDowell’s interpretation of external reasons are obviously assuming to be true is a normative, objective standard concerning reasons (McDowell, 76). That is to say that the external reasons that an individual is led to believe as being her reason (through a conversion or what have you) is a reason that is prescribed to be authoritative and telling of a right or wrong reason for action. This is its normative component. An external reason is seen to be objective since it derives itself outside of an individual’s S – it takes something above and beyond the subjectivity of the individual’s psychology to form the reason. I will now briefly illustrate how these assumptions in the externalist position are vital in overcoming a few limitations that I see under the internalist description of reasons.

McDowell’s defense of external reasons is ultimately successful in rebutting William’s objection that external reasons cannot be deliberated upon – and hence, are irrationally formed – not because he defends his view from this claim (because he does not), but rather because McDowell shows that, in a more significant sense, rationality becomes incumbent on an individual only in the course of her being brought to have an external reason. Williams could argue that his theory also allows for internal reasons to contain an element of rationality in virtue of their being followed, by the consistent traceability of the reasons from aspects of the individual’s S. But what makes this story incomplete are these cases, such as the example of the drafted soldier above, where with no matter how much time the individual spends deliberating, her S still cannot encompass certain reasons for being motivated to act in selfless, universal ways that owe themselves to an external standard. This is of course supposing that the particular individual does not already have generosity, in any way, subsumed within her S. An agent, following from William’s argument, cannot come to be motivated by reasons that serve an absolute good that is beyond what she takes good to be.

It is plain to me here that, although McDowell does assume controversial standards of objectivity and normativity in his belief of what characterizes external reasons, the resulting view of external reasons does a better job of explaining the facts, since it is able to explain the reasons behind more observable kinds of action that one can take. This is opposed to the internalist interpretation which, by making reasons out to be contingent upon one’s own psychology, consequently severely reduces one’s ability to understand why an agent acts a certain way when he is observed to act out of character. Surely one has had the experience of witnessing such an instance. It would seem that, in these scenarios then, the internalist could not supply any good reason whatsoever for the agent’s being motivated as he was. His “action” may have to be rendered a mere happening or occurrence for this reason. This type of situation is a strike against the internalist, in that it demonstrates incoherence in his theory of explaining the reasons for action. In consideration of this stumbling block, plus the quantitative advantage of explaining cases of universal acts, the externalist view should be granted as more plausible.  The deciding point that I am trying to make here is that, in addition to internal reasons, external reasons portray a more comprehensive, holistic picture of action. It is in the light of having this quality that actually bolsters the plausibility of there being external reasons.

In conclusion, I have first examined the philosophical rift between McDowell and Williams over the nature of reasons in order to provide a foundation for my argument of the plausibility of the existence of external reasons. It has been seen that Williams contention of a reason’s formation being irrational if it lies outside of deliberation is irrelevant for McDowell, because the latter has responded in a way that elucidated a sense of rationality that is above which Williams could muster from within the internalist position. However it be that McDowell’s species of rationality stems from his assumption regarding the objective/normative standards inherent in external reasons, this assumption manifests a quantitative explanatory advantage that cannot be dismissed; it rationalizes the observable facts of action better than the internalist can from his account. From this argument, I have developed an account of external reasons which should push the internalist to concede to their increased conceivability.

The Paradox of Reasonably Choosing

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the question of choice. Is it always rational, or informed by sound reasoning? It seems that, usually, yes, when taken seriously. We know that making choices is what life’s all about, and there is therefore a demand put on our shoulders to carefully consider each one, weighing out the consequences and reasons for all of our potential actions. But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where one possible choice you could make is exactly as good as another? How do you decide on what’s right?

This question has famously been presented by a philosopher named John Buridan, who formulated the thought experiment known as Buridan’s Ass. In it, we have a hungry donkey put between two equally portioned heaps of hay. The donkey never chooses to eat from either heap, since there is no clear-cut reason which it can think of to eat from one over the other. They’re exactly the same, so the poor donkey never actually even makes a move and eventually starves. This can be put into the following paradox: The donkey is rational in choosing to stand its ground, although it is seemingly unable to make a rational choice.

Now Michael Hauskeller, in his article in Philosophy Now (linked in the title above), wants to first abstract this talk away from donkeys. We’re obviously not worried about whether or not we’d see the bizarre spectacle of a donkey torn over what it should eat. It will just eat. This is because it doesn’t deliberate, or take reasons for its action into consideration and critically evaluate these before acting. But we do. At least most of the time. Hauskeller furthermore thinks there are two explanations for our eventual behavior when confronted with a Buridan’s Ass scenario:

a) we act for a reason, but this reason is not apparent to us at the time

b) we act for no reason, whatsoever


It seems that he is right on this point. If we think about it in terms of an example, we see that someone who finds herself faced with having to choose between two equally paying jobs with equally attractive locations, workloads, benefit packages and opportunities for advancement will potentially choose because of an underlying affinity toward something which struck her about her employer in her interview. However it may be that this is true, it does not factor into her deliberation. Or she might as well flip a coin, letting it decide for her, because there is nothing better or worse about working in New York rather than in LA. But whatever it is, remember that she has to choose. The real question that this is ultimately getting at is whether or not we are really acting rationally if we go with a) in understanding our decision. I will now try to defend Hauskeller’s premise of choosing for unapparent reasons from a revision of the paradox which I made earlier which seems to threaten the notion.

The issue here is regarding how far we wish to extend the definition of reason to cover the situations in which these are not apparent. Reason is brought into question because, with this new paradox, the woman with two equally good job offers is, in one sense, unreasonable for blindly following her intuition, while in another sense, reasonable for making a choice that will provide her a sustainable income. She is therefore being unreasonable for choosing to go with an unapparent reason. If we consider the favorable impression as an overriding influence on her intuition, this would then be the unapparent reason which she had. Recall that it is unapparent simply because she did not deliberate on it; it did not act as an explicit reason which impacted her making her decision. But then the question becomes whether this sort of jargon that Hauskeller brings up should even be mentioned in the same breath as reason. As I’ve said before, it seems that deliberating necessarily involves critically evaluating reasons. Since an unapparent reason cannot be evaluated, the complaint which can be made then is that it would seem that they are also outsiders in the causal picture of human agency which most of us would visualize.

But we need not go that far, because the truth is we’re just wrong. We’re wrong in thinking of the human agent as a descriptive set of his beliefs, desires, motivations, etc. We must rather think of agency as a process, in that our reasons are, interestingly enough, often understood after we have already chosen, already acted. This is a popular solution that many, including I, would advocate here. We can have unapparent reasons simply because there are instances where life suddenly forces itself on us – like a fallen oak tree falling upon the surrounding vegetation – and demands us to choose now and think why we chose later. As strange as it may seem, we are still being rational for choosing the things we do, just not in the traditional sense of the word. Our motivations are shaped by our actions, rather than our actions by our motivations. Motivation is signified as a destination which we arrive at through our choices.

This is what justifies Hauskeller’s notion of unapparent reasons and defeats the paradox. From this interpretation which I have constructed, we can see that the paradox is just a misconception born out of the traditional observation of seeing the end products of deliberation as a choice. Therefore, unbeknownst to her, the woman is reasonably choosing the right job for her, for a definite reason which only then has the appearance of being a stroke of intuition. She is being completely reasonable in choosing based on her unapparent reasons.

Regardless of how tautological the outcome of this exercise may appear to be, I think there is a degree of value which couldn’t be had unless a conscious effort was made in analyzing the problem from a different perspective. I love the intrigue of paradox, and seeing the invitation present itself here is just another interesting opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct a dynamic puzzle. A chance to look at life in a whole new light.

So although this question is a little more than slightly absurd for the donkey, I think that it is worthwhile for those of us who are faced with real choices. Understanding this is useful in making sense of some of life’s crazy little lemmas.

Think about this the next time you have to choose whose home and company you want to share your time with for a casual family dinner. Believe me, you will understand what I mean and why I bring it up when you have made up your mind after getting to that point!