Michael Thompson
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Any sound practical philosophy must be clear on practical concepts—concepts, in particular, of life, action, and practice. This clarity is Michael Thompson’s aim in his ambitious work. In Thompson’s view, failure to comprehend the structures of thought and judgment expressed in these concepts has disfigured modern moral philosophy, rendering it incapable of addressing the larger questions that should be its focus.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03396-2
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    This work comprises three philosophical investigations, each pertaining to a different sphere of concepts, and through this sphere of concepts to a different stratum of being, as we might say. The first investigation, “The Representation of Life,” is organized around the conceptslife, living being, vital process, vital operationand, above all,life-formor ‘species’. The second investigation, “Naive Action Theory,” is similarly organized around the conceptsaction, intentionandwanting, and certain elementary appearances of the conceptreason for acting—or, equivalently, certain elementary ways in which an action can depend on a thought or consideration. The theme of...

  4. PART ONE The Representation of Life
    • 1 Introductory
      (pp. 25-32)

      Among the many scandalous features of Hegel’s table, or ‘system’, of logical categories, we would nowadays want, I think, to accord high rank to this, that he finds a place for the conceptlifeon it. Hegel is of course not blind to the counter-intuitive character of his teaching on this point. In hisScience of Logic, the chapter headed “Life” begins by considering an objection to any specificallylogicaltreatment of the notion of the sort he proposes to give. Something in the objection, at least, might still find favor today:

      The idea of life is concerned with a...

    • 2 Can Life Be Given a Real Definition?
      (pp. 33-48)

      I want to begin by raising difficulties for one of the thoughts I took for granted in articulating Hegel’s objection to his own proceeding—namely, the apparently innocent idea thatliving things are just some among the concrete individuals we think about, marked off from the others in quite definite ways. If this is right, then the word “life” expresses a ‘particular characteristic of [those] objects’, in Frege’s phrase, and presumably not their logical category.

      The question forced upon us by this thought—what the supposed characteristic marks of the conceptlifemight actually be—is not one that much...

    • 3 The Representation of the Living Individual
      (pp. 49-62)

      This discussion has so far focused on the metaphysical ambition of the list-making approach to the question “What is life?” But there is another hope evinced by that tradition, a hope bound up with a certain extremeindividualism, as I think it can rightly be called. An acceptable answer to the great question is implicitly required to tell ushow things must be in a given region of spaceif we are to say, “A living thing is there”—or, perhaps better: what aregion of space-timeneeds to be like, if it is to be occupied by a four-dimensional...

    • 4 The Representation of the Life-Form Itself
      (pp. 63-82)

      Everyone is familiar with the characteristic discursive mood, as we might call it, of what was formerly called ‘natural history’—the supposed content of Aristotle’sHistoria animalium, for example, and of dusty books bearing such titles asConifers of the Central RockiesorWinged Creatures of Western Pennsylvania. The voiceovers on public television nature programs are characterized by propositions in the sort of ‘mood’ I am intending. We will see film footage depicting some particular bobcats, taken perhaps in the spring of 1977; the voiceover will include verbs and other predicates that were verified, as the film shows, in the...

  5. PART TWO Naive Action Theory
    • 5 Introductory
      (pp. 85-96)

      It doesn’t really befit a philosopher to make such a statement, I don’t suppose, but nevertheless I will hazard the following bold empirical hypothesis: the explanation of action as it appears most frequently in human thought and speech isthe explanation of one action in terms of another:

      “Why are you pulling that cord?” says one

      —“I’m starting the engine,” says the other;

      “Why are you cutting those wires?” says one

      —“I’m repairing a short-circuit,” says the other;

      “Why are you crossing Fifth Avenue?” says one

      —“I’m walking to school,” says the other;

      “Why are you breaking those eggs?” says...

    • 6 Types of Practical Explanation
      (pp. 97-105)

      My principal end, as I have said, is to argue that naive action explanation is an independent and legitimate type, as much revealing of the true “causes” of action, in its place, as is the philosophers’ preferred form, the one I have called sophisticated. But even if it is true that any strict and philosophical formulation of someone’s reason for action must be sophisticated, still it is clear that what is supposed to explainactionin such a case—namely, the agent’s wanting something—might equally well be given in explanation of an agent’swantingsomething. Where desire or wanting...

    • 7 Naive Explanation of Action
      (pp. 106-119)

      Every verb phrase with which Anscombe and Davidson illustrate the concept “description of action” expresses a kind of thing, a kind ofevent, as they teach, that is intuitively continuous and divisible, that takes time, and that can be interrupted; the phrases themselves thus typically admit the “continuous tenses” or the progressive. Their illustrations may be said to express the intuition that, where instantaneous ‘actions’ can be said to exist, it is as secondary or dependent phenomena that can with justice be left aside until the primary categories are elucidated; in this, I propose to follow them.¹ Now, some of...

    • 8 Action and Time
      (pp. 120-146)

      Let us consider, for the moment, just the former trio—the specifically psychical, or psychological, sorts ofexplanans. Here we must be struck, first, by the fact that the objects of attempt, intention and wanting are typically not formulated with a complete proposition; these states are not, at first sight anyway, what are called “propositional attitudes”. If you ask what I want, then, in the most primitive sort of case, the answer will be:to get the vanilla down, orto turn on the light; if you ask what I intend, the answer will be:to write the letter“c”,...

  6. PART THREE Practical Generality
    • 9 Two Tendencies in Practical Philosophy
      (pp. 149-166)

      This essay is an inquiry into the workings of two concepts,practical dispositionandsocial practice, as they enter, or might enter, into moral philosophy. Or rather, it is a fragment of such an inquiry. Its point of departure is a pair of familiar tendencies in moral philosophy, the tendencies we meet with in what might be calleddispositional accounts of the rationality of moralityandpractice versions of utilitarianism. Of course, the concepts of a practice and a disposition enter into other types of moral theory, some of them perhaps intuitively more attractive than either of these. But the...

    • 10 Practices and Dispositions as Sources of the Goodness of Individual Actions
      (pp. 167-191)

      Though it is not usual in practical philosophy to speak of a “two-level”, “two-tier” or “indirect” theory ofrationality, it is clear that all of the doctrines under discussion may reasonably be brought under that familiar moralist’s heading. It is to Gauthier especially that we owe the idea of a ‘two-level’ theory of rationality, though he does not speak in these terms. But our theories are two-level theories of a specific type; indeed, they might be contrasted with what is brought under that heading rather than brought under it themselves. This fact will place some further constraints on the apt...

    • 11 Practice and Disposition as Sources of Individual Action
      (pp. 192-210)

      On the traditional construction of the phrase “act of X”, where X is the name of a putative virtue like “justice”, “courage”, etc., it was more than a merely classificatory expression. Fidelity, for example, was understood as a potency of sorts, and an act of fidelity as its act, its work, its actualization. In bringing an individual human action under a description like “act of fidelity”, one thus already purported to givesomekind of explanation of it. Though today we may no longer think of it as encoded into these phrases, we are nevertheless happy to think of a...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 213-214)
  8. Index
    (pp. 215-223)