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The Divisibility of Basic Actions

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许斗斗 毕业于中山大学哲学系和复旦大学哲学系,2000年获复旦大学哲学博士学位。现任华侨大学哲学与社会发展学院院长、教授、博士生导师。福建省“百千万人才工程”人选。长期从事马克思主义哲学、科技哲学与当代社会理论的教学与研究。兼任中国辩证唯物主义研究会价值哲学专业委员会常务理事;中国历史唯物主义研究会常务理事;中国自然辩证法研究会理事等。在《哲学研究》《马克思主义研究》等国内核心刊物上发表论文80多篇。
薛秀军 华侨大学哲学与社会发展学院党委书记、副院长、教授、博士生导师。中山大学哲学系哲学博士,中国社会科学院哲学研究所哲学博士后,厦门大学公共事务学院公共管理博士后。福建省历史唯物主义研究会副会长,中国辩证唯物主义研究会常务理事,中国人学学会常务理事等。获评“福建省高校新世纪优秀人才”“福建省高校以马克思主义为指导的哲学社会科学青年理论人才”“福建省高校思想政治教育中青年杰出人才”等。主要从事历史唯物主义与中国现代化、管理哲学、文化战略与文化政策研究。

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The Divisibility of Basic Actions

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The Divisibility of Basic Actions

1.A recent criticism of basic action

The concept of basic actionis often thought toemerge from the observation that frequently when we do certain things,we do them by doing other things,for instance,we turn on a light by flipping a switch. It is then argued that not all actions can be like this. It cannot be that for everything we do,we do it through doing another thing,since then we would need to do an infinite number of things to get anything done. So,the argument goes,there must be things we do “directly”,not as an outcome of doing any other thing,and these “basic actions” lie at the root of everything we do. Thus the concept was initially introduced to halt an apparently vicious regress(Danto,1965:141-42;1979:471),and it has been usedfrequently in many philosophical theories and discussions since then. However,recently some have forcefully argued that basic actions donot exist at all,based on the idea that any putative basic action is divisible into more basic “sub-actions”. This paper presents a response to this challenge that objects that it overlooks a key aspect of the definition of basic action. The challenge,however,does us a service by forcing us to clarify this aspect.

There are,of course,different conceptions and definitions of basic action in the literature,and the one under consideration here is what’s often called the notion ofa teleologicallybasic(token)action. This is the idea,as describedin The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,of an(intentional)action“which I just do,but not by doing anything else”(Blackburn 2005:35. Also see Sandis 2010:12;Stout 2005:138),and the “by” in this sentence can be understood as short for “by means of”. Teleology,though,is perhaps associated more with expressions like “in order to”or “for the sake of”. So the sense of “by(means of)” relevant here may be that which is the converse of “(in order)to”(see Lavin 2013:275;2016:621),which is to say,those cases of ‘SV -ed by U-ing’ where it is also true that‘SU -edto V’(e.g.,“She turned on the light by flipping the switch”/“She flipped the switch to turn on the light”). To illustrate,I mayget rid of a fly by(means of)waving my hand/wave myhand(in order)to get rid of a fly,which would mean that getting rid of the fly was not a basic action of mine. But if waving my hand was not something I did by doing some other thing,it would be a basic action.[]

Incidentally,philosophersespousing a “course-grained” theory of act individuation would regard my waving my hand and mygetting rid of the fly as the same action differently described. They might prefer to speak of basic and non-basic descriptions of the one action,or basic and non-basic things done with the one action(see Hornsby,1980:68-69). It is more common for philosophers,when discussing such cases,to speak of basic and non-basic actions however,and I will follow this practice here. I do not mean to be partisan in doing this,and everything here said in the one way could be said in the other.

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