Agentless Action?

Chapter 3 of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another addresses traditional analytic approaches to the semantics of actions by means of statements about them. These, he says, are limited to the resources of identifying reference. Ricoeur thinks they offer less insight into the nature of agents than the mere references to individuals analyzed by Strawson. They ignore the higher-order units of action constituted by practices, which also prevents consideration of the kind of hierarchization of practices that forms the narrative unity of a life. Ricoeur says consideration of the good and the just only comes into play with this sort of hierarchization, so this semantics of action statements will not help us with ethics.

It does begin to approach the question of a “who” corresponding to the common referent of body-predicates and person-predicates, by means of a detour through the “what” and “why” of actions, but this sort of analysis tends to reduce actions to what are in effect mental intentions. Ricoeur says the “what” tends to be eclipsed by the “why”. Further, the “why” tends to be interpreted in terms of causes in the modern sense, rather than motives. Actions and motives belong to one universe of discourse, whereas events and causes belong to another. However, Ricoeur argues that a traditional analytic semantics of actions as practiced by, e.g., Donald Davidson effectively reduces actions to events in a sort of event-based ontology corresponding to the modern event-based model of causality, and this eclipses Ricoeur’s “who” question altogether.