Ascription of Actions

After the disappointing result from traditional analytic semantic approaches to action, Ricoeur turns to the pragmatics of action, and to applying Strawson’s notion of ascription to persons.

He discusses Aristotle’s distinctions of willing and unwilling actions and choice at some length. Unlike Donald Davidson, who only had a modern notion of (physical) cause to work with, Aristotle had a neutral concept of arche or “principle” that applies equally well to ethical and physical instances, like his broad notion of “cause” as a reason why. According to Ricoeur, Aristotle ascribes actions to a principle that is a “self”. Ricoeur also notes that Aristotle speaks of us as synaition (co-responsible for, or co-causing in Aristotle’s broader sense) our dispositions and character.

Aristotle himself did not actually use a word like “self” in this context, but attributed choice to “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (Nicomachean Ethics, Sachs translation, p. 104). Even the term “fused with” turns out to be an interpolation by the translator here — the Greek just has “intellect and desire”, and says nothing about how they are related. I agree there is a kind of reflexivity within the thought and desire involved here, but I’ve been taking it to be of the adverbial sort. I have so far used the term “self” either adverbially, or for a matter-of-fact emotional constitution inter-articulated with an intimate but anonymous transcendental but historical ethos. (Later note — in an earlier work, Ricoeur had proposed a notion of ethical Self as an aim, which I am now adding into my own view. Such an interpolation seems at least compatible with the broad spirit of Aristotle, despite its anachronistic character at a literal level.)

I’m awaiting further clarification of how Ricoeur’s ipse identity is supposed to work in a positive sense (through a sort of continuity of development?); how that would apply to the combination that is mentioned but not elaborated on by Aristotle; and whether the application of ipse identity — which I suspect would be warmly welcomed in a Thomistic context — is intended to be understood as historically Aristotelian, or as a post-Aristotelian original thought. The novel semantic category of ipse identity seems well suited to capture intuitions uniting self with responsibility, and potentially to solve some difficulties with which I have struggled. But so far, its application here is not fully explained. (For the beginning of a resolution, see Narrative Identity. For an actual resolution, see Self, Infinity.)

Turning to Strawson, Ricoeur argues that ascription of actions to persons is different from logical attribution of properties to objects, and that it implicitly involves the kind of reflexivity found in self-designating utterance. (I can grant the difference between ascription and attribution, but it is as yet unclear to me in what way he wants us to see that ascription necessarily involves reflexivity, since ascription does not involve self-designation.) He says we first ascribe actions to persons, and only then do we ask about their intentions. Motives, he says, are mainly relevant in hindsight when we ask about an action that has occurred. Also, the “who” behind an action is expected to have a definite answer, whereas motives depend on other motives, and so on indefinitely. The notion of an agent as the “who”, Ricoeur says, is this time successfully reached. Its actual meaning depends on the whole related network of the “what”, “why”, and “how” of the action.

Ricoeur nonetheless finds a difficulty in Strawson’s approach as well. The “who” again turns out to be subordinated to an ontology that reduces away its specificity — this time, an ontology of generalized “somethings”. Ricoeur had argued previously that the reflexivity of a self makes it not properly analyzable as a thing at all, because “things” are understood as having the simple idem kind of identity, but selves have the reflexive, ipse kind of identity. He makes the further point that ascription of an action to a self differs from ordinary description, in that it implies an attribution of responsibility.

He notes that for Aristotle, ascriptions of actions have ethical or juridical significance from the start. He also notes that ascription of an action implicitly involves a judgment that the action is within the agent’s power. Then, there are questions of how we assess responsibility for the whole chain of effects of an action, and how we apportion shared responsibility among multiple agents. He concludes that we still have work to do to understand the thinking initiation of actions, and that the framework of simple ascription of actions to selves is still too abstract to do the job.