Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)


The better we can interpret a context, the better we can understand the significance of things within it. In deliberation, the more grasp we have of the relevant context, the more it becomes possible to reach definite determinations.

An Aristotelian sensitivity to the distinctness and complexity of each situation in no way compromises an ethical ideal of universality like Kant promoted — quite the opposite. It is what enables us to apply that ideal well in each case.

In the world, differences in context also sometimes get used as a pretext for false distinctions that negate ethical universality, or are simply self-serving. But if we truly respect ethical universality, this will be of great help in seeing those cases for what they are.

Context provides a kind of anchor for modality, which plays a very great role in the intelligibility of things. Conversely, modality gives context a greater definiteness. Context is also perhaps the most fundamental concept for historiography.

Several Aristotelian concepts are concerned with context. Potentiality captures most of the aspects related to modality, but contingent fact and circumstance as such are associated with Aristotelian “material causes”, and operating means to ends are treated as “efficient causes”. The interpretation of context complements the classic questions of what and why.

From a Brandomian point of view, practical implications of context will be especially important in normative pragmatics, but context also affects determinations of meaning in inferential semantics.

Why Modality?

Why should we care about something as seemingly esoteric as modality? Without modal concepts like necessary, possible, and should, there could be no knowledge beyond mere acquaintance with particulars, and no ethics at all. Nothing we said could have any force. We could not really even form any general concepts. Nothing would really follow from anything else. The fact that necessary or should is sometimes applied in too strong a way — or that possible is sometimes applied in too abstract a way — does not negate their essential role.

I want to say that modal concepts are properly meaningful only when bound to a context. It is only the lack of proper binding to a context that makes their application too strong or too abstract.

This relation actually goes both ways. Modal assertions not limited by context sound like dogmatism or would-be despotism; but equally, an emphasis on context with no consideration of modality at all would lead to bad relativism or particularism. Modality and context have a kind of complementarity, and need to go together. Either one without the other causes trouble, but the two together ground ethics, knowledge, and wisdom. Their combination is another good example of an Aristotelian mean. (See also Modality and Variation.)