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Southwest Philosophy Review


In his widely influential Making It Explicit, Robert Brandom makes a passing but provocative remark about a parallel between seeing and acting. He says that seeming is to seeing as trying is to acting: seeming to see and trying to act are kinds of "degenerate" cases that look like they can serve as foundations, for knowledge and action, respectively. He claims further that "neither the cognitive infallibility of seemings nor the practical infallibility of tryings is eligible to serve a foundational role." For Brandom, the case against seemings is made primarily by Wilfrid Sellars in his "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind". The case against tryings, however, has yet to be developed; Brandom himself only gestures at how the argument might go.

Thus, in this essay, I shall consider whether trying can serve as an origin of intentional action, arguing that it cannot. (I shall not discuss in detail the parallel between seeing and action, since that could consume an entire essay.) As a first step, I shall discuss David Armstrong's case for thinking that trying can play this role. This requires situating Armstrong's argument in the context of what is often called "the problem of action" or "the first problem of action": specifying how actions differ from non-actions. I shall then argue that trying is not something one could be responsible for without already being responsible for other things and thus lacks the independence required to be a genuine origin of further responsibility and hence of action. One familiar contrast I shall reinforce is that while Armstrong's approach aims to differentiate action from non-action by looking inside the individual agent, it is plausible that the difference lies elsewhere - in the agent's relations to others. In my conclusion, I shall question whether anything can play the role that trying has been asked to play, namely an origin of intentional action. So, although I shall be focused on trying, my larger aim is to challenge a general way of thinking about actions.


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