Rationality in Action

Raimo Tuomela reviews John Searle’s Rationality in Action, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

This book is vintage Searle, with the good (and less good) features that one is accustomed to find in his previous books. It is written in engaging style and is accessible to a wide audience, even if it is not perhaps meant for the layman. It contains lots of interesting arguments and some new things, especially the ideas about non-sufficient causation of action and a comprehensive account of reasons for action. The main contributions of the book are indeed about these two topics. Especially the account of reasons, and among them of desire-independent reasons, will probably be of lasting value in the philosophy of action.

I will below concentrate on a couple of topics that are central in the book. The first topic is causation of action. Briefly, the agent’s desires and beliefs do not cause the agent’s decisions and intentions – at least from the first person point of view (Searle’s standpoint until the last chapter). This is due to the agent’s free will: he is free to decide which desires and beliefs he will act on. This is the first “gap”. In Searle’s action theory an intentional action “normally” comes about due to an agent’s prior intention which leads causally, but not with necessitating causality, to action. The latter itself consists of the agent’s intention-in-action (“volitional” element) and the behavior caused by it. The second gap is that between the prior intention and the intention-in-action, and is dramatically exemplified by the phenomena of weakness of the will. The third gap is that between the initiated action and its completion. According to Searle, “ ’the gap’ is the general name that I have introduced for the phenomenon that we do not normally experience the stages of our deliberations and voluntary actions as having causally sufficient conditions or as setting causally sufficient conditions for the next stage” (p. 50). All of these gaps are familiar phenomena and have been extensively discussed in the literature.

If there is a piece of news here it is that there is only non-sufficient causation between the prior intention and the intention-in-action.