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Explaining Public Action


Actions are uncontroversially public. However, the prevailing model of explanation in the debate about the de se seems to conflict with this fact by proposing agent-specific explanations that yield agent-specific types of action—i.e. types of action that no two agents can instantiate. Remarkably, this point affects both proponents and critics of the de se. In this paper, I present this kind of problem, characterise the proper level of analysis for action explanation compatible with the publicity of action—i.e. the agent-bound level—and suggest that acknowledgement of this level highlights two important amendments of contemporary views. First, sceptics must accept that, when explanation is attitude-involving, the attitudes mentioned in the explanation of action must refer to the agent. Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, proponents of the de se should seek for accounts of de se attitudes that are not confined to a specific agent and are, therefore, sharable across agents.

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  1. See e.g., Goldman (2013, Part III) or McCann (2013) for general discussions of the metaphysics of action.

  2. Searle (1990) provides a well-known initial examination of the topic.

  3. I am deliberately using the term ‘de se attitude’ in a broad sense in order to include all the different ways in which de se attitudes have been elucidated, including Fregean, Perrian and Lewisian ways, as we shall see below.

  4. As he explicitly acknowledged, however, in designing these cases Perry significantly drew on the work of Castañeda (1966, 1967, 1968) and Kaplan (1977). In addition, a wealth of authors have proposed very similar examples.

  5. Cf. Perry (1979), pp. 15–16. Although the term ‘limited accessibility’ was originally restricted to the description of Fregean views, the mainstream articulations of de se attitudes currently available develop a version or other of this limited accessibility standpoint. I shall expand on this in short.

  6. Current Fregean (e.g., Morgan 2009; Peacocke 2014), Perrian (Perry 2012; García-Carpintero 2016; Ninan 2016) and Lewisian approaches (e.g. Recanati 2012, Chap. 7; Gibbard 2012; Weber 2013) are not unlike its predecessors regarding this fundamental respect. The commitment to unsharable and agent-specific de se widens to approaches that do not fall, or do not fall neatly into any of the mainstream views (e.g., Stalnaker 1981, 2014).

  7. I take this principle to be intuitively very plausible and germane to other analyses that rely on the view that, if the same action explanation holds in different scenarios or contexts, the same action has to be carried out ceteris paribus (cf. Perry 2006, p. 214; Ninan 2016, p. 102; Torre 2017).

  8. Peacocke’s indexed first person type of concept—the self type indexed with a specific person—illustrates this possible way of looking at the matter (Peacocke 1981, 2014, Chap. 3).

  9. See García-Carpintero (2017, pp. 260–261) for a similar point.

  10. To mention one recent example, Ninan explicitly acknowledges this when he considers generalisation schemas that concern ‘token beliefs’ and ‘token desires’ relativised to different subjects (cf. Ninan 2016, §3). Strictly speaking, however, what the generalisation schemas concern are the contextual specification (as opposed to literally the token or instance) that results in an agent-specific type of attitude which only, as I am emphasising here, each specific agent can instantiate in bringing about an agent-specific type of action.

  11. See also Peacocke’s extension of Evan’s ideas to the non-conceptual level (Peacocke 2014, Chap. 2). The principle is only illustrative of the kind of account that is agent-bound—as opposed to agent-specific or agent-free—but not itself of help in the account of de se attitudes which, as an anonymous referee calls attention to, concerns the level of thought and not merely reference. I shall offer a candidate agent-bound account of de se attitudes below.

  12. There are exceptions to this claim (e.g., Bermúdez 2017; Egan 2007; May 2006; Rödl 2007; Longworth 2013) but the influence of unsharable de se attitudes is hard to overstate.

  13. In Verdejo manuscript I lay out an application of this kind of analysis to the ‘today-yesterday’ case, also discussed by Evans (1981) and Frege in The Thought.

  14. More precisely, de se contents so characterised unfold what I call a ‘relational space’ between general events of thinking and a self-referential event of thinking. Relational spaces are also attributable to other types of thought expressed with indexicals and demonstratives and which, as suggested above, also involve ways of thinking that are not content-constituting. In other words, relational spaces gather together perspectives that are associated with a type of thought and may contribute distinctively to the explanation of action.

  15. In ways already discussed above (Sect. 2), one might be tempted to appeal to a sense of ‘the same de se explanation’ holding for two different agents while trying to retort to a non-sharable notion of de se attitude by invoking the same general type of subject-specific de se attitude A. Appeal to the general type of de se attitude would plausibly hoist the analysis up to an agent-bound level—as opposed to an agent-specific one. However, to repeat, this strategy is not, I believe, very appealing for the defender of the unsharable de se because (i) it is the unsharable type that each of the agents exhibits Ax or Ay the one at work in explaining behavioural differences in Perry cases; and (ii) to advert to the sameness of general type of de se attitude across agents leaves mysterious in what sense can two different agents still perform the same type of action given that it is unsharable de se attitudes—and very much not the general type of de se attitudes—the ones that are action-constitutive. These points also draw a contrast with the developments found in Verdejo forthcoming, where I allowed the first person perspective to be subject-specific. Subject-specific first person perspectives can perfectly deal with (ii)—the main concern of that paper—insofar as perspectives do not type-individuate contents or actions, but they are clearly vulnerable to (i) and may therefore be discarded in a full account of Perry cases at the agent-bound level.


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Thanks are due to the insightful audience of the 1st CCC Conference where an ancestor of this paper was presented and to two anonymous referees for very valuable suggestions. This work has received financial support from the Secretary for Universities and Research of the Department of Economy and Knowledge (Government of Catalonia) and the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Government of Spain) and the European Union through the research projects FFI2016-80588-R and FFI2015-63892-P (MINECO, AEI/FEDER, EU).

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Correspondence to Víctor M. Verdejo.

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Verdejo, V.M. Explaining Public Action. Topoi 39, 475–485 (2020).

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  • De se attitude
  • Action explanation
  • Action type
  • Public action
  • Agent-bound level