November 14, 2017 at 4 PM
Will Small Lecture
“Practical Abilities in Human Agency”
The practical powers of human beings outstrip those of other animals—we can construct skyscrapers, reverse rivers, create artworks, found universities, and fly to the moon—but human agency differs from that of other animals in kind as well as degree. The philosophical tradition locates this difference of kind in the idea that human beings are rational agents, and since the seventeenth century this idea has typically been developed in theories in which mental processes of reasoning lie causally upstream of bodily action itself: the distinctiveness of human action consists in its being the causal upshot of what (these philosophers hold) is really distinctive about human beings, namely their mental activity. I argue that the modern focus on mental states and processes results in a one-sided and distorted conception of the role of reason in human agency; I offer an alternative by focusing our attention on practical abilities (e.g. the abilities to walk, to play the piano, to speak French). Such practical abilities are themselves structured by reason, not merely invoked by it.