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Danto on Basic Actions

Author(s): Myles Brand


Source: Nos, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May, 1968), pp. 187-190
Published by: Wiley
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2214705
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Danto on Basic Actions

MYLES BRAND
UNIVERSITY OF PITMSBURGH

According to Danto,1 a person performs a basic action just in


case his action is not caused by other actions he performs: and a
person performs a non-basic action just in case his action is caused
by other actions he performs. Danto's definitions can be reformu-
lated in the following manner.

(DI) For every person S and every a, a is a basic action per-


formed by S if and only if (i) a is an action performed
by S and (ii) there is no other action b such that S
performed b and b caused a.
(D2) For every person S and every a, a is a non-basic action
performed by S if and only if (i) a is an action per-
formed by S and (ii) it is not the case that a is a basic
action performed by S.

Prima facie Danto's definition of "basic action" is plausible.


Suppose that I raise my arm without causing it to rise, for example,
by lifting it with my other arm or by getting another person to lift
it. It seems that in this case my raising my arm is not caused by
any other action that I perform: my raising my arm here is an action
that I perform independently of other actions that I perform.
However, definitions (DI) and (D2) are problematical for at
least two reasons. First, actions that would intuitively be taken as
non-basic are designated as basic actions on definitions (Dl) and
(D2); and second, (DI) and (D2) make the false claim that actions

1 See Arthur Danto, "What We Can Do," Journal of Philosophy, LX


(1963): 435-45, "Basic Actions," American Philosophical Quarterly, (1965):
141-48, and "Freedom and Forbearance" in Freedom and Determinism, ed.
Keith Legrer (New York, 1966) :48-50.

187

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188 NOUS

of a person cause that person to perform other actions. These two


objections will be considered in turn.
Consider, first, the following principle governing the causal
relationship.

(P1) For every A and every B, if A is the cause of B, then


there is some condition in B that is not identical with
any condition in A, and there is some condition in A
that is not identical with any condition in B.

More loosely, (P1) says that A is the cause of B only if A and B


are distinct. To deny (P1) leads to a paradox. If the denial of (P1)
is true, then it follows that there is some case in which A is the
cause of B, and either every condition in B is also a condition in A
or every condition in A is also a condition in B. It follows from this
that either A is the cause of A or B is the effect of B. This result is
paradoxical because the causal relationship is normally taken to be
a relationship between two sets of conditions (or events).2
Consider now the action of Jones, a normal person, knotting
his tie. "Jones knots his tie" is merely a description or name for a
number of basic actions; namely, Jones grasping one end of the tie,
Jones putting one end over the other, and so on. Jones knotting his
tie is this set of basic actions. Since Jones knotting his tie is identical
with the set of basic actions of his grasping the tie, and so on, it
follows by principle (P1) that Jones knotting his tie is not caused
by this set of basic actions. And since Jones knotting his tie is not
caused by this set of actions, and since presumably this set of
actions is the only candidate among the actions performed by Jones
for the cause of his action of knotting his tie, there is no action or
set of actions performed by Jones that was the cause of his knotting
his tie. Thus, by definitions (DI) and (D2), Jones knotting his tie
is a basic action performed by Jones.
However, if there are any actions that are not basic, knotting
one's tie is certainly among them. Intuitively a basic or simple action
is one that a person performs independently of anything else he
does. Accordingly, Jones knotting his tie is not a basic action; for,
presumably, Jones knotting his tie is not performed independently
of his grasping the short end and lifting it up, and so on.3

2 Danto, in "What We Can Do," p. 436, affirms a principle effectively


the same as (P1). It might be thought that we can sometimes truly or signifi-
cantly say that something causes itself. But we can significantly say this only
if the sense of "cause" is different from the ordinary sense used in (P1).
3 Danto says in "What We Can Do" that ". . . if I can perform basic

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DANTO ON BASIC ACTIONS 189

In short, defintions (DI) and (D2) in conjunction with prin-


ciple (P1) are compatible with the designation of some actions as
basic which are not, from an intuitive point of view, basic actions,
but rather a complex, or set of basic actions. Thus, either (DI) or
(D2) or (P1) must be rejected. But (P1) must be accepted in order
to avoid a paradox concerning the causal relationship construed as
a relationship between sets of conditions (or events). Therefore,
either (DI) or (D2) or both must be rejected.
The second objection to definitions (Dl) and (D2) is that it
is not the case that actions of a person cause that person to perform
other actions. Actions of a person cause events to occur in the world;
but a person does not perform an action by causing himself to
perform it.
Consider the case in which a normal person, say Jones again,
performs the obviously non-basic action of moving a stone by push-
ing it with a staff. Here, if anywhere, should be a case of a man
performing an action that causes another action he performs. How-
ever, there is no action that Jones performs that causes this action of
his. In moving the stone by pushing it with the staff, Jones performs
certain actions that are independent of the performance of any other
of his actions. These are Jones' basic, or simple, actions-however
"basic action" or "simple action" is to be defined-and include, for
example, Jones grasping the staff with his left hand. What do these
actions cause here? They cause the staff to move; they cause the
stone to move, and so on. But note that Jones' basic actions do not
cause other actions of Jones. It is a necessary condition for some-
thing being a human action that an adequate description of it
includes a reference to some person as an agent, as a performer of
actions.4 But the staff's moving, and anything else caused by Jones'
basic actions, are adequately described without referring to Jones or
any other person as an agent. Thus, the staff's moving, and so on,
are not actions. Further, it is not the case that the entire state of
affairs of Jones moving the stone by pushing it with the staff is an
action caused by some other action of Jones. The actions of grasping
the staff, and so on, are not distinct from the entire state of affairs
of Jones moving the stone by pushing it with the staff; and, thus,
by principle (P1), these actions are not the cause of Jones moving
the stone by pushing it with the staff. In short, there is a causal

actions with P. P is part of myself" (p. 439). On this criterion, it would again
not be the case that knotting one's tie is a basic action for a normal person.
4 Cf. Richard Taylor, Action and Purpose (New Jersey, 1966), p. 108 ff.

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190 NOUS

relation between events that Jones brings about, for example, the
staff's moving and the stone's moving; but there is no causal relation
between actions performed by Jones.5

5I have profited from discussions with Richard Taylor and Marshall


Swain on some of these issues.

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