[Marxism] Action Theory

Haines Brown haines at histomat.net
Sun Sep 4 15:38:52 MDT 2011

On Sun, Sep 04, 2011 at 02:53:31PM -0500, Charley Earp wrote:
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> In response to Haines Brown, I'd like to offer a somewhat obscure
> reference, but one that personally led me to an engagement with
> Marxism, Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976). His most
> extensive work on action, or more precisely, agency was published in
> 1954 as _The Self As Agent_, followed up by a volume on relations
> _Persons In Relation_. 

> What has always stayed with me from Macmurray was his overriding
> concern not to reduce human existence to either labor or
> consciousness, but to transcend that division by a holistic sense of
> personhood-in-community that was neither materialist or idealist.

Aha, this comes close to my problem with Macmurray. He posits a unity 
of self. This not unconventional, but it raises a host of questions. 
The materialistic tendency today is to see the self as an entity 
arising from multiple determinations, rather than ideal humunculus. 
For example, in cognitive psychology, there's an influential view that 
"self" is a combination of unification and motivation conveyed via 
brain stem and limbic system from the body. My own preference is to 
see it as a strongly emergent (a concept rather unpopular of late) 
effect of the constraint of episodic memory on social possibilities. 
Macmurray's notion can come across as idealistically holistic. Where 
Macmurray becomes even more adventurous is to suggest that thought and 
action are "aspects" or "dimensions" of action, which raises 
philosophical problems. Are these two aspects merely constructs of 
mind, adapting the world to our limited mental powers, or are they 
independent of thought. It worries me if epistemology (how can we see 
things) becomes the basis for ontology. This, of course, opens a rat's 
nest of difficult philosophical issues.

> >We may go further than this; for it is an immediate corollary that
> >whatever is necessarily implied in the possibility of action is
> >itself certain. 

(Is this a kind of Kantian approach, a categorical a priori of action?)

> >Our immediate business is to bring to light some of those necessary 
> >implications which have their guarantee in the fact that there is 
> >action.

I was not sure if you were quoting Macmurray or making your own 
observations. But there's several points with which I have some 
sympathy. That the possibility of action is itself certain I take a 
bit further with a modal realism that possibility is real because in 
an action that engages it, real possiblities make a difference (action 
without real possibilities would be insane). But Macmurray seems to be 
talking about the human possibility for action, not that possibility 
is a property of the world, which is not quite Macmurray's point.

> >We may begin by defining action itself—not its mere logical form,
> >but the form of its actuality—as a unity of movement and
> >knowledge. 

Here's where I disagree with the conventional action theory. No 
question that knowledge informs intentionality (I would say 
"constrains"). In conventional terms an intention is supposed to be a 
cause of action. But of course, knowledge cannot be the source of 
creative action, as useful as it is for adaptive action. We end up 
with an implicit mysterious Promethian view of human nature (we are 
chips off the divine block) that serves to account for the 
improbability of the outcome of human activity.

> >Movement and knowledge are inseparable aspects of all action, ...

This limits action to human activity rather than refer to the motion 
of all matter, as Engels would put it.

> >To represent action as consisting of a cognition which is
> >the/cause/of a movement is to misrepresent the unity of action
> >radically. We relapse into the mind-matter dualism if we analyse
> >an action into two events, the one subjective and the other
> >objective, which stand in causal relation. 

Here I fully agree with Macmurray. But I'm not sure just juxtaposing 
thought and motion mechanically as aspects of action really clears 
things up. Thought may be a kind of action, but I'm unclear about 
representing motion as an aspect of action rather than being action 
itself. It is assumed that knowledge determines action, but this is 
represented as a causal determination, one of many constraints on 
action. That I can't defy gravity is not a thought, but a fact 
independent of thought that constrains my action. There are many 
material constraints on action that do not reduce to the conscious or 
unconcious mind.

> >That thought moves nothing is an implicate of the concept of 
> >thought.

This point worries me. In terms of causal analysis, love, 
psychopathology, thoughts, etc. do affect action. Macmurray is trying 
to avoid reifying thought as a causal entity, but I don't think he has 
solved the problem. Thoughts are real structures that emerge from a 
neuronal basis, and I don't think we still need to adopt a radical 
empiricist position that if you can't touch it, it ain't real. 
Alexander's Dictum (1920) was: "To be real is to have causal powers." 
Science since then has moved to a quite different view. I believe the 
problem here is that the effect of knowledge can't be represented in 
terms of a simple causal relation of entities. An alternative is that 
the structure of thought constrains (defines the probability of) what 
the brain has my body do.

> >An act may indeed be analysed into a number of elements which 
> >compose it, but each of these elements is itself an act, and itself 
> >therefore a unity of knowledge and movement.

No. A factor analysis assumes that each factor is an entity. It is not 
clear that a system can be reduced to the causal effect of its 
elements. An emergent "systemic effect" can feed back to change the 
character of these elements. Little is gained by what I consider a 
truism, that everything is in motion, is an action. Such an abstract 
common demoninator I fear is a kind of idealism and certainly 
marginalizes the empirical specifics of what is involved. In the 
physical sciences it is said that all things are structures, but that 
surely does not mean that all things are one.

> >What is distinguishable theoretically is not necessarily separable 
> >in fact: for to distinguish elements in a whole theoretically is 
> >merely to limit attention to an aspect of what is presented.

True, I believe. But it does not prove its opposite, that because the 
human mind frames portions of the world as closed entities or relevant 
aspects does not mean that what is not so framed constitutes a unity 
(I do argue it is a unity, but on an entirely different basis).

> >In order therefore to eliminate this tendency to misunderstand the 
> >definition I propose to call knowledge and movement/dimensions/of 
> >action. The use of the metaphor is intended only to keep before our 
> >minds the indivisible unity of knowledge and movement in action.

All this says, I suspect, is that knowledge and movement are 
properties of action rather than its external determinants. I still 
don't know what action is here. To specify aspects, properties or 
dimensions of things is desciptive without really defining what that 
thing is.

I don't mean to be too hard on Macmurry, for he has an admirable goal, 
which I take to be to avoid representing ideas as causal entities, 
with its implied Cartesian dualism. His making action central makes 
good sense.  However, to represent ideas as a dimension of action 
because thinking is a kind of activity raises problems. Thought may be 
an action, just as is belching, but that does not make belching and 
thinking the same thing.


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