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Bernard Williams on Regarding One's Own Action Purely Externally


I explore what Bernard Williams means by regarding one's action ‘purely externally, as one might regard anyone else's action’, and how it links to regret and agent-regret. I suggest some ways that we might understand the external view: as a failure to recognize what one has done, in terms of Williams's distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic luck, and as akin to Thomas Nagel's distinction between an internal and external view. I argue that none of these captures what Williams was getting at because they do not allow one to take a view on one's action. I offer two alternative accounts. One turns around what we identify with, the other concerns what we care about. Both accounts capture how I might regret, rather than agent-regret, my own action. I demonstrate that these accounts can explain the relationship between an insurance payout and the external view, and they can explain the agent-relativity of agent-regret.

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Thanks to Thomas Byrne, Ben Davies, Nick French, Julia Markovits, Andrei Marmor, David Owens, Tom Pink, and Massimo Renzo, audiences at graduate research seminars at Cornell, and King's College London, and the 2017 University of North Carolina–King's College London workshop, and two referees from this journal for comments on versions of this essay. Thanks to Cecily Whiteley for a helpful discussion of Nagel. Thanks to Hannah Davis for talking through many of the ideas in this essay. Thanks to David Galloway, Clayton Littlejohn, and M. M. McCabe for many years of support and guidance. Finally, thanks to the London Arts and Humanities Partnership for funding this research.

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Journal of the American Philosophical Association
  • ISSN: 2053-4477
  • EISSN: 2053-4485
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-american-philosophical-association
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