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Agency and Practical Abilities

  • Will Small (a1)


Though everyday life accords a great deal of significance to practical abilities – such as the ability to walk, to speak French, to play the piano – philosophers of action pay surprisingly little attention to them. By contrast, abilities are discussed in various other philosophical projects. From these discussions, a partial theory of abilities emerges. If the partial theory – which is at best adequate only to a few examples of practical abilities – were correct, then philosophers of action would be right to ignore practical abilities, because they could play no fundamental role in an account of human agency. For the idea that practical abilities do play a fundamental role in human agency to be worth considering, an alternative conception of them is needed. As a first step, I attempt some of the necessary ground-clearing work.


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1 Clarke, R., ‘Abilities to Act’, Philosophy Compass 10(12) (2015), 893.

2 For important exceptions, see Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind (London: Routledge, 1949) especially ch. 5; Kenny, A., Will, Freedom and Power (Basil Blackwell, 1975), especially ch. VII); Kenny, A., The Metaphysics of Mind (Clarendon Press, 1989), especially ch. 5; Baier, A.C., ‘Act and Intent’, The Journal of Philosophy 67(19) (1970), 648–58; Baier, A.C., ‘Ways and Means’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 1(3) (1972), 275–93.

3 See A. Ford, ‘The Representation of Action’, this volume.

4 Cf. Hornsby, J., ‘Agency and Actions’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 55 (2004), 19: ‘when one has an action-explanation, one knows why someone did something, and that is to know why they played a particular causal role – why a brought it about that p, say. The explanation does not tell one what causal role a played: one already knows this when one knows what a did.’

5 For the origins of the standard story, see Davidson, D., ‘Actions, Reasons, and Causes’, The Journal of Philosophy 60(23) (1963), 685700 ; for a recent defense, Smith, M., ‘Four Objections to the Standard Story of Action (and Four Replies)’, Philosophical Issues 22(1) 2012, 387401 ; for the sorts of variants I have in mind, see e.g. Velleman, D., ‘What Happens When Someone Acts?Mind 101(403) (1992), 461–81, and Bratman, M., ‘Two Problems About Human Agency’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 101(1) (2001), 309–26.

6 See e.g. Velleman, ‘What Happens When Someone Acts?’ and (for a more trenchant version of the criticism) Hornsby, ‘Agency and Actions’.

7 J. Hornsby, ‘Agency and Actions’, 22.

8 Sosa, E., Judgment and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

9 Greco, J., ‘The Nature of Ability and the Purpose of Knowledge’, Philosophical Issues 17(1) (2007), 5769 .

10 Hyman, J., ‘How Knowledge Works’, The Philosophical Quarterly 49(197) (1999), 433–51; Hyman, J., Action, Knowledge, and Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

11 Vihvelin, K., Causes, Laws, and Free Will: Why Determinism Doesn't Matter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

12 Vihvelin defends a version of the view that for one to have the ability to φ is for one to be disposed to φ if one has the opportunity to φ and tries to φ.

13 This is a venerable strategy: consider the uses Plato and Aristotle make of the concept of technē.

14 E.g. Mumford, S., Dispositions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Vetter, B., Potentiality: From Dispositions to Modality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

15 Practical abilities are frequently mentioned but rarely examined in recent discussions about the nature of knowledge how, where the following thesis is often discussed: one knows how to φ just in case one has the ability to φ. This thesis is attributed – mistakenly, in my view – to Ryle (The Concept of Mind, ch. 2), and rejected by, among others, J. Stanley and T. Williamson (‘Knowing How’, The Journal of Philosophy 98(8) (2001), 411–44). But neither those who attack nor those who defend the so-called Rylean thesis explain what it is to have the ability to φ.

16 Philosophy of action makes much use of the concept of an act-type or ‘thing done’ as contrasted with that of a token action or ‘doing (of a thing done)’. Much of this use is uncritical (for helpful criticism see Rödl, S., ‘Practice and the Unity of Action’ in Social Facts & Collective Intentionality (ed.) Georg Meggle (Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2002), 323–42; Thompson, M., Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), ch. 8). The conception of an act-type the partial theory's use of which I wish to criticize is broadly Davidsonian. Davidson, D., ‘The Logical Form of Action Sentences’ in The Logic of Decision and Action (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967) argued that action sentences – such as ‘Shem kicked Shaun in the forum at noon’ – quantify over events. That sentence says that an event occurred, and that it had the properties of being a kicking, of being of Shaun, of being by Shem, of being in the forum, and of being at noon. Any token action exemplifies many act-types: among other things, what Shem did was to kick Shaun, to kick Shaun in the forum at noon, to kick someone, to do something at noon, etc. And any act-type could be (or at least could have been) instantiated by different token actions: Shem might do the same thing every day for a week – kick Shaun in the forum at noon – in which case there would be seven tokens of that act-type.

17 For more examples, see J. Hyman, Action, Knowledge, and Will, 177–8.

18 A contrast between active and powers is drawn by Aristotle at the beginning of Metaphysics Book Theta. A solvent has the active power to dissolve a solute; a solute has the passive power to be dissolved by a solvent. (Clearly not every active power is a practical ability.)  – In saying that acts of recognition and understanding are passive I do not mean to say that they are wholly passive; but I doubt that whatever form of activity may be present in them is that of intentional action. Though I distinguish recognitional and intellectual abilities from practical abilities, I do not think they are disjoint. For instance, the ability to recognize a wind shift is internal to the practical ability to sail, and the ability to understand French is internal to the ability to speak French. Crucially, however, whereas the abilities to sail and to speak French are exercised at will, the abilities to recognize a wind shift and to understand French are not – though one can do various things at will (e.g. close one's eyes, block one's ears) to prevent their exercise.

19 Maier, J., ‘The Agentive Modalities’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 90(1) (2015), 123.

20 K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 11.

21 For two-fold distinctions between ‘general ability’ and ‘specific ability’, see Mele, A.Agents' AbilitiesNoûs 37(3) (2003), 447–70; Whittle, A., ‘Dispositional Abilities’, Philosophers’ Imprint 10(12) (2010); Glick, E., ‘Abilities and Know-How Attributions’, in Knowledge Ascriptions (Oxford University Press, 2012); Maier, J., ‘Abilities’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (ed.) Zalta, Edward N. (Spring 2014); J. Maier, ‘The Agentive Modalities’. For three-fold distinctions, see Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 7–16; Sosa, E., Judgment and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 2223 .

22 A. Kenny, Will, Freedom and Power, 135.

23 Similarly, with psychological impediments to the exercise of one's general abilities: there can be psychological roadblocks to exercising abilities that need to be overcome. But overcoming them is not acquiring an ability to try to φ. Like removing a literal roadblock, removing a psychological roadblock such as grief, depression, anxiety, or a phobia is removing an obstacle to exercising one's abilities. Indeed, Vihvelin's characterization of what she calls ‘narrow ability’ to φ, or ‘having what it takes’ to φ – namely, ‘the necessary skills [i.e. the ‘general ability’] and the psychological and physical capacity to use those skills’ – makes it sound as if it consists of the conjunction of two abilities: the ability to φ and the ability (or capacity) to exercise one's ability to φ. This might suggest a regress: if one needs, in addition to the ability to φ, the ability to exercise one's ability to φ, why wouldn't one need the ability to exercise one's ability to exercise one's ability to φ (and so on)?

24 We would not expect acquiring or losing the ability to ride a bicycle to affect someone's possession of the ability to recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But we might well expect that if someone who can ride a bike and can recite Prufrock gets blind drunk, both abilities will be impaired; and when she sobers up, she will not have gained or regained a kind of ability (a ‘narrow ability’) to ride a bike – and with it, a ‘narrow ability’ to recite Prufrock – but she will no longer be impeded from exercising many of her ‘general abilities’.

25 As I noted above, someone may be able to do something because she possesses the authority to do it. Someone else may be unable to do it, because she lacks the relevant authority. But to lack authority is not to lack ability.

26 Cf. S. Mumford, Dispositions, 10: ‘I take it that the dispositional is a genus that can accommodate these subclasses [sc. tendencies, capacities and incapacities, powers and forces, potentialities and propensities, abilities and liabilities, etc.] as species’; Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 171: ‘To have an ability to act is to have a disposition or bundle of dispositions’; E. Sosa, Judgment and Agency, 24: ‘Competences are a special case of dispositions….’

27 E.g. K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will.

28 This is evidently closely related to the ‘Simple Conditional Analysis’ of dispositions, which faces well-known counterexamples (‘finks’ and ‘masks’ – see e.g. Martin, C.B., ‘Dispositions and Conditionals’, The Philosophical Quarterly 44 (1994); Lewis, D., ‘Finkish Dispositions’, The Philosophical Quarterly 47 (1997); Manley, D. and Wasserman, R., ‘On Linking Dispositions and Conditionals’, Mind 117(465) (2008)) that seem to show that satisfying the proposed conditional is neither necessary nor sufficient for possession of the disposition. There is much dispute over the correct response to such counterexamples: one might give a more complicated conditional analysis, or a non-conditional analysis, or take some conditional to be, not an analysis, but rather some sort of gloss that merely indicates the sui generis character of dispositions.

29 E.g. B. Vetter, Potentiality.

30 Or a counterpart of theirs.

31 To associate disposition (or ability) ascriptions with conditionals or with restricted possibilities is not to commit oneself to a reductive analysis of dispositions (or abilities) in terms of conditionals or restricted possibilities.

32 I am not alone in registering such concerns. Millikan writes that: ‘The modern philosophical tradition has unreflectively assimilated abilities to capacities and capacities to dispositions. This affords a slippery slope.’ Millikan, R., On Clear and Confused Ideas: An Essay About Substance Concepts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 31. See also Baier ‘Ways and Means’, 285–6: ‘“Competence” is too pompous a word to use of simple skilled activities such as digging, stirring, walking, but it may be preferable to “ability” which has been debased by philosophical usage until it has lost any discriminatory power. When “x has the ability to φ” is equated with “x is able to φ” and that in turn is equated with “it is possible that x will φ” or “x is not causally necessitated not to φ” then the distinctive features of abilities are hopelessly lost.’

33 A. Kenny Will, Freedom and Power, 133.

34 Austin, J.L., ‘Ifs and Cans’, Proceedings of the British Academy 42(1956), 109132 . Cited as reprinted in his Philosophical Papers (Oxford University Press, 1961), 166 n. 1.

35 K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 186. ‘Narrow ability’ is Vihvelin's term for the so-called kind of ability that requires ‘the necessary skills and the psychological and physical capacity to use those skills’ (Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 11) but not the opportunity to use them (see §1 above for criticism). Her account transposes Lewis's ‘Finkish Dispositions’ conditional analysis of dispositions to the case of abilities. Though most writers prefer a uniform treatment of dispositions and abilities, Lewis himself proposed a restricted possibility view of abilities ( Lewis, D., ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’, American Philosophical Quarterly 13(2) (1976), 145–52).

36 J. Greco, ‘The Nature of Ability and the Purpose of Knowledge’, 61.

37 A. Kenny, Will, Freedom and Power, 142.

38 Cf. A. Kenny: ‘I cannot spell “seize”; I am never sure whether it is an exception to the rule about ‘i’ before ‘e’; I just guess, and fifty times out of a hundred I get it right. On each such case…it is the case that I am spelling “seize” correctly but it is not the case that I can spell “seize” correctly’ (Will, Freedom and Power, 136).

39 In basketball, making 40% of one's three-point shots would be outstanding, whereas making 60% of one's free-throws would be abysmal: it is much easier to make a free-throw than a three-pointer.

40 Cf. J. Maier, ‘The Agentive Modalities’, 128.

41 Hacker, P. M. S., The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

42 A. Mele, ‘Agents’ Abilities’.

43 R. Millikan, On Clear and Confused.

44 A. Whittle, ‘Dispositional Abilities’.

45 J.L. Austin, ‘Ifs and Cans’.

46 K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will.

47 J. Spencer ‘Able to Do the Impossible’, Mind (forthcoming).

48 J. Hyman, Action, Knowledge, and Will.

49 J. Hyman, Action, Knowledge, and Will, 177–8.

50 Ibid., 178.

51 A related point is made by Vetter, B., ‘Multi-Track Dispositions’, The Philosophical Quarterly 63(251) (2013), 346.

52 Locke, D., ‘Natural Powers and Human Abilities’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74 (1973), 184.

53 Ibid., 187.

54 To distinguish again the issue of individuating abilities from that of specifying them, we should say that if Amy's ability is properly specified as the ability to run a five-minute mile, then Hyman's principle of individuation should be rejected, whereas if it is properly specified as the ability to run, then his principle may be accepted while acknowledging that what he claims follows from it in fact does not. (This bears on the cogency of Hyman's discussion as a response to the objection – by Hacker (The Intellectual Powers, 183) to Hyman's account of knowledge – that animates it.)

55 Obviously, in playing the Appassionata the agent is playing the piano. But, in the ordinary case, what is being done is playing the Appassionata: it is as a playing of the Appassionata that the agent's activity of piano-playing is evaluated for (among other things) whether or not it was completed.

56 Different such characterizations work in different ways. When we characterize Amy's ability to read English by saying that she has the ability to read Emma, we are using Austen's novel as a yardstick of (e.g.) the sort of vocabulary and prose that Amy can read in English – regardless of whether or not she has read Emma. But to characterize her piano-playing ability by saying that she has the ability to play the Appassionata would not ordinarily be to use the Appassionata as a mere yardstick of the sorts of technical and expressive demands that Amy can meet, regardless of whether she has played the Appassionata; ordinarily it would be to characterize the particular shape of her piano-playing ability as one that, as it were, contains the Appassionata.

57 D. Locke, ‘Natural Powers and Human Abilities’, 184.

58 The preceding discussion suggests that we need to reflect further on the internal structure of and relations between act-types as well as abilities.

59 For similar points about the specific cases of our linguistic and conceptual abilities, see Davidson, D.Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages’ in Proceedings of the International Congress for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, (ed.) Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (North-Holland, 1965), 317 and Evans, G., The Varieties of Reference, (ed.) John McDowell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 100ff.

60 Jack Spencer (‘Able to Do the Impossible’) argues for the provocative claim that ‘an agent might be able to do what it is metaphysically impossible tout court to do’ (msp. 1). A crucial concept in his argument is that of a ‘factive ability’, for instance the ‘abilities’ to know or discover or remember that p. Factive abilities are cases of ‘object-dependent abilities’ – ‘abilities to perform object-dependent actions, such as kissing the Blarney Stone or seeing the Statue of Liberty’ (msp. 4–5). But taking the concept of ability seriously ought to rule out the idea of object-dependent abilities, in which case Spencer's argument is over before it has begun. Spencer claims that ‘Object-dependent actions and abilities are common and familiar’ (msp. 5). But though object-dependent actions are surely familiar, the contention that object-dependent abilities are common seems to depend on the assumption that an ability can be specified by specifying the type(s) of action of which the ability's exercises are tokens – an assumption we have seen fit to reject. Object-dependent abilities are clearly explanatorily idle. To kiss the Blarney Stone, all that is needed, for someone who has the ability to kiss things, is the opportunity – and perhaps whatever is needed to overcome any psychological roadblocks to putting one's mouth on a stone that all and sundry are constantly kissing: no special ability needs to be acquired. And the truth of p is a necessary element of the opportunity to know that p, which opportunity can be taken only by those who have the ability to think that p (and the abilities to recognize reasons, deal appropriately with evidence, and so on, which may or may not be presupposed by or contained in the ability to think that p). Indeed, the ability to think that p may very well be a pseudo-ability, too: if p is the proposition that a is F, then there is no ‘ability to think that p’ over and above the abilities to think of a and to think F of things (cf. Evans (The Varieties of Reference) on what he calls the ‘Generality Constraint’).

61 Though I am sympathetic to the spirit that seems to me to animate Locke's discussion, the actual principle he offers may have to be rejected. It seems possible that one might acquire together two separable abilities the exercises of which involve exploiting the same features of the agent's constitution. Suppose that Sam, who previously lacked any cooking abilities, learns how to cook spaghetti bolognese. In learning how to do this, he learns – let us suppose simultaneously – how to cook bolognese sauce and how to cook and dress spaghetti. It would seem that the same features from Sam's constitution and background which bring it about that he standardly succeeds in cooking spaghetti are also sufficient to bring it about that he standardly succeeds in cooking bolognese sauce, and yet – pace Locke's principle – his ability to cook spaghetti and his ability to cook bolognese sauce are not the same ability (nor are they identical with his ability to cook spaghetti bolognese). It is not clear to me that we need or should expect of principle of individuation for abilities. Perhaps Millikan is correct: ‘The idea that one might count the number of a person's abilities, or count the abilities that go into a certain activity, often is not really coherent. Like patterns, however, or like patches of ground, abilities can be clearly distinguished and designated even when they have no clear criteria of individuation’ (On Clear and Confused Ideas, 64).

62 ‘Ifs and Cans’, 175.

63 See e.g. D. Locke, ‘Natural Powers and Human Abilities’, 185; A. Kenny, Will, Freedom and Power, 136; P.M.S. Hacker, The Intellectual Powers, 187–8; K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 198; J. Hyman, Action, Knowledge, and Will, 180; B. Vetter, Potentiality, 222.

64 A. Kenny, Will, Freedom and Power, 136.

65 Ibid., 136.

66 Kenny in fact qualifies his claim that successful action does not entail ability: ‘a single performance, however successful, is not normally enough to establish the existence of ability. (I say ‘not normally’ because a single performance may suffice if the task is sufficiently difficult or complicated to rule out lucky success. Pushing one's wife in a wheelbarrow along a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls would be a case in point)’ (Will, Freedom and Power, 136). But, to the extent that it is easy to imagine someone pushing his wife in a wheelbarrow along a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls, it is easy to imagine his doing so being a case of lucky success, in which case the performance would not establish the ability to push his wife in a wheelbarrow along a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls. What it may well establish (so long as the lucky success was not due to guardian angels, etc.) is that the agent has the ability to walk a tightrope, the ability to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow, and so on. Of course, someone who successfully navigated a short, low-stakes tightrope once would not thereby show herself to have the ability to walk a tightrope (as that is normally understood – which is to say, as that is understood by reference to the standards internal to the practice of tightrope walking).  It is a notable feature of Kenny's discussion that his awareness that the concepts of ability and luck come as a package co-exists with his taking for granted the idea of ‘doing something’ or ‘successful performance’; and yet surely that is just what ought to be at issue, if ability is the sort of ‘positive explanatory factor’ (Will, Freedom and Power, 133) he thinks it is.

67 K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will, 198.

68 See e.g. Alvarez, M., ‘Agency and Two-Way Powers’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 113(1) (2013), 101–21.

69 Davidson, D., ‘Agency’, in Agent, Action, and Reason (University of Toronto Press, 1971).

70 Cf. Baier's claim that there is an ‘asymmetric dependence’ of ‘effectings’ – bringings about – upon exercises of competences (abilities): ‘An action description such as “getting the feet wet” is non-specific with respect to how the feet were got wet, but implies that there was a way, either a wading or a washing or a hosing or …By contrast, a [description of an action as the exercise of an ability] need not, although it may, imply an effecting. This guarantees that whenever there is action, there is … exercise of a competence, and that all effectings will depend on competences’ (‘Ways and Means’, 289–90).

71 Such a view is explicitly advanced by K. Vihvelin, Causes, Laws, and Free Will.

72 For discussion of different conceptions of trying, see Hornsby, J.Trying to Act’ in A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, (eds) Timothy O'Connor and Constantine Sandis (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 1825 . If trying were a causal stimulus of the exercise of abilities, then abilities would differ from many dispositions in having uniform stimuli – Vetter advances a restricted possibility view of dispositions in part because she thinks that ‘[s]timulus conditions play no part in individuating, or in giving the essence of, a disposition’, (Multi-Track Dispositions’, The Philosophical Quarterly 63(251) (2013), 349).

73 The idea is discussed – unsatisfactorily, in my view – by A. Kenny (Will, Freedom and Power, ch. VII); A. Kenny (The Metaphysics of Mind, ch. 5); Steward, H., ‘Sub-Intentional Actions and the Over-Mentalization of Agency’ in New Essays on the Explanation of Action (ed.) Sandis, Constantine (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 295312 ; Steward, H., ‘Responses’, Inquiry 56(6) (2013), 681706 ; M. Alvarez, ‘Agency and Two-Way Powers’.

74 Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature at the University of Oslo, the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and a meeting of the DFG Netzwerk »Praktisches Denken und gutes Handeln« at the University of Leipzig. Thanks to those who participated in those events. And special thanks to John Hyman for comments on a draft, from which I – and I hope the paper – benefitted a great deal.


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