Philosophy of action

From Academic Kids

Philosophy of action is chiefly concerned with human action, intending to distinguish between activity and passivity, voluntary, intentional, culpable and involuntary actions, and related question.

The field is often defined by the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein: "What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?"

The problems of analytical philosophy of action include:

  • What are the temporal limits of an action? For instance, can an action end before its result occurs?
  • Is an action the same as some bodily movement? Does one movement under different descriptions constitute different actions?
  • Is an action the same as some event? Does one event under different descriptions constitute different actions?

A more fundamental school of embodied philosophy are usually associated with advocacy, especially of feminism or postmodernism, but are difficult to characterize in philosophers' terms - they often reject the traditional division into ethics, epistemology and metaphysics - as did the American William James. It is insensible to consider seeing, saying, or doing without the bodies that perform these actions, so the feminist, queer, biological or cognitive science based, and traditional descriptive styles of philosophy will be covered in this article together. The broader critique that is concerned with the impact of language and society on body in general is usually called postmodernism - but it could be said to include many of the theories covered here.


Replacing mind/body dualism with situation/action binding

A deep concern with the Cartesian Other and a rejection of mind-body dualism is a broadly shared by body/action philosophers. Often, the school traces its roots to Ludwig Wittgenstein who asked "What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?"

"Solving this equation is supposed to reveal what makes the difference between a mere bodily movement and an action; and the difference between mere movements and actions is what the philosophy of action seeks to identify." - David Velleman

However, the body is not a uniform construct suitable to only one type of abstraction - there are plant, animal, and human bodies, which Alfred Korzybski in his General Semantics described as binding chemical, spatial, and temporal quantities. He tried also to "encourage the use of more actional, relational terms. Instead of saying what something "is" we, instead, describe what it does or how it relates to a greater whole. He also developed visual tools to teach humans to differentiate between non-verbal and verbal levels, descriptive and inferential levels, et cetera." - Steven Lewis.

This early work was later extended to political extremes by some of the French "situationistes" opposed (and still oppose) even the doctrine of falsifiability on the grounds that it is biased by capitalism and its situational inertia: prior investment in infrastructural capital (test equipment, computers, universities, military hardware) and instructional capital (culture that insists that this infrastructure is useful). This is hard to differentiate from the critique of scientism, but is an example of how far the "action critique" can go - Postmodernism itself began to challenge the foundation ontology of particle physics and other sciences as a fit basis for self-knowledge, body-knowledge, truth. From this common root of doubt, other Philosophical movements flourished as well.

This article will focus only on the situation/action/body binding problems, and their relationship to the dualisms of gender, seeing, saying, and doing.

Unlinking words from action

Like the situationistes or Foucault, Korzybski developed a profound belief that seeing, saying and doing were utterly different; "He advocated 'thinking' on silent levels in terms of visual images" focusing on "differences between verbal and non-verbal levels, between descriptions and inferences, between descriptions(2) about descriptions(1), between inferences(2) from inferences(1), between affect(2) about affect(1), between what we see and the external stimuli themselves, between my abstractions and your abstractions, et cetera." Orders of abstraction were a major concern, of which seeing and doing were only two.

"Korzybski developed a training program to teach people how to burst through their language habits to properly evaluate the unique characteristics of their daily experiences. His goal was to help people evaluate less by the implications of their everyday language (by intension) and more by the unique facts of a situation (by extension)." - Steven Lewis

In a similar vein today, Judea Pearl seeks an "algebra of doing" that would complement the "algebra of seeing" that we have been trained to use and to believe. His method seeks to eliminate the objection that Simpson's paradox raises to causality, and perhaps making seeing, saying, and doing somewhat better integrated. However, his work barely touches the body.

How did non-body, non-action philosophy fail?

Robert H. Wozniak notes that "René Descartes had made epistemology, the question of the relationship between mind and world, the starting point of philosophy. By localizing the soul's contact with body in the pineal gland, Descartes had raised the question of the relationship of mind to the brain and nervous system. Yet at the same time, by drawing a radical ontological distinction between body as extended and mind as pure thought, Descartes, in search of certitude, had paradoxically created intellectual chaos." Such chaos persists to this day in such fields as "artificial intelligence", a virtual mass grave of failed models, each of which in turn had attempted to put a mathematical model in top-down control of a body.

Anne Fausto-Sterling notes that "some feminist theorists, especially during the last decade, have tried -- with varying degrees of success-- to create a non-dualistic account of the body....", one of which, Judith Butler, asks "why has the idea of materiality come to signify that which is irreducible, that which can support construction but cannot, itself be constructed." This echoes the concerns with scientism or with physics, describing particles supposed material but too small for anyone to see, providing a foundation ontology for other sciences, or for society - even the term "Standard Model" can be said to be usurping a central position in the language that should perhaps belong to "that which can be constructed".

Many labels

Like Butler, many body philosophers are most noted for their concern with gender and sexuality. Some are labelled "feminist philosopher" but many reject that term, arguing that there is nothing inherently feminine about the ideas, which seek to unify various economic and ecology and psychology ideas with general systems theory.

Some, like Carol Moore are associated with the anti-globalization movement, various strains of anarchism, and the French situationiste movement of 1968 centering on Michel Foucault. It is often hard for third party observers to distinguish those movement from postmodernism, indeed Foucault is often characterized as belonging to multiple movements, e.g. the modern study of the biology of homosexual and "queer" behavior, e.g.Simon LeVay, Dean H. Hamer, Peter Copeland. According to Fausto-Sterling, in the many debates around these complex behaviors, "both sides contrasted words such as genetic, biological, inborn, innate, and unchanging with ones such as environmental, acquired, constructed and choice."

Most philosophers consider it a mistake to consider feminist, queer or action philosophy separate from the more general philosophical problems raised by the existence of the human body doing the seeing, the saying, or the doing:

The female body

However, it is also a mistake to avoid sexuality in this branch of philosophy:

Anne Fausto-Sterling, in "Sexing the Body", writes "Euro-American ways of understanding how the world works depend heavily on the use of dualisms --pairs of opposing concepts, objects or belief systems." and expands on "three related pairs --sex/gender, nature/nurture and real/constructed." Since some actions (like impregnation, birthing, nursing) require many sustained bodily movements over time, and are exclusively associated with one gender of body, the feminists often question whether "action" itself is real, or constructed.

Butler and Fausto-Sterling agree that "we have to talk about the material body. There are hormones, genes, prostates, uteri and other body parts and physiologies that we use to differentiate male from female" and thus impose operational distinctions, acting differently based on whether we perceive that body as fitting in the ontological categories of male and female, until "we discover that matter is fully sedimented with discourses on sex and sexuality that prefigure and constrain the uses to which that term can be put." But sexuality is only one concern - the embodied mind is another.

Embodied minds, volatile bodies

Elizabeth Grosz, in "Volatile Bodies", thinks out loud about how the body and the mind come into being together. To facilitate her project she uses the image of a Mobius strip as a metaphor for the psyche. The Mobius strip is a topological puzzle, a flat ribbon, twisted once and then attached end to end to form a circular twisted surface. One can trace the surface, for example, by imagining an ant walking along it. At the beginning of the circular journey, the ant is clearly on the outside. But as it traverses the twisted ribbon, without ever lifting its legs from the plane, it ends up on the inside surface. Grosz proposes that we think of the body --the brain, muscles, sex organs, hormones and more as comprising the inside of the Mobius strip. Culture and experience, would constitute the outside surface. But, as the image suggests, the inside and outside are continuous and one can move from one space to the other without ever lifting one's feet off the ground."

Elizabeth A. Wilson proposes that "Neural Geographies : Feminism and the Microstructure Of Cognition" are related to human minds in a similar sense to the way that animal minds relate to ecologies - that epigenetics, especially the mother-child relationship, may be the proper place to study a mind's emerging. She seeks to "develop a theory of mind and body --an account of psyche that joins libido to body ... incorporate into our world view an account of how the brain works that is, broadly speaking, called connectionism." Many, e.g. Marxist feminist, queer and critical theorists work by deliberately displacing biology, hence opening the body to social and cultural shaping. Wilson and Fausto-Sterling reject this approach completely.

What to call them

A consistent problem in this school is that any label in any human language is dualistic: it "includes" those who use or accept that label, "excludes" others, and becomes simply another dualism imposed by society upon bodies - describing actions out of context of the situations in which they can arise.

The individual philosophers' views regarding body and action axioms are quite complex and difficult to summarize, in part because many are embodied in specialized instructions, or because they deliberately exploit variance in language, reject prose or academe, or deny the natural language dictionary as a foundation ontology. Not all of these theorists accept the concepts of "model", "notation", "decision", "philosophy", "philosopher" or (following Wittgenstein) "action" itself. Cooperation amongst these theorists is generally confined to those seeking a reasonable method or an "algebra of doing", a study most identified with Charles Ortiz and Judea Pearl.

A new way to see math?

Others focus on an refutation of falsifiability and of Number, in defiance of various academic and professional boundaries and conventions, as part of a general critique of dominator culture and its categories, e.g. that of John Zerzan, a major figure in the anti-globalization movement.

One influence of this "social constructivism" on the philosophy of mathematics has been to spark some closer investigation into the Erdös Number which tracks the collaborations of mathematicians writing papers.

Like the questions Wittgenstein raised with Russell and with Turing, some of which Turing pursued into biology of neuron expression itself, "the body questions" have also had some impact on the philosophy of mathematics, through semantics of cognition and counting by George Lakoff - originator of a cognitive science of mathematics, and Brian Rotman, author of "Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero and Ad Infinitum", "The Ghost in Turing's Machine: Taking God out of Mathematics and Putting the Body Back In", "Circa 2,000" and "The Technology of Mathematical Persuasion".

Body politics - the activists

The political science identified with body philosophy is that of direct action and bodily commitment, and community grown based on shared risk of bodily harm, as practiced in the peace movement, e.g. the direct interposition of activists' bodies between warring parties. Some of these characterize all morals not firmly grounded in bodies as profound evil:

"Jesus was murdered by people who were motivated by a contagious and pandemic emotional illness which had infected them. This sickness has ravaged the human race for the past 5,000 years. It is the cause of patriarchy, rape, hatred and murder of gays and lesbians, greed, loss of contact with, and destruction of, the environment, cruelty to animals, lust for power, Fascism, war, and genocide." - Mark S. Bilk

Other activists, most notably Carol Moore, are less judgemental. She and her followers characterize Gandhi as "an intuitive systems theorist" and the process of satyagraha as an example of active defiance of Number and its implicit violence.

Certain feminist factions of the Green Movement, most notably those inspired by Jane Jacobs and Marilyn Waring, exploit either or both of these views to advocate bioregional democracy - which assigns ecoregions a status as bodies or actors, which they lack in the political science of a dominator culture. Or, some say, a patriarchy.

See also



Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools