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Query: faculty: "FGw" and publication year: "2008"

AuthorD.W. Rietveld
TitleUnreflective action. A philosophical contribution to integrative neuroscience
PromotorsM.J.B. Stokhof, K.R. Ridderinkhof
PublisherInstitute for Logic, Language and Computation
FacultyFaculty of Humanities
Institute/dept.FGw: Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC)
Classification08.36 philosophical anthropology, philosophy of psychology
AbstractIn many situations in our daily lives we act adequately, yet unreflectively. With certainty and fluency we turn the pages of a book, maintain an appropriate distance from the other people in an elevator, and without deliberation we stop the pedestrian next to us, who, while about to cross the street, does not notice an oncoming car. Often we just act, and normally this immediate action is appropriate. The aim of this dissertation is to contribute to a better understanding of such adequate unreflective action. Using works by Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus, and McDowell, this complex phenomenon is approached primarily from a philosophical perspective, but one that is open to insights from affective science and neuroscience. Such an integrative approach is important because it is only through integration of the findings of various disciplines that we can achieve a thorough understanding of adequate unreflective action.

In the first chapter I investigate the normative aspect of unreflective action, or ‘situated normativity’. The notion of normativity implied when we, for instance, ‘instinctively’ obtain and maintain an appropriate distance from others in an elevator, is a very basic one, namely distinguishing correct from incorrect, adequate from inadequate, or better from worse in the context of a particular situation. I use the term ‘instinctive’ in a Wittgensteinian sense, which will be introduced in chapter 1 (section 2). On my interpretation, using this term was not Wittgenstein’s way of stressing innateness, but of the role of the body and of unreflectiveness. Instinctive behavior, in this Wittgensteinian sense, can be acquired in a socio-cultural context. In the first part of the chapter I use Wittgenstein’s examples of craftsmen (tailors and architects) absorbed in action, to introduce situated normativity. I develop Wittgenstein’s insight that a peculiar type of affective behavior, directed discontent, is essential for getting things right without reflection. Directed discontent is a reaction of appreciation in action and is introduced as a paradigmatic expression of situated normativity. In the second part of the chapter I investigate the normative aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s examples of unreflective action. I suggest that both Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty describe the phenomenon of responsiveness to relevant affordances. I further investigate the complex relationships between unreflective action, perception, emotion, and normativity. Part of this entails an account of the link between normativity at the level of the craftsman’s socio-cultural practice and the individual’s situated and lived normativity.

If we want to understand a complex phenomenon such as directed discontent well, we need to engage other complementary perspectives. In chapter 2 I make a first attempt to open up such perspectives, so other than purely philosophical, on directed discontent. I ask the question of what happens when a skilled individual acts correctly with instinctive ease. This question invites contributions from various disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology and phenomenology. I propose a strategy to make this complex question better accessible to empirical research, thereby hopefully preparing the ground for accumulation of understanding across disciplines. At the basis of directed discontent lies the affective behavior that is called ‘valence’, which embodies the individual’s earliest normative orientation in an event-related episode of unreflective action. I briefly introduce some core ideas of neurophenomenology and neurodynamics in discussing this. Using some tools of the former, both neurophysiological and experiential features of valence can be investigated.

Currently, within philosophy there is no integrative account of unreflective action. As a starting point, contributions would be required from both analytic philosophers and philosophers with roots in the continental tradition. The aim of chapter 3 is to develop such an integrative philosophical account of adequate unreflective action, which focuses on its embodied and situated nature. I start from the Aristotelian-Wittgensteinian common ground shared by McDowell and Dreyfus. Based on that foundation I develop a philosophical account of unreflective action that pays attention to the roles of perception, affordances, rationality, and responsiveness to normative significance. Part of this is an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s discussions of the ‘bedrock’ of immediate action and ‘blind’ rule-following.

In chapter 4 I turn to the issue of unreflectively switching from doing one thing to doing another. For instance, the transitions from typing, to taking a bite from an apple, to checking the clock, and back to typing again. Using Merleau-Ponty’s work I investigate the phenomenology of unreflective action and understand the skillful body as a concernful system of possible actions. Inspired by Varela’s discussion of the role of affect in such transitions, I relate this phenomenology to current ideas in neuroscience by means of an integrative theory from affective science (more in particular, emotion psychology). Given that Merleau-Ponty suggested that a better understanding of the self-organization of brain and behavior is important, I will re-read his descriptions of unreflective action in the light of recent ideas on neurodynamics. Affective processes play a crucial role in evaluating the motivational significance of objects and contribute to the individual’s unreflective transition of responding to another relevant affordance.

In unreflective action we allow ourselves to be responsive to relevant affordances. In chapter 5 I turn to the nature of agency involved in this type of responsiveness and develop an account of freedom in unreflective action. Even though we respond to affordances with instinctive ease, we do not experience these actions as fully automatic or beyond our control. The fact that others can hold us responsible for our unreflective actions also suggests that we have some sort of freedom in unreflective action. But what is our freedom in an episode of unreflective action, independent of any possible later reflection and linguistic articulation? After reviewing ideas on such freedom by McDowell, Dreyfus, Kelly, Merleau-Ponty, and Arendt, I will argue that unreflective action is inherently free because it is responsive to a field of multiple relevant possibilities for action affecting the concernful body.

A recurrent theme so far has been that for understanding unreflective action it is crucial that we are not responsive to all affordances, but primarily to relevant affordances. Thanks to earlier learning and experience, which have shaped our sensitivities, we can be moved towards improvement simply by being responsive to these. In chapter 6 I take a notion from neuroscience as my starting point for investigating some aspects of the neural basis of such concernful unreflective action. The central question is: How does the ‘endogeneously-driven’ activity of the brain’s medial frontal system contribute to normal concernful unreflective action? A sub-question is: How does a loss of this inner-driven activity give rise to the full range of characteristics of utilization behavior? In this neurological condition the patients’ immediate responsiveness to affordances has lost its context sensitivity. Patients with utilization behavior respond to irrelevant affordances, which results in inappropriate actions. They show behavior that is technically correct, but inadequate given their personal needs, as well as inappropriate given the social norms of their socio-cultural environment. An important characteristic of UB-patients, who have an acquired brain lesion, is that they are not emotionally distressed about their inappropriate actions.

By investigating endogeneously-driven action, I would like to clarify what the phenomenological notion of ‘concernful action’ could mean at other levels of description (in particular neural levels), because I am aware that this is far from self-evident. Although I am primarily interested in the neural processes underlying the normal self-regulation of behavior, following the lead of endogeneously-driven behavior requires investigating the neurological conditions in which it is reduced (besides utilization behavior also apathy and akinetic mutism). Moreover, using the literature from the cognitive neuroscience of decision and action, I review how subcortical and cortical structures might interact, so that humans (and animals) can ‘choose’ courses of action adequately, based on their current needs. This chapter contains also a sketch of Freeman’s ideas of what at the neural level underlies our self-organized sensitivity for the detection of relevance.

In chapter 7 finally, I further investigate the relationship between the emergence of a relevant affordance in the perceptual field and the many concerns of the individual. I present some relevant insights from emotion psychology and argue that the attraction of a relevant affordance is at once affective and behavioral in the sense that it generates a concern-related change in action readiness. To investigate the role of a basic bodily form of unreflective normative action that contributes to appreciation of relevance, I re-read in detail some relevant passages of Merleau-Ponty’s later work on “Nature”. From this we learn that we should not think in terms of a plurality of concerns, but in terms of ‘one sole sensitivity’ made up by the situated living body. Furthermore, I argue that Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the importance of thinking in terms of a whole field of affordances in which the relevant affordance should be understood as a figure-affordance amid a multiplicity of more or less indeterminate ground-affordances that allure and potentiate as well. Moreover, I integrate what we have learned in chapters 2 and 4 about the interplay between self-organization and affect with the ideas we find in Merleau-Ponty, in order to better understand the way the field of affordances organizes itself and regulates behavior of animals and humans. Since we have seen in chapter 5 that there is a close link between being situated in a field of relevant affordances and freedom in unreflective action, and, moreover, in the last sections of chapter 7 we learn that the way this field structures itself is similar in the case of humans and higher animals, I return to the issue of freedom in unreflective action, but now also looking at a type of freedom animals seem to share with us. With respect to the normativity implied in an individual’s responsiveness to a field of relevant affordances, I suggest that it jointly constituted by a multiplicity of socio-cultural practices and by a basic bodily form of normativity.
Document typeDissertation
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