Anscombe's Critique of Chisholm's Theory of Agency

by Steven R. Bayne (Dec, 1, 2007)

This is a rough draft of a manuscript written in preparation for a larger work in progress: Ideas of Action: Wm. James to Elizabeth Anscombe. It's contents in a much attenuated form will contribute to the discussion of causation and human action. I have not undertaken a serious editing of the this manuscript, insofar as it will never be published outside the internet and the revisions may be ongoing until the larger ms is complete. Soon, I will post on the Internet an exegetical work on Chisholm's views on agency. There is occasional reference to this paper in this document. Those familiar with Chisholm's views need not await the posting of that document.
Chisholm’s presents his theory of “undertaking” making use of an example which in some ways parallels one devised by Anscombe in her, well known, classic, Intention (Oxford 1957 p. 38). Anscombe reminds us of this at the, very, onset of her discussion of Chisholm’s theory of action. (“Chisholm on Action” in Human Life, Action and Ethics edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally, St. Andrews, 2005, p. 78).

We have, already, discussed Chisholm’s phone example. This example is modeled on the one we’ve mentioned: an agent causes certain neurological activity by executing his intention to raise his arm. Anscombe begins her discussion by comparing these two cases.

We can set these two side by side in two ways. One way consists in making the phone case look like the arm raising case, while the other does just the opposite. If we pursue the first alternative, then it looks like we can directly call LA in the way we would directly undertake to raise our arm. But this overlooks the role of dialing as an intervening procedure, rendering the idea of a direct action along the lines of an undertaking inapplicable. The second alternative is, as Anscombe notes, a more likely arrangement.

If we attempt to conform the arm-raising case to the phone case then a cause of the muscle activity (d-fibers etc) is undertaking to raise the arm. This parallels the dialing in the phone case. Anscombe does not mention what, for Chisholm, is the most relevant difference, viz. that the causation affected by undertaking is “immanent” causation, whereas the phone dialing’s result exemplifies transeunt causation.

Suppose that in undertaking to raise my arm d-fibers are made to fire, d-fibers being those neural fibers the “firing” of which serves as proximal transeunt cause of muscle movement resulting in one’s arm rising. (I set aside such questions as “Why don’t I try to fire certain neurons by attempting to telekinetically levitate the pyramids? Although the question is significantly related, as I show elsewhere, to the doctrines of F. H. Bradley) Chisholm believes I cause such d-fibers to fire in the endeavor to raise my arm. Imagine that, unknown to me, my arm had been anaesthetized and, consequently, while the arm did not rise, the d-fibers fired. What reason does Chisholm have for thinking that this firing of d-fibers was made to happen by me? Anscombe says

…the only reason for saying that in Chisholm’s way that I make it happen is that it is pertinent, i.e. that it had a particular connexion with the fact that I wanted or was trying to raise my arm. (p. 80).
What Anscombe is implying is that it an insufficient basis for the claim that I made the d-fibers to fire that the firing is pertinent to my undertaking to raise my arm, and yet this is my only basis for saying so.

The Pertinence of Pertinence in Determining Cause

However, any event which is directly caused, as with all events in the relation of immanent causation to an agent, will be subject to this sort of criticism. Even had the arm not been anaesthetized and the action took place, Anscombe’s objection need not be revised. Whether it can be sustained is another matter.

Let’s consider two situations: first, imagine that I move molecules of air when I succeed in moving my arm. Even in cases where such an event is not pertinent to raising my arm, can’t I, still, be said to have ‘made it happen’? If so, then, “pertinence” is not essential to “making happen.” But, if Anscombe is right, pertinence is all that backs the claim that in the absence of consummation of the act attribution of agency, in this case, is unwarranted. The question becomes not whether pertinence is a necessary condition but, rather, is a sufficient for attribution of agency in the sense of immanent causation. Whether pertinence, alone, supplies the backing for such attribution is, however, uncertain.

It is at least possible that reasons other than the relevance to the desired outcome may justify belief in the efficacy of the subject in producing the firing of d-fibers, even if one were to suppose, contrary to the assumption in stating the example in the d-fiber case, that in the example of the air molecules being moved it is I who made them move and not, merely, that they were moved by arm’s having risen. The question then becomes: What reason do I have for believing that I moved the air molecules around, rather than some other cause. At some point, Chisholm would argue, you must reach back to an act of immanent causation. One weighty difference between the two cases is that moving the air molecules is not part of my intention, but the importance of this fact depends, heavily, on whether “free-action,” voluntary action, requires an intention.

If what I’ve suggested in regard to the case of moving air molecules by raising my arm is correct, then Chisholm has open to him the option of maintaining that no event can be attributed to me unless it is pertinent to some action I undertake; and that if an event is not relevant (“pertinent”) to my action, then while it may receive a causal account, it cannot be an account that identifies me as agent. If so, then moving air molecules is not an act on my part. But if pertinence, as Anscombe suggests, is not sufficient, and we accept that neither is it necessary, then Anscombe gives us little reason to believe that there is a difference between the two cases, which clearly there is. That is, in the absence of relevance to the undertaking, d-fibers firing and air being moved are indistinguishable with respect to agency.

In the absence of pertinence to the undertaking of raising my arm, I am no more responsible for the air moving as a result than a storm may be said to be "responsible" for blowing over the mail box. This would, I believe, be Chisholm’s best retort. Although such considerations may weaken Anscombe’s case they do not dispose of it; for she will recast the objection in Wittgensteinian terms, as we shall soon discover. There is another example worth discussing in relation to Anscombe’s criticisms. It would appear, then, that Anscombe’s objection can be applied to any act involving Chisholmian undertakings, and that without something like such an undertaking there is, in the absence of further argument, no basis for attributing agency, even to acts less removed from our intentions than d-fibers or air molecules.

Tripping on the Rug in an Endeavor

Suppose I am walking across the room and trip over the rug in the attempt, causing a wrinkle. Is the wrinkling an action like moving air molecules or is it like initiating d-fiber firing, or does it differ, significantly from both? Anscombe’s discussion of this case is productive and sheds light on the theory of agent causation.

The example is pursued in relation to an influential thesis laid down by Donald Davidson, viz. that an action is intentional if is intentional under some description. Anscombe rejects this:

I fear, however, that it may allow tripping over the edge of the carpet to be an action too, if every part of an intentional progress across the room is intentional under that description. (HLAE p. 207-208).
Suppose I know that d-fiber firing accompanies the undertaking, in Chisholm’s sense, of “raising my arm.” Suppose, further, that I know that causing d-fibers to fire will have some undesirable collateral effects, but that I am compelled by other considerations – say, to avoid a greater evil, say – to raise my arm. Even though I know that raising my arm will have these effects they are not pertinent to my intention, whereas they are pertinent in the sense that a gust of wind is ‘pertinent’ to the tree’s having fallen.

Do we consider the wrinkling as “part of an intentional progress”? If we do not consider it such then what basis do we have for distinguishing d-fiber stimulation in this regard? In other words, if wrinkling is not part of “intentional progress” what would compel us to accept d-fiber stimulation as such? The crux of the matter is the question of what constitutes being “part of intentional progress,” and therefore (on Anscombe’s reading of Davidson) intentional? How is it, if there is a “fact of the matter,” that the wrinkling is not intentional but the d-fiber firing is? In order to determine whether a event is a component of an “intentional progress” we must rely on something Anscombe criticizes Chisholm for relying upon, viz. the notion of pertinence; for the most compelling reason to reject the wrinkling being intentional is to say that it is not, in some sense, “pertinent” to the occasion of my walking across the room. Anscombe, then, assumes the very thing she rejects in her criticism of Chisholm. But notice one important asymmetry between the two cases we’ve been talking about.

When I move the air molecules, not only is it the case that I cannot repeat the action at will, as I can the firing of d-fibers, furthermore, I can always say in the wrinkling case: “I ought to have been more careful.” This use of ‘ought’ is productive inasmuch as it signals obligation and obligation implies the presence of agency. In other words, the wrinkling case involves an agent; the air moving case indicates cause in the absence of agency.

Taking ‘pertinence’ as part, at least, of any criterion of agentive behavior leads us to conclude that the wrinkling is pertinent and agentive, but "pertinence" in this instance is not "pertinent to my wants," but, rather, pertinent to the action actually performed. Being pertinent to an action I was going to perform but did not complete does not entail being pertinent to my wants or intentions. While Davidson may not approve this he can argue that the wrinkling was an action, whereas the moving of the molecules was merely something that happens either while, or after, I perform some other action. To be sure, the wrinkling is not part of the “progress” of walking across the room but it something I did and not, as in the air moving case, something that, merely, happened. In other words, the wrinkling is pertinent to my walking across the room, just as the d-fiber firing is pertinent to my undertaking to raise my arm. If I can attribute agency in the case of wrinkling, I can make that attribution, contra Anscombe, in the case of causing d-fibers to fire. Suppose we grant that the wrinkling was unintentional. Nevertheless, since it is an action, intentionality is not sufficient to infer its being an action. We need to explore, somewhat, the relation of voluntariness and intentionality.

Voluntary and Intentional

One important question is whether the event of my d-fibers firing was an involuntary or voluntary action, a “free action.” Intuitively, moving air molecules was not intentional, but was it involuntary? Or voluntary or “non-voluntary”? In this section, I elaborate on what I take to be the relevant distinctions in the attribution of agency.

An attempt at analyzing the nature, or even the precise definition of, ‘voluntary action’, and accompanying notions, will not be undertaken; rather I will depend, provisionally, on what is best described for our purposes as a “common sense” construal. The intended meaning of these terms is obscured by the variation between idiolects and conventions set in the literature discussing these notions. The fact remains that in common speech the rules, if there are rules, have fuzzy boundaries. In our discussion of these commonly used terms it is part of our purpose to bring some “discipline” to the taxonomy of relevant concepts. I have taken these matters up elsewhere. If the issue concerns my causing the movement of air molecules, it can hardly be said that what I “did” was done voluntarily or involuntarily; a more apt expression in this case is to say that under the description ‘causing molecules of air to move’ the action is non-voluntary, like leaving a footprint in the sand, as I thoughtlessly stroll the beach. The case of d-fiber-firing is, somewhat different. It appears that such an “action” could be viewed as involuntary, but intentional, in the sense in which had I not known that d-fiber firing accompanied raising my arm causing it would not have been intentional. Likewise, under the description ‘spreading disease’, moving the air molecules may be regarded as involuntary. The question of voluntariness may come down to whether the agent undertakes something under one description, rather than another. If so, then, intention is more fundamental than voluntariness. But we have already seen that in the rug wrinkling case I can be responsible for an action without that action being intentional. An action, we shall maintain, is voluntary, not under a description, but if it is something I do, rather than something that happens to me, an ancient conception. It never occurs to us to say: “Under the description X, I raised my arm; but under the description Y, I did not.

However, the matter of relativity to a description raises the much larger issue of whether there is an important difference between what I justifiably regard as the “proper” description under which to subsume my undertaking and what may be justified in the third person. I can hardly say: “No! You acted not under this description, but another you’ve never formulated in any sense; and this is why your action was voluntary.” But if not, what prohibits such a pronouncement? This raises issues of “privacy,” which we cannot discuss on this occasion. Instead, let us proceed, while acknowledging the relevance of these matters.

If responsibility is an indicator of free-action, perhaps free action is, also, indicated by responsibility. If Chisholm is right in considering the d-fiber firing as a consequence of my endeavor to move my arm, then am I no more responsible for any effect of this d-fiber firing than I am for the consequences, in the other case, of moving molecules in the air? One important thing to consider is whether d-fiber firing is ‘voluntary’, ‘involuntary’ or ‘non-voluntary’. In order to, fully, explore this matter an in depth examination of the semantics of these terms would be required. Short of that, I propose to seek out contrasts among actions and events with respect to the unanalyzed application of these expressions.

If we say an action is “involuntary,” let us stipulate that we mean that the action cannot be “turned on or off at will.” Digestion might be one example. Sneezing is, often, somewhere between being voluntary and involuntary. But it may, also, be non-voluntary in the sense of being neither. Moving molecules around as I walk through the room, voluntarily, is what we’ll call ‘non-voluntary’. Even if every molecule had a name and I knew them all and where to find them, the motion of those molecules would not be something that I could turn on or off at will, although I might be able to undertake to move these molecules of air in this case. By choosing to remain motionless I could prevent my moving these molecules. While I can slow the movement, perhaps (depending on atmospheric conditions, say), I cannot turn on the action in the sense of getting these molecules to move. In the case of d-fiber firing, the situation is quite different. Here I can turn the firing on and off. Moving these molecules of air, the ones carrying some disease, may be said to be non-voluntary. However, suppose moving the air was known by me to spread a disease; then, while moving the air molecules may be non-voluntary, spreading disease may be involuntary.

Is causing d-fibers to fire, in this instance, voluntary? If I move air molecules in a voluntary effort to spread disease, still, moving those molecules is non-voluntary, since I cannot, at will, cause the movement of those molecules, only. However, if I elect to raise my arm I can cause the fiber firing that, specifically, causes movement of the muscles that cause my arm to rise, at will.

Suppose I know that d-fiber firing is caused by undertaking to raise my arm. I have to raise my arm in order to warn a friend of imminent danger; however, in this case I happen to know that d-fiber firing will cause g-fiber firing which will result in convulsive behavior. In this case, causing the d-fibers to fire is involuntary under one description - ‘causing convulsive behavior’ - but voluntary under another – ‘warning a friend’. In this case, the attribution of voluntariness appears dependent on relativity of attribution of intentionality to a description, whereas we just said that an act can be voluntary but not intentional. Is this a contradiction? The situation resembles the one we encountered with 'pertinence': here 'involuntary' may mean, as we have been using it, "unable to 'turn it on or off'," but it can, also, mean 'done against my wish or desire'. What we said was that an action can be involuntary but intentional, the case of d-fiber firing as the known consequence of an endeavor. This is in the case where d-fiber stimulation is not the objective of my endeavor, as was the phone switching in Denver. Where causing this is the objective I must believe that the d-fiber firing will precede my arm raising and I may cause this voluntarily and intentionally. We ask: “What difference is there between deliberately causing and doing?” Is causing d-fiber firing an action or is it a mere causing (of arm raising)? If we observe this as an irreducible distinction there are unforeseen consequences.

If I release the boat and the current draws it downstream, clearly, I floated the boat on this river. Did I float it down stream? Or is it that I caused it to float on this river, merely? Similarly, if I cause the d-fibers to fire and my arm goes up, have I raised my arm or merely caused the d-fibers to fire with the consequence of my arm going up (compare “going down stream”)? In undertaking to float the boat downstream I float the boat. In undertaking to raise my arm I cause d-fiber firing. The difference is that floating the boat was not directly, or “immanently,” caused by undertaking to float the boat down stream. ‘Undertaking’ is a far more elusive notion than either interlocutor implies. In “undertaking” to float the boat down stream it was necessary that I float the boat; but in undertaking to raise my arm it is not necessary that the d-fibers fire, inasmuch as there is a temporal hiatus separating the state of the person and the direct effect of his undertaking.

If I intend to cause d-fiber stimulation by undertaking to raise my arm then I undertake to raise my arm with the intention of causing the stimulation; if I intend to raise my arm by undertaking d-fiber firing, then I undertake to cause d-fiber firing with the intention of causing my arm to go up. In the first case an action is undertaken, raising my arm; in the second what is undertaken is that something be made to happen. It happens that d-fibers fire; it does not, merely, happen that I raise my arm. In this latter case, the one where my intention is that causing my arm to go up, what is undertaken is not an act but the causing of an event. This is not obvious, nor is it beyond dispute, but it is an issue that arises in one case, the second, and not the first.

The point, or at least on important point, is that in undertaking to cause d-fiber firing with the intention of raising my arm, there is no action that I perform that would have this consequence, in the way undertaking to raise my arm has the consequence of d-fiber firing. ‘Undertaking X with the intention Y’ has conditions which are categorically the same as ‘Undertaking Y with the intention X’ (switching is on the same "order" as ringing); but when ‘undertaking’ is direct, immanent, causation, there is categorical asymmetry; that is, “undertaking” is categorically different from d-fibers firing. Let’s bring this back to Anscombe. Anscombe does not observe the fact that, where undertaking is a “direct” cause, Y is not an action in ‘Undertaking X with the intention Y’, and that this accounts for the “asymmetry” just mentioned. Because of this asymmetry, Chisholm’s example cannot be made to parallel her own example in Intention, a claim that her criticism depends upon, but which, is not entailed by Chisholm’s theory.

Anscombe’s Alternative and the Moral Content of Actions

Since causing the molecules to move and spreading the germs can be said to be one and the same event we have a, further, difference between the arm raising case and the moving air molecules case. This is owing to the fact that the d-fiber firing is not the same event as raising my arm. In other words, in the case of the arm raising there is a “wedge” that can be driven between two events: we can say one event may be voluntary and the other involuntary, depending on the circumstances; but in the moving air molecules case no similar “wedge” is possible.

One difference between making air molecules move in the endeavor to do something and making the d-fibers fire is that in the case of the molecules I cannot repeat the action. Someone might jump in and say that even in the air moving case the one event can accommodate two descriptions, and that, under one, the event may be a voluntary action and under the other not. But this is to acknowledge a difference between the two cases, since the event of the d-fibers firing is not undertaking arm movement under a different description, but rather is caused by the undertaking. I cannot imagine “forming an intention,” to use Anscombe’s expression, under two descriptions, one of which makes an action voluntary and the other not; the same can be said for ‘undertaking’.

In her later writings on action theory, Anscombe made the, somewhat, audacious claim that “All human action is moral action. It is all either good or bad.” I will not engage the details but this view is pertinent in this context although it is never raised in connection with her criticism of Chisholm. The main reason for raising it here is that while moving molecules of air may be the “act of a human being” it becomes a “human action” when it is part of an effort to spread disease. I will leave unresolved the question whether on Anscombe’s later view no basic action can be a human action, insofar as a basic action is not in and of itself a moral action. This is not immediately relevant to her criticisms of Chisholm.

Davidson once said, and Anscombe agreed, that I perform basic actions and nature does the rest. But moving air molecules is not a basic action. Is causing d-fiber-firing a basic action? Chisholm distinguishes basic actions from direct actions, in such a way that on his view causing d-fiber stimulation may be direct, but it is not a basic action. But can we say both d-fiber-firing and moving air molecules are equal with respect to being “human actions,” ceteris paribus?

Returning, now, to her discussion of Chisholm’s phone analogy: Anscombe is dissatisfied with Chisholm’s characterization of it, in particular, insofar as he likens undertaking to dialing:

…the analogy seems to be purely verbal. This comes out in doubts we feel about knowing that I am undertaking to …, if ‘undertaking’ is given Chisholm’s sense. (p. 79)
It is difficult to get, exactly, clear on the doubts “we” feel. If I say “I am going to dial the phone at 3pm,” I may have little doubt that I will do so; if I say “I am going to undertake causing a switching in Denver at 3pm,” it appears that there may be no more reason to doubt this than my dialing the phone at 3pm. Tense is a factor here, as I’ve argued, elsewhere, in the case of verbs like ‘trying’. But why is it that in the present tense use I am unable to say without doubt, as Anscombe seems to be suggesting, that I am, indeed, undertaking to cause the switching in Denver? Let’s keep in mind that for Chisholm ‘undertake’ is his “basic intentional locution.” In other words it is undefined. This renders controversial what Anscombe means by Chisholm’s sense of the term. We need to explore some circumstances neither philosopher discussed if we are to locate the points of relevant ambiguity.

It is, somewhat, puzzling that Anscombe begins her objection as if it involved “knowing that I am undertaking” (p. 79) but, then, she proceeds to discuss, not knowledge that I am undertaking; but my knowledge that I am making something happen in the undertaking (p. 79-80). If I am right, then, the “pertinent” fact, connecting the d-fibers firing and the undertaking, is that firing the d-fibers was voluntary, physically entailed by the undertaking. Let’s us return, briefly, to the relevant difference between the voluntariness of moving the air molecules in undertaking to do something and making happen the firing of the d-fibers.

Anscombe lodges another criticism, again, based on epistemic considerations.

But if undertaking to make his arm go up is making something happen in the endeavor to make his arm go up, then when he knows he is undertaking he must know that he is making something happen etc. And it seems clear that he does not know this. (HLAE p. 84)
But is this the case? That is, can’t I make something happen without knowing it in the conscious endeavor to do something else? Moreover, it is not Chisholm’s suggestion that undertaking is making something happen in the sense of evoking a change in the world. The undertaking may cause, immanently, the d-fiber firing that eventuates in arm raising, but there has been no argument to the effect that in his endeavor to raise his arm the agent must know that he is making something happen. What might explain Anscombe, somewhat, unusual – given Chisholm’s, actual, view – assertion?

If there is a problem with Anscombe’s criticism it is, most likely, this: Chisholm is very explicit in saying, in work following “Freedom and Action” that the concept of undertaking is not defined. In other words, there is no reason to believe that Chisholm is committed to making something happen in undertaking to make something happen, in this instance. But there is another point to be made which, within the compass of more ambitious theories of action, may be, even, more important.

Recall Anscombe’s criticism of von Wright on reverse causation (HLAE p. 78): the raising of the arm cannot cause the brain events antecedent to it, because it might, very well, be the case that before I can initiate the intended action I am prevented. Since the arm is not raised, there could be no d-fibers firing and, so, no undertaking. But, in fact, undertaking where the performance is blocked is, entirely, possible; so, von Wright’s thesis is vanquished. But something similar can be said in relation to Ansombe’s criticism of von Wright.

There is no reason to believe, as Anscombe suggests, that the agent “knows that he is making something happen.” He can undertake something without there being any neurological change that will serve as cause. However, Anscombe would, among other things, point out that if there is this separation of d-fibers firing and undertaking, then Chisholm is faced with two alternatives.

Chisholm must concede that what are separated are related by event causation, in which case, he sacrifices the entire point of introducing immanent causation; or, he must adhere to some such idea as that the undertaking is a state of a person and not an event. In the latter case, Anscombe is free to invoke her earlier charge that in the bare undertaking of some action “Nothing goes on in me” (HLAE p. 81). But the notion of ‘me’ is a very slippery one.

Anscombe acknowledges that Chisholm may escape the horns of the dilemma she poses, but what he will not be able to escape, if she is right, is giving a wrong answer to the question: “What is left over, if we subtract the fact that these events occur from the fact that I make them happen?” (HLAE p. 84). But is this, actually, the case. That is, is it the case that Chisholm has no answer to this question? There are a number of replies available to Chisholm. Let’s consider one.

The events that, presumably, take place include neurological events. These events while extremely complex (perhaps among the most complex events in the universe) are, nonetheless, physical events. What, then, makes them “mine”? A great deal depends on whether an answer is possible in purely physicalistic terms. Suppose we answer the question by saying that the fact that I make them happen is what distinguishes them from my undertaking; that is, I do not make my undertaking happen but I do make happen what happens as a consequence of my undertaking. The relevant difference may not reside, solely, in the primitivity of undertaking; it may reside in the fact that nothing pertinent to personal identity can be spelled out in describing the relation of undertaking to d-fibers firing. What makes these brain events mine is not that they occur in this head, which outsiders looking at my cerebellum would call "his." This would be, among other things, to overlook what makes this head mine.

It may be the case that, using electrical probes, those same d-fibers could be made to fire in carrying out an experiment to cause my d-fibers to fire. My arm goes up, although I have not raised my arm. What is essential to my action is that those d-fibers come into some relation to the person whose brain it is. The relevant sense of ‘making happen’ is the one that contains ‘my making it happen’ in such a way that when Anscombe says “’making --- happen’ is a mere extract from ‘making --- happen in the endeavor to bring it about that …’” this ought to be emended as “’making --- happen’ is a mere extract from ‘making --- happen in my endeavor to bring it about that …’ But, even here, there remain difficulties. Imagine that I endeavor to fire my d-fibers by electronic stimulation of my own brain in the undertaking to raise my arm. In this case what is the difference between ‘I raised my arm’ and ‘my arm went up’? Here the difference is that immanent causation obtains between my undertaking to create the electrical stimulation and the fact of that stimulation.

In FA (p. 32), Chisholm notes that, since to act is to endeavor to make happen, he may not endeavor to make happen that he do something but, rather, that something gets done. Notice, however, that in either case there is an endeavor, and that that endeavor is the endeavor of the agent, even though it’s being the agent that accomplishes the act is not part of the fact, undertaken, to be accomplished. But notice that, unlike the golfer, in the performance of a basic action, the agent does not endeavor that it is he that raises his arm, only that his arm goes up, whereas in the golfer’s case, he endeavors not only that the ball is sunk, but that he sink the ball. I conclude this section with an observation that may have implications for issues beyond those, presently, under discussion.

If I dream that I am raising my arm (caused, perhaps, by my arm going up in reality while I sleep), then what I dream is not, simply, that my arm is going up, even though that is all that is, actually, happening. But if I dream that I am hearing a bell (caused by the actual ringing of a bell), I am also not, merely, dreaming that a bell is ringing. The ostensibly difference is that my actually hearing the bell is part of the dream, whereas in the arm raising case my, actually, raising my arm does not even occur. To make my point this need not always be the case. The difference is an action: perhaps, a volition. I do not, merely, dream that my hearing is going on; in the other case, I am, merely, dreaming that I am raising my arm. In the case of the bell, what is being dreamed? Behind my question is a much larger one, having to do with the relationship between cognition and action; between knowing and behaving.

The Evolution of Chisholm’s ‘undertaking’ and its Relevance to Anscombe’s Critique

In FA, we have noted, that Chisholm takes on the task of defining ‘undertaking’ in terms of ‘making happen’. But, there is a sharp departure from this in Person and Object, where he attempts to define 'agent causation' using “our undefined concept of undertaking” (PO p. 70). In fact, Chisholm appears in Person and Object to have abandoned defining ‘undertaking’ in favor of making it the basic, undefined, intentional idea. What happened? And why is this important for Anscombe’s criticism of Chisholm? Let’s take the first question.

In “Freedom and Action” Chisholm attempts defining ‘undertaking’ in terms of ‘making happen’ , but the problem created appears to be one of circularity, since he introduces ‘making happen’ in terms of ‘endeavor’ (FA p. 30) and, yet, considers ‘making happen’ definitionally primitive. But, owing to the fact the introduction incorporates the idea of ‘endeavor’ and, given, that there is no difference between ‘endeavor’ and ‘undertake’ there is an implicit circularity in his definition of ‘undertake’ (FA p. 32). The identity of these two concepts is clear enough in Person and Object, but his failure to adopt the identity may have concealed what he would later have regarded as obvious circularity. With this in mind, most likely, Chisholm abandoned the definition he gave of ‘undertake’ and decided to make it definitionally fundamental.

Anscombe’s criticisms, sometimes, depend on surreptitiously moving back and forth between Chisholm’s earlier view and his later view. In his earlier view he took ‘making happen’ as primitive; in his later view undertaking is fundamental. In the early part of her paper, Anscombe says that Chisholm explains undertaking in terms of the making something happen in the endeavor to make something else happen. ( HLAE p. 78) But later, she describes ‘making --- happen’ as an “extract” from ’making --- happen in the endeavor to bring it about that’. (HLAE p. 85) There is a problem here. ‘Making --- happen in the endeavor to bring it about that’ is used by Chisholm in defining ‘undertaking’ in “Freedom and Action.” In Person and Object ‘undertaking’ is primitive. So, from the perspective of Chisholm’s later view, what Anscombe appears to be suggesting is that ‘making --- happen’ is “extracted” from ‘undertaking’. But ‘undertaking’ is primitive and the notion of ‘extraction’ is rendered suspect in its vagueness.

Anscombe’s Strongest Argument?

Perhaps, Anscombe’s strongest argument against Chisholm begins with the question “What is left over, if we subtract the fact that these events occur from the fact that I make them happen?” (HLAE p. 84). According to Anscombe, Chisholm cannot give a satisfactory answer. The reason he can’t, she maintains, is that since ‘He undertakes ---‘ is equivalent to ‘He makes something happen in undertaking to ---‘ then there must be “something” that the agent does in the undertaking. But all that Chisholm, appears, to be left with is the endeavor or undertaking itself. In answer to the question, then, there can only be one answer, nothing; and this is no answer at all. The problem is that the later Chisholm regards ‘undertaking’ as fundamental, and so, the occurrence of ‘something’ in ‘He makes something happen in undertaking to ---‘ is inessential to the undertaking. In other words, in undertaking something there is no other event, necessarily, involved aside from the undertaking itself. In large measure, it is precisely this consideration that compels Chisholm to accept the thesis of agent causation. There is nothing we know, a priori, preventing the argument she uses against von Wright being applied in this case: it is possible within the theory of immanent causation that d-fibers firing were prevented after the undertaking begins. Indeed, this is most emphatically the case on Chisholm’s later view, the one that says that undertaking is a primitive.

Those who are interested in other essays on Anscombe by this author may wish to view:

"Emotion and the Will: Anscombe on Brentano"

"Pure Intentions: Davidson's Debt to Anscombe"

"Elizabeth Anscombe and the Classical Will: An Examination of Section 29 of Intention"