December 1, 2010

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Abilities and Tryings

I am trying to write a seminar paper about the ability to try (or perhaps the ability to will, or the ability to choose). It seems to me that commonsense recognizes, in at least certain situations, a non-trivial question about whether an agent has the ability to try to perform an action. However, given the close connection between the concepts of ability and trying, there is reason to believe that the question might be trivial, or even incoherent, after all. This is the issue I am investigating, and I'm going to try to do some blogging on the subject in the hope of getting things clear in my head. (Perhaps I will also be blessed with helpful commenters.) In this post, I am just going to say something about what abilities are and what tryings are and how they are related.

It was once thought that abilities, like dispositions, could be analyzed into simple subjunctive conditionals. The analysis was supposed to go something like this: "S has the ability to A iff (if S tried to A, S would A)." It turns out that the simple conditional analysis doesn't work for either dispositions or abilities. This is because both abilities and dispositions can be masked or finked, and they can also be chancy. Since abilities seem kind of like dispositions, and the simple conditional analyses fail for the same reasons, we might think that we could analyze abilities in terms of dispositions, and figure that any adequate analysis of dispositions (we need one of those anyway) will end up solving our problems with abilities. This is precisely the line taken by "new dispositionalists", such as Kadri Vihvelin and Michael Fara. Fara suggests this analysis: "An agent has the ability to A in circumstances C if and only if she has the disposition to A when, in circumstances C, she tries to A" ("Masked Abilities and Compatibilism", p. 848).

This line seems pretty plausible to me, and it involves an essential connection between ability and trying, just as the simple conditional analysis did. But even if it's wrong, there must be some connection between ability and trying. If an agent has the ability to A, then there must be some circumstance not too different from actual circumstances - a nearby possible world - in which the agent does A by trying, or does A because she tries. The simple conditional analysis fails because an agent may have an ability despite the fact that in the nearest possible world(s) at which she tries she fails. However, if in every relevant world at which the agent does A, she does it by accident, then she surely does not have the ability to A. For instance, there are worlds very similar to the actual world at which I throw a bullseye at darts right now, but in all of those worlds (the relevant/'nearby' ones), I throw a bullseye by accident.

This might sound wrong to some people. Surely there is a nearby world in which I try to hit the bullseye and I do hit it. I don't deny this, and I'm willing to admit that in some contexts this is sufficient for me to count as hitting it on purpose and not by accident. However, this is not the sense of 'by accident' that is relevant here. In these worlds it is not because I try that I hit the bullseye - I would be just as likely to hit the bullseye by trying to hit a spot two inches away from it as I am to hit it while trying to hit it. (I am not good at darts.)

Here is another related fact about the connection between abilities and tryings: whenever I exercise my abilities, I perform the relevant actions by trying, or because I try. I do have the ability to hit a dart board with a dart (I am not that bad). But if I try to stick the dart in the wall and hit the board, I have not exercised my ability to hit the board. Also, if while I am aiming at the board the dart slips out of my hand and ends up sticking in the board, I have not exercised my ability. Also, I don't have the ability to hit a dart board by throwing the dart backward over my shoulder. If I do throw the dart backward over my shoulder and happen to hit the dart board, I haven't exercised my ability to hit the dart board. This is because I just happened to hit the board; it wasn't because I tried that I hit it.

So, at any rate, it seems to me. But just what are these tryings? Wittgenstein famously asked, "what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" (PI 621). The answer, it would seem, is: the trying. That is, consider the following three cases:
(a) I raise my arm.
(b) I fail to raise my arm.
(c) I refrain from raising my arm.
There is something which (a) and (b) have in common with one another, and not with (c): my trying to raise my arm.

Some clarifications are in order. First, in case (b), we use 'fail' in the ordinary sense, and not the odd philosophical usage in which propositions can fail to be true or conditions can fail to be satisfied. In at least one plain English usage of 'fail', failing entails trying; this is why we say such things as "he failed to raise his arm" rather than merely "he didn't raise his arm." Second, right after his famous question, Wittgenstein writes, "When I raise my arm I do not usually try to raise it" (PI 622). That is, it is very strange to say "I tried to raise my arm" when I have successfully raised it. I think that Jennifer Hornsby's explanation of this phenomenon in terms of Gricean pragmatics is correct (Actions, ch. 3). Despite the fact that it is odd to assert that I tried to raise my arm when we are in case (a), it is nevertheless true.

So trying is the thing that I do both in the case where I succeed and in the case where I fail. But what is that thing? A lot of philosophers think that when I succeed my trying to raise my arm just is my raising my arm. But then what is it that the two cases have in common? Richard Taylor seems to hold that what they have in common is that in both cases I act in order to raise my arm, that is, raising my arm is the purpose for which I act. Any action which has this as its purpose counts as trying to raise my arm (Action and Purpose, ch. 6; I am not certain that this is Taylor's view, but that's what the chapter appears to me to be saying). For Taylor, these are always physical acts. But some other philosophers think that tryings are distinctive sorts of mental acts. Whatever the case, whatever the trying is, it seems to me that Taylor must be right that trying is inherently purposive: when I try to A, I have adopted Aing as an end, I intend to A. This brings us back around to the earlier claim that when one exercises the ability to A one A's on purpose, A's intentionally.

Such is the connection between ability and trying. My next question is: what would an ability to try be? Of course we can just plug in trying as the action A, but do the results make sense?

Posted by Kenny at December 1, 2010 9:20 PM
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In my opinion trying has everything to do with your will where the body obstructs that by demanding basic neccesities as water food etc. If it depends upon the body you'd sit all day and satisfy your basic needs where trying is based upon your will to acomplish something significant.
Anyway if I were you I would be thinking in that direction.

Posted by: Philosophy Encyclopedia at December 4, 2010 1:07 PM

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