What does it mean to identify with an action?

How is this relevant for the notion of action?

Essay, 2014

4 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Topics in the Philosophy of Mind and in Philosophy of Psychology

Summer semester 2014, University of Tübingen

MMath/Phil (Oxon), PhD (Milan)

Postdoctoral Fellow Philosophy of Neuroscience Group Centre for Integrative Neuroscience

What does it mean to identify with an action? How is this relevant for the notion of action?

An essay by David Schneider

Most people act their whole life long. - Acting not only in the sense of pretence, playing theatre, using the world as a stage by not being truly themselves and wearing a “mask” and like this kind of betray themselves and others, but also in the general sense of just carrying out actions, that including all possible actions of course also includes pretence acting.

But what exactly is an action? I would like to discuss this issue briefly based on J. David Velleman’s essay “What Happens When Someone Acts” before I go over to the main topic of this essay: The Identification and Wholeheartedness of actions

After having distinguished an action that I do from a mere happening that simply happens to me, Velleman introduces in his essay Davidson’s Causal Theories of Action, according to which what picks out an event as an action is the right kind of psychological causes:

“There is something that the agent wants, and there is an action that he believes conducive to its attainment. His desire for the end, and his belief in the action as a means, justify taking the action, and they jointly cause an intention to take it, which in turn causes the corresponding movements of the agent’s body (…) Provided that these causal processes take their normal course, the agent’s movements consummate an action, and his motivating desire and belief constitute his reasons for acting.” (J. David Velleman, “What Happens When Someone Acts?, Mind, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 403 (Jul., 1992), p. 461, Oxford University Press”)

Velleman criticizes this theory as failing to cast the agent in his proper role and gives an example of action without the agent taking active part in it and shows like this that the Causal Theories of Action are unable to capture abnormal cases. He says that we need to add something to the normal motivational influence of our desires, beliefs, and intentions, something that sets human action apart from the rest of animal behaviour: “The agent’s identifying himself with his operative motives” (p. 470) But how can we find out if someone is identifying himself with his operative motives? What does it actually mean to identify with an action? And how ist this relevant for the notion of action? In the following I would like to discuss these questions based on H.G. Frankfurt’s essay “Identification and Wholeheartedness” (1987).

First, we should consider that in order to being able to identify with an action it’s necessary to have the ability of consciousness, because due to the psychologist William James that’s an essential feature for intelligent or goal-directed behaviour. For Frankfurt, Anthony Kenny’s definition of consciousness (being able to discriminate between the presence or absence of a feature and being differently affected by them) is unsatisfactory, he considers another feature that is essential to consciousness: Reflexivity. To call somebody conscious, he not only should be able to respond differentially to stimuli, but also should have an awareness of them, the consciousness should be aware of itself. I personally think that’s a very interesting insight, because already by now, we can say that a autotelic person acting in a flow never can identify with his actions. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in a flow you get lost in the moment, your actions “come by themselves”, without reflecting about them, you forget about your own personality, forget about the time, you don’t have feelings like hunger. So in a flow you have the same degree of consciousness like metal: You discriminate automatically between the presence or absence of a feature and being differently affected by them. But “to hear a sound consciously, we have to be aware of hearing it or being aware of the sound as heard” (Frankfurt, p.162). Reflexivity of waking consciousness is essential for purposeful behaviour like identifying with an action!

Now I would like to talk about the impact of desires on our actions. We can carry out two scenarios with two different conflicts between desires. In the first, there is a conflict between how someone wants to be motivated (higher-order desire = 2nd-order desire) and the desire by which he in fact is most powerfully moved (first-order desire). An example for this could be a person who wants to stop smoking. His higher-order desire is to refrain from smoking, he wants to be motivated by this desire. But the desire for a cigarette is so strong that it becomes his will, despite the fact that he prefers not to act upon it and even struggles against it. The person is unable to do what he really wants to do. “His will isn’t under his own control. It isn’t the will he wants, but one that is imposed on him by a force with which he doesn’t identify and which in that sense is external to him” (Frankfurt, p. 165)

Whereas in the first scenario’s conflict it’s clear, which kind of person the person wants to be and the first-order desire is external to the volitional complex with which the person identifies and wants to be moved, in the second scenario the opposite is the case: The lack of coherence is within the higher-order volitions themselves. It’s not a matter of volitional strength but of whether the highest order preferences concerning some volitional issue are wholehearted. You can never be 100 percent sure about what the person wants, even though his desires form a complex hierarchical structure. This is because the person is ambivalent with respect to the object he comes closest to really wanting. This means that he isn’t only drawn toward it, but also away from it. This incoherence is within the volitional complex, “in the absence of wholeheartedness he himself is divided” (Frankfurt, p. 165).

Before explaining when someone acts wholeheartedly, I would like to add that in between the desires, there can be two sorts of conflict. In the first one the desires compete for priority or a position in a preferential order. It’s all about which desire will be satisfied first. The second conflict is about whether a desire should be given a place in the ranking at all. We ask if this is a legitimate candidate for satisfaction at all.

When does someone act wholehearted? When he does what he really wants to do. And this happens, when he acts in accordance with a higher-order volition that itself is one by which the person really wanted to be determined. This requirement can’t be satisfied by simply introducing another desire at the next higher level, because this would lead to an endless regress that couldn’t be terminated in a neutral way. The problem with the model with the two scenarios is that a desire that is higher-ordered than another one doesn’t give him greater authority or constitutive legitimacy. So the model just enables us to describe an conflict as being between desires of different orders and doesn’t give an explanation of identification. To solute this, Frankfurt proposes that a person identifies himself decisively with one of the first-order desires. Like this the struggle between the desires (between 1st and 2nd order desires) ends, because “the decisiveness of the commitment he has made means that he has decided that no further questions about his second order volition, at any higher order, remain to be asked” (Frankfurt, p. 167)

Some say that terminating the incoherence with a decisive commitment would be arbitrary. To counter this, Frankfurt gives an example of a straightforward situation of a person who is uncertain whether to identify himself with one or with another of his own desires: Someone attempting to solve a arithmetic problem. After having performed a calculation, the person performs it another time in order to check his answer. Even if the same result is yield and the first calculation is confirmed by the second, it is possible that both calculations are faulty. So the person may check again and again,… This could lead to a regress. Nothing in the sequence gives it definitive authority . “A mistake can be made at any point and the same mistake con be repeated any number of times.” (Frankfurt, p. 167) So how can the person end the calculation reasonably and without being irresponsible or arbitrary?

There are two possibilities: 1st: The person could simply quit because he loses interest in the problem or is distracted and permit the last result of his calculation as answer. This behaviour would be wanton and irresponsible, because he doesn’t choose a result, it doesn’t matter to him whether there is adequate support for his answer. The second possibility is, that the sequence ends, “because the person decides for some reason to adopt a certain result” (Frankfurt, p. 168) This can happen when he a) feels totally confident that this result is correct b) believes that there could be some likelihood that the result isn’t correct, but further effort to reduce this likelihood of error would cost too much time. In a) and b) there is a decisive identification. But such an identification could be reconsidered for an unlimited times. This is what sometimes happens to students that question themselves after already having made the decision of what to study and already started, if this was the right decision.

The notion of action If a person is confident that he knows the correct answer, the future becomes transparent to him in the respect of that he can anticipate the outcomes of an indefinite number of possible further calculations. He expects to get the same answer each time he accurately performs a suitable calculation.

In the case of b) the person can’t expect with full confidence his answer to be confirmed by further inquiry. He knows that accurate calculation could lead to another result. But when he made the “commitment” to the view that adopting the answer is his most reasonable alternative, he can anticipate that this view will be endlessly confirmed by accurate reviews of it. But what happens if no single answer appears to the person reasonable? He can just guess. Now there are also two possible scenarios we can think about: On the one hand he could just guess without caring a lot about the answer. This would be wanton. On the other hand he can guess, but admit that he made a big commitment by guessing and that he might have guessed wrong. Like this, he would have acted wholeheartedly, reasonable and not arbitrary.

The role of identifying with one’s desires The person’s choice between to desires to one of them doesn’t eliminate the conflict between it and the other. What it terminates is the conflict within the person as to which of these desires he prefers to be his motive. The conflict between the desires “transformed into a conflict between one of them and the person who has identified himself with its rival” (Frankfurt, p. 172) Like this, the Wholeheartedness of his commitment is achieved: The person is no longer unsure which side he is on and even though the conflict between the two desires is ongoing, the wholeheartedness of his commitment to the desire with which he identifies isn’t affected. So Wholeheartedness, as Frankfurt it uses, isn’t a feeling of enthusiasm!

But in order to being able to act wholehearted, we need to know what we really want and we need to be fully present in the moment. Just like this it’s possible for us to decide for that desire. What can help us to achieve this is mindful behaviour. I want to show with an example what I mean with this: Instead of being stuck in your head, planning your day and not noticing the world around you, when you’re waiting at the bus stop, you notice the outer world with all your five senses. You hear the traffic, you smell the cars, feel the morning sun on your skin and notice the wind touching your face softly. You reflect about thinks that are connected with the present moment, remark your own feelings, you are aware of your movements. So a wholehearted action is always a mindful action, because a mindful action implies like a wholehearted action deciding actively for a desire, to identify with it, being reflective and self-conscious. Being a mindful person can help you to have a good contact to your inner self, your real (higher-order desires). So be a mindful person! Like this you don't go through life like an actor – betraying yourself about what you really want. Of course, you are still able to act to others, but at least in a mindful and wholehearted way.


J. David Velleman, What Happens When Someone Acts?, in: Mind, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 403 (Jul., 1992), Oxford University Press.

Harry Frankfurt, Identification and Wholeheartedness, in: Ferdinand David Schoeman (ed.), Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions. New Essays in Moral Psychology, Cambridge University Press (1987).


Excerpt out of 4 pages


What does it mean to identify with an action?
How is this relevant for the notion of action?
University of Tubingen  (Centre for Integrative Neuroscience)
Topics in the Philosophy of Mind and in Philosophy of Psychology
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
454 KB
Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology, Philosophy of Neuroscience, Neuroscience, Action, Notion of Action, Philosophy, J. David Velleman
Quote paper
David Schneider (Author), 2014, What does it mean to identify with an action?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/374543


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