Small in Philosophers’ Imprint

Will Small's essay, "Basic Action and Practical Knowledge" has been published in the Philosophers' Imprint.

Abstract: It is a commonplace in philosophy of action that there is and must be teleologically basic action: something done on an occasion without doing it by means of doing anything else. It is widely believed that basic actions are exercises of skill. As the source of the need for basic action is the structure of practical reasoning, this yields a conception of skill and practical reasoning as complementary but mutually exclusive. On this view, practical reasoning and complex intentional action depend on skill and basic action, but the latter pair are not themselves rationally structured: the movements a basic action comprises are not intentional actions, and they are not structured as means to an end. However, Michael Thompson and Douglas Lavin have argued that action that bears no inner rational structure is not intentional action at all, and that therefore there can be no such thing as basic action. In this paper, I argue that their critique shows that standard conceptions of basic action are indeed untenable, but not that we can do without an alternative. I develop an alternative conception of skill and basic action on which their basicness is not to be equated with simplicity: like deliberation and non-basic action, they are teleologically complex, but their complexity takes a different form. On this view, skill contrasts with deliberation—not because it is not a manifestation of practical reason, but because the two are specifically different manifestations of practical reason.