Actions And Activity by Hornsby: Summary and Discussion


Actions And Activity is a key paper by Hornsby. I will make some comments on it here. What is an action?

Is the raising of someone’s arm one event or two? Is the event `I raised my arm’ identical to the event `my arm rose’? Resolving this question should throw light on what an action is. We also need to know whether an event which goes on for a period is going on during all instants of that period, for the same reason.

There is a distinction between `A stroll was going on at t’ and `strolling was going on at t’. The former at least seems to require an agent – but Hornsby’s point is that the latter does not seem to rely on any particular event (a ‘stroll’) taking place. Strolling is an activity – it must have a duration, as must `raising one’s arm’.

Actions and Activity and Stuff

Actions and activity are like stuffs. Saying `there is beer in the fridge’ does not refer to any particular can of beer or any particular beer atoms. There just has to be some in there, if the claim is to be true. Likewise, a stroll can be taking place without any particular event of strolling being necessary – distinguish this carefully from the very similar appearing but completely different claim that a stroll can be taking place without any event of strolling being necessary.

Q: Hornsby also seems to want to remain open to the possibility of the latter claim. Does she need this? Is it plausible?

This brings in the agent. There can be no strolling by Sebastian unless there is an action of strolling being done by Sebastian. Note again that there need be no event of strolling by Sebastian going on, on Hornsby’s line.

Beer Pervasion: Actions and Activity

Hornsby claims that “just as beer pervades any volume of space occupied by beer, so strolling pervades any interval of time occupied by strolling.” Actions and activity are pervasive in a technical sense.

Photo by Alex Knight on

Q: these claims do indeed appear to stand or fall together, but both are highly questionable from a physics/chemistry perspective. There are no beer atoms, but even if there were, what would we say about the space between the atoms? – should such a space be a coherent idea. Similarly, time quantisation at micro-intervals may make it difficult to talk about anything pervading them. Does anyone stroll during an interval in which light would travel a billionth of the diameter of a proton? Does that make any sense?

Accomplishments and Achievements

There is a useful distinction between accomplishments and achievements, due to Mourelatos.

The latter are punctate: Mary’s finding the book ceases when she finds it. It would not become the case that she was finding the book until she finds it, when there is something a little like backwards causation – it becomes the case now that what she was doing then was finding the book – if she finds it. Accomplishments do not have this character: strolling can have its character as strolling from the point it begins and it continues until it ceases. Achievements are not composed of activity but accomplishments are. It does not take any time for John to win the sprint.

Q: really? Not even a 100 billionth of a second?

See Also:

#Proust On #Memory

Links Between Schopenhauer And Apocalypse Now

Nozick’s Claim That Knowledge Is Truth-tracking: A Critical Evaluation

Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology: What Is It And How Cogent Is It?


Action And Responsibility In Epicurus: O’Keefe


• Main question: how can free human agency/responsibility be retained in a deterministic universe consisting solely of atoms and void?
• Epicurus introduces `the swerve’ in response; also allows composite objects
• O’Keefe argues that freedom has three variants: agency; character formation; moral responsibility → Epicurus wants to retain all three

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Determinism, Effective Agency And Bivalence

• Atoms naturally fall straight downwards, so would not be capable of forming composites other than in one dimension; deterministic universe
• The swerve is a random deviation sideways by one spatial minimum
• Argument: P: atoms swerve; Q: free volition exists: $\neg$P $\rightarrow$ $\neg$Q; Q; $\therefore$ P
• Lucretius: racehorses in a stall exit it with a delay whereas they move instantaneously if bumped from behind; delay is effective agency in action
• O’Keefe: 1). effective agency ≠ 2). free will because animals have 1) and not 2); and animals not morally responsible
• Popular view: determinism → inability to do otherwise so no free will; free decisions constituted by swerves; preserves ability to do otherwise
• O’Keefe contra that view: Lucretius does not include swerves in description of volition and random swerves get you random action not free will
• `Lazy argument’

• PB = Principle of Bivalence: all propositions true or false
• Leads to fatalism; was always T or F that the patient would recover

• The swerve avoids the necessity of fate; also Chrysippus responds that determinism is compatible with effective agency because actions `co-fated’
• Objections: O’Keefe accepts this but how are fated actions free; why are T counterfactuals relevant?; moreover Chrysippus is a Stoic

Atomism And Self-Formation Of Character

• Epicurus wants swerve + freedom to avoid making us dependent on chance to achieve our desires: believing that would not lead to ataraxia
• Hedonism: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain at root of all actions
• No threat to freedom because beliefs subject to reason → asceticism
• This sets us apart from animals; we can overcome `atomic constitution’
• So Epicurus wants to preserve efficacy of our reason within atomism
• Epicurus holds:

• (A): atoms and void only make up the world
• (B): atomic clusters make up real macroscopic objects inc. our minds
• (C): properties of atomic aggregates are real (inc. relational properties like health and \textbf{enslavement

• (C) differs from Democritus, who is accused of skepticism about knowledge, objects, the mind: `by convention x, in reality atoms and void’
• Allows Epicurus to affirm the reality of the mind; it is `emergent’
• O’Keefe: Epicureans can have real emergent minds and still be physicalists: they identify the mind with an atomic aggregate
• Psychological `products’ — not atomic constituents — drive personalities (tension with previous view that fire atoms in psyche make lions irascible)
• O’Keefe appeals to a nature/nurture type debate here — genes influence but do not control who we become — in attempt to resolve this

Reason And Responsibility

• Epicurus wants to justify our practices of blame and praise
• Criticism of others requires causes of actions are `in us’, `depend on us’
• Epicurus argues it is self-refuting to deny we are responsible for our actions
• One cannot criticize an opponent of this thesis if everything is necessitated because then the opponent’s opposition was necessitated
• O’Keefe correctly observes this is weak: a necessarily expressed position can still be wrong
• Epicurus’s variant: we rebuke each other as if we are responsible
• Assumes we are responsible for reasoning correctly; claimed contradiction
• Centrally, Epicurus is claiming we are responsible because we are rational
• All concerns about PB, determinism are subordinated to that → ataraxia

See Also:

Why Does Epicurus Think That His Radical Views Will Be Persuasive To The Average Person?

Can Inductive Reasoning Be Justified Without Using Induction?

How Far Should Equality Under Law Extend?

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Photo by Pixabay on