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A Note on a Note on Practical Syllogisms

Author(s): Georg Henrik von Wright

Source: Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 14, No. 3 (Nov., 1979), pp. 355-357
Published by: Springer
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In his Note Dr Beckermann questions the adequacy and validity of the

practical inference schema (PS) as a model of intentionalist explanations of
action. He raises three critical points. I shall deal with them in a slightly
different order from the one adopted by Beckermann.
On p. 351 he writes:

... if we want to explain a single action it is not only this action that is at issue but
the whole course of all actions which are necessary and sufficient to bring about p.
Only if A believes that he is able to perform all actions of this course will he also set
himself to perform each single one.

This I think is quite correct. But I should regard it, not as an additional
premiss in the schema, but as a precondition of having an intention. A man
cannot truly be said to intend to bring about/? unless he also thinks that he
is able to achieve
this. He may, of course, be mistaken in thinking this. He
may also be doubtful; then he may intend to try the feat. If he thinks he
cannot bring about /?, he may still be anxious or want to bring it about;
then he may intend to learn or otherwise to acquire the ability. Or he may
just go on wishing that /? came about. But he cannot under these circum?
stances intend to achieve this. For example: If Smith knows that he has no
money he will not (directly) intend to buy cigarettes either. But he may
intend to get some money in order to be able (then) to buy cigarettes which
he wants to do.
My view thus is that having an intention presupposes belief in one's ability
to make it effective. Therefore I should say that the first premiss (1) in
Beckermann's schema on p. 352 entails premisses (2) and (4). This makes the
latter two redundant. For this view of the relation between intention and
ability I actually argue also in my book Explanation and Understanding.
(Cf. ibid., p. lOOf.)
On p. 352 Beckermann considers the case when the agent intends to bring
about/? but prefers to do something else which conflicts with bringing about
/?. This is a thoroughly realistic case. An example could be a conflict
between "duty" and "inclination". It is A's duty to bring about /?, but he

Erkenntnis 14 (1979) 355-357. 0165-0106/79/0143-0355 $00.30

Copyright ? 1979 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.

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greatly prefers to do something quite different. If now A, upon considera?

tion, intends to bring about/? and brings this about, he can still say that he
would greatly have preferred not to do this. But one thing he cannot do:
follow his preferred course of action and still intend to do the less attractive
thing. If he does the former he will have to abandon any intention he might
have had of doing the latter. I therefore disagree with Beckermann con?

cerning the necessity of supplementing the PS-schema with his premiss (6).
This premiss is compatible with (l)-(5). But so is the denial of (6). There?
fore the validity of the explanation schema is not affected by the truth or
falsehood of (6).
A very interesting problem concerns the nature of the conditionship
relation mentioned in the second premiss of the PS-schema. In my version
of the schema, the agent believes that the action he sets himself to do is
necessary for his intended end. Others have argued that the action should
be considered sufficient rather than necessary.
In order to settle the controversy one must consider the aim of the PS
schema itself. If the aim is to establish a logical tie between premisses and
conclusion, then the action must obviously be thought necessary by the
agent for his end. Because, if he thinks it sufficient but not necessary, how
could one then claim that he will necessarily set himself to do that very
If, however, the aim of the schema is to offer a model of explanation of
actions, then the two forms (i) and (ii) for the second premiss mentioned
by Beckermann on p. 1may seem equally plausible. That A set himself to
do a because he thought this conducive to p can be a perfectly satisfying
explanation of A's behaviour.
But sometimes it is not completely satisfying. Assume that A would have
reached his end, also if he had done b and that he was aware of this
himself. Itmay strike us as strange that he did a and not b. The explanation
seems incomplete. Was there maybe some reason why he preferred this

particular choice of means to his end? Sometimes the choice has an

explanation. (I shall not here discuss whether this explanation will have to
have the form of my original PS-schema.) Sometimes the choice seems
fortuitous, "inexplicable". Then the intentionalist explanation remains
These observations on the second premiss hardly conflict with Becker
mann's comments on the topic. On the question about intention and

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ability to achieve the end I disagree with him only provided that he wants
to deny that there is a conceptual connection between having an intention
and thinking that one can make it effective. But on the question whether a
preference can co-exist with and override an intention "to the contrary"
there seems to be a genuine disagreement between our views.

Manuscript received 15December 1978

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