Action, Mind and Matter in G.H. von Wright’s Later Writings


In the final years of his tireless exploration of the problems related to “man’s place in nature”, which saw him produce pioneering work in numerous fields of analytical research, ranging from probability to deontic logic, the theories of action and norms to the philosophy of law, and from ethics to his studies on Wittgenstein, the great Scandinavian philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright (1916-2003) turned his attention to the philosophy of mind as it relates to rational agency and to its role in the construction of the world of facts. This paper analyses three of the key themes that defined Wright’s later reflections: the concept of free agency, the is/ought dichotomy, and the mind/matter relationship. The first theme turns on the philosopher’s concept of human action based on time-bound categories and on the attempt to reconcile determinism and freedom of action according to the Kantian concept of man as “citizen of two worlds”, of the intelligible world in which he is a free agent, and of the phenomenal world in which he is a body subject to causality; the second highlights the intrinsic duplicity of the concept of human action, enabling us to resolve the is/ought dichotomy and to conceive deontic statements, according to a typically Wittgensteinian formulation, both as descriptions of facts i.e. the existence of norms, and as prescriptions for human conduct; lastly, the third theme addresses the question of the conceptual nature of the congruence of the mental and physical aspects intrinsic to human action and of the logical compatibility of the concepts of mind and matter.

There is no doubting the centrality of the theory of free action in von Wright’s later work, at least until the mid-1980s, but even in the early 1970s the focus of his interests had gradually shifted from the relationship between action and causation to the issues of freedom and determinism. There are traces of it in his 1974 volume Causality and Determinism, which appears to conclude a journey that began in Norm and Action (1963) with the development of a “dynamic” concept of action, understood as the possibility of human intervention in the external world, as the result of a change or absence of change in natural reality. This concept underpins the well-known “actionistic” theory of causality, which marks the primacy of action over causation, reaffirming the fundamentally conceptual nature of the former with respect to the latter. By linking action to the concept of change and emphasising the close connection between human action and the course of nature, and accordingly the fact that human acts play a role in the construction of the natural world, von Wright aligned himself with a tradition which, echoing the positions of followers of Husserl and Wittgenstein, espouses the project – mostly definable as “antinaturalistic” – of a humanisation of nature, which he will bring to fruition in his later writings with his critique of the deterministic illusion.

Action, Mind and Matter in G.H. von Wright’s Later Writings

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Numero 16 AGENCY febbraio, 2016 - Autore:  Condividi


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