Thursday 25 December 2014


In this post, Ezio Di Nucci presents his book Mindlessness (Cambridge Scholars, 2013). Di Nucci is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Universit├Ąt Duisburg-Essen. His latest book is Ethics Without Intention.

Philosophy is still hanging on to an over-intellectualistic picture of human judgement and agency – or
by Ezio Di Nucci
so I contend in my book. Our ability for thought is a useful resource, but one that we use less frequently than philosophers often assume – and that’s a good thing. Deliberation is not always the best way to deal with life’s challenges; on the contrary, we are often better off not thinking; other times we are just not worse off and it is therefore more efficient not to think.

The book begins by looking at data which has been accumulating in behavioural and social psychology over the last few decades, especially with relation to habits, skilled performances and priming. Expert golfers, for example, perform better when under time pressure and they also appear to be better when distracted than when they are able to concentrate. Here’s another one: if habitual cinema-goers are given one-week-old stale popcorn, they will eat as much of it as when given fresh popcorn.

I go on to discuss the philosophical relevance of this evidence, especially for contemporary philosophy of action. I argue that standard accounts of intentional action such as Davidsonian causalism need reforming because they fail to account for the normality of mindless behaviour, which is both intentional and rational. Insisting on rationalising psychological states as the proximal causes of intentional action, the so-called Causal Theory of Action thereby misses out on an a lot of agency; and, importantly, this is not because of its causalist component. At least as far as mindlessness is concerned, the problem is rather the psychological (or, if you will, internalist) component of the Causal Theory of Action; even though the book does also go on to discuss problems with Davidson’s causalist claim.

An interesting consequence of the above – at least for philosophers of action – is that one ends up having to distinguish between what we intend to do and what we do intentionally. But, as I discuss in the central chapters of the book, mindlessness is not the only consideration in favour of drawing that distinction: already Michael Bratman had convincingly shown in the ‘80s that the so-called Simple View of intentional action, according to which I can only have A-ed intentionally if I intended to A, is false.

Finally, in Part III of the book I argue that growing empirical evidence of mindlessness should not be taken to pose any challenge to free will; this is a mistake that empirical psychologists often make – John Bargh being one example. Mindless behaviour is not only as intentional and as rational as mindful behaviour; it is also as free as mindful behaviour, so that the distinction between mindlessness and mindfulness is irrelevant to the free will debate. Again, here the central issue is the normality of mindless behaviour: that we often act or judge without thinking does not mean that our agency or faculty of judgement is less than rational or prone to manipulation; it is rather an evolutionary advantageous way to spare cognitive resources.

Philosophical Psychology review of Mindlessness
Cygne Noir review of Mindlessness (in French)

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