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This book collects fifteen articles from cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers on the many facets of intentional action and the prospects for a naturalistic account. Most of the scientific contributions are provided by established and well-known scientists (most notably Vittorio Gallese and Patrick Haggard). The philosophical chapters are from authors who are perhaps better known in the French speaking philosophy community than within the Anglo-American analytical philosophy (with the exception of a chapter by Colin Allen), and the editors themselves have contributed as the authors or co-authors of seven chapters. In this review, it is impossible to provide a survey of all the articles. I shall, instead, highlight and discuss some of the themes and claims that unify some of the parts and chapters of this collection.
Many of the contributions are strongly influenced by and partly based on the evidence concerning the properties of F5 neurons in the premotor cortex of the monkey (which is known as "mirror neuron" research). A very competent and readable survey of this is provided by Vittorio Gallese, one of the pioneers of this field. There are two types of "visuomotor" neurons in the premotor cortex of the monkey. Neurons of the first type respond to the presentation of objects of a particular size and shape in the absence of actions directed at them (they are known as "canonical neurons"). The second type responds when the monkey observes an action and when it executes the same or a similar action (the famous "mirror neurons"). There is good evidence that something similar holds also for the human brain, and it is now widely thought that mirror neurons play an important role in social cognition, because they seem to enable an agent to understand the actions of others. In the present collection, only Collin Allen expresses some reservations, suggesting that we should refer to the neurons in question as "F5 neurons" rather than "mirror neurons", as the evidence does not fully rule out alternative interpretations.
Nevertheless, there is, as Gallese explains, good reason to think that visuomotor neurons have another important property. Their activation is not correlated with specific bodily movements, but with the goal at which the movement is directed: visuomotor neurons seem to represent the goal-directed or intentional aspects of actions. This should be very exciting for everyone who is interested in naturalizing intentional action and, indeed, intentionality ("aboutness"). Four of the authors (Allen, Grammont, Legrand and Gallese) take this claim about the goal-representing properties of visuomotor neurons as a starting point for an alternative account of intentional action, according to which intentions can be construed as "embodied": intentions are not propositional attitudes that occur prior to and in separation from movements, as the standard causal theory of action suggests, but they are part of the motor processes that initiate and control movement. Some authors stress more the claim that intentions are, on this view, part of the motor system rather than propositional attitudes, others emphasize the claim that intentions are intrinsic to actions rather than prior to them. The crucial point is that this view does not seem to have any problem with the aim of naturalizing intentional action.
This is a very interesting and novel proposal. But it faces some difficult questions. As most of the authors are ready to admit, it seems undeniable that there are prior intentions. Proponents of the motor approach could argue that we are simply mistaken about their nature, because prior intentions are also motor intentions (rather than propositional attitudes in the traditional sense). Three of the authors (Pierre Livet, Jean-Luc Petit, and Franck Grammont) seem to favor this radical line, suggesting that "so-called prior intentions are only an extension of the possibilities" provided by the motor control system (p.186). But the details of this reduction of all intentions to motor intentions are not spelled out, and difficult questions are left unaddressed. Consider, for instance, the intention not to pay one's taxes this year, or the intention to trap the opponent's King by moving the Tower from d2 to d6. It is difficult to see how intentions of these (and many, many other) types could be explained solely in terms of activity in the motor system. (A mental state such as the intention to move the Tower-shaped object from here to there can perhaps be explained in terms of activity in the visuomotor system. But this intention has a different content from the one mentioned before.)
Another alternative is to admit that a theory of motor intentionality only supplements or completes the standard causal view of prior intentions. This line is taken by Dorothée Legrand, and Gallese also says, although with reference to the role of mirror neurons in social cognition, that "no one can deny that we use propositional attitudes" (p.217). This view is obviously less radical, but it raises pressing questions of its own. Firstly, if there are two systems, each enabling us to understand and control action, then we need to know how they interact. Secondly, if we admit the existence and causal relevance of prior intentions that are distinct from motor intentions, then a naturalistic account of motor intentionality is of little help with respect to the wider and more important question of how the mental causation by prior intentions can be naturalized. Thirdly, it is questionable whether this is a real alternative or a new proposal. None of the proponents of the standard causal theory ever claimed, as far as I know, that this theory tells us everything there is to know about intentional action. Many, in fact, would acknowledge that the causal theory, which is a higher level theory, must be supplemented with or completed by an account of motor control at lower levels of explanation.
A third alternative is to reject the presupposition that a naturalistic account of intentional action must take neuroscientific findings and questions about neural correlates into consideration. Proponents of this view typically insists that intentions are not "in the head" (neither as mental nor as brain states). Intentions, rather, are "out there" as socially constrained and perhaps socially constructed justifications of human behavior. A view of this kind is proposed in the chapter by Albert Ogien, who suggests that we do not really need to ask how intentional actions are related to activity in the brain, because we are perfectly able to explain intentional actions by giving the reasons that we can understand as social creatures (p.263). But this, it seems to me, misses the point. A naturalistic account that relates intentional action to neural mechanisms is worth wanting not because it is needed in order to understand everyday actions, but because it would, hopefully, explain how the causes of our movements are related to the reasons that motivate our actions. The interest is theoretical, not practical or pragmatic.
Oversimplifying somewhat, the chapters of this collection can be divided into two groups. The first features contributions from established scientists who provide surveys of empirical evidence about intentional action (research on neural correlates, developmental issues, mirror neurons, and so on). These chapters provide helpful overviews, even if much of the evidence that is reviewed may be familiar to scientists and empirically minded philosophers who are working on intentional action. The second group features an array of more or less radical proposals on how to naturalize intentional action and intentionality. I must say that I found some of those chapters difficult to read, and that I found some of the proposals less than convincing. Nevertheless, what one can find here are some very interesting and novel suggestions that are pointing towards a thoroughly naturalistic explanation of intention in action.
© 2010 Markus Schlosser
Markus Schlosser, Ph.D., Institute for Philosophy, University of Leiden