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February 1st, 2007

Wanting Things You Don’t Want

A paper that Tyler Doggett and I have been working on for a while, which is now (we hope) more or less ready for prime time:

Wanting Things You Don’t Want
We argue (with folks like Kendall Walton, Gregory Currie, Ian Ravenscroft, and David Velleman, and against folks like Stephen Stich, Shaun Nichols, Jonathan Weinberg, and Aaron Meskin) that in order to give a happy account of our engagement with and responses to fictions and games of make-believe, we need to postulate not just an imaginative analogue of belief (that is, imagination), but also an imaginative analogue of desire (which we call i-desire – other people call it other things).

Posted by Andy Egan in Uncategorized

3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Wanting Things You Don’t Want”

  1. jonathan weinberg says:

    Andy, you will of course be unsurprised that there’s a lot in your paper that I’m going to disagree with! But I want to just make two quick objections here.

    First, the Velleman ‘no immersion’ argument seems to me to attribute an untenable commitment to the desire-only theorist that she just doesn’t need to hold. You write that the desire-only theorist would have to say of a cat-pretender that ‘Before he pretends to be a cat, he thinks to himself “What would my motivation be here? How would a tabby act in this situation?”’ But that seems a very optional commitment. The cat-pretender’s task will require nothing more than that they their beliefs that answer something like those questions are involved, and help determine their behavior. That they in any sense have to stop and ask themselves that question is an additional commitment over and above that. And the vast majority of our belief-directed activities don’t involve anything like asking ourselves questions like that. If I decide I want a beer, I do, as a matter of fact, access my beliefs about the nearest beer (in my case, I would need to determine whether it would be in the upstairs fridge, or in the spare fridge in the basement). But I needn’t do anything like ask myself “where’s the nearest beer?”. Once I’ve formed the goal of seeking a beer, the rest of my action-production systems recruit the relevant beliefs without my having to think about it.

    Moreover, this minimal belief-involving commitment is one that y’all are committed to, too! For how else does my i-desire that I act like a cat produce any particular behaviors, without significant guidance from my general background theory of cats and/or cat-pretenses (like my belief that saying “Meow” is an appropriate move in a cat-pretense game)? On your account, you need the active & ongoing use of beliefs to help determine what i-desires to form. So everyone needs beliefs to play a major role in determining pretend-behavior, so it’s no mark against the desire-only theoriest that they have that need.

    Second, I don’t understand how y’all can say on p. 23 that we unproblematically can have desires for things that we know are unattainable (even necessarily unattainable); yet on p. 32 you worry about the rationality of inconsistent desires. I would have thought that inconsistent desires are just a special case of unattainable desires, and that norms that apply to the one would apply to the other. So, if I can reasonably desire that there be a set of all sets, then why can’t I desire (not merely i-desire) that Mercutio survive? Now, maybe you want to just give up on the claims on p. 23, since they’re primarily concessive & aren’t really doing much work in your argument. But I would think that, if you find your own discussion in the earlier part of the paper plausible, they should give you reason to doubt some of your claims that you make later.

    (I would also add that I just don’t find the claim about the irrationality of unattainable desires very plausible; what’s required for rationality is only something weaker, like that our unattainable desires not produce incoherent action plans in us. And there’s little fear of that, in the case of desires towards a fictional character, since we cannot undertake any action plans towards that character.)

  2. shannonspaulding says:

    hi andy,
    after scribbling pages and pages of notes on your paper, i realized that i can leave more helpful comments by simply linking to a forthcoming paper i wrote with eric funkhouser on imagination and motivation. we discuss many of the same arguments (currie/ravenscroft, currie, walton, velleman, nichols/stich), but argue for (almost exactly!) the opposite conclusion. :)

    http://comp.uark.edu/~efunkho/imagination.pdf

    best,
    shannon

  3. Andy Egan says:

    Jonathan, thanks for the response!

    On your first point: Right – we\‘ve got the version of the desire-only theory where the beliefs are just accessed, rather than consciously asked-about, in mind as the serious adversary. It\‘s obviously a lot better to say – as you do – that the relevant beliefs about how the imagined object would act in the imagined situation just get recruited into the guidance of behavior, rather than that the pretender explicitly goes through some process of searching around for such beliefs, as our way of putting things suggests. But we still think it\‘s not great – Velleman puts it better than we do in a part of the passage from \“The Aim of Belief\” that we quote:

    \“In order to enter into the fiction, the child would have to act it out; and in order to act it out, I think, he would have to act out of imagining it, not out of a desire to represent it in action. A child who was motivated by such a dremain securely outside the fiction, thinking about it as such…\”

    (the italics are Velleman\‘s, the bold face is mine)

    Put that way, the complaint doesn\‘t rely on attributing any implausible views about the sorts of conscious mental processes that pretenders go through to the desire-only theorist. (That\‘s the complaint we were trying to echo in our paragraph after the Velleman passage, though I think that the way we phrased it doesn\‘t really hit it on the head in the way Velleman does. Maybe in the next draft…)

    Moreover, this minimal belief-involving commitment is one that y\‘all are committed to, too! For how else does my i-desire that I act like a cat produce any particular behaviors, without significant guidance from my general background theory of cats and/or cat-pretenses (like my belief that saying \“Meow\” is an appropriate move in a cat-pretense game)? On your account, you need the active & ongoing use of beliefs to help determine what i-desires to form. So everyone needs beliefs to play a major role in determining pretend-behavior, so it\‘s no mark against the desire-only theoriest that they have that need.

    A lot of this seems right to me, and it\‘s a nice point that we definitely need beliefs about the fiction to be doing something. Our complaint had better not be that it\‘s bad for real beliefs to be involved in the generation of pretense-directed behavior at all. That\‘s way too strong – real beliefs definitely have to be involved, at least a lot of the time, in some of the ways that you suggest. The complaint is really supposed to be, first, that on desire-only accounts, the real beliefs are playing the wrong kind of role (i.e., it\‘s beliefs about what\‘s being imagined combining with desires to act like one of the objects in the imagined situation), and second, that the desire about the fiction-as-such is the wrong sort of thing to serve on the desire-ish side of the motivational story for fully engaged pretending. This is, again, something we should find a cleaner way to say in the next draft…

    Second, I don\\‘t understand how y\‘all can say on p. 23 that we unproblematically can have desires for things that we know are unattainable (even necessarily unattainable); yet on p. 32 you worry about the rationality of inconsistent desires. I would have thought that inconsistent desires are just a special case of unattainable desires, and that norms that apply to the one would apply to the other. So, if I can reasonably desire that there be a set of all sets, then why can\‘t I desire (not merely i-desire) that Mercutio survive? Now, maybe you want to just give up on the claims on p. 23, since they\‘re primarily concessive & aren\‘t really doing much work in your argument. But I would think that, if you find your own discussion in the earlier part of the paper plausible, they should give you reason to doubt some of your claims that you make later.

    When we\‘re talking about unattainable desires on p.23, we\‘re concerned just with their actuality, not with their rationality. It pretty clearly does in fact happen that we have desires for unattainable stuff, and those desires pretty clearly do, sometimes, motivate some of our behavior. But that doesn\‘t mean that they\‘re rational, and we didn\‘t mean to commit ourselves to saying that they were – a lot of the behavior that\‘s plausibly motivated by those sorts of desires is pretty clearly pathological stuff.

    So I don\‘t think that what we say there is in any tension with the things we say later about the irrationality of incompatible desires. Of course it\‘s psychologically possible to have inconsistent desires about the content of a fiction. We don\‘t want to deny that. What we want to deny is (a) that we can do so without any failure of rationality, and (b) that we need to have such inconsistent desires in order to experience the distinctive sorts of affect that go along with the appreciation of tragedy.

    Shannon – thanks for the paper! Reading it now…

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