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Anscombe's IntentionA Guide$

John Schwenkler

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190052027

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190052027.001.0001

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Practical Knowledge

Practical Knowledge

(p.155) 6 Practical Knowledge
Anscombe's Intention

John Schwenkler

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the argument of Sections 44-48 of G.E.M. Anscombe’s Intention. It begins by situating her appeal to the concept of practical knowledge in relation to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Following this, the chapter shows how several elements in Aquinas’ account are drawn on by Anscombe in her argument that an agent’s self-knowledge of her act is “the cause of what it understands”. It is argued that Anscombe meant to characterize an agent’s practical knowledge as both formal and efficient cause of its object. Finally, the chapter considers whether Anscombe succeeds in defending her thesis that intentional action is necessarily known without observation. Here it is argued, first, that knowledge of one’s act is not a strict requirement of doing something intentionally, and second, that the role of observation in an agent’s self-knowledge is different from that of evidence in observational knowledge of the world.

Keywords:   G.E.M. Anscombe, Thomas Aquinas, action, intention, practical knowledge, cause, formal causation, efficient causation, self-knowledge, observation

The first thing we are to consider now is how Anscombe’s account of practical reasoning relates to her claim that an agent has a distinctively practical form of knowledge of her intentional actions. Having done this, we can explore how this latter doctrine might illuminate “the utter darkness in which we found ourselves” (I, §32, 57:3) in considering whether it can be true, and if so how it is possible, that a person will necessarily know without observation what she intentionally does.1

Anscombe credits the concept of practical knowledge to Thomas Aquinas, who himself borrowed it from Aristotle, who writes in De Anima III.10 that nous can be among the sources of human movement: “thought, that is, which calculates means to an end, i.e. practical thought (it differs from speculative thought in the character of its end)” (433a14–15).2 While this concept is clearly central to the argument of Intention, its significance has not been widely understood by Anscombe’s interpreters3—a situation that she likely found quite unsurprising, given the “incorrigibly contemplative conception of knowledge” that she says is taken for granted in modern philosophical thought (§32, 57:3). But what is the alternative conception of knowledge that she wants us to adopt up instead?

As is usually the case with assumptions, the idea that knowledge is necessarily contemplative is put to work in philosophy much more often (p.156) than it is explicitly stated. But the status of this assumption is revealed clearly enough in epistemologists’ standard lists of sources of knowledge (perception, reason, introspection, testimony, etc.) and things we can thereby know (that this is a barn; that Jones owns a Ford; that 2 + 2 = 4; and so on). Each of these examples is one in which, as Anscombe puts it, “[t]he facts, reality, are prior, and dictate what is to be said, if it is knowledge” (§32, 57:3)—for they are all cases where knowledge is of an independent reality that “sets the standard” for the correctness of one’s judgment about it. And it seems clear enough that any knowledge a person can have of such a reality must be, as Thomas Aquinas puts it in a passage from the Summa Theologiae that Anscombe quotes in Section 48, somehow “derived from the objects known.”4 Thus it is generally assumed that in order to be knowledge, one’s judgment of how things are must either be grounded in evidence or else be the result of some reliable process in which the knower’s state of mind comes to reflect the state of the world.

However, especially in the medieval tradition where Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers were concerned to understand how an impassible and unchanging God could possess all perfections, a range of thinkers appealed to concepts of practical or productive knowledge in trying to account for the distinctive character of God’s knowledge of the created world. A central idea in all these accounts is that God’s knowledge of creation is prior in the order of being to the existence of the things he knowingly creates. That is, the tradition that Anscombe refers us to holds that created things are as they are because of how God knows them, rather than that he knows them because of a suitable connection to how they anyway are. In this tradition, God’s knowledge of created reality is taken to be of a fundamentally different character from the “contemplative,” “speculative,” or “theoretical” sort of knowledge that has been the focus of modern and contemporary philosophical theorizing.

Yet despite her recommendation that the concept of practical knowledge could be rediscovered through a return to these ancient and medieval sources, Anscombe does not do much to help the reader of Intention execute this ressourcement. Indeed, in the text itself her one direct reference to a medieval author points to a passage in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae in which the concept of knowledge that is causa rerum intellectarum, i.e., “the cause of what it understands” (§48, 87:4), appears in a brief argument offered (p.157) by an imagined objector in a discussion of the nature of human happiness.5 But in fact, as I will argue in detail later, Anscombe’s debt to Aquinas is far more extensive than this brief reference lets on, and the inspiration for her account of practical knowledge is not this cited passage but rather the much more thorough discussion of divine cognition in Part I, Question 14 of the Summa Theologiae—a discussion that contains a number of important concepts, distinctions, and examples that Anscombe echoes very deliberately. In order to support this interpretation and address the reader’s likely unfamiliarity with this Thomistic framework, the first section of this chapter will turn away from the text of Intention to explore in some detail how, drawing on the Aristotelian concept of nous praktikos, Aquinas developed his own account of a form of knowledge that is practical or productive in character—a form of knowledge that is the measure of its object and “is ‘cause of what it understands’, unlike ‘speculative’ knowledge, which ‘is derived from the objects known’ ” (I, §48, 87:4; quoting ST I–II, q. 3, a. 5, obj. 1).

6.1 The Thomistic background

I have noted that for Aquinas and other medieval thinkers, the concept of practical knowledge figures most prominently not in theories of human action, but in accounts of the distinctive nature of God’s knowledge of the created world. In Part I, Question 14 of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas frames his own discussion of these matters in terms of the idea that knowing is usually understood as a receptive act, where the form of the known object is apprehended by the mind of the knower. Aquinas insists, however, that such a thing cannot take place in God, whose acts are not dependent on anything outside himself.6 And he goes on to address this seeming dilemma by arguing that knowledge may take different forms depending on the nature of the (p.158) knower,7 and thus “since God’s nature exists in a manner higher than that by which creatures exist, his knowledge does not exist in him in the manner of created knowledge” (ST I, q. 14, a. 1, ad. 3). In particular, Aquinas argues that since created things depend on God for their being, God can know his creation in virtue of knowing his own ideas of it, as they exist in his own mind: for God’s own essence “contains a likeness” of the things that he has the power to make, and so his self-knowledge is sufficient for knowledge of everything that lies in his power (ST I, q. 14, a. 5c). This is why we need not suppose that God’s knowledge of creation requires him to be in reception of anything, as in this knowledge “the principal object known … is nothing other than [God’s] essence, which contains all the species of things” (ST I, q. 14, a. 5, ad. 1), much as fire contains the heat that it imparts to other objects.

This idea, that one may know an object not just by having one’s mind reflect what is anyway there but also by being the one who through her knowledge brings that very object into existence, is at the center of Aquinas’s account of practical cognition. He proposes in the Summa that knowledge may be either practical or speculative in any of several respects, mirroring in each case an element in Aristotle’s treatment of practical thought in De Anima III.10:8

  • First, as Aristotle claims that the object of appetite is always something attainable, or a “good that can be brought into being by action” (433a29–309), so Aquinas writes that the objects of practical knowledge must be things “producible by the knower”: thus, e.g., human knowledge of God or the natural world is necessarily speculative, whereas it is possible for us to have practical knowledge of human artifacts.

  • (p.159) Second, following Aristotle’s claim that practical thought “calculates means to an end” (433a14), Aquinas identifies a practical mode of knowing, in which producible things are considered “as producible.” By way of contrast he gives the example of an architect who “defines, analyses and examines the qualities proper to houses in general”—in this case the object of his knowledge is something that lies within his power, but the mode in which he knows it is speculative rather than practical, as it involves only ascertaining what a house is, independently of any concern with how to make one.

  • Finally, following Aristotle’s remark that practical thought “differs from speculative thought in the character of its end” (433a15–16), Aquinas says that knowledge can be either speculative or practical in terms of its end or purpose. According to Aquinas, knowledge is practical in respect of its end insofar as it aims at production or some other form of action, and speculative in this respect insofar as it aims just at “the consideration of truth.” Thus, for example, the knowledge of builders who “consider how some house could be built, not with a view to building it but merely for the sake of knowing” will have a speculative end or purpose even though it is practical in its object and mode. Such knowledge is what we call “idle speculation” about how something might be done—but it is a way of considering means to an end that is not, as Anscombe puts it, “on active duty” (I, §33, 60:1). By contrast, for knowledge to be practical in respect of its end is for the knowledge to be directed toward the production or execution of the object or action that it represents.

For Aquinas, then, the distinction between practical and speculative knowledge is multifaceted. There are several respects in which knowledge might be called “speculative” rather than “practical” or vice versa, and two of these respects are independent of one another. Thus he offers the following division:

  1. (1) Knowledge is purely speculative whenever it is speculative with regard to its objects (the first sense in the previous list), as nothing that does not lie within the power of the agent can be the object of knowledge that is practical in either of the other two senses;

  2. (2) Knowledge is purely practical whenever it is practical with regard to both its mode and its end (the second and third senses in the (p.160) previous list), since in this case it must also be practical with regard to its objects; and

  3. (3) Knowledge is partly speculative and partly practical when it is practical with regard to its objects and either:

    1. (a) Practical in respect of its mode but not its end, as, e.g., when one considers what it would take to make something, though not in order actually to produce it; or

    2. (b) Practical in respect of its end but not its mode, as, e.g., when one defines what it is to be an artifact of a given kind in order later on to determine how best to make it.

Thus he concludes that God’s knowledge is purely speculative where it concerns his own essence (for even God does not have the power to change this), and where created things are concerned it fits characterization (3(b)). These things lie within God’s power, and his knowledge of them aims at bringing them about; but since we know created things speculatively, therefore God “knows (yet much more perfectly than we do) all that we speculatively know about things by defining and analysing,” and therefore his knowledge of these things is speculative in respect of its mode (ST I, q. 14, a. 16c).10

The central idea, then, is that knowledge is practical to the extent that it is a doer’s way of knowing. Practical knowledge always concerns something that one is able to bring about, and in knowing such a thing in a practical way one may either be thinking of how to bring it about, or be thinking of it with the aim of bringing it about, or both. As Aquinas writes in his commentary on De Anima III.15:

the intellect that produces movement is the intellect that acts for the sake of something, not for the sake of reasoning alone. And this is practical intellect, which differs from theoretical intellect as regards its end. For theoretical intellect inquires into the truth not for the sake of something else, but for the sake of truth alone, whereas practical intellect’s inquiry into truth is for action’s sake. (Aquinas, In De Anima III.15, 43–49)

(p.161) Elsewhere in the Summa, Aquinas emphasizes that this distinction between speculative and practical forms of intellectual activity does not require a distinction between two different intellects, or even two separate intellectual powers. Rather, his idea is that the very same cognitive faculty whose activity is sometimes speculative, because directed solely toward the apprehension of truth, can also be practical insofar as it not only knows, but also “relates the cognized truth to a task” (ST I, q. 79, a. 11, ad. 211)—i.e., takes action or production as its object and end. And it is in this way that the intellect of a human being can be “related to what it knows as God is to what He knows” (ST I–II, q. 3, a. 5, ad. 1): a person’s knowledge of what she creates or otherwise brings about under the guidance of practical reason is similar to God’s knowledge of the created world. This, as I will argue, is just what Anscombe has in mind when she says that the knowledge of intentional action is practical knowledge.

6.2 “A form of description of events” (§§46–48)

Here is the passage from Section 48 of Intention where the Thomistic conception of practical knowledge is referenced directly:

where (a) the description of an event is of a type to be formally the description of an executed intention [and?] (b) the event is actually the execution of an intention (by our criteria) then the account given by Aquinas of the nature of practical knowledge holds: Practical knowledge is “the cause of what it understands,” unlike “speculative” knowledge, which “is derived from the objects known.” This means more than that practical knowledge is observed to be a necessary condition of the production of various results; or that an idea of doing such-and-such in such-and-such ways is such a condition. It means that without it what happens does not come under the description—execution of intentions—whose characteristics we have been investigating. (I, §48, 87:4–88:1)

In what follows I will attempt an exegesis of this difficult text, beginning with a discussion of what Anscombe means by saying that sometimes “the description of an event is of a type to be formally the description of an executed intention.” With this in the background, in section 6.3 I will discuss (p.162) the causal relation that an agent’s practical knowledge bears to its object. In sections 6.4 and 6.5 I will then relate this discussion to the question of how intentional action can be known without observation.

To begin, let us consider once more the case from Section 23 of the man who is operating a pump. A lot of things are happening here. Let us suppose that birds are chirping, the wind is blowing, the afternoon sun is beating down. Meanwhile blood is moving through the man’s veins, sweat is dripping from his brow, neurotransmitters are being released in the contraction and relaxation of his muscles. Worms are tunneling through the earth. Water is flowing through the pipe. The piston of the pump is moving up and then down through its cylinder. And in the midst of all this there is the action: the man is moving his arm and so operating the pump as a way of sending water to the cistern and filling it with poison, in order thereby to kill off the Nazi leaders who live there and then get some better men into power. We saw previously that there is an order to this last set of descriptions: it comprises not just a bunch of descriptions but a series of them, in which “each description is introduced as dependent on the previous one, though independent of the following one” (§26, 45:6).12 And we explored in chapter 5 how the Aristotelian concept of a practical syllogism, like Anscombe’s imagined series of questions “Why?,” gives us a way of making the order of this series explicit. For Anscombe, the concept of practical reasoning is the concept of a rational order inherent in intentional activity itself, an order that is there in the chaos of a person’s movements and their effects. The content of the man’s practical reasoning is given already in our description of what he is up to—in our description of his activity not just as a bunch of things that happen, but as that special variety of coherent and self-conscious movement in which means are ordered to the attainment of an end.

This way of conceiving her subject-matter sets Anscombe quite at odds with the dominant tradition in recent analytic philosophy, which usually assumes that the concept of intentional action picks out a distinctive kind of event whose distinguishing features the philosopher is supposed to discover. She criticized that assumption in Section 19, arguing that “an action is not called ‘intentional’ in virtue of any extra feature which exists when it is performed” (§19, 28:4), and that “in describing intentional actions as such, it will be a mistake to look for the fundamental description of what occurs—such as the movements of muscles or molecules—and then think of intention as something, perhaps very complicated, which qualifies this” (p.163) (§19, 29:2). Instead, when we set out to describe what intentional actions are “[t]he only events to consider are intentional actions themselves, and to call an action intentional is to say it is intentional under some description that we give (or could give) of it” (§19, 29:2). In discussing that argument in section 3.1 I suggested that we should understand Anscombe’s conclusion as a denial of the assumption that there is a determinate kind of physical event—such as a mere bodily movement—that occurs during intentional action but can also occur when a person does not act, so that to call some such event an intentional action is to postulate a further feature that accompanies it, or in virtue of which it is brought about.13 As Anscombe puts the point now, when we are interested in understanding intentional action:

It is not that we have a special interest in the movement of these molecules—namely, the ones in a human being; or even in the movement of certain bodies—namely human ones. The description of what we are interested in is a type of description that would not exist if our question “Why?” did not. It is not that certain things, namely the movements of humans, are for some undiscovered reason subject to the question “Why?” So too, it is not just that certain appearances of chalk on a blackboard are subject to the question “What does it say?” It is of a word or sentence that we ask “What does it say?”; and the description of something as a word or sentence at all could not occur prior to the fact that words or sentences have meaning. So the description of something as a human action could not occur prior to the existence of the question “Why?,” simply as a kind of utterance by which we were then obscurely prompted to ask the question. (§46, 83:3; emphasis added)

The analogy with linguistic meaning is instructive. When we treat a group of sounds, marks, or movements as an “it” to which a question like “What does it say?” can be given application, we have already represented that group as a word or sentence, i.e., a unit of linguistic meaning. (This is not to say that each such unit must be meaningful—for there is plenty of nonsense that we can use our words to represent. The point is that words and sentences are the only things that are candidates for meaning—they are the only things to which a question like “What does it say?” can be given application.) And by the same token, this concept of linguistic meaning is not one that we can have independently of the idea that certain sounds, marks, or movements (p.164) can say things, so that questions like “What does it say?” can be asked about them. This means that the question “What does it say?,” asked of a group of sounds, marks, or movements, bears a very different relation to its object than does, e.g., a question like “What does it weigh?,” asked of something like a bag of apples. In the latter case, the object of the inquiry has a unity independent of the form of description expressed in the question being asked about it, as there could have been bags of apples even if questions about weight had never occurred to anyone. But questions of meaning relate to words and sentences differently than this. The unity of a word or sentence is semantic or propositional, a unity not of matter but of meaning, and so the “it” whose significance we query when we ask “What does it say?” would not be anything unitary—would not be any one thing, as opposed to a mere aggregate—if the form of understanding embodied in this question did not exist. Because of this, to give such a question application by bringing some sounds, marks, or movements under a description of the form “It says …” is already to characterize those things as constituting a word or sentence.

The same is true of the relation of Anscombe’s question “Why?” to our concept of intentional action. As I will discuss in more detail in what follows, her position is that we give this question application simply by bringing what happens under descriptions involving words like by, because, and in order to, where these words are used in the sense that describes reasons for acting. To give a “Why?”-question application by bringing what happens under these concepts is already to characterize that happening as embodying the distinctive form of unity that is found in intentional action—a form of unity that is different from that of mere molecular or muscular movements. Our interest in human action does not start with a bunch of “movements of muscles or molecules” (§19, 29:2) which we identify as objects of interest and then find ourselves moved to pose “Why?”-questions about, any more than our interest in linguistic meaning begins by observing some sounds, marks, or movements whose peculiar character leads us then to consider whether there is anything that they say.14 Instead, to describe someone’s movements (p.165) in a way that gives the “Why?”-question application to them is already to represent those movements as something more than a mere flurry of events, but rather as a coherent process that embodies the order of practical reason.

It is this last idea that Anscombe has in mind when she writes in Section 47 that that “the term ‘intentional’ has reference to a form of description of events,” rather than representing “an extra property which a philosopher must try to describe” in explaining how certain events qualify as intentional actions (§47, 84:3–4). The alternative position that she develops in more detail now is that we characterize an event as an intentional action simply by subjecting it to the sort of teleological description explored in the preceding sections. That is, our concept of intentional action is brought to bear already in characterizing what happens as suited to reason-giving explanation, i.e., bringing it under the “form of description of events” whose essential characteristics are “displayed by the results of our enquiries into the question ‘Why?’ ”:

Events are typically described in this form when “in order to” or “because” (in one sense) is attached to their descriptions: [e.g.] “I slid on the ice because I felt cheerful.” (§47, 84:4–85:1)

The point here is that to say, e.g., “I slid on the ice because I felt cheerful” is already to characterize my sliding on the ice as an intentional action, since this use of “because” represents my cheerfulness as (in Anscombe’s special sense) the reason why I slid.15 In this way, descriptions of events that use words like “by,” “because,” or “in order to,” meant in a way that would answer the questions “Why?” or “How?” whose sense we have discussed, are in themselves, or as such, descriptions of intentional actions. In addition, there are other cases where this form of description is internal to the sense of a single event-concept. Anscombe illustrates these possibilities with the two columns in her list on p. 85:

  • First, a description may represent a kind of action which except in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Anscombe mentions sleepwalking) “can only be voluntary or intentional” (§47, 85:2). These are (p.166) the descriptions in Anscombe’s right-hand column: they include telephoning,16 greeting, hiring, selling, and marrying, which are all things that generally cannot be done involuntarily or by accident. Because of this, an unqualified description of someone as doing one of these things is as such a description of her as doing something intentionally, and so these are “formally descriptions of executed intentions” (§48, 87:2) in the same way that, e.g., “He said it was time to go” is formally a description of meaningful speech.

  • Second, a description may represent a kind of action that can easily be performed unintentionally, but where our understanding of what it is to act in this way is dependent on the teleological or purposive form of description that we have been exploring. The left-hand column gives examples of this kind: we have intruding, kicking, abandoning, and dropping, each of which is such that the meaning of the description represents something as happening “immediately” in order that something further can be done or brought about. (To illustrate: “dropping” something means letting it go, in order that it falls (unless it is caught). The concept has application only where there is room to distinguish dropping a thing from throwing it, placing it down, and leaving it suspended in the air.) As such these concepts all “go beyond physics,” and have a sense which is “basically at least animal” (§47, 86:1), for they “describe what further [an agent is] doing in doing something” (§47, 86:2). The outward- and forward-looking orientation characteristic of intentional action-explanation is internal to their sense.

If the significance of these categories is not clear, it may help to contrast them with a third column that Anscombe might have added, which would include descriptions like lying(e.g., across a path), crushing, falling, rolling, breaking, and sliding. All these describe things that can be done with a further purpose by human agents and others, but their meaning is not even implicitly teleological: they are all concepts we could apply, literally and without any anthropomorphism, to what happened in a world inhabited entirely by bricks, sticks, and stones. Unlike these, the descriptions in Anscombe’s list (p.167) are such that the teleological form of description embodied in purposive or reason-giving explanation is internal to their sense.

So the “form of description of intentional actions” (§47, 84:3) is a form of description that represents an event or series of events as embodying a means–end order. I argued in section 3.3 that since this order of means and ends is an explanatory order, it is in some incontrovertible sense an order of causes: thus, e.g., the man in Section 23 can be filling the cistern by operating the pump only if the rising level of water in the cistern depends on his pumping in some way. But there is something more to this dependence than is found in the causal relations between bricks, sticks, and stones, since even though facts about “what is the case, and what can happen … if one does certain things” (§28, 50:3) are essential to everything we intentionally do, explanations involving words like “by,” “because,” or “in order to,” used in the sense that interests us here, express a distinctive way of understanding what happens. The distinctiveness of this form of understanding came out in an important passage that we considered earlier on:

Consider the question “Why are you going upstairs?” answered by “To get my camera.” My going upstairs is not a cause from which anyone could deduce the effect that I get my camera. And yet isn’t it a future state of affairs which is going to be brought about by my going upstairs? But who can say that it is going to be brought about? Only I myself, in this case. It is not that going upstairs usually produces the fetching of cameras, even if there is a camera upstairs—unless indeed the context includes an order given to me, “Fetch your camera,” or my own statement “I am going to get my camera.” (§22, 35:5–36:1)

The purpose of this example is to remind us that though statements like

  1. (1) I am getting my camera by going upstairs

  2. (2) I am going upstairs because I am getting my camera


  1. (3) When I go upstairs, I will get my camera

are similar in form to ones like

  1. (4) The flow of water (in the creek) is carrying that twig

  2. (5) That twig is moving because the water is carrying it


  1. (p.168) (6) When the creek flows in that direction, the twig will go that way too,

in that each identifies two things (getting my camera and going upstairs; the motion of the twig and the flow of the water) as standing in a relation of explanatory dependence, the sort of dependence represented in the first group of statements is different from the sort represented in the latter group. While (4), (5), and (6) each represent one thing as produced or brought about by another in virtue of some general connection that holds between events of these kinds, statements like (1), (2), and (3) represent events as standing in teleological relations in virtue of which the point or purpose of one event is shown in relation to another. These teleological relations are, again, no less causal or explanatory than those described in the second group: to say that I am getting my camera by going upstairs, or going upstairs because I am getting my camera, etc., is to say that one thing I do depends on, or will be brought about by, my doing another. That is why “to say, in one form or another: ‘But Q won’t happen, even if you do P,’ or ‘but it will happen whether you do P or not’ is, in some way, to contradict the intention” to do P so that Q (§22, 36:3).17 However, the intention is not similarly contradicted just by saying that there’s no general law to the effect that if P, then Q—a statement that would be a way of contradicting the explanatory claims in (4), (5), and (6). Statements like (1), (2), and (3) represent what happens within a form of description that has application only in a world containing animate, self-moving beings like ourselves.

6.3 The cause of what it understands (§§44–45, 48)

Let us turn again to the passage from Section 48. Here is part that we have considered so far:

where (a) the description of an event is of a type to be formally the description of an executed intention [and?] (b) the event is actually the execution of an intention (by our criteria) then the account given by Aquinas of the nature of practical knowledge holds: Practical knowledge is “the cause of what it understands,” unlike “speculative” knowledge, which “is derived from the objects known.” (I, §48, 87:4)

(p.169) Anscombe’s (a) refers to the concept that we just discussed. The description of an event is, or is of a type to be, formally the description of an executed intention if it is a description that represents the event as embodying a means–end order, such that Anscombe’s question “Why?” is thereby given application to it. And her (b) requires that the event so described actually be an intentional action—that is, that it satisfy her conditions (C1) to (C5). It is, Anscombe says, when an event meets these criteria that the Thomistic account applies to it: the agent’s knowledge of what she does, under the relevant descriptions, is the cause of that which it is knowledge of. She expands on this thesis in the next two sentences:

This [viz., that the Thomistic account holds] means more than that practical knowledge is observed to be a necessary condition of the production of various results; or that an idea of doing such-and-such in such-and-such ways is such a condition. It means that without it what happens does not come under the description—execution of intentions—whose characteristics we have been investigating. (§48, 87:4–88:1)

In order to understand what Anscombe says here, we need first to clarify these two characterizations of the possible causal roles of practical knowledge. What does it mean that practical knowledge18 could be a necessary condition of the production of various results, and what does it mean that without practical knowledge what happens does not come under the description whose characteristics we have been investigating? Having clarified this, we can then consider how the two characterizations are supposed to relate to one another.

(1) What is the relation between these two things: an agent’s own knowledge of what she intentionally does, and the nature of the action that she thereby knows? A paper that Anscombe published in 1963 considers a natural way of answering this question:

What bearing can what [an] agent thinks have on the true description of what he does? Someone may want to say: if what he does is a happening, a physical event, something “in the external world,” then that happening must be something that takes place, whatever the agent thinks. If you give a description of (p.170) it, for the truth of which it matters what the agent thinks, such as “He got married,” “He swore an oath,” “He murdered his father,” then your description ought to be broken down into descriptions of thoughts and of purely physical happenings.

If we ask: Why? the answer is: because what an agent thinks simply cannot make any difference to the truth of a description of a physical fact or event.19

If the position expressed here were correct, then it would always be possible for the description of what happens when a person acts to be factored into two components: a “psychological” description of the content of the person’s intention, and a “physical” description of what actually takes place when she acts—where the latter description characterizes something that could also have taken place “on its own,” and not as the execution of an intention. As we have seen, however, this is just the position that Anscombe’s account of intention stands opposed to. On her view, just as a person who expresses her intention for the future by saying what she’ll do is speaking about what will happen, and not about her state of mind, so what we describe, when we describe what a person is doing, is an event in the world that itself embodies the means–end order that could be represented in a practical syllogism or the answers to a series of questions “Why?” or “How?” This came out already in an example from Section 4:

I am sitting in a chair writing, and anyone grown to the age of reason in the same world would know this as soon as he saw me, and in general it would be his first account of what I was doing. (I, §4, 8:2)

As Anscombe says there, that she is writing is an observable event that would be described “straight off” (§4, 8:2) in the characterization of her overt behavior—yet we should notice as well that it is not an event that could be taking place if she herself did not conceive of her action under this description. For if we “subtract” from this situation Anscombe’s knowledge of what she is writing, and leave behind all the other true facts about her movements and their effects, then what remains will be only a bunch of bodily movements and marks of ink. Unlike the knowledge of an outside observer, Anscombe’s own knowledge of what she herself is doing is not an extra feature of the case that is present in addition to the facts about what actually happens. It is rather something without which what actually happens (p.171) would not actually be happening at all. Her knowledge of her action is an integral element in the very process that it is knowledge of, and not “a mere extra feature of events whose description would otherwise be the same” (§48, 88:1; and cf. §19, 28:4).

Is this constitution of action by thought—that is, the dependence of the correct description of what happens when a person acts on the agent’s own knowledge of what she does—a characteristic of intentional activity in general? The answer might appear to be “No,” since many of the things that we sometimes do intentionally can also be done by accident. If writing is not like this, then maybe this is because “writing” is one of those special descriptions that belongs in the right-hand column of Anscombe’s list on p. 85—it is the sort of action that can only be performed intentionally. So let us think instead of the man in Section 23 who is poisoning the inhabitants of the house. Clearly it is possible to pump a cistern full of poison without knowing that one does so, but does that show that the man’s knowledge that he is poisoning the inhabitants is an “extra feature” of the case, existing “in addition” to the happenings in which his doing this consists? This will depend on how we are trying to understand what happens in the case at issue. As Anscombe writes:

Why do we say that the movement of the pump handle up and down is part of a process whereby those people cease to move about? It is part of a causal chain which ends with that household’s getting poisoned. But then so is some turn of a wheel of a train by which one of the inhabitants travelled to the house. Why has the movement of the pump handle a more important position than a turn of that wheel? It is because it plays a part in the way a certain poisonous substance gets into human organisms, and that a poisonous substance gets into human organisms is the form of description of what happens which here interests us; and only because it interests us would we even consider reflecting on the role of the wheel’s turn in carrying the man to his fate. After all, there must be an infinity of other crossroads besides the death of these people. (§46, 83:4–84:1)

As I understand her, Anscombe’s point here is that the question “How are the people getting poisoned?” expresses only one among many possible interests we could have in thinking about her case, and that it is only because this is our interest that the movement of the pump handle stands out as a salient feature of it. By the same token, it is only in the context set by a question like “Who(if anyone) is doing this to them?” that we are motivated to single out the man (p.172) as a primary locus of activity, saying that he is moving the handle rather than that it is going up and then down. And finally, as I argued in section 5.5, the interest expressed in a question like “Why is the man doing this?,” meant in Anscombe’s special sense, provides the necessary context for thinking of the man as doing some one thing, and not merely a whole bunch of them, as he moves his arm up and down, up and down, resuming his task after stopping briefly to wipe his brow and then to break for lunch. It is true that even if the man does not have any idea that the water he is pumping is poisoned (or connected to the cistern of that house, etc.), nevertheless he may be poisoning the inhabitants of the house. But this description will be apt only if there are some things the man is doing in the self-knowing way that brings these events “under the description—execution of intentions—whose characteristics we have been investigating” (§48, 88:1). The concepts that constitute our interest in this situation, and which we use in the description of what happens in it, have application to those events only in virtue of the man’s self-knowledge of his act.

Return now to the Thomistic formula we were considering: an agent’s knowledge of her action is practical knowledge insofar as it is “cause of what it understands” (§48, 87:4). As several of her interpreters have noted, Anscombe’s thesis that an agent’s self-knowledge of her action is a constituting principle of action itself is likely meant to evoke the Aristotelian concept of formal causation. For Aristotle, a formal cause is the “form or achetype” accounting for the definition that a particular thing falls under.20 In the case that interests us here, the relevant “definition” is the characterization of what happens as the execution of an intention—that is, the characterization bringing it under the “form of description of events” (§47, 84:3) wherein those events are characterized as an intentional action. Thus it is part of Anscombe’s position that the knowledge of one’s own intentional action counts as practical knowledge insofar as it is a formal cause of action itself:

  1. (FC) It is in virtue of an agent’s own knowledge of what she does that her action falls under the “form of description of events” that is the characterization of it as an intentional action.

(FC) is a plausible way to interpret Anscombe’s second characterization of the causal role of practical knowledge, according to which this knowledge is something “without [which] what happens does not come under the (p.173) description—execution of intentions—whose characteristics we have been investigating” (§48, 88:1). But what about the other characterization that she offers? Anscombe says that the Thomistic formula “means more than that practical knowledge is observed to be a necessary condition of the production of various results” (§48, 87:4–88:1)—language that evokes the Aristotelian concept of an efficient cause, i.e., the “primary source of … change or rest.”21 And while some of Anscombe’s readers have claimed that in the lines just quoted she means to deny practical knowledge any efficient-causal role in action,22 this reading receives only problematic support from that passage—for Anscombe’s caution that her thesis means more than that practical knowledge is “a necessary condition of the production of various results” is, at the very least, compatible with its also meaning that as well. Moreover, Aristotle himself treats an agent’s craft or know-how as an efficient cause of the things that are produced by it,23 and Aquinas says the same in characterizing the causal role of God’s knowledge of creation:

God’s knowledge stands to all created things as the knowledge of artists stands to what they produce. But the knowledge of artists is the cause of their products because they work through their intellects. So, the form in their intellects much be the principle of their activity, as heat is the principle of heating. (ST I, q. 14, a. 8c)

Finally, both the formal and efficient varieties of causation seem to be at play in what Anscombe goes on to say next in Section 48:

When we ordinarily speak of practical knowledge we have in mind a certain sort of general capacity in a particular field; but if we hear of a capacity, it is reasonable to ask what constitutes an exercise of it. E.g., if my knowledge of the alphabet by rote is a capacity, this capacity is exercised when I repeat these noises, starting at any letter. In the case of practical knowledge the exercise of the capacity is nothing but the doing (p.174) or supervising of the operations of which a man has practical knowledge; but this [is?] not just the coming about of certain effects, like my recitation of the alphabet or of bits of it, for what he effects is formally characterised as subject to our question “Why?” whose application displays the A–D order which we discovered. (I, §48, 88:2)

The first part of this passage may be a deliberate echo of Aristotle, who writes in Physics II.3 that causes

may be spoken of either as potential or as actual; e.g. the cause of a house being built is either a house-builder or a house-builder building. (195b5–7)

Aristotle’s point, which Anscombe follows, is that the general capacity (or “potentiality”) to do a certain thing, such as build a house or repeat the letters of the alphabet, is not on its own the efficient cause of an agent’s doing such a thing on a given occasion—for the person will also possess this general capacity on occasions when she does something quite different. Rather, a given process of building, or recitation of the alphabet, is the actualization or exercise, on a particular occasion, of the agent’s general capacity to do the thing in question. By the same token, the concept of practical knowledge that we are trying here to elucidate is not the concept of a general craft or “know-how,” as the object of practical knowledge is something quite specific: it is knowledge, not merely of how to do such-and-such a thing, but of what one is doing as one does this, of what is done as one’s intentions are carried out (for the latter formulation, see I, §45, 82:1–2).24 And Anscombe goes on to remind us that in such a case the event that one has knowledge of is more than the mere “coming about of certain effects” (§48, 88:2), as it would be if in flailing about randomly one happened to bring some sticks together in a habitable form. For a person to build something, at least in the sense that interests us here, is for certain of her movements and their effects to be subject to our questions “How?” and “Why?”: I am supporting a portion of the second story by erecting this load-bearing wall, the roof will be angled in this way so that water will run off effectively, and so on. When a person acts a way that falls under these forms of description, the means–end order of practical reasoning is embodied in her action itself.

(p.175) I propose, then, to read Section 48 as characterizing an agent’s practical knowledge of her action as both formal and efficient cause of its object.25 So in addition to (FC) we have

  1. (EC) An agent’s own knowledge of her action has a role in producing the movements by means of which she acts.

Attributing (EC) to Anscombe will seem untenable if we assume, as I have argued already that she herself did not, that the efficient-causal account of why an event takes place must always appeal to a separate event that stands to the explanandum as trigger to result. In this sense the knowledge of action is surely not an efficient cause of it: for the fact that a person knows she is doing something does not cause her bodily movements in the way that the impact of one object may causes movement in another. But this is not the only form that efficient causation can take. Rather, as Jennifer Hornsby writes, in explaining a person’s action by reference to her own psychology we may only be appealing to “a network of intelligible dependencies between the facts about what an agent thinks, what she wants, and what she does”:

When we know why she did something, the fact that she did it may be seen as depending crucially on the fact that she wanted some particular thing and thought some particular thing. And the dependence is of a causal sort, of course.26

We find an example of Hornsby’s “causal sort” of dependence in our now-familiar example of someone going upstairs to get her camera. While a statement like

  1. (1) I am going upstairs because I am getting my camera

(p.176) does not make any explicit reference to the speaker’s thoughts or wants, nevertheless the truth of (1) depends on what the agent wants and thinks—for only if she wants to get her camera and thinks it is upstairs does it make sense for her to go upstairs to get it. This is why a response to (1) like

  1. (2) But your camera is in the cellar

functions to contradict the agent’s statement of her intention:27 if the challenge is effective,28 it will undermine her confidence that the original statement (1) was really true, and thereby lead her to do something different. And so it is not as if “subtracting” from this case the agent’s knowledge of her action will leave behind someone who is moving up the stairs but not as a way to get her camera—rather, without the knowledge she has of where her camera is and what she is doing to get it, the person would likely be moving around, or not, in an altogether different way.

The productive role of knowledge in action is also exhibited in the case of the man pumping poisoned water. As we saw, Anscombe says in Section 27 that if the man were to claim that he was not, after all, intentionally poisoning the inhabitants of the house, we might then test this claim by “eliciting some obviously genuine reaction by saying such things as … ‘Well, then you won’t be much interested to hear that the poison is old and won’t work’” (§27, 48:1). The way this test works is by undermining the man’s claim to know that the inhabitants of the house are getting poisoned. If the man really is operating the pump only because it is his usual job, and not also in order to kill those people off, then lacking this knowledge should not make any difference to what he does. (“I am going upstairs to get my camera.”—“But that’s not what I asked you to go and get.”—“So what? I did believe you had asked me for it, but was actually going to get it for myself.”) As Anscombe admits (see §27, 48:1), such methods of determining a person’s intentions are always imperfect, since the agent might either react in a way that disguises her true intentions or simply revise or abandon her intention upon learning that she is not succeeding in it. But the point that matters for now is that the logic of these tests is premised on the assumption that intentional action is action that is responsive to the knowledge of what one is doing.

(p.177) (2) On the reading that I have offered of the passage from Section 48, a person’s practical knowledge of her action is both formal and efficient cause of what she intentionally does. This mirrors the position of Aquinas, for whom God’s knowledge is productive of the created things that are its objects, bringing them into being in accordance with their archetypal images in the divine mind. And it is just the image that Anscombe gives us at the start of Section 45, where her echo of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s favorite example is surely no accident:

Imagine someone directing a project, like the erection of a building which he cannot see and does not get reports on, purely by giving orders. His imagination (evidently a superhuman one) takes the place of the perception that would ordinarily be employed by the director of such a project. He is not like a man merely considering speculatively how a thing might be done; such a man can leave many points unsettled, but this man must settle everything in a right order. His knowledge of what is done is practical knowledge. (I, §45, 82:1)

Let us set aside for the moment whether this really is knowledge, and whether it can be knowledge if the man does not see what is going on—we will consider these questions in detail shortly. Putting things more neutrally, the thing to see is that the builder’s understanding of what is done at the building site is a maker’s way of understanding what goes on. He understands the process of construction, not just as something that happens, but as something that happens under his control; and he understands, not just what happens at the site, but why things happen as they do. Because of this, the builder’s understanding of the process of construction embodies the calculative form that Anscombe discusses in Section 44. He understands, for example, that to finish the house it will have to have windows—and that these can be either sash or casement—and then in light of this he chooses “an alternative that fits, even though it is not the only one that would” (§44, 81:4). In giving the order to put in (say) casement windows the builder therefore understands that they are going in, and that this is taking place because the house is being completed. This is different from the knowledge that a passerby might have of the same thing: the passerby will have to observe or figure out what is going on and why, and if she is mistaken then the error is in her judgment. By contrast, the builder’s directions, i.e., his descriptions of what is to be done, are what set the standard in relation to which the success of the project is evaluated—a (p.178) point that Anscombe credits to Theophrastus (see §2, 5:1), but surely found in Aquinas as well:

just as the knowable things of nature are prior to our knowledge, and are its measure, God’s knowledge is prior to natural things, and is their measure. In the same way a house mediates between the knowledge of the architect who made it and that of those who get their knowledge of the house from the house itself once it is made. (ST I, q. 14, a. 8 ad. 3)

The concept of a “measure” here is evaluative: the measure of something is that in relation to which it counts as a success or a failure, an execution of an intention or a mistake. This is the same distinction we saw in the case of the shopper and the detective in Section 32, where the two lists were different in that the aim of the detective’s list was just to report the man’s purchases, whereas the shopper’s list was meant instead to direct his activity. One aspect of this distinction is what Anscombe noted there (see I, §32, 56:1–2): if the detective writes down something that the man does not buy, then his list contains an error; but if the shopper fails to get something that is included on his list (and not because he couldn’t find it, or didn’t have the money, or decided it wasn’t worth buying after all, etc.), this will constitute an error in what he has done, while his list may still be perfectly accurate. But now we can consider as well the distinctive causal role that the shopper’s list plays in what he does. If, e.g., the shopper is picking up a stick of butter from a display case and intends to be buying butter and not margarine, then it seems that the following counterfactual must hold: all else being equal, if the shopper comes to believe that he is picking up margarine rather than butter, he will put the margarine down and look for some butter instead; whereas if he retains the belief that he is picking up a stick of butter, he will go ahead and put it in his basket.29 In this respect, the shopper’s knowledge that he is picking up butter rather than margarine is a causal constituent of the process whereby his activity unfolds: without this knowledge, he cannot manage to buy the things he means to—except in the unlikely event that he ends up with the right things just by accident (cf. §23, 39:1). And this situation contrasts with a different one, where the man selects something from the display case just in order to find out what it is: here, if the man believes at first that he is picking up a stick of butter and then realizes that it is margarine instead, this will be a reason to revise his belief, but not to put the margarine down and look for (p.179) something else. In this latter case the man’s knowledge of what he is picking up will be speculative or theoretical: it is a case where “[t]he facts, reality, are prior, and dictate what is to be said, if it is knowledge” (§32, 57:3). By contrast, to have practical knowledge of a certain aspect of what one is doing is to know it in a way that plays a distinctive role in the execution of that very action, so described.

Return now to the Thomistic division that I outlined at the end of section 6.1. I propose that on Anscombe’s view, the knowledge of what one is intentionally doing is purely practical in Aquinas’s sense—that is, it is practical in respect of its object, mode, and end:

  • The objectof practical knowledge is something lying within one’s power, namely what one does in acting in the manner in question.

  • The modeof practical knowledge is the means–end order of practical reasoning. It is not an abstract knowledge only of what is happening or getting done, but of how and why those things are taking place.

  • And the endof practical knowledge is achievement or production. It is knowledge that is on “active duty” (§33, 60:1) in guiding an action in pursuit of a goal (or, perhaps, something done “for no reason” or merely from a motive).

So now we can say: for Anscombe, the knowledge of one’s intentional actions is a form of practical knowledge, different from knowledge of things whose being is independent of the knowledge of it, insofar as this knowledge does not idly accompany one’s behavior as a mere representation of it, but is rather an integral component of its object, playing a distinctive causal role in the process by which a person tries to get what she wants. It is insofar as the knowledge of what one is doing plays such a role that it stands as “form” to the “matter” of a person’s bodily movements and their effects, and is something without which she would not be acting intentionally as she is. Knowledge that lacks this characteristic cannot be practical knowledge, and what it is knowledge of cannot be one’s own intentional action.

6.4 Doing without knowing?

It is time to consider the questions that have so far been kept to the side. The argument from possible failure that I presented in section 4.1 was as follows:

  1. (p.180) (P1) It is possible to do something intentionally and either (i) lack a confident and safe belief that one is doing this or (ii) believe confidently and safely that one is doing this only because this belief is based in observation.

  2. (P2) Knowledge requires belief that is confident and safe from error.

  3. (C) So it is possible to do something intentionally either (i) without knowing that one does this or (ii) without non-observational knowledge that one does this.

The conclusions (i) and (ii) in (C) are in conflict with Anscombe’s conditions (C1) and (C2), respectively:

  1. (C1) A person does something intentionally only if she knows that she is doing this.

  2. (C2) A person does something intentionally only if she knows without observation that she is doing this.

Since the argument is deductively valid, in order to defend these conditions we must reject one or the other of its premises. How is the idea that the knowledge of intentional action is practical knowledge supposed to help us do this? The present section will explore this question in relation to condition (C1), and then I will take up condition (C2) in section 6.5.

(1) Concerning the practical knowledge that she says is possessed by the project supervisor described at the start of Section 44, Anscombe writes the following:

what is this “knowledge of what is done”? First and foremost, he can say what the house is like. But it may be objected that he can only say “This is what the house is like, if my orders have been obeyed.” [And] isn’t he then like someone saying “This—namely, what my imagination suggests—is what is the case if what I have imagined is true”? (I, §45, 82:2)

This is followed by another example, in which Anscombe writes “I am a fool” on the blackboard while her eyes are shut:

Now when I said what I wrote, ought I to have said: this is what I am writing, if my intention is getting executed; instead of simply: this is what I am writing? (§45, 82:3)

(p.181) In each case the force of the question turns on the intuition that knowledge is the norm of outright assertion—that is, that a person who does not know that something is (or was or will be) the case cannot responsibly speak her mind simply by saying that it is. And the concern here is with the “mind” of a person who is doing something intentionally. Can such a person always say, simply and outright, that this is what she is doing, or should she sometimes say something less committal, thereby expressing a cognitive attitude that falls somewhere short of knowledge?

We can flesh out the concern by considering several forms of possible failure, corresponding to the distinctions that Anscombe drew in Sections 31–32:30

  • First, in what I will call a futile effort, an agent acts in pursuit of an end which, though seemingly within her power, is actually impossible for her to attain, at least at present. As an example of this, suppose that there are not after all any people living in the house that a man is pumping poisoned water into, and so in poisoning the water-supply of that house he simply is not poisoning anyone who lives there. Anscombe says of such a case that the statement that one is doing the thing in question “falls to the ground,” as, “unknown to the agent, something is not the case which would have to be the case in order for his statement to be true” (§32, 56:3–57:1). (It parallels the possibility of being sent into Oxford to buy tackle for catching sharks (§32, 56:2).)

  • Second, in a case of practical error a person makes a mistake in practical reasoning, choosing as a means to her end a course of action that does not actually contribute to it, and because of this she fails to act as she intends to. As an example of this, suppose that the man pumping water has chosen the wrong pump from among several that were available, and so is not filling the cistern that is his target. This too will be a case where the man’s statement that he is filling that cistern “falls to the ground”: the case parallels one where someone constructing a shopping list includes on the list only things that are available for purchase at the place where the shopper is going, but mistakenly identifies where in this place a certain thing is. Thus we might speak in a case like this of “a mistake (an error of judgment) in constructing the list” (§32, 56:2).

  • (p.182) Third, in a case of practical failure an agent chooses a proper means to her end but simply fails to realize it in her bodily activity. This is harder to envision in the case of the man at the pump, but an example is “when I say to myself ‘Now I press Button A’—pressing Button B—a thing which can certainly happen” (§32, 57:1). The source of one’s mistake in a case like this is different than in the first two: it is not that one reasoned incorrectly, but rather that her action simply went off course. She chose the correct means to her end, but her action did not accord with that choice. This is what Anscombe calls “direct falsification” of the statement that one is doing something, i.e., “a case in which a man is simply not doing what he says” (§32, 57:1).

  • Finally, let a thwarted attempt be a case where someone’s intended activity is deliberately interfered with by another person—as if someone “sets out e.g. to make a hole in the pipe [through which one means to be pumping poisoned water] with a pick-axe” (§31, 55:2). Here again the statement that one is pumping will be false, but the source of the mistake is neither in one’s practical reasoning nor a simple failure of action. Rather, in Anscombe’s phrase, in a thwarted attempt a person’s expression of what she takes herself to be doing is directly contradicted by the opposing statement of another person—i.e., someone else’s statement that she is not going to do this, for I am going to stop her (see §31, 55:2).

It is important to emphasize that my description of these as possible cases of failed action doesn’t rest on conflating doing something with having done it, or viewing actions as punctual events rather than temporally extended processes. That is, nothing in my description of these possibilities conflicts with Anscombe’s observation that a person can “be doing something which he nevertheless does not do, if it is some process or enterprise which it takes time to complete and of which therefore, if it is cut short at any time, we may say that he was doing it, but did not do it” (§23, 39:2). (If the man at the pump is noticed by the police and arrested before the cistern is full, nevertheless he was filling the cistern up until then—and doing so intentionally and likely with an agent’s self-knowledge of this.) It is also compatible with the way that progressive verb-forms can be used in what linguists call a “broad” sense, such that a person may count as doing something during breaks in action or stretches of time that contain what Anscombe calls “slips” (§48, 88:1), i.e., moments where things go off course and are no longer proceeding as (p.183) the person intends. (If I make a wrong turn on the way to the store, I am still driving to the store even as I continue moving further away from it.) The crucial assumption I have made in laying out the previous cases, which Anscombe clearly shares, is only that there are some“material” limits on what a person can truly be said to be doing at a given moment, and that these in turn are also limits on what a person can know of what she does. According to this assumption a man cannot know that he is poisoning some party officials if in fact those officials no longer live in the house where the poison is going, since in such a case the thing that the man takes himself to know would not be something that is true. By the same token, someone pressing Button B cannot know that she is pressing Button A, someone pumping water into a broken pipe cannot know that he is replenishing a house’s water-supply, and someone with a very obstinate uncle cannot know that he is making that uncle change his will.31 If there weren’t these limits on the self-knowledge of action, then knowing that one was doing one of these things wouldn’t really be knowledge of what happens in the world.

As I’ve described them so far, however, the possibilities of practical error, practical failure, futile effort, and thwarted attempt are not incompatible with condition (C1). This is because (C1) requires only that a person who is doing something intentionally will know what she is doing, whereas in all these cases a person lacks self-knowledge of her action just because she is not doing what she intends to. But it is easy to modify these cases so that they challenge Anscombe’s position directly. Let an unfavorable situation be one in which a person’s power to act in a certain way is compromised, such that there is a significant likelihood of practical error or failure, or that her attempt will be thwarted or she’ll unknowingly attempt something futile. Being in an unfavorable situation will not always leave a person altogether unable to act as she intends, nor need it be the case that a person in an unfavorable situation who manages to do what she intends to is not acting intentionally in that way, and instead can act in that way only by accident. This is because a person’s doing X can be an intentional exercise of her power to do X, such that the question “Why are you doing X?” has application to it, even if she is in a circumstance where she cannot exercise this power infallibly. But the effect of being in an unfavorable situation on a person’s knowledge of what she is doing seems to be different than this: for there appear to be circumstances in which a person’s power to do X is reliable enough for her to do X intentionally, and where she is in fact exercising this (p.184) power in such a way that a “Why?”-question would be given application to her action, but still she is not reliable enough in this exercise for her belief that she is doing this to amount to knowledge of what she is doing. And by the same token, a person who reasonably thinks she is in an unfavorable situation may therefore lack the confidence in what she’s doing for her belief in this to amount to knowledge. Either case will give us an instance of possibility (i) in the first premise of the argument from possible failure.

(2) Anscombe clearly wants us to resist the conclusion of this argument—but how? In a difficult paragraph in Section 45, she says the following in response to her example of writing on the blackboard (I have added the bracketed numbers and letters for ease of reference):

[A]Orders … can be disobeyed, and intentions fail to get executed. That intention for example would not have been executed if something had gone wrong with the chalk or the surface, so that the words did not appear. [B]And my knowledge would have been the same even if this had happened. [i]If then my knowledge is independent of what actually happens, how can it be knowledge of what does happen? [ii]Someone might say that it was a funny sort of knowledge that was still knowledge even though what it was knowledge of was not the case! [C]On the other hand Theophrastus’ remark holds good: “the mistake is in the performance, not in the judgment.” (I, §45, 82:4)

This is an exceptionally challenging passage to unpack, so let us proceed a bit at a time:

  1. (A) The first two sentences remind us of possibilities like those I just discussed: they are cases in which a person’s intention does not get executed, and so she is not doing what she intends to do.

  2. (B) Anscombe then says that in such a case the agent’s “knowledge would have been the same”—but what does this mean? There are two possibilities:

    1. (i) Perhaps the “knowledge” that is the same in such a case “is independent of what actually happens”—in which case what happens is not the object of this knowledge after all.

    2. (ii) Perhaps instead this “knowledge” is “a funny sort of knowledge” that can be knowledge even when “what it [is] knowledge of [is] not the case.”

  3. (p.185) (C) And then we are reminded of the remark from the Magna Moralia, and the distinction between mistakes in judgment and ones in performance.

It seems clear that the position in (B(i)) would be in conflict with what earlier I called Anscombe’s factualist account of the content of an agent’s non-observational knowledge.32 For Anscombe, a statement of the form

  1. (1) I am doing X


  1. (2) I am going to do X,

where this statement expresses the intention of acting in the way described, has the very descriptive content that it wears on its face: a statement like (1) or (2) makes a claim about the world. And the same thing is true of an agent’s practical knowledge of her action: it is knowledge of the same object that can also be known through perception by an outside observer. That is emphasized in an important passage from Section 28 that sets the stage for the problem we are trying to resolve:

Someone who hears me moving calls out: What are you doing making that noise? I reply “Opening the window.” I have called such a statement knowledge all along; and precisely because in such a case what I say is true—I do open the window; and that means that the window is getting opened by the movements of the body out of whose mouth those words come. (§28, 51:2)

For Anscombe, what I know in knowing that I am opening a window is nothing short of the fact that the window is getting opened by my movements. That is, my knowledge of what I am doing is nothing short of knowledge of what happens when I act, insofar as what happens “is actually the execution of an intention” (§48, 87:4). But none of this would hold if practical knowledge were independent of what actually happens, as in that case it would not be knowledge of what happens after all.33 So the position in (B(i)) cannot be hers.

(p.186) What about the position in (B(ii))? If Anscombe favored this position then perhaps she would have a reply to the argument from possible failure. She could reject premise (P2), since if it is possible to have practical knowledge of things that are not the case then this knowledge will not be governed by the usual safety condition, and a person who lacks confidence in what she is intentionally doing will only think that she lacks knowledge of her act. Anscombe might seem to endorse this response in some of what she says at the end of Section 32, namely that we need to get around the “incorrigibly contemplative” conception of knowledge as “something that is judged as such by being in accordance with the facts” (§32, 57:3)—for does this not suggest that we can know things even when our knowledge does not accord with them? But this is not a satisfying reading of Anscombe’s position, and there are many passages in Intention that conflict with it. For example, when she introduces the concept of non-observational knowledge in Section 8 she says that there is a point of speaking of “knowledge” only where “there is a possibility of being right or wrong,” i.e., only where “a contrast exists between ‘he knows’ and ‘he (merely) thinks he knows’ ” (§8, 14:1)—and endorsing the position in (B(ii)) would conflict with this constraint. She echoes this point later on in the passage from Section 28 that we just considered: statements like (1) and (2), no less than corresponding “estimates” with the same descriptive content, stand the risk of being falsified if things in the world are not as they say them to be.34 The idea that Anscombe would now turn this all on its head, holding that practical knowledge is not governed by this same constraint, is simply incredible. If practical knowledge is “funny” in this way, it does not live up to the name.

So we do not yet have a way around the argument from possible failure. The final sentence (C) in the paragraph from Section 45 reminds us of the special sort of falsity, or proneness to falsity, that we find in the cases at issue—it is a sort of falsity where “we do not say: What you said was a mistake, because it was supposed to describe what you did and did not describe it” (§32, 57:1). The reason for this is that the aim of practical knowledge is not to describe, but rather to direct, the action that is its object. And this accounts for why practical knowledge is not “judged as such by being in accordance with the facts” (§32, 57:3). For a person’s intentional action is not an independent reality that her description of it aims to accord with, or “reflect,” but rather a reality that is dependent on, and “measured” by, the (p.187) agent’s own understanding of what she does. Nevertheless this understanding is a description of the agent’s action—indeed, it is only because of this that an agent’s self-knowledge can ever amount to knowledge of what happens.35 So the reminder in (C) must not be a way of leading us down any of the false avenues that we just explored in connection with (B). But then it is hard to see what premise in the argument this passage invites us to reject.

(3) Let us consider a few other things that we might say on Anscombe’s behalf in order to resist the argument from possible failure. A first thing to note is that the safety and confidence conditions appealed to in (P1) and (P2) are both anachronistic, and neither corresponds directly to anything in the text of Intention. One might argue further that these conditions are relevant only to speculative knowledge that is supposed to be “derived from the objects known” (I, §48, 87:4), and drop out of the picture when we are concerned with practical knowledge that is productive of its object. While the first point is correct as far as it goes, the use to which the concepts of confidence and safety are put in this argument does not carry a lot of philosophical baggage, and it is hard to find fault with the assumption that knowledge in general is governed by conditions like these. To the second point, it is hard to see why the fact that an agent’s knowledge of her action aims at the production of its object, and that the reality of her action depends in turn on the way it is comprehended in her practical reasoning, means that this action can be known through her practical reasoning even when the agent is uncertain of what she is doing, or when her belief about what she is doing could easily have been wrong. If the thesis that intentional action is practically known means only that a person who is doing something intentionally must believe, with some degree of confidence, that she is doing this, then the thesis would be much less ambitious than we took it to be, and would not have required this extensive defense.

Another way to resist the argument is by questioning the assumption, implicit in premise (P2), that belief in what one does is a necessary component of practical knowledge.36 Against this assumption, one might argue that belief is always a state of mind that is answerable to how things independently are—a state with respect to which “the facts, reality, are prior, (p.188) and determine what is to be [believed], if it is knowledge” (§32, 57:3). As we have seen, on Anscombe’s view a person’s knowledge of her own intentional actions does not have this reflective, receptive character—indeed, that is precisely the point of calling it practical knowledge. Can we, then, take her to reject the assumption that this knowledge always involves an appropriate sort of belief?

The initial difficulty with this response is simply that the practical intellect of a finite agent is necessarily fallible: we can be mistaken in what we take ourselves to be intentionally doing, and so it seems that there should be some concept to describe the cognitive state of a person who is in this position.37 By the same token, it seems that we should be able to distinguish the cognitive state of someone who acts from knowledge that, e.g., the background conditions are in place that are necessary for her action to succeed, from the state of someone who acts from the mere belief that this is the case. (Remember that knowledge of these background conditions will be theoretical rather than practical, so there is no room for controversy in talking about belief in this context.38) In ordinary speech we would use the distinction between knowledge and mere belief to mark this contrast. For example, just as we might say of someone who is working furiously at a pump while, unbeknownst to him, the water flows out of a hole in the pipe, that

  1. (3) He thinks he is filling that cistern, but he is not

so it seems natural for a person who worries that he is in an unfavorable situation to describe what he is doing by saying, e.g., that

  1. (4) I think I am filling the cistern, but I am not really sure about that.

One does need to be careful in building a theory of knowledge from these claims about ordinary usage, but as long as talk of “belief” in the argument from possible failure is meant only to mark these pre-theoretical contrasts, it seems that the burden of proof will be on those who want to resist it.

A final reply says that just as a belief must be “safely” true in order to count as knowledge, so action must be executed “safely” in order to count as something intentionally done. So far this is surely right: if, e.g., I want to poison some Nazis and pick at random a pump that, as it happens, (p.189) supplies poisoned water to their house water-supply, then in operating the pump I am poisoning Nazis just as I intend, but not thereby poisoning them intentionally.39 Could it be that all the cases of true but unsafe belief about what one is doing are also cases where the success of one’s action is also too “lucky” or unsafe for it to count as intentional? In addition to the difficulty in stabilizing our intuitions about the ways that luck undermines knowledge and intentional agency, the problem with this response is that a statement like (4) seems both to deny knowledge of one’s action under the description “filling the cistern” and to accept that the question “Why are you filling that cistern?” could be answered positively by giving a reason for acting, e.g., saying that

  1. (5) I am doing it in order to poison the inhabitants of that house.

This seems to show that knowledge that one is doing something is not, after all, necessary for a “Why?”-question to have application to this action, so described.

(4) I conclude, with some reluctance, that Anscombe’s condition (C1) does not hold with perfect generality. In fact this conclusion could have been anticipated back when Anscombe first put forward her condition, supporting it by saying that her question “Why?”

is refused application by the answer: “I was not aware I was doing that.” Such an answer is, not indeed a proof (since it may be a lie), but a claim, that the question “Why did you do it (are you doing it)?,” in the required sense, has no application. (I, §6, 11:4)

The problem with Anscombe’s reasoning here is that in ordinary usage, the statement that

  1. (6) I did not know (/was not aware) that p

carries the implication that one had no idea that p was the case, and not just that one didn’t have knowledge of this. For example, if I suspect that your spouse is being unfaithful and my suspicion turns out correct, it would be misleading for me to say that I didn’t know she was being unfaithful, despite the fact that this is true—I didn’t know, but only had a suspicion.40 Or again, (p.190) if I were being questioned about actions carried out under orders by my unreliable surrogates, whom I could not really trust to do what I said, it would be misleading for me to say that I didn’t know that they were doing what I told them to. This shows that if we are using “know” in the sense that requires confidence and safety in one’s grasp of a fact, the argument by which Anscombe introduces her condition (C1) fails to support that condition over a much weaker one like the following:

  1. (C1*) A person does something intentionally only if she has some idea that she is doing it.

It would, however, be a mistake simply to jettison Anscombe’s (C1) for a weaker condition like (C1*). This is because the circumstances in which her condition (C1) is not satisfied are decidedly unusual: it takes some philosophical ingenuity to construct them, and we don’t often encounter situations like these in ordinary life. Why is that? Likely it is not because we just happen usually to act in favorable circumstances rather than unfavorable ones. It seems instead as if self-knowing action is the paradigmatic form of intentional agency, so that when someone acts intentionally but without knowledge of her action there must be some special circumstance that accounts for why this is. This suggests a reading of (C1) as describing not a strictly necessary condition of intentional action, but rather a condition that holds, as Aristotle would have put it, “for the most part.” It would thus have a force similar to many of our generalizations about things in the natural world, such as the scientifically supported statement that

  1. (7) The common fruit fly D. melanogaster has a lifespan of about twenty-one days.

The reason why (7) can be true even though the majority of fruit flies are killed before 21 days is that “killing” is an event that interferes with the usual or “normal” life of a fruit fly. The fact that a fruit fly was killed is a special explanation of why it lived, say, only a week, whereas no such explanation will be required for why a fruit fly lives longer than that. (“Why is that thing still around after two and a half weeks?”—“It’s a fruit fly.”) And a similar sort of explanation seems to be required for an agent’s failure to know what she is doing in the cases that I have presented as counterexamples to (C1). It is because someone is in an unfavorable situation, such that he doesn’t know (say) which pump is the right one, or can’t operate the pump reliably, etc., and—this is something I will return to shortly—is barred from any evidence (p.191) that would show that things are going just fine, that such a person may lack knowledge of what he is intentionally doing. Similarly for Davidson’s carbon-copier, who is doing a difficult thing and can’t see through to the bottom,41 and also for one who writes on the board with her eyes closed or supervises a faraway project without any reports on how it is going. We can understand why these agents do not manage to know what they are doing, but this requires recognizing the features of the agents and their situation that keep them from knowing, such that there is something deviant or abnormal about these cases, in contrast to what happens usually and for the most part.42 And no such explanation is required, concerning a person who does something intentionally and with knowledge of it, to explain why it is that she knows what she does. This suggests that even if there are exceptions to condition (C1), it can still succeed in characterizing the paradigmatic form of intentional activity that is the primary concern of the present inquiry.

6.5 Practical knowledge through perception?

The final thing to consider is how Anscombe’s account of practical knowledge bears on her condition (C2):

  1. (C2) A person does something intentionally only if she knows without observation that she is doing it.

The arguments of the preceding section explored whether acting intentionally requires having knowledge of what one is doing after all, so here we will focus our attention on the remainder:

  1. (C2*) If a person does something intentionally, then if she knows she is doing this her knowledge is knowledge without observation, and if she merely believes she is doing this then her belief is not based in observation, etc.

(p.192) In order to give a counterexample to (C2*), we need to describe a case where (i) a person is doing something intentionally, (ii) the person knows or believes that she is doing this, and (iii) this knowledge or belief is reached through observation. This concept of what knowledge or belief is reached through is a justificatory concept: thus Anscombe writes that the knowledge of an intentional action is not “based on observation, inference, hearsay, [or] superstition” (I, §28, 50:3; emphasis mine), or not “verified by the senses” (§30, 54:1; emphasis mine). In what follows we will consider more closely why this restriction is so important.

Is it possible to act intentionally in a way that fails to satisfy condition (C2*)? In earlier work I presented what I took to be a counterexample to it.43 Suppose that the man working at the pump has been informed that the pipe running from the pump to the cistern is frequently broken, but is given a device that can measure the quantity of poison in the party chiefs’ water-supply. And suppose further that as he operates the pump, he sees on the device that the levels of poison are rising, and thereby knows that his pumping is replenishing the water-supply of the party chiefs’ house. In this case, the man’s knowledge that he is replenishing the water-supply seems like an instance of practical knowledge according to the account I gave in section 6.3: it is knowledge of what he does under the form of description given in the series A–D, and this knowledge plays an integral role in the man’s execution of his intention. Nevertheless, it seems to be through perception that the man knows that he is doing this. That is, he relies on perception not just for background information “concerning what is the case, and what can happen … if one does certain things” (§28, 50:3), but also in order to know what he is doing, i.e., that the event of his filling the poison with cistern “is actually taking place” (§28, 50:3). It seems, then, to be a case where the man’s practical knowledge of what he intentionally does is nevertheless knowledge through observation.

This case seems to supply just what is needed for a counterexample to (C2*). When the man at the pump observes the device showing the rising levels of poison, he thereby knows that he is filling the water-supply with poisoned water. Absent this observation, the man would not have this knowledge. Moreover, if the man claims to be poisoning the water-supply and we ask him how he knows this, he may answer that he knows this because he can see that he is—that is, because he observes the rising levels of poison in the water-supply, as represented by the display of device. Doesn’t this all (p.193) go to show that the man’s knowledge that he is filling the water-supply with poison, which is a description under which Anscombe’s question “Why?” has application to his action, is based on what he observes?

To soften up this intuition, let’s begin by reflecting on a somewhat different case, where the action that a person is considering is in the future rather than the present.44 Suppose that I decide to meet you in New York on Tuesday, and I express this intention by saying that I’ll be there. In order for me to know that this is what I am going to do, I will need to have a lot of background knowledge concerning such things as when the trains are running, how to buy a ticket, which train to take in order to get to my destination, and so on. All this background knowledge will be of “theoretical” matters that I ascertain through sources such as “observation, inference, [and] hearsay” (§28, 50:3)—and thus without those essential sources of information I cannot do more than make a lucky guess in saying where I will be. Does this show, however, that my knowledge (or belief) that I am going to meet you in New York is also based in observation? This would only be the case if the relevant background facts had the role of evidence in light of which I conclude that this is what I’ll do. And that is not the relationship that is supposed to hold between premises and conclusion in an inference like the following:

  1. (NY) My friend X is in New York.

    There’s a train to New York on Tuesday.

    So I’ll go there then.

What makes (NY) a good inference is not that the premises verify the conclusion, or provide sufficient evidence for thinking that it is true. (They could provide such evidence, say if you know that I take the train to New York whenever I have a friend to see there. But that’s not how it is for me.45) And the reason for that is that (NY) is a practical inference, not a theoretical one: in it, the conclusion is drawn because the premises show it to be good. Even in the case where this inference is such that its conclusion is known to be true, that will not be because this truth was shown by the considerations in light of which the conclusion was reached.

I want to suggest that the same point holds for present action, i.e., in the case of “an agent who says what he is at present doing” (§32, 56:3). In the alleged counterexample that I presented, the man’s statement “I am filling the cistern with poison by pumping this water into it, etc.” expresses his practical (p.194) understanding of what he is doing, and it is in virtue of this understanding that his action is the execution of an intention of his, i.e., a movement in which he who moves is conscious of his own movement in relation to the end it is meant to serve. This action is grounded in, and made reasonable by, the considerations in light of which he acts, but not because those considerations provide evidence for the belief that he is doing this. For they are rather the considerations in light of which his action has a point: they show, or at least are supposed to show, that what he is doing is a way of getting something that he wants. This means that, insofar as these considerations include things that he knows only through observation, inference, etc., such as that this pipe runs to the house where the party leaders live, it may be only in light of what the man observes that he can act knowledgeably rather than as a shot in the dark. But again, this does not mean that it is in light of observation (or inference, hearsay, etc.) that the man’s understanding of what he does is justified or “well-founded” (for this term see §2, 3:5). For this judgment is not a conclusion of theoretical inference that is meant to reflect an independent reality. It is not the sort of judgment that aims to be an appropriate response to evidence about some “prior” facts. All this is compatible with the fact that it may be only because of what the man observes, infers, etc., that he knows what he is intentionally doing. What accounts for this is the fact that bodily action takes place within a pre-existing situation, and knowledge of this situation is essential to the reasoning that grounds the understanding of what one does.

None of this should seem too mysterious. The fundamental point is simply that when we act, the reality that is our action is not independent of our own thinking about it. This does not mean that this thinking cannot be mistaken, nor that it can proceed without consideration of how things are in the mind-independent world. Anscombe makes this point clearly in a crucial paragraph of Section 28 whose phrasing I have echoed several times in the preceding pages, writing that

the topic of an intention may be matter on which there is knowledge or opinion based on observation, inference, hearsay, superstition or anything that knowledge or opinion ever are based on; or again matter on which an opinion is held without any foundation at all. When knowledge or opinion are present concerning what is the case, and what can happen—say Z—if one does certain things, say ABC, then it is possible to have the intention of doing Z in doing ABC; and if the case is one of knowledge or if the opinion is correct, then doing or causing Z is an intentional action, and it (p.195) is not by observation that one knows one is doing Z; or in so far as one is observing, inferring etc. that Z is actually taking place, one’s knowledge is not the knowledge a man has of his intentional actions. (§28, 50:3)

Anscombe is saying here that human agents are unlike God in that perception is often required for us to grasp various background facts—e.g., that this is a pump, that the water in the source is poisoned, that the pipe leads to the cistern of that house over there, that operating the pump will carry water from the source to the cistern, etc.—that are presupposed in the exercise of our agential powers.46 This understanding of “what is the case, and what can happen … if one does certain things” is an essential input into practical reasoning, as it is only through this grasp of our circumstances that we are able to calculate how to achieve our ends through action. And this understanding is speculative or theoretical in the sense discussed earlier: it is an understanding of how things are independently of our agency, such that in acting on these things we are able to adapt them to our ends. But the reasoning through which this theoretical understanding of how things are is put to work in action is not theoretical but practical reasoning: it is reasoning whose conclusion is an action that appears as a suitable means to our further ends. It is in virtue of this practical reasoning that “it is possible to have the intention of doing Z in doing ABC”—that is, the intention, e.g., to get some better leaders into power by operating this pump, thereby pumping poisoned water into that cistern, thereby poisoning the Nazi leaders who live there. And, by the same token, it is in virtue of this reasoning that it is possible to act with such an intention. When a person does this, her knowledge or belief concerning what she is doing—that is, the understanding of her action that is drawn on in the execution of it, and brings it under the form of description whose characteristics we have been investigating—is not based in “observing, inferring etc. that [her action] is actually taking place.”

Let us now return to my alleged counterexample to (C2*). I imagined that the man at the pump is using a device that tracks the level of poison in the cistern. Thanks to its display the man knows that he is filling the cistern with poison, and thus that by moving his arm, and so operating the pump and sending water through the pipe, etc., he is doing this. So the man makes use of (p.196) his senses to inform him of whether poison is getting into the cistern—that is, to inform him not only of “background” facts about the circumstances of his action but also of what is actually happening as he acts.47 It is also true that without making use of his senses in this way, the man would not know that he is poisoning the water-supply—even if, perhaps, he would still be doing this intentionally. This shows that the man’s knowledge that he is poisoning the water-supply depends on what he learns through the senses. But does this entail that it is based in observation? It does not—no more than the dependence of the reasoning in my inference (NY) on observational knowledge of its premises shows that the conclusion of that inference is observationally known. For the man’s knowledge that he is poisoning the water supply by filling the cistern, …, etc., is knowledge that is grounded in his practical reasoning. And the role of observation in practical reasoning is not to provide evidence in support of its conclusion. The man’s understanding of what-he-is-doing-and-why is something that he possesses in light of what he observes, but this does not show that it is an observational understanding.

This distinction, between observational knowledge of the premises of a practical inference and practical knowledge of its conclusion, is central to what Anscombe says in Section 48 about her case of the project supervisor:

Naturally my imaginary case, in which a man directs operations which he does not see and of which he gets no information, is a very improbable one. Normally someone doing or directing anything makes use of his senses, or of reports given him, the whole time: he will not go on to the next order, for example, until he knows that the preceding one has been executed, or, if he is the operator, his senses inform him of what is going on. This knowledge is of course always “speculative” as opposed to “practical.” Thus in any operation we really can speak of two knowledges—the account that one could give of what one was doing, without adverting to observation; and the account of exactly what is happening at a given moment (say) to the material one is working on. The one is practical, the other speculative. (§48, 88:3–89:1)

The talk of “two knowledges” in this passage echoes Anscombe’s discussion of the “difficulty” with her account in Sections 29 and 32. The difficulty had (p.197) been to understand how, if, e.g., opening a window is “making such-and-such movements with such-and-such a result,” and therefore knowing that one is opening the window is “knowing that that is taking place,” this knowledge of one’s action could be knowledge without observation (§29, 51:3). This is difficult because such a thing very often is known by observing it, as she reminded us in Section 4: e.g., “I am sitting in a chair writing, and anyone grown to the age of reason in the same world would know this as soon as he saw me” (§4, 8:2). She went on there to contrast this ordinary observational knowledge with recondite knowledge of, e.g., “precisely how I was affecting the acoustic properties of the room” (§4, 8:2)—the point being that our usual knowledge of what a person is doing is not of the “chaos” of her movements and their effects, but rather of the practically rational order that is there in it.48 Still, the object of this knowledge is not “just” the order itself, but also what is going on, insofar as “what is going on is the execution of an intention” (§48, 87:3). And the challenge was to understand how the same thing that can be known in this way can also be known or understood “from the inside,” i.e., practically and without observation, by the one who acts.

We explored earlier how the paradoxical-sounding slogan that in acting “I do what happens” (§29, 52:6) is meant to guard against what Anscombe sees as tempting but mistaken ways of responding to this difficulty.49 I do what happens, and I know what I do: so what I know is what happens, insofar as what happens is the execution of my intention. Thus there are not two objects of knowledge, but only one. The object of an observer’s knowledge is the same as the object of an agent’s: the former knowledge is speculative and the latter practical, but in each case the object known is nothing other than what is happening when a person acts as she intends. The passage that I just quoted clarifies this point without qualifying it: Anscombe says now that while of course a person usually “makes use of his senses” in acting, the object known or understood in this speculative or theoretical way is not what she does, but only “what is happening … to the material [she] is working on.” By contrast, the object of practical knowledge is nothing other than “what one [is] doing.”

Notice how the conclusion that Anscombe reaches here is not the same as the conclusion of the problematic argument from the end of Section 29, which I argued earlier is an argument against her considered position in the (p.198) voice of an imagined interlocutor, rather than Anscombe’s articulation of the view she favors.50 The argument in Section 29 says that in intentional action “the essential thing [a person] does, namely [e.g.] to write such-and-such, is done without the eyes,” and that in this sense “without the eyes he knows what he writes” (§29, 53:1)—but that led to the verdict that knowledge of action is not knowledge of what actually happens, but only of this “essential” bit for which perceptual input is not needed. By contrast, in Section 48 Anscombe says just the opposite. Of course a person’s action usually depends on what is known by observation, inference, hearsay, etc., insofar as these are often indispensable sources of input to practical reasoning. Her conclusion is that what a person knows“without the eyes” is the very same thing that is done with them: it is nothing but her action, informed by a practical understanding that “makes use of the senses” in calculating what to do. While one who acts intelligently and with a purpose will indeed draw on considerations made manifest by observation, inference, etc., in calculating how to act, this calculation is not a form of reasoning whose conclusion supposed to be supported by the considerations in light of which it is drawn. Instead it is reasoning through which an action is identified as a suitable means to an end, and the object that is apprehended as the conclusion of this reasoning is not a mere representation of what to do, but rather her action itself.

6.6 Summary discussion

Let us return to the paragraph that concluded Section 32:

Can it be that there is something that modern philosophy has blankly misunderstood: namely what ancient and medieval philosophers meant by practical knowledge? Certainly in modern philosophy we have an incorrigibly contemplative conception of knowledge. Knowledge must be something that is judged as such by being in accordance with the facts. The facts, reality, are prior, and dictate what is to be said, if it is knowledge. And this is the explanation of the utter darkness in which we found ourselves. For if there are two knowledges—one by observation and the other in intention—then it looks as if there must be two objects of knowledge; but if one says the objects are the same, one looks hopelessly for the different (p.199) mode of contemplative knowledge in acting, as if there were a very queer and special sort of seeing eye in the middle of acting. (I, §32, 57:3)

At the end of section 4.3 (see p. 114) I distinguished four important ideas here:

  • First, that the knowledge of one’s intentional actions is knowledge without observation.

  • Second, that the normative relation of this knowledge to what it is knowledge of is different from that of knowledge that is supposed to be an accurate record or representation of its object.

  • Third, that a person’s knowledge of her actions has a kind of priority with respect to the reality that it is knowledge of.

  • Fourth, that this knowledge is practical rather than “contemplative.”

We are now in a position to put these pieces together, and also to see why this could not be done until we understood the nature of practical reasoning. The claim in Section 31 that when a person fails to act in accord with her judgment “the mistake is not one of judgment but of performance” (§31, 55:1) does not mean that in such a case the person’s judgment is knowledgeable nevertheless. Nor does Anscombe’s denial that in the case of intentional action the reality known is “prior” to the knowledge of it mean that this knowledge can be properly “judged as such” even when it is not“in accordance with the facts” that it describes. Rather, her claim is that a person’s understanding of what she is doing is the standard or—this was Aquinas’s term—measure of its object, since it is in relation to this understanding that the failure or success of her action is determined. And it is likewise the cause of its object, since she who acts intentionally does so from her understanding of what she is doing and why, and her exercise of the capacity to act is “nothing but the doing … of the operations of which [she] has practical knowledge” (§48, 88:2). As such, the ground of this knowledge is not reasoning in which a conclusion is “derived from the objects known” (§48, 87:4) in a way that aims to reflect what is anyway the case, but reasoning that concludes in an action that is performed for the sake of an end, in light of what an agent knows about herself and her circumstances. The “seeing eye” in acting is the eye of the agent herself, who discerns her material situation and reasons to action in light of what she knows. When all goes well she acts as she intends, and does so in a self-knowing manner. The object of this knowledge is her action—a (p.200) single reality that is known practically, without observation, “in intention” by the agent and, perhaps, also through observation by others.

Suggestions for further reading


(1) This chapter incorporates material drawn from my paper “Understanding ‘Practical Knowledge,’ ” though I have changed my mind about a number of things since then—see section 6.5 for an especially significant retraction.

(2) Compare NE VI.2: “Intellect itself … moves nothing, but only the intellect which aims at an end and is practical” (1139a35–b1).

(3) For example, at the end of a generally sympathetic discussion of Anscombe’s critique of causal theories of action, Stewart Candlish and Nic Damnjanovic write that “Anscombe’s account of ‘practical knowledge’ is hard to interpret … and so it is difficult to see the alternative to either interior acts of intention or causalism that she has in mind” (“Reasons, Actions, and the Will,” pp. 100–101). Less enthusiastically, David Velleman writes in Practical Reflection (p. 103) that Anscombe’s conception of practical knowledge appears “not just causally perverse but epistemically mysterious.” However, Velleman softens this assessment somewhat in pp. xxi–xxv of the preface to the 2007 reprinting of the book.

(4) Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 3, a. 5, obj. 1; quoted at I, §48, 87:4.

(5) The argument is: “The ultimate end of any creature consists in becoming like God. But man is more like God with respect to his practical intellect, which is the cause of things thought of, than his speculative intellect, which derives knowledge from things. Therefore man’s happiness consists in activity of his practical rather than his speculative intellect” (ST I–II, q. 3, a. 5, obj. 1). Aquinas denies the conclusion, arguing that human beings are more like God in our speculative capacity than our practical one, and moreover that “with respect to the principle thing known, which is his essence, God has only speculative knowledge, not practical” (ST I–II, q. 3, a. 5, obj. 1, ad. 1). He takes this to show that our highest intellectual good, i.e., the respect in which we are most like God in his intellectual perfection, is in speculative rather than practical intellectual activity.

(6) For an argument along these lines, see ST I, q. 14, a. 5, obj. 3.

(7) The background to this distinction is the traditional principle Omne quod est in aliquo est in eo per modum eius in quo est : Whatever is in something, is in it according to the mode of that in which it is. For discussion of the legacy of this principle and its role in Aquinas’s thought, see John F. Wippel, “Thomas Aquinas and the Axiom ‘What Is Received Is Received According to the Mode of the Receiver.’”

(8) For thefollowing distinctions, see ST I, q. 14, a. 16c. Though her reference there is to Aristotle, I suspect that this passage is in the background of Anscombe’s threefold distinction in Section 33 of Intention between “the theoretical syllogism,” the “idle practical syllogism which is just a classroom example,” and “the practical syllogism proper,” where in the last case “the conclusion is an action whose point is shewn by the premises, which are now, so to speak, on active duty” (I, §33, 60:1).

(9) In Intention, Anscombe quotes Aristotle as saying that practical reasoning must concern “what is capable of turning out variously” (I, §33, 60:1). She doesn’t provide a reference, so I’m not sure if this is the same passage, but the underlying point seems to be the same. (As Nat Stein and Kim Frost have both pointed out to me, Aristotle says similar things at NE III.3 and VI.7.)

(10) This last point is somewhat obscure to a modern ear. Another way to draw this conclusion would be to say that given God’s power he has no need to calculate means to his ends, and therefore his knowledge is never practical in its mode. I am not sure whether Aquinas would have endorsed this line of argument.

(11) Quoting from Pasnau’s translation at https://spot.colorado.edu/~pasnau/westview/st1a78-7984-86.htm.

(12) These relations of dependency were analyzed in section 3.3.

(13) Remember: this is not the same as denying that many of the same physical processes involved in action also take place even when we do not act!

(14) The point here is not that it cannot be an open question whether a given movement is an intentional action, or whether a given series of sounds, marks, or movements is linguistically meaningful. (On this point, see Anscombe’s discussion of the biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast in §46, 84:2.) But when we ask whether the sounds, marks, or movements made, e.g., by a non-human animal are a kind of speaking, writing, or signing, what we are asking is whether they are suited to the form of description that an account of meaning would provide—which is why the judgment “It’s meaningless” has a different significance in reference to a nonsense poem than to the babble of a human infant. In the same way, to deny that an event was an action, or that it was something done intentionally, is to deny that it is so much as suited to the form of description involved in reason-giving explanation—which is why “For no reason” means something different when we say it about an action rather than a cosmic event.

(15) Not that there isn’t room for ambiguity here: perhaps my cheerfulness made me giddy and distracted, and so I lost my footing on the ice, etc. But that the statement is ambiguous between this (highly unlikely) reading and the reason-giving one is exactly the point—they postulate two quite different relations between how one feels and what one does.

(16) Kim Frost reminds me that “telephoning” here must mean more than simply dialing someone’s number on a phone—something easily done by accident, even in the days of rotary dials. The concept involves a communicative element too: to telephone someone is not just to dial their number into a phone, but to do this as way of calling them up.

(17) Notice that this is the sort of contradiction that in section 4.3 I called practical contrariety. It is not the direct or “head-on” (§52, 92:3) contradiction that would be found in the expression of an opposing intention.

(18) Or, perhaps, the mere idea of doing such-and-such a thing—a possibility that I will set aside until we consider it very closely in section 6.4.

(19) G.E.M. Anscombe, “The Two Kinds of Error in Action,” p. 4.

(20) Aristotle, Physics II.3, 194b27–30.

(21) Aristotle, Physics II.3, 194b32–33.

(22) For example, Kieran Setiya claims that “[w]hen Anscombe calls practical knowledge ‘the cause of what it understands’ she means formal not efficient cause” (“Knowing How,” p. 151 n. 26), and Richard Moran writes that for Anscombe “the sense of the phrase from Aquinas is not about the efficient causal role of intention in producing movements, but rather concerns the formal or constitutive role of the description embedded in one’s practical knowledge” (“Anscombe on Practical Knowledge,” p. 228). (Setiya says the same thing in his entry on “Intention” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. )

(23) See Physics II.3, 195a6 and Metaphysics. V.2, 1013b12, where andriantopoiêtikê, i.e., the craft of sculpture, is identified as an efficient cause of a statue. (I think it was Kim Frost who first called this to my attention—and thanks to Nat Stein for helping me decipher the text.)

(24) For further discussion of this point see Kim Frost, “A Metaphysics for Practical Knowledge.”

(25) What about final and material causality? This is tricky. In most cases a person’s knowledge of her action is not itself the end for the sake of which she acts (though cf. Velleman’s Practical Reflection for an opposing position)—but as we have seen this knowledge does play a role in constituting her action as one that is ordered toward such-and-such an end. In an earlier version of this commentary I proposed that the material causes of human action were just the bodily states and processes studied by physiologists, but Will Small has suggested, plausibly, that the “matter” of action consists rather in the capacities for self-movement that are joined together in the exercise of skill. (Here it helps to bear in mind that for an Aristotelian the concept of materiality is relative: e.g., the body is the matter of a human being, organs the matter of the body, and tissue the matter of the organs. In each case the relevant material cause is determined relative to the set of capacities associated with the form in question. I thank Nat Stein for some helpful discussion of this.)

(26) Hornsby, “Agency and Causal Explanation,” p. 289.

(27) This is what Anscombe says at the end of Section 22: “to say, in one form or another: ‘But Q won’t happen, even if you do P,’ or ‘but it will happen whether you do P or not’ is, in some way, to contradict the intention” (36:3). On the special variety of contradiction involved here, see my analysis in section 4.3.

(28) It might not be: for perhaps there is “a lift which [she] can work from the top of the house to bring the camera up from the bottom” (§22, 36:2).

(29) The point of the qualification “all else being equal” is to rule out a case where, e.g., the man’s intentions also change, perhaps because he decides that he can just as well buy margarine.

(30) For my earlier discussion of these distinctions see section 4.3, especially Table 4.2 on p. 113. My paper “Understanding ‘Practical Knowledge’ ” follows Sebastian RÖdl (“Two Forms of Practical Knowledge and Their Unity”) in distinguishing the second and third possibilities, but not the first and fourth.

(31) For the last example, see I, §23, 40:1.

(32) See the discussion in section 3.5, with reference to section 1.2.

(33) This is also the point of the paragraph that diagnoses “the temptation to make the real object of willing just an idea” (§45, 82:5–83:1)—this is a temptation, because what it tempts us to think is mistaken.

(34) For reference to other passages that challenge this interpretation of Anscombe’s position, see my discussion of Sections 31–32 in section 4.3.

(35) Compare Aquinas, who writes that whereas “speculative reason only apprehends things, … practical reason not only apprehends but also causes them ” (ST II–II, q. 33, a. 1c; emphasis added).

(36) I’m grateful to Kim Frost for pointing out to me that the argument depends on this assumption, and for suggesting the response that I consider in what follows.

(37) Another difficulty is that it is not at all clear that there cannot be such a thing as practical belief. For a detailed discussion of what practical belief could be, see my paper with Berislav Marušić, “Intending Is Believing.”

(38) Thus Anscombe talks of “knowledge or opinion” pertaining to “the topic of an intention” (§28, 50:3).

(39) Cf. Anscombe’s remark that “an intended effect just occasionally comes about by accident” (§23, 39:1).

(40) Of course I might say something like, “I didn’t know that she was cheating—this is why I never shared the worry with you”. But in this case the context, and the special emphasis on “know,” cancel the usual implicature.

(41) For this case, see section 4.1.

(42) Compare Anscombe’s remark that it is “necessarily the rare exception … for a man’s performance in its more immediate descriptions not to be what he supposes” (§48, 87:2). But of course it is not just these descriptions that we are supposed to be concerned with—on this point see the discussion in section 4.2.

(43) For this case, see my paper “Understanding ‘Practical Knowledge,’ ” p. 25.

(44) Thanks to Beri Marušić and Juan Piñeros for discussion of this parallel.

(45) Compare again what Anscombe says about getting one’s camera: §22, 35:5–36:1; and cf. my discussion of these matters in section 3.3.

(46) Aquinas makes this point as well: he says that practical reasoning “take[s] for granted” principles that are known in other ways, including “facts of sense observation, for example, that this is bread or this is iron,” as well as “general principles” that may be known speculatively, e.g., “that adultery is prohibited by God or that man cannot live without sufficient nourishment” (ST I–II, q. 14, a. 6, c). I thank Fr. Stephen Brock for pointing me to this passage.

(47) That is, his senses help to verify or ground his “account of exactly what is happening at a given moment … to the material [he] is working on” (§48, 89:1). The use of “exactly” here makes it seem as if the account that is verified by the senses might be at a finer level of detail than the descriptions under which it is intentional, but I don’t believe this is what Anscombe has in mind.

(48) Thus she writes: “Of course we have a special interest in human actions: but what is it that we have a special interest in here? It is not that we have a special interest in the movement of these molecules—namely, the ones in a human being; or even in the movements of certain bodies—namely human ones” (§46, 83:3). For discussion of this passage, see section 6.2.

(49) I identified these mistakes, and argued against them, in section 4.2.

(50) See fn. 6 on page 106.