In my research, I have built and deployed a developmental theory of intention to explain future-directed intention, acting with an intention, practical knowledge, and the distinctive role intention plays in human lives. My chief research goal is to refine and extend this theory to better understand ethics and the mind.
Long before there's a cherry, there's a cherry under development. Actions too can be under development.
When an action under development reaches its first major stage of development, it is an intention. Like when a cherry under development is a bud.
When an action under development develops beyond an intention, it becomes an attempt. It is not quite a mature action and doesn't yet manifest the features we typically associate with the action.
When an action under development is mature, it is not yet fully-developed (or ripe), but it does manifest typical features. This is what we often call 'an action'.
I work in action theory with the aim of understanding practical knowledge and practical norms. To serve this aim, I have constructed a novel theory of intention, according to which an intention is an action under development.
The guiding model for this ‘developmental’ theory is organic life: intention stands to action as (e.g.) tadpole stands to frog. So, just as a tadpole is a frog under development that (if all goes well) develops into a mature frog, an intention to do A is an action of type A under development that (if all goes well) develops into a mature action.
In my dissertation, I argued for this view in three parts. First, I argued that cognitivism, according to which an intention is a belief, cannot give a satisfactory explanation of future-directed intention. On such a view, forming a future-directed intention in the absence of sufficient prior evidence and out of a desire for its truth is impermissible, which is false. Second, I argued that conservatism, according to which an intention is a state, cannot give a satisfactory explanation of acting with an intention. On such a view, an action and the intention with which it is done are distinct and separate entities; thus, any explanatory connection between them, which must exist, will either be causal or sui generis. If the former, then the view faces the notorious problem of causal deviance, and if the latter, then the view means the introduction of an unfamiliar relation into our ontology.
Last, I argued that a theory that identifies intention with action can avoid the problem of causal deviance without positing an unfamiliar explanatory connection. If an intention is an action, then we can say that the intention with which an action is done is a wider action of which the given action is a part. Thus, if I am kneading dough with the intention to bake bread, this is because my intention to bake bread is my bread-baking and my dough-kneading is a part of that action. The explanatory connection here is the familiar dependence relation between part and whole. I call this the mereological account of acting with an intention (and it comes from Michael Thompson).
However, the theory of intention as action faces some serious problems. I argue that my developmental theory has the resources to avoid these problems and thus vindicate the mereological account. Briefly, if an action is an intention, then it seems that if an agent intends do to something, she is doing it. Yet, an agent can intend to do A while merely preparing to do A, or not taking any steps toward the doing of A, or while the doing of A is impossible. On my developmental theory, by contrast, if an agent intends to do A, she is not necessarily doing A; rather, she is developing A. And thus these problems do not arise.
There are two major places this research needs to go now. Since the developmental theory is a competitor to the dominant theories in the literature, I need to show that this theory can explain central desiderata. In particular, a central virtue of non-cognitivist conservatism (e.g., Michael Bratman’s planning theory of intention) is its explanation of the distinctive character and norms of intention. And a central virtue of cognitivism (e.g., David Velleman’s theory) is its explanation of practical knowledge—the special non-observational knowledge an agent has of her own actions. I need to show that the development theory can explain these too (thus making it the best explanation given the arguments above).
I’m working on these explanations, and I plan to write a book on practical knowledge and practical norms. In it, I will deepen and further defend my theory of intention by showing how it explains the character and norms of practical reasoning, planning, and coordination. I will also show how the developmental theory extends to desires, attempts, and doings: each are developmental stages with characteristic parts and norms. All this will give me the resources to argue for a theory of practical knowledge as the capacity to develop actions—that is, to move through the stages of deliberating, planning, executing, and completing actions.