Student Report on Superdeep #12: “Anscombe on Basic Action: Doubts about Doubts” by Nathan Hauthaler

Superdeep #12 is part of Superdeep philosophy workshop series led by Professor Nathan Hauthaler. 

Reported by Dongkun Lyu, Class of 2023.

G.E.M. Anscombe (Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe) was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century whose research mainly involved the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind/psychology, philosophy of action, and moral philosophy.

This seminar focused on the Philosophy of action field. Professor Nathan Hauthaler led students into this field by first clarifying the definition of basic action, which was defined as “action that is not done by means of doing another”.

He then delved into reasons in favor of basic actions and demonstrated what critical attitudes Anscombe and Anscombean philosophers would show towards basic action. These attitudes were named “Doubts about Basic Action” in Anscombe’s archive.

Here Nathan introduced another fundamental notion, description, which could be used to further clarify basic action and introduced a process of regressing by which could also ascertain basic action if the process stops. Notwithstanding, there is still a worry about basic action. How could one know whether there is a more basic action, for example, at least more basic than raising your knee.

Since Anscombe herself needed the notion of action, so she could not bypass these worries about basic action. It may be explained more precisely by resorting to “‘introspective attention” according to Anscombe’s manuscript.

Throughout the seminar’s conceptual tandem, Professor Nathan gave many examples of specific actions to distinguish and strengthen comprehension. For instance, in clarification of basic action, he explained why the action “kicking” is not a basic action, since one needed to kick by raising one’s knee.


Q&A session:

One student was confused about the differences between behaviors and actions since she was taking a neuroscience course that mainly discussed behaviors rather than actions.

Professor Nathan answered this question by expounding on the differences across disciplines and also touched on some of the development of the philosophy of mind. In short, behaviors were mainly discussed on the dimension of organisms while actions were always related to some philosophical field encompassing mind and action.

One professor showed great interest in how Nathan would peruse these archives from Anscombe.

Hence Nathan introduced how to unscramble the archive and label thoughts in the whole development process of Anscombe’s philosophy theory. For example, when you need to analyze the approximate timing of a manuscript, you can start by focusing on the topics discussed in the manuscript. Then, analyze the approximate period in which related topics in this field have been widely discussed. Then the manuscript is likely to have been created during or after this period.


*The content of this seminar encompasses unpublished manuscripts of Anscombe from the archive, please do not reference quoted Anscombe Archive passages*