Anscombe on the descriptions under which actions are performed

I’ve been meaning to explore G. E. M. Anscombe’s Intention for years, partly due to the influence it had on the critical realist idea of concept-dependence and my hunch that something might have been lost from the original source material. The notion as I first encountered it was that action is performed under certain descriptions which constitute the meaning of that action. As Anscombe writes on pg 12-13:

Since a single action can have many different descriptions, e.g. ‘ sawing a plank ‘, ‘ sawing oak ‘, ‘ sawing one of Smith’s planks ‘, ‘ making a squeaky noise with the saw ‘, ‘ making a great deal of sawdust’ and so on and so on, it is important to notice that a man may know that he is doing a thing under one description, and not under another. Not every case of this is a case of his knowing that he is doing one part of what he is doing and not another (e.g. he knows he is sawing but not that he is making a squeaky noise with the saw). He may know that he is sawing a plank, but not that he is sawing an oak plank or Smith’s plank; but sawing an oak plank or Smith’s plank is not something else that he is doing besides just sawing the plank that he is sawing. For this reason, the statement that a man knows he is doing X does not imply the statement that, concerning anything which is also his doing X, he knows that he is doing that thing. So to say that a man knows he is doing X is to give a description of what he is doing under which he knows it

My suspicion is that social theorists often mangle this insight by failing to distinguish consistently between discursive penetration into the structures which lead a person to do X and the fact they knowingly do X under a description which is irreducible to that structure. This means that affirming the knowability of actors is often confused with an over-socialised view of the actor, in which recognising that people can account for why they do what they do goes hand-in-hand with the (implausible) claim this includes how they came to do this thing, in this way, at this moment. The former is far wider category than the latter, which involves specialised insight reliant on a distance from objective conditions and trending towards error.

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