Newswise — Should you be commended and acknowledged for the emergence of insightful ideas seemingly out of nowhere? Absolutely, argues philosopher Francesca Secco, who aims to add depth to our understanding of what constitutes an action.
Creativity exhibits itself in diverse ways, often necessitating concentration, effort, and prolonged diligence. Despite these endeavors, there is no guarantee of finding a solution to the problem at hand.
Francesca Secco, a philosopher at the University of Oslo, acknowledges that we all encounter difficulties in generating novel ideas. We've all experienced writer's block, where the path forward appears elusive.
However, on occasion, a fresh concept appears to spontaneously enter our consciousness.
"As a researcher, this is a recurrent experience for me," explains Secco. "I may be grappling with the pursuit of a worthwhile idea for an article or presentation, and I simply have to let it go."
"But then, when I least expect it, while engrossed in an entirely unrelated activity, or seemingly lost in thought, a sudden and liberating idea strikes—a breakthrough that propels me forward in my creative work."
Such instances of unexpected inspiration deserve acknowledgment and appreciation.
The famous stories of Archimedes in the bathtub and Newton under the apple tree serve as classic examples of this phenomenon.
This principle holds true for artists, writers, and scientists, but it can just as easily apply to carpenters or plumbers facing challenges while constructing a new house.
It could also manifest as a sudden notion about how to beautifully set the table for Christmas dinner.
In the past, such occurrences may have been attributed to a muse or to divine intervention. However, Secco argues that we should indeed applaud individuals who generate ideas in this manner.
Even though these ideas appear to emerge in our minds without warning.
"The fact that we, as individuals, conceive these ideas is something deserving of recognition and praise because it happens to us and not to others," asserts Secco. "The reason we find ourselves in that particular situation is due to our unique blend of knowledge, interests, and experiences. This is something that can only transpire within us specifically."
Moreover, the creative process is not concluded or perfected solely by the occurrence of a valuable idea that arises spontaneously.
"The creative process extends well beyond the initial thought," emphasizes Secco. "In the case of a researcher, for instance, a new idea alone is insufficient. It must also be tested and potentially substantiated. However, this is a deliberate and purposeful undertaking. We have control over this aspect of the work."
Secco finds this distinction between intention and idea intriguing, particularly in relation to the realm of action theory within philosophy.
What distinguishes actions from events that befall us? Traditionally, an action is defined as something we consciously and deliberately engage in, as opposed to events that simply occur to us.
For instance, being struck by a ball or, worse yet, being hit by seagull droppings while sunbathing would fall into the latter category. Our bodily functions, such as digestion or experiencing hiccups, are not considered actions either, as they happen automatically.
But what about those thoughts that unexpectedly enter our minds without conscious effort? Although they lack intentionality, does that mean they should not be classified as actions?
"I don't consider the idea itself to be an action, but I do believe that the process that gives rise to the idea should be regarded as an action," clarifies Secco. "It qualifies as an action because it is intricately linked to the individual who conceives the idea. It reflects their personal interests, past experiences, and knowledge."
Consequently, Secco advocates for a more nuanced perspective on what actions can encompass within action theory. It shouldn't be confined solely to intentional actions.
"I'm not attempting to negate the existence of intentional actions, but I contend that it is just one way to capture the profound relationship between a human being and their actions," explains Secco.
Is reading considered an action? Another illustration of actions extending beyond intentional acts is evident when we encounter a word or a sentence in front of us.
"When it comes to reading, it's not something you can easily avoid. You have to deliberately look away if you don't want to read a word. If actions are strictly limited to intentional acts, then we must question whether reading can be classified as an action," Secco points out.
If reading is not considered an action, then, from a philosophical standpoint, it would fall into the same category as digestion or hiccups. Secco finds this notion unreasonable.
"Even though reading occurs automatically and it may seem like something that happens to us, I want us to recognize that we are actually engaging in an activity when we read. It is a skill we have developed, something we have honed over time, and it also involves our prior knowledge," she explains.
Secco hopes that by bringing nuance to the concept of action, it will open the door to new questions and discussions within philosophy, and possibly extend into psychology and behavioral theory as well.
"Perhaps there are forms of behavior that philosophers can approach with fresh perspectives and evaluate differently. Another pathway is to reevaluate our understanding of individuals who perform actions, bridging philosophical ideas closer to the reality of who we truly are as individuals engaging in actions," Secco concludes.
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Agency beyond Intentions. On the intimate connections that relate agents to their actions, , PhD Dissertation, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, June 2023.