Philosophy Phriday: Ant-I-Intellectualism

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the thirty-second contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Kieran Setiya.


We often get ants in our kitchen: relentless black ones scurrying from place to place with an air of purposive intelligence. Betraying no hint of indecision, they seem to know exactly what they are doing.

This is an ant, looking all relentless and purposeful. Photo: Alex Wild

Philosophers who work on agency have generally neglected ants. In the canonical literature, the closest we get to them are spiders, briefly mentioned in an essay by Harry Frankfurt. He insists that spiders are agents, contrasting the movements of their legs as they scuttle along the ground with the movements of their legs as they are manipulated by a mischievous youth. While the contrast is clear enough, it does not shed much light on action theory. We can equally contrast the movement of my leg when the doctor taps my knee with the movement of my leg when she lifts it with her hands. In the first case, I move my leg; in the second case, she does. But though it is something I do, my reflex kick is not the sort of action that action theorists address.

What, then, is the topic of action theory and how can ants illuminate it? Action theorists sometimes write as if they can clarify their questions by emphasizing a word: “What makes an event an action, something I do, not something that just happens to me?” But raising one’s voice is not enough. Better to admit a broad use of “action” on which it applies to everything that is done and ask, “What is it to act intentionally?” It is intentional action that is the subject of action theory.

In her enigmatic masterpiece, Intention, Elizabeth Anscombe approached this question in two related ways. She held that an action is intentional when it is subject to the question “Why?” understood as a request for reasons. (“Why are you crushing that ant?” “In order to keep it off my food.”) She also held that the question is “refused application” by the answer “I was not aware that I was doing that.” I am not crushing the ant intentionally if I don’t know that I am crushing it. In fact, we can say more: I am not crushing the ant intentionally if I learn that I am crushing it by being told, or by noticing after the fact, or by making an inference from the sound I hear as I take a step. As Anscombe puts it, intentional actions are “known without observation”: when you are doing something intentionally, you know you are doing not on the basis of observation or inference, but through what she calls “practical knowledge,” a kind of knowledge that guides and sets a target for your action.

Of Anscombe’s two ideas, the first has been more influential. Many action theorists identify acting intentionally with acting for reasons. Anscombe stops short of that, allowing for intentional actions done for no particular reason, as when I idly but deliberately crush an ant. But she treats the connection with reasons as the key to intentional action.

One man’s thought experiment is another ant’s threat. Photo: Alex Wild

Whether ants act for reasons, and what it would mean for them to do so, has been the subject of a previous post in this series. We will turn instead to practical knowledge, guiding knowledge of what one is doing. Despite purported counterexamples, the idea that intentional action is to be explained through such knowledge has persistent advocates, myself among them. What can we learn from applying it to ants?

To paraphrase John Dunn: “The view that [ants] do not really know what they are doing is poised uneasily between truism and absurdity.” If ants have knowledge at all – a question I won’t attempt to settle here – there is little reason to doubt that they know some of what they are doing. If they represent the world, some of those representations are of what they are up to and play the sort of role in guiding their behaviour that practical knowledge plays in us. None of this calls for consciousness. Even in our case, practical knowledge is to be distinguished from conscious awareness. When I take a nap between paragraphs, you could truly say of me that I am writing an essay about ants, and that I know I am.

The extent of ants’ knowledge is a contested question. The extraordinary coordination of ant collectives may emerge from rather simple rule-governed behaviour by individual ants. The ants build a network of tunnels the height of the Empire State Building (to scale), but they may not do so intentionally. Individual ants may represent themselves as doing no more than picking up and dropping grains of sand. Even that much is disputable. Do ants represent what they are doing to themselves? Can they have first-person thoughts?

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that they can. Is that enough for ants to act intentionally? Must they also act for reasons? What would that entail? Many philosophers claim that, when you act for a reason, you take that reason to justify what you are doing, at least to some extent. When we act for reasons, we act “under the guise of the good.” This calls for evaluative capacities ants probably lack. But I don’t think the claim is true. What is true is that, in acting for a reason, you take your reason to explain what you are doing, to be a reason why you are doing it. For instance, you know that you are reading this post in order to learn about philosophy through ants, but that doesn’t mean you think it’s a good idea.

The demand for knowledge why you are doing something is more modest than the demand for knowledge why you should, let alone the demand for reflection or deliberation some intellectualists impose on acting for reasons. Still, it may exceed the intellectual capacity of ants. We face, here, the fascinating possibility of creatures that know what they are doing but do not know why. The ant knows that it is moving the grain of sand from here to there, perhaps, but not that it is doing so because that helps to build the nest or because it is where the pheromones point. Its actions are subject to biological, but not intentional, teleology.

Why does this matter? For many, it is enough to invoke the joys of myrmecological speculation. But there are implications for philosophy that should interest even those who are not obsessed with ants. If creatures of this kind are possible, the capacity for intentional action, in the form of practical knowledge, comes apart from the capacity to act for reasons. The orthodox view is wrong. Anscombe herself would resist this verdict, arguing that “the concept of voluntary or intentional action would not exist, if the question ‘Why?’, with answers that give reasons for acting, did not.” But we can imagine an insect philosopher, Ant-scombe, who has a more open mind. The idea of practical knowledge does not entail a further capacity to explain what one is doing.

Elizabeth Antscombe

This is the tip of the anthill. Philosophers care about action theory in part for its own sake, in part because they care about ethics, which the philosophy of action informs. The most ambitious are ethical rationalists or “constitutivists” about practical reason. They hope to derive the standards of ethics from the nature of agency, its “constitutive aim,” as we might derive the standards for being a good microscope from the nature of the instrument, the purpose or activity by which it is defined. Once we know what it is to act intentionally, these ambitious thinkers hold, we can say what it is to act well. Ant-scombe is rightly sceptical of this idea. The capacity for intentional action is too thin, its demands on the agent too minimal, to be a foundation for ethics. We can’t extract a scheme of virtues from the aim of practical knowledge. If the standards of ethics are to be found in the nature of anything, it won’t be the nature of agency, but the life form that instantiates it. If you want to know how ants should live, you can’t just study intentional action; you have to study ants. I think the same is true of us.


KieranSetiyaDr. Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He works in ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, a self-help book aimed at a general audience, and his favorite performance by an ant is this.