Are you trying?

Wittgenstein (1953) observed, “[w]hen I raise my arm, I do not usually try to raise it” (p. 623). On his view, trying occurs when, for example, you want to raise your arm, yet someone is holding it down, or it’s numb, or you want to be called on to speak but are enormously nervous at the prospect and thus need to exert your will to get that arm up—but not when you reach for the shampoo, hail a taxi, or catch a ball. And more recently, Robert Audi (1993, p. 92) has argued that although agents may try when they encounter resistance, agents need not exert themselves or try to act in ordinary situations. Other philosophers, however, such as Brian O’Shaughnessy (1981), Jennifer Hornsby (1980), and Robert Hanna and Michelle Maiese (2009) argue that trying is an essential element of all intentional actions. If this is correct, it would follow directly that expert actions, which is my concern, involve trying in this minimal sense as well: not necessarily trying your best, but still trying nonetheless. Do all of our actions involve trying in at least this minimal sense?

Let’s say every morning you toast a bagel for breakfast. Clearly, we normally do not say that when you do so you are trying to toast a bagel. Slicing it in two involves trying. But it would be odd to say that you try, in the typical situation, to toast it. Yet what can we conclude about phenomenon of trying from the mere fact that it sounds odd to attribute trying to our quotidian tasks? One might argue that how we ordinarily speak is one thing, while how things are is another (Grice 1989; Hanfling 2000, though for a contrary view see Derrida 1967). Whether this is true or not, it does seem unwise, when thinking about philosophical questions, to entirely disregard our ordinary manners of speech, since manners of speech sometimes embody common sense, and while common sense shouldn’t be the last word on a matter, it is often reasonable to take it as the first. In other words, I see it as reasonable to ask of any theorist whose views are contrary to common sense for an explanation of why common sense or ordinary language is wrong on this account.

O’Shaughnessy (1981) seems to take a similar stance since his first line of business, in arguing for the view that all of our actions involve trying, is an explanation of how true claims can sound odd. He reminds us that the statement, “the president is sober this morning,” sounds odd, yet is (presumably) nonetheless true (for the time being). And he thinks that the oddity of imparting trying to everyday actions can be discounted for the same reason that we discount the oddity of asserting the president’s break-of-day sobriety. If so, he will have taken care of what he sees as his first line of business. Yet, does this particular analogy help us to understand why it sounds odd to impart trying to everyday actions? Although the statement “the president is sober this morning” provides an example of a true sentence that sounds odd, it is not clear how relevant it is to the case in question, since it seems that the sentence “the president is sober this morning” sounds odd because it suggests that on other mornings he is not, which would, of course, be shocking. But the same analysis does not account for the oddity of “he tried to toast his bagel,” since it would not be shocking to hear that on other mornings he does not try to do this, but just does it. “I tried to cross the street” may sound odd as well, however, again, not because it would be shocking to hear that sometimes (or even often), I don’t try when I cross the street but rather, much like the proverbial chicken, simply walk to the other side.

O’Shaughnessy, however, is thinking of the analogy rather differently. As he sees it, we understand that “the president is sober” is true because it makes sense to say that the president is sober in response to someone who insists, as O’Shaughnessy puts it, that the president was “blind-drunk at his breakfast” (p. 365). If so, because this would be the correct answer to the question were it to be asked, O’Shaughnessy claims that it is true, despite the oddity of the statement. Having diffused the oddity of the president’s sobriety, O’Shaughnessy’s second order of business is to show how a similar line of reasoning indicates that even though the comment that, for example, we try to tie our shoes every time we tie our shoes sounds odd, it is nonetheless true. We can see that trying is nonetheless involved in such actions, he thinks, because we can imagine certain situations in which the trying is revealed.

Hornsby (2015) agrees with this: “[B]y way of seeing that we can often envisage a person [who sees the action as involving trying], we should be persuaded (defeasibly perhaps) that ‘He tried to φ’ is not merely compatible with a man’s success in φ-ing, but integral to his having φ’d intentionally” (p. 85). The central point, according to O’Shaughnessy (1981) is that all action brings with it the possibility of failure. “Of no situation,” he tells us, can it be said:

This situation bears a charmed life . . . Therefore the totally aberrant can never be guaranteed not to happen. Now it is precisely this refusal of empirical reality ideally to match our mental representations, it is this special brand of uncertainty hanging like a question mark over everything, that gives trying a permanent foothold in intentional action. (p. 366)

What are we to think of this line of argument? I think that we are all now pretty much convinced that the total aberrant can occur, however, is this a reason to impart trying to all of our actions? Is there a giant question mark hanging over everything we do?

Consider an example of Arthur Danto’s, which Hornsby (2015) cites favorably:

I dial Jones’s number. . . . If I fail to reach Jones, I say I will try again, meaning that I will again dial that number, and if I reach Jones, I will have succeeded, even though I did nothing differently on that occasion than on the one before. (Danto 1966, p. 57)

Must we say, long with Danto and Hornsby, that you are trying to reach Jones every time you dial Jones, whether you succeed or fail? Suppose that Jones is your son’s third-grade teacher, and your spouse has told you to call Jones today to apologize for the fact that you won’t be able to volunteer for the cupcake sale to raise money for the school’s “just say no to sugar” campaign. If you call only once and don’t get through, you are going to be in deep water: “you didn’t even try,” your spouse will complain. And a reasonable response for you to make in such a situation would be, “true, but I wasn’t motivated.” Of course, another reasonable answer would be: “yes I did, but not very hard.” Is it even possible to determine which of these responses captures what was really going on?

Though I would love to hear your thoughts on this, I am going to unabashedly be a coward and leave that question open since my concern, as I said to John in response to a comment he made on my first post is with expert action, is with the actions of individuals such as the professional basketball player during a game or a professional pianist during a performance, for example. And in my book I argue that the type of extended analytical training that experts partake in, as well as the relatively higher stakes involved in expert action, make quotidian tasks (such as everyday driving) different enough from expert-level actions (such as professional race-car driving) so as to not warrant extrapolation from the how we perform in the former to how we perform in the latter. It very well may be, as Bernard Williams (1985) points out, “that a practical skill can, in an individual case, be destroyed by reflection on how one practices it” (p. 167). However, as Williams also says, in “favorable circumstances,” reflection may enhance expertise. Such circumstances, I argue, generally occur when an individual has undergone ten or more years of close to daily extended practice with the specific aim of improving, and, importantly, is still intent on improving. One theme of my book is that this manner of training enables experts to perform while engaging their self-reflective capacities without any detrimental effects; it allows experts to think and do at the same time.



  1. kevin

    Imagine you dial a friend, Todd. Someone else answers. You might reasonably say. “I am trying to reach Todd.” Whether you now reach Todd is not relevant. You tried (intentional action).
    If you reach Todd, you succeeded (you “did”).
    If you do not read Todd, you failed (you “did not”).
    Wittgenstein equivocates the failure of intentional action with intentional action itself.
    At least he tried.


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