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  • Writer's pictureJoe

Never ever read a review of your book

I’ve been re-reading Judith Jarvis Thomson’s monumental and fundamentally important Acts and Other Events (1977) because I’m currently revising a paper on the problem of temporal order relations for the unifier and multiplier accounts of action individuation. For one reason or another, I decided to read some reviews of Thomson’s book to get a general feel of what peers thought of the book. Before I had read these reviews, I thought very highly of the book. I thought it was masterfully written, had clever arguments in it, and set out a new course of study in action theory. I was especially impressed by Thomson's approach to matters that showed actions are not events, i.e., that the prevailing assumption the two were identical was false. Many action theorists, even today, believe that actions are events. Not Thomson and she takes great pains to show why.

I was shocked by the reviews I found. Sure, Michael Bratman's review in Noûs was sympathetic with Thomson. But even he believed that Thomson's views were "opaque." Others weren't so kind.

One reviewer’s comments were outrageous. This reviewer writes:

“The book is idiosyncratic to the point of perversity.” “[The book] manages to be at one and the same time technically pedantic and philosophically vague.”

Anyone who has read Thomson’s book would find it to be a monumental work for action theorists and metaphysicians with interest in the philosophy of action or mind. Idiosyncratic is not a term that someone should use to describe a work so important as Thomson's. Even more, to call her writing vague seems to miss the mark completely. There are many ways I would describe Thomson's writing but vague isn't appropriate. She is maximally rigorous, unrelentingly clear, and her arguments are insightful and genuine.

The reviewer may have been distracted by Thomson’s notation, but that’s a problem for the reviewer not for the book. Other than that I cannot even begin to speculate why the reviewer would have been so harsh in her assessment of Thomson’s work.

Perhaps Thomson’s most important contribution appears in chapter 4. There, she lays out her temporal order relations argument against the prevailing accounts of action individuation. She identifies all of the major assumptions and implications of the problem in meticulous detail.

The problem is very basic but the implications are great - all previous accounts of action individuation are problematic. Imagine a situation where Jones shoots the czar at noon on Tuesday, but the czar doesn’t die until 500pm on Friday. Can we say truly that “Jones kills the czar” before Friday? On at least one account of action individuation Jones does kill the czar before Friday because Jones’s shooting the czar just is killing the czar. That means Jones killed the czar at a time before he actually died. How can Jones kill somebody without their dying? Something’s wrong with this account.

On another account, Jones’s killing the czar is distinct from Jones’s shooting the czar. But, if Jones dies before the czar does, then Jones continues to act after he’s dead. The implication is that both accounts of action individuation are strikingly odd. Thomson lays out the problem and offers up an ingenious componential solution to it, showing how parts of an action may be distinct from a core or foundational action.

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