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Social Agency and Practical Reasons

A Practice Account

Christine Chwaszcza

Tying in with major traditions of ordinary language philosophy, the author presents an account of practical reasons in social agency that radically challenges the two mainstream accounts of practical reasons, the desire-belief model and the neo-Aristotelian «sub-specie-boni» model of practical reasons. She argues that the traditional focus on instrumental rationality and teleological reasoning ignores important types of non-purposive and agent-related reasons that play a major role in rule-based context of social agency and reciprocal interaction. The argument contributes to the analysis of promising and social conventions, reconstructions of acting together and shared intentions, and develops a new account of institutional and rule-based agency in terms of non-moral normativity.

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Chapter 1. Promising. A Paradigm Example of a Social Practice


To promise to perform an action (“promising”) is perhaps the most discussed example of a social practice besides language. I will use it as a vehicle to introduce the concept of a rule-guided practice.

As with so many other things, it is Hume who first pointed to the problems that continue to puzzle philosophers ever since. Although Hume himself might have thought that he raised only one question, I will follow Anscombe (1978/1981) and distinguish two. Hume’s first problem falls into the sphere of philosophy of language. He finds it “naturally unintelligible” how saying “I promise” can denote an obligation. His second problem concerns the normative quality of promissory obligations and brings us directly to the main topic of the book. For Hume maintains that it is a mystery how what we would call a speech act can generate, or give rise to, an obligation (Hume 1740/1978, bk. III, part II, sect. v). Whereas quite a few modern philosophers would argue that Hume’s first problem can be ignored because it is tied to the idea that concepts (and speech acts) must refer to some inner impression or idea, the second problem continues to puzzle philosophers today.4

In this chapter, I will be interested primarily in the conventional structure of promising, rather than metaethical disputes concerning the justification of the obligation of keeping one’s promises. It is necessary to keep these questions apart because they raise different issues. A few remarks concerning the normative quality...

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