….or more specifically, ‘Really Trying and Merely Trying’. Dr Paul Faulkner (Philosophy, Sheffield University) introduced us to the connections between philosophy (and epistemology in particular) and running, last night, using the theory of knowledge to shed some light on the experience of running, and the experience of running to illuminate some issues in theories of self knowledge and the nature of action.

Yoda: a supporter of disjunctive theories of basic actions?
Yoda: a supporter of disjunctive theories of basic actions?

A keen runner, Paul discussed the difference between his experiences of two recent races, the Brighton marathon in 2010 and the London race in 2011. The latter case, he felt, was a race that ‘went badly even if it didn’t go wrong’. What could this mean? He drew on the epistemology of self-knowledge to explore the experience. Some actions, he pointed out, are ‘basic’ in the sense that one knows what is going on ‘from within’, simply by doing something. For example, one knows one has raised one’s arm simply by carrying out the action of raising one’s arm. The ‘first-person’ epistemic authority possessed by reports of such experiences is different to that which attaches to observational ‘third-person’ reports.

In such ‘basic’ experiences, trying to do X is the same as actually doing X. This expresses a conjunctive theory of action, one in which the mental component of an act (intending to raise one’s arm) is identical with the physical component of actually doing it (raising one’s arm). The action is the intention and the caused action. However, Paul suggested, running shows that there are basic experiences which are not conjunctive in this sense.

Suppose you are trying to run 5K in 20 minutes to attain a new personal best (PB). You are aware of the pace you need to run (and therefore tacitly acquainted with the ‘feel’ of running at this pace – the ‘rate of perceived exertion’ or RPE). So long as the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, you have trained to increase your pace and stamina, and have the physical capacity for the task (not ill, hungover, lacking sleep…) then simply trying to perform at this level should result in success. The experience of running at the correct RPE is a basic one, one that is of the same nature as raising one’s arm. Yet just trying , in this case, may not be enough. Trying to get a new PB is hard, whether over a short or long distance.

The reason why this is, Paul suggested, is because of temptation. By temptation, he intended something very specific. The kind of temptation that distracts one from one’s intention, in any given case, can be either corrupting or addictive. An addictive temptation is one that undermines one’s capacity to do something. Smoking is such an example, or fatigue experienced while running. A corrupting temptation, on the other hand, is one that give’s one the option of choosing to change one’s priorities. Stopping to eat cake rather than train is an example of giving in to such a temptation. In this case, it is not that one is (as in the case of an addictive temptation) without the capacity to withstand the temptation. Rather, one makes a judgement that giving in to the temptation is better than resisting it – insofar as it may bring more pleasure. So there is rationality – a reasoned ordering or priorities – at work here. One’s estimate of the gain that the basic action of running at a particular RPE will bring is lowered, and so one stops and indulges.

Experiments in psychology, Paul noted, suggest that willpower – the capacity to stick at achieving a chosen priority in the face of temptation – is finite. It can be used up. The difference between a good (Brighton 2010) and a bad (London 2011) race is one between a race in which one’s willpower is equal to the effort of trying to run the race, and one where one’s willpower gives out in the face of temptation – the temptation to regard the payoff of a successful race as ‘not worth the effort’. Experiences of doubt, of distraction, of self-consciousness during a race – the experience of not ‘being in the zone’ or not experiencing ‘flow’ – create temptation and the possibility of a basic action (running at RPE X) that fails.

This, Paul suggested, means that there are basic actions that are disjunctive. There are two kinds of ‘trying to race’, and any particular instance has to be one or the other: merely trying (and losing sight of one’s goal through temptation), or really trying (which achieves the goal). Running, then, shows us that some mainstream philosophies of action need to be revised, as the kind of self-knowledge they are based on may not actually exist.

In discussion, audience members questioned whether it makes sense to talk of a disjunctive distinction between kinds of trying in this way, or does it make more sense to consider the envisaged goal (completing the race in less than M minutes, say) being different from the tacit and embodied knowledge of running at a given RPE. Or whether, perhaps, there was an instinctual and a cognitive element to the process of running, and that instinctual definitions . More broadly, there was some scepticism about whether differentiating physical capacity from mental effort clarified or muddied our understanding of why two races might differ. One participant questioned the possibility of even comparing two races in the first place with the framework of a general theory of action, given the singularity of such an event.

The discussion then broadened out from epistemology to explore the point of running as a practice, taking in such issues as the relationship between the runner and the world, the distinction between the instrumental and intrinsic ends of running. Paul drew the audience’s attention to work by his colleague Jon Pike, in which it is argued that running exemplifies an Aristotelian idea of a practice with its own intrinsic goals and excellences.

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