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Frankfurt’s Argument from Spiders

[Not sure whether to cast this as an objection to causal theories or as a generally interesting argument? Maybe Davidson vs Frankfurt opposition could start from the Frankfurt’s Argument from Spiders and then go on to guidance vs causal history?]

Frankfurt’s Argument from Spiders

(I will take you through it then ask you to reconstruct the argument.)

‘the contrast between actions and mere happenings can readily be discerned elsewhere than in the lives of people.

There are numerous agents besides ourselves, who may be active as well as passive with respect to the movements of their bodies.’

Including spiders.

‘The two contrasts [one in the case of humans, one in the case of spiders] are the same’

‘Each contrasts instances in which purposive behavior is attributable to a creature as agent and instances in which this is not the case.’

Explications of the distinction between actions and events that merely happen to an agent cannot rely on ‘distinctive higher faculties which characteristically come into play when a person acts’, nor ‘upon concepts which are inapplicable to spiders’.


Frankfurt, 1978 p. 162

reconstruct the argument

1. There is a contrast between actions and mere happenings in the lives of spiders.

2. The contrast in the lives of humans is the same.

3. Spiders do not have intentions, nor do they deliberate about what to do.

Therefore (from 1 & 3):

4. The contrast in the case of spiders cannot be explicated by appeal to intention.

Therefore (from 2 & 4):

5. The contrast in the case of humans cannot be explicated by appeal to intention.

Do you understand the argument? If so, is it sound + valid?