Monday, November 16, 2015

Are individual actions possible?


Sometimes we do things alone, sometimes we do things together with other people, tuned to what our companions do – together with us. We could call the former kind of doings individual actions and the latter one coordinated actions, or maybe joint, shared or collective actions – the term is not important. Are individual actions possible?
Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht in order to go to a concert there. So I take my coat, walk to the railway station, buy a ticket and get in the train, after it has arrived. In Utrecht I get off the train, leave the railway station and walk to the concert hall. This complicated action of going to a concert can be divided in a series of subactions with their own separate intentions that can also be considered on their own. I’ll consider the subaction “taking the train to Utrecht”.
When I want to spade my garden, I walk to the shed behind my house, take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself. How different it is when I take a train. Taking a train is not possible without the presence of a whole man-made and man-maintained infrastructure. In order to be able to take the train (in a legal way), first I must buy a ticket, for instance from a ticket machine. Even this simple action supposes many intentions and actions of other persons in order to make it possible! Someone (or several people) must have thought out this system, some must have constructed the machine, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, must maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. In selling railway tickets a whole structure of intentions and actions is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. No one could print his own train ticket, or it would be seen as forgery.
It is the same for getting in the train and going by it to your destination. This is only possible if there is an infrastructure intentionally built up by many people who cooperated together in making it, with their own individual reasons and intentions for doing their tasks and, last but not least, the personnel (engine driver, guard) on the train and others that make that the train can safely ride on the railways.
So what looks like an individual action with an individual intention at first sight, turns out to be possible only if there are other people – most of them unseen by you – who each for their own reasons help you perform your action in some way. The individual action of taking the train to Utrecht can be performed only within the presence of an intentionally built up structure intentionally run by cooperating people. And so it is for performing many other individual actions as well, if not for most of them: they are based on a structure of individual intentions and actions geared to one another in order to make their realization possible. We need coordinated intentions and actions in order to make the structure run. In the case of my example, we could call it “railway system” or “maintaining a railway system”. Moreover, it works in two directions: No train, no customs, but also no customs no train. One implies the other and every participant needs to endorse the coordinated intentions and actions in some way. Every participant makes his or her own contribution realizing his or her own individual intentions.
The upshot is that most individual actions are difficult to distinguish from what I called coordinated actions. The difference is rather gradual than absolute. Most actions that are individual on the face of it can only be realized by cooperating with others in some way, as it is the other way round.
And how about spading your garden? Is it really an individual action, as I supposed? Who made your scoop? What made it that you are allowed to spade that piece of land? Why did you want to dig your garden? (maybe for selling the vegetables you grow there or preparing the soil, because you want to compete in a flower show next year?) It is to be wondered whether really pure individual actions are possible, or you must be a Robinson on a deserted isle before you met your Friday.

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