Monday, October 07, 2019


In my blog last week I said that usually we don’t say that an action is an attempt. We just do. But under which conditions is it then that we call an action an attempt? I think that a good starting point for making this clear is Stuart Hampshire’s description of trying, which I came across once when I was preparing an article. We speak of attempting or trying, so Hampshire, when “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”: We call an action a try “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed”. But this is only so, if the agent knows what to do and has decided to act: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1965:107). And I want to add: The agent has not only decided to act, but s/he has started the action as well and maybe already fully performed. Only then there is a try. This addition is perhaps implied by Hampshire but not explicitly said.
But what does it mean that a try involves “some difficulty or a possibility of failure”? As we have seen in my blog last week, an action can fail for two reasons. This implies that there are also two kinds of attempts. First, an agent may choose a certain action and perform it. Moreover, s/he knows that normally s/he is able to perform the action till the end, but s/he is not sure whether the action will result into the effect desired. For example, a runner wants to qualify for the championship. She knows that she can do it, but maybe the strong wind will prevent that she’ll succeed. We call such an action a try, because it’s not sure whether the desired result will be attained, although the agent feels sure that the action itself can be performed.
However, it’s another kind of trying, if the agent doesn’t know whether s/he can fully perform the action as such. Then the try is in performing the action, not in attaining the result. For example, the runner just mentioned knows that her shape is good enough to qualify for the championship. Also the weather is perfect. However, she has got an injury and doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to finish the race. She just tries.
I’ll ignore the possibility that both kinds of tries apply at the same time (the injured runner doesn’t know whether she can qualify, anyhow), but we have seen here two different kinds of tries or attempts. In the first case, the try is in the intended effect of the action; in the second case the try is the action itself. Putting it differently, in the first case the question is whether the action is the right means (the runner might try to qualify one week later, when the weather will be better), while in the second case the question is whether the agent is able to perform the action itself.
How long does an attempt last? When do we no longer talk of a try? In case an action is stopped before it has been completely performed, the answer is clear: The try ends as soon as the action stops. This is also so if the try is of the first kind: If the action has been fully performed but we don’t know yet it’s result, nevertheless the try has ended then. This is the case, for instance, when we have finished the race, but some other runners not yet; or the official results of the race haven’t yet been published. There still can be many reasons then that we haven’t qualified, but our action has ended and the try is over, although we don’t know yet the result. Try and action on the one hand and knowing the result (so succeeding and failing) on the other hand have a different time span. It can even be so that a try has a shorter time span than the action that belongs to it. This is so, for instance, when halfway the race the runner sees that she’ll not qualify. She can stop running then but she doesn’t, for she wants to finish anyway.
Can we try and we don’t know? Sometimes a person succeeds in spite of herself, but unless she herself decided to make an effort to succeed, we cannot say that she tried. She just did.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.

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