Juarrero, Dynamics in Action, Chapter 14

Juarrero, A. (1999). Narrative explanation and the dynamics of action (Chapter 14). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (pp. 217–244). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

(You may find it helpful to review the reviews I wrote of Chapter 9 and Chapter 13 of this book before tackling the current chapter. Not that those earlier reviews are great, but this material was a hard slog even with that orientation; I would not attempt it without.)

In Chapter 14, Juarrero proposes hermeneutics as the appropriate model for explaining the dynamical systems of human intention and action.  She recaps the “received model” of explaining causes and then explores the hermeneutic model, both in the context of “stable systems” and of systems undergoing “phase changes.”

Recapping: Critique of the “received model”

First, recapping the “modern model” of causation, which she ties to Newton, Hume, and contemporary Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy (including folks like Austin, Ryle, and Davidson), Juarrero explains why she believes that model is inadequate for explaining human action and intention.

According to the received model… an event is considered fully explained only when its occurrence can be inferred (either deductively or inductively) from a covering law together with initial condition statements.
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Also, because philosophy’s understanding of causal relations and explanation required that the explanandum be identified with the generalizable and repeatable, the object or phenomenon in situ to be explained first had to be lifted from its concretely individuated particularity so to be always and everywhere. (p. 218)

In this “deductive-nomological” (D-N) or “covering law” model, the thing to be explained (the explanandum, from the Latin passive participle, pl. explananda) is satisfactorily explained by a set of premises (the explanantia, from the Latin active participle, sing. explanans), at least one of which is law-like (the covering law), and all of which are empirically verifiable (or, rather, falsifiable, in the Popperian sense). I think the simplest example is the syllogism: (1) All men are mortal. (2) Socrates is a man. Therefore, (3) Socrates is mortal. (1) is the covering law, (2) is an empirical claim, and (3) is the consequent or explanandum. Note that this model does not really address causation; rather, causation is seen here as diachronic correlation. This view of causality assumes “that similar causes, under similar conditions, always produce similar results,” but we now know that “this is true only for closed liner systems of independent objects” (p. 220).

I read Juarrero as arguing that (1) the goal of the received model to generalize (deductively or inductively) requires the isolation and control of variables, which (2) are the “concretely individuated particularities” that actually encapsulate the possibility of explaining a complex dynamical system. In complex dynamical systems, even tiny differences in initial states, can cause dramatic divergences in outcomes, even after only a small amount of time (p. 229). Thus, considering any control loop without a deep understanding of its history and context (both things the D-N model eschews) produces an unsatisfactory explanation. In particular, the D-N model seeks generalities on the theory that variation is noise; for Juarrero, “[o]ne mark of… complexity is that variations in behavior are often not noise at all: irregularities can signal the presence of a strange attractor” (p. 222; see discussion of ‘attractors’ in summary of Chapters 9 & 13 below).


Juarrero claims that “explaining why a complex system took the particular path it did will… always require interpretation” (p. 222). She considers the role of such hermeneutics both in “stable states” and during the “phase changes” that separate them. According to Juarrero, a phase change is

the qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints governing the previous attractor regime. [See the reviews of Chapters 9 & 13 for some explanation of what that means.] The shift creates new relationships among the system’s components as well as between the system and its environment. Phase changes signal a reorganization of the old dynamics into a new system with renewed relationships among the parts. These new relationships embody new properties and are governed by new laws. (p. 232)

Juarrero offers examples of felicitous and infelicitous phase changes, as for example when the alcoholic abruptly goes sober and remains so for the rest of her life, or when the agent under extreme stress has a nervous breakdown.

Juarrero models her conception of hermeneutics on Gadamer, who propounds an approach of moving back and forth (which Juarrero calls “tacking” after Geertz—a sailing metaphor, I think) between the parts and the whole, recognizing that each level explains and defines the other. I interpret Juarrero as claiming that the hermeneutic explanans is in a sense isomorphic with the explanandum: “hermeneutics reproduces the very logic of nature’s open, adaptive dynamics…. Interpretations, therefore, explain by showing… nonlinear, interlevel processes at work” (p. 223; emphasis mine). And, “by relying on concrete, contextual, and temporally grounded narratives and reenactments, myths and tales explain because they recreate the open, nonlinear dynamics of the real processes they purport to explain” (p. 241; emphasis mine).

She contrasts 19th-century hermeneutics, which she describes as a sort of science of the text (probably still reflected in Justice Scalia’s philosophy of textual interpretation and in those few New Critics still analyzing literature).

She gives an example of the analytical process she supports:

From descriptions of the dynamics of a particular instance of [an agent’s] behavior it might be possible to reconstruct the agent’s character or personality and therefore the intention that constrained the behavior. We can then examine other examples of that person’s behavior to see whether the character that these additional examples suggest corresponds to the personality we inferred earlier. If the test is positive, we reasonably conclude that the first behavior was “in character.” As a result, we judge it to have been the agent’s action and hold him or her responsible. (p. 224)

This process moves among levels, between the agent’s internal dynamics and context, and between the present and history of the agent. “The whole point of hermeneutical interpretation of action is to show how meaningful intentions emerge and then purposively constrain the behavior that flows from them” (p. 225).

Juarrero spends a good deal of space explaining the analytical approach in more detail, noting the need for a rich reconstruction of agents’ prior intentions “from which the behavior issued” (p. 226) and the environmental constraints that account for decision ‘forks.’

In the case of phase changes, things are more complicated. Here, the agent’s dynamical systems themselves undergo a transformation; they cannot thus explain their own transformation. (Juarrero makes reference to genealogical accounts, and I wonder if this is a reference to Foucault.)

She admits that the hermeneutical process does not provide certainty (p. 225). It is also profoundly influenced by the explainer, who “as much as the phenomenon explained, is embedded in time and space” (p. 237). Contrast 19th-century hermeneutics, discussed above, with a view of the text as having an objective meaning.

I submit that two contexts provide an action’s “literal” meaning: the historical background and contextual setting in which the action was performed, and the context established by the “small world” of the action itself. Two contexts likewise frame the meaning of a hermeneutical explanation: the historical background and contextual setting in which the interpretation is offered, and the context established by the “small world” of the interpretation itself. (p. 237).

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