Action, doing something is a most essential thing in our Western culture. This is illustrated even by the importance of the verb "do" in the English language. We greet somebody "How do you do". Our literature consists mainly of descriptions of actions. Natural or man-made environment is only a background, a scenery for these actions. To say that a person is active, is to say something positive about him.
Our language is well adapted to describing actions, it is very much a language of action. This is shown by the importance of action and active persons, e.g. creators in our mythology and the survival of such images in a more latent form both in our everyday thinking and philosophy, as e.g. in our ideas about forces, laws and causality. The analysis of these examples indicates that our languages suit better for describing actions than facts, that we always have a tendency to see the world in patterns dictated to us by our language. i.e. by our models of description and explanation.
An explanation can be seen as a series of answers to questions about something. Our way of asking questions exemplifies our inclination to see the world as a field of action, not as a set of facts, of things which simply take place. The frequent use of the interrogative word "why" both by children and by adults is another example of this. It is completely natural to ask e. g. "Why did you open the window?", but is not as natural to ask "Why is the sky blue?" or "Why is there so much suffering in the world?" A great bulk of what is called mythology, theology and philosophy, consists in fact of tentative answers to such questions. Their essence can be summarized under a question "Why is the world as it is?" Perhaps Hegel was the last great philosopher whose life work was an attempt to find answers to this question.
Modern philosophy has become more and more conscious of the mythological and theological bias of of its classical inheritance. And, of course it has tried to get rid of it what meant also replacing the description and explanation of the world as actions by the description and explanation of the world as facts, as something taking place. In a way, it has attempted to answer to the question "What is really taking place in the world?"
As some people believe there must be a new heaven and a new earth some modern philosophers believed that there must be a new language. Beginning with Comte's positivism, Husserl's phenomenology, Mauthner's and Wittgenstein's "Kritik der Sprache" a big effort has been taking place to create this new language.
This proved to be much more complicated than many philosophical modernists assumed in the beginning. One of their stumbling blocks was certainly the problem of describing what really is intentional behaviour, human action, culture and history. Some philosophers rejected any possiblility of dualism and assumed that thee can be no fundamental differences between explaining e.g. the bouncing of a ball and the actions of a little girl playing with it. The difference is only on of complexity, but in both cases the ideal description and explanation would be physicalist, not mentalist. These ideas have not proved wrong in principle, but practically impossible to implement. In his writings on the theory of action Georg Henrik von Wright has proposed to keep the dualism as a kind of an inevitable compromise. Those attempting to describe actions simply as something taking place are going too far over the limits imposed upon us by our language. The world may be one, but we cannot describe it in one type of language.
The notion of action is connected with some other important notions like intention, ends and means, thinking, rationality, person and culture. A person is one capable of action, of intentional behaviour. Intentional behavior needs rational analysis, thinking. A culture is a set of rules and ways to describe and explain intentional behaviour. Anything or nearly anything in a culture has an intentional explanation, is considered as an action. Inside a culture we may ask about anything, why it is done. We buy shoes because the old ones have been worn out and the autumn is approaching. We go to the dentist because we have a toothache. We participate in a ritual because it gives us some material or spiritual help.
Both our actions, our behaviour inside culture and our understanding of it, describing and explaining it are a product of a long co-evolution and have influenced one another greatly. In a culture, we describe what we see and see what we describe. And mostly we see and describe our intentional behaviour. We stay up, we wash our hands, we take a book, we open the window. In a way, these actions consist of myriads of other actions and movements which cannot be described as actions. Impulses run in our nerves, our muscles contract, our eyes blink, images flow in our consciousness, we swallow saliva, feel an itch somewhere in our body, breathe. Clearly we cannot call an action something we are not conscious of, what we do not feel, as e.g. the growing of our nails and hair. But there are many other things happening that cannot be called actions, although we are well conscious of them. Such things are e.g. our thoughts, emotions and dreams.
The descriptions of these things are sometimes very similar to descriptions of real actions, although often there are even linguistic differences between them. We say "I love you" but "I fell in love with you", "I dreamed of you", "I feel sorry for you", "I think of you".
Our actions are always two-layered. They need attention, they need us being conscious of them, describing them and judging them in our consciousness. We can say that an action is something of which we can say that it has been done properly, correctly or not. We can behave properly, dance properly, write correctly, speak a language correctly, but we cannot fall in love properly, dream properly or feel cold properly. Can we think properly or is "thinking" simply a pseudo-description of something that is really no action at all? We can act properly because we can follow our actions and judge them. Can we follow our thinking? We can only judge its results, called thoughts when ready and formulated. I am inclined to think that the idea of "thinking" is an example of the intrusion of the language of action and intentionality outside its proper sphere of validity. Already Fritz Mauthner has written that it could be more correct to speak instead of "Ich denke" "Es dhnkt mich".
Every description of our actions, of our activity consists of a series of elementary or atomary descriptions. The core, the nucleus of these descriptions are sentences and the core of these sentences is a verb. Most verbs are indeed the result of a long evolution, the transitive verbs make up a list of what we are accustomed to consider as our most common and important actions.
There are some interesting verbs in some languages that are holistic and impersonal, describing mostly atmospheric phenomena as e.g. Finnish "tuulee", "valkenee". But nowadays most verbs in most Western languages are not holistic. They need a subject, a something or somebody. The subject of the verbs of action is a somebody, a person, although, linguistically the picture is far from clear: we can say both "The terrorist bomb destroyed the building" and "The terrorists destroyed the building". But in principle the picture is clear. Every action presupposes a person, a somebody. Even more: a somebody, a person is something which can be seen, described as an actor, as the subject of an action.
As a culture is the set of all possible actions (in this culture), then a person is somebody who can perform a part of these actions. A person has his/her role, a set of actions he/she must perform. In our culture an animal or an inanimate object is not considered a person. A psychically normal human being is considered a person, a member of the society, a subject of many verbs. Both him/herself and his fellow human beings pay by far most attention to his/her actions, these actions are judged, planned, evaluated, narrated, etc. In this way many aspects of a human being simply remain outside description and attention. Often people don't even notice them or consider them unimportant. Such things are e.g. dreams and many feelings when they do not surpass certain limits. As a rule, we are not very conscious of our own body and even of our own psychology. In our culture and probably in most cultures a person is determined from outside, mostly by his/her actions.
Against this background of strong links between the idea of a person, his actions and the ways of describing and explaining his/her actions it would be interesting to have a look on some different ways of thinking about a human being in his social and natural environment.
In several texts which could perhaps be called mystical we find the notion of non-action or non-doing. Probably the best known example of such texts is the Chinese classical book "Daodejing" which is ascribed to the ancient sage Laozi. Chapter 48 of this book reads:
Learning is daily filling.
Following Tao is daily diminishing,
until you reach non-doing.
There is non-doing, but nothing is left undone.
You govern the world
forever doing nothing.
If there is action, the world cannot be governed.
The notion of non-action (wu wei) is often used in Far Eastern Mahayanic texts, probably under some influence of Taoism. But there are similar thoughts expressed in India too, for example in one of the most popular religious books "Bhagavadgita" where we read:
Who sees action in non-action and non-action in action, is sage amidst men, the dedicated one, accomplishing all the deeds.
Whose all deeds are free of desire and intention, whose desires have burned in the fire of wisdom, this man is called The Awakened One by the learned.
Having abandoned attachment to the fruits of action, always content, without hold, although busy with action, he does nothing.
Such thoughts are found also in the Christian mystical tradition, as e.g. in the writings by Suso: "The action of a man who has written off himself, is this abandonment itself and his doings are a rest, because he remains still in his action and in his doings is doing nothing."
We can also keep in mind that one of the most essential points in Luther's theology was his conviction that it is impossible to achieve salvation by any deeds, only by belief which by Luther is also a kind of a non-action, acceptance of God's grace, not seeking for it. The negative attitude of most Lutherans toward any mysticism is the result of their interpretation of mysticism as an effort to reach God whereas only God can reach us. We could perhaps say that the Lutherans think that we can never meet Christ when we actively seek after him, he can come to us only when we have abandoned ourselves and even our wish to meet him. As all mystical teachings, the Lutheran theology is essentially paradoxical.
It is interesting that mystical traditions so disparate as Taoism, Hinduism and Christianity speak sometimes the same language about action, personality and intention. It is extremely improbable that there were mutual influences between these three traditions; their similarity can be only the result of some basic affinity of human experience and thinking everywhere. Many people have had similar experience in similar situation and interpreted it in similar way.
The basic traits of this experience and its interpretation are these: there is a big difference between a common man and a sage, a mystic, an ideal person. The difference lies essentially in the different understanding by a common man and a sage of his self, his actions and intentions. Following a main theme in any religious teaching we can say that a sage is a man who has succeeded in getting rid of an erroneous image of his self. This self--image is something the Western philosophy has not studied much. It has been taken for granted even in the theological tradition where there has been much discussion about the immortality of the human soul but far less talk about what the soul really is. The soul, the personality has most often be remained outside the limits of what was investigated. It has remained an axiom, an essence, something given, created by God. There was much ontology and little psychology in the Western rationalism, be it theologically or liberally oriented. The exception is mysticism, but the problem is the exceptionally poetical and metaphorical tradition used by such people as Eckhard, San Juan de la Cruz or Thomas a Kempis. Their descriptions are difficult to analyze when we do not share their ardent belief.
The situation is different in the Far East where the Buddhists tried to analyze the self, atman as a non-essence, a complex of attributes, arriving in this way to the destruction of our self-image, treating it as an illusion. The later Mahayanistic approach reminds of the modern existentialist approach. One of its essential points can perhaps be resumed in a simple phrase: our self-image is not our self, is not ourselves. If we understand this, our attitude to ourselves and to everything else changes radically, we are liberated from the prison we have built around ourselves of erroneous ideas. The Taoist attutude toward self is basically similar. The book of Zhuangzi as many other classical texts point to the fact that a human being is a psycho-physiological complex without a centre, an "ego" which coordinates its activities. Everything in our body and mind happens spontaneously, by itself (ziran). In principle, man is a self-regulating system and as such, similar to Nature and its subsystems, if we use this modern way of expression. The Taoist ideal of "diminishing" as opposed to learning in the text quoted can be interpreted as abandoning the self-image, the image of a ruler, a God or a soul governing the body-mind. When there is no self-image, there is also no activity, what we do, cannot be analyzed as intentional action with its motives, goals and means, but is rather a part of the Great Natural Process, of the Tao itself.
The active man belongs certainly to culture as opposed to Nature. The non-active Taoist belongs to or strives to belong to nature. In fact, the word itself (ziran) means both nature and "spontaneous", "by itself". In its own way the Far-Eastern thinking has also tried to overcome the dualism between facts and deeds, as well as between thoughts and deeds, the two-layeredness of ourselves. The difference between the two is that the Chinese or Japanese were much less interested in theory than in practice. For them, theory was mainly a guidance for practice, for action or non-action. We should certainly also judge them according to their practical achievements which are impressive especially in the field of arts, in creative activity. The efficiency of the mystical non-action could give us some impulse for analyzing and investigating it in our own way. In any case the mystical experience is something to be included in any serious study of man, his activity and language. We have enough proof of the fact that our self-image, our ideas about our self, our intentions and actions are only one of many possibilities. We can imagine that some of our favorite ideas are similar to the idea of ether of absolute space that the modern natural science has abandoned. Certain people in certain situations can probably have no self-image, no self and act by means of non-action. Our common way of organizing ourselves, our activity and experience may well be just a special case as Eucleidean geometry or Newtonian physics.