[Karl Marx, William James, John Dewey, Ervin Goffman, Kenneth Burke]
To act is to take action. Action means motion or change that ground in the nature of things. (Aristotle) For Burke, action is the human body in conscious or purposive motion. Having a consciousness and purpose requires free will and choice. Without choice, it is only a physical replacement from one place to another over time. Interpretations of action are in the spectrum of phenomenal and ontic planes. Marx perceives action in material sense, whereas William James is more interested in the phenomenal qualities. John Dewey, Erving Goffman and Kenneth Burke differ from James with their essentialist point of view.
For Marx action exists in historical process. Action is not an ideal, or happens in a symbolic world. The relation between the oppressing and oppressed class drives the action. The oppressed class is the working class, called proletariat, which is the subject matter of action. In one of later comments on Communist Manifesto, he states that he uses materialistic dialectic in which the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into the form of thought. Even though he distinguishes himself from idealistic (Hegelian) dialectic, he traps into another idealism of proletariat. Proletariat has the capacity to change the historical situation into its reverse by using revolution. Revolution is a tool for the motion of proletariat in the historical plane. The motion aims at utmost control of the proletariat. Marx perceives the whole action as a motion takes place in a linear historical process.
William James’s approach differs from Marx in its subject matter that is not the working class, but the human. In his argument, he chooses activity that means a natural or normal function as a process. James distinguishes activity as bare and complete activities. Bare activity is the aimless movement without a definite direction, whereas complete activity is an intentional, and goal-oriented experience. The intention of complete activity is creation. His understanding of creation is not happening in an ideal, ontic plane. The creation is how can we make things be? “Real activities are those that really make things be, without which things are not, and with which they are there.” Maintaining, persisting, struggling, and paying with effort, as we go, hanging on, and finally achieving our intention, this is what James understands from action. He emphasizes human action as a change in the process that causality is embedded in it. His approach to action as a process seems parallel to Marx, but his understanding is placed in a situational context that implies human and his effort rather than a historical context.
John Dewey furthers action with the idea of interaction. For Dewey, action takes place in the form of experience that is shaped by human and his environment. He clarifies the reciprocal relation between those two by saying that human acts by doing whereas environment reacts by undergoing. It is not just doing, and undergoing but the relationship that prepares the ground for interaction. Dewey distinguishes experience as ‘Inchoate experience’, which lacks the unity in its causality, and ‘an experience’, which is having emotional, intellectual, practical qualities that construct the unity. An experience is aesthetic in its integration of these qualities. It is not likely to split these qualities from one another in an experience, however, emotional qualities binds parts together; intellectual states the facts; whereas practical points out the organism interacting with events and objects. Aesthetic experience does not only end up with the action and consequences, but also the perception of the meaning grasped by intelligence.
Kenneth Burke carries action from interaction to the territory of language. His conception of action is symbolic action in which the subject matter is human as a symbol-using animal. He postulates three axioms based on his differentiation: there can be motion without action, there cannot be action without motion, and symbolic action is not reducible to the terms of sheer motion; it is different in kind. This difference comes to duplication that based on the fact that elements of language are borrowed from non-symbolic motion. His postulation is a background to his language conception. He sees language as an essential quality of human and human experience. He unfolds human as a physiological organism of individuation, and as a personality or self of social. Physiological realm is corresponding the realm of motion whereas ‘self ‘ to the symbolic action. Self as a product of culture is developed via human experience by using language (symbolic action) to constitute the ‘reality’ (Sciences, mathematics, human relations). Language in Burkean sense is an entelechy for the human nature.
Action for Ervin Goffman takes place in problematic, eventful situations where the individual by choice and free will takes consequential chances perceived as avoidable. Action will not be found during the daily life routines at home or on the job. By the consequential events, individual shows his primary capacities such as unchanging behaviors, by the consequential and problematic events action evinces secondary capacities of the person, which are called character traits. In this sense, action triggers a paradoxical situation in which character is both changing, and unchanging. Goffman interprets this situation as the motivation of our morale and continuity in the society. Action in this sense functions as an intermediary between person and the society.
To sum up, excluding Marx’s collectivist proletariat the subject matter of action is human being for the rest of the writers. Action means ‘motion’ of the proletariat for Marx, ‘change’ in an activity according to James, ‘interaction’ that forms an experience to Dewey, and ‘language’ as a symbolic action for Kenneth Burke. Action happens in a historical process for Marx, a goal-driven experience for William James. It takes place in eventful and consequential situations for Goffman whereas in relation of doing (human) and undergoing (environment) for Dewey. It exists as a polarity between symbolic action and sheer motion for Burke. Action’s goal is changing the oppressed situation to its reverse for Marx, creation for James, keeping the individual’s character in morale and continuity for Goffman, integrating the parts of experience through an emotional quality in aesthetic experience for Dewey, and constituting the ‘reality’ for Burke. Throughout the interpretations of action, it intersects with the character in Ervin Goffman. Action defines the character in eventful situations. It acts as a means to the conception of self in the social realm.