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Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought Hardcover – July 30, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0674016705 ISBN-10: 067401670X Edition: y First edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; y First edition edition (July 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067401670X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674016705
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,905,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Thompson's work does not build on the foundation of some given literature. It lays the foundation. Of course, his thought rests on the history of the subject, but not in the way that it takes something for granted, treats something as established elsewhere. This explains the stunning originality of Thompson's work. Each of his essays reveals possibilities for thought unknown to the contemporary literature. It is not audacious to predict that Thompson will be the leading figure in moral philosophy over the next twenty years, and this far beyond the confines of Anglophone philosophy. (Sebastian Rödl, Universität Basel)

Thompson has developed a remarkably fresh and compelling account of three fundamental concepts in practical philosophy--life, action, and practice. Moreover, this account, in the manner in which it seeks to explicate and display the contents of these concepts, implicitly develops an original understanding of the nature and method of philosophy--a methodological conception which is of great general philosophical interest in its own right, apart from its local application to topics in ethics. His work is that rare thing: a contribution that stands a chance of transforming the subject. One interesting feature of Thompson's approach is that it is very difficult to place with respect to the ongoing mainstream debate in contemporary moral philosophy between naturalists and anti-naturalists. He has managed to find an entirely novel angle at which to enter the contemporary debate--one which places him in equal degrees within and outside both camps at once. Thompson's account is, in fact, a resolutely naturalist one, but of such an unorthodox variety that it helps to bring out the depth and character of the unquestioned assumptions that are usually taken for granted by all parties in the contemporary debate – assumptions regarding what any form of naturalism in philosophy must look like. In philosophy, quantity cannot be judged apart from quality. Some books are much longer than they appear; most are much shorter than their length, measured in pages, would lead one to suppose. The density of thought per page in this book is of a rarely paralleled order: it both requires and repays many re-readings. (James Conant, University of Chicago)

Thompson develops a modern version of an Aristotelian account of morality through reflection on the category of the specifically human, in contrast to the more prominent, broadly Kantian, focus on that of the person. He makes the focus on the idea of the human much more compelling, and much more difficult to escape, than anyone else has managed to do. He raises and addresses profound and fascinating issues about the sort of generality of which any approach to practical philosophy must take account. It reframes central debates in the areas it touches, and does so with a dazzling degree of depth. (Arthur Ripstein, University of Toronto)

Life and Action is one of the most important books to appear in philosophy in a generation. Thompson's reflections on life-form, on action and intention, and on social practices light up the field. Rarely does one encounter thinking of this depth, rigor and originality. If the philosophical understanding of human life matters to you, this book is absolutely required reading. (Jonathan Lear, University of Chicago)

Thompson provides an original account of the fundamental character of the concepts central to practical philosophy, which depends on a conception of philosophical method which is itself of great general interest, over and above its significance for practical philosophy. Michael Thompson is a philosopher of the first importance. (Cora Diamond, University of Virginia)

An exceptional piece of philosophy that is a reservoir of deep insights concerning life, action, and practices. The theory of action developed here, in particular, stands among the most significant contributions to action theory in recent years. It is quite simply a "must read" for anyone working in the area. Although Thompson's arguments will be of particular interest to philosophers working in action theory and ethics, they have much to offer those with interest in logic, philosophy of biology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of psychology...Thompson's theory of action is dazzling--deep, original, revolutionary, and in certain respects (I suspect) just plain right. (Paul Hurley Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2009-02-01)

About the Author

Michael Thompson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By GB on December 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Reviews online already attest to how ground-breaking this book is meant to be for ethics and political philosophy. Below is a brief summary. The best extended treatment of this book can be found in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, where there are very detailed summaries presented by Alice Crary and Dick Bernstein.

Michael Thompson's book is an innovative combination of analytic philosophy (esp. Frege) and virtue ethics/Aristotelianism (esp. Philippa Foot, Aristotle). The first chapter basically claims that while our judgments can take several logical forms (s is p), one such form has been grossly overlooked: the kind related to forms of life, or life forms, or species (Gattungswesen in Marx). Here, we see the Frege-Aristotle combo: like Frege, he looks at the logical form judgments can take a priori, but like Aristotle, he is focused on teloi, the forms or end-directedness of living beings. He then proceeds to show that this logical form ... this kind of judgment, which we assume in our discussion of living beings (incl. humans) and have access to a priori, has normative content, and therefore is an a priori basis for virtue ethics.

The second essay is certainly the most difficult and consists of a theory of action, whereby we don't need to explain actions by reference to psychological states (beliefs, desires), but only by way of more actions. It resists summary the most.

The third essay is on practices and dispositions, which are key concepts in moral and political philosophy, and ultimately claims that they presume the same logical form as does the first chapter's inquiry.

An Introduction to these three extended papers/chapters/divisions is essential for figuring out what is interesting about his claims ....
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Andreas on May 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been waiting for this book to come out for years - ever since I had the privilege to spend time discussing his ideas with Mr. Thompson when he was at UCLA. Analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, don't have a lot of exciting and penetrating analysis to offer these days. Mr Thompson's works and those of this teacher Philippa Foot are the exceptions.

As the unsophisticated business person I have become since my days in philosophy graduate school, I now feel entitled to say something entirely lacking in subtlety about this work: This is not only brilliant philosopical analysis. It is also (in my humble opinion) the only approach to ethics that makes any sense, that shows any promise at all. Michael provides a Wittgensteinian analytic foundation to an essentially Aristotelian/Marxian approach to ethics. His theory is based on the concepts of natural goodness and human flourishing which he shows to be rooted in our ordinary ways of speaking of plants, animals, ourselves and our actions.

This should be required reading in all colleges, maybe even high school. That way young people might be protected from the influence of pernicious nonsense like Ayn Rand's discount-Nietzsche,from the all too common shallow cultural relativism and from the equally harmful dogmatic superstitious weirdness of fundamentalist religious teachings (be they of the Christian or the Islamic variety).
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