There is a widespread belief that “action is greater than talking”. Intuitively, that seems right, yet upon reflection it not clear (a) what it even means and (b) if it’s even true. In this entry I argue that, upon reflection, regardless of interpretation actions being greater than talking is incorrect.
First and foremost, I’m going to assume that by ‘greater’ we mean of greater value (whether intrinsically or instrumentally). Surely we don’t mean ‘greater’ in terms of size or quantity; it would be entirely opaque to us how we could even measure the quantitative size of either, or what even the such measurements would look like.
First and foremost, a literal interpretation cannot be true. After all, talking is a type of action – one needs to move their body parts in order to produce the sounds required for talking.
So perhaps what the belief means is:
Every type of of action (except talking) is greater than the act of talking.
But this interpretation is pulled apart on both ends. On the action end, there are clearly some actions which are, all things equal, considered worse than talking. For example, we are often taught to solve our problems with our words rather than with our fists. So, all things equal, violent or oppressive actions are worse than talking.
On the talk end, there is some talking which has great value. Such speech acts include promising, apologising, ordering, politely requesting, swearing oaths, expressing intentions, motivations, etc. Such speech acts cannot be expressed through action by itself – such speech acts provide the grounds for us to evaluate the worth of actions. That is, we cannot judge whether some actions are good or bad unless talking occurred before.
Consider, for example, you seriously injured your best friend in some way (e.g., financially, emotionally, physically, etc.). Suppose you feel remorse for your actions, so you start performing actions in order to make up for your poor behaviour but you never apologise for the sleight. Even in such cases, your friend would still desire you to apologise – to verbally admit to your mistake and own up to it. Indeed, without the apology your actions to make up seem to fall short of being a proper apology. In such cases, talking is greater than action.
One might respond such speech acts are worthless without the necessary action to support them. What is a promise without the action of keeping it? The obvious answer is that such promise was worthless. But I can admit that without committing to the belief that ‘action is greater than talking’. All we need say is that action is just as important as talking – you can’t act on a promise which you haven’t made.
Perhaps what we mean by here is that:
actions are greater than talk because actions the metric to which we evaluate them favours actions more.
Two such metrics spring to mind. The first is normative results – bringing about states-of-affairs we desire to see come into existence. The second is communication: actions ‘speak louder’ than words.
Yet even using these two metrics, the belief that action is greater than talk falls flat. For it depends upon what type of results or communication we are trying to produce.
Consider again the apology: if the state-of-affairs we are trying to bring about is the rectification of a past sleight, than an apology is a necessary condition which must be met – and an apology can only be brought about through talk. The same would go for promises, requests, and other types of speech acts.
And while some actions do communicate messages more clearly than words, there are clearly some messages which can only be communicated via speech (e.g., an apology, a request for water, etc.).
Perhaps what we mean is this:
solving problems is greater than complaining about problems.
If this is what we mean when we say ‘action is greater than talk’, then we are very far removed from the saying itself. I have already explained (i) there are some problems which can only be solved by talking (e.g., apology), (ii) some problems talk is considered of greater value than actions (e.g., resolving conflict), and (iii) some actions cannot be evaluated unless the necessary talk has occurred before hand (e.g., promises).
Yet even complaining can solve problems: complaining can cause actions in others, whether to help the one complaining or to stop acting in such a way which causes the complaining.
Consider, for example, John and Mary who live together. John constantly leaves dirty dishes in the sink. Suppose this irritates Mary and she complains John about his behaviour. If Mary’s complaints stops John from acting (leaving dishes in the sink), then complaining has solved the problem.
But just acting by itself without talk, or thought, more often than not fails to produce results. For actions to be successful, they first require a plan or strategy. And we devise such things by talking them out, writing them up, and testing them. Without talk and construction of a plan, one’s actions are unguided and unlikely to achieve the desired outcome (e.g., resolving the problem).
It seems then, given all the above, the only interpretation we are left with is this:
solving problems is greater than not solving problems.
But this seems trivially true and not at all attached to the original belief. But given certain problems can be solved with just talk, while others can be solved with action and talk, there seems no reason to even invoke a value judgement about talk or action.
Rather, I suggest, is disposing of the belief and replacing it with a new and more truthful belief:
Action and talk both resolve problems. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stop talking and start acting, and when to stop acting and start talking.