Trying: Its Scope and Limits
What can we try to do and what can’t we try to do? The OED defines “try” as “to make an attempt or effort to do something”, so our question becomes what can we make an attempt to do. The following come within the scope of trying: bodily and mental actions such as lifting a weight or calculating in the head, remembering facts or experiences, imagining objects or states of affairs, thinking about particular things (but not thinking tout court), conceiving of something as possible, attending to something. On the other hand, the following would be agreed to fall outside the scope of trying: perceiving, believing, knowing, feeling an emotion, having a desire, and trying itself (you can’t try to try to open a letter). I can’t try to see something just like that, though I can try to get a better look at something, because seeing isn’t an action that I do; similarly for believing and knowing. Nor can I try to feel angry at someone, or try to desire what I don’t desire. These things are not “subject to the will”. Of course, we can try to undertake actions that will reliably lead to certain emotions or desires, but it is futile to attempt to feel an emotion or have a desire just by trying to: these things are not actions, so we can’t make an attempt to do them. Trying presupposes action, so where there is no action there can be no trying (same for deciding and intending). I can’t try to do what I know can’t be done.
Can every action be attempted? Can I try to jump to the moon, say? It is widely accepted that such actions can’t be intended: you can’t intend to do what you know it is impossible for you to do. The OED defines “intend” as “have as one’s aim or plan”, and one can’t have as one’s aim or plan what one believes it is impossible to do. But can one try to do what one deems to be impossible? I think not: if I believe it is impossible to jump to the moon, I can’t try to do it—I can’t make the attempt. I can try to jump some of the distance to the moon (and succeed in this attempt), as I can try to give the impression that I am trying to jump to the moon, or try to act the part of someone trying to jump to the moon: but I can’t actually try to jump to the moon given that I believe it is impossible—though I can try it if I am convinced that it is possible. Trying is constrained by belief: belief limits what can be tried. The will is limited by cognition. Thus the will acts only with the permission of belief; it isn’t an independent faculty. We should really speak of the conation-cognition complex. You can see what you know is impossible (e.g. an Escher drawing), but you can’t will what you know is impossible—specifically, you can’t try to do what you know can’t be done. Trying is not some primitive upsurge of the conative faculty; it needs the cooperation of the cognitive faculty. Given that we try to do everything we do (conversational implicatures to the contrary), we have the result that all actions presuppose a belief that the action in question is possible—even just walking down the street. If you were to believe that walking is impossible, you could not try to walk, which means that you would not walk: walking implies trying to walk, but trying to walk implies believing it to be possible. If you believe yourself to be paralyzed, truly or falsely, you won’t do any walking (though you might be hooked up to a machine that made you perform walking-like motions). The agent needs a general belief (assumption, presupposition, instinctive conviction) that she can do what she can in fact do. Willing and believing are not conceptually separable. Trying can’t exist in a cognitive vacuum.
You can’t try to do what you believe you can’t do, but can you try to do what you believe you must do? Can you try to do what you know is unavoidable? Can you try to breathe if you can’t help breathing, for example? Can you try to do what you are already doing reflexively? I don’t think you can: you have to believe that it is possible to do what you are not doing. If I believe that I have no alternative to what I am doing, I can’t try to do it—at most I can try to let it happen. I can’t try to fall through space if I have been ejected into outer space; I can’t try to lift my arm if I see it automatically going up; I can’t try to close my eyelid if I feel it closing reflexively. At most I can try to aid these motions, but I can’t try to initiate them. So trying requires the belief that the action envisaged is not an inevitability. I can only try to do what I believe it is possible for me not to do: that is the cognitive background to my act of trying. Generally this is the situation—it is rare that I am compelled to act as I do—but in conceivable cases my power to try is limited by my beliefs about what I must do. In such cases I don’t have to try, because I have no alternative. So there are possible actions that are not preceded by trying. Nearly all actions are preceded by trying, since it is rare that the agent has no alternative, but such cases are conceivable. Trying is thus sensitive to background modal belief both as to possibility and necessity, so it cannot occur without appropriate such beliefs: you can’t try and simultaneously believe the action is impossible or that it is necessary.
 You might wonder whether an absence of belief is sufficient to allow for trying: what if the agent simply has no belief either way about the feasibility of the action? Could a man try to jump to the moon while having no belief that it is possible so to jump (and no belief that it is impossible)? That would imply that if you asked him whether his projected action is possible he would truly reply, “I have no idea either way”. That seems hard to understand: one would be tempted to respond, “How can you try if you don’t even think it’s possible?” He would be committed to holding, given his agnosticism, that he had not ruled out the impossibility option and yet was still prepared to go ahead and try. In normal cases the agent will say, “Of course, I think it’s possible or else I wouldn’t make the attempt”. What we try to do is shaped by what we think we can do—we don’t go around trying to do what we know very well we can’t do.