DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2022, from

Article Summary

Philosophical study of human action owes its importance to concerns of two sorts. There are concerns addressed in metaphysics and philosophy of mind about the status of reasoning beings who make their impact in the natural causal world, and concerns addressed in ethics and legal philosophy about human freedom and responsibility. ‘Action theory’ springs from concerns of both sorts; but in the first instance it attempts only to provide a detailed account that may help with answering the metaphysical questions.

Action theorists usually start by asking ‘How are actions distinguished from other events?’. For there to be an action, a person has to do something. But the ordinary ‘do something’ does not capture just the actions, since we can say (for instance) that breathing is something that everyone does, although we don’t think that breathing in the ordinary way is an action. It seems that purposiveness has to be introduced – that someone’s intentionally doing something is required.

People often do the things they intentionally do by moving bits of their bodies. This has led to the idea that ‘actions are bodily movements’. The force of the idea may be appreciated by thinking about what is involved in doing one thing by doing another. A man piloting a plane might have shut down the engines by depressing a lever, for example; and there is only one action here if the depressing of the lever was (identical with) the shutting down of the engines. It is when identities of this sort are accepted that an action may be seen as an event of a person’s moving their body: the pilot’s depressing of the lever was (also) his moving of his arm, because he depressed the lever by moving his arm.

But how do bodies’ movings – such events now as his arm’s moving – relate to actions? According to one traditional empiricist account, these are caused by volitions when there are actions, and a volition and a body’s moving are alike parts of the action. But there are many rival accounts of the causes and parts of actions and of movements. And volitional notions feature not only in a general account of the events surrounding actions, but also in accounts that aim to accommodate the experience that is characteristic of agency.

    Citing this article:
    Hornsby, Jennifer. Action, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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