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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V001-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved January 20, 2018, 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 theorists begin by asking what an action is. 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. So it seems that appeal to intentions is required. Learning what a person is doing intentionally may require finding out what their reasons for acting are, and thus coming to know what they want to be doing and what they think is a way to achieve what they want. So action theorists introduce (so-called ‘rationalizing’) desires and beliefs when they introduce intention. And insofar as they focus on intention, they generally set aside questions about the relation between human agency and the agency of other kinds of thing.

The contemporary literature is radically divided over the place of action in the natural causal world. This division is associated with a deep disagreement over the nature of causation. The ‘standard story’ (associated with Donald Davidson) makes use of a familiar model of causation as a network of causal links. On this view, an action is a bodily movement that is caused by the desires and beliefs that rationalize it. The desire, the belief and the bodily movement they cause are all taken to be inherently passive states or events, but the bodily movement is taken to count as an action in virtue of the appropriate, rationalizing, attitudes figuring in its event-causal history. The main alternative view makes use of an Aristotelian model of causal processes, according to which agents are an ineliminable part of the causal order. This view is associated with G. E. M. Anscombe, and is coming to be more widely accepted as renewed attention is paid to her book Intention. Its exponents hold that when the person makes their impact in the natural world, what they do is not detachable from their intentions in doing so. Exponents of the standard story suppose that the attitudes and the action are related as cause to (independent) effect, whereas exponents of the alternative view suppose that a basically different species of causal dependence (an internal one) is in play.

Aspects of the contemporary debate are prefigured in an older dispute over whether there are purely psychological ‘volitions’, or acts of will, in action. In each case there is disagreement whether an account of action can be built up out of intrinsically passive elements. There is also disagreement about the character and extent of the agent’s experience and knowledge of what they intentionally do.

Action theorists have tended to abstract from questions in ethics. However, there is a long philosophical tradition in which action and ethics are intertwined, from Aristotle’s emphasis on the virtuous agent to Immanuel Kant’s account of freedom in terms of the moral law. How far Aristotelian and Kantian ideas about agency can be developed independently from the ethical frameworks in which they were originally set remains a matter of dispute. But the concerns of legal and moral philosophy certainly require a richer conception of the phenomena of agency than the action-theoretic account on its own provides.

Citing this article:
Hornsby, Jennifer and Naomi Goulder. Action, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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