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Question Session 03

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Why do we need intentions at all? Why not just beliefs and desires (Jasmine)

Davidson started with the view that there are no such things as intentions.

‘The expression ‘the intention with which James went to church’ has the outward form of a description, but in fact it is syncategorematic and cannot be taken to refer to an entity, state, disposition, or event. Its function in context is to generate new descriptions of actions in terms of their reasons; thus ‘James went to church with the intention of pleasing his mother’ yields a new, and fuller, description of the action described in ‘James went to church’.’ (Davidson, 1963, p. 690)

What motivates this view? We already have beliefs and desires in our model of action explanation. Introducing intentions as additional mental states would make the model more complicated. So if we can do without intentions, we should do so in the interests of simplicity.

But how can we do without intentions? Haven’t we seen that we need intentions in order to explain the relation between an action and the goal or goals to which it is directed (see Motor Representations Ground the Directedness of Actions to Goals)?

Here’s how Davidson’s view works. James desired to please his mother. James believed that going to church would please his mother. And this belief and desire caused his going to church.

So the belief–desire pair can play the role of an intention. It (1) represents an outcome—in this case, the pleasing of James’ mother—, (2) causes an event—James’ going to church—; and (3) causes an event whose occurrence would normally lead to the outcome’s occurrence.

It appears, then, that we can explain the relation between an action and the goal or goals to which it is directed just in terms of belief and desire. We don’t need to introduce intentions as further mental states. If we like we can say that an intention just is a suitable, action-causing belief-desire pair.

One problem with Davidson’s view—which Davidson himself later raised—is that we can have intentions that don’t lead immediately to action, and maybe never do. Call these cases of ‘pure intending’ (Davidson’s term).

I might spend my whole life intending to build a squirrel house in my garden without actually doing so. There is no action-causing belief–desire pair corresponding to this intention. So the claim that all intentions are action-causing belief–desire pair must be false.

This is a first reason for postulating intentions as distinct from action-causing belief–desire pairs.

Bratman (1985) argues that there are deeper reasons concerning the role of intentions in solving coordination problems involving actions at different times. And that these deeper reasons give us a better understanding of intention and its role in practical reasoning.

Tiago’s Argument

Tiago argues that the ‘Alternative Solution’ to The Problem of Action introduced in Motor Representation and The Problem of Action is actually better than the Standard Solution insofar as the Alternative Solution avoids the first objecton to the Standard Solution using the dual-process theory of instrumental action (see The Problem of Action meets Habitual Processes).

Here is the argument (Tiago wrote it as a question, but since I think he is right I have edited it to make it an argument; this is probably not Tiago’s own view, however):

‘Habitual processes are insensitive to intentions and can even run counter to them.’

For instance, ‘Participants (in the Neal, Wood, Wu, & Kurlander (2011) study) with stronger habits of eating popcorn at the movies consumed more popcorn than participants with weaker habits, even when they disliked the popcorn. Here, it appears participants’ actions - influenced by habitual processes - are running counter to their intentions.

But ‘In eating the stale popcorn, participants are reaching, grasping, raising the popcorn in order to eat the popcorn. In other words, (I’m guessing) their bodily actions involve motor representations that specify the outcome “eating the popcorn”, and coordinate bodily actions in a way that facilitates the fulfilment of that outcome.’

So ‘this [is] an example of an action that stands in an appropriate causal relation to motor representations, but not to intention’

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dual-process theory of instrumental action : instrumental action ‘is controlled by two dissociable processes: a goal-directed and an habitual process’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177).
instrumental action : An action is instrumental if it happens in order to bring about an outcome, as when you press a lever in order to obtain food. (In this case, obtaining food is the outcome, lever pressing is the action, and the action is instrumental because it occurs in order to bring it about that you obtain food.)
You may variations on this definition of instrumental in the literature. Dickinson (2016, p. 177) characterises instrumental actions differently: in place of the teleological ‘in order to bring about an outcome’, he stipulates that an instrumental action is one that is ‘controlled by the contingency between’ the action and an outcome. And de Wit & Dickinson (2009, p. 464) stipulate that ‘instrumental actions are learned’.
mechanistically neutral : A characterisation of instrumental action (or of joint action) is _mechanistically neutral_ just if it does not involve making commitments concerning which states, or structures of states, cause instrumental actions (or cause joint actions).
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
Standard Solution : (to The Problem of Action). Actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention.
The Problem of Action : What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (According to Frankfurt (1978, p. 157), ‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’)


Bratman, M. E. (1985). Davidson’s theory of intention. In B. Vermazen & M. Hintikka (Eds.), Essays on davidson: Actions and events (pp. 13–26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, reasons, and causes. The Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685–700.
Davidson, Donald. (1971). Agency. In R. Binkley, R. Bronaugh, & A. Marras (Eds.), Agent, action, and reason, (pp. 3–25). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
de Wit, S., & Dickinson, A. (2009). Associative theories of goal-directed behaviour: A case for animalhuman translational models. Psychological Research PRPF, 73(4), 463–476.
Dickinson, A. (1985). Actions and habits: The development of behavioural autonomy. In L. Weiskrantz (Ed.), Animal intelligence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Dickinson, A. (2016). Instrumental conditioning revisited: Updating dual-process theory. In J. B. Trobalon & V. D. Chamizo (Eds.), Associative learning and cognition (Vol. 51, pp. 177–195). Edicions Universitat Barcelona.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1978). The problem of action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(2), 157–162.
Kalis, A., & Ometto, D. (2021). An Anscombean Perspective on Habitual Action. Topoi, 40(3), 637–648.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428–1437.
Setiya, K. (2014). Intention. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2014). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from