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Philosophical Theories of Action

Much philosophy of action starts with The Problem of Action: What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you (Davidson, 1971)? According to a standard, widely-accepted solution, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. This is an instance of the Causal Theory of Action, according to which an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361). This section explores some of the reasoning supporting the standard solution. Eventually, though, we will have to ask whether discoveries about habitual processes pose any kind of challenge to the philosophers.

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Notes

The Problem of Action

Much philosophy of action hinges on the question, What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you (Davidson, 1971)?

You trip and fall down a flight of stairs. Falling is something that happens to you, not an action of yours. But watching the sympathetic attention you gain, Buster expertly throws himself down the stairs. Although it looks like another accident, this event is an action.

As Frankfurt (1978, p. 157) put it:

‘The1 problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’

But is this really a problem? It may be tempting, initially, to suppose that we can answer this question by invoking kinematic features. Perhaps—so the idea—actions are those events which involve some or other patterns in the joint displacements and bodily configurations? Alternatively, it might be tempting to think that we can answer the question by appeal to coordination. Perhaps—so the thought—actions are those events which involve a particular coordination of body parts? If either possibility obtained, the ‘problem of action’ would not be a problem at all. But reflection on the variety of things that count as actions indicates that neither of these initially tempting possibilities is at all likely to obtain. Or so I argue in Recap: Action from the lectures on Mind and Reality.

The absence of straightforward answers to the question about what distinguishes actions from things that merely happen to you indicates that it is a genuine problem.

A Standard Solution

According to a standard, widely-accepted view, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. What distinguishes your falling from Buster’s is that his, but not yours, was appropriately related to an intention.

This is an instance of the Causal Theory of Action. According to this view, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361). Proponents of this view may disagree about which states cause actions (Bach is an example of this), or about how to characterise the causal relation (for example, Frankfurt (1978) is concerned, in part, with whether the causes are antecedent to the action or provide ongoing guidance). But they agree that the relation between actions and their psychological causes is what distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you.

Davidson on Agency

How does Davidson arrive at the view that actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention?2

As background, Davidson notes that the same action can be described in multiple ways. You move your finger, flicking a switch which causes the lights to come on and alerts a prowler (Davidson, 1971, p. 53). We have four ways of describing one and the same action: as moving your finger, as flicking a switch, and so on.

Davidson further notes that actions can typically be described both in ways that relate to what you intended (turning the lights on, say) and in ways which do not relate to your intentions (alerting a prowler, perhaps).

This background allows Davidson to distinguish three situations involving someone spilling coffee:

‘If […] I intentionally spill the contents of my cup, mistakenly thinking it is tea when it is coffee, then spilling the coffee is something I do, it is an action of mine, though I do not do it intentionally. On the other hand, if I spill the coffee because you jiggle my hand, I cannot be called the agent. Yet while I may hasten to add my excuse, it is not incorrect, even in this case, to say I spilled the coffee. Thus we must distinguish three situations in which it is correct to say I spilled the coffee: in the first, I do it intentionally; in the second I do not do it intentionally but it is my action (I thought it was tea); in the third it is not my action at all (you jiggle my hand).’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 45)

In short my spilling the coffee can be caused in three ways:

  1. by an intention of mine to spill the coffee;

  2. by an intention of mine to spill the tea (where I mistakenly take the coffee to be tea and do not intend to spill coffee); or

  3. by you jiggling my hand (where no intention of mine is directly involved at all).

My spilling the coffee is an action of mine in (1) and (2), but not in (3).

Reflection on (1) and (2) rules out the view that my spilling the coffee is an action of mine only if I intend to spill the coffee.

The contrast between (2) and (3) is what leads Davidson to his view about agency:

‘What is the difference [between (2) and (3)]? The difference seems to lie in the fact that in one case, but not in the other, I am intentionally doing something. My spilling the contents of my cup was intentional; as it happens, this very same act can be redescribed as my spilling the coffee. Of course, thus redescribed the action is no longer intentional; but this fact is apparently irrelevant to the question of agency.

‘And so I think we have one correct answer to our problem: a man is the agent of an act if what he does can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional.’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 46)

Suppose we assume, further, that an act can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional only if it stands in an appropriate causal relation to an intention of the agent’s.3 Then the Standard Solution mentioned above follows:

Your actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention of yours.

Two Questions, One Answer

We have now encountered intention as providing the standard reponse to two questions about action:

Question 1: What is the relation between an instrumental action and the outcome or outcomes to which it is directed? (see Instrumental Actions: Goal-Directed and Habitual)

Standard Answer: The outcome (or outcomes) to which an instrumental action is directed is that outcome (or outcomes) specified by the intention (or intentions) which caused it.

Question 2: What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (The Problem of Action, this section)

Standard Solution: Your actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention of yours.

On Question 1, the existence of habitual processes demonstrates that the Standard Answer to Question 1 is at best incomplete (see Instrumental Actions: Goal-Directed and Habitual).

Our next issue concerns the second question. Does the existence of habitual processes also pose any kind of challenge to how philosophers standardly answer The Problem of Action?

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Glossary

Causal Theory of Action : According to this view, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361).
directed : For an action to be directed to an outcome is for the action to happen in order to bring that outcome about.
habitual process : A process underpinning some instrumental actions which obeys Thorndyke’s Law of Effect: ‘The presenta­tion of an effective [=rewarding] outcome following an action [...] rein­forces a connection between the stimuli present when the action is per­formed and the action itself so that subsequent presentations of these stimuli elicit the [...] action as a response’ (Dickinson, 1994, p. 48).
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’.
outcome : An outcome of an action is a possible or actual state of affairs.
problem : a question that is difficult to answer.
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.’)

References

Bach, K. (1978). A representational theory of action. Philosophical Studies, 34(4), 361–379. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00364703
Bratman, M. E. (1987). Intentions, plans, and practical reasoning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bratman, M. E. (2000). Valuing and the will. Noûs, 34(supplement 14), 249–265. https://doi.org/10.1111/0029-4624.34.s14.13
Davidson, D. (1971). Agency. In R. Binkley, R. Bronaugh, & A. Marras (Eds.), Agent, action, and reason, (pp. 3–25). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/0199246270.001.0001
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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-009-0230-6
Dickinson, A. (1994). Instrumental conditioning. In N. Mackintosh (Ed.), Animal learning and cognition. London: Academic 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.

Endnotes

  1. I dislike this way of stating things. Good philosophers come up with lots of questions. There is insufficient reason to single one of them out as the problem. 

  2. I’ve heard people who should know say that Davidson does not explicitly commit to this view. But Davidson writes, ‘we have discovered no analysis of this relation that does not appeal to the concept of intention’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 61). And nowhere does he explicitly reject the view that actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. 

  3. Is this assumption true? Bratman allows that actions can be intentional ‘even though [the agent] has no distinctive attitude of intending’ (Bratman, 1987, p. 132), and even though the agent lacks the capacity to form intentions altogether (Bratman, 2000, p. 51). This view follows from two claims: first, intentions are distinct from any combination of beliefs and desires; and second, beliefs and desires alone may, in certain cases, determine what an agent intentionally does.