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Question Session 02

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This session covers these questions:

  • Which things are agents?

  • What are intentions?

  • Which events are expressions of agency?

  • [Barty] How are we to understand the 'you' in The Problem of Action?

  • [Jan] Was not Davidson in his Essay ‘Agency’ concerned with Agency and therefore Intentional Action that is an expression of Agency rather than action per se?

We discuss James’ examples of action slips and Velleman’s distinction between purposeful activity and autonomous action.


In responding to the questions, I pose a challenge: we should not make assumptions about the role of consciousness in selecting, preparing and performing actions unless we can justify them. Hommel (2017) demonstrates, in effect, why this challenge is a good one. He argues that

‘conscious experience does not seem to play a role in ongoing action control, [but] is likely to provide the basis for interpersonal learning and cultural transmission.’ (Hommel, 2017, p. 120)

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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. (2000). Valuing and the will. Noûs, 34(supplement 14), 249–265.
Davidson, D. (1971). Agency. In R. Binkley, R. Bronaugh, & A. Marras (Eds.), Agent, action, and reason, (pp. 3–25). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on actions and events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1978). The problem of action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(2), 157–162.
Hommel, B. (2017). Consciousness and Action Control. In T. Egner (Ed.), The wiley handbook of cognitive control (pp. 111–123). Wiley.
James, W. (1901). The principles of psychology. London: Macmillan.
Setiya, K. (2014). Intention. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2014). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from
Velleman, D. (2000). The possibility of practical reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.