Action (philosophy) - Everything You Need to Know About

Philosophy of action is chiefly concerned with human action, intending to distinguish between activity and passivity, voluntary, intentional, culpable and involuntary actions, and related questions. The theory of action is pertinent to legal and ethical questions concerning freedom, intention, belief, responsibility, and others. It is related to the mind-body problem, the concept of causality, and the issue of determinism. Though these issues have been discussed in nearly every era of philosophy, the action as a topic in its own right began to receive special attention in the 1960s, and is becoming one of the major sub-disciplines in contemporary philosophy. Given the vastness of the body of relevant literature (both historical and contemporary), this article primarily aims to set out the fundamental issues and the most influential positions from the current standpoint.

Action in the History of Philosophy
Since action has ties to central human concerns such as responsibility and autonomy, it has been discussed in nearly every philosophical tradition. Furthermore, most metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views carry implications for our understanding of action (and vice-versa). A survey of philosophical discussions of action would therefore amount to a survey of nearly all of philosophy. A brief note must therefore suffice.

Action has been of concern to Western philosophers at least since Aristotle, who wrote about the subject in his Nicomachean Ethics. It is the theme of the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita, in which the Sanskrit word karma epitomizes personal action. It has nearly always been bound up with ethics, the study of what actions one ought to perform.

Many branches of Buddhism reject the notion of agency in varying degrees. In these schools of thought there is action, but no agent. Taoism has famously championed "inaction" as an ideal.

Action vs. Mere Behavior
In §621 of the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein poses a question: "What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" What Wittgenstein is pointing to is the fact that we understand there to be more involved in a person's doing something than merely the fact that his body moves in a certain way. But what is this something more?

In fact, there appear to be a number of distinctions needed. A convulsion of one's leg doesn't appear to be an action in any sense, but what about nervously tapping one's foot? Such tapping is not as obviously an action as plunging into traffic to save a child, but it is still something the person does. This is why we might reasonably ask someone to stop tapping his foot, while it would be unreasonable to ask someone to suppress a convulsion. Philosophers have proposed a host of terms for capturing such distinctions (“mere behavior,” “activity,” “action,” “full-blooded action,” “intentional action,” “intentional movement,” and so on). In what follows, I'll simply use 'action' to designate the clearest cases of action, since it has been with such cases that the majority of philosophical discussions have circled.

In her work Intention (published in 1957), which is often seen as the beginning of contemporary philosophy of action, G. E. M. Anscombe argued that intentional actions are those "to which a certain sense of the question 'Why?' is given application" (§5), where the answer to this question gives the person's reason for acting. Though Anscombe's account has received mixed reactions, her basic idea of invoking reasons has proved extremely influential.

In the decades since Intention, a host of different accounts have arisen on the question of what distinguishes action from mere behavior. Perhaps the most important of these is that of Donald Davidson. In a series of important essays beginning in 1963, Davidson elaborated on Anscombe's notion of “done for a reason,” reaching very different results from hers. According to Davidson, some piece of behavior counts as an action if it is “intentional under some description,” where the description in question is provided by the agent's beliefs, desires and intentions. For instance, a given motion my arm makes might be described either as “brushing away a fly” or “briefly shortening the distance between my left hand and the lamp.” Since I wanted (and intended) to brush away the fly, the first description is one under which the action is intentional, whereas, since I neither wanted nor intended to shorten the distance between my left hand and the lamp, the second description is not one under which this action is intentional. One can then say that if there is no description under which some behavior is intentional, then that behavior is not intentional simpliciter.

The Metaphysics of Action
Say that someone sees a stray dog wander into his yard and wants to scare the dog away. He yells, and scares the dog off. Whatever else is going on, such a story surely involves some amount of causation. But what causes what? Is the person's desire to scare the dog away the cause of his action of scaring the dog away? Is his action of yelling the cause of his action of scaring the dog (or are they just one action, or is one a part of the other)? What about the person himself - was he caused to do what he did? Questions such as these have motivated inquiries into the metaphysics of action.

Causalism vs. Non-causalism
In the case of the man yelling at the dog, one might naturally explain his action of yelling by pointing to certain mental states he had. That is, one might say that he yelled because he had a desire to scare the dog away and a belief that yelling would do the trick. Or one might say that he had an intention to get rid of the dog. Such desires, beliefs and intentions certainly provide some explanation of the action, but there is a question as to whether that is a causal explanation. To illustrate this, consider the following explanations:
  1. The bell rang because someone pushed the button.
  2. The bell rang because it was time to eat.
  3. This book is worth reading because the descriptions are so vivid.
In 1, it is quite clear that one is explaining the bell's ringing by pointing to the cause of that event (someone pushing some button). In 2, by contrast, one is explaining the bell's ringing by pointing to something that cannot have been its cause (though it might have some connection to the cause). Further, in 3, the explanation appears to have nothing to do with causation.

Given then that not all explanation involves citing causes, what should be said about explanations such as the one given above for the man's yelling? G. E. M. Anscombe, in Intention, denied that the explanation was causal. Part of her motivation appears to be that the cause of some action would have to be what a person would cite if asked, "What produced that action of yours?" (§11). In response to such a question, such a person might answer "a burning irritation," or "the sight of that mangy dog," but he would hardly cite a mental state such as an intention. Such a "non-causalist" view has been upheld since Anscombe by a number of philosophers, including George Wilson in The Intentionality of Human Action.

Donald Davidson, in a series of articles beginning with "Actions, Reasons and Causes," argued for the opposite, "causalist" position. According to Davidson's original argument, if we were to say that the man who yelled at the dog desired to get rid of the dog and believed that by yelling he would get rid of the dog, there would remain the further question of whether he yelled at the dog because of his belief and desire. Davidson then asks what more needs to be said in order to have the complete explanation, and finds no better candidate than the claim that the belief and desire caused the action. Davidson's arguments proved influential, and causalism is currently the dominant position.

The Individuation of Actions
In the above example, the man scares away the dog by yelling. How many actions are involved here? And what is their relation?

Note the these questions are (until proven otherwise) distinct from the questions of the relation between the events of scaring the dog and of yelling, and of the relation between the scared dog and the yell. It's quite clear that a scared dog is a very different thing than a yell, and that it was the occurrence of the yell that caused the dog to be scared. Yet the current issue concerns the actions involved - did the man do one thing or two?

Anscombe and Davidson held that when someone does something X by doing something Y, there is only one action involved. There is a certain appeal to such a view; we can well imagining the man thinking to himself, while watching the dog retreat, "well, at least I've done one thing today." According to Davidson, the phrases "the act of yelling" and "the act of scaring the dog away" are merely different ways of describing a single action, not different actions.

George Wilson, in The Intentionality of Human Action, accepts the claim that there is a single action, but held that the different ways an action can be described are not always co-referential. In some contexts, he argues, the descriptions do pick out a single event, but in others they refer to different processes that are the causal consequences of the action.

Action and Determinism
The issue of determinism is frequently posed with respect to freedom in human action. Since determinism is a topic in its own right, this section merely aims to spell out relation of some of the above positions to determinism.

Though the causalist/non-causalist debate may appear to have direct consequences for whether our actions are determined, it in fact does not. A causalist holds that a person's reasons for acting are the cause of his action, but this does entail that the agent was caused to so act. In principle, one could hold that when the reasons cause the action, this just amounts to the agent causing the action. And one could then deny that those reasons were caused by anything outside the agent.

On the other hand, certain analyses of action have certainly been aimed at finding ways of explaining human action that are compatible with determinism. For instance, in a series of articles Harry Frankfurt argued that freedom did not require being able to do otherwise, and that whether something is an action does not depend on what initially caused it. According to Frankfurt, all that is needed for a free action is that the action be guided by the agent in a certain way. Such a guided action, he claimed, could well be one that was unambiguously causally determined.

The Epistemology of Action
Imagine asking someone what books she will read next. Say that she responds that she is going to read The Republic. We might then ask her what her brother is going to read next, to which she responds that he will also be reading The Republic. So we might say that she knows that two people will be reading The Republic in the future. Yet there appears to be something different about how she comes to know the fact about herself from the how she comes to know the fact about her brother. This difference would come out if we asked her what evidence she has for these beliefs. In the case of her brother, she might report that she heard him pronounce that he would be reading The Republic when he finished Jurassic Park, and that he reliably does what he pronounces. But in her own case, she might be puzzled at the request for evidence. She might well say, "I don't need evidence to know what I'll read, because I just decide what to read." The challenge is to articulate just what is distinctive about the knowledge a person has of her own actions, both present and future.

In Intention, Anscombe claimed that we have such knowledge of our own actions "without observation." She invoked the analogy of someone directing a construction project who merely gives orders. Such a director might know much about the building, despite never having seen it or had reports on it, provided that his workers faithfully carried out his orders. Anscombe described this as a case of 'practical knowledge,' and claimed that our knowledge of our own actions is of the same kind. Of course, Anscombe acknowledged, in normal cases we often have some sort of feedback regarding out actions, but such feedback does not undermine the peculiarity of the knowledge involved.

Anscombe's work has produced a variety of responses. David Velleman has developed the idea that such knowledge central to agency, and that being an agent is constituted by having a certain sort of desire for knowledge of what one does. Richard Moran argued that something like Anscombe's notion of "practical knowledge" holds for more than just our knowledge of our actions, but extends to much of our knowledge of our own beliefs. Other philosophers have attempted to tease apart the different components of this knowledge into volitions, intentions and sensations. The area continues to inspire development.

Useful References
The literature on action is vast; the following contains central and recommended works.
  • Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 2000 (originally 1957).
  • Bratman, Michael. Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Mele, Alfred (ed.). The Philosophy of Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Velleman, J. David. The Possibility of Practical Reason, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000.
  • Wilson, George M. The Intentionality of Human Action. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.