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Summary "Action Theory" as it is used here is the sub-area in the philosophy of action/agency that is concerned chiefly with the foundations of the broader sub-discipline. Central problems include the nature and scope of intentional action and agency, the explanation of action, and our knowledge of our actions. Most of the other problems that fall within the scope of this category at PhilPapers are closely related to such foundational questions.
Key works Perhaps the two most influential works that have shaped the current state of action theory are Anscombe 1957 and Davidson 1963. Davidson's essay is the locus classicus for the causal theory of action and for causalism about reason-explanations of actions. Anscombe's book has been influential among proponents of non-causal theories of action and reason-explanation. For a classic defense of the agent-causal perspective, see Chisholm 1966. And for a volitionist perspective, see McCann 1974. Some collections of essays that may help readers get a sense of the major debates in action theory today include Mele 1997, Aguilar & Buckareff 2010, and Aguilar & Buckareff 2009.
Introductions The following are both good places to start to for those looking for guides to the current state of the art in action theory. Mele 2005 Mele 1992 Wilson 2008
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  1. D. Seddig-Raufie, L. Jansen, S. Schulz, D. Schober & M. Boeker (2012). Proposed Actions Are No Actions: Re-Modelling an Ontology Design Pattern with a Realist Top-Level Ontology. Journal of Biomedical Semantics 3 (2).
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The Nature of Action
  1. Maria Alvarez (2010). Kinds of Reasons: An Essay in the Philosophy of Action. Oxford University Press.
    Understanding human beings and their distinctive rational and volitional capacities is one of the central tasks of philosophy. The task requires a clear account of such things as reasons, desires, emotions and motives, and of how they combine to produce and explain human behaviour. In Kinds of Reasons, Maria Alvarez offers a fresh and incisive treatment of these issues, focusing in particular on reasons as they feature in contexts of agency. Her account builds on some important recent work in the (...)
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  2. Maria Alvarez (2009). Acting Intentionally and Acting for a Reason. Inquiry 52 (3):293-305.
    This paper explores the question whether whatever is done intentionally is done for a reason. Apart from helping us to think about those concepts, the question is interesting because it affords an opportunity to identify a number of misconceptions about reasons. In the paper I argue that there are things that are done intentionally but not done for a reason. I examine two different kinds of example: things done “because one wants to” and “purely expressive actions”. Concerning the first, I (...)
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  3. Maria Alvarez (2009). Reasons, Desires and Intentional Actions. In Constantine Sandis (ed.), New Essays on the Explanation of Action. Palgrave Macmillan.
  4. Maria Alvarez (2005). Agents, Actions and Reasons. Philosophical Books 46 (1):45-58.
  5. G. E. M. Anscombe (1981). Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind. University of Minnesota Press.
    The intentionality of sensation -- The first person -- Substance -- The subjectivity of sensation -- Events in the mind -- Comments on Professor R.L. Gregory's paper on perception -- On sensations of position -- Intention -- Pretending -- On the grammar of "Enjoy" -- The reality of the past -- Memory, "experience," and causation -- Causality and determination -- Times, beginnings, and causes -- Soft determinism -- Causality and extensionality -- Before and after -- Subjunctive conditionals -- "Under a (...)
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  6. Bruce Aune (1990). Action, Inference, Belief, and Intention. Philosophical Perspectives 4:247-271.
  7. Kent Bach (1980). Actions Are Not Events. Mind 89 (353):114-120.
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  8. Kurt Baier (1965). Action and Agent. The Monist 49 (2):183-195.
  9. Lynne Rudder Baker (1981). Why Computers Can't Act. American Philosophical Quarterly 18 (April):157-163.
    To be an agent, one must be able to formulate intentions. To be able to formulate intentions, one must have a first-person perspective. Computers lack a first-person perspective. So, computers are not agents.
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  10. Elliot C. Brown & Martin Brüne (2012). The Role of Prediction in Social Neuroscience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (147):147-147.
    Research has shown that the brain is constantly making predictions about future events. Theories of prediction in perception, action and learning suggest that the brain serves to reduce the discrepancies between expectation and actual experience, i.e. by reducing the prediction error. Forward models of action and perception propose the generation of a predictive internal representation of the expected sensory outcome, which is matched to the actual sensory feedback. Shared neural representations have been found when experiencing one’s own and observing others’ (...)
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  11. Brian Bruya (2004). Aesthetic Spontaneity: A Theory of Action Based on Affective Responsiveness. Dissertation, University of Hawai'i
    The major claims of this dissertation are that there is a discrete mode of action that we can identify as spontaneity, that spontaneity in this sense is fundamentally based on affectivity, and that it is most accurately described as aesthetic spontaneity. Aesthetic spontaneity is a mode of action overlooked in Western philosophy but prized and cultivated in Far Eastern thought and lately described in detail by psychologists. The qualifier "aesthetic" is added to "spontaneity" to distinguish it from the spontaneity often (...)
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  12. Andrei A. Buckareff (2012). Mental Action. Edited by Lucy O'Brien and Matthew Soteriou. (Oxford UP, 2009. Pp. X + 286. Price £50.00). Philosophical Quarterly 62 (247):401-403.
  13. Gerard Casey (1987). A Problem of Unity in St. Thomas’s Account of Human Action. New Scholasticism 61 (2):146-161.
    In his many and varied writings, St Thomas presents us with both a sophisticated account of human action and a complicated moral theory. In this article, I shall be considering the question of whether St Thomas’s theory of action and his moral theory are mutually consistent. My claim shall be that St Thomas can preserve the ontological unity of human action—but only at the cost of rendering it extremely difficult to evaluate in a manner consistent with his moral theory, or, (...)
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  14. Richard Cobb-Stevens (1990). Mind in Action. Review of Metaphysics 44 (2):431-433.
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  15. Arthur B. Cody (1971). Is 'Human Action' A Category? Inquiry 14 (1-4):386-419.
    It seems to have been taken for granted that we all know what a human action is. However in attempting to draw from what philosophers have said about actions the necessary clues as to their distinguishing features, one finds little to discourage the idea that there is no way of distinguishing one category of occurrences, human actions, from the complex of different sorts of things which happen. From this I am tempted to conclude that there is no category of human (...)
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  16. John M. Connolly (1991). Whither Action Theory. Journal of Philosophical Research 16:85-106.
    The problem of ‘wayward causal chains’ threatens any causal analysis of the concept of intentional human action. For such chains show that the mere causation of an action by the right sort of belief and/or desire does not make the action intentional, i.e. one done in order to attain the object of desire. Now if the ‘because’ in ‘wayward’ action-explanations is straightforwardly causal, that might be argued to indicate by contrast that the different ‘because’ of reasons-explanations (which both explain and (...)
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  17. Ryan Cox (2012). Book Note: 'New Waves in Philosophy of Action', Edited by Jes's H. Aguilar, Andrei A. Buckareff, and Keith Frankish. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (2):411-411.
    Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 0, Issue 0, Page 1, Ahead of Print.
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  18. Jonathan Dancy (2009). Action, Content, and Inference. In P. M. S. Hacker, Hans-Johann Glock & John Hyman (eds.), Wittgenstein and Analytic Philosophy: Essays for P.M.S. Hacker. Oxford University Press.
  19. Jonathan Dancy (2009). Action in Moral Metaphysics. In Constantine Sandis (ed.), New Essays on the Explanation of Action. Palgrave Macmillan.
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  20. Jonathan Dancy (2008). On How to Act : Disjunctively. In Adrian Haddock & Fiona Macpherson (eds.), Disjunctivism: Perception, Action, Knowledge. Oxford University Press. 262--282.
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  21. Maximilian De Gaynesford (ed.) (2011). Agents and Their Actions. Wiley-Blackwell.
    Machine generated contents note: Preface.1. Reasons for Action and Practical Reasoning (Maria Alvarez).2. Ambivalence and Authentic Agency (Laura W. Ekstrom).3. The Road to Larissa (John Hyman).4. What is the Content of an Intention in Action? (John McDowell).5. Joseph Raz Being in the World (Joseph Raz).6. Moral Scepticism and Agency (Kant and Korsgaard Robert Stern).7. Speech, Action and Uptake (Maximilian de Gaynesford).Index.
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  22. Willem A. deVries (2006). Hegel's Concept of Action, by Michael Quante. [REVIEW] The Owl of Minerva 38 (1-2):190-194.
  23. Alan Donagan (1987). Choice, the Essential Element in Human Action. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
    CHAPTER RATIONAL ANIMALS AND THEIR ACTIONS A. The Socratic tradition in the theory of human action The philosophical theory of human action begins with ...
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  24. R. E. Dowling (1967). 'Can an Action Have Many Descriptions?'? Inquiry 10 (1-4):447-448.
    Dr. Cody (Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 2) argues that since we cannot say how a person could learn that different descriptions are of the same action, therefore each action has only one true description. But precisely the same reasoning could lead to the conclusion that each material object has only one true description. The falsity of this conclusion indicates the unsoundness of the argument, which probably goes wrong where Cody requires us to see actions ?stripped of their descriptive rags altogether?
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  25. Patrick Fleming, Paradigmatic Action.
    Harry Frankfurt and J. David Velleman both offer accounts of paradigmatic action. To greatly oversimplify, Frankfurt roots our agency in our capacity to care, while Velleman places it in our cognitive capacity to make sense of ourselves. This paper argues that both views have an important piece of the truth. The paper advances a pluralistic account of paradigmatic agency. (updated 7/30/07).
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  26. Antony Flew (1987). Agency and Necessity. B. Blackwell.
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  27. John Gardner, Paradigmatic Action.
    Harry Frankfurt and J. David Velleman both offer accounts of paradigmatic action. To greatly oversimplify, Frankfurt roots our agency in our capacity to care, while Velleman places it in our cognitive capacity to make sense of ourselves. This paper argues that both views have an important piece of the truth. The paper advances a pluralistic account of paradigmatic agency. (updated 7/30/07).
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  28. Donald Gillies (2005). An Action-Related Theory of Causality. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 56 (4):823-842.
    The paper begins with a discussion of Russell's view that the notion of cause is unnecessary for science and can therefore be eliminated. It is argued that this is true for theoretical physics but untrue for medicine, where the notion of cause plays a central role. Medical theories are closely connected with practical action (attempts to cure and prevent disease), whereas theoretical physics is more remote from applications. This suggests the view that causal laws are appropriate in a context where (...)
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  29. Carl Ginet (1984). Book Review. Actions. Jennifer Hornsby. [REVIEW] Philosophical Review 93 (1):120-26.
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  30. Michael Gorr (1979). Agency and Causation. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 9 (1):1–14.
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  31. Michael Gorr & Terence Horgan (1982). Intentional and Unintentional Actions. Philosophical Studies 41 (2):251 - 262.
  32. Stuart Hampshire (1983). Thought and Action. University of Notre Dame Press.
  33. Alison Hills (2007). Practical Reason, Value and Action. Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (3):375-392.
    How should we decide which theory of practical reason is correct? One possibility is to link each conception of practical reason with a theory of value, and to assess the first in combination with the second. Recently some philosophers have taken a different approach. They have tried to link theories of practical reason with theories of action instead. I try to show that it can be illuminating to think of practical reason in terms of the success conditions of action, but (...)
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  34. Kenneth Einar Himma (2009). Artificial Agency, Consciousness, and the Criteria for Moral Agency: What Properties Must an Artificial Agent Have to Be a Moral Agent? [REVIEW] Ethics and Information Technology 11 (1):19-29.
    In this essay, I describe and explain the standard accounts of agency, natural agency, artificial agency, and moral agency, as well as articulate what are widely taken to be the criteria for moral agency, supporting the contention that this is the standard account with citations from such widely used and respected professional resources as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I then flesh out the implications of some of these well-settled theories (...)
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  35. Frank Hindriks (2011). Control, Intentional Action, and Moral Responsibility. Philosophical Psychology 24 (6):787 - 801.
    Skill or control is commonly regarded as a necessary condition for intentional action. This received wisdom is challenged by experiments conducted by Joshua Knobe and Thomas Nadelhoffer, which suggest that moral considerations sometimes trump considerations of skill and control. I argue that this effect (as well as the Knobe effect) can be explained in terms of the role normative reasons play in the concept of intentional action. This explanation has significant advantages over its rivals. It involves at most a conservative (...)
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  36. Martin Hollis (1977). Models of Man: Philosophical Thoughts on Social Action. Cambridge University Press.
    All social theorists and philosophers who seek to explain human action have a 'model of man', a metaphysical view of human nature. Some make man a plastic creature of nature and nurture, some present him as the autonomous creator of his social world, some offer a compromise. Each view needs its own theory of scientific knowledge calling for philosophic appraisal and the compromise sets harder puzzles than either. Passive accounts of man, for example, have a robust notion of causal explanation (...)
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  37. Susan L. Hurley (2003). Animal Action in the Space of Reasons. Mind and Language 18 (3):231-256.
    I defend the view that we should not overintellectualize the mind. Nonhuman animals can occupy islands of practical rationality: they can have contextbound reasons for action even though they lack full conceptual abilities. Holism and the possibility of mistake are required for such reasons to be the agent's reasons, but these requirements can be met in the absence of inferential promiscuity. Empirical work with animals is used to illustrate the possibility that reasons for action could be bound to symbolic or (...)
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  38. Robert Imlay (1995). Berkeley and Action. In Robert G. Muehlmann (ed.), Berkeley's Metaphysics: Structural, Interpretive, and Critical Essays. The Pennsylvania State University Press.
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  39. R. H. K. (1963). Action, Emotion and Will. Review of Metaphysics 17 (1):147-147.
  40. Mikael M. Karlsson (2002). Agency and Patiency: Back to Nature? Philosophical Explorations 5 (1):59 – 81.
    The distinction between acting and suffering underlies any theory of agency. Among contemporary writers, Fred Dretske is one of the few who has attempted to explicate this distinction without restricting the notion of action to intentional action alone. Aristotle also developed a global account of agency, one which is deeper and more detailed than Dretske's, and it is to Aristotle's account (with some modifications) that the bulk of this paper is devoted. Dretske's sketchier theory faces at least two ground-level problems. (...)
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  41. Paul Katsafanas (2011). The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller. Journal of the History of Philosophy 49 (1):87-113.
    This paper examines Nietzsche’s concept of unified agency. A widespread consensus has emerged in the secondary literature on three points: (1) Nietzsche’s notion of unity is meant to be an analysis of freedom; (2) unity refers to a relation between the agent’s drives or motivational states; and (3) unity obtains when one drive predominates and imposes order on the other drives. I argue that these claims are philosophically and textually indefensible. In contrast, I argue that (1′) Nietzschean unity is an (...)
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  42. Muhammad Ali Khalidi (2001). Dynamics in Action. Philosophical Review 110 (3):469-472.
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  43. Dudley Knowles (2010). Hegel on Actions, Reasons, and Causes. In Arto Laitinen & Constantine Sandis (eds.), Hegel on Action. Palgrave Macmillan.
  44. T. M. Knox (1968). Action. New York, Humanities P..
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  45. Olli Koistinen (2001). Action and Agent. Societas Philosophica Fennica.
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  46. Arto Laitinen & Constantine Sandis (eds.) (2010). Hegel on Action. Palgrave Macmillan.
    This volume focuses on Hegel's philosophy of action in connection to current concerns. Including key papers by Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John McDowell, as well as eleven especially commissioned contributions by leading scholars in the field, it aims to readdress the dialogue between Hegel and contemporary philosophy of action. Topics include: the nature of action, reasons and causes; explanation and justification of action; social and narrative aspects of agency; the inner and the outer; the relation between intention, planning, and (...)
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  47. Don Locke (1973). Natural Powers and Human Abilities. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74:171-187.
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  48. E. J. Lowe (2009). Free Agency, Causation and Action Explanation. In Constantine Sandis (ed.), New Essays on the Explanation of Action. Palgrave Macmillan.
  49. Roopen Majithia (2007). Akara on Action and Liberation. Asian Philosophy 17 (3):231 – 249.
    In this paper I attempt to understand the implications of akara's claim that liberation is not an action. If liberation is not an action, how is it up to us and therefore our responsibility? What role do actions have in a life concerned with liberation? The key to understanding akara's view, I suggest, requires broad reflection on his claim in his commentary on Brahma Stra I.1.4 that cessation of action in accordance with Vedic prohibition is not an action. I will (...)
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