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Summary Mental actions can be understood in terms of agents and their cognitive capacities.  When an agent performs a mental action, she employs one or more of her cognitive capacities and thereby produces an effect of some kind.  Key questions about mental action include: Within the domain of the mental, what should be considered mental action? (Attending, imagining, judging, coming to believe, wishing, desiring, daydreaming, conscious awareness?)  In what ways is mental action different from or similar to bodily action?  How does one perform a mental action?  How does one come to know that one is performing a mental action?  Does mental action shed light on issues such as the mind-body problem, the plausibility of functionalism, or the nature of representational content?      
Key works

Classic discussions of mental action include James 1890, Ryle 1949, Geach 1957, Taylor 1963, and Williams 1973.  More recently, Strawson 2003 claims that the notion of mental action is severely limited in its applicability, and Buckareff 2005 argues that Strawson’s account is problematically restrictive.  Proust 2001 presents a definition of mental acts and defends their explanatory role, Hieronymi 2006 claims that the formation of beliefs and intentions is less than voluntary and thus differs from bodily action, McCall 1987 argues that deciding is an action, and Wu forthcoming contends that, borrowing from the work of William James, conscious mental action is cognitive attention.  

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  1. Richard E. Aquila (1976). Intentionality: A Study Of Mental Acts. Penn St University Press.
  2. Robert Audi (2008). The Ethics of Belief: Doxastic Self-Control and Intellectual Virtue. Synthese 161 (3):403 - 418.
    Most of the literature on doxastic voluntarism has concentrated on the question of the voluntariness of belief and the issue of how our actual or possible control of our beliefs bears on our justification for holding them and on how, in the light of this control, our intellectual character should be assessed. This paper largely concerns a related question on which less philosophical work has been done: the voluntariness of the grounding of belief and the bearing of various views about (...)
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  3. David Barton (1999). The "Theaetetus" on How We Think. Phronesis 44 (3):163 - 180.
    I argue that Plato's purpose in the discussion of false belief in the "Theaetetus" is to entertain and then to reject the idea that thinking is a kind of mental grasping. The interpretation allows us to make good sense of Plato's discussion of 'other-judging' (189c-190e), of his remarks about mathematical error (195d-196c), and most importantly, of the initial statement of the puzzle about falsity (188a-c). That puzzle shows that if we insist on conceiving of the relation between thought and its (...)
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  4. Peter Baumann (2011). Empiricism, Stances, and the Problem of Voluntarism. Synthese 178 (1):27-36.
    Classical empiricism leads to notorious problems having to do with the (at least prima facie) lack of an acceptable empiricist justification of empiricism itself. Bas van Fraassen claims that his idea of the “empirical stance” can deal with such problems. I argue, however, that this view entails a very problematic form of voluntarism which comes with the threat of latent irrationality and normative inadequacy. However, there is also a certain element of truth in such a voluntarism. The main difficulty consists (...)
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  5. John Bishop (2012). Exercising Control in Practical Reasoning: Problems for Naturalism About Agency. Philosophical Issues 22 (1):53-72.
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  6. Anthony Robert Booth (2009). Compatibilism and Free Belief. Philosophical Papers 38 (1):1-12.
    Matthias Steup (Steup 2008) has recently argued that our doxastic attitudes are free by (i) drawing an analogy with compatibilism about freedom of action and (ii) denying that it is a necessary condition for believing at will that S's having an intention to believe that p can cause S to believe that p . In this paper, however, I argue that the strategies espoused in (i) and (ii) are incompatible.
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  7. Matthew Boyle (2011). 'Making Up Your Mind' and the Activity of Reason. Philosophers' Imprint 11 (17).
    A venerable philosophical tradition holds that we rational creatures are distinguished by our capacity for a special sort of mental agency or self-determination: we can “make up” our minds about whether to accept a given proposition. But what sort of activity is this? Many contemporary philosophers accept a Process Theory of this activity, according to which a rational subject exercises her capacity for doxastic self-determination only on certain discrete occasions, when she goes through a process of consciously deliberating about whether (...)
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  8. Francis H. Bradley (1886). Is There Any Special Activity of Attention? Mind 11 (43):305-323.
  9. Michael Brent (2012). The Power of Agency. Dissertation, Columbia University
    I present an alternative account of action centered around the notion of effort. I argue that effort has several unique features: it is attributed directly to agents; it is a causal power that each agent alone possesses and employs; it enables agents causally to initiate, sustain, and control their capacities during the performance of an action; and its presence comes in varying degrees of strength. After defending an effort-based account of action and criticizing what is known as the standard story (...)
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  10. Brian Bruya (ed.) (2010). Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action. MIT Press.
    This is the first book to explore the cognitive science of effortless attention and action. Attention and action are generally understood to require effort, and the expectation is that under normal circumstances effort increases to meet rising demand. Sometimes, however, attention and action seem to flow effortlessly despite high demand. Effortless attention and action have been documented across a range of normal activities--from rock climbing to chess playing--and yet fundamental questions about the cognitive science of effortlessness have gone largely unasked. (...)
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  11. 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.
  12. Andrei A. Buckareff (2011). Action-Individuation and Doxastic Agency. Theoria 77 (4):312-332.
    In this article, I challenge the dominant view of the importance of the debate over action-individuation. On the dominant view, it is held that the conclusions we reach about action-individuation make little or no difference for other debates in the philosophy of action, much less in other areas of philosophy. As a means of showing that the dominant view is mistaken, I consider the implications of accepting a given theory of action-individuation for thinking about doxastic agency. In particular, I am (...)
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  13. Andrei A. Buckareff (2007). Mental Overpopulation and Mental Action: Protecting Intentions From Mental Birth Control. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37 (1):49-65.
    Many philosophers of action afford intentions a central role in theorizing about action and its explanation. Furthermore, current orthodoxy in the philosophy of action has it that intentions play a causal role with respect to the etiology and explanation of action. But action theory is not without its heretics. Some philosophers have challenged the orthodox view. In this paper I examine and critique one such challenge. I consider David-Hillel Ruben's case against the need for intentions to play a causal role (...)
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  14. Andrei A. Buckareff (2006). Compatibilism and Doxastic Control. Philosophia 34 (2):143-152.
    Sharon Ryan has recently argued that if one has compatibilist intuitions about free action, then one should reject the claim that agents cannot exercise direct voluntary control over coming to believe. In this paper I argue that the differences between beliefs and actions make the expectation of direct voluntary control over coming to believe unreasonable. So Ryan's theory of doxastic agency is untenable.
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  15. Andrei A. Buckareff (2006). Doxastic Decisions and Controlling Belief. Acta Analytica 21 (1):102-114.
    I critique Matthias Steup’s account of exercising direct voluntary control over coming to have doxastic attitudes via doxastic decisions. I show that the sort of agency Steup argues is exercised in doxastic decision-making is not sufficient for agents to exercise direct voluntary control over their doxastic attitudes. This counts against such putative decisions being the locus of direct control in doxastic agency. Finally, I briefly consider what, if any, consequences the failure of Steup’s theory of doxastic agency may have for (...)
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  16. Andrei A. Buckareff (2006). Hobartian Voluntarism and Epistemic Deontologism. Disputatio 2 (21):1 - 17.
    Mark Heller has recently offered a proposal in defense of a fairly strong version of doxastic voluntarism. Heller looks to the compatibilist theory of free will proposed by R.E. Hobart in the first half of the twentieth century for an account of doxastic control. Heller�s defense of Hobartian Voluntarism is motivated by an appeal to epistemic deontologism. In this paper I argue that Heller�s defense of a version of strong or direct doxastic voluntarism ultimately fails. I finally argue that the (...)
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  17. Andrei A. Buckareff (2005). An Essay on Doxastic Agency. Dissertation, University of Rochester
    The problem of doxastic agency concerns what sort of agency humans can exercise with regard to forming doxastic attitudes such as belief. In this essay I defend a version of what James Montmarquet calls "The Asymmetry Thesis": Coming to believe and action are asymmetrical with respect to direct voluntary control. I argue that normal adult human agents cannot exercise direct voluntary control over the acquisition of any of their doxastic attitudes in the same way that they exercise such control over (...)
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  18. Andrei A. Buckareff (2005). Can Faith Be a Doxastic Venture? Religious Studies 41 (4):435-445.
    In a recent article in this journal, John Bishop argues in defence of conceiving of Christian faith as a ‘doxastic venture’. That is, he defends the claim that, in exercising faith, agents believe beyond ‘what can be established rationally on the basis of evidence and argument’. Careful examination reveals that Bishop fails adequately to show that faith in the face of inadequate epistemic reasons for believing is, or can even be, a uniquely doxastic venture. I argue that faith is best (...)
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  19. Andrei A. Buckareff (2005). How (Not) to Think About Mental Action. Philosophical Explorations 8 (1):83-89.
    I examine Galen Strawson's recent work on mental action in his paper, 'Mental Ballistics or The Involuntariness of Spontaneity'. I argue that his account of mental action is too restrictive. I offer a means of testing tokens of mental activity types to determine if they are actional. The upshot is that a good deal more mental activity than Strawson admits is actional.
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  20. Andrei A. Buckareff (2004). Acceptance and Deciding to Believe. Journal of Philosophical Research 29:173-190.
    ABSTRACT: Defending the distinction between believing and accepting a proposition, I argue that cases where agents allegedly exercise direct voluntary control over their beliefs are instances of agents exercising direct voluntary control over accepting a proposition. The upshot is that any decision to believe a proposition cannot result directly in one’s acquiring the belief. Accepting is an instrumental mental action the agent performs that may trigger belief. A model of the relationship between acceptance and belief is sketched and defended. The (...)
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  21. Jean E. Burns (2012). The Action of the Mind. In I. Fredriksson (ed.), Aspects of Consciousness. McFarland. 204.
    It is assumed that mental action, such as free will, exists, and an exploration is made of its relationship to the brain, physical laws, and evolutionary selection. If the assumption is made that all content of conscious experience is encoded in the brain, it follows that free will must act as process only. This result is consistent with the experimental results of Libet and others that if free will exists, it must act by making a selection between alternatives provided by (...)
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  22. C. A. Campbell (1939). The Psychology of Effort of Will. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 40:49 - 74.
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  23. Erik Carlson (2002). Deliberation, Foreknowledge, and Morality as a Guide to Action. Erkenntnis 57 (1):71-89.
    In Section 1, I rehearse some arguments for the claim that morality should be ``action-guiding'', and try to state the conditions under which a moral theory is in fact action-guiding. I conclude that only agents who are cognitively and conatively ``ideal'' are in general able to use a moral theory as a guide to action. In Sections 2 and 3, I discuss whether moral ``actualism'' implies that morality cannot be action-guiding even for ideal agents. If actualism is true, an ideal (...)
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  24. Glenn Carruthers, A Metacognitive Model of the Sense of Agency Over Thoughts.
     A 41 year old housewife heard a voice coming from the house across the road. The voice went on incessantly in a flat monotone describing everything she was doing, with an admixture of critical comments ‘She is peeling potatoes, got hold of the peeler, she does not want that potato, she is putting it back, because she thinks it has a nobble like a penis, she has a dirty mind, she is peeling potatoes, now she is washing them ’ (...)
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  25. Peter Carruthers (2011). Action-Awareness and the Active Mind. Philosophical Papers 38 (2):133-156.
    In a pair of recent papers and his new book, Christopher Peacocke (2007, 2008a, 2008b) takes up and defends the claim that our awareness of our own actions is immediate and not perceptually based, and extends it into the domain of mental action.1 He aims to provide an account of action-awareness that will generalize to explain how we have immediate awareness of our own judgments, decisions, imaginings, and so forth. These claims form an important component in a much larger philosophical (...)
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  26. Chandana Chakrabarti (1975). James and the Identity Theory. Behaviorism 3 (2):152-155.
    The paper makes a comparative study of james' interpretation of mental acts in terms of the felt movements of the body and the identity theory presented and defended by j j c smart and u t place. some features of remarkable similarity as well as important differences between james' view and the identity theory are discussed. a special reference is made to james' view on the question of the alleged spatial location of mental events.
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  27. Timothy Chan (ed.) (2013). The Aim of Belief. Oxford University Press.
    What is belief? "Beliefs aim at truth" is the commonly accepted starting point for philosophers who want to give an adequate account of this fundamental state of mind, but it raises as many questions as it answers. For example, in what sense can beliefs be said to have an aim of their own? If belief aims at truth, does it mean that reasons to believe must also be based on truth? Must beliefs be formed on the basis of evidence alone? (...)
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  28. Sheldon J. Chow (forthcoming). Many Meanings of 'Heuristic'. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
    A survey of contemporary philosophical and scientific literatures reveals that different authors employ the term ``heuristic'' in ways that deviate from, and are sometimes inconsistent with, one another. Given its widespread use in philosophy and cognitive science generally, it is striking that there appears little concern for a clear account of what phenomena heuristics pick out or refer to. In response, I consider several accounts of ``heuristic'', and I draw a number of distinctions between different sorts of heuristics in order (...)
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  29. Elijah Chudnoff (forthcoming). The Rational Roles of Intuition. In Anthony Booth & Darrell Rowbottom (eds.), Intuitions. Oxford University Press.
    NOTE: this is a substantial revision of a previously uploaded draft. Intuitions are often thought of as inputs to theoretical reasoning. For example, you might form a belief by taking an intuition at face value, or you might take your intuitions as starting points in the method of reflective equilibrium. The aim of this paper is to argue that in addition to these roles intuitions also play action-guiding roles. The argument proceeds by reflection on the transmission of justification through inference. (...)
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  30. L. Jonathan Cohen (1992). An Essay on Belief and Acceptance. New York: Clarendon Press.
    In this incisive new book one of Britain's most eminent philosophers explores the often overlooked tension between voluntariness and involuntariness in human cognition. He seeks to counter the widespread tendency for analytic epistemology to be dominated by the concept of belief. Is scientific knowledge properly conceived as being embodied, at its best, in a passive feeling of belief or in an active policy of acceptance? Should a jury's verdict declare what its members involuntarily believe or what they voluntarily accept? And (...)
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  31. S. Marc Cohen (1969). The Concept of Pleasure. [REVIEW] Philosophical Review 78:386-390.
    Review of The Concept of Pleasure, by David L. Perry (Mouton:1967).
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  32. Thomas Crowther (2009). Perceptual Activity and the Will. In Lucy O'Brien & Matthew Soteriou (eds.), Mental Actions. Oxford University Press. 173.
  33. Felipe De Brigard (2012). The Role of Attention in Conscious Recollection. Frontiers in Psychology 3.
    Most research on the relationship between attention and consciousness has been limited to perception. However, perceptions are not the only kinds of mental contents of which we can be conscious. An important set of conscious states that has not received proper treatment within this discussion is that of memories. This paper reviews compelling evidence indicating that attention may be necessary, but probably not sufficient, for conscious recollection. However, it is argued that unlike the case of conscious perception, the kind of (...)
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  34. Fabian Dorsch (2012). The Unity of Imagining. Ontos.
    In this highly ambitious, wide ranging, immensely impressive and ground-breaking work Fabian Dorsch surveys just about every account of the imagination that has ever been proposed. He identifies five central types of imagining that any unifying theory must accommodate and sets himself the task of determining whether any theory of what imagining consists in covers these five paradigms. Focussing on what he takes to be the three main theories, and giving them each equal consideration, he faults the first two and (...)
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  35. Fabian Dorsch (2009). Judging and the Scope of Mental Agency. In Lucy O'Brien & Matthew Soteriou (eds.), Mental Actions. Oxford University Press. 38--71.
    What is the scope of our conscious mental agency, and how do we acquire self-knowledge of it? Both questions are addressed through an investigation of what best explains our inability to form judgemental thoughts in direct response to practical reasons. Contrary to what Williams and others have argued, it cannot be their subjection to a truth norm, given that our failure to adhere to such a norm need not undermine their status as judgemental. Instead, it is argued that we cannot (...)
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  36. Jacques P. Dubucs & Wioletta Miśkiewicz (2009). Logic, Act and Product. In Giuseppe Primiero (ed.), Knowledge and Judgment. Springer Verlag.
    Logic and psychology overlap in judgment, inference and proof. The problems raised by this commonality are notoriously difficult, both from a historical and from a philosophical point of view. Sundholm has for a long time addressed these issues. His beautiful piece of work [A Century of Inference: 1837-1936] begins by summarizing the main difficulty in the usual provocative manner of the author: one can start, he says, by the act of knowledge to go to the object, as the Idealist does; (...)
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  37. Curt J. Ducasse (1936). Introspection, Mental Acts, and Sensa. Mind 45 (178):181-192.
  38. Alfred C. Ewing (1948). Mental Acts. Mind 57 (April):201-220.
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  39. Keith Frankish (2007). Deciding to Believe Again. Mind 116 (463):523 - 547.
    This paper defends direct activism-the view that it is possible to form beliefs in a causally direct way. In particular, it addresses the charge that direct activism entails voluntarism-the thesis that we can form beliefs at will. It distinguishes weak and strong varieties of voluntarism and argues that, although direct activism may entail the weak variety, it does not entail the strong one. The paper goes on to argue that strong voluntarism is non-contingently false, sketching a new argument for that (...)
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  40. W. B. Gallie (1948). Dr Ewing on Mental Acts. Mind 57 (October):480-487.
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  41. W. B. Gallie (1947). Does Psychology Study Mental Acts or Dispositions, Part I. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 134:134-153.
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  42. Peter Geach (1957). Mental Acts. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
    ACT, CONTENT, AND OBJECT THE TITLE I have chosen for this work is a mere label for a set of problems; the controversial views that have historically been ...
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  43. Peter T. Geach (1957). Mental Acts: Their Content And Their Objects. Humanities Press.
    ACT, CONTENT, AND OBJECT THE TITLE I have chosen for this work is a mere label for a set of problems; the controversial views that have historically been ...
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  44. Heimir Geirsson (2004). Contra Collective Epistemic Agency. Southwest Philosophy Review 20 (2):163-166.
    In a couple of recent papers Deborah Tollefsen has argued that groups should be viewed as having some of the intentional and epistemic properties as do individuals. In “Organizations as True Believers” she argues that corporations really do have intentional states.1 In “Collective Epistemic Agency”2 she continues her development of group agency and she now argues that collectives can be genuine knowers. The target of her arguments is, naturally, the wide spread view that “knowers are individuals, and knowledge is generated (...)
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  45. Raymond W. Gibbs (2006). Embodiment and Cognitive Science. New York ;Cambridge University Press.
    This book explores how people's subjective, felt experiences of their bodies in action provide part of the fundamental grounding for human cognition and language. Cognition is what occurs when the body engages the physical and cultural world and must be studied in terms of the dynamical interactions between people and the environment. Human language and thought emerge from recurring patterns of embodied activity that constrain ongoing intelligent behavior. We must not assume cognition to be purely internal, symbolic, computational, and disembodied, (...)
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  46. Pamela Hieronymi (2009). Believing at Will. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 35 (sup1):149-187.
    It has seemed to many philosophers—perhaps to most—that believing is not voluntary, that we cannot believe at will. It has seemed to many of these that this inability is not a merely contingent psychological limitation but rather is a deep fact about belief, perhaps a conceptual limitation. But it has been very difficult to say exactly why we cannot believe at will. I earlier offered an account of why we cannot believe at will. I argued that nothing could qualify both (...)
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  47. Pamela Hieronymi (2009). Two Kinds of Agency. In Lucy O'Brien & Matthew Soteriou (eds.), Mental Action. Oxford University Press. 138–162.
    I will argue that making a certain assumption allows us to conceptualize more clearly our agency over our minds. The assumption is this: certain attitudes (most uncontroversially, belief and intention) embody their subject’s answer to some question or set of questions. I will first explain the assumption and then show that, given the assumption, we should expect to exercise agency over this class of attitudes in (at least) two distinct ways: by answering for ourselves the question they embody and by (...)
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  48. Pamela Hieronymi (2008). Responsibility for Believing. Synthese 161 (3):357-373.
    Many assume that we can be responsible only what is voluntary. This leads to puzzlement about our responsibility for our beliefs, since beliefs seem not to be voluntary. I argue against the initial assumption, presenting an account of responsibility and of voluntariness according to which, not only is voluntariness not required for responsibility, but the feature which renders an attitude a fundamental object of responsibility (that the attitude embodies one’s take on the world and one’s place in it) also guarantees (...)
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  49. Pamela Hieronymi (2006). Controlling Attitudes. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87 (1):45-74.
    I hope to show that, although belief is subject to two quite robust forms of agency, "believing at will" is impossible; one cannot believe in the way one ordinarily acts. Further, the same is true of intention: although intention is subject to two quite robust forms of agency, the features of belief that render believing less than voluntary are present for intention, as well. It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that you can no more intend at will than believe at will.
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  50. J. Hintikka & R. Tuomela (eds.) (1997). Contemporary Action Theory. Kluwer.
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