About this topic
Summary The Causal Theory of Action (CTA) is often referred to as "the standard story" of human action and agency in the philosophy of action. Strictly speaking, it is misleading to think of the CTA as a single theory of action. A better way to think about the CTA is in terms of a set of theories that bear a family resemblance by accepting the following schema about what makes some behavior count as an action and what explains an action: Any behavior A (whether overt or mental) of an agent S is an action if and only if S's A-ing is caused in the right way and causally explained by some appropriate nonactional mental item(s) that mediate or constitute S's reasons for A-ing.
Key works Perhaps the touchstone essay for contemporary formulations of the CTA is Davidson 1963. For a review of the historical development of the CTA, including a discussion of the refinements of the CTA that have been offered, along with a survey of  some problems faced by the theory and proposed solutions, see the introductory essay in Aguilar & Buckareff 2010. For seminal recent refinements of the CTA, see Bishop 1989, Enç 2003, Mele 1992, Mele 2000, Mele 2003Stout 1996, and the essays in Aguilar & Buckareff 2010.
Introductions For an accessible introduction to options in the theory of action, including variants of CTA, see the introduction to Aguilar & Buckareff 2010 and Brand 1979.
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  1. Intentional Action, Causation, and Deviance.Peter Brian Barry - manuscript
    It is reasonably well accepted that the explanation of intentional action is teleological explanation. Very roughly, an explanation of some event, E, is teleological only if it explains E by citing some goal or purpose or reason that produced E. Alternatively, teleological explanations of intentional action explain “by citing the state of affairs toward which the behavior was directed” thereby answering questions like “To what end was the agent’s behavior directed?” Causalism—advocated by causalists—is the thesis that explanations of intentional action (...)
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  2. Causation, Perspective and Agency.Jenann Ismael - manuscript
    Philosophers of mind tend to take it for granted that causal relations are part of the mind-independent, objective fabric of the physical world. In fact, their status has been hotly contested since Russell famously observed that the closest thing to causal relations in physics are timesymmetric dynamical laws relating global time slices of world-history. 1 These bear a distant relationship to the local, asymmetric relations that form the core of the folk notion of cause. Nancy Cartwright, in an influential response, (...)
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  3. ACTION, Philosophy Of.Hegel Gwf - forthcoming - Philosophy Today.
  4. The Disappearing Agent as an Exclusion Problem.Johannes Himmelreich - forthcoming - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
    The disappearing agent problem is an argument in the metaphysics of agency. Proponents of the agent-causal approach argue that the rival event-causal approach fails to account for the fact that an agent is active. This paper examines an analogy between this disappearing agent problem and the exclusion problem in the metaphysics of mind. I develop the analogy between these two problems and survey existing solutions. I suggest that some solutions that have received significant attention in response to the exclusion problem (...)
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  5. Actions, Explanations, and Causes.Alfred Mele - forthcoming - In G. D'Oro (ed.), Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Non-causalism in the Philosophy of Action. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  6. Law and the Philosophy of Action.Enrique Villanueva V. (ed.) - forthcoming - Rodopi.
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  7. The Shape of Agency: Control, Action, Skill, Knowledge.Joshua Shepherd - 2021 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    The Shape of Agency offers interlinked explanations of the basic building blocks of agency, as well as its exemplary instances. The first part offers accounts of a collection of related phenomena that have long troubled philosophers of action: control over behaviour, non-deviant causation, and intentional action. These accounts build on earlier work in the causalist tradition, and undermine the claims made by many that causalism cannot offer a satisfying account of non-deviant causation, and therefore fails as an account of intentional (...)
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  8. Hubert Dreyfus on Practical and Embodied Intelligence.Kristina Gehrman & John Schwenkler - 2020 - In Carlotta Pavese & Ellen Fridland (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Skill and Expertise. Routledge. pp. 123-132.
    This chapter treats Hubert Dreyfus’ account of skilled coping as part of his wider project of demonstrating the sovereignty of practical intelligence over all other forms of intelligence. In contrast to the standard picture of human beings as essentially rational, individual agents, Dreyfus argued powerfully on phenomenological and empirical grounds that humans are fundamentally embedded, absorbed, and embodied. These commitments are present throughout Dreyfus’ philosophical writings, from his critique of Artificial Intelligence research in the 1970s and 1980s to his rejection (...)
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  9. Motor Imagery and Action Execution.Bence Nanay - 2020 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy.
    What triggers the execution of actions? What happens in that moment when an action is triggered? What mental state is there at the moment of action-execution that was not there a second before? My aim is to highlight the importance of a thus far largely ignored kind of mental state in the discussion of these old and much-debated questions: motor imagery. While there have been a fair amount of research in psychology and neuroscience on motor imagery in the last 30 (...)
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  10. The World and the Will: On the Problem of Photographic Agency.John Schwenkler - 2020 - Nonsite 32.
    This essay is my contribution to a symposium responding to several papers by Walter Benn Michaels that bring the work of Elizabeth Anscombe to bear on philosophical problems of artistic representation. In it, I take Benn Michaels's side in a dispute with Dominic McIver Lopes over the difference between Anscombe's view of intentional agency and that of Donald Davidson. I also critique Benn Michaels's reading of a difficult passage in section 29 of Anscombe's INTENTION, where she presents the famous case (...)
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  11. Action Always Involves Attention.Wayne Wu - 2019 - Analysis 79 (4):693-703.
    Jennings and Nanay argue against my claim that action entails attention by providing putative counterexamples to the claim that action entails a Many–Many Problem. This reply demonstrates that they have misunderstood the central notion of a pure reflex on which my argument depends. A simplified form of the argument from pure reflex to the Many–Many Problem as a necessary feature of agency is given, and putative counterexamples of action without attention are addressed. Attention is present in every action. In passing, (...)
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  12. Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, Edited by Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe.Michael Brent - 2018 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 15 (3):371-374.
  13. I’M Just Sitting Around Doing Nothing: On Exercising Intentional Agency in Omitting to Act.Andrei Buckareff - 2018 - Synthese 195 (10):4617-4635.
    In some recent work on omissions, it has been argued that the causal theory of action cannot account for how agency is exercised in intentionally omitting to act in the same way it explains how agency is exercised in intentional action. Thus, causalism appears to provide us with an incomplete picture of intentional agency. I argue that causalists should distinguish causalism as a general theory of intentional agency from causalism as a theory of intentional action. Specifically, I argue that, while (...)
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  14. The Metaphysics of Action: Trying, Doing, Causing.David-Hillel Ruben - 2018 - London: Palgrave Macmillan.
    A discussion of three central ideas in action theory; trying to act, doing or acting, one's action causing further consequences.
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  15. One-Particularism in the Theory of Action.David-Hillel Ruben - 2018 - Philosophical Studies 175 (11):2677-2694.
    In this paper, I intend to introduce what I think is a novel proposal in the metaphysics of action: one-particularism. In order to do so, I must first explain two ideas: a concept in the semantics of English that many philosophers of action take to be of great importance in action theory, causative alternation; and the idea of an intrinsic event. By attempting to understand the role that intrinsic events are meant to play in action theory, I then introduce my (...)
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  16. Motor Intentions and Non‐Observational Knowledge of Action: A Standard Story.Olle Blomberg & Chiara Brozzo - 2017 - Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 6 (3):137-146.
    According to the standard story given by reductive versions of the Causal Theory of Action, an action is an intrinsically mindless bodily movement that is appropriately caused by an intention. Those who embrace this story typically take this intention to have a coarse-grained content, specifying the action only down to the level of the agent's habits and skills. Markos Valaris argues that, because of this, the standard story cannot make sense of the deep reach of our non-observational knowledge of action. (...)
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  17. The Logic of Intending and Predicting.David Botting - 2017 - Kriterion - Journal of Philosophy 31 (3):1-24.
    Can human acts be causally explained in the same way as the rest of nature? If so, causal explanation in the manner of the Hempelian model should fit the human sciences and the natural sciences equally. This is not so much a question of whether the Hempelian model is a completely adequate account of causal explanation, but about whether it is adequate or inadequate in the same way for each: if there is some unique feature of human acts that dictates (...)
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  18. Agent Causation as a Solution to the Problem of Action.Michael Brent - 2017 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 47 (5):656-673.
    My primary aim is to defend a nonreductive solution to the problem of action. I argue that when you are performing an overt bodily action, you are playing an irreducible causal role in bringing about, sustaining, and controlling the movements of your body, a causal role best understood as an instance of agent causation. Thus, the solution that I defend employs a notion of agent causation, though emphatically not in defence of an account of free will, as most theories of (...)
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  19. Bratman on Identity Over Time and Identification at a Time.Christopher Evan Franklin - 2017 - Philosophical Explorations 20 (1):1-14.
    According to reductionists about agency, an agent’s bringing something about is reducible to states and events involving the agent bringing something about. Many have worried that reductionism cannot accommodate robust forms of agency, such as self-determination. One common reductionist answer to this worry contends that self-determining agents are identified with certain states and events, and so these states and events causing a decision counts as the agent’s self-determining the decision. In this paper, I discuss Michael Bratman’s well-known identification reductionist theory (...)
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  20. On Pereboom’s Disappearing Agent Argument.Alfred R. Mele - 2017 - Criminal Law and Philosophy 11 (3):561-574.
    This article is a critical discussion of Derk Pereboom’s “disappearing agent objection” to event-causal libertarianism in his Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life. This objection is an important plank in Pereboom’s argument for free will skepticism. It is intended to knock event-causal libertarianism, a leading pro-free-will view, out of contention. I explain why readers should not find the objection persuasive.
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  21. Action Reconceptualized: Human Agency and its Sources.David K. Chan - 2016 - Lexington Books.
    In re-examining the concepts of desire, intention, and trying, David K. Chan brings a fresh approach toward resolving many of the problems that have occupied philosophers of action for almost a century. This book not only presents a complete theory of human agency but also, by developing the conceptual tools needed to do moral philosophy, lays the groundwork for formulating an ethics that is rooted in a clear, intuitive, and coherent moral psychology.
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  22. Acting on a Ground : Reasons, Rational Motivation, and Explanation.Magnus Frei - 2016 - Dissertation, Fribourg
    When someone does something for a reason, what are the reasons for which she does what she does? What is her ‘motivating reason’, as it is sometimes put? The simple answer is: it depends on what is meant by ‘motivating reason’. Non-Psychologists hold that motivating reasons are what the agent believes. I have shown that given that we understand ‘motivating reasons’ as what I term 'grounds', this is quite correct, as what we believe is what plays the role of a (...)
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  23. Distinguishing Joint Actions From Collective Actions.Paul Hammond - 2016 - Synthese 193 (9).
    This paper argues that the intentional actions of collective entities, such as corporations and agencies, are not necessarily joint intentional actions by several members of those collectives. I briefly summarize the social action theories of John Searle, Michael Bratman, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela, and Seumas Miller, which I argue are all theories of joint action. I then describe a case based loosely on events from the 2008 financial crisis in which an intentional collective action is performed by a corporation due (...)
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  24. Reasons and Divine Action: A Dilemma.Rebekah L. H. Rice - 2016 - In Kevin Timpe Dan Speak (ed.), Free Will and Theism: Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns. Oxford University Press.
    Many theistic philosophers conceive of God’s activity in agent-causal terms. That is, they view divine action as an instance of (perhaps the paradigm case of) substance causation. At the same time, many theists endorse the claim that God acts for reasons, and not merely wantonly. It is the aim of this paper to show that a commitment to both theses gives rise to a dilemma. I present the dilemma and then spend the bulk of the paper defending its premises. I (...)
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  25. Bodily Movement and Its Significance.Will Small - 2016 - Philosophical Topics 44 (1):183-206.
    I trace the development of one aspect of Fred Stoutland’s thought about action by considering the central role given by contemporary philosophy of action to bodily movement. Those who tell the so-called standard story of action think that actions are bodily movements caused by beliefs and desires, that cause further effects in the world in virtue of which they can be described. Those who hold a disjunctive conception of bodily movement think that actions are bodily movements that involve intentions essentially, (...)
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  26. Acting and Understanding.Alexander Stathopoulos - 2016 - Dissertation, University of St. Andrews
    This thesis concerns the question of what it is for a subject to act. It answers this question in three steps. The first step is taken by arguing that any satisfactory answer must build on the idea that an action is something predicable of the acting subject. The second step is taken by arguing in support of an answer which does build on this idea, and does so by introducing the idea that acting is doing something which is an exercise (...)
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  27. Experts and Deviants: The Story of Agentive Control.Wayne Wu - 2016 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 92 (2):101-26.
    This essay argues that current theories of action fail to explain agentive control because they have left out a psychological capacity central to control: attention. This makes it impossible to give a complete account of the mental antecedents that generate action. By investigating attention, and in particular the intention-attention nexus, we can characterize the functional role of intention in an illuminating way, explicate agentive control so that we have a uniform explanation of basic cases of causal deviance in action as (...)
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  28. Causation, Norms, and Omissions: A Study of Causal Judgments.Randolph Clarke, Joshua Shepherd, John Stigall, Robyn Repko Waller & Chris Zarpentine - 2015 - Philosophical Psychology 28 (2):279-293.
    Many philosophical theories of causation are egalitarian, rejecting a distinction between causes and mere causal conditions. We sought to determine the extent to which people's causal judgments discriminate, selecting as causes counternormal events—those that violate norms of some kind—while rejecting non-violators. We found significant selectivity of this sort. Moreover, priming that encouraged more egalitarian judgments had little effect on subjects. We also found that omissions are as likely as actions to be judged as causes, and that counternormative selectivity appears to (...)
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  29. Philosophy of Action: An Anthology.Jonathan Dancy & Constantine Sandis (eds.) - 2015 - Wiley-Blackwell.
    _The Philosophy of Action: An Anthology_ is an authoritative collection of key work by top scholars, arranged thematically and accompanied by expert introductions written by the editors. This unique collection brings together a selection of the most influential essays from the 1960s to the present day. An invaluable collection that brings together a selection of the most important classic and contemporary articles in philosophy of action, from the 1960’s to the present day No other broad-ranging and detailed coverage of this (...)
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  30. Self-Determination, Self-Transformation, and the Case of Jean Valjean: A Problem for Velleman.Christopher Evan Franklin - 2015 - Philosophical Studies 172 (10):2591-2598.
    According to reductionists about agency, an agent’s bringing something about is reducible to states and events involving the agent bringing something about. Many have worried that reductionism cannot accommodate robust forms of agency, such as self-determination. One common reductionist answer to this worry contends that self-determining agents are identified with certain states and events, and so these states and events causing a decision counts as the agent’s self-determining the decision. In this paper I discuss J. David Velleman’s identification reductionist theory, (...)
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  31. Psychoanalytic Action Explanation.Cord Friebe - 2015 - Philosophical Explorations 18 (1):34-44.
    Psychoanalysis is concerned with neurotic behaviour that counts as an action if one takes into account “repressed” mental states. Freud's paradigmatic examples are a challenge for philosophical theories of action explanation. The main problem is that such symptomatic behaviour is, in a characteristic way, irrational. In line with standard interpretations, I will recap that psychoanalytic action explanation is not in accordance with Davidson's classical reason-explanation model, and I will recall that Freud's unconsciousness is not a second mind with its own (...)
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  32. Actions and Accidents.David Horst - 2015 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 45 (3):300-325.
    In acting intentionally, it is no accident that one is doing what one intends to do. In this paper, I ask how to account for this non-accidentality requirement on intentional action. I argue that, for systematic reasons, the currently prevailing view of intentional action – the Causal Theory of Action – is ill-equipped to account for it. I end by proposing an alternative account, according to which an intention is a special kind of cause, one to which it is essential (...)
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  33. Action Knowledge & Will.John Hyman - 2015 - Oxford University Press UK.
    Human agency has four irreducibly different dimensions -- psychological, ethical, intellectual, and physical -- which the traditional idea of a will tended to conflate. Twentieth-century philosophers criticized the idea that acts are caused by 'willing' or 'volition', but the study of human action continued to be governed by a tendency to equate these dimensions of agency, or to reduce one to another. Cutting across the branches of philosophy, from logic and epistemology to ethics and jurisprudence, Action, Knowledge, and Will defends (...)
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  34. The Deviance in Deviant Causal Chains.Neil McDonnell - 2015 - Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 4 (2):162-170.
    Causal theories of action, perception and knowledge are each beset by problems of so-called ‘deviant’ causal chains. For each such theory, counterexamples are formed using odd or co-incidental causal chains to establish that the theory is committed to unpalatable claims about some intentional action, about a case of veridical perception or about the acquisition of genuine knowledge. In this paper I will argue that three well-known examples of a deviant causal chain have something in common: they each violate Yablos proportionality (...)
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  35. Reductionism, Agency and Free Will.Maria Rigato - 2015 - Axiomathes 25 (1):107-116.
    In the context of the free will debate, both compatibilists and event-causal libertarians consider that the agent’s mental states and events are what directly causes her decision to act. However, according to the ‘disappearing agent’ objection, if the agent is nothing over and above her physical and mental components, which ultimately bring about her decision, and that decision remains undetermined up to the moment when it is made, then it is a chancy and uncontrolled event. According to agent-causalism, this sort (...)
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  36. Agency.Markus E. Schlosser - 2015 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    In very general terms, an agent is a being with the capacity to act, and 'agency' denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action. The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agent’s mental states and events. From this, we obtain a standard conception and a standard theory of agency. There are (...)
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  37. Nowhere and Everywhere: The Causal Origin of Voluntary Action.Aaron Schurger & Sebo Uithol - 2015 - Review of Philosophy and Psychology 6 (4):761-778.
    The idea that intentions make the difference between voluntary and non-voluntary behaviors is simple and intuitive. At the same time, we lack an understanding of how voluntary actions actually come about, and the unquestioned appeal to intentions as discrete causes of actions offers little if anything in the way of an answer. We cite evidence suggesting that the origin of actions varies depending on context and effector, and argue that actions emerge from a causal web in the brain, rather than (...)
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  38. Book Review: Rational Causation, Written by E. Marcus. [REVIEW]John Schwenkler - 2015 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 12 (2):235-238.
    This is an excellent book that deserves careful attention from anyone whose work touches on issues in the philosophy of mind and action. In it, Marcus challenges the dominant philosophical conception of the mind’s place in nature, according to which mentalistic explanations hold true only when mental states or events cause things to happen in the same way as physical states and events do. Against this conception, Marcus argues that mental causation is utterly dissimilar to most of the causation we (...)
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  39. Why “Why?”? Action, Reasons and Language.Roger Teichmann - 2015 - Philosophical Investigations 38 (1-2):115-132.
    In Intention, Anscombe characterises intentional actions as “the actions to which a certain sense of the question ‘Why?’ is given application”. Some philosophers have seen Anscombe's reference to “Why?”, and to other workings of language, as heuristic devices only. I argue that, on the contrary, we should see the enquiry-and-response dialogue, and related dialogues, as essential foci of the sort of investigation Anscombe is undertaking, one which looks to a certain kind of language-game and the human purpose or purposes which (...)
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  40. Self-Determination, Self-Transformation, and the Case of Jean Valjean: A Problem for Velleman.Kevin Timpe - 2015 - Philosophical Studies 172 (10):2591-2598.
    According to reductionists about agency, an agent’s bringing something about is reducible to states and events involving the agent bringing something about. Many have worried that reductionism cannot accommodate robust forms of agency, such as self-determination. One common reductionist answer to this worry contends that self-determining agents are identified with certain states and events, and so these states and events causing a decision counts as the agent’s self-determining the decision. In this paper I discuss J. David Velleman’s identification reductionist theory, (...)
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  41. The Instrumental Structure of Actions.Markos Valaris - 2015 - Philosophical Quarterly 65 (258):64-83.
    According to current orthodoxy in the philosophy of action, intentional actions consist in intrinsically mindless bodily movements that stand in causal relations to appropriate mental states. This paper challenges this approach to intentional action, by arguing that there are not enough appropriate mental states around to ‘animate’ all of the bodily movements we intuitively count as intentional actions. In the alternative picture I suggest, the bodily movements that constitute our intentional actions are themselves to be thought of as cognitive events, (...)
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  42. Causal Pluralism and the Problem of Natural Agency.John Bishop - 2014 - Res Philosophica 91 (3):527-536.
  43. Beyond Morality: Intentional Action in Hegel's Philosophy of Right.Davide P. Cargnello - 2014 - Mind 123 (491):671-706.
    The paper discusses Hegel’s conception of intentional action. Drawing principally on Hegel’s analysis of the determinations and rights of action in the Morality chapter of the Philosophy of Right, I suggest that Hegel is committed to a corrigibilist view of action, according to which intentions are definitive of action, objective, and publicly accessible, in principle, via ex post facto corrective interpretation. I conclude by commenting briefly on the place of Hegel’s conception of action in the broader action-theoretic landscape.
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  44. Towards a Convincing Account of Intention.Niel Henk Conradie - 2014 - Dissertation, University of Stellenbosch
    Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2014.
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  45. Action and Passion.Anton Ford - 2014 - Philosophical Topics 42 (1):13-42.
    When an agent intentionally changes something separate from herself—when, say, she opens a bottle—what is the relation between what the agent does and what the patient suffers? This paper defends the Aristotelian thesis that action is to passion as the road from Thebes to Athens is to the road from Athens to Thebes: they are two aspects of a single material reality. Philosophers of action tend to think otherwise. It is generally taken for granted that intentional transactions must be analyzed (...)
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  46. They’Ve Lost Control: Reflections on Skill.Ellen Fridland - 2014 - Synthese 191 (12):2729-2750.
    In this paper, I submit that it is the controlled part of skilled action, that is, that part of an action that accounts for the exact, nuanced ways in which a skilled performer modifies, adjusts and guides her performance for which an adequate, philosophical theory of skill must account. I will argue that neither Jason Stanley nor Hubert Dreyfus have an adequate account of control. Further, and perhaps surprisingly, I will argue that both Stanley and Dreyfus relinquish an account of (...)
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  47. Reasons for Action: Wittgensteinian and Davidsonian Perspectives in Historical, Meta-Philosophical and Philosophical Context.Hans-Johann Glock - 2014 - Nordic Wittgenstein Review 3 (1):7-46.
    My paper reflects on the debate about reasons for action and action explanations between Wittgensteinian teleological approaches and causalist theories inspired by Davidson. After a brief discussion of similarities and differences in the philosophy of language, I sketch the prehistory and history of the controversy. I show that the conflict between Wittgenstein and Davidson revolves neither around revisionism nor around naturalism. Even in the philosophy of mind and action, Davidson is not as remote from Wittgenstein and his followers as is (...)
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  48. Human Agency, Reasons, and Inter-Subjective Understanding.William Hasselberger - 2014 - Philosophy 89 (1):135-160.
    In this essay I argue that the mainstream ‘Standard Story’ of action – according to which actions are bodily motions with the right internal mental states as their causal triggers (e.g., ‘belief-desire-pairs’, ‘intentions’) – gives rise to a deeply problematic conception of inter-subjective action-understanding. For the Standard Story, since motivating reasons are internal mental states and bodily motions are not intrinsically intentional, an observer must ascribe internal states to others to make rational sense of their outwardly observable bodily motions. I (...)
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  49. Desires, Dispositions and Deviant Causal Chains.John Hyman - 2014 - Philosophy 89 (1):83-112.
    Recent work on dispositions offers a new solution to the long-running dispute about whether explanations of intentional action are causal explanations. The dispute seemed intractable because of a lack of percipience about dispositions and a commitment to Humean orthodoxies about causation on both sides.
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  50. Causal Constraints on Intention.Steven J. Jensen - 2014 - The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 14 (2):273-293.
    Christopher Tollefsen, relying on the new natural law theory, has suggested that in the Phoenix abortion case, the action might be characterized simply as removing the baby rather than killing the baby. Tollefsen and other proponents of the new natural law theory fail to give proper weight to the observable facts of the world around us, and thereby tend to ignore the importance of observable causes in shaping the character of our intentions and our actions. An appreciation of the role (...)
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