Jason Bridges

University of Chicago


Phil 31410, A03—lecture 1 notes




Before discussing syllabus and mechanics of course, I want to talk a bit about the topic of the course, and the general layout of what we will be discussing.


I. What is the philosophy of action?

First of all, actions are deeds, acts, performances, doings.  An action is a doing of something.

In ordinary talk, we tend to restrict the appellation, “action”, and even more so its cognates, “deed” and “act”, to things people do that are of some significance.  Shooting someone, say, or diving into the raging stream to save the kitten.  We don’t usually speak of, say, my taking a sip from this mug, as an action or deed.  But in a suitable context we will acknowledge even such a mundane doing as an action.  In a court of a law, for example, if you’re asked to reconstruct all of your actions during a particular brief interval, you might say, “First I poured myself some coffee and took a sip…etc.”

In the other direction, although all actions are doings of things, it’s certainly not the case that this yields a sufficient condition, that all doings of things are actions.  We are above all concerned, in thinking about actions, with the doings of people.  Cockroaches do things, like crawl across the floor.  Kitchen appliances do things, as when we hear the toaster make an odd sound and ask what the hell it is doing.  But as we shall shortly see, there is good reason for not thinking of a cockroach’s or toaster’s doing something as an action.

Not even all the things people do are actions.  If I trip down the stairs, that is something I do.  And my tripping down the stairs might be an action on my part—if, for example, I did it deliberately—but if, as is likely, it is just owing to my clumsiness and distraction, it is not an action of mine.  It is more like something that has befallen me; it is something of which I am the victim rather than the agent or perpetrator. 

To a first approximation, then, we can associate the idea of an action with the idea of a performance that was deliberate or intentional on the part of the performer.  As we shall see next time, though, there are questions about what this criterion comes to.  And even accepting the criterion leaves many questions open about how to individuate and identify actions.


On further reflection, as we shall see, this idea seems to boil down to, or at least to be closely associated with the idea that an action is a doing of something for a reason.  An action is a doing for which the doer, or agent, had a reason.

Now we speak of a person’s reason for doing something, what is in question is not merely a reason in the undemanding sense in which any anything that explains something counts as a reason for what it explains.  If last night’s heavy wind explains why the tree in my yard fell over, then last night’s heavy wind is the reason the tree in my yard fell over.

But the heavy wind was not the tree’s reason for falling over.  The tree itself had no reasons.

Nor does the fact that what is being explained is something a person does ensure that the explanation will involve appeal to reasons in the sense we are concerned with here.  My clumsiness and distraction may be the reason I trip down the stairs, but they are not my reason for tripping down the stairs.


Contrast a case in which I trip down the stairs in a desperate bid to avoid an unpleasant conversation.  Here my wish to forestall the conversation is not merely the reason I trip.  It is my reason for tripping—it is the reason that I act upon, the reason upon which I base my action.


On still further reflection, idea of a person’s doing something for a reason seems to boil down to, or to be closely associated with the idea of a person’s doing something in light of what they believe, want, desire, wish for, intend.  These are psychological states, mental states, in a familiar sense that I won’t attempt right now to unpack.

And so in this respect the philosophy of action becomes a branch of the philosophy of mind.  If what makes something an action, a reflection of agency, is a matter of a certain kind of psychological explanation being available of it, it stands to reason that understanding the phenomenon of agency will require understanding something about the nature of mentality, of our mental lives.


In fact, there are many questions that could be asked about action and agency.  And these many questions can helpfully be related to each other in various disparate ways, linked together by various different themes that in turn connect to questions in other areas of philosophical inquiry.

One such linkage is to ethics or moral philosophy.  A central concept in thinking about morality is that of responsibility.  It is natural to think, if perhaps not absolutely correct, that moral censure and approval can apply only to things for which a person is responsible.  And the idea of an action, of a person’s intentionally doing something, is obviously connected with the idea of responsibility.

Another linkage is to social philosophy, to the philosophy of social relationships, social institutions and group behavior.  Social philosophy has occasion to be concerned with the phenomenon of a collective action, of an action on the part of a group or institution, and it is a question for the philosophy of action what the relationship is between such actions and the actions of individuals.


We will not directly consider either questions of group action or of responsibility for action.  The approach I will take to organizing our study of the philosophy of action in this course will involve seeing it as a component of the philosophy of mind, and consequently our focus will not be to look outward, as it were, to the place of actions in the world of social and ethical relationships, but to look inward to the place of an individual’s actions within the context of her ongoing mental life.


II. The philosophy of action as a branch of the philosophy of mind

Let me say a further word about this connection.

The philosophy of mind is concerned with a great variety of issues, but there is a root difficulty, a root puzzlement, that gets all of it going.  The puzzlement concerns the relationship between the mind and the physical world.


Very abstractly and briefly, we can characterize the question as something like this: how can there be such phenomena as belief, emotion, desire, pain and so on in a world that seems in some deep sense a wholly physical one, a world populated only by collections of molecules bopping around?


Exactly why this should seem a pressing or sensible question is itself a difficult question.  One possibility, which I shall simply register now and we shall discuss by degrees as this course goes on, is that the puzzlement stems from an awareness, however inexplicit, of the subjectivity of the mental.  Mental facts, facts about what we people are feeling or thinking or wanting, it can be argued, are irreducibly facts about how things are for these people, how things present themselves from their particular point of view or perspective.

But we have this conviction that all of reality, everything that’s real, can be understood wholly objectively, as a matter of how things are in themselves, independently of any particular perspective.  This conviction perhaps underlies our sense that the world is “wholly physical”, for the physical sciences are the paradigm of an attempt to understand occurrences in objective terms.

So there’s a puzzle about the status of mental facts.


There’s much to be said about this huge topic, only some of which will be discussed in this course.  But whatever the source of the mind/body problem, it is clear that if there is such a problem, it is likely to emerge in especially striking ways in our reflection on action.

For the category of action—of act, deed, performance, thing done—seems to straddle the mental/physical divide.

On the one hand, the great majority, if not all, of actions involve or depend on the agent’s body moving in some way.  When I shove you, say, or change the channel, or get on the bus, or accept a proposal of marriage, my body moves.  These movements can be described physically, and are subject to all the relevant physical laws.  Moreover, they can cause other physical occurrences.  My shoving you could cause you to fall into someone else, which could in turn lead to a riot, and then to a war, and then the colonization of a new country, and from there to global warming, etc.

But on the other hand, what makes something an action on the part of a person—something she does, as opposed to something that just happens—seems to lie in its being the product of certain mental states of the person in question.  Is my tripping down the stairs an action on my part?  Well, as we’ve noted, it depends on whether my tripping was deliberate, intentional.  But whether something I do is intentional seems to be a question about whether what I do is a result of certain mental activity on my part, in particular whether it results from a decision or intention or desire on my part.  If I tripped down the stairs out of a desire to avoid having a conversation with you, for example, then it was an action, a performance, a deed, on my part.


So actions are physical happenings, involving motions of bodies, with real-world effects, and yet it would seem it is intrinsic to the idea of an action that actions result from, and so are explained by, mental states and happenings.  This suggests that if there is a general puzzle of the place of the mental in the physical world, it will emerge in striking and immediate ways in our thought about action.  And as we shall see, that is precisely what happens.


III. The layout of the course

It’s not as if this very general question—how we can we fit mental phenomena, with their perhaps unavoidable and thorough-going subjectivity, into a concept of the world as wholly explicable in physical, objective terms?—will be our explicit topic in the lectures to come.  In some places it will crop up in explicit form, but not usually.

But it will always be in the background.  The specific topics we will address can all be understood, helpfully, I think, as aspects of this question, as particular forms that the question naturally assumes.


Let’s look at the schedule of topics.  We begin by addressing some of the basic questions about what actions are, and about how our ordinary mentalistic explanations of them work.  We focus in particular on the work of Donald Davidson (who died a few weeks ago).  He is by far the most influential figure in philosophy of action in the last 50, maybe 200 years, and his work sets the terms of contemporary discussion.

In many ways, his influence is undeniably beneficial—it clarifies many central issues, and provides a sharp and, I think, plausible framework for thinking about actions and action explanation.  But there is also some fallout from his work whose significance is more equivocal, and we shall spend a few lectures sorting that out.  Some of the issues here are, broadly speaking, ontological—they concern the question of what kind of thing an action is.  Are actions events, or do they belong to some other category of being?  If they are events, are they events of bodies moving, and if so in what sense? And some of the issues concern explanation and causation.  If actions are causally explained by what a person believes and wants, does it follow that there are states of the person, namely beliefs and desires that are the cause of the action? Do these questions come apart, and if so how?

And we shall see, it is possible to argue, as Hornsby does in our reading, that not being clear on what might seem at first boringly technical distinctions can actually be the source of one’s sense that there are deep puzzles about the relationship between actions and the events of the physical world.  She argues, in fact, that Nagel’s famous argument that we cannot reconcile the subjective character of psychological explanations of action with our understanding of them as events in the objective order .is based on a technical error of this sort.


In the second part of the course, we consider an immensely influential and widespread view of how actions are explained, that goes back at least to Hume and probably farther.  The basic gist of the view is that people do what they do, perform the actions that they do, because they want what they do, and that these wants are at bottom non-rational.  They are not a matter of a person’s seeing reason to do something, a reason that might potentially be subject to critical scrutiny.  Rather, they are akin to drives or brute forces.  What we will call the Humean theory of action explanation is that in the etiology of every action there is at some point such a brute want or desire.  We will look at Hume’s own version of this theory, and then at more contemporary and far more sophisticated formulations.

One source of the appeal for this view, as we will see, is that it casts the role of our psychological states in prompting our actions in ways that seem to remove or minimize the subjective cast of those states.  Psychological explanation of human action turns out to be not dissimilar from the mechanical explanations we provide of the behavior of physical systems like bodily organs or car engines.


In the third part, we look at various works that argue that the Humean story is unacceptable.  In one way or another, these criticisms can be seen as arguing that the Humean story, precisely in virtue of objectifying psychological explanations, misses the true nature of those explanations.  The upshot is a picture of these explanations which casts them as radically unlike natural-scientific explanations of physical phenomena, one in which the subject one again assumes an irreducible role.  Among the many implications of this picture is that suggests a very thoroughgoing externalism about the mind—that is, a view in which our being in the mental states we are is inextricably a matter of our relationships to the world around us, outside of our bodies.

But this picture turns out to have difficulties of its own, which we shall discuss.


In the final part, we look at some questions left over from the debate between the Humean and non-Humean view.  One of these concerns the possibility of irrationality.  The other concerns the perennial question of free will.