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Event Theory


An event is anything that happens, an occurrence. The idea of an event began to take on a philosophical life of its own in the twentieth century, due to a reawakening of interest in the concept of change, to which the concept of an event seems inextricably tied, and to the growing use of the concept of an event in scientific and metascientific writing (see Broad 1933, McTaggart 1927, and Whitehead 1929). Interest in events has also been sparked by versions of the mind-body identity thesis formulated in terms of events and by the idea that a clearer picture of events will facilitate discussion of other philosophical issues.

Discussions of events have focused on whether there are events and, if so, what the nature of events is. Since whether there are events depends in part on what they would be like if there were any, the two issues have usually been treated together.

Some philosophers (e.g., J. J. Thomson) simply assume that there are events; others argue for that assumption. Donald Davidson has asserted that there are events (and actions) by arguing that, to explain the meanings of claims involving adverbial modifiers (e.g., "Jones killed Smith in the kitchen") and singular causal claims (e.g., "the short circuit caused the fire"), we should suppose that such claims implicitly quantify over, or posit, actions and events (e.g., killings, short circuits, and fires). Opponents of Davidson's analyses (e.g., Terence Horgan) have argued that alternative semantic theories, which do not posit events, are able to explain the semantic features of Davidson's target sentences.

While some singular terms purporting to refer to events are proper names (e.g., "World War I"), many are definite descriptions (e.g., "the killing of Caesar by Brutus"). The semantics of singular descriptions for events has been studied by Zeno Vendler and Jonathan Bennett. Of particular interest is the distinction between perfect nominals, such as "Quisling's betraying of Norway," which refer to events (or actions or states), and imperfect nominals, such as "Quisling's betraying Norway," which refer to factlike entities. Bennett has argued that much of what is wrong in Jaegwon Kim's theory of events can be traced to confusions involving these two sorts of nominals and to expressions (e.g., "the betrayal") that are ambiguous and can refer either to events or to facts.

Most philosophers take events to be abstract particulars: particulars in that they are nonrepeatable and spatially locatable, abstract in that more than one event can occur simultaneously in the same place. Some philosophers who think this way (e.g., Lawrence Brian Lombard) take events to be the changes that objects undergo when they alter. (Others, such as Bennett, have doubts about this; others, such as Kim and David Lewis, deny it outright.) Thus, the time at which an event occurs is the (shortest) time at which the subject of that event changes from the having of one to the having of another, contrary property. Since no object can have both a property and one of its contraries simultaneously, there can be no instantaneous events.

Events inherit their spatial locations from the spatial locations, if any, of the things in which those events are changes. Events do not get their spatial locations by occupying them; if they did, then distinct events, like distinct physical objects, could not occur in the same place simultaneously. But more than one event apparently can occur at the same time and place. However, some philosophers (e.g., W. V. O. Quine) hold that events are concrete and that events and physical objects do not belong to distinct metaphysical kinds.

Though it seems clear that some events are composed of others, it is not clear what the principles are that determine when events compose more complex events. Some views of events (perhaps A. N. Whitehead's) seem compatible with there being subjectless events, events that are not changes in anything whatsoever. However, subjectless events could not be changes, for it seems absurd to suppose that there could be a change that was not a change in or of anything.

Theories about the nature of entities belonging to some metaphysically interesting kind must address the issue of what properties such entities essentially have. In the case of events, the issue is made pressing by the fact that certain theories concerning causation (e.g., Lewis's) require that judgments be made about whether certain events would occur under certain, counterfactual circumstances.

In the literature on events, attention has been given to four essentialist issues. The first is whether the causes (or effects) of events are essential to the events that have them; Peter van Inwagen has suggested that an event's causes are essential to the events that have them, while Lombard has argued that neither the causes nor the effects of events are essential to them. The second concerns the subjects of events; Bennett and Lewis suggest that the subjects of events are not essential, while Lombard and Kim argue that they are. The third is whether an event's time of occurrence is essential to it. Lombard has argued in favor of this essentialist claim, while Bennett and Lewis have argued against it. And the fourth is whether it is essential that each event be a change with respect to the properties to which it is in fact a change. Though the first three issues have received some attention, the fourth has attracted the most, due to the prominence given to debates between the defenders and opponents of Kim's and Davidson's views on the identity of events.

Theories about events typically contain, as a chief component, a "criterion of identity," a principle giving necessary and sufficient conditions for an event e and an event e to be identical. Though there is no general agreement on this, such a principle is sought because, when it satisfies certain constraints, it becomes a vehicle for articulating a view about what it is to be an event and how events are related to objects belonging to other kinds.

Quine holds that events are the temporal parts of physical objects and thus that events and physical objects share the same condition of identity: sameness of spatiotemporal location. Kim's interest in events centers in part on the idea that they are the objects of empirical explanations. Since what is typically explained is an object's having a property at a certain time, Kim takes an event to be the exemplification of a property (or relation) by an object (or objects) at a time. This idea, combined with some others, led him to hold that an event e is the same as an event e if and only if e and e are the exemplifications of the same property by the same object(s) at the same time. Kim's view has been criticized, principally by Lombard and Bennett, on the grounds that what it says about events is more plausibly seen as truths about facts. Kim's view has also been criticized by those whose intuitions concerning the identity of events more closely match Davidson's.

Davidson once proposed that events, being essentially the links in causal chains, are identical just in case they have the same causes and effects. He has since abandoned this position in favor of Quine's.

Another view that places causation at the heart of the idea of an event is due to Lewis, who has tried to construct a theory in which events have just those features that would allow them to fit neatly into his counterfactual analysis of causation. In some respects, Lewis's view is like Myles Brand's in that both are moved in part by the idea that more than one event can occur simultaneously in the same place. Lewis takes an event to be a property-in-intension of a spatiotemporal region, so that events that in fact occur simultaneously in the same place but could have had different spatiotemporal locations are distinct.

Bennett thinks that the concept of an event is not precise enough to withstand much critical examination on its own and that events should be thought to be (only) whatever they need to be in order to make constructive use of them in the discussion of other philosophical issues. Like Lewis, Bennett takes an event to be a property; but, for Bennett, the property seems to be a property-in-extension and is a particular. That is, Bennett thinks that events are tropes.

Lombard's view is, like Kim's, a variation on a property exemplification account. Lombard's version is derived from the idea of events as the changes that objects undergo when they alter, and it takes events to be the exemplifyings of "dynamic" properties at intervals of time. Such alterations are the "movements" by objects from the having of one to the having of another property through densely populated quality spaces, where each quality space is a class of contrary properties, the mere having of any member of which by an object does not imply change.

See also Bennett, Jonathan; Davidson, Donald; Kim, Jaegwon; Lewis, David; Metaphysics; Mind-Body Problem; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Thomson, Judith Jarvis; Whitehead, Alfred North.


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Davidson, D. Essays on Actions and Events. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Davidson, D. "Reply to Quine on Events." In Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited by E. LePore and B. P. McLaughlin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Horgan, T. "The Case against Events." Philosophical Review 87 (1978): 2847.

Kim, J. "Events and Their Descriptions: Some Considerations." In Essays in Honor of Carl G. Hempel, edited by N. Rescher et al. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1970.

Kim, J. Supervenience and Mind, Chaps. 1, 3. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lewis, D. "Events." In Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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McTaggart, J. M. E. The Nature of Existence, Vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Quine, W. V. O. "Events and Reification." In Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited by E. LePore and B. P. McLaughlin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Quine, W. V. O. "Things and Their Place in Theories." In Theories and Things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Thomson, J. J. Acts and Other Events. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

van Inwagen, P. "Ability and Responsibility." Philosophical Review 87 (1978): 201224, esp. 207209.

Vendler, Z. "Facts and Events." In Linguistics in Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Whitehead, A. N. An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1919.

Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1929.

Lawrence Brian Lombard (1996)

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