views updated May 11 2018


People speak not only of the actions of human beings and other intelligent animals but also of the actions of inanimate objects such as acids and waves. The philosophy of action, however, is not directly concerned with the actions of inanimate objects. Its primary subject matter is intentional action. Two questions are central in the philosophy of action: What are intentional actions? And how are intentional actions to be explained? An adequate answer to the first question would enable one to see how intentional actions differ from everything elseincluding the actions of acids and waves, nonactions, and unintentional actions. A successful answer to the second question would provide one with the theoretical machinery to use in explaining why you are reading this entry and why the author wrote it.

Intentional Action and Individuation

According to an attractive causal theory, intentional actions are, in one important respect, like money. The piece of paper with which Ann just purchased her drink is a genuine U.S. dollar bill partly in virtue of its having been produced (in the right way) by the U.S. Treasury Department. A duplicate bill produced with plates and paper stolen from the Treasury Department is a counterfeit bill, not a genuine one. Similarly, according to one kind of causal theory of intentional action, a certain event is Ann's buying a drinkan intentional actionpartly in virtue of its having been produced in the right way by certain mental items. An event someone else covertly produces by remote controlone including visually indistinguishable bodily motions not appropriately produced by Ann's intentions or decisions (nor by physical states or events that realize the mental items)is not Ann's intentional action, even if she feels as though she is in charge. (This view does not identify intentional actions with nonactional eventsor nonintentional actionscaused in the right way. That would be analogous to identifying genuine U.S. dollar bills with pieces of printed paper that are not genuine U.S. dollar bills and are produced in the right way by the U.S. Treasury Department, which is absurd.)

The question "What are intentional actions?" directly raises two other questions. "How do intentional actions differ from everything else?" and, "How do intentional actions differ from one another?" A crude sketch of one answer to the first question about differences has just been provided. Intentional actions differ from other events in their causal history. Events that are intentional actions are produced in a certain way by mental items (or physical states and events that realize these items); events that are not intentional actions lack such a causal history (a topic picked up again in section 2.) Alternative conceptions of intentional action include (1) an internalist view, according to which intentional actions differ experientially from other events in a way that is essentially independent of how, or whether, they are caused; (2) a conception of intentional actions as composites of nonactional mental events or states (e.g., intentions) and pertinent nonactional effects (e.g., an arm's rising); and (3) views identifying an intentional action with the causing of a suitable nonactional product by appropriate nonactional mental events or statesor, instead, by an agent.

A debate over the second question about differencesthe question of action individuationhas produced a collection of relatively precise alternatives: a coarse-grained view, a fine-grained view, and componential views. Donald Davidson writes, "I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am home" (1980, p. 4). How many actions does the agent, Don, perform? Davidson's coarse-grained answer is one action "of which four descriptions have been given" (p. 4). The action is intentional under certain descriptions (e.g., "I flip the switch"), and unintentional under others (e.g., "I alert the prowler"). A fine-grained alternative view treats A and B as different actions if, in performing them, the agent exemplifies different action properties. In this view, Don has performed at least four actions (only some of which are intentional), because the action properties at issue are distinct. An agent may exemplify any of these action properties without exemplifying any of the others. One may even turn on a light in a room without illuminating the room (the light may be painted black). Componential views represent Don's illuminating the room as an intentional action having various components, includingbut not necessarily limited tohis moving his arm, his flipping the switch, and the light's going on. Where proponents of the coarse-grained and fine-grained theories find, respectively, a single action under different descriptions and a collection of intimately related actions, advocates of the various componential views locate a larger action having smaller actions among its parts.

Davidson and Jennifer Hornsby hold that every action is intentional under some description. Proponents of alternative theories of action individuation may make an analogous claim: in every case of action something is done intentionally; when nothing is done intentionally, no action is performed. Where Davidson and Hornsby seek to distinguish descriptions under which an action is intentional from descriptions under which it is not, other philosophers may seek to distinguish intentional from unintentional actions in the same case of action. Either way, intentional actions are of primary importance.

This entry proceeds in a neutral way regarding the leading contending theories of individuation. Readers may treat the action variable A as a variable either for actions themselves (construed componentially or in a more fine-grained way) or for actions under A -descriptions, depending on their preferred mode of action individuation. The same goes for the term action.

Causalism: Background and a Challenge

One approach to understanding both the nature of intentional action and the explanation of intentional actions emphasizes causation. The conjunction of the following two theses may be termed standard causalism : (1) An event's being an intentional action depends on how it was caused; and (2) Proper explanations of intentional actions are causal explanations. Familiar causal theories feature as causes such psychological or mental items as beliefs, desires, intentions, and such related events as acquiring an intention to A.

Causalism typically is embraced as part of a naturalistic stand on agency, according to which mental items that play causal/explanatory roles in intentional action are in some way dependent on or realized in physical states and events. A range of options is open. Indeed, any viable solution to the mind-body problem that supports the idea that the mental has a significant causal/explanatory role in intentional action would, in principle, be welcomed by causalists.

Aristotle endorses the idea that intentional actions are to be explained, causally, in terms of mental states or events in his assertion that "the origin of actionits efficient, not its final causeis choice, and that of choice is desire and reasoning with a view to an end" (Aristotle 1984, 1139a3132). Davidson, in an influential article, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," rebuts arguments against causalism, develops a positive causalist view, and presents noncausalists with what has proved to be a difficult challenge. Addressed to philosophers who hold that when people act intentionally they act for reasons, the challenge is to provide an account of the reasons for which people act that does not treat (people's having) those reasons as figuring in the causation of the relevant behavior (or, one might add, as realized in physical causes of the behavior). The challenge is acute when an agent has more than one reason for A -ing but A -s only for only one of them. Imagine that Al has a pair of reasons for mowing his lawn this morning. First, he wants to mow it this week and he believes that this morning is the most convenient time. Second, he has an urge to repay his neighbor for the rude awakening Al suffered recently when the neighbor turned on her mower at the crack of dawn; he believes that his mowing his lawn this morning would repay her. As it happens, Al mows his lawn this morning only for one of these reasons. In virtue of what is it true that he mowed his lawn for this reason, and not the other, if not that this reasonor his having this reason or what realizes either this reason or his having itand not the other, played a suitable causal role in his mowing his lawn? Alfred Melerebuts detailed noncausalist attempts to answer this challenge in chapter two of Motivation and Agency. Space constraints preclude pursuing the issue here.

Two Alleged Problems for Causalism

Two alleged problems for causalism that continue to be lively topics of debate are causal deviance and vanishing agents.

causal deviance

Deviant causal chains raise difficulties for causal analyses of action itself and of doing something intentionally. The alleged problem is that whatever psychological causes are claimed to be both necessary and sufficient for a resultant event's being an action, or for an action's being intentional, cases can be described in which, owing to a deviant causal connection between the favored psychological antecedentsfor example, events of intention acquisitionand a resultant event, that event is not an action, or a pertinent resultant action is not done intentionally.

The most common examples of deviance divide into two types: (1) Examples of primary deviance, which raise a problem about a relatively direct connection between mental antecedents and resultant bodily motion; and (2) examples of secondary deviance, which highlight behavioral consequences of intentional actions and the connection between these actions and their consequences. In Davidson's well-known example of primary deviance, "A climber want[s] to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man on a rope, and he know[s] that by loosening his hold on the rope he [can] rid himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want so unnerve him as to cause him to loosen his hold" unintentionally (1980, p. 79). In his equally well-known example of secondary deviance, "A man [tries] to kill someone by shooting at him. [He] misses his victim by a mile, but the shot stampedes a herd of wild pigs that trample the intended victim to death" (p. 78).

Instructive attempts to resolve the problems examples such as these pose highlight four points:

  1. An event is an intentional action only if it is an action, and in many cases of deviance the pertinent event seems not to be an action. For example, the climber's "loosening his hold" is more aptly described as the rope's slipping from his trembling fingers.
  2. An analysis of intentional action may preclude there being a gap between an action's psychological causal initiator and the beginning of the action. If, for example, every intentional action has the acquisition of a proximal intentionthat is, an intention to A now or an intention to A, beginning nowas a proximate cause, there is no room between cause and the beginning of action for primary deviance. ("Proximate cause" may be defined as follows: x is a proximate cause of y if and only if x is a cause of y and there is nothing z such that x is a cause of z and z is a cause of y.)
  3. Intention (or one's preferred psychological item) has a continuous guiding function in the development of intentional action.
  4. An action's being intentional depends on its fitting the agent's conception or representation of the manner in which it will be performeda condition violated in Davidson's shooting scenario.

George Wilson challenges point 2. Sometimes, Wilson observes, "intentions cause states of nervous agitation that positively enable the agent to perform the type of action intended" (1989, p. 252). He offers the example of a weightlifter whose "intention to lift the weight then caused a rush of nervous excitement that was, in fact, necessary for him to budge the great weight even slightly from off the floor" (1989, p. 252). However, this observation and example arguably leave the requirement of proximate causation unscathed. What is required is not that intention-inspired nervousness, agitation, and the like, play no role in the production of intentional actions, but rather that they not fill a gap between the acquisition of a pertinent proximal intention and action in such a way that intention acquisition figures only indirectly in the production of the corresponding action. In Wilson's example, one may contend, there is no gap between intention acquisition and the beginning of the lifting that is filled by nervousness. Rather, one may argue that intention acquisition proximately initiates the liftingwhich action, according to some causalists, begins with a relevant brain event prior to the weight's risingwhile also producing nervousness that is required for the agent's even budging the weight.

Proximal intentions typically are not momentary states, and the intention to lift the weight in the present case is at work as long as the lifting continues. Even if nervousness were somehow required for the occurrence of the agent's muscular movements themselves, a nervousness producing proximal intention to lift the weight whose acquisition plays a causal role in the production of a corresponding intentional lift would, in conjunction with the resultant nervousness, figure in the proximate initiation of those movements. If, alternatively, the causal role of an intention to lift the weight were exhausted by the intention's issuing in nervousness, and the nervousness were somehow to result in the upward movement of limbs and weight independently of any pertinent intention present at the time, the weightlifting would not be intentional. The caseaside from its failure to provide an intuitively appealing mechanistic explanation of the focal occurrencewould then be on par with familiar examples of nonintentional occurrences caused by intention-inspired nervousness (e.g., the climber's case).

The point about the continued functioning of proximal intentions blunts an objection John Bishop (1989) raises to Myles Brand's position on primary deviance. Bishop observes that deviance can break in after intention acquisition has (properly) initiated a causal chainbut before bodily movement occursand strip agents of control over their motions. In such cases, although agents' motions may accord with their intentions, they do not act intentionally. On Brand's view, however, the proximal intentions that initiate intentional actions also sustain and guide them: "Given that intention is in part guidance of activity, the intention continues as long as guidance continues" (1984, p. 175). In a case of the kind Bishop imagines, guidance is absent.

Some causal theorists who have assessed cases of primary deviance as attempted counterexamples to a causal account of what it is for an action to be intentional have dismissed them on the grounds that they are not cases of action at all. If this diagnosis is correct, primary deviance poses an apparent problem for the project of constructing a causal analysis of action. Can causalists identify something of a causal nature in virtue of which it is false that the climber performed the action of loosening his grip on the rope?

In a discussion of primary deviance, Alvin Goldman remarks: "A complete explanation of how wants and beliefs lead to intentional acts would require extensive neurophysiological information, and I do not think it is fair to demand of a philosophical analysis that it provide this information. A detailed delineation of the causal process that is characteristic of intentional action is a problem mainly for the special sciences" (1970, p. 62). This remark may strike some readers as evasive, but Goldman has a point. A deviant causal connection between an X and a Y is deviant relative to normal causal connections between X -s and Y -s. Moreover, what counts as normal in this context is perspective-relative. From the point of view of physics, for example, there is nothing abnormal about Davidson's examples of deviance. And, for beings of a particular kind, the normal route from intention to action may be best articulated partly in neurophysiological terms.

One way around the problem posed by incomplete neuroscientific knowledge is to design (in imagination, of course) an agent's motor control system. Knowing the biological being's design in that sphere, there is then a partial basis for distinguishing causal chains associated with overt actionthat is, action essentially involving peripheral bodily motionfrom deviant motion-producing chains. If one can distinguish deviant from nondeviant causal chains in designed agentsthat is, chains not appropriate to action from action-producing chainsthen the same may also be done for normal human beings, if much more than is currently known about the human body is discovered. (This line of thought is pursued in Mele 2003, ch. 2).

vanishing agents

Some philosophers claim that causalism precludes there being any actions at all and therefore makes agents vanish. According to Thomas Nagel, "The essential source of the problem is a view of persons and their actions as part of the order of nature. That conception, if pressed, leads to the feeling that we are not agents at all. My doing of an actor the doing of an act by someone elseseems to disappear when we think of the world objectively. There seems no room for agency in [such] a world. There is only what happens" (1986, pp. 110111).

Nagel's worry is not worrisome. Cats and dogs are part of the natural order. If radical skeptical hypotheses are set asidefor example, the hypotheses that everything is a dream and that all biological entities are brains in vatsit is plain that cats and dogs act. They fight, eat, and play. When they do these things they are acting. The same is true of humans, even if people are part of the natural order. Supernatural beings (e.g., gods and ghosts) are not part of the natural order. That a being needs to be supernatural in order to act is an interesting proposition, but it is difficult to take that proposition seriously in the absence of a powerful argument for it.

J. David Velleman voices a variant of Nagel's worry. He contends that standard causal accounts of intentional action do not capture what "distinguishes human action from other animal behavior" and do not accommodate "human action par excellence" (2000, p. 124). He also reports that his objection to what he calls "the standard story of human action" (p. 123), a causal story, "is not that it mentions mental occurrences in the agent instead of the agent himself [but] that the occurrences it mentions in the agent are no more than occurrences in him, because their involvement in an action does not add up to the agent's being involved" (p. 125). Velleman says that this problem would remain even if the mind-body problem were solved, and, like Nagel, he regards the problem as "distinct from the problem of free-will" (p. 127).

Here, Velleman runs together two separate issues. Human agents may be involved in some of their actions in ways that cats and dogs are involved in many of their actions. Human agents do not vanish in such actions. Scenarios in which human agents vanish are one thing; scenarios in which actions of human agents do not come up to the level of human action par excellence, whatever that may be, are another.

Causalists are entitled to complain that Velleman has been unfair to them. His description of the standard story of human action is apparently a description of the sort of thing found in the work of causalists looking for what is common to all (overt) intentional actions, or all (overt) actions done for reasons, and for what distinguishes actions of these broad kinds from everything else. If some nonhuman animals act intentionally and for reasons, a story with that topic definitely should apply to them. Also, human action par excellence may be intentional action and action done for a reason in virtue of its having the properties identified in standard causal analyses of these things. That the analyses do not provide sufficient conditions foror a story abouthuman action par excellence is not a flaw in the analyses, given their targets. If Velleman were to believe that causalism lacks the resources for accommodating human action par excellence, he may attack the standard story on that front, arguing that it cannot be extended to handle such action. But Velleman himself is a causalist. Moreover, causalists have offered accounts of kinds of actionfor example, free or autonomous action and action exhibiting self-control (the contrary of weakness of will)that exceed minimal requirements for intentional action or action done for a reason. Their story about minimally sufficient conditions for action of the latter kinds is not their entire story about human actions.

Reasons, Desires, and Intentions

Reasons, desires, and intentions are featured in many theories about how intentional actions are to be explained. According to Davidson's influential view, reasons for action are complexes of beliefs and desires. Some philosophers claim that Davidsonian reasons for action really are not reasons at all. T. M. Scanlon, for example, argues that "desires almost never provide reasons for action in the way described by the standard desire model" (1998, p. 43).

Philosophical work on reasons for action tends to be guided primarily either by a concern with the explanation of intentional actions or by a concern with the evaluation of intentional actions or their agents. In work dominated by the former concern, reasons for action tend to be understood as states of mind, along broadly Davidsonian lines. Philosophers with the latter concern may be sympathetic or unsympathetic to this construal, depending on their views about standards for evaluating actions or agents. For example, a theorist whose evaluative concern is with rational action and who holds that the pertinent notion of rationality is subjectivein the sense that a proper verdict about the rationality or irrationality of an agent's intentional action is to be made from the perspective of the agent's own desires, beliefs, principles, and the like, rather than from some external, or partly external, perspectivemay be happy to understand reasons for action as states of mind. A theorist with a more objective conception of rational action or rational agency also is likely to have a more objective conception of reasons for action. Such a theorist may find it natural to insist that many or all reasons for action are facts about the agent-external world. Consider Bob's starting a new diet after his doctor informs him that his cholesterol is dangerously high. Theorists with a subjective conception of rationality tend to regard Bob's reasons for starting the new diet as constituted by desires and beliefs (e.g., his desire to improve his health and his belief that the new diet will help him do that), whereas theorists with an objective conception of rationality tend to regard his reasons as objective facts (e.g., the diet will improve his health, or it is likely to do so). Alleged reasons of these two types may be termed, respectively, agent-internal and agent-external justificatory reasons.

combining agent-internal and agent-external reasons

If there are agent-external justificatory reasons for action, it may be that intentional actions are to be relatively directly explained at least partially in terms of Davidsonian reasons, and that when agent-external justificatory reasonsfor example, the new diet is likely to improve Bob's healthcontribute to explanations of intentional actions, they do so less directly, by way of a causal contribution made by an agent's apprehending such a reason. For example, Bob's apprehension of the likelihood that the new diet will improve his health might, along with his desire for improved health, enter into a true causal explanation of Bob's starting the new diet. An exploration of the possibility of agent-external justificatory reasons and of their compatibility with the existence of Davidsonian reasons quickly takes one well beyond the philosophy of action into moral philosophy and value theory. Further discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of the present entry, but is discussed in chapters three through six of Mele's Motivation and Agency (2003).


There is a related controversy about the nature of desires. Scanlon's critique of what he calls "the standard desire model" (1998, p. 43) is framed partly in terms of his own account of "what is usually called desire" (p. 65). He contends that something's seeming to an agent to be a reason for A -ing is "the central element in what is usually called [a] desire" to A (p. 65). Seemings of this kind do important motivational work, according to Scanlon. He claims that in a thirsty man with a desire to drink, "the motivational work seems to be done by" the agent's taking "the pleasure to be obtained by drinking to count in favor of drinking" (p. 38).

Scanlon's account of what is usually called a desire is overly intellectualized. Toddlers and pretoddlers are commonly thought to desire to do thingsfor example, to drink some juice or to hug a teddy bear. This common thought is not that although these little agents have desires to act, they lack what is usually called a desire. The thought is that they have desires in a usual sense of the term. But because it is unlikely that toddlers have the concept of a reason for action (or of something's counting in favor of a course of action), it is unlikely that things seem to them to be reasons for action (or to count in favor of actions). There is good evidence that younger three-year-olds tend not to have the conceptor a proper conceptof belief and that the concept of desire normally does not emerge until around the age of two. Presumably, even if the concept of a reason for action were to have no conceptual ties to the concepts of belief and desire, it would be sufficiently sophisticated to be out of reach of children too young to have proper concepts of belief and desire. Even so, it is commonly and plausibly thought that such children act intentionally and for reasons. (They also have desires and beliefs, on the assumption that having such attitudes does not require possessing proper concepts of these attitudes.) In thirsty toddlers or pretoddlers, desires to drinkrather than any taking of the pleasure to be obtained by drinking to be a reason for drinkingseem to do the work of motivating drinking.

Thirsty toddlers are attracted by cups of juice, and not in the way moths are attracted by light. Toddlers are flexible in their approach to getting drinks: they try alternative means. Moths behave tropistically. Even though it is unlikely that thirsty toddlers have the conceptual wherewithal to take featuresincluding anticipated consequencesof drinking to be reasons for (or count in favor of) drinking, they are attracted by cups of juice in a way characteristic of desiring agents. Being attracted to cups of juice owing to a sensitivity to certain of their features is distinguishable from being attracted to cups of juice owing to the agent's taking those features to be reasons. An agent's behavior may be sensitive to attractive features of things without the agent's taking those features to be reasons. If this were not so, a radically new theory of animal behavior would be required, one entailing either that only members of the most conceptually sophisticated species ever act intentionally (perhaps just human beings) or that many nonhuman species are much more conceptually sophisticated than anyone has thought.

When ordinary thirsty adults drink (intentionally, and in ordinary scenarios), they presumably are motivated at least partly by a desire to drink. The strength of the desire may sometimes be explained partly by their believing that drinking would be pleasant, or, more fully, by that belief together with a desire for pleasure. A toddler's desire to drink water and an adult's desire to drink water may admit of the same analysis. Just as something's seeming to be a reason for drinking is not a constituent of the toddler's desire, it may not be a constituent of the adult's desire either. If a seeming of this kind sometimes is at work in thirsty adults, it may function as a partial cause of the desire's strength or of the desire itself.


Next on the agenda are intentions, states of mind commonly regarded as being closely linked to desires and beliefs. Intention has a motivational dimension, and the word desire (like the word want ) is often used in the literature as a generic term for motivation. Intention also is widely regarded as involving a belief condition of some sort. Few people are inclined to say that gamblers who believe that their chances of winning today's lottery are about one in a million intend to win the lottery. However, philosophers disagree about the tightness of the connection between intentions, on the one hand, and desires and beliefs, on the other. Someattracted, perhaps, by the idea that desire and belief are the most fundamental representational states of mindargue that intentions are reducible to combinations of desires and beliefs, whereas others argue that attempts at such reduction are doomed to failure.

The central issue is whether the settledness that intention encompasses can be articulated in terms of beliefs and desires. Ann wants to go to a 7:00 movie and she wants to attend a 7:00 lecture. She knows that she can do either but not both. Although Ann wants to see the movie more than she wants to attend the lecture and believes that, given what she usually does in such situations, she will probably go to the movie, she is unsettled about what to do. After further deliberation, Ann settles matters for herself by deciding to attend the lecture. In so deciding, she forms an intention to attend it. To intend to A is, at least in part, to be settled (but not necessarily irrevocably) on A -ing. Wanting or desiring to A even when the desire is stronger than its competitors, and even when it is accompanied by a belief that one probably will A is compatible with being unsettled about whether to A.

Functions plausibly attributed to intentions include initiating and sustaining intentional actions, guiding intentional actions, helping to coordinate agents' behavior over time and their interaction with others, and prompting and appropriately terminating practical reasoning. Some philosophers have advanced nonreductive accounts of intention designed to accommodate many or all of these functions. According to a representative account of this kind, intentions are executive attitudes toward plans. Planswhich range from simple representations of simple actions to complex strategies for achieving remote goalsconstitute the representational contents of intentions. What distinguishes intentions from other practical attitudes (e.g., desires to act), in this account, is their executive nature. The settledness on A -ing that is encompassed in an intention to A is a psychological commitment to executing the intention-embedded plan of action, a commitment of a kind arguably constituted exclusively by intentions.

Analyzing Intentional Action: Difficulties

Attention to a trio of problems for the following pair of protoanalyses of intentional action sheds light on what the difficult project of analyzing intentional action encompasses:

A1. S intentionally A -ed if and only if S A -ed in the way that S intended to A.

A2. S intentionally A -ed if and only if S A -ed for a reason.

side effects

Gilbert Harman discusses a scenario in which "In firing his gun," a sniper who is trying to kill a soldier, "knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence" (1997, p. 151). Harman claims that although the sniper "does not intend to alert the enemy," he intentionally alerts the enemy, "thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost." If Harman is right, both A1 and A2 are false. The sniper does not intend to alert the enemy, and he does not alert them for a reason either (even if his alerting them is part of some larger action that he does for a reason).

Because Harman's sniper does not unknowingly or accidentally alert the enemy, many people will deny that the sniper unintentionally alerted them. But the truth of that denial is consistent with the action's not being intentional, if there is a middle ground between intentional and unintentional action. Arguably, actions that an agent in no way aims at performing but that are not performed unknowingly or accidentally are properly located on that middle ground. They may be nonintentional, as opposed to unintentional. Of course, it also is arguable that Harman correctly assesses the sniper's case and that A1 and A2 are far too simple to be true.

belief constraints

Some putative belief constraints on intentions or on rational intentions also pose problems for A1. Michael Bratman argues that intention has a normative side that requires that an agent's intentions be internally consistent (individually and collectively), consistent with the agent's beliefs, and means-end coherent. Rational intentions, he maintains, satisfy those requirements, and he contends that agents rationally intend to A only if, "other things being equal," they do "not have beliefs inconsistent with the belief that [they] will A " (1987, p. 116).

The normative demands figure prominently in an argument Bratman advances against what he calls "the Simple View"the thesis that intentionally A -ing entails intending to A. The argument revolves around an example involving a pair of video games and an ambidextrous player who shall be called Vic. Vic's task is to hit targets with missiles. In the main case, he simultaneously plays two games, each with its own target and firing mechanism, and he knows that the machines are "so linked that it is impossible to hit both targets" (Bratman 1987, p. 114). (He knows that hitting a target ends both games, and that "if both targets are about to be hit simultaneously," both machines shut down before the targets can be hit.) Vic tries to hit the target on machine 1 while also trying to hit the target on machine 2. He succeeds in hitting the former"in just the way that [he] was trying to hit it, and in a way which depends heavily on [his] considerable skill"but, of course, he misses the latter.

If Vic hit target 1 intentionally, fans of the Simple View must say that he intended to hit it. Because Vic's attitude toward hitting that target is not relevantly different from his attitude toward hitting target 2, Simple View fans apparently must also say that he intended to hit target 2. Bratman contends that having both intentions, given what Vic knowsnamely, that he cannot hit both targetswould be irrational. Yet, it seems perfectly rational of Vic to have proceeded as he did. So given the point about the symmetry of Vic's attitudes toward the targets, Bratman concludes that he did not have either intention. And if Vic hit target 1 intentionally in the absence of an intention to hit it, the Simple View and A1 are false.

Some critics of the Simple View, including Bratman and Harman, also reject the idea that intentions are reducible to complexes of beliefs and desires; Hugh McCann argues that they are in danger of having to settle for an unwanted reductive analysis of intention (1998). Bratman, who suggests that a "guiding desire" (e.g., to hit target 1) can play the role of an intention (Bratman 1987, p. 137), is McCann's main target. McCann notes that once it is conceded that desires can stand in for intentions, reductionists will justifiably ask what need there is for a notion of intention that is irreducible to desire and belief. However, philosophers who reject the Simple View need not follow Bratman in appealing to guiding desires. For example, it may be argued that intentions to try to A can stand in for intentions to A, and, of course, intentions to try to A are intentions. Presumably, Vic intends to try to hit target 1 while also intending to try to hit target 2.


Instances of lucky success pose problems for A1 and A2. Beth, who has never fired a gun, mistakenly thinks that modern technology makes target shooting fool proof, and she intends to hit the bull's-eye on a distant target by aiming and firing at it. She luckily hits it in just the way she intended, but was her hitting it an intentional action? Suppose that Beth has no natural talent with firearms: she fires hundreds of additional rounds at the target and does not even come close. Here philosophers' intuitions differ. According to Christopher Peacocke (1985), an agent who makes a successful attempt "to hit a croquet ball through a distant hoop" intentionally hits the ball through the hoop (p. 69). But Brian O'Shaughnessy (1980) maintains that a novice who similarly succeeds in hitting the bull's-eye on a dart board does not intentionally hit the bull's-eye. Readers inclined to regard Beth's hitting the bull's-eye as an intentional action should consider her brother Bob. He wants to save his town by disarming a bomb, and he believes that his punching in any ten-digit sequence of numbers will disarm it. In fact, only one ten-digit code will work. Bob intends to disarm the bomb by entering ten digits. If he luckily punches in the right code, thereby disarming the bomb, is his disarming it an intentional action? Or was his chance of success too low for that action to count as intentional? If the correct answer to the latter question is yes, A1 is false.

Protoanalysis A2 also is threatened by stories such as these. Probably, many people would happily (but perhaps mistakenly) say that Bob's disarming the bombthat actionwas done for a reason. After all, he wanted to save the town and knew that he must disarm the bomb to do so, and this helps to explain why he entered ten digits. But, again, was Bob's chance of success too low for the disarming to count as an intentional action?

Recall the two central questions identified in the introduction to this entry: What are intentional actions? And how are intentional actions to be explained? Depending on how nuanced a satisfactory answer to the first question is, philosophers of action working on the second question may do well to focus their efforts on core instances of intentional action. If the sniper's alerting the enemy is an intentional action, it is intentional in a different way than his firing his gun is. He fires his gun as a means to an end, but this is not true of his alerting the enemy. He also intends to fire his gun and fires it for a reason, but he does not intend to alert the enemy and does not alert them for a reason. One approach in looking for core instances of intentional action is to look for interesting properties that all cases of intentional action have in common, even if not all intentional actions have them. It may be discovered that there are no cases of intentional action in which the agent does not perform any intended intentional actions. (Even if Vic lacks an intention to hit target 1 in the video games example, he intends to fire at it and he intentionally fires at it.) If so, it may be fruitful for philosophers of action to focus primarily on intended intentional actions in developing their theories about how intentional actions are to be explainedtheories in light of which it can explained why the author wrote this entry and why you are reading it, and explain how those actions are produced. Possibly, theories of this kind can then be augmented to cover all intentional actions.

See also Agent Causation; Weakness of the Will.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Audi, Robert. Action, Intention, and Reason. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Bishop, John. Natural Agency. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Brand, Myles. Intending and Acting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

Bratman, Michael. Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Bratman, Michael. Faces of Intention. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Davidson, Donald. "Actions, Reasons, and Causes." Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963): 685700. Reprinted in Davidson 1980.

Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Ginet, Carl. On Action. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Goldman, Alvin. A Theory of Human Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Harman, Gilbert. "Practical Reasoning." In The Philosophy of Action, edited by Alfred Mele. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hornsby, Jennifer. Actions. London: Routledge, 1980.

McCann, Hugh. The Works of Agency. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Mele, Alfred. Motivation and Agency. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

O'Shaughnessy, Brian. The Will. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Peacocke, Christopher. "Intention and Akrasia." In Essays on Davidson, edited by Bruce Vermazen and Merrill Hintikka. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Ruben, David-Hillel. Action and Its Explanation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Schueler, G. F. Reasons and Purposes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Searle, J. Intentionality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Velleman, J. David. The Possibility of Practical Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Wilson, George. The Intentionality of Human Action. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Alfred R. Mele (1996, 2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018


Conduct; behavior; something done; a series of acts.

A case or lawsuit; a legal and formal demand for enforcement of one's rights against another party asserted in a court of justice.

The term action includes all the proceedings attendant upon a legal demand, its adjudication, and its denial or its enforcement by a court. Specifically, it is the legal proceedings, while acause of action is the underlying right that gives rise to them. In casual conversation, action and cause of action may be used interchangeably, but they are more properly distinguished. At one time, it was more correct to speak of actions at law and of proceedings or suits in equity. The distinction is rather technical, however, and not significant since the merger of law and equity. The term action is used more often for civil lawsuits than for criminal proceedings.

Parties in an Action

A person must have some sort of legal right before starting an action. That legal right implies a duty owed to one person by another, whether it is a duty to do something or a duty not to do something. When the other person acts wrongfully or fails to act as the law requires, such behavior is a breach, or violation, of that person's legal duty. If that breach causes harm, it is the basis for a cause of action. The injured person may seek redress by starting an action in court.

The person who starts the action is the plaintiff, and the person sued is the defendant. They are the parties in the action. Frequently, there are multiple parties on a side. The defendant may assert a defense which, if true, will defeat the plaintiff's claim. A counterclaim may be made by the defendant against the plaintiff or a cross-claim against another party on the same side of the lawsuit. The law may permit joinder of two or more claims, such as an action for property damage and an action for personal injuries, after one auto accident; or it may require consolidation of actions by an order of the court. Where prejudice or injustice is likely to result, the court may order a severance of actions into different lawsuits for different parties.

Commencement of an Action

The time when an action may begin depends on the kind of action involved. A plaintiff cannot start a lawsuit until the cause of action has accrued. For example, a man who wants to use a parcel of land for a store where only houses are allowed must begin by applying for a variance from the local zoning board. He cannot bypass the board and start an action in court. His right to sue does not accrue until the board turns down his request.

Neither can a person begin an action after the time allowed by law. Most causes of action are covered by a statute of limitations, which specifically limits the time within which to begin the action. If the law in a particular state says that an action for libel cannot be brought more than one year after publication of a defamatory statement, then those actions must be initiated within that statutory period. Where there is no statute that limits the time to commence a particular action, a court may nevertheless dismiss the case if the claim is stale and if litigation at that point would not be fair.

A plaintiff must first select the right court, then an action can be commenced by delivery of the formal legal papers to the appropriate person. Statutes that regulate proper procedure for this must be strictly observed. A typical statute specifies that an action may be begun by delivery of a summons, or a writ on the defendant. At one time, common-law actions had to be pleaded according to highly technical forms of action, but now it is generally sufficient simply to serve papers that state facts describing a recognized cause of action. If this service of process is done properly, the defendant has fair notice of the claim made against him or her and the court acquires jurisdiction over him or her. In some cases, the law requires delivery of the summons or writ to a specified public officer such as a U.S. marshal, who becomes responsible for serving it on the defendant.

Termination of an Action

After an action is commenced, it is said to be pending until termination. While the action is pending, neither party has the right to start another action in a different court over the same dispute or to do any act that would make the court's decision futile.

A lawsuit may be terminated because of dismissal before both sides have fully argued the merits of their cases at trial. It can also be ended because of compromise and settlement, after which the plaintiff withdraws his or her action from the court.

Actions are terminated by the entry of final judgments by the courts. A judgment may be based on a jury verdict or it may be a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Where there has been no jury, judgment is based on the judge's decision. Unless one party is given leave—or permission from the court—to do something that might revive the lawsuit, such as amending an insufficient complaint, the action is at an end when judgment is formally entered on the records of the court.


Civil Procedure.


views updated Jun 11 2018

ac·tion / ˈakshən/ • n. 1. the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim: demanding tougher action against terrorism if there is a breach of regulations, we will take action. ∎  the way in which something such as a chemical has an effect or influence: the seeds require the catalytic action of water to release hotness. ∎  armed conflict: servicemen listed as missing in action during the war. ∎  a military engagement: a rearguard action. ∎  the events represented in a story or play: the action is set in the country. ∎ inf. exciting or notable activity: people in the media want to be where the action is. ∎ inf. betting. ∎  [as interj.] used by a movie director as a command to begin: lights, camera, action!2. a thing done; an act: she frequently questioned his actions. ∎  a legal process; a lawsuit. ∎  a gesture or movement: his actions emphasized his words.3. a manner or style of doing something, typically the way in which a mechanism works or a person moves: a high paddle action in canoeing. ∎  the mechanism that makes a machine or instrument work: a piano with an escapement action.


views updated May 08 2018


ACTION was a federal agency established by President Richard Nixon on 1 July 1971. Its intention was to make the service organizations established during the 1960s operate more efficiently. The programs absorbed were the Active Corps of Executives, the Peace Corps, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, the National Student Volunteer Program, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). In the 1980s, the Reagan administration urged private groups to take some of the load borne by VISTA, and VISTA itself was cut in personnel, thereby diminishing the power and influence of ACTION. In 1990, the National and Community Service Act further weakened ACTION's administrative role, and in 1993, the National and Community Service Trust Act absorbed ACTION into the Corporation for National and Community Service.


"The National and Community Service Act of 1990." Available from

United States Congress, Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Special Subcommittee on Human Resources. Action Act of 1972 and Action Domestic Programs. Joint hearing before the Special Subcommittee on Human Resources and the Subcommittee on Aging of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 92nd Congress, Second session on S. 3450and related bills, Older Americans Action Programs. Washinton, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972.

Kirk H. Beetz


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action XIV. — (O)F. — L. actiō, -ōn-, f. āct-; see ACT, -TION.
Hence actionable XVI. So active XIV. — L. āctīvus, partly through (O)F. actif, -ive. activity XV. — F. or late L. activate XVII. f. pp. stem of medL. āctivāre; later infl. by F. activer, G. aktivieren.


views updated May 23 2018

action action at a distance the exertion of force by one body on another separated from the first by empty space (in physics, and chiefly historical).
Action Man proprietary name for a type of male doll in combat dress, first developed in the 1960s, and now often used ironically in reference to a person supposedly resembling the doll.
action stations the positions taken up by military personnel in preparation for action (often as a command or signal to prepare for action).
action this day annotation as used by Winston Churchill at the Admiralty in 1940.


views updated Jun 27 2018

action. The mechanism of a pf., org., or similar instr. which connects the kbd. and str., or the pipes and stops.