Action (philosophy)

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An action is a concept that involves an agent performing something. In common speech, the term is often used interchangeably with the term "behaviour". However, in the behavioural sciences, the social sciences, and the very philosophy of action, a distinction is made: behavior is automatic and reflexive activity, while action is an intentional, purposive, conscious and subjectively meaningful activity[citation needed]. Thus, things like running or throwing a ball are instances of actions; they involve intention, a goal, and a bodily movement guided by the agent. On the other hand, catching a cold is not considered an action because it is something which happens to a person, not something done by one.[citation needed]


In enactivism theory, perception is understood to be sensorimotor in nature. That is, we carry out actions as an essential part of perceiving the world. Alva Noë states: 'We move our eyes, head and body in taking in what is around us... [we]: crane our necks, peer, squint, reach for our glasses or draw near to get a better look...'…'Perception is a mode of activity on the part of the whole animal...It cannot be represented in terms of merely passive, and internal, processes...' [1]


Some would prefer to define actions as requiring bodily movement (see behaviorism).[citation needed] The side effects of actions are considered by some to be part of the action; in an example from Anscombe's manuscript Intention, pumping water can also be an instance of poisoning the inhabitants.[2]

Reasons for action[edit]

A primary concern of philosophy of action is to analyze the nature of actions and distinguish them from similar phenomena. Other concerns include individuating actions, explaining the relationship between actions and their effects, explaining how an action is related to the beliefs and desires which cause and/or justify it (see practical reason), as well as examining the nature of agency.[citation needed] A primary concern is the nature of free will and whether actions are determined by the mental states that precede them (see determinism). Some philosophers (e.g. Donald Davidson[3]) have argued that the mental states the agent invokes as justifying his action are physical states that cause the action.[citation needed] Problems have been raised for this view because the mental states seem to be reduced to mere physical causes.[citation needed] Their mental properties don't seem to be doing any work.[citation needed] If the reasons an agent cites as justifying his action, however, are not the cause of the action, they must explain the action in some other way or be causally impotent.[citation needed] Those who hold the belief that mental properties are reducible to physical properties are known as token-identity reductionists.[4] Some have disagreed with the conclusion that this reduction means the mental explanations are causally impotent while still maintaining that the reduction is possible.[5] For example, Dretske has put forward the viewpoint of reasons as structuring causes.[5] This viewpoint maintains that the relation, intentional properties that are created in the process of justifying one's actions are causally potent in that the process is a instance of action.[5] When considering that actions are causally potent, Dretske claims that the process of justifying one's actions is necessarily part of the causal system. [5] Others have objected to the belief that mental states can cause physical action without asserting that mental properties can be reduced to physical properties.[6] Such individuals suggest that mental states are epiphenomenal, in that they have no impact on physical states, but are nonetheless distinct entities (see epiphenomenalism).[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alva Noë Action in Perception: (2004), MIT Press(pp1/2 and 111)
  2. ^ Anscombe, Gertrude (2000). Intention. Harvard University Press. pp. 37–45. ISBN 0674003993.
  3. ^ "Davidson, D. Essays on Actions and Events, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001a.
  4. ^ van Riel, Raphael; Van Gulick, Robert (2019), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Scientific Reduction", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-03-10
  5. ^ a b c d Robb, David; Heil, John (2019), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Mental Causation", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-03-10
  6. ^
  7. ^ Huxley, T. H., 1874, “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History”, The Fortnightly Review 16 (New Series): 555–580. Reprinted in Method and Results: Essays by Thomas H. Huxley, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898.

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