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Mature Action and its Defects

It seems to us that the philosophy of action is on the cusp of a major realignment. 


It is widely recognised, both in Europe and in many U.S. universities, that a standard events-based causal theory of action, which might be encapsulated in the slogan “beliefs and desires cause actions”, has run its course.

Work at CSMN has helped show that such a theory is unable to respond adequately to the major objections to it. As a result, a new approach to agency is gaining ground, in which notions of knowledge play a fundamental role and the idea of action as process is being pursued. We are particularly well-placed to give substance to this new approach and to settle questions that arise within it, including questions about kinds of agency where the agent is less than fully rational.

Epistemology, knowing how, and basic action

Rejection of the belief-desire story of action has led to appreciation of the role of knowledge in action. For one thing, there has been a recent renewal of interest in the conception of agents’ non-observational knowledge put forward in G.E.M. Anscombe’s Intention. For another, it has been argued both (a) that one acts for a reason only if one knows (not merely believes) that reason, and (b) that one should act only on what one knows. A related question that has received too little attention concerns the possibly practical nature of standing linguistic knowledge and the knowledge involved on occasions of speech. This is a question about the knowledge required for a certain sort of agency —“speech action”, one might call it. It was suggested by Hornsby (and contested by Stanley) that in order to express a particular thought, one doesn’t need a piece of propositional knowledge about how to express it, so that voicing one’s thought is a basic act. The suggestion is part of a re-evaluation of the idea of basic acts (widely used in philosophy of action). Basic acts were introduced to explain how there can be intentional action even though practical reasoning must come to an end. The example of speech suggests an alternative to this conception of basic acts. We shall address the following questions:

  • Are actions better conceived as processes than as events?
  • What are the best defences of claims (a) and (b) above, and do they show that the two claims stand or fall together?
  • How should one understand (i) the non-observational knowledge which is concurrent with agency and (ii) the standing knowledge which agents bring to action, if these two sorts of knowledge are to be seen as appropriately related?
  • How is practical reasoning best understood if the connections there are between practical reasoning and agents’ non-observational knowledge are to be elicited?
  • Might it be that when know-how is exercised in action, there is a kind of practical thinking in which the means are related internally to the end? If this alternative could be worked out, a tight connection would be made between the know-how which agents bring to action and the non-observational knowledge of what they are doing concurrent with their action. It is natural to extend such an approach to “speech action”, to the knowledge exercised by speakers, and to investigate the exact role of basic actions in speech.
  • The counterpart of the question about knowledge exercised by speakers is one about the knowledge achieved by hearers. It is plausible to assume that hearers typically gain propositional knowledge—knowledge of what a speaker has said. What capacities enable such knowledge to be reached? And how are such capacities to be thought of if their being shared by speakers and hearers is to be seen as sub-serving the transmission of knowledge through testimony? (This overlaps with questions addressed from a complementary perspective in sub-project E below.)

Defective agency

One reason for rejecting the standard causal story mentioned above has been that it is at odds with empirically sensitive philosophy of mind that has developed in recent years. Here our continuing work on such phenomena as weakness of will and procrastination comes in. When the standard story is put in doubt, the importance of understanding the role of intention in action is highlighted, and the states of mind which inform intentions may be differently conceived. Our research questions are:

  • How should one understand the wider relevance of the distinction made in neuropsychology between “wanting” and “liking”? Does the distinction ground accounts of phenomena of defective agency, such as weakness of will—accounts that are not available to the standard causal story?
  • Can responsibility be partial? We shall pursue the question by reference to different kinds of impaired knowledge.
  • What is lack of control? What is compulsion? What is addiction? We hope to show that an interdisciplinary approach, based on our emerging conception of agency, will make an important contribution to our understanding of these phenomena.


The project was hosted by the completed Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN). 

Published Jan. 20, 2012 3:09 PM - Last modified Mar. 16, 2021 3:05 PM