• Daniel González Lagier
Part of the Law and Philosophy Library book series (LAPS, volume 67)


Language sets us numerous little traps around the concept of action. We only need to look at ordinary language to become aware of some of them:
  • The first is hidden behind the fact that, except in evaluative contexts, the word ‘action’ is not used very frequently in ordinary language. This has already been pointed out, for instance, by John L. Austin,1 and was noted also by Genaro Carrió who once wrote that „because of the vast arsenal of verbs we have at our disposition for isolating and characterizing different conducts, there is hardly any need to use the word ‘action’ in the ordinary language we use for all our practical purposes. That word, or the expression ‘an action’, only serves to isolate (but without characterizing) an instance of human behaviour, and it is not often the case that we need to do no more than that“.2 Does that mean that ordinary language cannot provide us with criteria for understanding the concept of action? If that is our conclusion, then I’m afraid we have already fallen into the first trap. Though it may be true that the term ‘action’ is not used very frequently in ordinary language, criteria for its application can nevertheless be found in it, because — as Nino has pointed out — the usual meaning of a word is determined not only by its actual usage, but also by people’s willingness to accept or reject that usage when it does eventually occur. Thus, ‘Today I did many things’ may, however awkwardly, be replaced by ‘Today I performed a great number of actions’, whereas ‘There were several giraffes in the zoo’ obviously cannot be replaced by ‘There were several actions in the zoo’ .3


Legal Consequence Objective Attitude Reactive Attitude Ordinary Language Legal Fact 
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  1. 1.
    Austin 1979a, pp. 178 ff.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Carrió 1972, p. 11.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Nino 1972, p. 137.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cf. von Wright 1963a, p. 36.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    With great caution, reservations and exceptions, one can perhaps say that, from the point of view of their structure, action and act are simpler than activity, conduct and behaviour: while the former can be understood as simple entities, the latter three seem to imply a sequence of acts or actions. From an evaluative point of view, on the other hand, action, act, activity, conduct, and behaviour can all appear in descriptive as well as in evaluative contexts: we speak of good actions, good acts, good conduct, unobjectionable behaviour, or valuable activities. In Nino’s view, however, ‘action’ (when referring to human beings) is more frequently used in evaluative than in descriptive contexts. Nino suggests that this is so because the term ‘action’ underscores more than its partial synonyms the component of an agent’s voluntariness; cf. Nino 1972, p. 136.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    I adopt the notion of change, or event, from von Wright, in the sense of a transition from one state of affairs to another, or to the same state of affairs. Cf. von Wright 1963a, p. 36.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cf. Chapter VI.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Guibourg 1987, p. 33.Google Scholar
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    His most elaborate work on that topic is von Wright 1963a.Google Scholar
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    Cf. von Wright 1968, p. 37 ff.Google Scholar
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    Cf. von Wright 1963b, pp. 6 ff.Google Scholar
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    Thus, Martín D. Farrell (1983, p. 64) has remarked that „a coherent formulation of utilitarianism requires an adequate theory for the description of actions“.Google Scholar
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    Fitzgerald 1968, p. 120. On the interest of lawyers in the concept of action, cf. also Nino 1987, pp. 13–16.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Occasionally, we must answer questions such as whether it is possible to kill by omission or while sleeping; but the answer we give for the case of ‘killing’ may not be valid for the case of ‘robbing’ because these are different types of actions. A concept of action must search for what the two types of actions have in common and must offer generic answers to the question.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Cf. Moore 1993, pp. 1 ff.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Cf. Puig Brutau 1950–1993 p. 836.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Aguiló Regla 2000.Google Scholar
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    Hume 1975 (1777), Sect. 122, n.Google Scholar
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    Strawson 1974.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Nino 1987, p. 107.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel González Lagier
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AlicanteAlicanteSpain

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