The Debate in the Philosophy of Action

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


Around the beginning of the ’60s, studies about the concept of action and related notions such as intention, motive, reason, etc., proliferated and became an important focus of philosophical debate, especially among philosophers of an analytical orientation. It would probably be wrong to say that there was only one single reason for this development; but the discussion about the proper method of the human sciences is usually mentioned as one of the most important reasons. For Richard Bernstein, for instance, the interest in the philosophy of action grew with the reaction within analytical philosophy itself against the reductionism of authors such as Carnap or the early Wittgenstein. That reaction manifested itself in the form of a ‘new teleology’, emphasizing the intentional, purposive nature of human actions.1


Bodily Movement Strong Sense Intentional Action Legal Concept Ascriptivist Theory 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. Bernstein 1971, ch. 4.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cf. Ginet 1990, p. 47. Between these extreme positions, we find authors who advocate intermediate criteria for the individuation of actions, i. e., they hold what can perhaps be called ‘moderate maximizing’ positions.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The problem of the individuation of actions was presented by Elizabeth Anscombe in her book Intention with the following question: „Are we to say that the man who (intentionally) moves his arm, operates the pump, replenishes the water supply, poisons the inhabitants, is performing four actions? Or only one?“ And she answers that question thus: „In short, the only distinct action of his that is in question is this one, A. For moving his arm up and down with his fingers round the punp handle is, in these circumstances, operating the pump; and, in these circumstances, it is replenishing the house water-supply; and, in these circumstances, it is poisoning the household.“ (Anscombe 1963, § 26, pp. 45, 46)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Davidson 1980, p. 59.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
  6. 6.
    The table is adapted from Moya 1990, p. 31.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Davidson 1980a, p. 46.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    This characterization of intentional actions is related to the phenomenon linguists call ‘reference opacity’. On this, cf. below, Chapter VII, sect. 6.2.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Searle 1983, p. 92.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Goldman 1971, p. 762.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    For Goldman, in contrast, they are two different actions.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    At least in Spanish, the latter formulation also makes sense, but only in the first case are we referring to a means-ends relationship.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Cf. Danto 1968, p. 44.Google Scholar
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    Feinberg 1968, p. 107.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Hugh McCann, for example, identifies basic actions with our volitions. On basic actions, cf., e. g., Moya 1990, chs. 1 and 2.Google Scholar
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    Goldman’s distinction is very similar to the one von Wright draws between generic and individual actions. For von Wright, a generic action is a category of actions defined by some property. An individual action is a particular instance of an action which has the property of some generic action. This distinction appears in many of his works, but it is most extensively treated in von Wright 1983, pp. 112 ff.Google Scholar
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    Goldman 1971, p. 769.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Goldman 1976, p. 10.Google Scholar
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    Goldman 1976, Sect. i(`Level-Generation’)’ pp. 20 ff.Google Scholar
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    Castaneda 1979; I owe this reference to Nino 1987, p. 51.Google Scholar
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    Ginet 1990, p. 70.Google Scholar
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    Nino 1987, p. 52.Google Scholar
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    Goldman 1971, p. 772.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 773.Google Scholar
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    Ginet 1990, p. 48.Google Scholar
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    Goldman 1976, pp. 15 ff.Google Scholar
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    Von Wright’s and Hart’s theses were not originally meant to intervene in that debate; but they can easily be reinterpreted in the light of it.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Von Wright 1963a, p. 36.Google Scholar
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    Von Wright 1968, p. 43.Google Scholar
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    Von Wright 1963a, p. 39.Google Scholar
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    Von Wright 1971, p. 69.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 89.Google Scholar
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    Mosterín 1983, p. 176.Google Scholar
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    Although von Wright would certainly say so. The objections to his thesis refer to a problem of indeterminacy concerning non-intentional actions rather than to his treatment of intentional actions.Google Scholar
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    Mosterín 1983, p. 175.Google Scholar
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    Although some caution is warranted, since von Wright seems to suggest at one point that an agent may be mistaken about his own intentions: „My knowledge of my own intentions can be based on reflective knowledge of myself and on observing and putting an interpretation on my reactions. In such cases, knowledge of myself is just as ‘external’ and ‘indirect’ as that of another observer, and may be even less reliable than his knowledge of ine“ (von Wright 1971, p. 114).Google Scholar
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    Hart 1948/49, p. 145.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. p. 161.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Nino 1987, p. 18.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the Preface in Hart 1973.Google Scholar
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    Hart too later referred to that sense of responsibility (as well as to responsibility as a causal relation): „To say that someone is legally responsible for something often means only that under legal rules he is liable to be made either to suffer or to pay compensation in certain eventualities“ (Hart 1973, p. 196). On the concept of responsibility in Hart (and in other authors) in general, cf., e. g., Larranaga Monjaraz (forthcoming).Google Scholar
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    Cf. below, Chapter VII, sect. 4.1.Google Scholar
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    Feinberg 1968, p. 116.Google Scholar
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    However, there are some exceptions to the assertion that we do not attribute intentions or intentional actions to agents. In the law, occasionally there are presumptions that can be interpreted as the attribution of an intention to an agent, regardless of his real intention. But such strong attributions of intention are usually connected with problems in proving what the agent’s real intention was. This connection with questions of proof (that is, of fact) again shows that our approach to the intentions of others is more like an attempt to discover what there intentions are than like an imputation of intentions according to some social rules, regardless of their intention in a psychological sense.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Mosterín 1993, p. 176.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Iwill have more to say about this distinction in Chapter VI.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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