Explanation and Understanding of Actions

  • Georg Henrik von Wright
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 266)


An important type of explanations of action makes reference to reasons. The author of the paper calls them “understanding explanations.” Often there are several reasons for one and the same action — and possibly also reasons against performing it. The fact that something is a reason for an action does not necessarily mean that the action is performed for that reason. One must, in other words, distinguish between the existence and the efficacy of reasons for actions. This raises the question of the veracity of a suggested explanation when the action is correctly identified and the reasons for its performance are known.

The author defends a thesis that the efficacious reasons for an action are those in the light of which we understand the action. The “tie” between the action and the (efficacious) reason(s) is thus created by the act of understanding. When there is disagreement between the self-understanding of the agent and an outside observer, the latter may sometimes succeed in “converting” the former to a new understanding of his motives. The nature of such “conversions” is discussed in the paper, and it is maintained that neither the agent nor the outsider can claim an exclusive right to authority in the question which is the correct explanation. The “criterion of truth” of the explanation is consensus in the understanding of the action. It cannot be taken for granted that such agreement of opinion can in all cases be attained even “in principle.”


Rational Reason Neural Event Absolute Certainty Correct Explanation Internal Reason 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 1.
    Von Wright describes this kind of defect as “körperlich (oder somatisch),” both of which designations refer to the body: Körper=soma=body.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The word used here is Gründe: reasons. In the previous paragraph, the word was followed by “the motives and frame of mind in which the agent acted,” and one suspects that this is the intention here as well, the context being the same.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The word used here is adäquat, which, like its cognate in English, implies that that which is done fulfills requirements, is sufficient, etc. I have inferred that such a response is also appropriate, meaning that it bears a significant congruency with that which is being responded to.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Literally, “rational reason.”Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Literally, “moving reason,” as in, “It was for this reason that I was moved to act as I did.”Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The word used here is aufgefasst, which means that something has been consciously perceived, taken in, taken note of.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Beginning at ‘between’ the German reads: zwischen vorliegenden (bestehenden, existierenden) und wirksamen Gründen ....Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The German words used are überbestimmt and überdeterminiert, which both translate directly and naively to “over-determined,” which suggests that more than one sufficient reason exists for an action.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Here, we have the same word, Handlung, which has been used all along and has generally been translated as “action.” In all cases, whether I use “act” or “action,” I am referring to a deed carried out by a person (here, for reasons), as opposed to “actions” which refer to movements which happen without there necessarily being persons (or reasons) behind them, such as mechanical actions (or reflex actions).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    ... betreffende neurale Geschehnisse... literally, neural events regarding ..., or neural events with reference to ... but translated here as pertinent neural events. The idea I am reading into von Wright’s words is that we are not taking all neural events into consideration, but rather specific ones which are relevant to the agent’s action.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Georg Henrik von Wright
    • 1
  1. 1.Academy of FinlandFinland

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