Intending and Its Place in the Theory of Action

  • Robert Audi
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 266)


The topic of intending is important in both the literature of action theory and, more generally, that of ethics and law.1 In 1973, I offered an account of intending that has received much attention in the succeeding two decades. 2 Various elements in the account have been defended in print, both by others and by me,3 but the account, like the subject in general, remains controversial. Even apart from what has been specifically disputed, there are unsolved problems. This paper is aimed at contributing to our understanding of intending in two ways: first, it will reinforce and clarify my original account of intending by bringing the account to bear on a number of important problems central for intending in particular and the theory of the will in general; secondly, it will reply to a number of objections to the account that have emerged or re-emerged in the past several years.


Intentional Action Performance Expectation Intention Formation Weather Report Individual Intention 
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  1. 1.
    Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — though the standard translations do not use ‘intending’ as opposed, e.g., to ‘desiderativedesire’; Thomas Aquinas’s Summa; in many modern philosophers, including Bentham, who is famous for his distinction between direct and oblique intentions, and Mill; and, in the Twentieth Century, a long line of writers beginning with G.E.M. Anscombe’s Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In “Intending,” Journal of Philosophy LXX (1973).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For defense of one or another element in my account (but not the whole of it) see, e.g., Raimo Tuomela, Human Action and Its Explanation (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1977) and Wayne A. Davis, “A Causal Theory of Intending,” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984); and for some of my replies to critics, e.g., H. J. McCann, A. R. Mele, and J. L. A. Garcia, and extensions of the account see my “Wants and Intentions in the Explanation of Action,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 9 (1980); “Intending, Intentional Action, and Desire,” in Joel E. Marks, ed., The Ways of Desire (Chicago: Precedent Publishing Company, 1986); “Deliberative Intentions and Willingness to Act: A Reply to Professor Mele,” Philosophia 18 (1988); and “Intention, Cognitive Commitment, and Planning,” Synthese 86 (1991).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This is the account I offered in Audi (1973). The variables have been altered. Only minor, stylistic changes have been made, such as alteration in the variables in the original account. I would now make explicit something only suggested in that paper: the agent need only believe at least that the action is probable — we need a disjunction of beliefs here not a disjunctive belief Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In this context have in mind intentionally causing oneself to form an intention, not doing this in the way one does when, say by breaking a glass, one causes oneself to form an intention to clean up the fragments. One way to see that (intentionally) causing oneself to form an intention is different from simply forming one is to note how the former typically occurs: in artificial cases, as where one is paid to form a certain intention, such as to stand on one’s head, hence takes a pill to produce it in oneself. Here one might have a reason to cause oneself to form the intention (that it will pay one) that is not a reason to A. But typically a reason for forming an intention to A is also a reason to A, for instance where it is in one’s interest to A tomorrow, and one cannot A then without both forming the intention, now, to do so and making the preliminary steps one takes A-ing to require.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A number of action theorists have spoken of such events as intentions, often following Sellars. My les Brand, for instance, says “I shall follow Sellars in taking the proximate cause of action to be an intending to do something here and now. Let me call this ‘immediate intention’. See Intending and Acting: Toward a Naturalized Action Theory (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1984), p. 35. For a detailed more recent discussion see Alfred R. Mele, Springs of Action (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. Part II. Further development of Brand’s view is given in his “Intention and Intentional Action,” in this volume.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    This hypothesis receives some confirmation from considerations raised in my “Volition and Agency,” in my Action, Intention, and Reason (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993). That paper explores volition in relation to both intention and action and stresses the importance of volition as a candidate — like immediate intention — to serve as an event cause of action.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    An interesting theoretical question here is whether the motivational component of an intention must have a minimum absolute level. I leave this open, but am inclined to think that so long as we may truly speak of S’s wanting to A, we may, when the other conditions are met, speak of at least a weak intention. That strength of intentions varies with want strengths in the way my account suggests is further confirmation of the account.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Something I argue for in detail in “Acting for Reasons,” Philosophical Review XCV (1986).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Summa 2.2 q. 64, art. 7.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See ch. 1. Note that he does not say (and I think did not believe) this is the only intrinsic good. This distinction in Kant is discussed in some detail in my Practical Reasoning (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), ch. 3.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    In Practical Reasoning, ch. 3.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    The matter is not simple, however; some of the complexities of the appropriate principles are discussed in my “Intention, Cognitive Commitment, and Planning,” cited above.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Raimo Tuomela’s, esp. as presented in his The Importance of Us (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ibid., pp. 145–146.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    I take this example (which comes from a criticism Gilbert Harman made of Monroe Beards-ley’s account of intending) and nearly all of the following examples from a paper by Ann Bumpus, given at the Northern New England Philosophical Society Meeting in 1994, in which she summarized and developed a number of objections recently proposed to my account. The sneeze case also occurs in Michael E. Bratman’s review of my Action, Intention, and Reason, Ethics 105 (1995), 928.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    See “Wants and Intentions in the Explanation of Action, ” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 9 (1980). A similar example is discussed there; but the solution proposed here seems to me preferable for this case to the passive intention approach.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    In “Wants and Intentions,” cited above.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Here ‘believing at least that’ is short for (roughly) this: ‘believing something, concerning the likelihood of A-ing, at least as strong as that’, a formulation slightly broader than the original one.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    It might be noticed that I have made no specific mention of mental action; this is because I doubt that it raises any difficulties for my account that need special treatment here. For relevant discussion of how a causalist theory might deal with mental action, see A.R. Mele, “Agency and Mental Action,” forthcoming.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Not every weak-willed intention exhibits this property, however, as I have argued in “Weakness of Will and Rationality,” in my Action, Intention, and Reason, cited above.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    This paper began as a reply to Ann Bumpus’s presentation, made at the Northern New England Philosophical Society meeting in 1994, of a series of criticisms of my account of intending. Later, expanded versions of the paper were given at the University of Helsinki in 1995 and at Wayne State University in 1996. All three audience discussions were helpful, and for a number of critical responses I particularly want to thank Ann Bumpus, Hugh McCann, James Moor, David Sosa, and Raimo Tuomela.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Audi
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NebraskaLincolnUSA

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