Action theory (philosophy)

Action theory (or theory of action) is an area in philosophy concerned with theories about the processes causing willful human bodily movements of a more or less complex kind. This area of thought involves epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, jurisprudence, and philosophy of mind, and has attracted the strong interest of philosophers ever since Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Third Book). With the advent of psychology and later neuroscience, many theories of action are now subject to empirical testing.

Philosophical action theory, or the philosophy of action, should not be confused with sociological theories of social action, such as the action theory established by Talcott Parsons.


Basic action theory typically describes action as behavior caused by an agent in a particular situation. The agent's desires and beliefs (e.g. my wanting a glass of water and believing the clear liquid in the cup in front of me is water) lead to bodily behavior (e.g. reaching over for the glass). In the simple theory (see Donald Davidson), the desire and belief jointly cause the action. Michael Bratman has raised problems for such a view and argued that we should take the concept of intention as basic and not analyzable into beliefs and desires.

In some theories a desire plus a belief about the means of satisfying that desire are always what is behind an action. Agents aim, in acting, to maximize the satisfaction of their desires. Such a theory of prospective rationality underlies much of economics and other social sciences within the more sophisticated framework of rational choice. However, many theories of action argue that rationality extends far beyond calculating the best means to achieve one's ends. For instance, a belief that I ought to do X, in some theories, can directly cause me to do X without my having to want to do X (i.e. have a desire to do X). Rationality, in such theories, also involves responding correctly to the reasons an agent perceives, not just acting on wants.

While action theorists generally employ the language of causality in their theories of what the nature of action is, the issue of what causal determination comes to has been central to controversies about the nature of free will.

Conceptual discussions also revolve around a precise definition of action in philosophy. Scholars may disagree on which bodily movements fall under this category, e.g. whether thinking should be analysed as action, and how complex actions involving several steps to be taken and diverse intended consequences are to be summarised or decomposed.


See also

Further reading

  • Maurice Blondel (1893). L'Action - Essai d'une critique de la vie et d'une science de la pratique
  • G. E. M. Anscombe (1957). Intention, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
  • James Sommerville (1968). Total Commitment, Blondel's L'Action, Corpus Books.
  • Donald Davidson (1980). Essays on Actions and Events, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Jennifer Hornsby (1980). Actions, Routledge, London.
  • Lilian O'Brien (2014). Philosophy of Action, Palgrave, Basingstoke.
  • Christine Korsgaard (2008). The Constitution of Agency, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Alfred R. Mele (ed.) (1997). The Philosophy of Action, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • John Hyman & Helen Steward (eds.) (2004). Agency and Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Anton Leist (ed.) (2007). Action in Context, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.
  • Peter Šajda et al. (eds.) (2012). Affectivity, Agency and Intersubjectivity, L'Harmattan, Paris.
  • Timothy O'Connor & Constantine Sandis (eds.) (2010). A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Constantine Sandis (ed.) (2009). New Essays on the Explanation of Action, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
  • Jonathan Dancy & Constantine Sandis (eds.) (2015). Philosophy of Action: An anthology, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Crozier, Michel & Friedberg, Erhard. Actors and Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

External links

  • Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). "Action". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • The Meaning of Action by Various Authors at
  • "Thomas Reid's Theory of Action". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Action theory

Action theory may refer to:

Action theory (philosophy), an area in philosophy concerned with the processes causing intentional human movement

Action theory (sociology), a sociological theory established by the American theorist Talcott Parsons

Social action, an approach to the study of social interaction outlined by the German sociologist Max Weber and taken further by G. H. MeadIt may also refer to a number of different types of social interactions and associations, including:

Affectional action

Instrumental action

Traditional action

Value-rational action

Communicative action

Dramaturgical action

Group action (sociology)

Agency (philosophy)

Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment. The capacity to act does not at first imply a specific moral dimension to the ability to make the choice to act, and moral agency is therefore a distinct concept. In sociology, an agent is an individual engaging with the social structure. Notably, though, the primacy of social structure vs. individual capacity with regard to persons' actions is debated within sociology. This debate concerns, at least partly, the level of reflexivity an agent may possess.Agency may either be classified as unconscious, involuntary behavior, or purposeful, goal directed activity (intentional action). An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of their physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In ‘goal directed action’ an agent implements a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior.

Hans Lenk

Hans Lenk (born 23 March 1935) is a German rower who competed for the United Team of Germany in the 1960 Summer Olympics, and an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy. He was born in Berlin.

In 1960, he was a crew member of the West German boat which won the gold medal in the eights event.

Index of metaphysics articles

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. Cosmology and ontology are traditional branches of metaphysics. It is concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world. Someone who studies metaphysics can be called either a "metaphysician" or a "metaphysicist".

Jaegwon Kim

Jaegwon Kim (born September 12, 1934) is a Korean-American philosopher who is now an emeritus professor at Brown University, but who also taught at several other leading American universities. He is best known for his work on mental causation, the mind-body problem and the metaphysics of supervenience and events. Key themes in his work include: a rejection of Cartesian metaphysics, the limitations of strict psychophysical identity, supervenience, and the individuation of events. Kim's work on these and other contemporary metaphysical and epistemological issues is well represented by the papers collected in Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays (1993).

Joel Feinberg

Joel Feinberg (October 19, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan – March 29, 2004 in Tucson, Arizona) was an American political and legal philosopher. He is known for his work in the fields of ethics, action theory, philosophy of law, and political philosophy as well as individual rights and the authority of the state. Feinberg was one of the most influential figures in American jurisprudence of the last fifty years.Feinberg studied at the University of Michigan, writing his dissertation on the philosophy of the Harvard professor Ralph Barton Perry under the supervision of Charles Stevenson. He taught at Brown University, Princeton University, UCLA and Rockefeller University, and, from 1977, at the University of Arizona, where he retired in 1994 as Regents Professor of Philosophy and Law.

Feinberg was internationally distinguished for his research in moral, social and legal philosophy. His major four-volume work, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, was published between 1984 and 1988. Feinberg held many major fellowships during his career and lectured by invitation at universities around the world. He was an esteemed and highly successful teacher, and many of his students are now prominent scholars and professors at universities across the US. His former students include Jules Coleman, Russ Shafer-Landau, and Clark Wolf.

Outline of metaphysics

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Metaphysics – traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

What is ultimately there?

What is it like?

Practical reason

In philosophy, practical reason is the use of reason to decide how to act. It contrasts with theoretical reason, often called speculative reason, the use of reason to decide what to follow. For example, agents use practical reason to decide whether to build a telescope, but theoretical reason to decide which of two theories of light and optics is the best.


Praxeology or praxiology (; from Ancient Greek πρᾶξις (praxis), meaning 'deed, action', and -λογία (-logia), meaning 'study of') is the study of human action, based on the notion that humans engage in purposeful behavior, as opposed to reflexive behavior like sneezing and unintentional behavior.

French social philosopher Alfred Espinas gave the term its modern meaning, and its study was developed independently by two principal groups: the Austrian school created by Ludwig von Mises and the Polish school created by Tadeusz Kotarbiński.

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