Essays on Actions and Events Analysis
by Donald Davidson

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Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Among the perennial ontological issues that philosophers have addressed are the relation between the mental and the physical and the fundamental categories of reality. The former issue, the relation of the mental and the physical, is often termed “the mind-body problem” and involves questions concerning the nature of the mind and how, if at all, a nonphysical entity (mind) can influence or be influenced by a physical entity (body). The latter issue, the fundamental categories of reality, can be traced back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who questioned whether there was some single unifying reality that underlay the multiplicity of entities of everyday experience. In addressing this issue, philosophers have asked questions such as whether the physical world is “really real” and whether the world is made up basically of things, as opposed to, for example, processes. Are properties (such as being tall) real? Are relations (such as being taller than another person) real? Are events, as opposed to things, real? These are the types of issues and questions that Donald Davidson addresses in these essays.

This book consists of fifteen essays, written between 1963 and 1978, grouped into three clusters covering intention and action, event and cause, and philosophy of psychology. In the book’s introduction, Davidson enunciates a common theme to the essays: the role of causal concepts in the description and explanation of human action. He also insists that there is one, ordinary notion of cause employed both in scientific accounts of human action and in commonsense experiential accounts. As Davidson puts it: “The concept of cause is what holds together our picture of the universe.”

Reasons as Causes and Explanations

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The first essay, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” in the collection is probably the best known. Writing during the heyday of behaviorism, Davidson challenged the prevailing sentiment that a person’s intentions, motives, or beliefs could neither cause that person’s actions (because actions are physical and reasons are not) nor serve to explain that person’s actions (because explanations require lawlike regularity in a physical sense). Acting for a reason, Davidson claimed, involves having both an attitude and a belief. Davidson demonstrates how an action is made reasonable (in Davidson’s words, “how a reason of any kind rationalizes an action”) by connecting one event (having an attitude and belief) with another event (the action). Reasons provide an interpretation of action by placing it within a broader context. For example, if one wants to know why a person raised his or her arm, one interprets that action, describing it as a case of, for example, a person signaling someone else, seeing how high he or she could reach, or trying to touch something over his or her head, and so on. These various descriptions of that event of arm raising show the person’s action to be reasonable by placing it within a set of events (such as signaling). These notions of events being variously characterized and of the role of interpretation in explanatory accounts play important roles throughout Davidson’s writings.

Agency, Intention, and Free Will

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Given an attempt to account for human action, a number of basic concepts are necessarily invoked: agency, intention, and free will. In the remaining essays in this section of the book, Davidson spells out how these concepts relate to his understanding of actions, reasons, and causes. According to Davidson, what makes a particular event an action is the component of agency. A rock falling off a cliff is an event but not an action; a rock being thrown off a cliff is an event that is an action. The difference is the involvement of an agent in the latter event. Although this seems plausible, something more is needed because in both cases the event was preceded by another event that was sufficient to cause the event in question. In the case of the rock falling, the preceding event was, perhaps, a strong gust of wind that dislodged the rock and...

(The entire section is 2,387 words.)