What is an action?


What is an action?

Valérie Aucouturier (VUB, CLEA)


The question may seem utterly naïve, since we do talk about actions all the time (pouring some tea, going to the university, etc.), but it may also reveal very tricky when it comes to understanding the specificity of actions against the general course of happenings. Actions are indeed a specific kind of happening in that they involve agency: an agent intervenes in the course of events, she decides to interfere or not with what is going on, following some goal she intends to pursue.

Philosophers (notably Davidson and Anscombe) have argued that we attend to this specificity when we focus on descriptions of what happens that are somehow linked to an agent's reasons to act. If an action is intentional, one can provide reasons for doing it. But there can be various descriptions of what we do, of the same action (moving one's fingers, typing something, doing a clicking noise, writing a paper, etc.). The issue on which I shall concentrate is double: first, what is specific about agency by contrast with other sorts of happenings (and what kind of creature is thus capable of agency); second what is it that makes all the descriptions of the same action descriptions of the same action? We shall see how the causal chain of events are intertwined with people's actions. I will conclude on the idea that this specificity of agency leads to the irreducibility of action explanations (and thus of any kind of explanation appealing to agency) to any lower level of explanation.


About the speaker:

Valérie Aucouturier (F.W.O. Postdoctoral Fellow, Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Study, Free University Brussels – V.U.B.)

I am currently working on the epistemology of human action and psychological explanations. Indeed, philosophers, psychologists and practitioners encounter major theoretical and practical difficulties in trying to build a consistent, non-reductionist, account of their object of study. I try to analyse which epistemological constraints apply to psychology as a 'special' science in order to shed light on new understandings of mental causation that would be appropriate to e.g. what happens in the psychotherapeutic cure.


Slides of the Talk: