An action, as philosophers use the term, is a certain kind of thing a person can do. You might throw a baseball, and this is obviously an action. You can catch a cold, and this is not an action. But is merely deciding to do something an action? Is unsuccessfully trying to do something an action? Are believing, intending, and thinking kinds of action? Do all actions involve bodily movement? Are all the effects of actions also actions? For example, poisoning a well is an action. If you poison a well, and thereby kill someone, was killing them also your action? Was it the same action as poisoning the well, or a different one? What if you poison a well and inadvertently cure someone of a very rare and unknown disease?
A primary concern of philosophy of action is to demarcate actions from other similar phenomena. Another concern is to individuate actions from one another. Yet third concern is to explain the relation between actions and their effects, and another is to say how an action is related the beliefs and desires which give rise to it, and the intentions with which it is performed (a subject called practical reason): do one's reason's cause one to act, or merely explain one's action is some other sense? Do you have to be "intending" in order to be acting?
Action has been of concern to philosophers since Aristotle, who wrote about the subject in his Nicomachean Ethics. It has nearly always been bound up with Ethics, the study of what actions one ought to perform. Some of the most prominent comtemporary philosophers who have worked in it are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson, and Jennifer Hornsby .
Many branches of Buddhism reject the notion of agency in varying degrees. In these schools of thought there is action, but no agent.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04