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Essays On Action And Events

This essay argues that giving the reason for which an action was done, thus ‘rationalizing’ it, is giving a causal explanation––a claim that ran counter to the then prevailing orthodoxy inspired by the later Wittgenstein. We rationalize an action, says Davidson, by specifying the agent's intention; i.e. we specify that the agent did something X because he desired such and such and believed that doing X would bring about what he desired. Because intentions (‘primary reasons’) are composed of beliefs and desires, they do not themselves refer to distinct entities such as acts of will; further, on the basis of those beliefs and desires we can form practical syllogisms from which the desirability of the action (or its execution) follows deductively. In asking why an agent did such and such, we want to be given a reason that not only justifies his action but tells us for which reason he actually did it; for he might have had the justificatory reason, and acted, but not because of it––this ‘because’ must be specified causally lest the explanatory connection between reason and action be left utterly mysterious. By distinguishing events from how we describe them, Davidson discharges several objections to the causal thesis, among them the apparent logical distinctness that pertains to causal but not rationalized relata; he salvages the identification of beliefs and desires with ‘mental’ events, and stresses that action and the reason re‐describing it (which , we saw, presented no distinct entity) are not two distinct entities but only one under different descriptions.


Donald Davidson has prepared a new edition of his classic 1980 collection of Essays on Actions and Events, including two additional essays. In this seminal investigation of the nature of human action, Davidson argues for an ontology which includes events along with persons and other objects. Certain events are identified and explained as actions when they are viewed as caused and rationalized by reasons; these same events, when described in physical, biological, or physiological terms, may be explained by appeal to natural laws. The mental and the physical thus constitute irreducibly discrete ways of explaining and understanding events and their causal relations. Among the topics discussed are: freedom to act; weakness of the will; the logical form of talk about actions, intentions, and causality; the logic of practical reasoning; Hume's theory of the indirect passions; and the nature and limits of decision theory. The introduction, cross-references, and appendices emphasize the relations between the essays and explain how Davidson's views have developed.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 352 pages
  • 132 x 214 x 24mm | 439.98g
  • 06 Dec 2001
  • Oxford University Press
  • Clarendon Press
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 2nd ed.
  • appendices
  • 0199246270
  • 9780199246274
  • 183,612