Donald Davidson

in Essays on Actions and Events

Published in print September 2001 | ISBN: 9780199246274
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191715198 | DOI:

Series: The Philosophical Essays of Donald Davidson (5 Volumes)


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Examining the relation that has to obtain between an agent and an event for the latter to be an action attributed to the agent, Davidson shows there are no grammatical tests of agency: action verbs sometimes leave it open whether the action was done intentionally or not, as in ‘he fell’. He offers an alternative definition by which someone is the agent of an act if what he does can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional; this leaves the relation between the act and its agent intact regardless of how these are described. As this still requires illumination of what makes an action intentional, Davidson invokes causal terms familiar from Essay 1: an action counts as intentional if the agent (his beliefs and desires) caused it. However, this had better not straightforwardly reduce to ordinary event causation lest all causal effects of my actions are invariably attributed to my agency; this is called the ‘accord on effect’ by which causal transitivity makes for transfer of agency.

Davidson therefore sharply distinguishes ‘primitive actions’ (those mostly having to do with bodily action) from their ‘unintended begettings’ and concludes that the former, for which I can solely be attributed agency, are ‘the only actions there are’: while primitive actions allow re‐descriptions that may include their causal consequences it is mistaken to infer that the consequences themselves are included in the described action.

Keywords: accord on effect; agency; causal theory of action; event causation; event individuation; grammatical test; intention

Chapter.  8834 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Mind

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