How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions

How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions

How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions

How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions


Talking about action comes easily to us. We quickly make distinctions between voluntary and non-voluntary actions; we think we can tell what intentions are; we are confident about evaluating reasons offered in rational justification of action. Berent Enç provides a philosopher's sustained examination of these issues: he portrays action as belonging to the causal order of events in nature, a theory from which new and surprising accounts of intention and voluntary action emerge.


What happens when we act? How do we form an intention to do something? How does the fact that we intended to do something explain some of the things we do? What needs to be true about us for us to have done something voluntarily?

These are questions we normally do not ask when we speak of others' actions, ascribe intentions to them, or wonder if they are doing this or that voluntarily. These concepts come easily to us, and we typically assume that if we were to reflect briefly on such questions, we probably could come up with perfectly reasonable answers. I tend to think that this kind of assumption has been the seed for continued interest in the philosophy of action. The rich literature and the vast spectrum of divergent views are a testament to the difficulty of coming up with 'perfectly reasonable answers'.

You wake up in the middle of the night. You wonder whether you should stay in bed and try to fall asleep or go to the basement and read. You realize that tossing and turning will probably wake up your companion sound asleep next to you; you decide to get up, leave the cosy warmth of the bed and go down, in the full knowledge that your reading for an hour or so will probably make you less alert the next day.

Now your waking up was not an action, but your going down to the basement was. Obvious! What exactly is the difference? According to one school of thought, your going down to the basement was an action because there was a prior mental action: you made a decision, performed an act of will. It was thanks to those mental acts that your getting out of bed, grabbing your book, and going downstairs were all voluntary acts, whereas no comparable act of will of yours was involved in your waking up. Similarly, if you can 'will yourself to sleep', then you will have performed an act, whereas if you just fall asleep, then you will not have acted.

In this book I reject this school of thought. Chapter 1 is devoted to a series of considerations developed through analogies drawn from theories of knowledge and of perception. These considerations are

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