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Essays on Actions and Events$
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Donald Davidson

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780199246274

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0199246270.001.0001

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Actions, Reasons, and Causes

Actions, Reasons, and Causes

(p.3) 1 Actions, Reasons, and Causes
Essays on Actions and Events

Donald Davidson

Oxford University Press

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.

Keywords:   belief plus desire, causal explanation, causal theory of actions, events, primary reason, rationalization, Wittgenstein

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