Philosophy of action

Basic Information

Course 2015/2016
Josep Lluís Prades
Department of Philosophy
Universitat de Girona
Module 6. Theories of Rationality


Mon. 16-19
Room 411, Facultat de Filosofia, UB


Non philosophers seem to have no problem accepting that we often act without reasons. This phenomenon –intentionally acting without reasons- is not easily accounted for by philosophical explanations of intentional action and practical reasoning. The purpose of the course will be to dispel the common philosophical illusion that intentional action requires having, or believing we have, reasons to act, and that practical reasoning is a way of considering the reasons we have to form certain intentions.

The course will try to show that this misconception underlies contemporary neo-Humean theories of motivation, standard versions of decision theory, and most common non-Humean accounts of intentional action.  Attention will be paid to the basic linguistic data that show that the role of rationalizing explanations of intentional action is only to determine the purpose with which the agent acts. The successful rationalization of an intentional action does not show that the agent needs to believe that she had reasons of any kind. This teleological approach will be used to show that practical reasoning is the process of accepting a purpose, not necessarily the process of weighting reasons.

The course does not presuppose any previous familiarity with the topic.

1. Humean theories of motivation.

2 Motivating and normative reasons

3 Having a reason and acting for a reason

4 The rationalistic conception of motivation

5 The teleology of intentional action

6 Intentional Action and Practical Rationality


There will be 12 sessions of a weekly seminar –about 3 hours each one. Each week there will be a one-hour lecture-style presentation, and a one-hour seminar in which specific assigned reading will be discussed.


Participants will be asked to write one critical essay of between 2000 and 4000 words length, on a relevant question to be agreed with the convener, who will also be available for advice on essay plans.  The language of the essay can be Catalan, Spanish or English.


Intended Learning Outcomes:


The aim of the course to familiarize participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.

More specifically, this includes:

• understanding the main positions in contemporary Philosophy of Action

 • understanding most of the key notions and arguments used in contemporary Philosophy of Action.

• practicing the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate.

• developing the ability to articulate one’s own position in this debate (at least provisionally), and to defend it in argument.

This contributes to the following competences promoted by the APhil master programme:

• The  competent use of the terminology, concepts and methods used in contemporary analytic philosophy, and their employment  in the argumentative defence of a position.

• The ability to identify the the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.

• The ability to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.

• The ability to work independently as well as in a team, in an international context.

• The independent and creative application of one’s knowledge to new problems, i.e. the ability to employ knowledge and abilities aquired in one area in order to address new problems or problems in different areas.

• Develop the ability to conduct philosophical research in an independent and autonomous way (as is required, for example, in pursuing doctoral studies).




Anscombe, G. E. M., 1957, Intention, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bratman, M., 1987, Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Broome, 1999: ‘Normative Requirements’. Ratio. 12, pp. 398-419.

Davidson, D. “Actions, Reasons and Causes”, in his Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Clarendon.

Davidson, D. “Intending”, in his Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Clarendon.

Hume, D., 1978, A Treatise of Human Nature, second edition, L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Niditch (eds.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kolnai, A. 1962: ‘Deliberation is of Ends’. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 62, pp. 195–218.

Nagel, T., 1978, The Possibility of Altruism, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scanlon, T. M., 1998, What We Owe to Each Other, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Smith, M., 1987, “The Humean Theory of Motivation”, Mind 96: 36-61.

Smith, M., 2004, “Humean Rationality” in Mele and Rawling (edits.), The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, M. 2008, Life and Action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wiggins, D., 1987, “Deliberation and Practical Reason”, in his Needs, Values, Truth, Oxford: Blackwell.

Williams, B., 1981, “Internal and External Reasons”, in his Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L., 1958, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.