Philosophy of action


Philosophers, at least since Socrates and in other traditions as well, have been concerned with human action. One characteristic of the conception of action for many philosophers at least, is that human action is tied to rationality. And the justification of actions in the social sphere depends on the possibility of rationality being assigned to them. So our main problem in philosophy of action will be the meaning and the rationality of action. This will involve considering human beings as rational beings, and to a certain extent, to question this conception of humans (e.g. Freud). We will have to take into account different cultural systems of rationality and values which make difficult the ascription of rationality to certain actions. We will thus be concerned with the philosophical clarification of the concept of action. We will look then at the nature of action, the description of action and the explanation of action, considering intention, motives, deliberation, choice, decision and action.

The course is divided in the following sections:

  1. The concept of action

Free will and determinism: before we can reflect on action as a human phenomenon, we must consider this important philosophical issue. Humans are natural beings, i.e. a part of nature. Therefore, what is the part of natural determinism, the laws of nature, instinct etc, involved in human action? That action has meaning depends on the fact that Man has freedom.

We can then look at human action, and how we talk about it. We will compare different type of explanation of actions and events (reasons, motives, causes) and try to formulate in this way a proper level of explanation of action.

  1. Philosophical sources of the problem of action

We will explore some of the sources of the philosophical conceptions of action by considering the conceptions of human action put forward by Plato and Aristotle, as well as by St-Augustine and St-Thomas. We will also consider modern sources notably in Descartes, Locke and Hume.

  1. The modern concept of action

We will follow the development of the modern concept of action looking at three main perspectives. 1) An hermeneutic conception of action will show the inherent need for the interpretation of action; 2) a (post-) structuralist view of action in society, critical of the hermeneutic view, will emphasize the structures of society as a determining factor in the meaning of action; 3) an analytic conception, which tries to clarify what Ricoeur call “the conceptual network of action”.

Method: The classes will consist principally of presentations by the professor. However, a strong emphasis will be put on discussion and debate.

Material: There is no particular manual for the course. The professor will put the most important texts at the reserve of the college library. Students will be encouraged to pursue research on an aspect of the problem of action which interest them.

Evaluation: 1 term paper, 10-15 pages (60%), on a theme or an author seen in the course. Students are encouraged to meet with the professor in order to choose and define the topic of their essay.

1 take-home written exam (40%).








Jean-François Méthot

Course code

DPHY 3682

Room number


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Thursday, 13h30-16h30