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Motor Representation and The Problem of Action

What justifies claiming that events are actions in virtue of their relations to your intentions rather than in virtue of their relations to motor representations?

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The Problem of Action is, What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you?

According to the Standard Solution, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. (See Philosophical Theories of Action.)

We have seen that motor representations can ground the directedness of actions to outcomes (Motor Representations Ground the Directedness of Actions to Goals).

How might this give rise to an objection to the Standard Solution?

Background: The Structure of Action

When researchers focus on the contrast between goal-directed processes and habitual processes (see Goal-Directed and Habitual Processes), they typically treat actions as unitary and ignore their structure.

What does this mean? Actions are individuated by outcomes—the question ‘What is she doing?’ can often be answer by specifying an outcome like ‘opening the bottle’ or ‘washing their hair’. Similarly when characterising habitual and goal-directed processes, we individuate possible actions by outcomes such as the operating of a lever or the eating of popcorn. We give no consideration to the structure of these actions.

What do we know about their structure? Operating a lever involves performing several actions such as reaching for, grasping and then moving it (as we saw in Motor Representation). These component actions are related to the main action as means to ends. And a component action may itself have component actions also related as means to ends. So even an apparently, small-scale simple action like operating a lever involves a hierachy of component actions. Further, the component actions often overlap in time, and, when things go well, are minutely coordinated to meet both relational constraints (how many fingers you will grasp with constrains, and is constrained by, how you reach, for instance) and also background requirements such as the need not to topple over when reaching.[1] All this involves sustained coordination of many rapidly moving body part in response to a changing environment, which is very difficult to acheive, as we know from studies of how the skills needed to perform mundane actions develop.[2]

More background on how actions are individuated and the hierarchical structure of action is covered in another course, Mind & Reality, here:

When thinking about the contrast between goal-directed processes and habitual processes, we focus on the question

How are relatively large-scale action goals selected?

This question involves treaing actions as unitary and ignoring their structure. When thinking about motor processes, we focus on questions about structure such as:

Given that a relatively large-scale action goal has been selected, how is the action to be prepared, performed and monitored? And, in particular (for us), how are component action goals selected?

These questions capture complementary perspectives. Treating them separately has proven productive. Eventually both are needed to understand the story of action.

Objection to the Standard Solution

Consider an alternative to the Standard Solution:

Actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to a motor representation.

The Objection is then:

  1. This solution to The Problem of Action is not worse than the Standard Solution.

  2. Therefore we should accept both or neither, as things stand.

The justification for (1) is three-fold. First, the role of motor representations overlaps with that of intentions (see Motor Representations Ground the Directedness of Actions to Goals). Second, as far as bodily actions are concerned, intention without motor represention is not sufficient. Third, no explicit justification has yet been published for giving priority to intentions over motor representations.

Responses to the Objection

One response to this Objection would be to abandon the Standard Solution as the unique answer to The Problem of Action in favour of an alternative. The simplest (but not necessarily correct) alternative might be to allow that the Standard Solution is just one among several ways to answer The Problem of Action.

Another response to this Objection would be to defend the Standard Solution by identifying considerations that favour adopting it over the above alternative. This might (but need not) involve appealing to the idea that actions are done for reasons. In developing a response along these lines, it is important not to change the question by switching The Problem of Action for an alternative. (It’s almost trivial that there is some question to which the Standard Solution is the correct answer; our concern, of course, is with whether it is the correct answer to The Problem of Action.) Would invoking the idea that actions are done for reasons amount to changing the question? Insofar as our source is Davidson (1963), it seems reasonable to hold that this idea was implicit all along. If relying on Frankfurt (1978), things are less clear because he sees the problem as applying to a very broad range of agents, including some in which learning and cognition play at most a limited role.[3]

Contrast with Other Objection to the Standard Solution

Another objection to the Standard Solution hinges on the ideas that actions can be dominated by habitual processes and run counter to any intentions the agent has (see The Problem of Action meets Habitual Processes).

On that objection, the key idea is that, in some cases, intentions are not involved at all (or at least are not appropriately related to actions). A common line of objection to this objection is to attempt to distinguish the bad actions (as ‘merely purposive activities’, perhaps) from the good actions (as ‘autonomous actions’, perhaps; Velleman, 2000; see **MISSING XREF TO unit:lecture_02_questions**).

The present objection from discoveries about motor control is consistent with the view that all actions are appropriately related to intentions.[4] There is no way to reply to this objection by distinguishing good from bad actions.

The two objections to the Standard Solution are therefore complementary in the sense that different strategies are probably needed to reply to them.

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goal-directed process : A process which involves ‘a representation of the causal relationship between the action and outcome and a representation of the current incentive value, or utility, of the outcome’ and which influences an action ‘in a way that rationalizes the action as instrumental for attaining the goal’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177).
habitual process : A process underpinning some instrumental actions which obeys Thorndyke’s Law of Effect: ‘The presenta­tion of an effective [=rewarding] outcome following an action [...] rein­forces a connection between the stimuli present when the action is per­formed and the action itself so that subsequent presentations of these stimuli elicit the [...] action as a response’ (Dickinson, 1994, p. 48). (Interesting complication which you can safely ignore: there is probably much more to say about under what conditions the stimulus–action connection is strengthened; e.g. Thrailkill, Trask, Vidal, Alcalá, & Bouton, 2018.)
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
Standard Solution : (to The Problem of Action). Actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention.
The Problem of Action : What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (According to Frankfurt (1978, p. 157), ‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’)


Bratman, M. E. (2014). Shared agency: A planning theory of acting together. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, reasons and causes. In Essays on actions and events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dickinson, A. (1994). Instrumental conditioning. In N. Mackintosh (Ed.), Animal learning and cognition. London: Academic Press.
Dickinson, A. (2016). Instrumental conditioning revisited: Updating dual-process theory. In J. B. Trobalon & V. D. Chamizo (Eds.), Associative learning and cognition (Vol. 51, pp. 177–195). Edicions Universitat Barcelona.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1978). The problem of action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(2), 157–162.
Hyman, J. (2015). Action, knowledge, and will (First edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pezzulo, G., Rigoli, F., & Friston, K. J. (2018). Hierarchical Active Inference: A Theory of Motivated Control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(4), 294–306.
Thrailkill, E. A., Trask, S., Vidal, P., Alcalá, J. A., & Bouton, M. E. (2018). Stimulus control of actions and habits: A role for reinforcer predictability and attention in the development of habitual behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 44, 370–384.
Velleman, D. (2000). The possibility of practical reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Witherington, D. C. (2005). The Development of Prospective Grasping Control Between 5 and 7 Months: A Longitudinal Study. Infancy, 7(2), 143–161.
Witherington, D. C., Hofsten, C. von, Rosander, K., Robinette, A., Woollacott, M. H., & Bertenthal, B. I. (2002). The Development of Anticipatory Postural Adjustments in Infancy. Infancy, 3(4), 495–517.


  1. This is a much simplified picture. Pezzulo, Rigoli, & Friston (2018, p. 294) provide, in a single paragraph, a bit more of the picture: ‘Motivated control, and the coordination of behaviour to achieve affectively meaningful outcomes or goals, poses a multidimensional drive-to-goal decision problem. It requires arbitration among multiple drives and goals that may be in play at the same (e.g., securing food versus water) or different levels of behavioural organization (e.g., indulging in a dessert versus dieting)---as well as the selection and control of appropriate action plans; for example, searching, reaching and consuming food. Previous research has highlighted two dimensions of motivated control: one concerns the distinction between a control or ‘cold’ domain (e.g., choice probabilities, plans, action sequences or policies) and a motivational or ‘hot’ domain (e.g., homeostatic drives, incentive values, rewards), where both are essential for learning, planning and behaviour. The other dimension concerns the complexity of the decision problem. In relation to control, it differentiates sensorimotor control (choosing among current affordances) from cognitive or executive control (the temporal coordination of thoughts or actions related to internal goals). In terms of motivation, it distinguishes visceral drives (e.g., eating) from higher-order objectives (e.g., dieting).’ ↩︎

  2. To illustrate the difficulties involved, consider Witherington et al. (2002) on how anticipatory postural adjustment (to maintain balance) develops, or Witherington (2005) on developments in how skillfully infants’ graping actions anticipate contact with an object. ↩︎

  3. According to Frankfurt (1978), ‘the contrast between actions and mere happenings can readily be discerned elsewhere than in the lives of people. There are numerous agents besides ourselves, who may be active as well as passive with respect to the movements of their bodies.’ Further, on his view explications of the distinction between actions and events that merely happen to an agent cannot rely ‘upon concepts which are inapplicable to spiders’ (Frankfurt, 1978, p. 162). ↩︎

  4. There may also be other objections to the Standard Solution based on discoveries about motor representation, and some of these other objections may be inconsistent with the claim that all actions are appropriately related to intentions. ↩︎