Link Search Menu Expand Document

Solution to the Problem of Action

This section presents a novel attempt to solve to the Problem of Action. This is not intended to convince you that the solution offered is correct, only to provoke further evaluation.

If the slides are not working, or you prefer them full screen, please try this link.


The Problem of Action is the question,

What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (see Philosophical Theories of Action)

The following candidate solution is limited to instrumental actions only. That is, actions which happen in order to bring about outcomes.

Terminology: When an action happens in order to bring about an outcome, it is directed to that outcome. And an outcome to which an action is directed is a goal.

Note that goals are outcomes. For example, the goal of your actions might be to fill Zac’s glass. Goals are therefore not intentions, nor any other kind of mental states.[1]

For an instrumental action to be initiated, sustaned and brought to a successful conclusion, various problems must be solved. These characteristically include:

  • Which outcomes are achievable?
  • For each outcome, which means of achieving it are available?
  • Of the various means of achieving a given outcome, which best balance cost against well-suitedness?
  • Of the achievable outcomes, which best balance cost against expected benefit?
  • Having settled on an outcome and means, when should these be maintained and when should they be abandoned?

Up to this point, the notion of ‘directedness’ has been specified in a narrowly schematic way only, by appeal to the idea that an instrumental action happens in order to being an outcome about. What does this amount to?

One answer is this:

For an event to be directed to an outcome is for it to occur because there is one or more outcome in relation to which problems such as those above have been, or appear to have been, solved.

The idea, then, is that we can specify directedness by appeal to problems solving which is characteristic of action.

Note that in specifying directedness, we did not presuppose a notion of action. (The statement above is about an event being directed to an outcome.) This allows us to propose, without circularity, that:

An action is an event that is directed to an outcome.

This is the solution to The Problem of Action.

This solution avoids the objectons to the Standard Solution which were elaborated in The Problem of Action meets Habitual Processes and in Motor Representation and The Problem of Action.

It is an alternative to the two dominant approaches in philosophy of action, those inspired by Davidson (1980) and those inspired by Anscombe (1957). Accepting this novel solution also involves rejecting both the Causal Theory of Action.

(The Causal Theory of Action might work if, necessarily, all actions involved just one kind of process. The fact that there are at least two kinds of process (see Goal-Directed and Habitual Processes) makes pursuing this theory less clearly sensible.)

As there is no published defence of it, and as it involves such a radical departure from the influential views, the above solution to The Problem of Action should be treated as almost certainly incorrect. Useful if it provokes independent critical thinking; not necessary to consider in essays.

Ask a Question

Your question will normally be answered in the question session of the next lecture.

More information about asking questions.


Causal Theory of Action : According to this view, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361).
directed : For an action to be directed to an outcome is for the action to happen in order to bring that outcome about.
goal : A goal of an action is an outcome to which it is directed.
goal-state : an intention or other state of an agent which links an action of hers to a particular goal to which it is directed.
instrumental action : An action is instrumental if it happens in order to bring about an outcome, as when you press a lever in order to obtain food. (In this case, obtaining food is the outcome, lever pressing is the action, and the action is instrumental because it occurs in order to bring it about that you obtain food.)
You may encounter variations on this definition of instrumental in the literature. For instance, Dickinson (2016, p. 177) characterises instrumental actions differently: in place of the teleological ‘in order to bring about an outcome’, he stipulates that an instrumental action is one that is ‘controlled by the contingency between’ the action and an outcome. And de Wit & Dickinson (2009, p. 464) stipulate that ‘instrumental actions are learned’.
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.’)


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bach, K. (1978). A representational theory of action. Philosophical Studies, 34(4), 361–379.
Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on actions and events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
de Wit, S., & Dickinson, A. (2009). Associative theories of goal-directed behaviour: A case for animalhuman translational models. Psychological Research PRPF, 73(4), 463–476.
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.


  1. It is helpful to distinguish a goal from a goal-state, which is an intention or other state of an agent linking an action to a particular goal to which it is directed. (Some authors use the term ‘goal’ for goal-states rather than outcomes.) A goal is a possible or actual outcome (such as filling a glass with prosecco). A goal-state is a psychological attribute of an agent (such as an intention to fill a glass with prosecco). ↩︎