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Philosophical action theory is concerned with conjectures about the processes causing intentional (wilful) human bodily movements of more or less complex kind. This area of thought has attracted strong interest of philosophers ever since Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Third Book). Increasingly, considerations of action theory were taken up by scholars in the social sciences. With the advent of psychology and later neuroscience, many conjectures of action theory are now subject to empirical testing.

A basic action theory typically describes behaviour as the result of an interaction between an individual agent and a situation. Individual desires come together with beliefs about how desires can be fulfilled under given circumstances. The process of choice leads to the enaction of a behaviour strategy which promises optimum outcomes in the light of all personal desires.

Such a theory of prospective rationality underlies much of economics and other social sciences within the more sophisticated framework of Rational Choice. However, action theory often goes beyond arguments on human rational deliberation about the best means to achieve known ends. The long-standing notion of habit implies the immediate activation of a learned behaviour pattern in familiar situations without rational scrutiny of its foreseeable consequences. Similarly, reflexes as the intuitive, biologically founded choice of behaviour strategies bypasses reasoning. Furthermore, central concepts like consciousness, emotion, weakness of will, morality, rules and reasons for action occupy differing roles in the multitude of treatises on action theory.

While action theorists generally employ the language of causality when arguing about factors and processes preceding human behaviour, the issue of full causal determination has been central to controversies about the meaning of free will.

Conceptual discussions also revolve around a precise definition of action in philosophy. Scholars may disagree on which bodily movements fall under this category and how complex actions involving several steps to be taken and diverse intended consequences are to be summarised or decomposed.

Scholars of action theory


  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: "What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" (From: L. Wittgenstein: "Philosophical Investigations §621)

See also


  • de:Handlungstheorie

is:Athafnafræði fr:philosophie de l'action