Faculty of Humanities
Department of Philosophy
THE CAUSAL STRUCTURE OF ACTION
This work is presented as a thesis towards the M.A. degree
This work has been carried out under the supervision of Prof. Marcelo Dascal
"The problem of causality lies at the
foundation of all the sciences which
attempt to provide a systematic ex-
planation of human behavior (such
as economics, sociology,
psychology and history)".
J. Raz, Practical Reasoning
The central question which will be discussed in my work is: What are the
causes which cause, or the reasons which bring about the beginning of an
action? The terms "cause", "reason", "brings about", "beginning", "creation"
and "action" are problematic. They have many meanings and uses which
point to different theories and presuppositions. These terms were used in
domains such as the philosophy of action, the philosophy of science, ethics,
metaphysics, theology, psychology, etc. At this point, I will not define these
terms; I will only present a few examples and show some of the
presuppositions behind them.
Causes and reasons: One of the formulas in everyday language to which
these terms are connected is "P because q".
1. The dam has been destroyed (natural event) because of the heavy rain
2. I bought an umbrella (human action) because of the heavy rain (natural
3. I left the class (human action) because I thought that the teacher doesn't
understand the subject (a proposition).
4. I concluded that the teacher is not an expert (a proposition) because I
thought that he doesn't understand the subject (a proposition).
In the formula, as well as in the examples, the term "because" is ambiguous.
Sometimes "q" is a cause (example 1) and sometimes it is a reason (example
4). It is common to say that the connection between events is causal
(example 1) and the connection between propositions is logico-semantical
(example 4). Thus, we find two "kinds" of because: "causal because" and
"logico-semantical because". Examples 2 and 3, however, are problematic
since there we find a mixture of an event and an action (example 2), or of a
proposition and an action (example 3). What are the kinds of "because" in 2
and 3? 2 is not pure causal as in 1 since we have an intuition that the heavy
rain didn't cause deterministically and exclusively the bringing of an umbrella.
We must at least add my decision to buy an umbrella, because in the same
situation, I could decide to buy a coat. In 3 the "because" relation is not purely
logico-semantical as in 4, since we have an intuition that my opinion (or
thought) about the teacher can be regarded as a reason that caused me to
leave the class. In 3 my opinion had some causal function, it moved my body
out of the class.
The presuppositions which stand behind the problematic explanation of
examples 2 and 3 can be explicated by pointing to the following three
"paradigms" in the philosophy of action:
A. There are no differences between causes and reasons. Either by
reducing causes to reasons (Schopenhauer and, in a sense, Spinoza,
too, both of whom argue that all kinds of "because" are of a logical kind)
or by reducing reasons to causes (radical behaviorists who will say that
all kinds of "because" are of a causal kind).
B. There are differences between causes and reasons of the following kind:
1) I, as an actor, have an experience of my reason while I, as an
observer, can only conclude that "9 is the cause of P" (Taylor, 1974).
2) Reasons are parts of a rule-governed human activity while causes
are not (Wittgenstein).
3) Reasons are usually connected with normativity while causes are
connected with descriptivity (Bar-On, 1975).
I think that this "paradigm" doesn't have a clear answer to the question
of what kinds of "because" occur in examples 2 and 3 (Why?).
C. Actions are connected with events and with propositions. Only an action
can bridge the gap between the physical-causal and the intentional (or
mental)-logical. Thus, the "because" in examples 2 and 3 is of a dual
kind: it is a causal-logical relation (Danto 1976, and mainly Marx,
Bergson, and other philosophers of praxis).
Creation and beginning: The creation of x can be regarded in some theories
as a simple sum of the parts of x, while in other theories as more than the
simple sum of the parts of x. Theories about the beginning have connections
with theories about causes, reasons and creation. Thus, "x began because y"
can mean either that x was created by y, or that at a certain point in time or
space y has triggered an already existing x to appear.
Action: Action is usually distinguished from the following things:
A,a natural event.B, a human movement which was physically caused by a
natural event (man that falls because of a strong wind), or by another human
being, or by a nervous spasm.C, a spontaneous movement of a limb (heart's
beats).D, a human situation (like fear of hunger). Here I characterize an
action only negatively. Since an action is the central concept in my work, I will
characterize it positively throughout my presentation of the different solutions
to the central problem. I will do the same about the presuppositions which
stand behind the different meanings and uses of the term "action". In the
course of my work, actions will be discovered as complex entities of different
kinds. Each kind has a characteristic combination of components and
* * *
I will discuss, compare and criticize the different solutions to the central
problem. The objectives are two-fold: A, to bring together the main points
made in the wide and renewed philosophical discussion, conducted mainly in
the current century, especially after World War II. B, to point to what, in my
opinion, are the most comprehensive and adequate solutions. I conclude my
analysis with an outline for a unified theory of the causal structure and
dynamics of action.
* * *
Chapter 1 includes both a primary clarification of the central question and a
summary of the main answer to it.
In Chapter 2 I begin by introducing Ryle's and Wittgenstein's criticism of
traditional volitional theories of action (and of mentalistic theories in general).
Ryle argues that the theories which claim that volitions are the causes of
actions, are vague and inconsistent.
Wittgenstein sharpened the central problem by asking: What remains from "I
raise my arm" after we subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that
I raise my arm? I see Wittgenstein's question as a version of our central
problem since it can be formulated as: What is the cause (or reason) which
begins the raising of my arm? An answer to Wittgenstein's question can be
that "what remains" is a certain x (The question, of course, is what is this
"x"!!), and this x (reason, intention, experience, etc.) can be the cause which
we are looking for in our central question.
Danto and Davidson were two of the first philosophers who tried to cope with
the challenge of Ryle and Wittgenstein. Danto presents the concept of basic
action in order to avoid the need for causes which begin every action. Basic
actions can be performed or can begin but can not be caused by something.
Davidson answered that reasons can cause actions, although they are not
causes of a physical kind. Reasons are less deterministic causes than
physical causes. By pointing to reasons as the causes of actions, Davidson
can answer most of Ryle's questions. To Wittgenstein he can say that "what
remains" is the reason. Chisholm and Taylor answer to Ryle's and
Wittgenstein's questions by their theories of immanent causality of the agent.
According to their theories, the agent has a special "power" of "immanent
causality". Thus, the agent is the cause of his/her actions.
Nevertheless, we can go on and ask about these three answers. But what is
in a reason, or in an agent, or in a basic action, that causes my limb (or part of
it) to wave, and how the process of this causing happens? I think that this is
analogical to the fruitful question: But what is the atom that can scatter
particles so widely, and how the process of scattering happens? The answers
to these questions are no less than Bohr's theory, which was the beginning of
In Chapter 3, I present Leibniz's solution to the central problem. I argue that
Ryle's criticism and the answers considered in the preceding chapter, were
concerned mainly with the "Cartesian paradigm" in philosophy. But there is a
competitive "Leibnizian paradigm" which was modified by "pre-analytical"
philosophers like Bergson, Husserl and Schutz. Ryle's criticism is a partial one
since it is directed to volitional theories within the "Cartesian paradigm".
Ontologically, Leibniz argues that every body of particle has inherent
movements in different degrees (against Descartes who relied on a strict
dichotomy between the inert and the moving). Epistemologically, he argues
that every body or particle has "small perceptions" in different degrees of
consciousness (against Descartes who relied on the dichotomy between the
mental which is conscious and the physical which is unconscious).
Praxiologically, Leibniz argues that an action can begin or be cause as a
result of combinations of more conscious and less conscious processes and
events (process is a serial and/or structural event). There is no exclusive
cause which begins an action from a "resting situation" (Leibniz directed this
argument against Locke, and I also apply it against Danto), or from a
balanced situation (against Bayle). Leibniz thinks that an action neither begins
nor is created absolutely. It is a result of a gradual process of growth in the
degree of movement and of consciousness. Intentions or volitions alone can
not cause limbs to move. The "mental" (in Descartes' paradigm) is not always
the "mover" of the "physical" and vice-versa. There is a special kind of
connection between the "mental" and the "physical". This connection is
gradual and two-directional. The "mental" is intensified by the growth of
consciousness to the "small perceptions", and the "physical" is intensified by
the growth of the degree of movement. A little growth of the one contributes to
a little growth of the other and vice-versa. Thus, we have here a kind of
In Chapter 4, I present solutions of preanalytical philosophers. Bergson
modifies Lebniz's theory of the small and unconscious perceptions, and
emphasizes movement as a primary quality of every organism. Action is not a
result of intentions or volitions which precede an action (against J.S. Mill).
Philosophers belonging to the "cortesian paradigm" do not investigate action
in its "natural" and everyday context (a person who goes to work, a dancer in
his performances, etc.), but in an "artificial context", typical of an introspective
philosopher or of a scientist in a laboratory (the raising of an arm, an isolated
movement of a finger) or in hospital. In the "natural context" there are a
seriesof movements with many causes before them and with many purposes
towards which these movements are directed. In this context, action is a result
of an emergetic enlargement of a whole which is composed of many
components. It is like an apple (or like drops of rain/ or like a snowball) which
grows gradually as a result of many components and at a certain point falls
from the tree. Of course, our intentions, volitions, reasons, beliefs, etc., are
components in that process. But they are only partial causes. Later, in chapter
7, I shall show how Apostelexplicates this "emergentic entity".
Husserl made an important contribution to the philosophy of action by
emphasizing the importance of Brentano's notion of intentionality. According
to Husserl, the person has an intentional-hierarchical field where the lower
level is directed to the higher level and the higher level "organizes" the lower
level. This structure leads from plurality in the lower levels to a relative unity in
the higher levels. In a given situation, we can find in the higher level a unity
which is the object of intentionality towards which the action is directed and
intended. An action begins after a gradual process of concentration of the
agent from peripheral andunfocussed intentionality to a central and focussed
one, which is directed to the object of intentionality.
Schulz adds social factors to the "Leibnizian paradigm". He emphasized the
importance of the biography of a person and of his society to the causal
structure of his actions, by introducing two central notions: a system of
typicality and a system of relevance.
In chapter 5, I return to the discussion of volitional theories belonging to the
analytical tradition. These are sophisticated volitional theories since they try to
cope with the challenges of Ryle and Wittgenstein.
Goldman's theory is particularly sophisticated since it goes a long way
towards a synthesis between ideas from the analytical philosophy of action
and ideas from preanalytical philosophy of action (especially W. James).
Sellars characterizes action by two factors: A, it is something which is caused
by a volition. But, a volition x to do y will not necessarily cause y; it can cause
another action z. B, violitions are a kind of talk without sound.
Goldman begins by criticizing Sellars' "correspondence theory" which
connects volitions to actions. Goldman argues that: 1, An agent does not fit a
propositional volition (like: "I will do x now".) for every action, or for a "whole"
set of actions. 2, There is a need for distinguishing between propositional
volitions which usually are the focus of the phenomenal field and
nonpropositional volitions which are in the periphery. (In chapter 6, I show that
this distinction is parallel to Searle's distinction between Intention-before-
action and Intention-in-action.) 3, An action can be caused by a primary
volition or by a secondary volition. Primary volition is a kind of memory (which
can be voluntary) of an accidental action which was performed earlier (W.
James called it an Image-Response).
In chapter 6, I discuss Searle's analysis and use of certain concepts from the
phenomenological tradition, especially the concept of Intentionality. He makes
a synthesis of ideas from phenomenology with ideas from analytical
philosophy and clarifies the conceptual background for our central problem.
Searle distinguishes between two kinds of intentions:
A, intention-before-action which is very important for understanding the causal
structure of action. This kind of intention has the property of self-reference of
the representational content of the intention-before-action. This property
enables the agent to begin.
B, Intention-in-action which is less explicit than the first kind of action by
ordering himself ("self-order").
Only combinations of all three components: intentional experience, body
movement, and an external event (like the falling of a stone), can be regarded
as an action. The existence of only one or two components does not generate
an action. A lack of closeness between the content of the intention and the
description of the action (movement + event, which is caused by this intention)
makes the process to be a non-action, according to Searle.
Dascal and Gruengard think that not only semantics (closeness between
content and description) can be used as a criterion for demarcation between
action and non-action, but also syntax and intonation. They have also
extended the domain of the reference of intentionality from references to
intnetional objects to references to intentional subjects.
I begin Chapter 7 by presenting Apostel's simple model of action, by means of
which he begins to explicate the causal structure of action. Apostel modifies
some of Searle's ideas by his analysis of non-verbal contents (pictorial) of
intentions and by pointing to the dynamical character of intentions.
Intentions, reasons, volitions, etc, are only partial causes of an action. Only
combinations of many partial causes can cause an action in a natural context
(Bergson). The relations between intentions and limbs and between limbs and
objects are like relations between instrument and material (e.g. a hammer and
a wall). Only when certain combinations of partial causes which serve as
instruments are directed to certain materials, a coherent structure of field or
gestalt can be created (coherent structure is a structure which, at a certain
point, has no "conflicts"; e.g., when, in a given situation we don't have a
feeling of hunger and a reason or a will to be thin). Only a coherent structure
can cause an action according to the following scheme:
In a similar way to a given electric field which can organize particles of metal
in a characteristic structure in space, the intentional field can organize and
combine intentions, beliefs, volitions, feelings, etc, in a characteristic structure
in a certain situation. Among the constraints and causes of the combinations
of the intentional field there are reasons, roles, and the self.
Apostel does not define exactly how constraint x causes combination y. I think
that these are very complex relations and connections, which future research,
using statistical and/or fuzzy methods, will clarify.
From the point of view of the analysis of Searle and Apostel, the previous
theories seem to be partial solutions to the central problem, i.e., "partial
causes". Some of the theories see only the "tree" (volutional theories) and
others see only the "forest" (agent theories). Apostel's view is a mereological
one which investigates the relations between wholes and their parts in two
I. The levels of the objects of research which are the actions, their
structure, and their causes:
Here the parts are intentions, actions, volitions, reasons, limbs, objects,
etc.,and the whole is the person. The mereological analysis enables Apostel
to investigate action not in a dichotomic way but in a hierarchical one. The
whole in level n functions as a part in relation to level n+1. In the following
scheme we can see that intention-before-action (IBA) can
Function as a whole in comparison to some intention-in-action (IIA), and
simultaneously as a part in comparison to the agent. We can continue
hierarchy up and down. The person can function as a part in comparison to
the family, and a family as a part to society, etc. IIA can also function as a
whole in comparison to its sub-intentions (as Searle showed), and sub-
intentions to synaptic transfers, etc. The question of the upper and the lower
limits has been discussed in chapters 6, 7 and 8. This hierarchial structure is
connected to the complexity and heterogenity of the structure of action. Ryle,
for example, writes:
"the higher-grade dispositions of people
with which this inquiry is largely
concerned are, in general, not single
track dispositions but, . . . , indefinitely
These characteristics of the structure of action enable the person to be
flexible and 'creative' in his actions. In a given situation, for example, a person
can have, in an organized way, in level n–1: a hand, an intention, a volition
and a representation. A certain reason can function in level n as an organizer.
Apostel closes the discussion of the "object level" by defining the connection
between person and action: An agent a has an intentioni and he performs
behavior b which realizesi, if the personality of a (the organized and directed
gestalt) causes the organization of I and if the connection between the
different parts of the personality of acauses this intention to be executed by
the body of a.
II. The methodological level of Apostel'smereological discussion:
Most of the previous theories can be combined as parts of a
comprehensive theory (as a whole). This theory will regard a person as a
whole with the following parts: agent, thinker, user of symbols, receiver of
social roles, user of tools, etc. By this comprehensive and synthetic theory,
Apostel leads to what I call a universal progmatics or a philosophical theory of
the person which includes: 1, pragmatics of action that investigates the
relations between actions, intentions, etc., and the person, and through the
person to the world. 2, Semantics of action that investigates the relations
between actions, intentions, etc. and the world (without reference to the
person). This semantics can include semantics of language (or of symbols)
which investigates the relations between representations (which can be parts
of intentions) and the world. 3, Syntax of action which investigates the
relations between actions, intentions, reasons, etc. (without reference to the
world or to the person).
4, Mereology which investigates the formal relations between parts and
5, Logic which will be adequate for discussing actions, intentions, and other
extralinguistic entities.6, Theory of causality which will investigate the relations
between events, actions and persons.7, Theory of time and change
(Nowakowska's theory, 1981).8, Theory of personality which will integrate
existing theories from psychology and phenomenology.
In chapter 8, I outline a unified-procedural theory of action which will integrate
some of the ideas from the previous chapters. Procedures are a kind of rituals
which organize physical, linguistic and intentional elements in a hierarchical,
directional, dynamical and modular way. In a given procedure we can find in
an organized way: intentions, wills, reasons, unconscious processes,
intentional objects and subjects, etc. In the structure of a procedure, level n
can function as a tool which directs the material in level n-1. The structure is
dynamical because what functions as a tool for purpose p1 can "change" and
become material for purpose p2. Thus, the structure is also modular (as in
modular furniture where a shelf of a library can function as a table or can be
used as a part of a closet).
Before presenting the outline for a procedural theory, I have summarized the
findings of my work about physical actions, linguistic (or semiatic) actions, and
"epistemic actions". I try to explicate their structure and their components.
I think I found the common structure of semiatical and physical actions by
using the ideas of Dascal and Gruengard for extending the scope of the
intentionality from objects to subjects. Thus, not only action is dual but
In the case of self-intentionality (which includes self-reference) the
intentionality is directed to my self or to my body (subject or object). Thus, the
causes of an action can be the "other" (or a group of "others", e.g., society), or
the physical world, or myself.
My own intentions can also be used as instruments which can be directed to
three causes (the physical, the social and myself), which can be regarded as
materials of actions.
Thus, a person is a dual being in two aspects: A, He can move himself and
can be moved by causes. B, He is an object and a subject. As an object he
can take part in causal processes of a physical kind. As a subject he can take
part in causal processes of some other kind ("logico-semantical" in terms of
Danto (1976), "rule governed", Wittgenstein (1953), "psychological", Davidson
(1974), "immanent", Chisholm (1976) and Taylor (1974), "intentional",
Brentano, Husserl and Searle (1981), "normative" Bar-On (1975).
internal self-causality I raise my arm I intend to change my
opinion about x
External physical or
something raise my
changes my opinion about
I conclude the discussion dealing with the human duality, which is related also
to the issue of freedom and determinism by quoting Goffman:
". . . face-to-face interaction provides an
admirable context for executing a double
stance – the individual's task actions un-
rebelliously adhere to the official
definition of the situation, while gestural
activity that can be sustained
simultaneously and yet non-interferingly
shows that he was not agreed to having
all of himself defined by what officially is