Course ÅA May 23-27 2011: Agnes Callard (Chicago): Aristotle and his Followers on Action, Choice and Purpose

Filosofian tutkijakoulun kurssi: Agnes Callard (University of Chicago): Aristotle and his Followers on Action, Choice and Purpose


Graduate course at Åbo Akademi University, May 23-27 2011.

Sign up by e-mail to martin.gustafsson(a) April 30 at the latest.

Course description

Aristotle and his Followers on Action, Choice and Purpose

 Agnes Callard, University of Chicago


The two major schools of contemporary action theory both count Aristotle as their philosophical heir. Davidson and his followers view Aristotle as the origin of a ‘causal’ theory of action: an action is a special kind of event, namely, a bodily movement efficiently caused by a certain kind of mental state.  Anscombe and her followers view Aristotle as the origin of (what we might call) a formal theory of action: an action is an event given its form (or, we can say, formally caused) by the agent’s knowledge of it.  Anyone taking inspiration from Aristotle will leave out or de-emphasize certain aspects of his view; but it is noteworthy when there are parts of Aristotle’s view that everyone deemphasizes.  Aristotle makes much of the distinction between actions which are merely voluntary or intentional on the one hand, and those which are also chosen on the other. This is a distinction of which neither Davidsonians nor Anscombians can find much to say.  Choice (prohairesis), as a species of the voluntary, does not easily find a counterpart in contemporary action theory.  Another feature of Aristotle’s action theory that does not come in for discussion is his special concern with final cause in that context: action is for the sake of an end.  (I wager that if Aristotle heard the Anscombian slogan “practical knowledge is the cause of what it understands”, he would agree, but only because he heard “cause” to mean “final cause.”)  In this class, we will investigate these two recalcitrant features of Aristotelian action theory—that it concerns itself with final causes, and that it concerns itself with choice.  We will try to see whether they open up a reading of Aristotle as not only an ancestor to the two dominant positions in action theory, but perhaps, also, an alternative to them.



Reading List:


Ackrill, J.L., ‘Aristotle on Action’ in his Essays on Plato and Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).


         Anscombe, G.E.M., ‘Thought and Action in Aristotle: What is “Practical Truth”?’ in her Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume One: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 66-77.

________.‘Practical Inference’, in R. Hursthouse, G. Lawrence, & W. Quinn (eds), Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 1-34.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Selections from books II, III, VI)

________. Eudemian Ethics (Selections from book II, VIII)

________. De Anima (Selections from book III)

________. De Motu Animalium (ch. 7)


Callard, A. ‘Aristotle on the Unity of Action’ (unpublished).


Charles, David. Aristotle's Philosophy of Action (London: Duckworth, 1984).


Coope, Ursula, ‘Aristotle on Action’ in Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, Volume 81, Issue 1.


Davidson, Donald.  ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’ in his Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

_______.   ‘How is Weakness of the Will Possible?’ in his Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).


         Ford, Anton ‘Action and Generality’ forthcoming in  Essays on Anscombe's  Intention eds. Ford, Hornsby and Stoutland.


Korsgaard, Christine M. (2008), ‘From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble: Kant and Aristotle on Morally Good Action’ in her The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 174-206.


McDowell, John. ‘Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology’, in Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp. 23-49.

–––. ‘Deliberation and Moral Development in Aristotle's Ethics’, inn The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 41-58.


Mueller, Anselm (1992), ‘Mental Teleology’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 92: 161-83.


Richardson, John, Aristotle’s Teleologies (unpublished).


Thompson, Michael, Life and Action (Harvard University Press, 2008).


Whiting, Jennifer ‘Locomotive Soul’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 2002.