In this essay I will be attempting to draw out the distinction between an action and a happening. Beginning with a definition of both an action and a happening, and moving swiftly onto an example to show how these definitions are used. I will be looking at action theories, all the while looking at refutations to each theory. As well as case studies which draw out those problems. I will then be attempting to sum up my findings.
So to begin: what is the difference between an action and a happening? An action is commonly described as ‘the process of doing something to achieve an aim.’ (1) A happening is usually described as ‘an event or occurrence’, (2) while happen is described as to ‘take place by chance or as a result of something’. (3)
From this we can see an evident difference in the fact that all actions contain happenings, but not all happenings have to contain actions. When we try to make distinction between an action and a happening we seem to think of it as Moya says: ‘[W]e tend to think of the contrast between intentional actions and mere happenings, not of the contrast between unintentional actions and mere happenings. This points to a special privilege of intentional actions that will reveal itself as an important insight into the nature of agency.’ (4) For example, if one is to be suddenly struck by a falling rock then one would say that this has happened to us, but we would not accuse the rock of an action or intention towards making the happening happen, nor of the aim of striking us. If however, our friend pushed the rock to fall and strike us, we would say that the rock striking us was a happening while the fact that it fell was caused by an action with intention: that of the friend; the agent with an aim. (5)
It is only when we make the distinction (or at least try to) between an action and a happening from an autonomous agent that it becomes complicated. Whether a person accidentally hits someone, or did it on purpose is usually intuitively obvious to us via body language. (6) But, when we attempt to reduce this to simple Science it becomes extremely difficult to make sense of the difference. It seems obvious to us that there is a difference, but exactly what is that difference is what I will be attempting to discuss and assess here.
An attempt to make a distinction between action and happening is the basic action theory. (7) This theory says that what makes an action a basic action is an action that is not performed by performing any other action. (8) So for example, to want and desire water and to take the water to drink is a basic action in the sense that all are simultaneous and identical actions. The problem with this theory is very simple: if a basic action is an action that is identical and simultaneous, then that ignores all actions that lead up to that action, (9) this results in the infinite regress (10) of basic actions never actually being basic.
This is succinctly said by Moya:
‘My moving my arm cannot count as a factual or informative explanation of that happening’s occurrence, for they are logically related. We must find some different action to explain that happening. But if this action in turn has a specific happening as an essential part of it, this quickly leads to the need for performance of an infinite number of actions in order to perform any action at all. And, since we are not able to perform an infinite number of actions, we do not act at all.’ (11)
A theory which tries to get round this problem by saying that each action can be described as several acts but is still one action is the Identity theory. Identity theory says that me lifting my arm can be described in many ways, but is only one action, rather than many actions combined to make one act. (12)
If all actions are identical to their acts then all actions are A, and the act is also A. But can this be? (13) Let’s look at an example. A man is out hunting: his intention is to scare a bird into flight so he can shoot it down. He hears a noise in the woods; a click of a branch. He readies his aim and fires: (1) he fires his gun to kill a bird, (2) his finger pulls the trigger, (3) the hammer of the gun triggers the propelling of the bullet, (4) he shoots a man going for a walk through the woods. Are all of these actions identical with the act and intention? While act (1), (2) and (3) are indeed actions, (4) however, Is not. (4) Is a happening dependant on the action. (4) is not an identical action to (1), (2) and (3). This man’s accidental shootings of this innocent walker did not cause (1), (2) and (3) either. (14) According to identity theory (1), (2), (3) and (4) are identical and are one action described as four different acts. But, this cannot be true as (4) could hardly be considered an intentional action, and most would classify it as a happening, rather than an action. (15)
To move on from this, it would be wise to consider the question Wittgenstein once asked: ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact my arm goes up from the fact my arm was raised.’ (16) The answer to this seems to be brain activity which is more active than if it was a nervous twitch. That is to say that the act is more complicated when willed. From this we can get a simplified distinction between an action and a happening. While actions do involve a happening, a happening is possible for everything within existence. A rock, a star, a human and a cat can all have things happen to them, and can even make things happen with no distinct action. But, and this is the distinction: an inanimate object can never perform an action, only a living being can. A ray of light happens to hit a plant, a plant can move towards and further into it; an action. While a rock can indeed fall off of the top of a mountain, but can it throw itself? It seems the answer is no. Consciousness of some form is required for an answer, and so it seems is intention.
This intention is where the volitional theory concentrates, and also what separates it from basic action theory. (17) The volitional theorist believes that an action takes place where there is intention or trying. (18) So for example if a man is paralysed and is attempting to move his now paralysed arm, there is a trying. (19) This trying or willing (20) is the cause of the action to a volitional theorist. (21)
The problem with volitional theory is that it is dualistic. It uses the brain state to be what actions are, even without the action taking place. This trying is the core of an action, in a sense that the trying transcends the physical realm and becomes a pure mental effort. (22) While the physicalist approaches to volitional theory suffer the problem of infinite regress. The problem with this view is that Scientific experiments seem to suggest this is illusory. (23)
We tend to think of a sneeze or a twitch as something thrown up in us, forced upon us, a happening we are forced to have happen to us. But, are desires really willed and chosen? Or thrown upon us in the same way? If we are determined (and this possibility must be taken seriously) what are our desires, and desires about desires but just another thing pre-determined for us to partake in? Using this question we can move onto an experiment.
In 1985 a Scientist named Libet performed an experiment to test what exactly this willing in action was. (24) He measured brain activity when the agent chose to act and the reaction time between choice and action. He found that the decision to act, and thus the trying, came after the action was being put into action. (25) This suggests that the feeling of trying could in fact be illusory. The speed at which we perform such a thing gives us the idea that we cause our own actions. (26) Libet also noticed that when the brain activity was activated it could also be suppressed and then flat lined. Meaning that while an agent may not be able to control the willing of an action, they may be able to cancel an action. (27)
My concern here is not whether free will exists, but whether volitional theory is correct. And the evidence via neuroscience seems to suggest it is a fiction of our own mind’s habit of dualistic thinking. (28)
So what do these theories do to help with the distinction between an action and a happening? Well, other than refuting each other it seems little has actually been achieved. Meaningful actions seem to be able to offer more than all theories mentioned above can: meaningful action theory says that most actions have results, while the result matching the intention does not affect its status as an action. The real element of action is the causing or bringing about of an event by an agent – willed or not. This avoids the problem of basic actions which results in infinite regress. And also avoids the problem of volitional theory which creates a body and mind divide akin to dualism.
So what exactly are meaningful actions? They are actions with intentions and aims, a commitment to a set future event, achieved or not. (29) In this sense bodily actions are not necessary. We commit ourselves to do things, and they do not just happen to me. Socialisation and concepts are required. For example, for someone to checkmate someone as an action they must understand the rules of the game and thus win by committing themselves to the rules of the game. A child who randomly moves pieces and manages to win has not committed the action of winning. Its winning or losing is a happening according to the meaningful action theorists. So it seems a meaningful action is necessarily intentional. When we investigate this we can discover a happening but not an action. ‘We know what we are doing in a non-observational way’. (30) In this sense, intention is committing oneself to meet a standard/future action. While future intentions can only be held by agents that are socialised, and that make plans and can understand rules and norms. (31)
While much of this makes logical sense to us as human beings, there is also a problem here that only comes through if we attempt to step out of ourselves for a moment. Do we really need to be socialised or have plans to make actions? We may commit actions with no socialisation and plans, while these actions may not be judged ‘meaningful’ by cultural norms, does that mean it is not an action, and is a mere happening instead? I do not think so.
To Harry Frankfurt a spider (32) walking across a floor to escape being stood on has an intention, and the walking can be classed as a first order desire because of the teleological aim being employed by the agent (the spider). To Frankfurt this ought to be classed as a first order desire, while a second order desire is one that the agent is aware of and forms a desire about a desire. Thus kicking a ball into a goal or moving a chess piece to a checkmate when one wished and desired to score a goal, while also wishing and desiring to have the desire to score a goal, and so on. (33)
Considering this view of Frankfurt’s I both agree and disagree with him. I do believe that the spider’s action of escaping being crushed by the feet, by moving across the floor is transformed from an instinct and defence, to a second order desire, which Frankfurt would disagree with. However, the bias against other animals (humans are an animal) making actions is not my concern here. Following this logic (and this is where I depart with Frankfurt’s opinion), a sneeze or a flinch is not a mere happening, it is a first order desire transformed into an action taken by an agent without full awareness of the desire or aim, although they lack the second order desire to have the desire to desire to sneeze: which could be used as an argument that the sneeze is a happening, rather than an action. The way to get around this in my opinion is to work off of Frankfurt.
Using Frankfurt’s first and second order desires as a prototype, I propose we make a different kind of distinction between actions. Rather than mere happening, or two orders of desires. I shall call these lower and higher level actions. These lower and higher level actions are based on the amount of awareness and brain activity used to perform these ‘actions’. In this sense, the man who is asked to hold a vase by the woman who he dislikes and ends up dropping it by accident, is still performing an action: a lower level action because it is not consciously intentional. While the man who is asked to hold a vase, and drops it on the floor exactly because he dislikes the woman is performing a higher level action. Both lower and higher level actions are done by an agent, the difference between the two is the amount of control and intention placed in the action. A lower level action is one that the agent performs but has no real intention or aim: a sneeze or flinch. A higher level action is one that the agent performs and has an intention and/or aim. Thus, the difference between an action and a happening can be reduced down to inanimate objects and animate organisms.
This distinction between inanimate objects and animate organisms can be drawn out a little more. An inanimate object can only ever have happenings happen to it, and also only make happenings happen to others; for example, the rock falling onto someone’s head. While animate organisms can have happenings happen to them, It cannot make mere happenings happen to others. In this sense an animate organism always commits actions and happenings spontaneously. A sneeze serves a bodily purpose, and thus is an action of a lower level. If one is to take up again the case of the hunter who I used in an example earlier who accidentally shot the walker: he committed three higher level actions and one lower level action (that of accidentally shooting a man). Even if someone else was to control your body, you would still be committing lower level actions, as your body would still be mechanically reacting and acting as if you were committing to the actions taking place. Although the one controlling your body would be committing the higher level actions via your body. In the same sense a stroke could be considered as an action as it results from the stimulation of the motor cortex of the brain, but it would be defined as a lower level action as it contains no intention other than your body forcing an action upon you.
This is in no way solves the problem of action and happenings. But, I do think that the meaning of an action should be expanded to include ‘happenings’ taken and made to happen by an agent regardless of known aims or desires. If an action is taken with aims and intentions (that of shooting a bird in a hunt), and there results a happening which does not conform to the aim and intention; I think it is somewhat odd to reduce that accident to a mere happening. Rather than to a lower level action. The accident was the product of an aim and intention performed by an agent. That accident, if reduced to a mere happening is taken out of its context and isolated into a mere happening purely because its result didn’t conform to its aim. This seems incorrect to me. It ignores the holistic nature of cause and effect.
1. Oxford English dictionary. Edited by Maurice Waite. (Seventh edition, Oxford university press, 2012.)
4. Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.2 The search for agency. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 11.
5. Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. Introduction. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 2.
6. ‘This view of certain actions as the bringing about of a happening or as causing something to happen has wide acceptance.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.2 The search for agency. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 13.
7. See Donald Davidson’s Action, reasons, and causes essay published in Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60 (1963), pp. 685-700.
8. ‘Basic actions are, so to speak, the source of agency; they transmit agency to other things we do. That is why Danto says that ‘if there are any actions at all, there are basic actions.” – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.3 Basic actions. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Pages 14-15.
9. ‘Therefore, we face a dilemma: either the cause of that happening is the agent himself, and we embrace a conception of action in terms of agent-causation, or the cause of that happening is another happening, and we get very close to dissolving actions into mere sequences of happenings.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.3 Basic actions. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 16.
10. ‘[P]ulling the trigger essentially involves a happening, namely the trigger’s getting pulled, in the same sense in which firing the gun does. If the trigger does not get pulled, it cannot be true that someone pulled the trigger. And then we could apply to ‘someone pulled the trigger’ the same argument as to ‘someone fired the gun.’ And we would have to find another action such that the person in question brought it about that trigger got pulled by performing that action. But then, if the same argument applies to this other action, we are clearly facing an infinite regress, for we would have to perform an infinite number of actions in order to perform any action at all. And, if this is so, we do not act at all, for we cannot perform an infinite number of actions.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.2 The search for agency. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 13.
11. Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. Introduction. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 3.
12. ‘Suppose that John does each of the following things (all at the same time): (1) he moves his hand, (2) he frightens away a fly, (3) he moves his queen to king-knight-seven, (4) he checkmates his opponent, (5) he gives his opponent a heart attack, and (6) he wins his first chess game ever. Has John here performed six acts?’ – Alvin I. Goldman, A theory of human action. Chapter one, Acts. 1. The identity thesis. (Princeton university press, 1970.) Page 1.
13. ‘In general, if X and Y are identical, then X must have all and only the properties that Y has. We shall find, however, that some of the pairs of acts which are alleged to be identical do not share all the same properties.’ – Alvin I. Goldman, A theory of human action. Chapter one, Acts. 1. The identity thesis. (Princeton university press, 1970.) Page 2.
14. ‘If A and A’ are one and the same action, then they are one and the same event. And if they are the same event, one would expect them, if they are caused at all, to be caused by the same set of events or states of affairs. If we find, to the contrary, that A and A’ have somewhat different sets of causes or causal factors, that would give us reason to conclude that A and A’ are not the same after all.’ – Alvin I. Goldman, A theory of human action. Chapter one, Acts. 1. The identity thesis. (Princeton university press, 1970.) Page 3.
15. ‘According to the identity thesis, these acts are supposed to be one and the same act. But are they really identical? Consider the act of John’s killing Smith and consider the event consisting in the gun’s going off. Is it true to say that this act caused this event, that John’s killing Smith caused the gun to fire? Surely not. It would be extremely odd to say that John’s killing smith caused the gun to go off. But now consider John’s act of pulling the trigger. It is certainly true of this act that it caused the event in question, I.e., that it caused the gun to fire. Thus, John’s pulling the trigger has the property of causing the gun to fire, whereas John’s killing Smith does not have the property of causing the gun to fire. However, since one of these acts has a property which the other lacks, they cannot be one and the same act.’ – Alvin I. Goldman, A theory of human action. Chapter one, Acts. 1. The identity thesis. (Princeton university press, 1970.) Page 2.
16. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations. Philosophical investigations I, 621. (Blackwell, 1997.) Page 161.
17. See Hugh McCann’s essay Volition and basic action published in The philosophical review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 451-473), accessed: 25-01-2016 15:16 UTC.
18. See Brian O’Shaughnessy’s Trying (As the mental “pineal gland”) from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70, No. 13, On trying and intending (Jul. 19, 1973), pp.365-386. Accessed:
25-01-2016 15:23 UTC.
19. ‘Much is known about the control of voluntary actions from experiments on both humans and other animals. When any voluntary act is carried out, such as flexing the wrist, many areas of the brain are involved. Roughly, the sequence is something like this: activity begins in the prefrontal region which sends connections to the premotor cortex. This programmes the actions, and sends connections to the primary motor cortex. The motor cortex then sends out the instructions that move the muscles.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. Do we have free will? (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 82.
20. See A. I. Melden’s essay Willing published in Philosophical review, Vol. 69 (1960), pp.475-84).
21. ‘[W]hen moving our finger is an action, we bring about the movement of our finger by willing it to move or trying to move it.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 1, Actions and happenings. 1.3 Basic actions. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 17.
22. ‘The new volitional theory has not been able to account for the possibility of the distinction with which we began, namely the distinction between actions and mere happenings. It has not been able to identity action that do not essentially involve the occurrence of happenings. If volitions and tryings are not physical, we face the problem of interactionism: how can purely mental acts cause physical happenings? If, to avoid this problem, tryings are conceived as physical (Hornsby), then they involve essentially physical happenings or they are even simply identified with physical happenings, so that the distinction between actions and happenings has been destroyed. So far, then, the new volitional theory has not been able to solve the regress-problem. Looking for basic actions at deeper and deeper levels, it has found only further happenings which cause our bodies to move. So far, its difference from the old volitional theory has been shown to be a mere appearance.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 2. The new volitional theory. 2.4 Summary. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 29.
23. ‘The British neurosurgeon William Grey (1910-1977) had patients with electrodes implanted in their motor cortex as part of their treatment, and he investigated what happened when he asked them to control a slide projector. In some conditions, they could press a button, whenever they liked, to see the next slide. In others, Grey Walter took the output from their brain, amplified it, and used that signal to change the slide. The patients were quite perturbed. They said that just as they were about to press the button, the slide changed all by itself. Even though they were actually in control, they did not have the feeling of willing. Whatever else this tells us, it certainly shows that feelings of will can sometimes be wrong.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. The feeling of willing. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 93.
24. ‘In 1985, Libet reported an experiment that is still argued about decades later. He asked the following question: When a person spontaneously and deliberately flexes their wrist, what starts the action off? Is it the conscious decision to act, or is it some unconscious brain process? To find out, he asked subjects to perform the wrist flexion at least 40 times, at times of their own choosing, and measured the following three things: the time at which the action occurred, the beginning of brain activity in motor cortex, and the time at which they consciously decided to act.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. The timing of conscious acts. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 86.
25. ‘Libet found that the decision to act, W, came about 200 milliseconds (one-fifth of a second) before the action; but the RP began about 350 millisecond before that, or about 550 milliseconds before the action. In other words, the brain processes planning the movement began over one-third of a second before the person had the conscious desire to move. In brain terms this is a very long time. A lot of neural processing must have happened before the person consciously decided to move.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. Do we have free will? (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 87.
26. ‘Psychologist Daniel Wegner likens experiences of conscious will to other judgements of causality. He proposes that free will is an illusion caused by making a big mistake. This illusion happens in three stages (though they may all occur very fast). First, our brain begins its planning for an action. Second, this brain activity gives rise to thoughts about that action. Third, the action happens and hey presto – we jump to the conclusion that our conscious thoughts caused the action.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. The illusion of conscious will. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 96.
27. ‘He had noticed that sometimes his subjects said they had aborted their movement just before it happened. So he carried out another experiment to test this and showed that in these cases the RP began as normal, but then flattened out and disappeared about 200 milliseconds before the action was due to happen. From this he argued for the existence of a ‘conscious veto’. Consciousness could not initiate the wrist flexion, he said, but it could act to prevent it. In other words, although we do not have free will, we do have ‘free won’t’.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. Do we have free will? (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 89.
28. ‘Not only do we attribute desires and intentions to others, but we suppose that we have an inner self who has the same kinds of desires and intentions and who make things happen. So when we get the feeling of having willed something, it is the feeling that ‘I’ did it. As far as evolution is concerned, it does not matter that the centre of will is a fiction, as long as it is a useful fiction.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. The illusion of conscious will. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 94.
29. ‘If the performing of meaningful actions involves commitments, we can begin to understand why meaningful actions are pure actions, essentially involving no happenings. Part of the point in conceiving some actions as the bringing about of happenings is that these happenings could take place as mere effects of other happenings. But there is no specific happening whose occurrence is necessary for an action of signalling for a turn to be performed. Now, a signalling for a turn is essentially an action in that it invokes a commitment to make the turn, and a commitment is not a happening nor a fortiori a happening that could take place as an effect of other happenings: it is essentially actional, it has to be done by an agent, and by an agent who is conscious of his or her being so.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 4. Meaningful action. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Pages 46-47.
30. See Anscombe’s essay Intention (1957).
31. ‘Meaningful actions imply, then, the existence of subjects able to commit themselves to do things in the future. I shall contend that the notion of commitment is essential to our notion of agency and to the important sense of the distinction between actions and happenings. It constitutes an essential part of our idea of ourselves as agents, as beings who are able to change the world and not mere victims of its evolution. And the reason why it cannot be accounted for in terms of basic actions is that it is a normative notion. If I signal for a turn and do not turn, I am doing something wrong. And nothing in the natural ability of human beings for spontaneous and teleological movement can account for this evaluation.’ – Carlos J. Moya, The philosophy of action: an introduction. 4. Meaningful action. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 46.
32. Harry Frankfurt’s spider example taken from Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy at:
Accessed on Monday 14th March 2016, 21:31.
Action: First published Mon Mar 18, 2002; substantive revision Wed Apr 4, 2012.
33. First and second order desires taken from Harry G. Frankfurt’s Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Read and taken from The journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan, 14, 1971), pp. 5-20. Published by Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
Accesses on 02/02/2009 18:02.
– Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness: a very short introduction. (Oxford university press, 2005.)
– Danto, Arthur C.. Analytical philosophy of action. (Cambridge university press, 1973.)
– Goldman, Alvin I.. A theory of human action. (Princeton university press, 1970.)
– Moya, Carlos J.. The philosophy of action: an introduction. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.)
– Oxford English dictionary. Edited by Maurice Waite. (Seventh edition, Oxford university press, 2012.)
– Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical investigations. (Blackwell, 1997.)