Habitual Actions and Intentionality

This dissertation is an investigation of the intentionality of habitual actions. In recent years, habitual actions became the object of important debates in the philosophy of action, as it has been proposed that they might challenge a widely accepted theory of action: The Causal Theory of Action. According to this theory, what distinguishes actions from mere happenings is that actions are appropriately caused by the agent’s psychological states – beliefs, desires, or intentions. Such mental states do not seem to play a significant role in the performance of habitual actions, which are typically executed without the agent having in mind what he or she is doing, and even with the mind busy with other more complex tasks, such as organizing the day, planning the week, remembering an old conversation or wondering what to do on New Year’s Eve.  Yet, as we will see, there are good reasons to think that habitual actions are indeed actions, as opposed to mere behaviors. The purpose of this dissertation is to address the issue of whether habitual actions are intentional actions. In doing this, I will also discuss what makes an action intentional, what grants habitual actions the status of actions, and what the intentionality of habitual actions, or lack thereof, implies for the Causal Theory of Action as a general theory of action.

The dissertation comprises four chapters. In the first chapter, I will provide a characterization of habits and habitual actions which distinguishes them, respectively, from similar kinds of dispositions and behaviors. I will argue that habits are acquired dispositions to perform certain actions in certain situations to which they become associated through repetition, which are not associated with the strong desires or urges. And, as I will argue, habitual actions are actions explained by the agent’s habits whose performance involves a reduced need for mental and physical effort, but yet is controllable by the agent and preserves a connection to the agent’s goals and intentions that underlay the development of the habits with them associated.

In the second chapter, I will discuss the challenge that habitual actions pose to the Causal Theory of Action. Here I will argue that habitual actions are not caused by the agent’s intentions. To do this, I will discuss three arguments, which appeal, in turn, to the phenomenology of habitual actions, to habitual action slips, and to the performance of habitual actions which are in conflict with the agent’s motives. I will propose then an alternative explanation for habitual actions which does not appeal to causation by the agent’s psychological states, but rather to the agent’s habits as dispositions to perform certain actions in the situation to which they become associated through repetition and to the role of the situation in triggering the activation of such dispositions.

In the third chapter, I will explore the relationship between habitual and skilled actions. I will discuss the Problem of Subsidiary Actions which skilled activities pose for the Causal Theory of Action, and I will argue that many of the subsidiary actions involved in the performance of skilled actions are habitual actions and as such, in line with what I argued in the second chapter, they do not necessarily require causation by the agent’s psychological states. Considerations about the process of habituation and that of skill acquisition will play a fundamental role in my argument.

Finally, in the conclusive chapter of this dissertation, I will address in further depth the issue of the intentionality of habitual actions and of their status as actions, as well as its implications with respect to the validity of the Causal Theory of Action as a general theory of action. I will discuss here two views of habitual actions, which are bound to different implications with respect to the intentionality of such actions. According to one view, habitual actions are intentional actions in virtue of being guided or controlled by the agent; while, according to the other view, habitual actions are non-intentionalactions associated with a particular phenomenology of agency, which grants them the status of actions. I will show then that the two views are in large part compatible one with the other, and I will try to bring together the advantages of each of them by sketching my own proposal, according to which habitual actions are non-intentional controlled actions. This proposal provides a way of accounting for the agency and reduced intentionality of habitual actions, while also leaving space for the Causal Theory as a theory of intentional action.


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