Universität Wien FIND

180138 SE Metaphysics of Agency (2021W)

5.00 ECTS (2.00 SWS), SPL 18 - Philosophie
Prüfungsimmanente Lehrveranstaltung


Hinweis: Ihr Anmeldezeitpunkt innerhalb der Frist hat keine Auswirkungen auf die Platzvergabe (kein "first come, first served").


max. 30 Teilnehmer*innen
Sprache: Englisch


Termine (iCal) - nächster Termin ist mit N markiert

Montag 11.10. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 18.10. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 25.10. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 08.11. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 15.11. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 29.11. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 06.12. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 13.12. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 10.01. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 17.01. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 24.01. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital
Montag 31.01. 13:15 - 14:45 Digital


Ziele, Inhalte und Methode der Lehrveranstaltung


How do actions fit into the natural world? This question prompts a counter-question: Why, actually, should actions not fit into the natural world? As it happens, attempts made in contemporary analytic action theory to naturalise agency face serious difficulties. These difficulties are linked to ontological or metaphysical beliefs standardly held by action theorists about agency, agents, nature and causation.
Are actions mental events that supervene upon physical events? Can we provide causal explanations of actions? If so, are actions, qua events, caused by other events, namely by those that, under a mental description, qualify as reasons, as Donald Davidson has suggested? Or are actions rather caused by agents, as the so-called agent-causalists claim? Is natural causation best understood as event causation in accordance with a mechanistic concept of nature? What is mental causation and is it possible at all? Are agents substances or processes? Are there non-human agents, such as animals or robots?
In this Master course, we will discuss these and other questions on the basis of classic and recent readings in analytic action theory. The overall objective is an introduction to action theory. The specific aim is to uncover the metaphysics behind action theory, and to understand how different metaphysical theories of agency, together with broader metaphysical outlooks, give rise to different views of the possibility to naturalise agency. In doing so we will also touch upon related debates, for instance, debates on free will, the mind-body problem and moral responsibility, and we will engage with some empirical studies, in particular in cognitive science and biology.


Students are asked to read, critically assess and discuss key texts in the theory of action. Students will acquire the necessary conceptual resources to analyse and criticise different theoretical positions in this area, particularly with respect to underlying metaphysical commitments. Students are encouraged to develop their critical and analytic skills in individual research.


Close reading and critical discussion; short presentations; discussion summaries; exposé of a seminar paper; seminar paper.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, the seminar sessions will take place digitally as video conferences via BigBlueButton or Zoom. Short presentations and discussion summaries are to be uploaded on Moodle before each session.

Short presentations and discussion summaries will be assigned in the first session. Syllabus and seminar readings will be made available on Moodle in due time.

The seminar will be held in English.

Art der Leistungskontrolle und erlaubte Hilfsmittel

short presentation/discussion report (to be uploaded on Moodle); exposé of the seminar paper (due on 5th December 2021); seminar paper (due on 13th February 2022).

Mindestanforderungen und Beurteilungsmaßstab


• Presence in class (no more than 1 absence tolerated)
• Active participation in classroom discussion
• Short presentation or discussion report
• Exposé of the seminar paper (500 words)
• Seminar paper of 7,000 words minimum and 8,000 words maximum (including footnotes, excluding bibliography)

To pass the seminar you must (i) meet all requirements listed above AND (ii) achieve a pass grade (= 4) in the seminar paper by obtaining at least 40 out of 90 points.

If conditions (i) and (ii) are met, the final grade will be determined by your required contributions to the seminar sessions (comprising both presentation/discussion report and active participation in classroom discussion; weight together: 10%, or 10 points) and the grade of your seminar paper (weight: 90%, or up to 90 points).

You must obtain a minimum total of 50 points. An extraordinarily high quality of contributions to the seminar sessions will be rewarded with up to 10 extra points.

Seminar grading scheme:

1: 89-100 points
2: 76-88 points
3: 63-75 points
4: 50-62 points
5: 0-49 points


• Factual correctness and accuracy
• Intellectual rigour
• Level of philosophical understanding
• Originality of the thesis defended
• Familiarity with the relevant literature
• Clarity in writing
• Formal standards of academic writing

Seminar papers must neither fall short of nor exceed the word limit, which includes footnotes but excludes bibliography. The precise word count must be written on the cover sheet. Seminar papers that do not comply with the set word count requirement will be penalised.

Upon enrolment in this course, you agree to having all your written assignments checked by the plagiarism detection software Turnitin.


The assessment will be based on the literature read and discussed in class and on related readings.


Alvarez, Maria & Hyman, John, „Agents and Their Actions”, Philosophy 73, 1998, 101-121.
Anscombe, Gertrude E. M., Intention, Oxford, 1957.
Bishop, John C., Natural Agency. An Essay on the Causal Theory of Agency, Cambridge, 1989.
Bishop, John C., “Exercising control in practical reasoning: Problems for naturalism about agency”, Philosophical Issues 22(1), 2012, 53-72.
Burge, Tyler, “Primitive Agency and Natural Norms”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 79(2), 2009, 251-278.
Chisholm, Roderick M., “The Agent as a Cause”, in: Brand, M. & Walton, D. (eds.), Action Theory, Dordrecht & Boston, 1976, 199-211.
Clark, Randolph, “Agent Causation and the Problem of Luck”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 86, 408-421.
Davidson, Donald, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford, 1980.
Frankfurt, Harry, “The Problem of Action”, American Philosophical Quarterly 15, 1978, 157-162.
Hornsby, Jennifer, “Agency and Actions”, in: Hyman, J. & Steward, H. (eds.), Agency and Action, Cambridge, 2004, 1-23.
Hurley, Susan, “Animal Action in the Space of Reasons”, Mind & Language 18(3), 231-256.
Lowe, E. Jonathan, Personal Agency: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action, Oxford, 2008.
Meincke, Anne Sophie, “Bio-Agency and the Possibility of Artificial Agents”, in: Christian, A., Hommen, D., Retzlaff, N. & Schurz, G. (eds.), Philosophy of Science: Between the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities, Dordrecht, 2018, 65-93.
Moreno, Alvaro, “On Minimal Autonomous Agency: Natural and Artificial”, Complex Systems 27(3), 2018, 289-313.
O’Connor, Timothy, “Agent-Causal Power”, in: Handfield, Toby (ed.), Dispositions as Causes, Oxford, 189-214.
Schlosser, Andreas, “Agent-Causation and Agential Control”, Philosophical Explorations 11, 3-21.
Steward, Helen, A Metaphysics for Freedom, Oxford, 2012.
Steward, Helen, “Actions as Processes”, Philosophical Perspectives 26(1), 2012, 373-388.
Steward, Helen, “Substances, Agents and Processes”, Philosophy 95, 2019, 41-61.

Compulsory readings will be made available on the learning platform Moodle.
Further reading recommendations will be provided in class.

Zuordnung im Vorlesungsverzeichnis

Letzte Änderung: Mi 15.03.2023 00:19