Action and agency: causal and teleological interpretations

Course Requirement Areas: 
Metaphysics and Epistemology
Course Description: 

The purpose of this course is to introduce students into some contemporary debates over the nature and understanding of actions and agency. Although intentional actions are commonly explained with reference to agents’ goals, many contemporary philosophical and psychological accounts of action presuppose that the teleology implicit in such explanations cannot be fundamental. Since agency is a causal concept and human agents have the capacity to represent their goals, many theories attempt to explain the intentionality of actions in terms of causation by representational states (like beliefs, desires, intentions). In the course we shall discuss arguments both from philosophy and from current cognitive research regarding the necessity and/or possibility of such causal interpretations of agency and action.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students are expected to acquire the ability to reconstruct and analyze arguments or critically evaluate philosophical positions and drawing theoretical consequences from empirical research in the areas of agency, action, and causation. These involve the understanding of validity and soundness of the arguments, the ability to identify background principles and assumptions as well as the ability to draw out the consequences of certain philosophical commitments as well as some empirical findings. They are also expected to acquire certain oral communication skills such as the ability to formulate arguments concisely and accessibly in words and to give short critical comments. They should also learn how to identify and execute an appropriate writing project. Finally, they should be familiarized with the main contemporary debates about causation, time, and free will. Learning outcomes shall be measured by term papers and oral presentations on the relevant topics.


Students’ performance shall be evaluated on the following grounds. First, students are required to attend classes regularly and to participate actively in seminar discussions. 30 % of their final grade shall be given on the basis of this in-class activity. Second, students are required to give one or two short presentations of some chosen topic(s). The choice of topic is optional, but overlap should be avoided. This will make up another 30 % of their final grade. Thirdly, students are required to submit a max. 4 000 word long term-paper. The chosen topic should be approved by the instructor and presented in the last class of the course. The term paper’s contribution to the final assessment of students’ performance is 40 %. 

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