Human agency, reasons, and inter-subjective understanding

William Hasselberger*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


In this essay I ague that the mainstream 'Standard Story' of action-according to which actions are bodily motions with the right internal mental states as their causal triggers (e.g., 'belief-desire-pairs', 'intentions')-gives rise to a deeply problematic conception of inter-subjective action-understanding. For the Standard Story, since motivating reasons are internal mental states and bodily motions are not intrinsically intentional, an observer must ascribe internal states to others to make rational sense of their outwardly observable bodily motions. I argue this is both phenomenologically distorted and requires, on pain of infinite regress, a deeper, non-inferential, practical-perceptual form of understanding: 'knowledge-how', in a broadly Rylean sense. Recognizing the irreducible role of practical-perceptual knowledge-how in inter-subjective understanding, I argue, undermines core assumptions of the Standard Story concerning what an agent can directly perceive in interacting with others, and how our everyday practices of explaining actions with reasons function-and this opens the space for a radically opposed alternative view of inter-subjective action understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-160
Number of pages26
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


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