Neuchâtel Action Conference: Action, Thick & Thin

December 7, 2023 - December 9, 2023
Institut de Philosophie , Université de Neuchâtel

Espace Tilo-Frey 1
Neuchâtel 2000

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  • Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
  • Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines (Université de Neuchâtel)


University College London
Università degli Studi di Milano
Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
University of Helsinki
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bielefeld University


Université de Neuchâtel
Université de Neuchâtel

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The Neuchâtel Action Conference: Action, Thick & Thin (NAC2023) will take place at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) on December 7-9, 2023.

For questions or further information please contact Robin T. Bianchi at [email protected]

Theme Description:

What is an action? For centuries, philosophers have claimed that to act is to move under the impulse of the will. Accordingly, Locke, Reid and others have reserved the term “action” to intelligent beings with will and understanding. In the 20th century, most philosophers defined action as a sort of intentional movement. Accordingly, all animals capable of intention can act. But more recently, the view that to act is simply to cause change, to make a difference or to make something happen, has grown more popular. On the latter view, not only humans but animals of all kinds, plants and even inanimate beings can act.

The variety of answers to the question “what is an action?” is so vast that one may be excused for thinking that philosophers are not talking about the same object. Differently put, it would seem surprising that some would say about the phenomenon of action that it is an essentially human phenomenon, whereas others would say about the same phenomenon that it is a biological or perhaps even a physical phenomenon. Correspondingly, action is sometimes opposed to mere movement, to speech, to automatic behaviour, to changes, to omissions, and to passions.

Are we then to be pluralists about action? Perhaps we need a different concept for ethics, for the law, for cognitive sciences, for mechanics, etc. Or should we instead aim at theoretical harmonisation? Then maybe “action” is itself quite a thin term, to which we can adjoin attributes such as “autonomous”, “intentional”, and “voluntary” depending on our purpose.

This workshop aims to investigate the relationship between the various phenomena and contrasts researchers allude to by the concept “action”, and the goals of the various research programs pursued in contemporary philosophy of action. To that end, the workshop will be dedicated to answering questions such as:

·       What is an action? Is it thick (reserved to fewer beings) or thin?

·       If we can agree that actions form a unified phenomenon, is it a biological, moral, social, legal, or physical phenomenon?

·       Is it fruitful to use the same notion to describe the activity of a plant and of a human? Or is it instead a burden for the ethicist?

·       How does the notion of “action” found in research contexts relates to the day-to-day concept(s) we use and live by? Is the notion of “action” of the philosopher a different one that the notion used in non-research context?

·       What should actions be contrasted with? (omissions? passions? movements? attitudes?)

·       Can there be “mindless” actions or should we classify differently the various irreflective, unintentional or unconscious doings that we often observe, such as scratching one’s arm because one is anxious?

·       How does theorizing about action reflect social and practical concerns?

·       How does theorizing about action bear on our understanding of collective and social actions, e.g. the actions of social groups, protesters; political parties; governments; corporations; armies, etc.? What sort of concept of action is needed to understand these phenomena?

·       How does actions shape and guide our ethical reasoning? Should our theorizing about actions guide ethical theorizing or should our ethical concerns influence our theorizing about actions?

·       How should we understand the link between voluntariness and action? Are all actions voluntary? Similarly, how should we understand the link between intentionality and action?

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#Switzerland; Neuchâtel; Action