Teleology and mentalizing in the explanation of action

Synthese 198 (4):2941-2957 (2019)
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In empirically informed research on action explanation, philosophers and developmental psychologists have recently proposed a teleological account of the way in which we make sense of people’s intentional behavior. It holds that we typically don’t explain an agent’s action by appealing to her mental states but by referring to the objective, publically accessible facts of the world that count in favor of performing the action so as to achieve a certain goal. Advocates of the teleological account claim that this strategy is our main way of understanding people’s actions. I argue that common motivations mentioned to support the teleological account are insufficient to sustain its generalization from children to adults. Moreover, social psychological studies, combined with theoretical considerations, suggest that we do not explain actions mainly by invoking publically accessible, reason-giving facts alone but by ascribing mental states to the agent.

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Uwe Peters
Utrecht University


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