Standard Article

Pragmatic Theory of Action

  1. Erkki Kilpinen

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee382

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Kilpinen, E. 2013. Pragmatic Theory of Action. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


Human beings are creatures of habit. That only a being with habits could have a mind like ours is a recently established finding in cognitive science (Noë 2009). It supports the original thesis of classic pragmatism that human life as we know it would be impossible without habits. Pragmatism is a philosophy of action, but a curious one in that it refers to human doings by the term “habit,” and less by “action” (Kilpinen 2009a, 2009b). Having said this, one must hasten to make the next important point. In pragmatist discourse about action, the central term is old and established, but its underlying meaning is radically new; so new that it has never received its full due attention. Every school in philosophy and the human sciences is aware that the phenomenon of habit exists – i.e., repetitive action that operates before we have time for reflection, as David Hume once said (see Hume, David). In this sense the term is traceable to ancient Greece and medieval Scholasticism (Camic 1986). In modern times it has received an equivalent appellation: routine. A point that cannot be overemphasized is that this is not the pragmatist meaning of the term. The pragmatist meaning is more comprehensive and advanced, in which the habitual action process – which does not have to be merely repetitive – is, pace Hume, within the reach of reflection. Pragmatism maintains that these two phenomena, reflection and ongoing action, can overlap, even mix with each other. This does not concern merely everyday routines, but also those modes of action that traditionally have been taken to be the most important: the intelligent and the rational. According to pragmatism, we do not just slavishly follow our habitual routines, although this phenomenon is real and is to be included in the treatment of action. More importantly, we can be discursively aware of our own habits, even during their occurrence, distance ourselves from them, and objectify them for scrutiny. This is a novelty in the pragmatist conception of action. A simple example would be about how to drive a car. If there is a bend in the road, we must turn the steering wheel, and this needs to be done automatically, without pondering whether or not to. However, merely turning the wheel is not enough. If the road is slippery, we had better make a smooth turn, not turn the wheel too abruptly, whereas on a dry road this is less important. And we are supposed to know all this, both discursively and as physical skill, and negotiate our bends accordingly.


  • mind and cognitive science;
  • naturalistic philosophy