Teleological Realism

Teleological Realism

Mind, Agency, and Explanation

By Scott Sehon

A non-reductionist account of mind and agency claiming that common-sense psychological explanations are teleological and not causal.

A Bradford Book





A non-reductionist account of mind and agency claiming that common-sense psychological explanations are teleological and not causal.

Using the language of common-sense psychology (CSP), we explain human behavior by citing its reason or purpose, and this is central to our understanding of human beings as agents. On the other hand, since human beings are physical objects, human behavior should also be explicable in the language of physical science, in which causal accounts cast human beings as collections of physical particles. CSP talk of mind and agency, however, does not seem to mesh well with the language of physical science. In Teleological Realism, Scott Sehon argues that CSP explanations are not causal but teleological—that they cite the purpose or goal of the behavior in question rather than an antecedent state that caused the behavior. CSP explanations of behavior, Sehon claims, are answering a question different from that answered by physical science explanations, and, accordingly, CSP explanations and physical science explanations are independent of one another. Common-sense facts about mind and agency can thus be independent of the physical facts about human beings, and, contrary to the views of most philosophers of mind in recent decades, common-sense psychology will not be subsumed by physical science. Sehon defends his non-reductionist account of mind and agency in clear and nontechnical language. He carefully distinguishes his view from forms of "strong naturalism" that would seem to preclude it. And he evaluates key objections to teleological realism, including those posed by Donald Davidson's influential article "Actions, Reasons and Causes" and some put forth by more recent proponents of causal theories of action. CSP, Sehon argues, has a different realm than does physical science; the normative notions that are central to CSP are not reducible to physical facts and laws.


$38.00 X ISBN: 9780262195355 264 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • For over forty years, the orthodox view in the philosophy of mind has been that common-sense psychological explanations of human actions are causal explanations. In his lucid and elegant monograph, Scott Sehon challenges this orthodoxy. Sehon develops a detailed and original argument against the main assumptions of the causal view and outlines his own 'teleological realist' alternative. This is one of the strongest recent defenses of the non-causal view, and it deserves to be taken seriously by all philosophers of mind and action. In addition to being a new and first-rate piece of philosophical research, Sehon's book is so clearly written that it can be fruitfully used as a graduate or upper-level undergraduate text.

    Tim Crane

    Department of Philosophy, University College London

  • Since Davidson published 'Action, Reasons, and Causes,' the view that common-sense psychological explanations are causal explanations has become nearly a dogma in the philosophy of mind and action. Teleological Realism mounts an impressive case against this dogma, showing that the causalist accounts are far from adequate. Sehon suggests that we replace causalism with teleological realism, the view that common-sense psychological explanations explain solely by citing the purpose of the action. In doing so he makes a compelling case for a view that has been all but overlooked in the philosophical literature. This is doubtless a first-rate book and required reading for all philosophers working in this area. But Sehon also writes in a clear and engaging style that makes Teleological Realism accessible to anyone interested in the topic.

    Sergio Tenenbaum

    Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto