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Events, Ontology and Grammar

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

P. M.S. Hacker
St John's College, Oxford


In recent years philosophers have given much attention to the ‘ontological problem’ of events. Donald Davidson puts the matter thus: ‘the assumption, ontological and metaphysical, that there are events is one without which we cannot make sense of much of our common talk; or so, at any rate, I have been arguing. I do not know of any better, or further, way of showing what there is’. It might be thought bizarre to assign to philosophers the task of ‘showing what there is’. They have not distinguished themselves by the discovery of new elements, new species or new continents, nor even of new categories, although there has often been more dreamt of in their philosophies than can be found in heaven or earth. It might appear even stranger to think that one can show what there actually is by arguing that the existence of something needs to be assumed in order for certain sentences to make sense. More than anything, the sober reader will doubtlessly be amazed that we need to assume, after lengthy argument, ‘that there are events’.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1982

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1 D. Davidson, ‘Causal Relations’, Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967), 703.

2 J. Hornsby, ‘Verbs and Events’ in Papers on Language and Logic, J. Dancy (ed.) (Keele University Library, 1980), 88.

3 T. Horgan, ‘The Case against Events’, Philosophical Review 87 (1978), 28.

4 T. Horgan, ‘The Case against Events’, 47.

5 B. Aune, Reason and Action (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1977), 44.

6 P. F. Strawson, Individuals, chap. II (London: Methuen, 1959).

7 Cf. P. F. Strawson, Individuals, 46ff., 167ff.

8 P. T. Geach, ‘Some Problems about Time’, Logic Matters (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), 313.

9 Throughout these recent debates there has beeen an uncritical assimilation of actions to events. From the point of view of the issue of variable polyadicity this does not matter greatly, since action-recording sentences resemble eventrecording sentences in this respect. Nevertheless, it is an error to assimilate actions to events. In discussing the views of the protagonists in this debate we will, for argument'sake, disregard this.

10 D. Davidson, ‘The Logical Form of Action Sentences’, The Logic of Decision and Action, N. Rescher (ed.) (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), 115.

11 Contrary to what Davidson suggests. Even his critics accept this bizarre view; cf. J. J. Thomson, Acts and Other Events (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), 15.

12 Cf. R. Clark, ‘Concerning the Logic of Predicate Modifiers’, Nous 4 (1970), 311–335

13 There are many other objections to Davidson execution of his programme which turn on further details of his proposal; e.g. if A'slipping on a banana skin amused B, then according to Davidson' conception A'slipping is identical with A' amusing B, from which it follows according to his notational rules that A amused B on a banana skin! For further elaboration of such points cf. B. Aune, Reason and Action, 29ff.

14 Cf. P. F. Strawson, ‘The Structure of One' Language’, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974).