Understanding addiction: Donald Davidson and the problem of akrasia

Nick Heather, Gabriel Segal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


The aims of this article are threefold: (i) to show how the work of American philosopher, Donald Davidson can throw light on the concept of addiction; (ii) to argue thereby that addiction is not a myth; and (iii) to help understand the addicted person's experience of feeling compelled to behave repeatedly in ways she does not want. Addictive behaviour is obviously intentional and this had led some to argue that addiction is a myth. In contrast, we propose that it is possible to see addictive behaviour as intentional while at the same time constructing a meaningful and useful understanding of addiction. The principal way this can be done is by seeing addiction as a class of akratic action, something that has been a topic of philosophical reflection since the ancient Greeks. By illustration, we summarise Davidson's enquiry into how it is logically possible to say that akratic action exists and show that, in accepting that akratic action is logically possible, it may also be possible to understand how someone can continue to carry out an addictive behaviour despite repeated resolutions that they will refrain from doing it. We compare in passing Davidson's account of akrasia with recent behavioural choice theories of addiction. We finish by focussing on Davidson's conclusion at the end of his essay that the akrates cannot understand her own behaviour and by drawing out the possible significance of this for an understanding of addicts' reports of feeling compelled to carry out addictive behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-452
JournalAddiction Research & Theory
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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