Philosophy Ability
Evan Butts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0377


Ability attribution is a common and important feature of both everyday and theoretical discourse. People are given jobs, picked for teams, and so forth on the basis of their possession (or lack of possession) of some ability. More theoretically, whether or not humans have free will is often thought to hinge upon what we are able to do given certain facts. What are abilities, then, and when does an agent have them? Agents have the ability to do something when, in some sense, they can do that thing. Likewise, agents lack the ability to do something when, in some sense, they cannot do that thing. However simple these statements may seem, there is a great deal of literature attempting to make precise their full meaning. This entry will provide references to some of the most accessible and directly relevant resources concerning the concept “ability” and its primary uses in major philosophical literature.

General Overviews

Despite the prevalence of ability talk in a variety of domains, there is little in the way of a general overview of the different accounts of ability. For a general introduction to philosophical accounts of ability, there is Maier, a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. A slightly narrower, but still general, overview can be found in Small 2017.

  • Maier, John. “Abilities.” Rev. ed. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    Maier gives brief yet informative coverage of the major philosophical accounts of ability, along with a discussion of what general considerations are taken to constrain such theories. There is also a section dealing with the domain in which ability talk most often appears: the debates concerning free will.

  • Small, Will. “Agency and Practical Abilities.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 80 (2017): 235–264.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1358246117000133

    The aim of this paper is to argue that philosophers who deploy accounts of ability in their work often pay insufficient and superficial attention to mundane abilities (e.g., the abilities to walk, eat with a fork, speak a language, etc.) Small claims that serious attention to these everyday abilities requires a new general theory of ability, and he sets out to begin giving such an account by detailing how ability talk in the discussions on free will and the nature of knowledge go awry.

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