, Volume 195, Issue 4, pp 1587–1614 | Cite as

Omissions and expectations: a new approach to the things we failed to do

  • Pascale WillemsenEmail author


Imagine you and your friend Pierre agreed on meeting each other at a café, but he does not show up. What is the difference between a friend’s not showing up meeting? and any other person not coming? In some sense, all people who did not come show the same kind of behaviour, but most people would be willing to say that the absence of a friend who you expected to see is different in kind. In this paper, I will spell out this difference by investigating laypeople’s conceptualisation of absences of actions in four experiments. In languages such as German, French, Italian, or Polish, people consider a friend’s not coming an omission. Any other person’s not coming, in contrast, is not considered an omission at all, but just a mere nothing. This use of the term omission differs from the usage in English, where ‘omission’ refers to all kinds of absences. In addition, ‘omission’ is not even an everyday term, but invented by philosophers for the sake of philosophical investigation. In other languages, ‘omission’ (and its synonyms) is part of an everyday vocabulary. Finally, I will discuss how this folk concept of omission could be made fruitful for philosophical questions.


Causation by omission Selection problem Counterfactual Blame Expectation Norm violation 



For funding the research in this article, I would like to express my appreciation to the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation as well as Research School Plus of Ruhr-University Bochum. For their insightful feedback and support, I am in debt to Adam Bear, Joshua Knobe, Albert Newen, Kevin Reuter, and Alexander Wiegmann. For their sharp and challenging discussions, I am grateful to Peter Brössel, Sabrina Coninx, Jennifer Daigle, Joanna Demaree Cotton, Paul Henne, Jonathan Kominsky, Beate Krickel, Francesco Marchi, Stephan Padel, Karolina Prochownik, Tobias Starzak, Kevin Tobia, Tomasz Wysocki, as well as to the participants of the first conference of the Experimental Philosophy Group Germany.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Philosophy IIRuhr University BochumBochumGermany

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