There is a difference between the classical field $\phi(x)$ (which appears in the classical action $S[\phi]$) and the quantity $\phi_c$ defined as $$\phi_c(x)\equiv\langle 0|\hat{\phi}(x)|0\rangle_J$$ which appears in the effective action. Even though $\phi_c(x)$ is referred to as the "classical field", I don't see why $\phi(x)$ and $\phi_c$ should be the same.

In what sense, therefore, is the effective action $\Gamma[\phi_c]$ a quantum-corrected classical action $S[\phi]$? How can we compare the functionals of two different objects (namely, $\phi(x)$ and $\phi_c(x)$) and claim that $\Gamma[\phi_c]$ is a correction over $S[\phi]$?

I apologize for any lack of clarity in the question and the confusion I'm hoping to clear up.


3 Answers 3


There is already a good answer by Solenodon Paradoxus. Here we provide a formal proof (via the stationary phase/WKB approximation).

  1. To fix notation, we define the 1PI effective/proper action $$ \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]~=~W_c[J]-J_k \phi_{\rm cl}^k, \tag{1}$$ as the Legendre transformation of the generating functional $W_c[J]$ for connected diagrams. We assume that the Legendre transformation is regular, i.e. the formula $$\begin{align} \phi_{\rm cl}^k~=~&\frac{\delta W_c[J]}{\delta J_k} \cr \Updownarrow~& \cr J_k~=~&-\frac{\delta \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k}\end{align} \tag{2}$$ is invertible. Here $J_k$ are the sources and $\phi_{\rm cl}^k$ are the so-called classical fields. (The latter terminology is a bit of a misnormer as $\phi_{\rm cl}^k[J]$ as a function of the sources $J_{\ell}$ could depend explicitly on $\hbar$. See also section 8 below.)

  2. The partition function/path integral is $$\begin{align} \exp&\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} W_c[J]\right\}\cr ~=~&Z[J]\cr ~:=~&\int \! {\cal D}\frac{\phi}{\sqrt{\hbar}}~\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi]+J_k \phi^k\right)\right\} . \end{align}\tag{3}$$ The first equality in eq. (3) is the linked cluster theorem, cf. e.g. this Phys.SE post.

  3. At this place it is customary to mention some elementary facts. The 1-pt function/quantum averaged field is by definition $$\begin{align} \langle \phi^k \rangle_J ~:=~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \int \! {\cal D}\frac{\phi}{\sqrt{\hbar}}~\phi^k\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi]+J_{\ell} \phi^{\ell}\right)\right\}\cr ~=~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \frac{\hbar}{i} \frac{\delta }{\delta J_k}\int \! {\cal D}\frac{\phi}{\sqrt{\hbar}}~\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi]+J_{\ell} \phi^{\ell}\right)\right\}\cr ~\stackrel{(3)}{=}~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \frac{\hbar}{i}\frac{\delta Z[J]}{\delta J_k}\cr ~\stackrel{(3)}{=}~&\frac{\delta W_c[J]}{\delta J_k} ~\stackrel{(2)}{=}~\phi_{\rm cl}^k. \end{align} \tag{4}$$

  4. The 2-pt function is by definition $$\begin{align} \langle \phi^k \phi^{\ell}\rangle_J ~:=~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \int \! {\cal D}\frac{\phi}{\sqrt{\hbar}}~\phi^k\phi^{\ell}\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi]+J_m \phi^m\right)\right\}\cr ~\stackrel{(3)}{=}~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \left(\frac{\hbar}{i}\right)^2\frac{\delta^2 Z[J]}{\delta J_k\delta J_{\ell}}~\cr \stackrel{(3)}{=}~&\frac{1}{Z[J]} \frac{\hbar}{i} \frac{\delta}{\delta J_k} \left(Z[J]\frac{\delta W_c[J]}{\delta J_{\ell}}\right)\cr ~\stackrel{(4)}{=}~&\frac{\hbar}{i} \frac{\delta^2 W_c[J]}{\delta J_k\delta J_{\ell}} + \langle \phi^k \rangle_J \langle \phi^{\ell} \rangle_J,\end{align} \tag{5}$$ i.e. the connected 2-pt function plus a disconnected piece.

  5. Now let us return to OP's question. By formal inverse Fourier transformation of the path integral (3), we get $$\begin{align} \exp&\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar}S[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\cr ~\stackrel{(3)}{=}~&\int \! {\cal D}\frac{J}{\sqrt{\hbar}}~\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} \left(W_c[J]-J_k \phi_{\rm cl}^k\right)\right\} \cr ~\stackrel{\text{WKB}}{\sim}& {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}\frac{\delta^2 W_c[J[\phi_{\rm cl}]]}{\delta J_k \delta J_{\ell}}\right)^{-1/2} \exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar}\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\left(1+ {\cal O}(\hbar)\right) \cr ~\stackrel{(8)}{=}~& {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}\frac{\delta^2 \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k \delta \phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}}\right)^{1/2} \exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar}\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\left(1+ {\cal O}(\hbar)\right)\cr &\quad\text{for}\quad\hbar~\to~0 \end{align} \tag{6}$$ in the stationary phase/WKB approximation $J_k=J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]+\sqrt{\hbar}\eta_k$. In the last equality of eq. (6), we used that $$\begin{align}\delta^k_{\ell} ~=~&\frac{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k[J[\phi_{\rm cl}]]}{\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}}\cr ~=~&\frac{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k[J[\phi_{\rm cl}]]}{\delta J_m} \frac{\delta J^m[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}} \cr ~\stackrel{(2)}{=}~& -\frac{\delta^2 W_c[J[\phi_{\rm cl}]]}{\delta J_k\delta J_m} \frac{\delta^2 \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^m\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}},\end{align} \tag{7}$$ i.e.

    $$\begin{align}&\text{The 2-pt functions }\cr & \frac{1}{i}\frac{\delta^2 W_c[J]}{\delta J_k\delta J_m} \text{ and } \frac{1}{i}\frac{\delta^2 \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^m\delta\phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}}\cr& \text{ are inverses of each other.} \end{align}\tag{8}$$

  6. We will assume that the action $S$ has no explicit $\hbar$-dependence. The effective action $\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]=\sum_{n=0}^{\infty}\Gamma_n[\phi_{\rm cl}]$ becomes a $\hbar$/loop-expansion. Eq. (6) shows that the effective action $$\begin{align} \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}] ~\stackrel{(6)}{=}~& S[\phi_{\rm cl}] +\frac{i\hbar}{2}\ln {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}\frac{\delta^2 \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k \delta \phi_{\rm cl}^{\ell}}\right) +{\cal O}(\hbar^2) \tag{9} \cr ~\stackrel{(9)}{=}~& S[\phi_{\rm cl}] +\frac{i\hbar}{2}\ln {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i} H_{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right) +{\cal O}(\hbar^2) \tag{10}\end{align}$$ agrees with the action $S$ up to quantum corrections. In eq. (10) we have defined the Hessian $$ H_{k\ell}[\phi]~:=~ \frac{\delta^2 S[\phi]}{\delta\phi^k\delta\phi^{\ell}}. \tag{11} $$ (The square root factor in eq. (6) only contributes at one-loop and beyond.)

    In other words, we deduce that to zeroth-order in $\hbar$/tree diagrams in the effective action

    $$\text{Tree-level}:~~ \Gamma_0[\phi_{\rm cl}] ~\stackrel{(9)}{=}~S[\phi_{\rm cl}] \tag{12}$$

    is equal to the action $S$ itself. Similarly, we deduce that to first-order in $\hbar$/one-loop diagrams in the effective action

    $$\text{1-loop}:~~ \Gamma_1[\phi_{\rm cl}] ~\stackrel{(10)}{=}~\frac{i\hbar}{2}\ln {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i} H_{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \right) \tag{13}$$

    is equal to a functional determinant of the Hessian of the action $S$. Eqs. (10), (12) & (13) answer OP's question. See also this related Phys.SE post.

  7. At this place it is customary to mention some elementary facts. Let there be given fixed sources $J_k$. From$^1$ $$\begin{align} \frac{\delta \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k} ~\stackrel{(2)}{=}~~&-J_k\cr ~\stackrel{\text{EL eqs.}}{\approx}& \frac{\delta S[\phi_0]}{\delta \phi^k} \cr ~=:~~&E_k[\phi_0], \end{align} \tag{14} $$ we deduce that the so-called classical solution $\phi_{\rm cl}^k$ and the Euler-Lagrange (EL) solution $\phi_0^k$ agree$^1$ $$ \phi_{\rm cl}^k[J]~\stackrel{(9)+(14)}{\approx}~\phi_0^k[J] +{\cal O}(\hbar) \tag{15} $$ up to quantum corrections. Eq. (15) justifies the practice to call $\phi_{\rm cl}^k$ the classical field. (We assume that each solution to eq. (14) is unique, due to pertinent boundary conditions. We have excluded instantons for simplicity.)

    Conversely, if we are given a $\phi_{\rm cl}$, we can consider the corresponding shifted source $$\begin{align} J_k^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}]~:=~&E_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]+J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]\cr ~\stackrel{(2)}{=}~&\frac{\delta S[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi^k_{\rm cl}} -\frac{\delta \Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi^k_{\rm cl}}\cr ~\stackrel{(12)}{=}~&-\frac{\delta \Gamma_{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}]}{\delta \phi^k_{\rm cl}} ~=~{\cal O}(\hbar). \end{align}\tag{16} $$

  8. Alternatively, from the background field method $$ \underbrace{\phi^k}_{\text{quan. field}} ~=~\overbrace{\underbrace{\phi^k_{\rm cl}}_{\text{clas. field}}}^{\text{backgr. field}}+\underbrace{\eta^k}_{\text{fluctuation}}, \tag{17}$$ the effective action (1) becomes $$\begin{align}\exp&\left\{\frac{i}{\hbar}\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\cr ~\stackrel{(1)+(3)}{=}& \int\!{\cal D}\frac{\phi}{\sqrt{\hbar}} ~\exp\left\{\frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi] +J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}](\phi^k-\phi^k_{\rm cl}) \right) \right\} \cr ~\stackrel{(17)}{=}~& \int\!{\cal D}\frac{\eta}{\sqrt{\hbar}} ~\exp\left\{\frac{i}{\hbar} \left(S[\phi_{\rm cl}+\eta] +J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}] \eta^k \right)\right\} \cr ~=~& \int\!{\cal D}\frac{\eta}{\sqrt{\hbar}} ~\exp\left\{\frac{i}{\hbar} \left( S[\phi_{\rm cl}] +\underbrace{\left(E_k[\phi_{\rm cl}] +J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right)}_{={\cal O}(\hbar)} \eta^k +\frac{1}{2}\eta^k H_{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \eta^{\ell} +{\cal O}(\eta^3) \right)\right\} \cr ~\stackrel{\text{WKB}}{\sim}& {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}H_{mn}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \right)^{-1/2}\left(1+ {\cal O}(\hbar)\right) \exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar}\left(S[\phi_{\rm cl}] -\frac{1}{2}J_k^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] (H^{-1})^{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}] J_{\ell}^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \right)\right\} \cr ~\stackrel{(2)+(15)}{=}& {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}H_{mn}[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right)^{-1/2}\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar}S[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\left(1+ {\cal O}(\hbar)\right)\cr &\quad\text{for}\quad\hbar~\to~0 \end{align} \tag{18}$$ in the stationary phase/WKB approximation $$\eta^k~=~ -(H^{-1})^{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}]J_{\ell}^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] + \underbrace{{\cal O}(\sqrt{\hbar})}_{\text{fluctuation}}.\tag{19}$$ Eq. (18) again leads to the sought-for eq. (10).

  9. More generally, if we separate the action $$ S[\phi]~=~ \underbrace{E_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]\eta^k}_{\text{linear part}} + \underbrace{\frac{1}{2}\eta^k H_{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}]\eta^{\ell}}_{\text{quadratic part}} +\underbrace{S_{\neq 12}[\phi_{\rm cl},\eta]}_{\text{the rest}}, \tag{20}$$ then the effective action reads to all orders $$\begin{align}\exp&\left\{\frac{i}{\hbar}\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right\}\cr ~\stackrel{\begin{array}{c}\text{Gauss.}\cr\text{int.}\end{array}}{\sim}& {\rm Det}\left(\frac{1}{i}H_{mn}[\phi_{\rm cl}]\right)^{-1/2} \cr &\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} S_{\neq 12}\left[\phi_{\rm cl},\frac{\hbar}{i}\frac{\delta}{\delta J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]} \right]\right\} \cr &\exp\left\{ -\frac{i}{2\hbar}J_k^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] (H^{-1})^{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}] J_{\ell}^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \right\}\end{align}\tag{21}$$ after a Gaussian integration. It follows that $$\begin{align}\frac{i}{\hbar}&\Gamma_{>1}[\phi_{\rm cl}]\cr ~\stackrel{(12)+(13)+(21)}{=}& \ln\left(\exp\left\{ \frac{i}{\hbar} S_{\neq 012}\left[\phi_{\rm cl},\frac{\hbar}{i}\frac{\delta}{\delta J_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]} \right]\right\}\right. \cr &\left. \exp\left\{ -\frac{i}{2\hbar}J_k^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] (H^{-1})^{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}] J_{\ell}^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}] \right\}\right)\end{align}\tag{22}$$ is the sum of all connected diagrams made out of propagators $-(H^{-1})^{k\ell}[\phi_{\rm cl}]$; shifted external sources $J_k^{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}]$; and $\eta$-vertices with $\geq 3$ $\eta$-legs.

    After substituting $J^{>0}_k[\phi_{\rm cl}]=-\delta \Gamma_{>0}[\phi_{\rm cl}]/\delta \phi_{\rm cl}^k$ on the RHS of eq. (22) via the relation (16), then one may show that eq. (22) becomes an all-order recursion relation for the effective action $\Gamma[\phi_{\rm cl}]$.


$^1$ The $\approx$ symbol means here equality modulo the Euler-Lagrange (EL) equations.

  • $\begingroup$ The connected $n$-point function is $\langle \phi^{k_1}\ldots \phi^{k_n}\rangle_J^c ~=~\left(\frac{\hbar}{i}\right)^{n-1} \frac{\delta^n W_c[J]}{\delta J_{k_1}\ldots\delta J_{k_n}}.$ An $L$-loop diagram inside the connected $n$-point function is ${\cal O}(\hbar^{n-1+L})$, cf. the $\hbar$/loop-expansion. Eq. (5) shows cluster-decomposition for $\hbar\to 0$. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ Notes for later: The connected 2-pt function $\langle \phi^k \phi^{\ell}\rangle^c_{J=0}=i\hbar G_c^{k\ell}$ is $i\hbar$ times the connected propagator/Greens function $G_c^{k\ell}=-W_c^{k\ell}$. Mention Fourier transformed statement. Tadpoles $\langle \widetilde{\phi}(k)\rangle_{J=0} \propto \delta^d(k)$ has zero momentum. The 2-pt function $\langle \widetilde{\phi}(k) \widetilde{\phi}(p) \rangle_{J=0}=\langle \widetilde{\phi}(k) \widetilde{\phi}(p) \rangle^c_{J=0}+\langle \widetilde{\phi}(k)\rangle_{J=0} \langle\widetilde{\phi}(p) \rangle_{J=0}$ is only modified at zero momentum. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ 2-loop: $\Gamma_2 ~\sim~ J_1\!-\!J_1 ~+~ J_1\!-\!O~+~O\!-\!O~+~\theta.$ $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 13:32

We want to calculate the path integral $$ Z = \int \mathcal{D}{\phi}\, e^{i \hbar^{-1} S[\phi]} $$ which encodes a transition amplitude between initial and final quantum states.

If we had the effective action $\Gamma[\phi]$ at our disposal, we would have calculated the same result by solving for $$ \phi_c(x):\quad \left. \frac{\delta \Gamma}{\delta \phi} \right|_{\phi=\phi_c} = 0 $$ and plugging it back in the effective action: $$ Z = e^{i \hbar^{-1} \Gamma[\phi_c]}. $$

This is the definition of $\Gamma$.

Note that no path integrals are required at this point. Boundary conditions are implicitly present throughout this answer, encoding the exact states between which the quantum transition occurs. Their existence ensures that there is only one solution $\phi_c$.

Now to why $\phi_c$ is called classical: it solves the e.o.m. given by the action $\Gamma$.

Think of $\Gamma$ as of an object in which all the short-scale properties of the integration measure $\mathcal{D}\phi$ (including renormalization-related issues) are already accounted for. You simply solve the e.o.m. and plug the solution in the exponential and you are done: here is your transition amplitude.

That being said, $\Gamma$ is not classical in the sense that it still describes dynamics of a quantum theory. Only in a different fashion. Simple algebraic manipulations instead of path integrals.

Finally, note how if the path integral is Gaussian, $$\Gamma[\phi] = S[\phi] + \text{const},$$ where $\text{const}$ accounts for the path integral normalization constant. There are no quantum corrections.

In classical theory, however, we solve the e.o.m. w.r.t. $\phi = \phi_c$ for $S[\phi]$, not $\Gamma[\phi]$. Plugging it back into $S[\phi_c]$ gives us the Hamilton function. When the path integral is Gaussian, it doesn't matter if we use $S$ or $\Gamma$, and exponentiating the Hamilton function gives you the transition amplitude. However if we are dealing with an interacting theory, the correct way to do this would be to use $\Gamma$ instead of $S$. In this sense, $\Gamma$ is the quantum-corrected version of $S$.

And yes, it is always true (can be shown using the saddle point approximation formula) that $$ \Gamma[\phi] = S[\phi] + \mathcal{O}(\hbar). $$

Why wouldn't we just use $\Gamma[\phi]$ to define the quantum theory and forget about $S[\phi]$ alltogether? Because $\Gamma$ is non-local and contains infinitely many adjustable parameters. These can be determined from the form of $S[\phi]$ by, well, quantization. That's why it is $S[\phi]$ which defines the theory, not $\Gamma$. $\Gamma$ is to be calculated via path integrals.

UPDATE: It is also important to understand that in naive QFT $\Gamma$ contains divergences, while $S$ doesn't. However, the actual situation is opposite. It is $S$ which contains divergences (divergent bare couplings), which cancel out against the divergences coming from the path integral, rendering a finite (i.e. renormalized) $\Gamma$. That $\Gamma$ should be finite is evident from how we use it to calculate physical properties: we only solve the e.o.m. and plug the result back in $\Gamma$.

Actually, the whole point of renormalization is to make $\Gamma$ finite and well-defined while adjusting only a finite number of diverging couplings in the bare action $S$.

  • $\begingroup$ So, sorry for making a question in an old question, but would appreciate an insight: when you say that appropriate boundary conditions are assumed throughout the answer, do you mean something to make the volume of the phase space resulting from the 'integration of $D\phi$' unity? $\endgroup$
    – GaloisFan
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 0:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @GaloisFan nah, I assume that the integrand field (be it $x(t)$ or $\phi(x)$) has fixed values at the $t = t_I$ and $t = t_F$ which correspond to quantum state. That is standard procedure in path integrals. Sorry about the confusing term "boundary conditions" which could mean many things. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ I see! And why is the intuition from defining the effective action as an analogous to the action but without the functional integration? Just an analogous to the classical partition function? I mean, intuitively it is easy to accept 'the path integral represents the quantum effects' and be ok with it but I'd like to have a deeper understanding. $\endgroup$
    – GaloisFan
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 1:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @GaloisFan intuition is given by the stationary phase approximation formula. Path integrals can be approximately evaluated by looking at the extremum of the action — the classical solutions. So we choose to redefine the action to accommodate the difference between the path integral value and the approximation while retaining the stationary phase formula, now exact. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2019 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, could you please explain (or give a reference) why $\Gamma[\phi]$ and $S[\phi]$ are the same for Gaussian path integrals? Do you mean that is true when in the action there is only the kinetic term? $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    Commented Apr 11 at 7:57

Obviously, $\phi(x)$ is different from $\phi_c(x)$. The former is a classical field of a classical field theory, the latter is just a quantity that appears in the Legendre transform of the generating functional for connected Green functions. It just happens that for classical actions that an be treated as perturbations around quadratic actions, the equations satisfied by $\phi_c(x)$ coincide with those of $\phi(x)$ in classical field theory, at the limit $\hbar\rightarrow 0$.

Except for the suggestive name, there is also no quantum-classical correspondence: $\phi_c(x)$ is not the expectation value of the field $\hat{\phi}(x)$ in presence of an external source (expressed in terms of properly defined probabilities). It does not make sense as a quasi-classical observable.

Furthermore, the effective action is non-local, and hence, it does not generate any effective quasi-classical dynamics. The effective action is only a generator for Green functions relevant to the calculation of S-matrix elements.


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