There remains great controversy in philosophy over the issue of how we should make sense of what people do, of their actions, as opposed to explaining what happens to them. Some philosophers believe that if the question is: what distinguishes naturally occurring events like bodily movements in space from metaphysically distinct purposive doings initiated by me, the answer is: nothing. There are no such special events; there are only bodily movements in space, naturally caused like all other events. In Anglophone philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, under the influence of logical positivism and various projects in scientific reductionism, this was the dominant position, and in some very influential camps, it still is. The picture is more sophisticated now, thanks to extraordinary advances in the brain sciences, and various ways that have been found to bypass difficult problems in scientific reductionism, but the metaphysical position remains basically the same.
The situation began to change in mid-century, to some degree owing to the influence of Wittgenstein, and a new consensus began to form among some philosophers who rejected the physicalist position, but not in favor of a full blown metaphysical incompatibilism or voluntarism. The idea was that actions could be said to require a distinct sort of explanation, and that it made a complete hash of our experience and especially of what we want explained to insist that everything should be understood as having the form of a natural event. Actions have a distinct logical form, one could say; they were purposive doings, undertaken “for the sake of something”; they were reflective and intentional (if you asked someone why she was going on about something, she could tell you); and to some degree, that form was rational. That is, the answer you got when you asked that “why” question was a reason, of some, even minimal sort, what the agent took to justify the action, or at least that action rather than any other, and their having such reasons was what motivated them to undertake the actions they did. In this sense it is a philosophical impossibility for the answer to any such “why” question about an action to be “No reason at all; I just did it”; as much an impossibility as saying about a fire that broke out: there was no cause; it just happened.
By now the philosophical landscape is dotted with so many variations on these options that it is difficult to get to a sufficiently high altitude and see the basic alternatives. However those who think there are such things as actions and agents requiring logically distinct forms of explanation point to many common features, the simplest being that (i) in acting I know what I am about and why I am about it (some stress especially that I know this in a unique way, “non-observationally” and “non-inferentially”), and (ii) that what I am doing is subject to some kind of deliberative control (I am able to arrive at reasons for acting by deliberation and be motivated by them), and (iii) that I, considered as a distinct particular, have the capacity to direct a course of events in line with of the results of this deliberation. Call this the Humanist Inheritance, the inheritance of a complex tradition stretching back to Aristotle on the voluntary, massively influenced by Christian requirements for individual responsibility and guilt, and largely influenced by (but not wholly determined by) Cartesian positions on the required metaphysics of mental interiority.
Suppose though that all three of these assumptions presupposed in any notion of agency are now less and less robustly credible than they once were. Of course, on the self-knowledge issue, I could easily be said to have “practical knowledge” of what I am doing in cases of simple, straightforward actions: going to the store for bread, tying my shoes, driving to pick up my son at school, etc. But much literature and film in the modern era provide ample credible examples that in more complicated cases (the ones we care most about) people cannot provide a clear act description or even a very clear account of motivation. If they do, we often read or see that the act description is hotly contested (“you were not doing X, you were in fact doing Y”) and that that avowed motivation has little or no connection with what the character actually does. We might think that Freud was right about the limits of self-knowledge, or that the Marxist and critical theory tradition is right about the extent to which persons’ views about the world are truly “their own,” the product of reasoning or deliberation, or are the products of the vast shaping powers of modern consumer societies and cannot count as self-knowledge. Or we might think that the evidence from evolutionary biology is beginning to show us that our own attitudes and avowed ethical descriptions and motives are merely epiphenomenal, and that we are very strongly disposed to act in ways that are better accounted for by such evolutionary explanations, that we act as we do regardless of our avowed views.
Likewise, suppose that what we are able to effect as the result of deliberation is actually of a much, much smaller extent than we optimistically assume when we decide what to buy, whom to marry, whom to vote for, what we are willing to sacrifice for.
Suppose, that is, that the right picture is that characters who take themselves to be deliberating and initiating various deeds come to look like somewhat pathetic figures frantically pulling various wires and pushing various buttons which are, unknown to them, not connected to some moving machine they are riding, on a course completely indifferent to anything such characters pretend to do (or much more indifferent than the riders believe). If we extend the image we could say that sometimes the machine looks on a pre-programmed course of some sort, unalterable no matter what we “do,” that it is set or programmed by human nature, our fallen nature, our genetic inheritance, social forces, the initial conditions at the Big Bang and the laws of physics, or whatever. Perhaps the machine just seems to be careening about randomly, subject to a vast number of variables no one can manage or control or effectively predict. Fate or destiny as blind chance, in other words.
The first thing to say is that this is not an academic exercise. The problem I want to raise has become especially interesting in the last hundred and fifty years or so, because, under the influences, first, of the so-called “Masters of Suspicion” – Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – and in our own day under the influence of everything from structuralism and various “anti-humanisms” in European philosophy to evolutionary biology and the neurosciences (experimental results, brain imaging, Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment and so forth), many seem to have concluded that in an ever expanding range of cases, it only seems to us that we are “running any show” as conscious agents in any even metaphysically modest sense; it only seems that we could be actually leading our lives. On the other hand, in many of these contexts, it also seems extreme to say that because these general conditions have not been met, or are only minimally met, then to just that extent we must be said to be in the grip of something, some passion or unconscious desire, and that we are not acting at all; something is happening to us.
So the question is: if these assumptions are false or less credible and under increasing pressure, what difference should it make in how we comport ourselves? What would it actually be to acknowledge “the truth” or take into practical account the uncertainty? There are some compatibilists who might argue that it makes no difference at all, that our not being “in charge” or “in control” of our deliberations, preferences, schemes of evaluation, values, etc. is beside the main point, that being free from external constraint (such as force or coercion) and being able “to do what we want” is freedom enough. For most of us though, viewing ourselves as “products” of social or evolutionary or bio-chemical processes (and thereby not “running any show”) does count as itself an important form of constraint and as hugely deflating to the Humanist Inheritance.
And it is difficult to imagine what simply acknowledging the facts would be, to give up all pretensions to agency. Call this Simple Acknowledgement. Even if the “moving machine” picture is only roughly accurate, it is hard to see how we could simply declare that we are not in charge, the machine is, and simply “wait to see what happens,” what the machine ends up doing.
This last consideration opens up onto a very popular view. This has it that, as a practical matter (constantly facing situations in which, whatever the metaphysical facts, we must deliberate and decide), we just cannot be spectators of our lives. We are, have no other practical option but being, participants. Simple Acknowledgement is not a practical possibility. Moreover, as Strawson argued in his influential article, “Freedom and Resentment,” such a “participant or practical point of view” involves a variety of commitments, values, attitudes, and the like which we simply cannot (again as a matter of some practical fact) eliminate without rendering our practical lives unintelligible. I find myself in a great deal of sympathy with this view, but it also seems to me to come with a high price and I am not sure how to pay it.
Perhaps the most well known defense of such a practical point of view was Kant’s and his position makes clear these difficulties. Some of the difficulties are theoretical: “Who cares how it seems to us? What we cannot imagine giving up? What we ought to care about is the truth.” But practically, what some regard as the greatest liability of the Kantian approach is also the most consistent aspect of it and the hardest to avoid. That is, the spectator or “sideways on” and the practical or participant points of view are logically distinct, allow no overlap or mediation. You are “in” one perspective or “in” the other. Kant put this by talking about what appear to be separate domains of the real – the noumenal and the phenomenal – but the basic distinction is problematic enough without adding such burdens. Why assume that anything resolved when “considering ourselves as agents” can effect anything in the world, considered from a third person point of view? How could a Kantian account for what clearly appear to be degrees of agency and effective agency? How could it be right to hold someone subject to years of abuse and neglect to the same degree of accountability as someone privileged and loved? Could Kant possibly be right that we must either assume we can act with absolute spontaneity, as uncaused causes, or must consider ourselves no better than “turnspits”? How could we assume something is true just for “practical” reasons? Isn’t that like wishful thinking, or believing in God because we think we “need to”?
So much for the question. My very brief suggestion is that we accept (i) that the possibility of the self-knowledge criterial for agency is much more difficult and complicated than in the standard picture of agency (and rarer, though not impossible), (ii) that deliberations are rarely “freely” undertaken by persons simply qua rational deliberators, and they are never capable of “stepping back” from all their commitments and assessing them, and (iii) that we are likely “in charge” of much less of our fate than has been assumed in the traditional picture that has come down to us from the Humanist Inheritance. Assume all this and that a Kantian-style dualism, even a practical dualism, is much too strictly disjunctive and abstract, and that Simple Acknowledgement is not a practical option. What then? The question is what it would mean practically, from the point of view of someone who must lead his or her life, cannot wait to see what happens, to acknowledge this, who must embody the acknowledgement and “live out” this acknowledgement or act in the light of its truth.
My suggestion is that this is not, cannot be, a purely philosophical or theoretical question. It is largely a practical question and concerns a collectively sustained social practice. That is, the question of how to hold each other to account has obviously varied a great deal over historical time, sometimes including notions of familial guilt and inherited responsibility and quite varying notions of the relation between intention and responsibility. No theory of agency that does not acknowledge this from the outset seems to me to have much credibility. The idea is that agency – being the subjects of deeds that are categorically distinct events, being subjects whom others hold accountable for their deeds – is much more like a social status instituted and sustained by the relevant social attitudes shared in a community at a time than it is like being a unique sort of entity, one either exempt from the causal laws of the spatio-temporal universe or possessed of a distinct psychological structure and mode of causation that requires a distinct logical form of explanation. By analogy, one is a professor by (and only by) being taken to be one in ways that are relatively well settled and agreed on by a community at a time, and the idea is that being of the sort who can be held accountable for deeds (or falling outside such a boundary) is very like this, and that that status can change, expand or shrink, over time. There is no fact of the matter “outside” of the rules of such a practice that could “settle” the matter of who can inhabit such a status, and thus no reason to look at the problem as a matter of either the results established by the best science or scientifically realist philosophy, or a matter of a wholly autonomous practical attitude. We can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in the light of either changing socio-historical conditions or new findings in science. (The philosophical intuition that we must first establish a priori that we “can” do what the practice assigns to us as doers is a red herring; there is ample evidence already that we can play many different variations of the game or practice.) In this context both Simple Acknowledgement or a wholly autonomous practical attitude look like what they are; bad practical suggestions.
This is not to say that the considerations relevant to any current assessment of the practice or its alteration are easily accessible. And obviously “we” don’t hold conventions and decide whether and what to change. It is extremely difficult to get a clear grip on what we actually are doing and even more difficult to know when some aspect of a practice is “losing its grip” and what to do about it if it is. That is, we need to be able to imagine in a fine-grained way what we are actually up to at any moment (what rules we are following, how we are applying them) and what any supposition about change would look like, what it would call on us to do, what it would feel like, how an imagined alternative would be experienced under specific historical and social conditions. A few general principles about how to incorporate this deflation is not going to get us far since we need to re-imagine something like a form of life.
A tiny step forward in such a project would be to acknowledge that something like this issue has been addressed in modern literature and film for some time, more than it has in philosophy. It has not been entirely absent in philosophy, of course. One can understand the projects of Hegel, or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Heidegger or Dewey as contributing to our sense of such a different shared form of life without the traditional picture of rational agents or conscientious moral individuals at its core. Freud and the development of the “therapeutic attitude” would be another candidate. And in our own day, certainly Richard Rorty and Bernard Williams would have to count as helping to advance the conversation. But the best resources for understanding it might lie in a philosophically sensitive assessment of such “records” of the struggle with this problem as one finds in Fontane, Tolstoy (above all Tolstoy), Hardy, James, Musil, Döblin, Dreyser, Kafka, Ibsen, Beckett and others in whatever aesthetic kind these form (the kind that deals with the ever more fractured and deflated fate of the Humanist Inheritance). Bernard Williams was likely right, in other words, that “(i)n important ways, we are, in our ethical situation more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime,” and he meant especially with regard to the dwindling credibility of the core of the Humanist Inheritance. But that fact not only invites a renewed attention to the epic and tragic poets, but also invites attention to these modern aesthetic attempts at imagining this “ethical situation” in our own day.
This is admittedly still hand-waving and promissory notes, but it is at least hand-waving and note offering in a certain direction, and an expression of some skepticism about the major alternatives on offer in philosophy.