The Politics of Agency
The Politics of Agency: Toward a Pragmatic Approach to Philosophical Anthropology (forthcoming with Ashgate, 2008)
Theories of human agency range from Plato to Paul Churchland: they are as many and as varied as philosophy itself. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to understand any major historical figure without grappling with this figure’s (often implicit) view of human agents. It is thus not surprising that there has been some attention paid to what we are doing when we theorize about human agency—to the type of theorizing we are involved in, the conditions under which we can assess this theorizing, and the epistemic status of theories of agency themselves.
These questions have been of perennial interest to philosophers of social science, and to a lesser degree to moral philosophers. Debates about individualism and holism, reductionism and phenomenology, naturalism and humanism all turn on how we answer basic questions about the nature of human agency. What is surprising about these debates, as well as the general attention given to questions of agency, is the blind faith that our theoretical endeavors will be epistemic in nature—i.e., that they will result in a tidy set of propositions about agents that correspond to some fact of the matter, often viewed as independent of all human representation. In this proposed book, I will argue that this traditional approach to human agency is at best misleading, and at worst entirely misguided. The traditional emphasis on the accuracy of a given theory of human agency has systematically obscured the normative dimension within these theories.
Recognizing this normative dimension, I argue, allows us to see that a pragmatic approach to theories of agency, be it in social science or in moral philosophy, is more appropriate to the explanandum.
The key to the analysis I offer lurks in a threefold distinction between empirical propositions, constitutive rules, and recommendations for adopting constitutive rules. While many philosophers have recognized the distinction between rules and propositions, few have attempted to spell out the third category in question in any detail. Most theories of agency present themselves as empirical assertions, capable of being verified or falsified. I argue that theories of human agency cannot be captured in this traditional manner. Human activity is characterized by an understanding of the actions (on the part of the actors) in which agents engage. Theoretical reflection can shape this understanding by drawing our attention to what had hitherto remained unnoticed. To put this point polemically: our description of human agency can change the thing described. It is this peculiar epistemic situation which licenses rejecting the view that we are to assess theories of agency solely in terms of their ability to describe the activities of agents: the theory in question can change the understanding of the acting agent, and hence the character of the action undertaken.
To claim that we are thus to construe theories of agency as articulating the constitutive rules of human practice, however, is too quick. The notion of a ‘rule’ is a useful tool for characterizing human conduct, but it does not exhaust this conduct. One and the same activity can be captured under differing, or even incompatible, constitutive rules. Indeed, one can understand the widespread disagreements in social psychology, sociology, and philosophy as precisely a disagreement about what rules best characterize the phenomenon at stake. Rules exist under interpretations, and interpretations emphasize differing features of the conduct they aim to capture. It is in virtue of this that we can view theoretical accounts of human agency as recommendations for understanding a range of human activity, or human agency generally, in a particular manner.
Both of these arguments suggest that a traditional, epistemologically oriented account of agency misses the mark. A theory can change the thing it describes, and there are several ways to describe human agency. Deciding between competing theories, then, amounts to deciding between competing recommendations. This suggests that we must assess theoretical accounts of agency in terms of the values we have, and not in terms of the epistemology we revere. The alternative approach to theories of agency I advocate is a pragmatic, ‘therapeutic’ one.
The aim of the book is to present a sustained argument for this approach. While my introductory chapter provides the nuts and bolts of the argument, the book itself provides a more detailed analysis of each of the argumentative steps, spelling out the implications of my approach for some key issues in the philosophy of social science (as well as moral philosophy). The second chapter, for example, shows how the analysis I offer can alter the course of the conversation in the reductionist/anti-reductionist disputes of our day. In brief, I argue that the issue here at stake is itself a normative one—a case of recommended rules for what ought to count as an explanation—and hence that the dispute can be resolved (if it can) only when we shift the debate to a debate about the values that undergird our competing recommendations. Other areas in which my approach offers a significant contribution are in the methodological individualist/holist debate, the atomism/communitarianism debate, and the debates about the best approach to explanation in social science (the humanism/naturalism/critical theory debate). It must be emphasized that this is not simply a survey of problems in the philosophy of social science: I am forced to deal with these debates to make the argument of the book work (this is not surprising, as I am defending a particular view of how we ought to approach human agents, and each of the above debates represents disagreements on precisely this question). My approach to these debates, however, has a significant pay-off: it allows us to understand these disputes in a new way—a way that makes ethical inquiry central to each. This is a significant departure from most philosophical analyses of agency.
The final chapter of my manuscript is devoted to spelling out how my approach differs from the approaches of four philosophers: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Rorty. I criticize the positions found in each of these philosophers, offering in the process three crucial features for a pragmatic-therapeutic approach to theories of agency: First, they must acknowledge the social conditions under which agents emerge. Second, they must offer positive prospects for emerging agents. Finally, they cannot be merely private exercises in self-creation. In emphasizing the evaluative dimensions of theories of agency, then, we must move beyond the important first steps taken in the continental tradition, as well as the self-consuming irony of (some) neo-pragmatism.