I often try—usually unsuccessfully—to push the idea that philosophy of action would benefit from a serious interaction with phenomenology. I tried to give an account of this to a well-known philosopher a few days ago but, partly because I was being overly exuberant and at the same time not entirely coherent, I got the distinct impression that he thought I was an idiot. Here I want to sketch out one place where I believe action theory needs phenomenology: on the issues of endorsement and identity. I am going to argue that a phenomenological account is needed to bring out the ways in which our agency is both creative and passive in such a way that acting on motives we do not rationally endorse may yet strengthen or at least express our agency.
In the latest incarnation of his theory of identification,
But I think
I think it leaves out a rather salient feature of our phenomenology, and this is the point at which phenomenological accounts are needed as correctives to overly rationalized or intellectualized views of agency. The feature is this: We sometimes find ourselves saddled with motives that we would not endorse, on deliberation, as good motives to act on. We might, in fact, reject them on every possible grounds, from their negative consequences in our means-end reasoning to their apparent undermining of our pursuits of the things we care about. But these motives might nevertheless come with, one might say, built-in endorsement. They appear to us as agency-defining for us, individually, as the persons we are. I might, for example, believe that all sorts of things are worth sacrificing some of my pride for. And if I deliberate seriously on the question, I might in the end decide that in some cases I ought to bite the bullet and overcome my pride. But faced with a concrete situation, I find that pride-based motives appear with a certain agential authority that I have not given them through any deliberation. While I may override these motives, either through impulsive action, or though further deliberation about the benefits of doing so, I find that these deliberations smack to me of rationalization.
There is a problem in cases like these. The mechanisms of practical deliberation normally taken to be agency-bestowing appear here as the exact opposite: from the first-person practical perspective, I am distanced from my deliberation, so that while I endorse all the premises in the deliberation, I still cannot help treating the process as a rationalization, undermining the agency-laden motives of pride. I might have every (good) reason to swallow my pride here, and yet I find that every such reason undermines my sense of my own identity and my own agency. The deliberate, rationally endorsed course of action comes up against a practical identity that I do not in any obvious sense endorse, but that I experience as somehow self-endorsing. (Think of John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible bellowing, when asked why he will not sign his false confession, “Because it is my name!”)
The obvious existence of cases of this kind, I think, lends
My claim, in other words, is that we do not fully create our wills; we also discover ourselves to have de facto irrevisable wills. Because they are de facto irrevisable but in principle revisable, the phenomenology here comes into conflict with theories of agency that reject any passive component to agency, i.e., any component that we do not actively endorse and that we cannot reject without great harm to our practical identities. And this is also a case where, I think, the phenomenology has the upper hand: faced with self-endorsing agency-laden motives, I may well be aware that I could, in principle, withhold my endorsement of them; but this thought is only an abstraction, born of a self-deceptive view of the agent as a mind fully in control of itself. But at the same time, the motives we endorse and the self-endorsing motives we encounter usually work together more or less harmoniously. Agency is, one might say, a composite of what we are and what we make of ourselves. Phenomenology is in a unique position to study the functioning of this composite. Granted, it cannot exclude the problems of exhaustion-satisfaction or manipulation-satisfaction. But this shows only that phenomenology is not sufficient for an account of agency; not that it is not central to working out such an account.