Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Agency, Endorsement, and Identity: A Case for Phenomenological Intervention

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, Frankfurt has argued that agents can be said to identity with a first-order desire when they both have a second-order volition to act on that desire and are satisfied with that second-order volition. This account has been widely accepted, but Frankfurt’s conception of what the satisfaction comes to has come under constant fire. Frankfurt conceives of the satisfaction as something like a lack of motivation on the part of the agent to revise the second-order volition, and he admits that there are many acceptable reasons why agents might be so disinclined toward revision: for example, they might simply be bored with the self-reexamination involved; or, they might even be manipulated into the satisfaction. Most (as I understand it, Velleman, Bratman, and Ekstrom, among others) are not satisfied with this view of satisfaction. The reasons vary, but the core problem is that satisfaction alone, thus conceived, does not seem to be a sufficiently agential process.

But I think Frankfurt is on to something important: he is rejecting a standard view of agency. On this sort of standard view, agency is an active process through and through; this activity, in fact, is what differentiates agency from (supposedly) passive processes, such as perception and belief formation, or even coming to have motives (as opposed to endorsing them). And this view seems to me slightly mistaken. Its basis is an idea, expressed for example by Korsgaard, along the following lines: When we encounter a motive (such as a desire), we cannot just act on it. Because we are self-conscious, we are detached from our motives, so that we can take them or leave them. That is, we can endorse or reject them. From a first-person practical perspective, in which we must decide what reasons to act on, we are under the necessity of choosing among our motives rather than simply following whichever motives might pop up. As an account of practical reasoning in abstraction, something like this is probably right: when faced with evaluative judgments provided to us by desires, we can either use those judgments as premises in our reasoning to reach a conclusion, or we can override them with other judgments. But is this account correct of our actual deliberative processes or our typical decision-making?

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 Frankfurt’s account much of its credibility. But I am not at all convinced that a view like Korsgaard’s can accommodate such cases. On her view, after all, such self-endorsing motives are necessarily agent-undermining, since they seem to involve something “acting on me or in me”. I agree that, thus described, self-endorsing motives are agent-undermining. But we can redescribe them as follows: We are complex organisms with complex mental economies. Some items in these economies are central and largely irrevisable; perhaps we could revise them with a massive amount of work, but for the most part they are likely to serve as the cornerstones in all our processes of deliberation and endorsement in such a way that attempting to revise those items would itself be a self-undermining process, a sort of conflict of the will with itself. It is precisely because those items are central to our deliberative processes and our self-conception, and not because we actively endorse them upon deliberation, that they appear to us as agency-laden rather than agency-undermining. If they appear to undermine our agency, it is because they get in the way of other things we want or care about. In other words, they seem to undermine our agency only if we think of agency as entirely unfettered to non-deliberative motives, and if we cannot accept the idea that we discover some norms within ourselves rather than coming to them through deliberation.

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.


  1. Roman,

    I wonder if you could perhaps pump my intuitions with a few more examples, or since we are talking phenomenology, some phenomenological descriptions. The contrast between Korsgaard and Frankfurt's account is clear. I'm just not clear on your compositeness of agency.



  2. I'll try. I need to work out the different kinds of motives in relation to endorsement and identity. Next post(s), perhaps. The point I'm trying to make about compositeness is something like this: there are motives that we experience as genuinely ours, and yet that we do not endorse. But such motives are integrated seamlessly into our willing--that is, they function just like motives we do endorse. In other words, our agency involves features we have no control over, which yet make up our authentic or autonomous agency.

  3. Funny you should mention that we have no sense of agency, but still have a sense of ownership of motives. This sounds very much like Ch. 8 in Gallagher's "How the Body Shapes the Mind." One of the model's discussed in the chapter is how schizophrenia can disrupt our sense of agency, even though our ownership of agency is intact. In addition, this is a true phenomenology, as he claims, of involuntary action normally. We don't feel like we have a sense of agency in involuntary moments, but we still express those action as owned. I don't know if this helps at all, and this is a digression from the topic at hand.

    As I see it, you're after motives that we own, but do not endorse as part of our agency. This is a hard phenomenological intuition to pump since the nature of intentionality central to phenomenology is often given in terms of a hermeneutic freedom of self-understanding, or freedom of consciousness itself that would resist a condition that would amount to inauthenticity. Wouldn't it?

  4. Hi Roman. its B. I am catching up some more with your posts.

    Man, I've been think about this issue a lot too and I think you make some good points here.

    We have to get over the prioritization of rational activity in conceptions of the self. Much of what constitutes me is a matter of receptivity. And that doesn't make it a force on or in me.

    Ok.. Here are some sketch thoughts in response to your example of the prideful guy:

    In the end, it sounds like the guy ultimately identifies with the pride, that he is not moved by the force of the reasons to get over it. He doesn’t reflectively reject it, even though he recognizes that there are valid reasons to reject it. I guess this shows that recognizing reasons to reject or externalize parts of my identity is not sufficient for externalizing them. The prideful guy sees reasons not to act out of pride, but then he still can’t help seeing his pride as really part of who he is. Is it an upshot of your thinking here that the ultimate authority over what what constitutes part of ‘me’ (rather than something on or in me) is my own, perhaps rationally impenetrable, sense of who I really am?
    Your post does a good job at showing some of the problems with Kantian habit defining the self only in terms of rational activity… defing the agent in terms of things he has actively arrived at or endorsed in a process of deliberation. My self outruns the powers of my reason and consciousness. But perhaps it also outruns my own “sense” of who I am. There might be a danger that you still attribute to much authority to the agent in defining his self. Can’t my own sense of who I am be mistaken or alienated?
    Let’s say I have a roommate, and I keep our apartment really really clean. I might take that a reflection of my own fastidiousness, and be identified with that, even if I recognize reasons to stop being so fastidious (e.g., it takes up too much time, I am not working on my dissertation enough). So far it parallels your prideful guy. But then what if, despite my own sense of who I am, actually I am not motivated by an admirable fastidiousness, but rather out of a kind of resentment or aggression, that I look to have something to hang over the head of my roommate, or that I look for a way to make myself seem better than him. Probably in any given circumstance we are motivated multifariously.
    Some of my motivations I have a sense of identification with (like the pride in your example…I am taking it that this sense of just “look I am a prideful guy and I like it, man” is some kind of consciousness) and some of them are consciously applied principles, and yet much of who I am operates behind the back of my consciousness. I might say and sense that I am fastidious, but the truth is more that I’m a jerk. Well, let’s say a fastidious jerk.

    I doubt I’ve said anything you disagree with… But do you see what I am trying to say?

    See ya,