The Province of Human Agency

Noûs 52 (3):697-720 (2018)

Authors
Anton Ford
University of Chicago
Abstract
Agency is a power, but what is it a power to do? The tradition presents us with three main answers: (1) that agency is a power to affect one’s own will, consequent upon which act further events ensue, beginning with the movement of a part of one's body; (2) that agency is a power to affect one’s own body, consequent upon which act further events ensue, beginning with the movement of an object that one touches; and (3) that agency is a power to affect that material upon which one brings one's action to bear---e.g. the apple one is peeling (with a knife in one's hand). These three answers correspond to three increasingly expansive conceptions of the province of human agency. I refer to them, respectively, as volitionalism, corporealism and materialism. Only the first two are seriously considered in contemporary action theory. Favoring the third, and hoping to sharpen the conflict between the third and the first, I criticize the second. Corporealism has been a popular position—arguably, the default position in the philosophy of action—since Donald Davidson’s classic paper “Agency” (1971). Although it seems to occupy a sensible middle ground between volitionalism and materialism, corporealism is, I argue, indefensible: it shares the vulnerabilities of both its two rivals, without possessing the strengths of either. Nevertheless, reflection on corporealism lights the road to materialism, which, in the end, is the only possible alternative to volitionalism.
Keywords action  agency  bodily movement  basic action  materialism  corporealism  volition  Davidson
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Reprint years 2018
DOI 10.1111/nous.12178
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