Control and vulnerability : reflections on the nature of human agency and personhood

Sharli A. Paphitis
Rhodes University
Following the writings of philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt, Gary Watson, and Alfred Mele, in this thesis I defend some central claims of the self-control view of human agency. However, I not only defend, but also supplement this view in the following two ways. First, drawing on work by Mary Midgley and Sigmund Freud I advance the claim that self-control requires the experience of internal conflict between an agent’s motivations and intentions. Second, drawing on insights from Simone de Beauvoir and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as recent research in social psychology and cognitive science, I will argue in this thesis that self-control and vulnerability are inextricably intertwined with one another, and that as a result both are to be seen as constitutive of human agency. While it is the capacity for self-control that marks us out as human agents, I argue that it is also our uniquely human vulnerability which distinguishes our agency from the kind of agency which we might attribute to other potential or actual forms of sentience. Further, while the concepts of human agency and personhood are typically conflated in the analytic tradition of philosophy, in this thesis I will show that there are good reasons for understanding these two concepts as subtly distinct from one another. The term personhood, I will argue, can fruitfully be understood in substantive rather than purely formal terms. A person, in the superlative sense, is to be understood as someone who exercises their agency well; and, as such, persons are answerable to a number of normative prescriptions. Following Midgley, Nietzsche and Martha Nussbaum, I argue against Frankfurt’s normative prescription for personhood in the form of what he calls ‘wholeheartedness’, and offer four normative prescriptions for personhood of my own
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