Participants and Spectators


There remains great controversy in philosophy over the issue of how we should make sense of what people do, of their actions, as opposed to explaining what happens to them. Some philosophers believe that if the question is: what distinguishes naturally occurring events like bodily movements in space from metaphysically distinct purposive doings initiated by me, the answer is: nothing. There are no such special events; there are only bodily movements in space, naturally caused like all other events.  In Anglophone philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, under the influence of logical positivism and various projects in scientific reductionism, this was the dominant position, and in some very influential camps, it still is. The picture is more sophisticated now, thanks to extraordinary advances in the brain sciences, and various ways that have been found to bypass difficult problems in scientific reductionism, but the metaphysical position remains basically the same.

The situation began to change in mid-century, to some degree owing to the influence of Wittgenstein, and a new consensus began to form among some philosophers who rejected the physicalist position, but not in favor of a full blown metaphysical incompatibilism or voluntarism. The idea was that actions could be said to require a distinct sort of explanation, and that it made a complete hash of our experience and especially of what we want explained to insist that everything should be understood as having the form of a natural event. Actions have a distinct logical form, one could say; they were purposive doings, undertaken “for the sake of something”; they were reflective and intentional (if you asked someone why she was going on about something, she could tell you); and to some degree, that form was rational. That is, the answer you got when you asked that “why” question was a reason, of some, even minimal sort, what the agent took to justify the action, or at least that action rather than any other, and their having such reasons was what motivated them to undertake the actions they did. In this sense it is a philosophical impossibility for the answer to any such “why” question about an action to be “No reason at all; I just did it”; as much an impossibility as saying about a fire that broke out: there was no cause; it just happened.

By now the philosophical landscape is dotted with so many variations on these options that it is difficult to get to a sufficiently high altitude and see the basic alternatives. However those who think there are such things as actions and agents requiring logically distinct forms of explanation point to many common features, the simplest being that (i) in acting I know what I am about and why I am about it (some stress especially that I know this in a unique way, “non-observationally” and “non-inferentially”), and (ii) that what I am doing is subject to some kind of deliberative control (I am able to arrive at reasons for acting by deliberation and be motivated by them), and (iii) that I, considered as a distinct particular, have the capacity to direct a course of events in line with of the results of this deliberation. Call this the Humanist Inheritance, the inheritance of a complex tradition stretching back to Aristotle on the voluntary, massively influenced by Christian requirements for individual responsibility and guilt, and largely influenced by (but not wholly determined by) Cartesian positions on the required metaphysics of mental interiority.

Suppose though that all three of these assumptions presupposed in any notion of agency are now less and less robustly credible than they once were. Of course, on the self-knowledge issue, I could easily be said to have “practical knowledge” of what I am doing in cases of simple, straightforward actions: going to the store for bread, tying my shoes, driving to pick up my son at school, etc. But much literature and film in the modern era provide ample credible examples that in more complicated cases (the ones we care most about) people cannot provide a clear act description or even a very clear account of motivation. If they do, we often read or see that the act description is hotly contested (“you were not doing X, you were in fact doing Y”) and that that avowed motivation has little or no connection with what the character actually does. We might think that Freud was right about the limits of self-knowledge, or that the Marxist and critical theory tradition is right about the extent to which persons’ views about the world are truly “their own,” the product of reasoning or deliberation, or are the products of the vast shaping powers of modern consumer societies and cannot count as self-knowledge. Or we might think that the evidence from evolutionary biology is beginning to show us that our own attitudes and avowed ethical descriptions and motives are merely epiphenomenal, and that we are very strongly disposed to act in ways that are better accounted for by such evolutionary explanations, that we act as we do regardless of our avowed views.

Likewise, suppose that what we are able to effect as the result of deliberation is actually of a much, much smaller extent than we optimistically assume when we decide what to buy, whom to marry, whom to vote for, what we are willing to sacrifice for.

Suppose, that is, that the right picture is that characters who take themselves to be deliberating and initiating various deeds come to look like somewhat pathetic figures frantically pulling various wires and pushing various buttons which are, unknown to them, not connected to some moving machine they are riding, on a course completely indifferent to anything such characters pretend to do (or much more indifferent than the riders believe). If we extend the image we could say that sometimes the machine looks on a pre-programmed course of some sort, unalterable no matter what we “do,” that it is set or programmed by human nature, our fallen nature, our genetic inheritance, social forces, the initial conditions at the Big Bang and the laws of physics, or whatever. Perhaps the machine just seems to be careening about randomly, subject to a vast number of variables no one can manage or control or effectively predict. Fate or destiny as blind chance, in other words.

The first thing to say is that this is not an academic exercise. The problem I want to raise has become especially interesting in the last hundred and fifty years or so, because, under the influences, first, of the so-called “Masters of Suspicion” – Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – and in our own day under the influence of everything from structuralism and various “anti-humanisms” in European philosophy to evolutionary biology and the neurosciences (experimental results, brain imaging, Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment and so forth), many seem to have concluded that in an ever expanding range of cases, it only seems to us that we are “running any show” as conscious agents in any even metaphysically modest sense; it only seems that we could be actually leading our lives. On the other hand, in many of these contexts, it also seems extreme to say that because these general conditions have not been met, or are only minimally met, then to just that extent we must be said to be in the grip of something, some passion or unconscious desire, and that we are not acting at all; something is happening to us.


So the question is: if these assumptions are false or less credible and under increasing pressure, what difference should it make in how we comport ourselves? What would it actually be to acknowledge “the truth” or take into practical account the uncertainty? There are some compatibilists who might argue that it makes no difference at all, that our not being “in charge” or “in control” of our deliberations, preferences, schemes of evaluation, values, etc. is beside the main point, that being free from external constraint (such as force or coercion) and being able “to do what we want” is freedom enough. For most of us though, viewing ourselves as “products” of social or evolutionary or bio-chemical processes (and thereby not “running any show”) does count as itself an important form of constraint and as hugely deflating to the Humanist Inheritance.

And it is difficult to imagine what simply acknowledging the facts would be, to give up all pretensions to agency. Call this Simple Acknowledgement. Even if the “moving machine” picture is only roughly accurate, it is hard to see how we could simply declare that we are not in charge, the machine is, and simply “wait to see what happens,” what the machine ends up doing.

This last consideration opens up onto a very popular view. This has it that, as a practical matter (constantly facing situations in which, whatever the metaphysical facts, we must deliberate and decide), we just cannot be spectators of our lives. We are, have no other practical option but being, participants. Simple Acknowledgement is not a practical possibility. Moreover, as Strawson argued in his influential article, “Freedom and Resentment,” such a “participant or practical point of view” involves a variety of commitments, values, attitudes, and the like which we simply cannot (again as a matter of some practical fact) eliminate without rendering our practical lives unintelligible. I find myself in a great deal of sympathy with this view, but it also seems to me to come with a high price and I am not sure how to pay it.

Perhaps the most well known defense of such a practical point of view was Kant’s and his position makes clear these difficulties. Some of the difficulties are theoretical: “Who cares how it seems to us? What we cannot imagine giving up? What we ought to care about is the truth.” But practically, what some regard as the greatest liability of the Kantian approach is also the most consistent aspect of it and the hardest to avoid. That is, the spectator or “sideways on” and the practical or participant points of view are logically distinct, allow no overlap or mediation. You are “in” one perspective or “in” the other. Kant put this by talking about what appear to be separate domains of the real – the noumenal and the phenomenal – but the basic distinction is problematic enough without adding such burdens. Why assume that anything resolved when “considering ourselves as agents” can effect anything in the world, considered from a third person point of view? How could a Kantian account for what clearly appear to be degrees of agency and effective agency? How could it be right to hold someone subject to years of abuse and neglect to the same degree of accountability as someone privileged and loved? Could Kant possibly be right that we must either assume we can act with absolute spontaneity, as uncaused causes, or must consider ourselves no better than “turnspits”? How could we assume something is true just for “practical” reasons? Isn’t that like wishful thinking, or believing in God because we think we “need to”?


So much for the question. My very brief suggestion is that we accept (i) that the possibility of the self-knowledge criterial for agency is much more difficult and complicated than in the standard picture of agency (and rarer, though not impossible), (ii) that deliberations are rarely “freely” undertaken by persons simply qua rational deliberators, and they are never capable of “stepping back” from all their commitments and assessing them, and (iii) that we are likely “in charge” of much less of our fate than has been assumed in the traditional picture that has come down to us from the Humanist Inheritance. Assume all this and that a Kantian-style dualism, even a practical dualism, is much too strictly disjunctive and abstract, and that Simple Acknowledgement is not a practical option. What then? The question is what it would mean practically, from the point of view of someone who must lead his or her life, cannot wait to see what happens, to acknowledge this, who must embody the acknowledgement and “live out” this acknowledgement or act in the light of its truth.

My suggestion is that this is not, cannot be, a purely philosophical or theoretical question. It is largely a practical question and concerns a collectively sustained social practice. That is, the question of how to hold each other to account has obviously varied a great deal over historical time, sometimes including notions of familial guilt and inherited responsibility and quite varying notions of the relation between intention and responsibility. No theory of agency that does not acknowledge this from the outset seems to me to have much credibility. The idea is that agency – being the subjects of deeds that are categorically distinct events, being subjects whom others hold accountable for their deeds – is much more like a social status instituted and sustained by the relevant social attitudes shared in a community at a time than it is like being a unique sort of entity, one either exempt from the causal laws of the spatio-temporal universe or possessed of a distinct psychological structure and mode of causation that requires a distinct logical form of explanation. By analogy, one is a professor by (and only by) being taken to be one in ways that are relatively well settled and agreed on by a community at a time, and the idea is that being of the sort who can be held accountable for deeds (or falling outside such a boundary) is very like this, and that that status can change, expand or shrink, over time. There is no fact of the matter “outside” of the rules of such a practice that could “settle” the matter of who can inhabit such a status, and thus no reason to look at the problem as a matter of either the results established by the best science or scientifically realist philosophy, or a matter of a wholly autonomous practical attitude. We can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in the light of either changing socio-historical conditions or new findings in science. (The philosophical intuition that we must first establish a priori that we “can” do what the practice assigns to us as doers is a red herring; there is ample evidence already that we can play many different variations of the game or practice.) In this context both Simple Acknowledgement or a wholly autonomous practical attitude look like what they are; bad practical suggestions.

This is not to say that the considerations relevant to any current assessment of the practice or its alteration are easily accessible. And obviously “we” don’t hold conventions and decide whether and what to change. It is extremely difficult to get a clear grip on what we actually are doing and even more difficult to know when some aspect of a practice is “losing its grip” and what to do about it if it is. That is, we need to be able to imagine in a fine-grained way what we are actually up to at any moment (what rules we are following, how we are applying them) and what any supposition about change would look like, what it would call on us to do, what it would feel like, how an imagined alternative would be experienced under specific historical and social conditions. A few general principles about how to incorporate this deflation is not going to get us far since we need to re-imagine something like a form of life.

A tiny step forward in such a project would be to acknowledge that something like this issue has been addressed in modern literature and film for some time, more than it has in philosophy. It has not been entirely absent in philosophy, of course. One can understand the projects of Hegel, or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Heidegger or Dewey as contributing to our sense of such a different shared form of life without the traditional picture of rational agents or conscientious moral individuals at its core. Freud and the development of the “therapeutic attitude” would be another candidate. And in our own day, certainly Richard Rorty and Bernard Williams would have to count as helping to advance the conversation. But the best resources for understanding it might lie in a philosophically sensitive assessment of such “records” of the struggle with this problem as one finds in Fontane, Tolstoy (above all Tolstoy), Hardy, James, Musil, Döblin, Dreyser, Kafka, Ibsen, Beckett and others in whatever aesthetic kind these form (the kind that deals with the ever more fractured and deflated fate of the Humanist Inheritance). Bernard Williams was likely right, in other words, that “(i)n important ways, we are, in our ethical situation more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime,” and he meant especially with regard to the dwindling credibility of the core of the Humanist Inheritance. But that fact not only invites a renewed attention to the epic and tragic poets, but also invites attention to these modern aesthetic attempts at imagining this “ethical situation” in our own day.

This is admittedly still hand-waving and promissory notes, but it is at least hand-waving and note offering in a certain direction, and an expression of some skepticism about the major alternatives on offer in philosophy.

38 comments to Participants and Spectators

  • Richard Eldridge

    Swarthmore College / Freiburg Research Institute for Advanced Studies

    Rational Agency and Anxieties of Selfhood:
    Response to Robert Pippin

    Robert Pippin’s confessedly high altitude survey of largely twentieth-century and current attitudes toward agency is accurate, timely, and insightful (virtues we have come to expect in Pippin’s accounts of matters). The survey is followed by an important suggestion that we should understand agency as both a socially instituted status and a practical problem, namely the problem of coming to achieve this conferred status. I have considerable sympathy with this suggestion and with the further thought that modern literature has tracked in detail and in illuminating ways anxieties, successes, and failures that attach to efforts to be recognized as an agent.

    I have, however, three worries. 1) The Strawsonian view (with its echoes of Kant) about the autonomy of rational agentive doings from physical causal explanation strikes me as stronger than Pippin thinks it is. 2) Agency seems to me to be less a social status concept than a default, but defeasible status concept, with very rough edges. 3) The kinds of response to the ‘practical’ problem of agency that literature has powerfully tracked are more complex than efforts to acquire a socially instituted and sustained status, such as job; they involve significant ‘self-anxiety,’ and they are open to significantly intimate and aesthetic-artistic response. Let me take these in order.

    First of all, we do not know that all actions must be at bottom nothing but (congeries of) mere bodily movements that are explainable by subsumption under the laws of physics. That is, the idea that they are thus explainable is not a necessary truth. To see this, consider that no matter how far we go with our physical law formulations—no matter what ‘elementary’ particles we uncover—we do not know and cannot know that we have reached metaphysical rock-bottom. There are limits, both temporal and spatial, to our powers of measurement and discernment, even when these powers are extended by the most spectacular machines we can devise. The results (particle discernments and law formulations) that are delivered by those machine measurements and by the theories developed in relation to them are, always, about (empirically real, mind-independent) objects as we can discern them, not about the ground-level, ‘ultimate’ constituents of reality that move only in accordance with laws of physics. I doubt that talk of such objects even makes sense. This is one way of understanding Kant’s phenomena/noumena distinction. What we are able to know, with increasing refinement and explanatory power, are only objects as we can discern them. So much for fundamental metaphysics.

    It is of course tempting, even easy, to be powerfully impressed by how much about the natural world physics has explained. We should neither expect nor hope that its progress should cease. But will physics ever explain agency?

    Pippin describes the mid-twentieth century skepticism about the physical explanation of agency that formed in some quarters in philosophy through the reception of Wittgenstein. Philosophers impressed with the autonomy of agency noted three features that distinguish acts on the part of rational agents from ‘mere’ physical motions. (The reference to rational agents is not trivial. It is perfectly reasonable to say that an acid can act as an agent to dissolve certain other substances; it has the power to do so.) These features of the actions of rational agents are, according to Pippin, citationality (rational agents can say, to some extent, what they are up to), deliberative control (rational agents arrive at what they take to be reasons for action, and they are motivated by such reasons), and capacity to direct (both taking A to be a reason for doing B and thence–supposing A to be taken to be decisive–doing B, are in some sense ‘up to’ the agent, who hence acts freely). Pippin wishes us to recognize these facts about agents, but also to accept that exercises of these abilities (citationality, deliberative control, and capacity to direct) are constrained and limited in important ways. Yes. But do such limitations and constraints undermine or challenge the autonomy of rational agency from physical law explanation? I don’t see why.
    We might also add to Pippin’s list of features that are distinctive of agency the further thoughts that propositional attitudes of all kinds (beliefs, wishes, hopes, desires, and taking one thing to be a reason for another, plus all the cousins of these) are ascribed only holistically (as part of an overall ensemble of ascriptions) and on the basis of charity, as we take someone to be in the realm of agency just insofar as that someone acts on the basis of considerations that we can at least partly endorse, or at least whose relevance we can see. To see this, consider the case of whether it is possible for there to be someone acting on just one reason for the very first time. Or consider whether there could be a being who acted on reasons none of which we could even see to be relevant. It seems difficult to make sense of such cases. Significantly paranoid schizophrenics, for example, forfeit the status of rational agents. All this makes the ascription of propositional attitudes to rational agents quite different from physical property ascription via measurement.

    Further, it is nonsense for anyone to assert “I believe that p, but not p” (say, perhaps, because I have discovered via a brain scope that the belief that p is ‘in me’ physically, while I am also committed to affirming not p). Likewise, it is nonsense for anyone to say, “I take A to be a reason for B (the brain scope shows that I do), but really it isn’t.” No, both beliefs and takings to be reasons are commitments that are made by rational agents, who can express their commitments normally, to some extent, in their assertions and their behaviors. They are responsible for their commitments practically and do not, except in pathological cases, discover them from a third person point of view.

    To turn to (2): if the foregoing is right, then anyone who forms commitments and acts on them, in ways we can make significant sense of (even while differing over many details) will count as a rational agent. Children normally manage to achieve this status, progressively, by the time they are three. Normal adults in all societies display possession of this status as a matter of course. Even though a fundamentalist Muslim, say, and I have very different commitments, we can each see that the other displays means-end rationality, long-term commitment forming and executing, citationality, and so forth. The status of rational agent does not have to be specially earned beyond normal entry into language and into the practices of declaring, assessing, revising, and sustaining complex commitments that language enables. Of course there are nonetheless anxieties, often considerable ones, about how far any two rational agents (any two: spouses and intimate friends can sometimes seem strangers to one another) can make sense of each other’s commitments. Serious mental illness apart, however, the status of rational agent, once acquired, is not normally in doubt.

    As for (3), given (1) and (2) Pippin’s suggestion that we take agency to be a practical problem strikes me more as a matter of changing the topic than as breaking new metaphysical ground. But it is a good change of topic. (Given a common-enough tendency to be overimpressed by the genuine achievements of physics, many will find (1) and (2) unconvincing anyway.) The metaphysical ground is pretty well-trodden, and even if (1) and (2) are right, the really interesting questions–I agree–concern how agents cope practically with important instances of significant ‘mutually opaque’ commitments. Though I think they retain the default status of rational agents, figures such as Ulrich in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften or Wordsworth (above all, Wordsworth) can and do wonder about whether they ever have or ever could ‘really act’ at all. That is, their impulses, their taking certain things to be important and others to be less important, have put them significantly at odds with the larger drifts of their cultural surrounds.

    In Book I, lines 237-269 of the Prelude (1850), Wordsworth writes the following:

    Thus my days are past
    In contradiction; with no skill to part
    Vague longing, haply bred by want of power,
    From paramount impulse not to be withstood,
    A timorous capacity, from prudence,
    From circumspection, infinite delay.
    Humility and modest awe, themselves
    Betray me, serving often for a cloak
    To a more subtle selfishness; that now
    Locks every function up in blank reserve,
    Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye
    That with intrusive restlessness beats off
    Simplicity and self-presented truth.
    Ah! better far than this, to stray about
    Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,
    And ask no record of the hours, resigned
    To vacant musing, unreproved neglect
    Of all things, and deliberate holiday.
    Far better never to have heard the name
    Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
    Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
    Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
    Then feels immediately some hollow thought
    Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
    This is my lot; for either still I find
    Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
    Or see of absolute accomplishment
    Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
    That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
    In listlessness from vain perplexity,
    Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
    Like a false steward who hath much received
    And renders nothing back.

    He has thus come, while still a rational agent, to doubt that he is ‘really capable’ of doing anything significant, to doubt that he can form and execute reasonable commitments or find a good reason for doing anything. (Are such doubts more likely to occur in societies with a highly technologically differentiated labor system than in more agricultural societies?)

    To the extent, then, that he overcomes this problem—it is significant that anxiety about it recurs and continues to haunt and inform his best writing—Wordsworth does so not so much by acquiring a (new) social status, as by achieving a body of work, built by overwhelming powers of narrative and figurative imagination, out of responsiveness to nature (“by beauty and by fear instructed”) and out of the responsiveness of his sister Dorothy to him (“maintained for me a saving intercourse with my true self”). So it is not only Musil and other more existentialist, twentieth century writers who suffer from anxieties of selfhood. Nor are such anxieties answered primarily socially, that is, as a matter of entry into an occupational or political role. Instead, with some help from others, and via his own powers, Wordsworth finds a good enough way to go on—to go on with his writing, with his relations with others, and with his life. To the extent that most of us manage to do this, we do so by acquiring and developing social identities and powers (yes), but also friendships and capacities of sustained felt response to our worlds. So I would shade matters a bit less socially and more aesthetico-intimately than perhaps Robert Pippin would.

    But that attention to the existence of ‘anxieties of selfhood’ of this kind (not about rational agency as such) is where the action is and should be, and where important literature has focused its energies (in ways in which philosophy would do well to take into view)—to all this, yes. It is a stance that falls out of Robert Pippin’s survey and suggestion that is of the first importance.

    • Robert Pippin

      Richard Eldridge is right that the most up to date scientific position on the elemental forces in the universe is not itself a philosophical position. The claim that the ontological commitments required by such a position are the measure “of what is, that it is, and what is not, that it is not” is a philosophical position and it can be defended or attacked in any number of ways. My intention was not to take a firm position on physicalism but to add the increasing sophistication of scientific results in the fundamental sciences to the results from such areas as neuro-psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology, psychoanalysis, philosophical reflections on the forms of dependence required in modern societies and so forth to suggest some qualification on the core notion in what I called the Humanist Inheritance, especially in the “practical point of view” post-Kantian version. The question was what “qualification” could mean from the first-person point of view.

      Eldridge does not address that issue because he seems to think the right response to the question is “no qualification is needed.” And he suggests two things that I am not sure how to think together: both that the status of an autonomous agent is an “all or nothing” issue (and, again, that the answer is “all,” that the core issue is rationality, and that it is a universal, ahistorical, acultural “default” status easy and unproblematic to assign) and yet also that modern agents seem to have a great deal of doubt and anxiety about actually seeing themselves as such agents, about “being” modern selves. They have “anxieties of selfhood.” Does this mean that “we moderns” know what agents are and know that we are such agents (autonomous rational agents) but worry that – what? – we cannot now be what we know we are, and so must seek consolation? If so, that is enough of an opening in the door for my concerns to enter.

      I have already tried to say why I find the Kantian either/or unpersuasive and to suggest why the scope, power, and conditions of agency should be seen as “thick” concepts with an essentially historical meaning and so expanding or contracting “borders.” (“We” do not hold families responsible for what individuals or ancestors did; “we” once did.) And that point is relevant to Eldridge’s remarks about anxiety. His summary of the conditions relevant to agentive status raise a socio-historical question straightaway if we see evidence that it has become difficult, perhaps increasingly difficult, for persons to think of themselves as fulfilling those conditions, unable to identify, say, the content of their beliefs, the degrees of their commitments, cannot settle on the right act-description for their deeds or find themselves in endless controversies with others about the proper act-description, find themselves committed to maxims of action that they know conflict but cannot see a way of abandoning, find themselves doing what they “believe” they absolutely ought not to do, or come to feel that what they resolve to do in important cases is largely irrelevant, that their futures are shaped otherwise. Is Wordsworth (or Kleist or Tolstoy, etc.) speaking for himself, or is he some sort of voice for a historical moment, something one would not find in Homer or Sophocles, or Augustine or Shakespeare? I suggest the latter, and that that opens onto a question of how we’ve come to such a point that will inevitably have to make reference to the social form of life within which such issues surface. One could say that we will not understand the conceptual content of the conditions in Eldridge’s account of rational agency until we know a good deal more about what counts for a person as a reason to act, what are inherited as the relevant deliberative criteria, and what the relation is between that reason and the bodily movement we count as the deed. I am not sure that philosophy, traditionally understood, can help us much with those issues, at least not on its own.

  • Tzachi Zamir

    The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

    Robert Pippin’s intriguing and ambitious note responds to the post-humanist deflation of the agent by a rejection of resigned apathy on the one hand, coupled with a desire to shift philosophy’s existing conceptualization of agency. Philosophers, in his account, still cling to a debate structured around the agent as an entity whose actions necessitate an explanatory scheme that is either similar or dissimilar to the one used to characterize natural events. Instead of conducting the discussion in these terms, Pippin prompts us to begin conceiving of agency and responsibility along the lines of practice-governed notions, such as status. Such notions are context-sensitive and dynamic. The mirage Pippin is aiming to remove is of some independent fact of the matter that is external to the practices that define agency/responsibility and their limits (‘external’ in the sense that such a fact could presumably be described either by science or via some privileged access by the individuals themselves). Instead of understanding human agency through questions related to will, freedom, or the distinction between reasons and causes, we should look for the practices and forms of life through which the attribution of personal responsibility is performed and validated.

    Pippin sketches his creative proposal as no more than a hesitant pointer. The only fair response given the self-admittedly promissory and fragile nature of his post is to accordingly draw him to expand/explain it further. I will formulate three such invitations.

    First, Pippin does not provide an example that can show how such transformed self-understanding of agency appears in an actual case. What would it mean for someone who is genuinely confronting issues of responsibility, blame, or freedom to try to understand him or her self by relating their projected actions and reasons to act to existing conventions and practices? I do not think that Pippin believes that appealing to practices helps one solve genuine pressing dilemmas. Nor is it likely that an appeal to social practices can determine for us issues such as responsibility or blame since conventions and practices can be wrong, partial, or unrelated to the anxieties that one is trying to pacify. Practices can conflict (legal practice may conflict with a moral one). In fact, the dissatisfaction with merely appealing to norms and practices has traditionally encouraged undertaking a normative inquiry (philosophy), rather than being satisfied with an anthropology that restricts itself to describing conventions, norms, and forms of life. Some philosophers have surely adopted a belief in some trans-convention criteria that can evaluate existing norms. But “bottom-up” philosophers have not found this necessary. One can evaluate practices by drawing upon considerations that do not assume trans-historical truths. What is important to see, is that both camps would not be satisfied merely by appealing to existing practices and forms of life. Are we to envisage a replacement of normative examination by a Foucauldian description of institutions and the conventions they establish?

    A second question relates to what appears to be Pippin’s acceptance of a particular intellectual map as a given. Should philosophers accept without a fight the deflation of the Humanist Inheritance supposedly effected by the three masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud? Agency hovers between various philosophical questions: the mind-body problem, the determinism-free will issue, the possibility of self-knowledge. It is surely true that Marx and Freud compromise our sense of personal freedom, and that all three provide excellent grounds to believe that we systematically overestimate the scope of our self-knowledge. Yet “excellent grounds” are not necessarily fully convincing considerations, and there are powerful reasons to dismiss their actual positions on many counts. Should we, for example, universally accept that profit is necessarily related to exploitation, that material circumstances exhaustively shape abstract ideas, that higher emotions are no more than sublimated instincts? So much in what these masters of suspicion have said is far from incontestable, that it is puzzling why philosophers should write as if these masters have won.

    Finally, Pippin proposes that literary works and films can be illuminating in relation to the socially constructed agency he is inviting us to consider. While I share his interest in the philosophical dimensions of literature, again, an example would have provided a palpable sense of what this means in the particular case of agency. I take it that he is appealing to literature’s traditional focus on human frailty, on the illusive sense of control and the limits of self-knowledge, on the experience of being determined by circumstances and forces that lie outside one’s control. Yet literary works that highlight human weakness (and in this sense exemplify the deflation of the Humanistic Inheritance) frequently create a sense of outrage and injustice in the reader precisely because the social practices that crush the individual are perceived as a contingent arrangement that should/ought be changed or eradicated. Such works (e.g. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Aravid Adiga’s The White Tiger) are thus often implying the existence of a morally superior point of evaluation that lies outside the practices themselves, one which is accessible to the reader, but only glimpsed by the characters. Such works thus both acknowledge the deflation Pippin endorses but also importantly undermine it. Acknowledging the complex reader-positioning that they achieve, may ironically turn literary works that specifically highlight human limitation into allies of the Humanistic Inheritance rather than explorations and instances of its deflation.

    • Robert Pippin

      Zamir worries that if we understand agency as an instituted and sustained practice, or better, if we understand the practical reasons crucial to such status as always institution-bound, this might suggest that one would appeal to such institutional conventions in justifying the reasons one adopts, as if they are argument-enders, like “that’s just the way we go on.” Much here depends on context. Sometimes this is exactly what we do and it is not troubling (except to Kantians, perhaps). “Because I am her father.” “Because I am a citizen.” The idea of formulating what any father or citizen should do anywhere and any when, and “deducing” what fathers and citizens should do here and now is a philosophical fantasy and plays no part in how a good father or a good citizen deliberates, nor should it. And there are no “wholesale” appeals to “what our community does” because on such an account there are no wholesale appeals at all. The philosophical position on agentive status is not part of the practice of demanding and offering reasons; it is an account of the practice. (Aristotle’s phronimos does not cite doctrine about habits from the Nichomachean Ethics; he has good habits.) And it is certainly true that such inter-related offerings and demandings can come to a kind of crisis in which basic elements of the sustaining practices begin to lose their grip, seem oppressive, incompatible with other elements of the practice, acquire a new meaning in changed circumstances and so forth. The idea being resisted is that of philosophy as some kind of court of last appeal in such crises, “experts” in the rationality crucial to agency.

      And this does not amount to any vast concession to the anti-agent point of view, no “giving up.” The point was to resist the idea of the absolutely autonomous practical point of view, eternally definitive of agency, logically exempt from qualification. The history of the notion is full of qualifications and there is no reason to think that modern suspicions about agency and subjectivity and authorship and so forth are all to be understood as bad arguments, because none have understood the eternal unassailability of the Humanist Inheritance. There is also certainly no reason to concede everything and try to act like we are not subjects of our deeds. As I tried to say, we can’t.

      On the issue of literature being able to show how aspects of various social and historical practices oppress, demean, and damage persons: of course. Nothing about the position suggested implies we are stuck with how we go on, and literature often serves as the canary in the mine when the crisis begins. How we go on is almost always falling apart. But its appeal is precisely in the terms accessible to its own audience and the presentation counts as convincing and a reason for resistance in a way very different than the “court of last appeal” understanding of philosophy. And philosophical attention to what is going wrong or missing in the form of life presented can, when so directed, count as another different but related sort of reason. As to the issue of examples of such historically inflected philosophical interpretation, I have tried to do that elsewhere. (Henry James and Modern Moral Life (2000) and Hollywood Westerns and American Myth (2010).

  • Brendan Boyle

    Pippin’s Moderns, Williams’s Greeks
    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

    Pippin ends his essay by citing with approval Bernard Williams’s observation that “in important ways, we are, in our ethical situation more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime.” Williams took this to mean that we should redirect our attention toward the ancient epic and tragic poets – Homer and Sophocles, primarily – and, again, Pippin seems to agree. But just one sentence earlier, in the essay’s most explicit recommendation, Pippin suggests that the “best resources for understanding [what it means to be an agent] might lie in a philosophically sensitive assessment of such records of the struggle with this problem [of agency] as one finds in Fontane, Tolstoy (above all Tolstoy), Hardy, James, Musil, Döblin, Kafka, Ibsen, Beckett and other in whatever aesthetic kind these form (the kind that deals with the ever more fractured and deflated fate of the Humanist Inheritance).”

    Pippin doesn’t seem to see any problem in endorsing, on the one hand, Williams’s description of our ethical situation and the promise offered by the ancient poets and suggesting, on the other, that the list above (Fontane, Tolstoy, et al.) provides the “best resources” we have for getting a grip on the problem of agency in the midst of a crumbling Humanist Inheritance. That problem is, after all, no easy one, and, we might think, the more resources the better – Greeks, Germans, Russians, whoever. But in this short response to Pippin’s wonderful essay I want to merely ask whether this Janus-faced endorsement makes sense – whether Pippin, that is, can counsel, at the same time, both renewed attention on the “epic and tragic poets” and renewed attention on the modernist attempts at imagining this “ethical situation” in our own day.

    I take it that Williams himself would not have allowed Pippin this move. Williams doesn’t recommend a close examination of Homer and Sophocles as one option among many others. The upshot of Shame and Necessity, from the concluding pages of which Pippin takes the quotation above, is that the Greeks offer something like the best picture of agency going – something, I take it, that not even Tolstoy (who seems tops on Pippin’s list) can offer. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Pippin’s list can be safely ignored. Nor did Williams himself ignore the list. But Williams does seem to think that the Greek picture of agency has the modernist one dead to rights.

    This is especially clear in Williams’s essay “The Women of Trachis: Fiction, Pessimism, Ethics.” Here Williams asks what sort of fiction moral philosophy might attend to most profitably. The obvious answer is the realist novel, what Williams calls “dense fiction” (where dense does not mean “dull” but “richly descriptive”). But Williams actually rejects the turn to “dense fiction” in favor of what he calls “stark fiction,” the classic example of which is Sophoclean drama. The reasons for the rejection of “dense” in favor of “stark” fiction are intriguing and have to do, in the first place, with what Williams takes moral philosophy to be most sorely lacking. This, he says, is any conception of “chance and necessity”: “the very plain fact that everything than an agent most cares about typically comes from, and can be ruined by, uncontrollable necessity and chance” is, he says, nowhere to be found in most forms of modern moral philosophy. What moral philosophy needs, then, is a kind of fiction able to make vivid something like the workings of “uncontrollable necessity and chance” and this, says Williams, is just what “dense fiction” cannot do. Indeed, Williams actually singles out one member of Pippin’s list – Hardy – for a particular inability to account for the workings of “uncontrollable necessity and chance” in modern moral life. (Williams also mentions Ibsen approvingly). “Stark fiction,” says Williams, is stylistically distinct in that it avoids the “anecdotal and the incidental,” but it is most noteworthy for the way these stylistic peculiarities are put in the service of “displaying” the operations of chance and necessity.

    I take it that Pippin would agree – mostly, if not entirely – with Williams’s take on the importance of the right kind of acknowledgment of “chance and necessity” in an account of agency and a moral life. Pippin himself says that we “are likely ‘in charge’ of much less of our fate than has been assumed in the traditional picture that has come down to use from the Humanist Inheritance.” But Pippin may well just disagree with Williams on the prospects for modernist “dense” fiction to express the workings of chance and necessity in the right sort of way. Williams, that is, might just be wrong to say that “dense fiction” cannot acknowledge in the right sort of way the fact that we are much less ‘in charge’ of our fate than has been assumed. And if Williams is wrong, then nothing stands in the way of Pippin’s more catholic invocation of not only epic and tragic poets, but also modernist novelists and dramatists. Again, Pippin might say, it’s a hard problem, so all hands on deck.

    But again it is here that it looks like Williams wants to push back. I concede that Williams surely can’t be defending the claim that only “stark” Sophoclean fiction can be of help to us. What, otherwise, did he take those on Pippin’s list to be up to? And yet there he is, insisting on the priority of Sophoclean fiction, and pointing to Hardy (who, admittedly, may not be representative of Pippin’s list) as a decidedly wrongheaded effort at capturing how necessity and chance shape and structure the moral life. So he does seem to be defending a strong claim about the ancients, and it is this claim that I would like to understand better.

    It sounds deeply counterintuitive to turn to the ancients in this way – and for any number of reasons. First and most importantly, the texture of modern moral life is almost indescribably different than the texture of such a life in antiquity. Why would “stark, Sophoclean fiction” help us get a grip on a life that involves relations of dependence – romantic, vocational, political – that are totally unknown in antiquity? Second, isn’t this fiction’s very “starkness” — its insistence on the inexorable workings of chance and necessity – exactly wrongly-suited for a moral life that has reached a level of complexity that demands something like the dense, realist novel? Third, why would stark fiction help us moderns figure out what it is like to be an agent when such fiction, in its very starkness, resolutely avoids representing agents with anything like the “roundness” that we think characterizes agents and their deliberations?

    These considerations – and many others – work against Williams’s invocation of the ancients and make Pippin’s list look considerably more attractive. But these considerations were surely not lost on Williams himself. And so I wonder why he continued to direct our attention to the epic and tragic poets in the first instance. Two answers suggest themselves. First, Williams does sometimes write as if he really thought philosophy had gone-off-the-rails with Plato. The crumbling credibility of the Humanist Inheritance, then, is a good thing, but even with it in tatters we are still too much under the sway of its distorting elements to sort things out correctly. The ancients, thankfully, were never under its sway and, so, all the better for them.

    But, second, perhaps it has to do with a kind of resolute pessimism that was peculiar to Williams. Near the end of Shame and Necessity he says that “Greek tragedy precisely refuses to present human beings who are ideally in harmony with their world, and has no room for a world that, if it were understood well enough, could instruct us how to be in harmony with it.” Williams doesn’t say as much, but I take it that he thinks other kinds of fiction do have room for such a world – a world that, if understood well enough, could instruct us how to be in harmony with it. And in so far as fiction does have room for such a world, it is simply mistaken.

    I don’t know what Pippin would say to this but I think he would say that both Williams’s admiration for the Greeks and Williams’s pessimism have gotten the better of him here. (The pessimist sounds uncannily like, on Pippin’s terms, a “Simple Acknowledger.” And are we really to imagine that Beckett, say, presented a world that, if only it were understood well enough, would show us how to live in harmony with it? Could there be fiction starker than Beckett’s?

    It seems then, that Pippin’s Janus-faced endorsement of the Greeks and the moderns is likely correct. Indeed, Pippin’s own masterful writing on Henry James – and, forthcoming, on film noir, a cinematic genre particularly vexed by almost ancient conceptions of “fate” – would suggest that Sophocles isn’t the only thing going, that there is tremendous philosophical work to be done on modernist forms of fiction. This work, if done with the sort of patience and diligence that characterizes Pippin’s own project, could succeed in acknowledging the almost ungodly complexity of moral life without, like Williams, abandoning the hope that such a life might, ultimately, be made more intelligible to us.

    • Robert Pippin

      Boyle is quite right to remind us that Williams thought that ancient literature was especially and, apparently, uniquely suited to help with a philosophical corrective to the inheritance of what Williams called “morality.” On this issue itself, I don’t think there is anything in an expanded view of the relevant correctives that is inconsistent with what Williams was after. It is just an expansion. He was particularly interested in a corrective to the complex of notions – agency, responsibility, blame – that he thought had gained such a hold on the imagination of the Christian and post-Christian world that it was difficult to imagine anyone not sharing these views as anything but “primitive.” On that issue itself, perhaps he was right. He seemed quite influenced by Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s views on the Greeks, especially on the permanent impossibility of any harmony with the world and on the destructive foolishness of such an aspiration. But, as Boyle is implying, there are scores of other issues involved in trying to understand what it would be to break free of such a grip, and no reason to think that all of them could be addressed by the Greeks. To questions like: what would it be to do justice to the difficulties in self-knowledge that seem an ever more pressing and unique issue in nineteenth century literature, to do justice to what appeared to be distinctly new anxieties about that problem, and what would it be to imagine living through an acknowledgement of such issues, it would seem strange to rule out Proust because his fiction must be counted as “dense.”

  • Simon Critchley

    I am probably the wrong person to respond Robert Pippin’s extremely compelling short paper, ‘Participants and Spectators’, for the simple reason that, to a large extent I concur with his argument.

    Firstly, I agree with Pippin’s suspicion of naturalistic explanations of human action, namely that nothing ‘distinguishes naturally occurring events like bodily movements in space from metaphysically distinct purposive doings initiated by me’. Human beings are not mere pushpins whose actions are to be explained with reference to a causally determined nexus of natural events.

    Secondly, I agree with Pippin’s hesitations about what he calls ‘the Humanist Inheritance’, namely that human beings possess a reflective awareness of their actions and can deliberate freely and autonomously about which course of action to follow in a situation. In particular, despite his avowed sympathies in his paper for a philosopher like Peter Strawson, Pippin is suspicious of the version of the Humanist Inheritance that we find in Kantianism: namely, that there is a distinct ‘space of reasons’ that cannot simply be mapped onto the realms of natural events and causes. In particular, Pippin is suspicious of the moral rationalism that assumes the existence of some sort of unencumbered self, deliberating its course of action with reference to some sort of metaphysical standard, like the categorical imperative.

    If we are not pushpins of nature, then neither are we rational legislators supernaturally divorced from the natural realm. Pippin argues, rightly, that the combined influence of the Masters of Suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) through to the influence of anti-humanist thinkers like the early Foucault up to contemporary evolutionary biology and the neurosciences leads to the conclusion that we are not exactly ‘running any show as conscious agents in any even metaphysically modest sense’.

    But if that is true, then what follows? This brings us to Pippin’s ‘very brief suggestion’. If Kantianism presupposes an false dualism between the metaphysical and physical domains, yet we still want to avoid a reductive naturalistic explanation of human action, then how do we approach the question of agency? Pippin’s claim is that action and its justification is a not a purely philosophical issue, but ‘largely a practical question and concerns a collectively sustained social practice’. Such practices are communally shared, subject to variation and, crucially, they have a history.

    Such is Pippin’s moderate and modest Hegelianism. Agency is not something to be explained naturalistically or legislated transcendentally, but instituted socially. So, what’s not to like? Well, despite my agreement with Pippin’s argumentative strategy, I think his view risks opening the door to relativism, on the one hand, and conservatism, on the other.

    I take it that the relativism charge is fairly uncontroversial, and might not break Pippin’s philosophical stride: if moral agency has to be referred to instituted social practices, then those practices, by definition, are local and, as such, vary from locality to locality. Furthermore, on Pippin’s argument, there would no way of judging one set of local practices from the standpoint of another. Without an appeal to some form of rationalism (which Hegel famously identified with the real or the effective and tied to a deeply questionable philosophy of history), then moral agents cannot legitimately appeal to context-transcendent, trans-communal norms, like the moral law or even some general concept of justice.

    But what if a set of instituted social practices are simply bad? What if they are prejudicial or discriminate against a group or groups on the basis of, say, gender, race or religion? What if a set of instituted social practices are in need of serious and perhaps wholesale reformation or transformation?

    This is where I’d briefly like to go back to those Masters of Suspicion mentioned by Pippin. It is undeniable that, in their different ways, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, sought to show the way in which individual moral agents were captured and captivated by wider networks of dependency and heteronomy, whether at the level of exploitative and alienating relations of production, forms of historically generated moral self-deception and hypocrisy, or mechanisms of psychical and societal repression. Yet, the flipside of the strategies of critique by each of the Masters of Suspicion was a call for liberation or emancipation that was universal: from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs in Marx, a revaluation of values in the face of nihilism in Nietzsche, and where id was there ego shall be in Freudian psychoanalysis.

    So, my worry is that Pippin’s suspicion of naturalism, which I applaud, and his critique of Kantianism, of which I am persuaded, risks reducing questions of moral agency to the existing norms and practices of a given society, with no prospect of change or transformation. Hence the suspicion of conservatism.

    My query is the following: can we not accept, with Pippin, the contextual, socially instituted and historically variable character of the norms that guide agency, on the one hand, while also approving an emancipatory ethical demand that calls for a critique of such a socially instituted morality in the name of another form of life, of the kind imagined, in their different ways, by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

    In the concluding paragraph of his paper, Pippin says – and this is another broad area of agreement – that ‘the best resources for understanding’ our ‘shared form of life’ lie not much in philosophy as in the ‘philosophically sensitive assessment’ that one finds in literature and film and in authors like James, Kakfa, Ibsen, Beckett and Tolstoy, ‘above all Tolstoy’, Pippin adds. In this regard, the following quotation from Tolstoy makes my point with greater force and eloquence than I could possibly muster. At the end of life, Tolstoy reportedly said,

    “I regard all governments, not only the Russian government, as intricate institutions, sanctified by tradition and custom, for the purpose of committing by force and with impunity the most revolting crimes. And I think that the efforts of those who wish to improve our social life should be directed towards the liberation of themselves from national governments, whose evil, and above all, whose futility, is in our time becoming more and more apparent.”

    • Robert Pippin

      Simon Critchley understandably raises the worry perhaps most often associated with the Hegelian position I am trying to outline and defend: a kind of accommodationism with the reigning assumptions and practical proprieties of any society at a given time. The natural assumption when faced with this worry is to argue that liberation from oppressive practices and narrow and distorted conferrals of various social statuses (like “agent” or “legal person” or “citizen of equal standing”) is possible by appeal to a “universal” criterion of rectitude or social standing. But Hegel expends a good of energy pointing out the problems that result from formulating a call to reform in the language of moral universals. His most famous is his account of Jacobin fanaticism and the Kantian “hard heart” but his general criticisms of rigorism and emptiness are also well known. The details of such a position have to be forthcoming, but it is at least plausible to entertain the view that reformist or even revolutionary appeals have to get some traction in the form of life within which they arise, that their “negations” are “determinate,” or they get no traction at all.

      On Tolstoy: I meant to suggest that Tolstoy’s deep skepticism about the capacity of human beings to plan and direct the future should count as one of the reactions to Enlightenment politics and Hegelian and Marxist inspired revolutionary programs that could be seen as contributing to the emergence of some considerably more modest expectation about the implications of falling under the category of agent in modernity. My appeal was not to Tolstoy’s unfortunately extreme version of Christian piety (and so his contempt for secular authority) but to such remarks as
      The more deeply we go into the causes, the more of them there are, and each individual cause, or group of causes, seems as justifiable as all the rest, and as false as all the rest in its worthlessness.. Tolstoy, War and Peace

  • Sebastian Gardner

    In his succinct and richly thought-provoking essay, Robert Pippin offers practicalization as the basis for a solution to the problem of affirming the reality of human agency in the face of evidence to the contrary accumulated in the natural and human sciences, and of rescuing our self-determination from the pincer movement of naturalism and neo-structuralism.

    The practical strategy, Pippin and others who draw on the resources of classical German philosophy have shown convincingly, has a great deal to recommend it, and many will accept that adoption of the practical point of view is necessary for vindication of the “Humanist Inheritance.” But is it sufficient? Pippin rightly rejects the blunt practicalism of P. F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment,” which allows final appeal to rest with the consideration that full internalization of the spectator’s standpoint would render “our practical lives unintelligible.” (This bare fact on its own registers the problem, but leaves it unsolved.) Thus although Pippin at the beginning of Section II couches “the question” in a practical form—it concerns, he says, “how we comport ourselves,” what it would be to “take into practical account” uncertainty regarding the reality of our autonomy—the issue is not practical in the narrow sense of pertaining to which course of action (if any) we should favour. Rather it is practical in the extended Kantian sense of pertaining to the reflective background and implicit theoretical dimension of practical consciousness—it concerns the image we necessarily have of ourselves from the inside of the practical point of view, the internal metaphysics of the practical perspective our acceptance of which is a condition of our occupying that perspective at all. Because Pippin’s Kantian question is jointly practical and theoretical, it can receive a satisfactory “practical” answer only if the theoretical metaphysical issue which it comprehends—viz.: Is there in reality a deep distinction between my moving my arm, and my arm’s moving?—is somehow dealt with. The crux of the practical strategy lies, therefore, in the account to be given of how practicalization can waive our worries about not being “in charge” or “in control”—it must show that we are right (or at least, not wrong) to believe that we (really) are in charge and in control.

    As Pippin notes, Kant addresses this question head on, and his noumenal metaphysics forms a central part of his attempt to answer it. Pippin does not follow Kant’s metaphysical path, however: the further component of Pippin’s proposal consists instead in socialization, his thesis that “agency…is much more like a social status instituted and sustained by the relevant social attitudes shared in a community at a time than it is like being a unique sort of entity.” Now it is clear that this provides a way of making the practicalization interestingly and richly determinate. In addition, the plasticity and fuzzy borders of the notion of a historically developing social practice—in contrast with Kant’s sharp-edged, all-or-nothing account—means that it promises to fare much better than Kant’s with the sorts of problematic, borderline cases that Pippin cites. What it is not so clear—from Pippin’s very abbreviated account of his position in this brief essay—is that socialization can provide an account of practicalization which will justify our regarding practical consciousness as capable of answering (resolving, dissolving, overtaking, sublating) the seemingly theoretical question which is the source of our difficulties. If the original problem was to locate a ground for the thought of self-determination which agents necessarily entertain of themselves—the deficiency of Strawson’s account being that he does not provide any such ground—then it is not easy to see how social practicalization will help. To be sure, it allows the individual agent to refer her individual practical point of view ‘up’ to the point of view of collective practice, but the buck cannot stop there. What is needed—and must be accessible to the individual agent—is a validating perspective on the practical point of view of the individual, and the difficulty lies in seeing why socialization should be held to do the trick: granted, the perspective of collectivity provides a perspective on my individual point of view, but why think that it is a validating perspective? Obviously Pippin cannot want to say here—as Hegel, on traditional metaphysical interpretations, is thought to maintain—that the collective point of view is metaphysically privileged (closer to God’s point of view, as it were). So the question remains: What thought can I have of the nature and status of the collective point of view, by dint of which I can take its affirmation that I qualify as a genuine agent as sufficient reassurance that I really do so? Many of my statuses are explained directly and sufficiently by collective practice, but the status of responsible agency is of a quite different, presuppositional or transcendental order. (Note that the anti-realist element in Pippin’s account—his assertion that there is “no fact of the matter” concerning agency outside the context of rules, no extra-social fact of our “being a unique sort of entity”—has to arrive on the scene after the social solution has done its work: we must first be convinced that socially constituted agency is agency enough, in order for us to be prepared to let go of the idea that we are metaphysically unique sorts of entities.)

    Having expressed these misgivings, it should be emphasized immediately that they merely form the starting-point for the complex story that Pippin has to tell about how the project of critique of metaphysics which begins with Kant leads ultimately to Hegel’s view, as Pippin understands it. Everything hangs, therefore, on Pippin’s account of the rational transformation of Kant’s transcendental position into the social status view. My only observation in this context is that, though Kant’s answer may be riddled with difficulty, it does at least have the virtue of putting clear water between its affirmation of human agency, and naturalistic accounts, however sophisticated, of what it is for a human organism to ‘determine itself.’ By contrast, one can well imagine a naturalist responding to Pippin that there cannot be anything in the idea of historically self-defining and self-correcting social practices, however saturated with normativity, which eludes in principle the net of naturalization—to suppose that there is any incompatibility, the naturalist may say, is just a sign that one has failed to exorcise the supernatural notions of Human Essence which, officially, were discarded at the point where we gave up attempting to formulate Humanism in metaphysical terms.

    It has been the ambition of much twentieth-century philosophy (chiefly but not exclusively in the analytic tradition) to get a fix on the nebulous, nigh imponderable question of the Human Essence by translating it into a set of relatively down-to-earth questions concerning the concept of agency, the logical form of action explanation, and suchlike. The result of this has been a vast proliferation of positions in the philosophy of mind & action, as Pippin notes. It would be hard to maintain, however, that this programme has allowed any consensus to emerge – naturalists and humanists simply opt for whatever account of action suits best their broader purposes. This raises a question and provokes a worry. In so far as the original point of recasting nebulous metaphysical questions in more quotidian terms was not to assert the unreality of metaphysical essences, but rather, neutrally, to make the dispute concerning the existence of any Human Essence more amenable to rational resolution, and in so far as this approach fails to achieve that end, it may be asked what has been gained by shifting out of traditional metaphysical idioms. What is achieved by the boiling-down of big metaphysical issues and pursuit of their technical-analytical analogues? Has this manoeuvre not perhaps confused the situation by leading us to suppose that we can represent adequately the thoughts that really matter to us—the inalienable Ideas of our reason, in Kant’s language—in the form of austere, metaphysically innocuous distinctions such as that between the respective forms of reason explanation and causal explanation? The worry, then, is that arguments concerning the Humanist Inheritance which proceed on the sort of terrain familiar from much contemporary philosophical discussion result in a kind of shadow play. Here I see a big difference from Pippin’s method and approach, which is not touched by this worry: by starting with Kant, Pippin avoids merely supplanting the metaphysical questions with logico-linguistic proxies; instead—assuming of course that Pippin’s story persuades—we are shown step by step the rational necessity of the reformulation of issues belonging to metaphysical discourse into purely imminent categories.

    A final comment, regarding the contribution of aesthetic fiction. Pippin is surely right that the problem of “the dwindling credibility of the core of the Humanist Inheritance” has been addressed in modern(ist) literature and film in a profound and penetrating way which contrasts with the preoccupations of much twentieth-century philosophy. But does it “address” the problem in the forward-looking sense of furnishing a new orientation, or even the rudiments thereof? I can see that with respect to some of the authors referred to by Pippin, a case for supposing so might be made. But one does not need to take on board all of Adorno in order to think that the modernist canon, with regard to its overall gist, consists in intensified awareness of the problem without any pretence of reconciliation. And if it is also true that the acuteness of modernism’s perception of the problem is interdependent specifically with its appreciation of the way in which Humanism in its traditional metaphysical (not to say theological) formulations has dissolved, then the project of modern literature—to the extent that one may speak of such a thing—does not of itself point in the direction of Pippin’s social practice outlook: rather, it must be thought to stand in need of the therapy that Pippin’s account promises to provide.

    • Robert Pippin

      Sebastian Gardner’s remarks make clear that at some point and in some way the argument for the practical impossibility of what I called Simple Acknowledgement will have to be invoked or the issue of that impossibility will inevitably have to return to the immaterialist and incompatibilist issues that most philosophers have been trying to avoid for some time. And that means that similar sorts of issues arise, perhaps similar to the ones I raised against the more orthodox Kantian and Strawsonian positions. If we’ve replaced noumenal metaphysics as the ultimate “reassurance” that the practical point of view is at least theoretically possible with some picture of agency as a collectively sustained social status, is that “reassurance” enough, or even reassurance at all? (Could there not be some sort of natural-scientific account of the collective institutions and reductions and expansions of the scope of such agency-conferral, and if so wouldn’t the problem just return? Perhaps we are collectively entitling each other to a status that is ultimately a delusion, incompatible with the Final Truth about how we operate. Doesn’t the whole picture have everything backwards, treating as a socially achieved result what ought to be established as the condition for the possibility of such a conferral in the first place – that we can do what the status ascribes to us?)

      The underlying question is: when is a formulation of a problem being convincingly dissolved rather than solved (or, more to the point in this case, how would we come to see that a putative explanation is not false but irrelevant) and when is a tough question just being avoided, or even begged? This is such a serious and deep question, nothing said in this context will be adequate, but I would suggest that the frame of the problem is still practical in some sense. In this case, that means that we need to understand what sort of question the question about adequate explanation is. When is an explanation satisfying? It is extremely unlikely that the explanations we need for a question like: “Why did John insult Mary yesterday?” or “Why did so many Latinos vote for Obama?” will be a neuro-psychological or evolutionary biological one. And there will remain a practical paradox in any thought of any such third-personal account serving as a deliberative reason for an agent trying to decide what to do. Hence the concession that the “practical impossibility” argument will bear some weight in this position.

      I agree with Gardner that a lot more needs to be done to show that all of this amounts to “agency enough,” but I am skeptical that the status of agency is of a “different,” or “transcendental order” than other sorts of social institutings. We hold each other to account in all sorts of ways, under all sorts of social conditions, and I think it remains unlikely that around the time of the Renaissance liberal democratic, morality-based European societies discovered some in-principle-always-available fact of the matter that set us on the right course starting sometime.

      Gardner’s last remarks about the rather dystopian character of modernist literature is also quite important and difficult to answer briefly. I think there are resources inherent both in the very possibility of such widespread dissatisfaction and in the form it takes as well as in the sort of modest humanism (and the persistence in the faith in love) in writers like James and Proust and Joyce and Faulkner and Yeats to answer such a question, but that is surely material for a book not a blog.

  • Karl Ameriks

    1. Robert Pippin asks: How can we best “understand” what is left of our sense of agency in an era in which, on most accounts, long-standing ‘Cartesian’ presuppositions about our capacity for privileged self-knowledge, deliberation, and control have been undermined?

    For reasons that are spelled out in sections I and II, Pippin concludes, in section III, that neither a purely “scientific” (“spectator” and determinist) nor a “wholly autonomous practical” (i.e., Strawsonian/Kantian) attitude provides a satisfactory response here.

    His own positive proposal is that we should take the problem of agency to be “a question of how we hold each other to account” and should recognize that this is simply a matter of social practice and history–not a recognition of any “unique sort of entity” or “fact of the matter” outside this practice.

    He adds that such a practice occurs within severe limits: it is not to be understood as a matter of arbitrary convention, and it must “incorporate” the “deflation” that comes with acknowledging that, from the ever more influential contemporary “spectator” perspective, we are products of countless processes beyond our conscious control.

    Pippin concludes that we need to “re-imagine a form of life” in this context.

    His final comments propose that this re-imagining should involve appropriating the ‘anti-Cartesian’ insights of philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, Rorty, and Williams, and–even better–“a sensitive philosophical assessment” of the kindred “records” of this recent anti-Cartesian “struggle” in the work of creative writers.

    2. I gladly second most of what Pippin says and briefly offer a few observations–an “objective” alternative on the specific notion of free agency, and then a general methodological consideration.

    My objective alternative is simply a proposal to leave more room for “both/and” rather than “either/or” or “neither/nor” options.

    For all that has been said, it seems to me that there might, for example, still be an important “fact of the matter” about whether we are uncaused causes or not.

    Furthermore, I believe this is a fact that we might assert without negligence of concern for what is really true (as opposed to what we–allegedly and merely–“practically have” to believe, a strategy that I agree has severe problems, problems that Kant may have come to appreciate better than his followers), and without invoking a mere “wish” or “need,” or ignoring degrees of responsibility.

    It is true that we may not be able to prove the truth here in a way that we can expect to satisfy everyone, but this point can simply show the limits of argument in general in some contexts (cf. Peter van Inwagen on this topic).

    This does amount to leaving open the thought that this truth might not–except in most trivial ways–depend on the fact that we are social and historical creatures.

    But this is not to say that we should not also be extremely concerned with how our agency does have a very specific kind of social and historical character now, a character that involves, as Pippin stresses, the constant threat of serious “deflation.”

    3. At a methodological level, my main observation is that we should all feel indebted to the vivid way that Pippin has brought this issue of “struggling” agency to our attention.

    “This issue” has many aspects, however, and, although it is introduced as a “controversy in philosophy,” it also concerns important questions about the “limits of philosophy.”

    For anyone persuaded by these limits and by the seriousness of the issue of agency as it has been posed here, it seems only natural to go on to ask whether–rather than just reading philosophers and philosophically “assessing” other writers–what is also needed to best illuminate our current sense of genuine agency is for more of us to take a step beyond philosophy and to attempt, or at least strongly encourage, relevant creative writing or even scientific or political work of a new kind (consider, e.g., Obama).

    That is, once it seems that philosophy cannot by itself best handle a problem, one cannot help but ask whether we also need to go beyond it altogether–and if it is held that we do not have to do this after all, we still have to ask why not, and exactly why it is that as philosophers we are nonetheless tempted to pay special attention now to non-philosophers.

    This is relevant to Pippin’s approach here because his underlying interest in “making sense of what people do” appears to involve both a matter of general and philosophical understanding, and also a matter of particular and concrete intuitive enlightenment in ways that may go beyond ordinary abstract philosophical methods.

    The idea that one could and should try to address both of these matters at once as a philosopher, and that this is extremely difficult, was expressed perhaps best by Bernard Williams.

    In a concluding response to critics of his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Williams felt a need to return to the “problem of finding a style for moral philosophy,” and noted: “The problem is to reconcile the general or conceptual concerns of philosophy with a sense of concrete detail, a sense that must be there if writing about ethics is going to be realistic or interesting.” (“Replies”, in World, Mind, and Ethics, ed. J. Altham and R. Harrison, CUP 1995, p. 216. A footnote here comments directly on the limitations of Kant’s abstract style.)

    My own view is that the issue here is broader than the areas of “moral philosophy” or “ethics” or even “agency,” and hence, as I have argued elsewhere, it is no wonder that a special methodological concern with “style” in this sense has become a central feature of an ever growing and largely “historical” approach to philosophy in general ever since Kant–which is to say, ever since philosophers have struggled to show that they have something essential to do even after the Scientific Revolution.

    This is one more way of saying that “collectively sustained social practice” is very important–but it is not to say it is the whole truth.

    • Robert Pippin

      Karl Ameriks offers a very useful reminder that from the fact that philosophy as traditionally conceived – autonomous, ahistorical, rationality experts, doing better and paradigmatically in reflection and deliberation what ordinary mortals do poorly and clumsily, ultimate judges of what passes muster as claims to knowledge or claims about what ought to be done – looks inadequate to deal with rich historical texture of norms like agency, freedom, respect, responsibility, and so forth, it does not follow that there is nothing for philosophy to do. And I agree that something like the question of whether we can actually do what current practices ascribe to us as capacities remains a live philosophical question. And I heartily applaud his invocation of the best contemporary model for thinking about this issue, Bernard Williams. (One might add that even so, Williams seems to have had an absolutely toxic reaction to all things remotely Kantian, thus closing off access to some of Kant’s useful broader reflections on politics, history and religion, all of which are relevant to the topic under discussion.) Of course Ameriks has himself written compellingly about the historical turn in philosophy itself (not away from philosophy) and the way that turn has forced on us again (in a way it was forced on, say, Plato, and Descartes, and Nietzsche) the issue of the appropriate contemporary style in philosophy, a question we shall clearly be struggling with for a while. All of which in this context I can only say that I applaud.

  • “what would it actually be to acknowledge the truth”?

    The place to begin is to learn to observe the behaviors of the body and the mind without the humanist inheritance picture superimposed. If agency is genuinely vacuous then the worry about whether “I” am in charge or whether “I” am merely subject to impersonal forces is meaningless since there is no “I”. All there has ever been is very firmly reinforced habits of thought and language use; conventions which are so useful and ubiquitous they become invisible.

    However, saying that the illusion of agency is only a set of habits is not to dismiss the ‘practical’ issue raised, which is that it seems difficult or impossible, for many, to imagine Simple Acknowledgement. Habits of thought and language use as entrenched as those which give rise to the illusion of agency cannot be eliminated easily or quickly. Simple Acknowledgement is not necessarily Easy Acknowledgement. What was learned over the course of decades, from early childhood forward, cannot be removed without years of forging new habits of thought and language use.

    But take it from someone who, after many years of re-working my brain, experiences the world free from the illusion of agency that it is possible. And when the old, bad habits are broken the old ‘problems’ about agency are a clear example of Wittgenstein’s description of “not knowing my way about”.

  • Chris Latiolais

    Pippin addresses the long-standing and seemingly perennial question of how we make sense of what people do, as agents of their actions, as contrasted with explaining what happens to them, as patients who suffer alien forces. Such a question reaches back to Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy and forward to the promise of neuroscience: how do we tell apart our being both agents and patients, and how do we account, to ourselves and to others, for our dual status as participants and spectators?

    Pippin conceives his essay in the subjunctive conditional tense: if we reject certain alternatives, what options are left. This rhetorical strategy allows him to suggest a sophisticated alternative to traditional conceptions of agency, an alternative familiar to Hegel, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein scholars. More importantly, however, Pippin invokes a more emphatic, serious, and sustained encounter between philosophy, on the one hand, and modern literature and film, on the other, a new constellation in the Humanities.
    Pippin frames an alternative direction of thinking about agency by rejecting, as simply impractical, the contemporary dichotomy between a wholly theoretical attitude to agency, at one extreme, and a wholly practical attitude to agency, at the other. To the choice between either pure theoretical spectatorship or pure practical participation, Pippin maintains that neither is a plausible practical option. In good Wittgensteinian fashion, he opts to reframe the fundamental questions, to rewire the basic circuitry of philosophical inquiry, and to suggest that better questions, more practical ones, emerge from grappling with modern literature and film than tinkering in the early-modern philosophical workshop.

    The theoretical viewpoint frames actions as events whose causes or workings are to be identified. From such an explanatory perspective, the first-person of the agent becomes at best a passive spectator or patient to what just happens. The more I know about myself as a causal or functional or computational system, the more I am forced to drop the pretense that I do anything at all: agency is not the first-person’s making anything happen at all. Instead, the theoretical truth of the matter is that I am subject to, the patient of, happenings not under my control. Pippin calls this attitude Simple Acknowledgement, and, in agreement with Strawson, he considers it palpably impractical.

    In contrast, Kantian voluntarism strictly and dualistically separates theoretical from practical viewpoints and depicts the agent presumptively as an exclusively active causal force. Pippin calls this the “wholly autonomous practical attitude.” The more I assume my noumenal causality, the more I am forced to drop the immature pretense that my real conditions condition my ideal freedom at all. Pippin acknowledges that the insistence upon such a “wholly autonomous practical attitude” seems like wishful thinking, perhaps defensive denial. Invoking the “Masters of suspicion” – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – along with the literary giants of 19th- and 20th-century literature, Pippin points to the apparent implausibility of any such strict and unmediated dualism, with its blind faith in pure practical reason. Pippin asks us to appreciate the impractical nature of choosing either such traditional spectator or traditional participant models of action, either passive epistemic ownership of scientific knowledge about how “it” works or the I’s active and total de-acquisition of really effective conditions of my actions.

    Accordingly, Pippin issues the following interrogative invitation: “Assume that a Kantian-style dualism, even a practical dualism, is much too strictly disjunctive and abstract, and that Simple Acknowledgement is not a practical option. What then?” More specifically, what sense do we then make of the highly influential Humanist Inheritance embodied in standard reason-explanations? Pippin itemizes three central features of explaining actions by appeal to reasons:

    • “In acting I know what I am about and why I am about it.”
    • “What I am doing is subject to some kind of deliberative control.”
    • “I, considered as a distinct particular, have the capacity to direct a course of events in line with of the results of this deliberation.”

    This model of rational agency depicts agents, not simply as passively having beliefs and desires that (efficiently) cause action, but as actively grasping something as a reason and therein subjecting it to potential deliberative control, and occasionally, actively making something the reason for action by acting upon it. That I know what I am about and why I am about it ensures self-transparency. That I deliberatively control what I am doing ensures self-command. That I am capable of directing a course of action based upon deliberations ensures self-movement. As Pippin points out, a good deal of modern philosophy, literature, and film rejects, often mockingly and sometimes amusingly, each of these conditions: self-transparency, self-command, and self-movement. Indeed, a reversal of each of these conditions functions as the dramatic motif of much modern literature: we are opaque to ourselves, driven about by alien inner forces, and manipulated by outside circumstances.

    Humanistic ideals have fallen on hard times. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud hammered away at these pretensions by introducing labor, life, and language as dividing, alienating, and ultimately humiliating the once proud, regal cogito. These masters spawned their 20th-century successors – Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, etc. – who, as McCarthy puts it, become the “Virtuosos of Recontextualization,” recontextualizing Descartes’ proud cogito and Kant’s pure practical reason back into ever more radical and “impure” “differences,” persistently stripping the existing subject of its pretensions to know, command, and move itself. Each of these virtuosos variously reverses the humanistic ideals of subjectivity, portraying it as subject to, as standing outside itself within, and divided by ontological difference. The European-Continental social “deconstruction” of subjectivity and the transatlantic parallel to Anglophone naturalistic “elimination” of subjectivity differ in tone but aim, it seems, at the same termination.

    Amidst this hostility to the Humanistic Inheritance, Pippin issues a practical citation: namely, the practical unfeasibility of both Simple Acknowledgement and Pure Practical Reason. After all, it’s a recontextualization of reason, a critique of impure reason, a humiliation, then, only by falling short of some abiding measure: namely, the real demand for accountability, the ideal of holding each other response-able, even amidst the sobering reality that we’re not masters of our homes. Here is Pippin’s assessment of what might survive of the Humanist Inheritance:

    • “The possibility of the self-knowledge criterial for agency is much more difficult and complicated than in the standard picture of agency.”
    • “Deliberations are rarely “freely” undertaken by persons simply qua rational deliberators, and they are never capable of “stepping back” from all their commitments and assessing them.”
    • “We are likely “in charge” of much less of our fate than has been assumed in the traditional picture.”

    Even here, however, we are held to account. Under these “compromised,” “impure,” or “humiliated” conditions of being the rational agent-patient of our lives, holding each other accountable – the core of the non-elective practical point of view – assumes a fundamentally historical dimension. We must acknowledge, first, that how we hold each other accountable is historically variable and, second, that our being real agents is a matter of being recognized as such: hence, our recognitive social status, not principally a causal capability, substantial category, or formal condition. So, to his question – If neither Simple Acknowledgement nor Pure Practical Reason is tenable, what then? – Pippin suggests two alternative, more fruitful Acknowledgments: Social Variability and Recognitive Sociality.

    This is Pippin’s Neo-Hegelian paradigm change in practical philosophy, a variant of Kant’s “Copernican Turn” to the quid juris, the “normative turn,” but one that acknowledges the historical variability of historically impacted and developing “spaces of reason.” Pippin in effect raises the stakes for those who call for the termination of subjectivity. The persistence of subjectivity resides in our insistence upon holding each other to account precisely amidst such increasingly refined, detailed, and sober assessments of our laboring, living, and linguistic situatedness. What does it mean for us, at our historical juncture, to insist upon some grasp of freedom and responsibility amidst our increasingly complexity? As Pippin points out, this is not so much a theoretical or “philosophical” issue as a practical one, one that must acknowledge the historical variability and recognitive sociality of our status as agents. This way of framing the issue tacks along different coordinates than explanatory inquiries into causal capabilities, metaphysical inquiries into substantial categorization, and reconstructive inquiries into species competencies. Being an individual agent and belonging to a “form of life” are two sides of the same ongoing, historical, and rationally structured praxis. “We need,” Pippin writes, “to be able to imagine in a fine-grained way what we are actually up to any moment . . . to re-imagine something like a form of life.”

    In Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Pippin presents this historicizing normative turn as follows:
    The question at the heart of the basic spirit-nature dualism at issue is eventually treated as one between the applicability of normative notions and assessments versus natural or law-like explanations, all within a radically historical account of norms . . . and . . . the Hegelian approach does not involves treating the possibility of such a distinction as being based on any ontological fact of the matter, as say between immaterial, causally exempt, and material, causally determined being. The distinction is itself a normative and historical one, not an ontological one; it depends on a social norm we have collectively formulated over time and bound ourselves to, and it is thereby also flexible, historically malleable.

    In his essay, Pippin rehearses the argument by pointing out that the dualism between explanations of what happens to one, on the one hand, and what one does, on the other, is a “normative and historical distinction,” collectively and variably formulated and legislated. Because Simple Acknowledgement and Pure Practical Reason set out a priori a static, fixed dualism, they appear impractical given the changing social conditions of agency. How we parse out the normative orientations for tracking what happens to us, on the one hand, and what we do, on the other, varies historically as so many mutually self-legislated and hence recognitively shared ways of holding each other accountable.

    From this vantage point, our humanistic inheritance looks decidedly more complex, ambiguous, nuanced, adumbrated, agonistic, and resonate than detractors presume. Questions about our status as mechanisms that repeat, as animals that roam, as scribners who find themselves doing but “prefer not to” (Melville), as haunted by secret sharers (Conrad), as “social products” who seek to reverse engineer the cunning of the device (Pynchon), as “dated” futures who wake up in a rip and wrinkle in time (Irving), as comically miming romantic confabulations of courage and romance (Cervantes, Flaubert) – all of these ways in which we imaginatively take ourselves as patients who suffer happenings in our trial of agency is part and parcel of a Humanistic inheritance much more sophisticated than either traditional philosophers or their postmodern detractors presume. The thrust of Pippin’s suggestion is that we take the full measure of this literary estate by using philosophical resources less naïve to the human condition. If we acknowledge historical variability and recognitive sociality, then we become more sensitive to the often tragic and nightmarish social conditions that threaten our very existence as selves, our integrity as agents. A staple theme of a good deal of 19th- and 20th-century European, English, and American literature is the question of what it would be to be a self, an agent, in shifting modern circumstances.

    Pippin’s essay will not sway purists of theoretical spectatorship or practical participation, but it’s not meant to. The strongest criticism will probably come from those who are sympathetic to moving beyond such stark alternatives. In what follows, I want to raise a few concerns and sketch potential responses. For the philosopher working with sharp distinctions among causal explanations of events, reason explanations of action, and justifications of reasons, Pippin’s model will appear multiply counterintuitive. We explain actions by identifying what were the agent’s real, effective reasons. Moreover, unless such reasons or motives were prior to and causally effective in bringing about the deed, they are simply not the cause of the action. In contrast, we justify reasons by appeal to what ideally should be, and we justify action only after we have independently established what its reason-causes really were. Why someone acted is one issue (causality); whether she was justified is another (normativity). Pippin seems to conflate causality and normativity in so robustly acknowledging Social Variability and Recognitive Sociality.

    I think that reason explanations and justifications must hang together in complex ways for Pippin, with important consequences for the modality and temporality of our conceptions of subjective intention – agent perspective – and social context — audience perspective. Here’s a way of thinking about the connection. The agent’s ability to present to herself what she intended requires that she make explicit why it “made sense” for her to do X, where her standing as an intelligible agent is directly proportional to her withstanding the probative hearing of her social audience. Actions become determinate only within a social context in which what counts as a deed of type X is not the type of thing that can be unilaterally and subjectively determined. Pippin holds a sophisticated “social externalism”, a “social state” view, in which the inalienable apperceptive integrity of the individual agent is socially or “externally” circuited precisely because actions are what they are in virtue of constitutive rules and practices. Agency accrues in degrees with the increasing mastery of such constitutive recognitive sociality. Seen in this light, the interrogative, probative, and adjudicative contestation with others about the content of one’s action is ultimately dispositive of one’s very status as an agent. Moreover, justifications interpret reasons because “reasons” can be so bad – unjustifiable – as to not count as reasons at all. The social context is the cradle of the deed, and the co-evolving interpretive envelope of social response, interpretation, and contestation is the social medium alone within which the content of the deed is sounded out. Something like a principle of justificatory charity seems to be at work here: to the extent that the explication of reasons becomes massively unjustifiable is the extent to which the interpreting audience is forced to consider its identifications of the real reasons as perhaps faulty – if, that is, the audience continues to accord agent status at all. For Pippin, the identification of intention hangs together with the explication of reasons, just as reason-giving hangs together with justification. According to this view, the agent first secures her integrity or being as an agent in a unity of social apperception, the circulation of reason-giving within a community – that is, in being recognized as a integral locus and nodal point of socially refracted accountability.

    If something like this is plausible, then Pippin’s model of agency as social status shifts the standard distinction between causality and normativity in three important ways. First, the nature of reason giving within a historical community (normativity) makes possible and restricts the range and reach of what one can do (causality). Second, intentions are not determinate, subjectively certified givens pre-dating the unfolding of action but, instead, what is explicated within the co-evolving envelope of its social reception. Third, the integrity – dignity – of the individual agent as the author of its deeds is emphatically maintained, though now socially circuited: the agent may first discover and recognize her really effective intention only retrospectively, in the eyes of beholding spectators.

    Of course, postmodern critics will use the Acknowledgement of Social Variability to normatively eviscerate Recognitive Sociality, reducing it mere difference, a far cry from a phenomenology of ethical or epistemic learning. Once again, Pippin would certainly underscore that such skepticism must line up alongside other practical options. After all, it’s a practical question whether a rationally reconstructive historiography is more enabling than a pluralizing deconstruction. The focus upon historiography is important, however, not simply to underscore how contemporary the options of Hegel and Nietzsche are, but also to underscore the pivotal role of narrative in philosophical inquiry. A Habermasian restricts philosophical method to reconstructions of species capacities, considering the narrative rendering of a form of life a wholly inadequate philosophical approach to the value plurality of modern societies.

    Finally, I want consider how revised participant and spectator perspectives might be built into a certain model of experience and action. The narratological model of experience and action conceives of the agent as, at once, like the narrator, character, and audience of her own life. The architecture of agency is temporal self-configuration and self-accountability. In both experience and action, the agent is indexically located at a phase in the activity of holding together, keeping track of, and recognizing the unfolding of her experiences and the execution of her actions. The character captures one’s immersion, as a participant in medius res, amidst the impacts of experience, reflexes of action, and pitch of events. The narrator, in contrast, captures one’s taking stock of one’s characteristic involvements, framing them more expansively in terms of a future intimated or foretold, a present not fully discovered, and a past elided or aborted, achieving, therein, the perspective of an invested spectator. The narrator and character positions capture, respectively, the prospective, immersed, and centrifugal outlook of the participant and the retrospective, abstractive, and centripetal outlook of the spectator. This model captures, I suggest, the inevitable dialectical tension in life between inherence and abstraction, between indexical insertion and descriptive extraction, between the present progressive and future perfect. What Pippin suggests, I believe, is that we’re struggling to attain something like the narrator perspective upon our characteristic involvements, simply because we are responsible for monitoring, with others, what we are doing in light of an anticipated future and a remembered past. We configure and refigure our experiences, actions, eventful imbrications, and, ultimately, our identities in a complex narrator-character like way. Of course, this practical temporal synthesis is largely an implicit, procedural, and non-declarative affair, but the integrity is the same: namely, a beginning-middle-end structure in which we indexically locate ourselves as keeping track of the unfolding of experience and execution of action. The distinctively Hegelian dimension comes into play with the position of audience. We account for ourselves – narrate or recount, then, our character’s struggles – both to ourselves and to others, so that we are forced to “hear” our narrative accounts in the auditorium others provide, and this “hearing” is the very seat of the ultimate authority of our own narratives of what we did, why we did it, and who we are. We aim for a hearing, and this recognitive reversibility is the very medium of self-understanding. Of course, these essentially interlocking perspective of narrator, character, and audience simply model dimensions of a single, global, and open-ended self- and world-understanding, which is largely implicit and practically available, though seldom declaratively explicit. If the model is not wholly inappropriate, then it suggests that revised participant and spectator perspectives correspond in intricate and practical ways in any practical orientation. More importantly, however, it makes room for the identity of an agent across radical upheavals or terminations of “storylines,” allowing one to authorize one’s identity as a struggle for the very conditions of agency. At a minimum, this drama is on display in modern literature and film.

    • Robert Pippin

      Besides giving us an expanded version of the “neo-Hegelian” position, Chris Latiolais has reconfigured the participant-spectator, 1st and 3rd person problem is explicitly literary terms, as both narrators of and characters in a life led (a life lived, as it is said, forward but understood backwards). This is helpful in highlighting a difficult problem. On the assumption that this reflective self-interrogation cannot be after discrete, punctuated causally effective mental states (that both the avowals of motives ex ante and the ascription of motives post facto are initially provisional, that we reveal what we intended to do most clearly only in the doing and that the persuasiveness of post facto ascriptions often depends of what else we would also be willing to do), then this narrator’s position is quite complex. The narrator is never truly a mere spectator; the narration itself is a motivated event qua participant and so the potential for self-serving and self-deceived “narrations” is high. A nice example: the flash-back voice-over narration in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947). The narrator speaks from the real present about past actions. In fact we are led to believe that Welles’s character, Michael, has written a novel about the events and that we are seeing a visual representation of that novel. Since the narrator appears chastened and humble, we are tempted to give the account a lot of credibility. At least until we realize that portraying himself as a passive dupe of others, “a fool,” a “boob,” “stupid,” is actually arrogantly self-exculpatory. The complications that result from this situation (like seeing ourselves when trying to see others, the fact that our narrations are self-interested, and seeing others when trying to gain self-knowledge, dependent of their view of what we did), are captured in the famous Maze of Mirrors fun house dénouement. The true fault lies with others, not him; what’s a poor innocent, naïve boob to do? The ultimate treatment of the mental gymnastics this situation can produce, and an association of such dilemmas with the novel social conditions of modern societies, is Proust’s great novel.

  • It is a great honor to be invited to respond to Robert Pippin, whose work I have been following for many years with an unstinting mixture of admiration and excitement. And it’s a particular pleasure—not in any way a surprise, given Pippin’s phenomenal record of finding the existential weight within philosophical problemata, but still a great pleasure—to see the question of free will being discussed here from a practical standpoint. As Pippin rightly notes, recent treatments of the question (whether determinist, fatalist, compatibilist, or voluntarist) have tended to focus far more on the theory than on the likely consequences of adopting it.

    Now this, perhaps, is only to be expected. After all, practically-minded theorists of free will are, one might worry, in a bit of a double bind: either their approach preserves a space for actions initiated by us, in which case there is no need for any meaningful change in the way we behave (this would be true of some compatabilist theories as well as of straightforwardly voluntarist ones); or it rules out actions initiated by us, in which case there is no possibility for any meaningful change in the way we behave (at least not one initiated by us, as a result for example of deciding to accept the conclusions of a given paper). If it is really true that no one is “driving the machine,” then my believing X rather than Y—that I am in control, for example, rather than governed by social or biological forces—won’t make a shred of difference in my life.

    Denis Diderot rather charmingly let this be read between the lines of his novel Jacques the Fatalist. The title character, we learn, finds it useful to believe everything has been written in advance on the Great Scroll Up Above; it helps him, for example, to be courageous. But of course the notion of “helping” makes sense only if his adoption of a belief has an effect one way or the other, which is to say only if everything has not been written in advance on the Great Scroll Up Above. So fatalism, delightfully, is a belief that is useful if and only if it is false. (Not to mention the fact that we only have the choice to adopt it if it is false; as Jacques tells the Master, “your reasons may perhaps be good, but if it is written within me or up above that I will find them bad, what can I do about it?”)
    By choosing to make free will a matter of degree rather than an all-or-nothing proposition, Pippin astutely preserves the right to propose practical changes on the basis of our new understanding of the state of affairs inside the mental machine. This leaves us, I think, with two key questions: first, the question of degree (exactly how much control do I have?); second, the question of responsibility (what difference do we, as a society, actually want it to make?).

    First question: exactly how much control do we have? Pippin allows that when we decide to tie our shoelaces, we satisfy all relevant criteria for agency (we understand ourselves well enough, are in control, and so on). But such cases, he says, are not “the ones we care most about”; rather, we care about the kinds of action we see in modern literature and film, actions which the agent herself turns out not to understand. I am ready to admit that some of the actions we care deeply about are of this form (falling in love, as represented for example in Proust, is an excellent case). But I’m not yet sure that all, or even most, of them are. Are there not actions in between tying a shoelace and killing a pawnbroker or throwing oneself under a train—actions of a reasonable magnitude, but of which we can be reasonably confident (short of juggernaut theories that rule out shoelace-tying) that our heart is in them? How about making sure to leave work early enough to come home to your spouse, having decided you value your marriage more than incremental gains at work? Or going to the gym even when you feel too tired? Or volunteering at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving? Literature, precisely because it specializes in dramatic situations, may possibly be a misleading guide. (Not to mention that Tolstoy, as a Christian writer, has a vested interest in presenting human beings as out of control…)

    Can I step back from all my commitments at once? No, but I’m not sure I need to in order to be a rational agent. Can I always know why I’m doing what I’m doing? No, but I can sometimes, and arguably quite a bit. Even Freud believed in the possibility of authentic action (wo Es war soll Ich sein, and all that); even Marx believed in the possibility of non-false consciousness; even Beckett believed in the possibility of choosing to undergo a kind of salutary askesis. Does Pippin rule such phenomena in or out? Where exactly should the line be drawn?

    Second question: let’s say we accept that people are far less in control than we once thought. Should this cause us to change the way to which we hold one another to account? One (additional) reason to take Pippin’s question very seriously is the fact that, as we now know, societies whose language attributes agents to accidental occurrences (“I broke the cup,” as opposed to “se me rompió la taza”) tend to treat defendants differently. At the same time, it is far from clear that attribution of responsibility is entirely culture-specific. And it’s also not clear that we would want it to be entirely culture-specific, let alone entirely driven by a sense of human powerlessness. (Diderot worried about this too: his Master protests to Jacques that “if one follows your reasoning, there can be no remorse for any crime.”)

    Above all, and this is the crucial point, there is a we here. Just to raise the question in the way that Pippin does—as a practical question, with real-world consequences, and in clear, rational language—is already to imply that we should think hard about the question in order to come to the right decision. What this means is that Pippin must think of “us”—the people making the decision—as people who can be expected to have some control over what they are doing and some notion of what it is they are about. In other words, “we” have to be agents, otherwise the whole thing becomes an exercise in performative contradiction.

    “There is no fact of the matter ‘outside’ of the rules of such a practice that could ‘settle’ the matter of who can inhabit such a status,” Pippin writes. But he goes on: “we can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in the light of either changing socio-historical conditions or new findings in science.” One wants to ask: what are “new findings in science,” if not facts of the matter outside the rules of the practice? And if we go to those “new findings” in order to forge a reasonable basis for a better way of treating people, are we not deliberating? Are we not thinking freely? Are we not escaping the modern predicament, even on a question as important as anything in a film noir…?

    • Robert Pippin

      Landy’s invocation of Diderot and Jacques le Fataliste is perfect. The novel makes clear, often hilariously clear, the difference between entertaining the possibility of cosmic fatalism as a theoretical claim, and invoking such fatalism as a practical reason to do or forebear from doing something. Getting from the former to the latter is no easy task, if ever possible. Even the supposed truth of the former does not, of itself, help us decide what to do. As I noted, we cannot “wait and watch,” curious what the body-machine will do. (One imagines, with the proliferation of “evolutionary” accounts of behavior and mating rituals in particular, a wayward husband, having been caught philandering, protesting, Jacques-like, “What could I do? We now know that men are powerfully disposed to maximize the spread of their genetic information.” It is a gullible spouse indeed who accepts such an excuse.) I don’t pretend that there is not a great deal more to say here; it goes back to the question of the nature of a satisfying explanation, discussed in an earlier response.

      Landy is right that the extent of the applicability of the standard reflective, rational agency model might be quite extensive. In the way philosophers sometimes speak of “middle-size dry goods,” we might analogously speak of middle-size everyday intentional doings, not threatened by any great qualifications of the agency of the doers. But we need to note that there are all sorts of possible qualifications besides metaphysical or foundational skepticism. It is not hard to imagine someone doing something voluntarily and intentionally and knowingly but still feeling that what there are doing is not really “theirs.” They don’t experience, speaking very loosely, any ownership of the deeds, even though they “did” them. (It is not implausible to imagine that this might be true of most of what most people “do” in some particularly alienating society.) Moreover, people can easily be imagined, even in humdrum cases, not to be “in charge” of the appropriate act-descriptions (some standard one suspiciously skews the interconnected network of actions towards only one party of the transactions), not capable of reflectively endorsing the deliberative criteria (which might also be skewed) that they have inherited and so forth.

      Finally, on “right” answers: again, I never envisioned participants appealing to “the way we do things” as a practical reason, except in particularly extreme situations and I want to leave open the possibility that we find some proffered, conventional reason no longer widely accepted because now perceived to be unfair or oppressive or simply wrong. The doubt is that such an assessment comes from a position outside all such practices, established by reflective, pure practical reason alone.

  • Michael Allen Gillespie

    Robert Pippin’s thoughtful essay rightly draws attention to the fact that many of our perplexities in defending a notion of human action and thus morality against a materialistic determinism are the result of the underlying assumption that when considering human beings the appropriate level of analysis is the individual. The idea that human beings are willful individuals grows out of a dispute within scholasticism about the nature of God and has its origins in the early fourteenth century in the thought of William of Ockham and Francesco Petrarch. From the very beginning, this notion of individuality is in tension with the notion of a divine omnipotence that determines everything. This contradiction never ceases to trouble Christian thought and is particularly obvious in the debate between Erasmus and Luther over the question of the freedom or bondage of the will, as well as many of the later Reformation debates. At the end of the Wars of Religion this question reemerges in a more secular context as the question of the freedom of the will versus the determinism of a purely natural causality first in the debate between Descartes and Hobbes in the “Objections and Replies” to the Meditations, and then repeatedly later during the Enlightenment. It is given its classic expression in Kant’s Third Antinomy. Beginning with Hegel and some of his contemporaries, serious consideration is given to the adequacy of the entire schematization of this question and particularly the priority of individuality and free will in the definition of the human. Hegel turns thinking back toward a consideration of the embeddedness of the individual in the communal and natural world. From this perspective the question of free will versus natural necessity is much less compelling and seems in fact to be an artifact of a misconception of the human within a particular metaphysical/theological framework. In pointing to Nietzsche, Freud, Williams, et al Pippin in my view rightly indicates the ways in which we have moved away from this modern understanding of the human and begun to recognize that antiquity with its notions of fate, divine madness, and the limited character of the voluntary in fact comes closer to our ordinary experience of the world than either an unmitigated materialism or an unreflective voluntarism.

    Aristotle argues that we can approach the world beginning with the things that are first for us or that are first in themselves. At the beginning of the modern age, the voluntarist Descartes argues that we should begin not with what is first for us but what is first for me, while the materialist Hobbes suggests that we must begin with the matter in motion out of which we are made. Pippin suggests we would do better to eschew both of these alternatives and to begin with what is actually first for us, i.e., with social practice (including, I take, it language). He presents this idea as a possibility but leaves us longing for more detail. But what exactly does this mean? A beginning with us in our us-ness? or as Aristotle would put it with us as a species? Or is his claim like Hegel’s that the individual and the natural can only be understood on the basis of and out of particular social practices, or within particular language communities? This might suggest that his explanation pushes in the direction of Wittgenstein and/or post-structuralism. Or does he believe we have some way to distinguish a correct or coherent social practice, which would seem to suggest that some societies are a great deal closer to the truth than others? But on what ground could we make such a claim? Or to put my question another way, are we left with anything other than a cultural relativism if we begin with social practice, and if not are we not then committed to either a Hegelian notion of dialectical progression toward the truth or a Nietzsche notion of a continual revaluation of all values. While I greatly admire and generally agree with Pippin’s approach, I would very much like to hear how his effort to rethink individual voluntarism and materialism within the horizon of social practice would deal with these questions.

    • Robert Pippin

      Gillespie provides a sketch of an interesting historical genealogy of the “free will/determinism” debate (something that already suggests that the terms of the modern debate are not wholly products of rational reflection and so unavoidable) and he wonders about something that bothers many respondents: the relativization of our practice of giving and asking for reasons to some historical and social community. The conventional, modern version of the Hegelian answer to this question (which I defend in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy) – that such practices are always historically self-transformative and can be defended as progressive if we are able to show that we are (roughly speaking) doing better now what we can be said to have been trying to do in earlier epochs (that is, justifying ourselves to each other, especially with respect to actions that impede what others would have otherwise been able to do) – nowadays then generates a worry about Eurocentrism and an implicit cultural imperialism. The proof of this version is largely in the details, although it is worth saying that most everyone who identifies with the European Enlightenment project in some form (even in its new liberationist post-modern forms) implicitly appeals to some sort of potted historical progressivism. It was a good and progressive thing to have ended slavery, instituted democratic institutions, provided for a free press and equality before the law and ended aristocratic privilege. And most would agree that this was all not because of a discovery of a moral ideal that had been hidden to previous communities. What is different about Hegel is that he tries to defend a historical version of such a notion of rational progress. If the attempt succeeds though, nothing at all follows about we are entitled to do to (or for) societies whose cultural norms do not line up with ours. Making such an inference is the imperialist mistake and it is not unavoidable.

  • In “Participants and Spectators,” Robert Pippin challenges us to think about conditions for human agency in resolutely historically defined terms. Pippin isolates three features that have traditionally been involved in accounts of agency: self-knowledge, deliberative control, and an ability to act on the world in a meaningful way. He argues that a set of historical and philosophical developments have called these features into question in new ways, and that a revised account of the conditions of agency is needed.
    I want to focus on three issues that arise in the course of Pippin’s discussion. 1) The twist that the “Masters of Suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—give to traditional challenges to the scope of agency. 2) The possibility for acting to change the conditions that define agency. 3) The role of modern art in the context of these debates.
    Pippin starts with the familiar challenge to human agency from the natural sciences. We appear to be creatures defined by natural or biological mechanisms, acting according to instincts and natural laws instead of choice and will. Kant’s solution was to propose that we could see ourselves under another aspect, as free beings: that these two pictures of human agency simply belonged to different worlds, both of which we inhabit. Pippin argues that the development of various schools of thought over the past 150 years, especially the influence of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, pose a set of challenges to which the Kantian solution is no longer adequate.
    Pippin is not entirely clear about why this is the case, but perhaps the thought is this: what Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud offer is something like a plot into which we are placed. So, even if we can regard ourselves as free agents with respect to the laws of the natural world, it now seems that we are caught up in narratives of a broader sort: about the historical development of classes and our place in them, about the vicissitudes of morality and its uses, or about the structure and goal of desire within the psycho-sexual nuclear family. I think we need to modify Pippin’s formulation of the problem. If it’s not, “You thought you were doing X when in fact you were obeying an instinct,” nor is it, “You thought you were doing X when in fact you were doing Y.” Instead, the threat is that, “Even when you were doing X it was in fact only a part of some larger story Z, whose narrative arc is not the one you intend.” The presence of such supra-individual narratives that frame our actions calls into question our self-knowledge, our deliberative control, and especially our ability to act on the world in a meaningful way.
    Here’s my worry. Pippin accepts these limits and then tries to figure out the possibilities for agency within them; his solution is an account of social practices, in which agency—what it is we can be said to do—is determined by a community of other persons. We are agents, Pippin says, in the way that “one is a professor by (and only by) being taken to be one in ways that are relatively well settled and agreed on by a community at a time.” The emphasis on social practice allows for different aspects of agency to become possible in different situations, under different descriptions: what kinds of actions are possible for me, and the various kinds of actions I can be held responsible for, are determined by the kind of social world I live in, and the way other people respond to me and hold me responsible.
    But it’s odd to think of agency on a par with social roles of this sort, as if I could be a professor, a father, a writer, and an agent. That doesn’t feel quite right. And it’s indicative of a larger concern I have: namely, the possibility for changing the social conditions that define our agency.
    Pippin is fully aware that the world around us changes, and that our social practices change with them. But this change is presented as something passive: “We can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in light of either changing historical circumstances or new findings in science.” Don’t we do anything to change them? Can’t we? What Pippin provides, in a sense, is a negative account of agency: the constraints under which we operate, and the limits on what we can do. In this context, the question becomes what it means to “acknowledge” this fact, how we ought to live in light of the “truth” about the nature of our agency. We seem to be merely responsive creatures, condemned to negotiating the current social forms and watching out for new ones.
    It’s not that Pippin thinks we are unable to change things, but his account of this is curious. He has already rejected a strong account of individual agency guided by rational norms—a model that comes out of the liberal tradition. And he does not hold a theory of a progressive arc of history to which our actions naturally lead. Instead, he emphasizes acts of imagination: on his view, what we need to do is get a sense of “what… change would look like, what it would call on us to do, how an imagined alternative [to what we have] would be experienced under specific historical and social circumstances.” We need to produce creative acts of imagination, counter-factuals. Presumably, if we find them compelling, we will change.
    This, too, raises questions. Are we to suppose that, each time we sense that “some aspect of a practice is ‘losing its grip,’” we are to engage in extensive acts of imagination? That we try to imagine a world that would reconcile our felt demands and the social forms that make it possible? We don’t seem to be the sort of agents who can be required to do that.
    Pippin turns to literature and film to solve this problem: modern art provides us with a storehouse of examples that exhibit “struggle with this [modern] problem” of agency. But there’s a problem here as well. Many of the figures Pippin cites—Beckett, Hardy, Musil, Dreiser, Kafka—tend to work through this problem by showing forms of failure. Are they models or cautions? If the latter, where do our good examples come from? If the former, what’s to prevent us from imagining a future as depicted by Mad Max or the like (a future not implausible enough)? If Pippin is right in saying that notions of “rational agents” and “conscientious moral individuals” are obsolete, it’s less clear where the normative force for change will come from—and how we are to understand our actions, such as they are, as contributing towards a better world (however we define it).
    Despite these worries, I think Pippin provides an important account of the link between philosophy and art: a testing ground for the way agency is won and lost. I think he also gives a hint that film, where narratives of agency are placed in a medium attuned to the physical world, might provides us with the most extensive and fully worked out articulation of these problems. I wholeheartedly agree.

    • Robert Pippin

      Morgan’s suggestions about seeing the matters at issue in “Participants and Spectators” as involving a “narrative arc” that might in fact be quite different than what is conventionally believed about what (in the largest possible sense of that term) we (in the largest possible sense of that term) are after in some collective civilizational project is a useful one, whatever the current pieties about “grand narratives” might be. But is not just that there might be a certain blindness or self-deceit in an official, shared self-narration. Everything relevant to agency is involved. Deliberative criteria, appropriate act-descriptions, assessments of motivation and so forth. “Offering a fair bargain in offering wages for labor,” “having no choice but to accept the egoistic nature of human motivation,” “she said that because she is a woman” and so forth are not just mistakes that can be corrected by enlightenment. The material content of any full, textured conception of what it is to act as a rational agent is inevitably so historically inflected that retreating to the consolation of “at least everyone is a rational agent in the formal sense” seems an idle comment rather than anything reassuring.

      On self-criticism and conventionalism again: I would hope that the view that a community’s practices can only be effectively criticized if we can occupy some position external (to history and society) and can base such a criticism on a view of the human as such, or the imperatives of pure practical reason, is not true. There is no such standpoint. If there isn’t then considering the way in which various practices of giving and demanding reasons can, internal to the execution of those practices, come to create tensions, incompatibilities, dissatisfactions and so forth, will cease to look second-rate and conventionalist. Nothing of what I am suggesting should look like the late nineteenth century notion of historicism, where persons were “locked into” world views or “value systems” and could only face alternatives as alien, incommensurable life forms.

      The point about modernist melancholy is an important one. One brief example for how one might think about this. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) has to count as one the darkest of film noirs (and Wilder is as cynical a director as there is). Barbara Stanwyck is a heartless egoist and predator, Fred MacMurray a casual, easy-going nihilist. Their plot – to murder Stanwyck’s husband and make it look like an accident (thus collecting “double indemnity”) – highlights many of noir treatments of agency (the “flexible” boundary between intentional and accidental). And their good guy nemesis, Edward G. Robinson, might be said to have the boundary-detecting job implied by “Participants and Spectators”: effectively penetrating the pretense of the accidental and fated and discovering the intentional (or vice-versa). He suspects everyone and finally uncovers the truth about the plan, a bitter truth because Robinson had been so close to, even loved, MacMurray. But in this dark setting, (a) Stanwyck , in the name of a sudden discovery of love, does not finish off MacMurray with a second shot, surprising herself and him. (Not too much, though. He then kills her.) The main point of relevance though is (b) Robinson’s tone, as he cradles the dying MacMurray in his arms. Let us say that the confusions about agency, fate, self-deception, evil, and agentive power so daily present to him in his job, and so intensified by the betrayal of MacMurray, do not defeat in him what remains a somewhat forgiving and paternal relation to his protegé. All I have space to say here is that there is something in the conditions of such a complex attitude –righteous, not naïve and yet still humanist – that bears further investigation.

  • Eli Friedlander

    Robert Pippin’s ‘Participants and Spectators’ opens the complexities of agency in such a way that requires us to face the threat of an essential impotence or passivity in respect to the deepest motivations for action we might have. I take it that he doesn’t want merely to salvage a deflated version of the practical in the face of such challenges as Freud’s insights onto the human psyche, Marx’s account of the ideological dimension of our motivations or evolutionary explanations that seem to make our practical reasoning something of an epiphenomenon to deeper tendencies and currents of the sphere of life. Rather the question is whether the practical is a space that can encompass such insights without losing some of it most essential features. Wishing to avoid both the simplistic reductive position regarding our determination by forces beyond our control as well as the strong metaphysical assumptions that seem to be implicit in the Kantian constitution of a sphere of practical reason, Pippin recognizes the social, broadly construed, as the field in which we both find ourselves to be constituted in our deepest motivations as well as that wherein we can assume the concrete possibilities of practical agency (that is, exercise freedom).
    To start with I want to focus, not on Pippin’s sketch of a solution but rather on the picture he offers for understanding our predicament, on the suggestion he takes from Bernard Williams, that “(i)n important ways, we are, in our ethical situation more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime”. I assume that this sense arises from the growing doubt in our capacity to guide our lives by acting upon self-conscious reasons. We have to leave much more room for notions like fate and necessity in the conduct of our lives than was ever envisaged by those proponents of an autonomous practical reason that by virtue of its own unconditioned principles can detach itself and rise above natural and social determination.
    Consider how different a self-understanding that encompass the notion of fate would be from various forms of reductive naturalism that happily forgoes the specificity of the practical. The challenge these views pose to the possibility of practical agency is made vivid by picturing us as “pathetic figures frantically pulling various wires and pushing various buttons which are, unknown to them, not connected to some moving machine they are riding, on a course completely indifferent to anything such characters pretend to do”. Since the machine that determines us might very well function in a random way, we get the modern version of fate or destiny as “blind chance”. A first step in showing the problem with such picture might be to consider to what extent its understanding of determination is different from the conception of fate in the ancient world.
    Fate is often pictured as an unavoidable determination. This can be conceived in terms of the causality of certain outer conditions or more often in terms of a determinate form of our inner constitution (as in “Character is fate”). Fate would be conceived then as external to the space of reasons to which agents appeal to justify their actions. But, at least insofar as ancient tragedy is concerned, fate cannot be construed as wholly external to the space of action. There is a sense in which it must be related to meaningful action or touch upon the space of action incessantly. This is made manifest by tragic irony. For tragedy would not have the significance it has, were it not for the incessant ironic doubling of meaning in the hero’s speech, deeds and demeanor. In other words to the extent that fate pursues the hero of tragedy and catches up with him whatever he chooses to do, it is by his being caught in an essential ambiguity that characterizes his space of action or space of life. The tragic hero is, so to speak, thrown back and forth in a space where indeterminacy rules. Fate is then not a determination by something that has a clear and unambiguous form. In that sense, laws of nature, precisely because they are determinate, are not the equivalent of the ancient notion of fate.
    A sense of the prevalence of fate is moreover consistent with an understanding of the specificity of the practical. One might say that Hegel’s lesson from Greek tragedy is that fate can be the source of a transformation of the common form of life. The manifestation of fate concentrated in the figure of the tragic hero would point to a yet to be formed dimension of life in common. The tragic hero makes manifest that possibility by his total entanglement in fate, by making ambiguity visible as paradox. But entanglement is not determination by something specific. It is entanglement in the ambiguities of the space of meaning, or of the articulation of life.
    The upshot of these all too brief consideration of the notion of fate is that one should distinguish the model of being determined by forces beyond one’s control, such as, for instance, matters of evolutionary biology, from the understanding of fate in terms of an indeterminacy in the realm of meaning that delimits our space of action. This, I take it would distinguish the reductivist challenges to practical agency from those more serious and more specifically modern challenges raised by those Pippin calls the “masters of suspicion”, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

    I would like to touch upon a further problem raised in Pippin’s essay. If indeed the very sphere of value, i.e. what we take to be valuable is opened up by the practical standpoint, then it would seem, that at the risk of losing the possibility of caring about something altogether, it is necessary to take part in the game or the social practice. Here the challenge to our idea of agency comes from a different direction. The inescapability of the perspective of the participant is a threat to our sense that there must be room to dissociate oneself from the social practice. If indeed the world of value, is opened up by being an actor avoiding participation would not free you, but leave you in a deficient mode in relation to the only anchor you have to open what is valuable). One cannot assess matters from sideways on. As Bernard Williams has put it ‘Reflection destroys knowledge’, to reflectively step out of practice would be to lose the sense of the valuable altogether.
    Pippin suggests that this problematic position is also the consequence of the Kantian framework: “the spectator or ‘sideways on’ and the practical or participant points of view are logically distinct, allow no overlap or mediation.” Here, its seems to me, one could argue that there are resources in the Kantian framework to avoid such a strict dichotomy. One of the fundamental Kantian insights is precisely that the social world is yet to be formed as a unity of the practical and the natural. Moreover, it is possible to adopt a standpoint of the future state of society in relation to our actions here and now. There must be a space for contesting the practices of society without appealing to further, existing, reasons within the practical sphere, for these might not be yet available. (Kant’s position on the French Revolution can serve as an example to bring out how the distinction between participant and spectator can be internal to our assessment of practical possibilities, affect the very shape of the practical. Kant can consistently uphold the enthusiasm of the spectators to the historical events while deploring the fanaticism of the participants, or even denouncing on moral ground resorting to revolution at all.)
    The field between participation and spectatorship is elaborated in the Kantian system as the point of view of the mediation of judgment. It is here I take it, that a space is opened up for a position of representativeness that acknowledges the dependence on the present form of life while at the same time allowing one to speak for a further state of things.
    The idea of a standpoint of representativeness in relation to judgment has one of its clearest manifestations in the aesthetic. Pippin, indeed, suggests turning for instruction on such matters, not only to the philosophical tradition, but also to novelists and poets that would provide us with a specifically modern variation on the theme of freedom from fate. But one might raise here the following question: If the poet is seen as having the capacity to speak not only for the crisis in the humanistic tradition (or for the crisis in tradition altogether) but also for the community’s higher self (that is for the direction and form our freedom can take in the peculiarly modern conditions) we need to ask whether the very nature of the relation of the poet to his public has not shifted. Moreover, how do we conceive of the capacity of art to bring out and concentrate in a visible form the tensions of the form of life we partake in? For example is the tragic model sketched above still valid? This is of course not something to be answered in advance of the reading of such figures as Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, but must constitute an essential dimension of an interpretation of their achievement.

    • Robert Pippin

      I agree with Eli Friedlander that determinism is not fatalism. I meant to include a scientific determinism as just one of the factors contributing to a declining confidence in elements of the Humanist Inheritance. For one thing, on some plausible deterministic picture, our deliberating and resolving, understood naturalistically, might be crucial, necessary components in any account of what happens, whereas the basic idea of fatalism is that whatever we end up resolving or deciding is irrelevant to what ultimately happens, that our subjective control (even if understood as driven by naturalistically occurring events) extends over a far narrower range of events than we normally imagine or would like to imagine. In the Greek view this is because the gods ultimately determine what will happen, but we have other agencies of fate, like chance, that can function in the same way. We can also just formulate the problem negatively: whatever we try to plan and do intentionally, “something else,” other than our agency, seems to determine the future course of events.

      The most interesting dimension of Hegel’s treatment of the ethical significance of ancient tragedy is that the tragic hero’s fate is unbearable. The existence of such tragedy is an indication of a vast, deep social crisis in a community’s own view of itself, a crisis that requires resolution, even if it does not necessitate such a resolution. Post-Nietzsche we are more comfortable than Hegel was that such a tragic situation may simply be our fate, qua modern human beings, full stop. Another interesting topic for a much longer discussion.

      Friedlander’s suggestions about a Kantian response to the problems raised, a Kantian way of avoiding the strict disjunction his position seems to leave us with (either absolute spectator or absolute participant), are intriguing and certainly worth much more discussion. But as I read Kant most of those reflections are expressions of “rational hope” about the future of the “ethical commonwealth,” the possibility of eternal peace, or the gradual amelioration of the terrible struggle our natural self-love creates since in permanent tension with our rational destiny. Given what we now face, hope is not much of a consolation. Theoretically Kant seems to me stuck with his grand disjunction, however much hope he had for our capacity to train our sensible natures.

  • So many other commentators have responded to Robert Pippin’s essay by pointing out the freshness and importance of his “practical” approach to the issue of freedom that there is no necessity to belabor that point any further. I happen to agree with large chunks of his views on this, so instead of praising all that is praiseworthy in the view, let me instead ask some questions about its sustainability.

    There is the worry over what it amounts to saying that agency is like a social status. Social statuses come and go, but the idea that there are agents who occupy those statuses and that there is something one can say about them in general remains. However, if statuses really do just come and go, maybe there is nothing to say about agents in general except that they occupy these statuses. But are there any statuses which are, as it were, better than others? How do we “imagine” a new form of life which is better?

    In other works, Pippin has at least suggested a Hegelian response to these questions, which would be to argue that there is a logic inherent to the giving and asking for reasons (in the more Pippin-ian than Brandomian sense) such that an investigation of the “social-historical” character of our norms (including those of the fading humanist heritage) would reveal this logic to be at work and to push for certain solutions and not others. In that way, one could say that even if some crazy group (the Taliban, the Tea Party) takes over Paris, it could not still not count as a rational advance in history, and the reply would be couched in terms of the way our modern norms are rationally required by the “breakdowns” or deficiencies in earlier accounts. But is that really credible? Of course, one can make some nods to Hegel’s Phenomenology as the best “model” for how this program is to be carried out, but that puts a lot of weight on just how much we want or to have to accept of Hegel’s distinct conception of history in doing so.

    By this, I don’t intend to be asking the more pedantic question as to how “really” Hegelian this conception of Hegelian thought is – I am far more interested in whether we should be encouraged to think that there is any future in trying to work out a conception of there being a logic to the development of historical and social norms in anything like the sense that would entitle us to say our norms are more rational because they were required by the deficiencies in earlier conceptions. History took the form it did because of some kind of rational necessity? Really? In what sense do the “breakdowns” rationally compel a path leading to where we are? (Path dependency is not the same thing as being rationally compelled.) Or are we just “celebrating ourselves” when we look at the past in terms of its so-called deficiencies, as Rorty always accused such a conception of doing?

    One suspects that behind this “historical” view is a more Kantian notion of the very conditions of the possibility of having such a celebration in the first place and that we really are thus still within the “communicative discourse” model, only with a more specialized sense of what that discourse involves than that proposed by Habermas or his followers.

    Maybe this asks us bid farewell to “philosophy” itself (with its emphasis on “pure reason” or, as we like to say nowadays, “just the arguments”) and move on to a new and still not fully defined humanistic discipline. That would be the more radical, even Nietzschean proposal, even if it is covering itself with Hegelian cloth. If asking for a anything even loosely like a logic of history is too much, then what are we asking for? It sounds like we are supposed to imagine a union of Nietzsche and Hegel. However, is what we are being offered really Nietzsche or Hegel? Aesthetic imagination or dialectical logic?

    • Robert Pippin

      Terry Pinkard is quite right that any effective response to the worries about the ultimately relativist and perhaps accommodationist implications of the “social status” position (worries that have surfaced numerous times in these discussions) will require some account of why we should think that internally generated crises in a community’s normative practices could be described as moments in some progressive development, why we should think that such a development has any sort of “logic.” Why not regressive? Why note simply contingent and chaotic (the default advanced contemporary view)? Worry about going anywhere near anything that might look like such a historical theodicy is what drove Habermas away from his early attempts to place his position in historical time (by appeal to Piaget’s developmental model) and he appeared to have good reason. Why repeat such folly?

      One reason might be that the postulation of an inherent commitment in ordinary language to an ideal speech situation has raised even larger problems for Habermas’s attempt to demonstrated that there is such a commitment inherent in language itself, as a “quasi-transcendental” condition. If there is such a “commitment” at all, it seems most definitely one specific to a human community at a time, and so we are back with the same problem.

      One (all too brief) way of looking at it is to begin by denying there is much of a “wholesale” position that we need to have on his issue, to adopt one of Brandom’s terms. All the issues are retail; they are claims connected to instances of breakdown (a central norm’s beginning to lose its grip) and analyses, retrospectively and not independently secured by any claim to a “logic,” that purport to show that we are doing somewhat better at a time at what we were trying to do somewhat more poorly at an earlier time. Underlying all of this there must be some story about what “we are trying to do” at all, but Hegel has a go at that one. If the claim is that the historicizing social status position is right, but relativistic historicism is only avoidable if we can secure any claim about any practice at a time only by a vast historical theodicy or logic of progressive development, then we are in some trouble. But why think that we need this, especially since we are not going to get it? Retail is fine, of there is no wholesale available.

  • Mark Wrathall

    In the John Huston film The Misfits, set in and around Reno, Nevada in the 1960s, cowboys continue with their traditional practices of roping and capturing wild horses in the Nevada desert. One of these cowboys, Gay Langland (played by Clark Gable) recognizes by the end of the film how changes in the world around him have altered the significance of his practices and, with them, of his whole form of life. In the modernist world of the cowboy, things show up as objects with fixed essences. People show up as subjects capable of autonomous action in the ways imagined by the Humanist Inheritance that Pippin describes so well. Cowboys express their subjectivity by mastering and subjugating the wild objects around them. But in 20th century Nevada, cowboys and their practices have been incorporated into a technological world and its drive for a complete exploitation of nature. In The Misfits, the wild horses the cowboys rope are no longer broken and trained and ridden, thus being made subject to the will of the individual cowboy. Instead, they are ground up into dog food. Langland’s initial reaction is one of defiance and stubborn commitment to carry on with traditional cowboy practices even “if they make something else out of it.” “I’m doin’ the same thing I always did,” he insists. There is nothing else to do since, as he notes, “I can’t change the world.”

    Langland comes eventually to realize with some surprise and anger that the new context has dramatically altered the significance of the traditional cowboy practices to which he was clinging. It in fact is wrong to think that he’s doing the same thing he always did. “We start out doing something that’s naturally in us to do,” he notes, “but somehow it all got changed around.” Yet later, he acknowledges the implications these changes have for his whole way of life: “Damn ‘em all! They changed it. Changed it all around. Smeared it all over with blood. Well, I’m finished with it. It’s… It’s like ropin’ a dream now. Just gotta find another way to be alive, that’s all. If there is one any more.”

    Langland’s recognition that, in fact, it is not possible any more to ‘be alive’ in the traditional way comes as a shock precisely because, on the face of it, things hadn’t changed much at all – there were still cowboys and horses, open ranges and canyons, roping and rodeos. There were of course some obvious changes, such as the new equipment cowboys use (tools like airplanes and jeeps and radios). But those changes were not what Langland was surprised about. Behind the obvious foreground changes in the practices, something much more important had been switched around – a change in the background relations that ultimately decide what things really are and what events really mean.

    * * *

    Pippin has elegantly outlined the stresses that our Humanist Inheritance and the very idea of human agency have come under in the last 150 years. We’ve become painfully aware of so many different ways that it might turn out that we’re “not running the show.” And as Pippin and other philosophers like Heidegger have suggested, at least some of the obstacles to genuine agency are historically variable. The Misfits explores one such obstacle – a loss of control over the status and significance of our acts, a loss that occurs when everything is drawn into the technological ordering of the world. Arthur Miller’s script, written less than a decade after Heidegger’s landmark essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” shared Heidegger’s sense that in our contemporary, technological world, the meaning of our actions is increasingly subject to a world order that drives toward the reduction of everything to resources. The paradox of such a world is that we, on the one hand, seem to acquire an unprecedented power to do what we want. Technological devices allow us to ever more efficiently and flexibly acquire an ever broader range of commodities. And yet, on the other hand, this power comes at a cost. Once we get locked into the drive for technological flexibility and efficiency, we ourselves become resources, functionaries of the technological exploitation of the world. And the objects that once made our practices really matter to us become something else, something incapable of lending gravity to our lives.

    I find myself in broad agreement with Pippin’s suggestion that agency “is more like a social status” than a matter of being “a unique sort of entity, one either exempt from the causal laws of the spatio-temporal universe or possessed of a distinct psychological structure and mode of causation that requires a distinct logical form of explanation.” As The Misfits tragically illustrates, however, social practices for bestowing agenthood might be necessary, but they are not sufficient to put us in charge of the show. Langland and his friends make much of the fact that, as cowboys, they’re not “working for wages,” and thus are not directly subject to the control of others. They seem to themselves and their neighbors like the very paradigm of an autonomous, self-determining individual. But living up to agreed-upon community standards of what counts as autonomy are not, in the end, enough to satisfy their longing for authentic self-determination.

    * * *

    The work of re-imagining a more deflated and attainable notion of agency, and the even more demanding work of developing social practices attuned to this notion of agency, surely has to go hand in hand with an inquiry into the historically-shaped background relations that ultimately decide what things really are and what events really mean. How we are to hold each other to account obviously will be shaped by how much or how little, in point of fact, we ultimately are accountable for given the forms of life available to us in our world. I think I’m agreeing with Pippin in making this point. He notes that “there is no fact of the matter ‘outside’ of the rules of such a practice [for holding others accountable as an agent] that could ‘settle’ the matter of who can inhabit such a status, and thus no reason to look at the problem as a matter of either the results established by the best science or scientifically realist philosophy, or a matter of a wholly autonomous practical attitude. We can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in the light of either changing socio-historical conditions or new findings in science.” It is that last clause that I’m emphasizing–that being an agent, however that is understood in a particular historical world, demands more than merely being deemed by others to be responsible. It also requires socio-historical conditions consonant with our standards of agenthood, conditions within which one really can be responsible. One can make this point without taking on a metaphysically dubious belief in objective facts about what it is to be an agent. But, for example, if being a rugged individual is the paradigm of agential autonomy, then our contemporary technologically-dependent forms of life make it nearly impossible to attain the ideal. There would be little point in holding ourselves and others to such an unattainable standard.

    At the same time, autonomy is an ideal that cannot be tailored to fit just any old way of life. A commitment to particular practices of holding others to account demands a commitment to securing the conditions which enable one to be accountable by the lights of those practices. And a commitment to the ideal of autonomy entails a commitment to changing the world whenever the available possibilities don’t leave room for a worthwhile form of autonomy. The great works of modern film and literature to which Pippin directs us are likewise concerned not just with exploring the nature and limits of agency. Many are also committed to a project of liberation, a project of disclosing new spaces for autonomy and inspiring us with ideals of world transformation.

    • Robert Pippin

      I am very much in agreement with what Wrathal says about the importance of understanding the “background conditions” constraining or opening up what might be relevant in any (broadly and somewhat metaphorically conceived) social negotiation about agentive status. However we conceive of such negotiations, they occur in a historical context into which, one might put it, we have simply been “thrown,” and at the deepest level cannot imagine ourselves out of. And his illustration of the point with John Huston’s 1961 The Misfits is a telling example. In fact there are many great Westerns about the painful and even tragic transition from a frontier form of life, often lawless, requiring the heroic and martial virtues, to a modern, bourgeois, capitalist form of domestic life: Shane, Man of the West, The Gunfighter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Lusty Men, The Shootist, virtually all of Budd Boetticher’s Westerns. The issue obviously touches an American nerve, probably because we are not quite convinced that the transition has been made, or that we want to make it.

      The large issue that I take Wrathall to be raising concerns the possibility that the current background conditions may be such that there is just no way to imagine any serious accommodation with the requirements of the Humanist Inheritance, the requirements we take to be necessary for mutual respect and the dignity of human life, some sense that we can run some part of the show. (An assigned social status may be a necessary but still not a sufficient condition of any robust sense of agency.) I agree that that possibility cannot be ruled out a priori and that Heidegger’s bleak account of the “Age of the World Picture,” an era of complete self-forgetting, might be historically apt.

  • Allen Speight

    Robert Pippin’s paper raises a host of interesting questions at what would appear to be an unusually fruitful moment for rethinking the philosophy of agency. Many of the assumptions that have governed the last several decades of action theory—the oppositional terms of the free-will and determinism debate, the underlying moral psychology rooted in a usually unquestioned triad of desire/reason/belief and the overall stress on deliberative posture and control—are under somewhat greater philosophical scrutiny these days. There is a clear need for some larger investigations of the landscape, difficult as these may be to undertake, and the wide-ranging set of responses to Pippin’s paper already shows how many vexing problems await to be examined.

    Since it is not possible in a short post to examine all of these philosophical issues, I want to focus in this response on the central question about what sort of realm of agency that is opened up if, as Pippin recommends, we reject both the position of deterministically-minded theoretical spectators and the dualistic implications of the “practical point of view.” Pippin’s alternative suggestion would appear to place agency somehow “between” full participation and full spectatorship, between a completely autonomous notion of freedom on the one hand and an utterly deterministic account of necessity on the other hand: action should be viewed instead as an achievement within a context, a matter of degree, dependent on various forms of social negotiation and interactive relationships, with participatoriness presumably waxing and waning conditionally upon how those relationships develop.

    If this is true, there is indeed, as Pippin claims, a need for the sort of fine-grained accounts of distinctively “local” aspects of agency that various forms of especially narrative literature, film and art have made possible (and, by extension, one might add the work of empirically-trained social scientists, linguists, journalists and historians attentive to the rituals and practices of responsibility-holding and –taking across various cultures). One way the explicitly literary exploration of the realm of agency “between” freedom and necessity has been helpful is in getting some philosophical clarity on a certain tragic picture of action: by acting, an agent opens up a responsibility-laden encounter with the world in which he may not have foreseen what happens but bears some guilt for it. Such counter-to-expectation action can involve either a mistaken assessment (Aristotle’s Oedipus) or the embroilment of the agent in a conflictual situation whose consequences become larger than the aspect of action that most concerned the agent at the time (Hegel’s Antigone).

    But presumably the sort of “betweenness” of participation/spectation at issue in these ancient tragic cases is one that Pippin, like Hegel and most of us, reject as no longer problematic for us as moderns (at least not in the same way): unlike Oedipus and Antigone, modern agents construe it as an achievement that ascription of intentional agency involves something determined by us as agents as our intentions (reasonably beforehand) and not attributable because of an underlying guilt or fate.

    The sorts of medial cases that are representative of agency as we experience it in the modern world would seem to be less doings-which-become-unanticipated-sufferings (in Hegel’s free mistranslation of Antigone: “because we suffer we acknowledge we erred”) than doings-which-require-agentive-reassessment of some sort. Both modern and ancient experiences of action require (a) the acknowledgment of a retrospective side to the construal of agency and (b) a holistic view of action in its larger context. But what makes modern actions different in these two regards and how do we appraise them, on Pippin’s view? I want to raise three sets of questions which have some bearing on the issues of modern retrospectivity and holism in this context:

    (1) Should we imagine that a gradational view of action-as-status affords the possibility of a rank ordering on which “more” participation should count as better than “less”? If so, what are the grounds for making these distinctions and what guides such comparison in historical circumstances where that construal would seem to be less “up to” an agent? (Hegel himself seems to have held both that there are higher and lower conceptions of agency possible depending on differing historical circumstances and that there have been historical moments when the best that could be called for on the part of individual agents is a kind of resignation or even fatalism. His account of modern freedom, like both Machiavelli’s and Rousseau’s, owes a great deal on this score to his early reading of Gibbon on the “decline” in citizen participation in warfare and self-defense that occurred as the result of the period of prosperity and laxer social habits in the Pax Romana.)

    (2) If we are concerned with gradations, is there any important difference between two forms of gradational adjustment that on Pippin’s discussion would seem to slide together (a point some others have commented upon): “we can and do adjust the rules by which we hold each other to account in the light of either changing socio-historical conditions or new findings in science.” How should we understand the relation of scientific and social forms of adjustment? Does it matter (to put Gibbon’s worry about large-scale political passivity in contemporary terms) whether the tendency of Americans to view themselves and their conditions “more” spectatorially than participatorily is due more to daily injections of vulgar Darwinism in the “Science Times” or to the continual treatment of political agents as part of one big comedy show for spectatorial amusement in the age of Jon Stewart?

    (3) Finally, a push to get Pippin to expand upon his “above all Tolstoy” comment. Lukács, in his “Theory of the Novel,” claimed that “the epilogue” in War and Peace was “an authentic conclusion, in terms of ideas, to the period of the Napoleonic Wars.” Leaving aside the issue of Lukács’ fusion of Tolstoy’s two epilogues, I wonder whether Pippin agrees or what he thinks might be the philosophical means of overcoming what often feels like an aesthetic or rhetorical gap at the end of War and Peace: between the brilliant and rich immediacy, even romanticism, of Tolstoy’s descriptions of agency from the individual’s standpoint at the time (what it feels like to Nikolai or to Andrei to be in battle) and the immense speculative distance of Tolstoy’s rather turgid exposition of the possibility of a “calculus” of history aggregating into larger vectors all of the individual moments of agency. Can philosophy somehow see from a consistent perspective what Tolstoy as artist could not successfully bring together?

    • Robert Pippin

      I am not entirely sure that the “Greek” notion of having to bear burdens for what we brought about but did not intentionally do is now just “from a time past.” Williams and Nagel on “moral luck” would be relevant to a longer discussion on that issue.

      But I agree that it is above all doubt about the possibility of self-knowledge, and so the possibility of ascribing (sincerely) intentions to oneself that do not seem expressed in what we actually do, that is a more important source of modern skepticism about the requirements of agency. This does indeed emphasize the unavoidably belated relation we have to the meaning of what we did and why (“really”) we did it, both of which are often only apparent later. And it means that “gradations” of agency have something to do with degrees of self-understanding; greater agency does not mean greater causal power but a greater ability to identify with my deeds, to understand them as expressions of me. This is inevitably a socially mediated possibility since my claims about what I did and why are imbricated in what others take me to be doing and why.

      It is difficult to use metaphors like “how we hold each other to account,” or “how we adjust what we take agency to require” without creating the sense of intentional, explicit negotiation. That is of course not true. There is no common practice which individuals or groups seek to influence or change by argument or strategy. In crisis or revolutionary situations, something like this happens, but such a description would still be too intentionalist. So it is difficult to answer Speight’s first two questions without a longer discussion of some example of specific social change.
      I am not at all sure that philosophy itself can unite Tolstoy’s profound skepticism about human agency with his vivid picture of what agents are called on to DO from the first person perspective. It certainly cannot help if philosophy is conceived as assessor a priori of contested claims like these. On the issue Speight raises, perhaps Shakespeare would be of more use than Spinoza or Hegel.

  • Christa Acampora

    I see at least two very important big ideas advanced in this fine contribution. The first is that there is a considerable amount of pruning to do with respect to our conception of agency. Pippin’s contribution to this lies in making it clear how worn paths and new ones cannot lead us to our desired destination of a robust account of agency. Part of what is lacking in the available options Pippin surveys is an understanding that the problematic nature of agency is itself a practical matter, itself subject to continual negotiation (the second big idea).

    I am in large agreement with Pippin’s characterization of the social and historical nature of ethical sensibility, including our sense of ourselves as ethical beings, and how this is linked with imagination, which has a vital aesthetic dimension. Pippin’s guidance to look to modern literature and film for cues for current and possible shared forms of life strikes me as an especially promising gesture for new ways of approaching “the question of how to hold each other to account.”

    I would press this even further to make a third larger point, because I think Pippin gathers evidence to support “skepticism” not only about “the major alternatives on offer in philosophy” but also concerning the formulation of the problem itself. The discussion of the failed and failing alternatives in the “Humanist Inheritance” and “Simple Acknowledgement” pictures of agency turns on who or what is “in charge” and to what extent. At one point, Pippin defines agency in terms of accountability: “being the subjects of deeds that are categorically distinct events, being subjects whom others hold accountable for their deeds.” In the explorations of shared forms of life to which Pippin nods, however, accountability is but one dimension of what is imaginatively sought and reconceived.

    To Pippin’s list of literary instructors I would add Morrison. Her depiction in Beloved of the performance of Baby Suggs’ “Call” neatly illustrates Pippin’s idea of agency as a form of social status that is neither simply an individual achievement of a metaphysical entity nor an evolutionary neuro-biological development. Baby Suggs is a former slave whose freedom was bought by her son while he remained in captivity. She performs an exercise for a community of former slaves who gather for “The Call.” The Call is a summons, not a sermon, whose purpose is to gather resources to animate and activate bodies that had been the possessions of others. Baby tells those in attendance, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Weeping, laughing, and dancing, the group reaches out for redemption on the basis of newly imagined shared forms of life: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” (That Baby Suggs ultimately loses her powers to conjure and confer further illustrates the power of the broader social world and the fragility of the status it confers or diminishes.) Beloved is at least as much a meditation on the importance of love, its empowering possibilities and limits, as it is about accountability in the ways explored in Pippin’s set-up. Thus, one might further argue that an advantage of the arts is that they are able to present concerns about accountability in the much broader spectrum in which forms of life take shape. If Pippin’s is right, then his self-described “hand-waving” might be not only a directional guide for answers but a sign of new questions to come.

    • Robert Pippin

      I agree with Acampora that what we want out of any account of ourselves as subjects of our deeds is more than a sense of accountability. Such a fuller notion of agency is also linked to notions like meaning (we might do various things intentionally and knowingly and voluntarily but which seem to make little sense to us; we understands ourselves more as automata than agents) and self-understanding (we might not know exactly why we do what we do, or we might suspect our own avowed intentions). And in acting “out of love” these other factors become quite important, since it is unlikely that we want to say that “in love” we are gripped by a passion and so act impulsively or that we feel a desire or preference that we want satisfied and act strategically.

  • Arata Hamawaki

    According to Robert Pippin the standard metaphysical defense of the view that there is something special about human agency stakes itself on a picture of human agency that is bolstered by three claims, which together amount to what he calls “the Humanist Inheritance.” According to this picture, we have a kind of special first-person authority with respect to our actions and their motivation; we exercise deliberative control over our actions; and we are able to effect changes in the world through our deliberative decisions. All three of these claims have come under sustained attack by the “so-called Masters of Suspicion” like Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, as well as from evolutionary theorists, and the upshot of these attacks on “the Humanist Inheritance” is a picture of ourselves according to which we are in effect the passive playthings of impersonal forces working on us, that we ourselves don’t in effect bring anything about.
    Pippin has some sympathy for the anti-metaphysical, or rather anti-theoretical, approach one can find Kant’s thesis of the priority of the practical standpoint. However, this sympathy is tempered by what he perceives to be a stark and uncompromising dualism in the Kantian view between the absolute freedom we enjoy insofar as we are occupants of the practical point of view and the complete lack of freedom we have insofar as we regard ourselves from the theoretical point of view. As an alternative to Kant’s specific version of the non-metaphysical, practical approach he favors, Pippin suggests that we treat agency as a kind of “social status” like being a professor. What counts as being an agent evolves over time, and is nothing apart from our practice of broadly speaking treating certain behaviors as expressive of agency, and certain creatures as responsible centers of agency. What is called for then is a kind of re-self-description, one that is an alternative to the Humanist Inheritance that philosophy has bequeathed to us, but which is able to give us a sense of ourselves as active agents. Pippin says that we need to “re-imagine something like a form of life,” a task which he thinks is more likely to be furthered in our current intellectual dispensation by consulting literature and film rather than philosophy.
    I find Pippin’s essay to be richly thought-provoking and compelling. However, I wonder whether the humanist inheritance has taken as much of a hit as Pippin supposes, and further, I wonder whether critics like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are really criticizing the humanist inheritance so much as what has become of it. Finally, I am inclined to think that correctly understood, the project of these critics is not so much opposed to Kant’s view of the priority of the practical standpoint, but on the contrary presuppose something like it as foundational for their project. Consider, to begin with, the claim that we can be mistaken about what we are up to and about the motives of our actions. I think that Pippin is correct about this, but I am not sure that this point has the consequences Pippin seems to think it has. To take an example – suppose that you think that you oppose your daughter’s wish to marry a certain person out of love for her, but that your behavior is less an expression of love and more an expression of the desire to control. You can tell a story to yourself on which it is love that is the primary motive of your actions, but those who know of your behavior can see that the story doesn’t hold water. There are lots of things that could be going on in such a case. You might not really understand what love is, the difference between loving and possessing. Or perhaps you might have deceived yourself into thinking that your action is an expression of your love, even though there is plenty of evidence available to indicate otherwise – if you were only more attentive to it. And so on. But I think that we suppose that there must be some such explanation for your failure to grasp the true motive behind your actions. You can’t just be brutely wrong about your motives, as you can about a perceptual matter. And if you were to discover the true motive of your actions, I think that you would feel as though your behavior were not fully yours. It would seem to be yours in one sense and not yours in another. Where the rationalizing story you told yourself can no longer be sustained, the action can no longer be sustained either. This suggests that there is an internal connection between the action and the rationalizing story, even if it may turn out that the rationalizing story is illusory. The point isn’t just that your action is explained through rationalization by your beliefs and desires. Rather the point is that what sustains, and so explains, the action must itself be understood in first-person terms. If that were not the case, we would not be able to explain the sort of self-alienation from one’s action that results when we discover that we are wrong about what we are up to. This kind of self-alienation can only be understood if first-person authority is built into the nature of action itself (as Richard Moran has recently argued).
    In fact, don’t the “Masters of Suspicion” such as Freud and Marx presuppose rather than subvert some such picture of our relation to our own actions? Here it seems to me that they are done a disservice when they are grouped with evolutionary theorists. In offering re-descriptions of our actions and motivations, they aim to create a sense of self-alienation, one that would neutralize the rationalizing stories we tell ourselves, and by doing so create new terms in which we can begin to envision our playing an active role in shaping our own destinies. They aren’t simply exposing our conception of ourselves as agents as a sham, and proposing an alternative picture of what human agency is really about to put in its place. They don’t, after all, simply see themselves as theorists but as revolutionaries, liberators. They do see us as bound in chains, but the chains are of our own devising, and our ignorance of this is itself our own doing. If we have lost our agency, we must find the route of recovery ourselves.
    In this respect I see their projects as continuous with Kant’s even though they are perhaps more probing in imagining the ways we can lose self-knowledge and agency, and more sophisticated in the methods they use to expose such loss and to negotiate a path of recovery. We needn’t read Kant’s turn to the practical point of view as a dialectical maneuver to save what Pippin calls “the Humanist Inheritance” from the onslaught of the “Masters of Suspicion,” or whatever the equivalent would have been in Kant’s day. Rather, we can view Kant’s turn to the practical standpoint as setting the terms in which the issue of the extent to which we are active in determining the course of our lives can be posed, posed as a practical problem. Suppose we then understand Kant’s radical view to be as follows: if we aren’t fully active participants in determining the course of our lives, then that isn’t because of any fact about us, but because we have allowed this to happen. Kant isn’t after a guarantee against our becoming passive spectators of our lives: there is no such guarantee. Passivity is a practical not, as it is usually conceived of, a theoretical possibility – in any case it isn’t simply settled by our taking up the practical standpoint, for we can let ourselves be passive. And the theoretical problem emerges as a kind of evasion. For if we are less than free then that is something that is itself our own responsibility: it’s because we have not assumed responsibility for our lives. (Whereas the theoretical way of posing the problem treats it as if it were simply a fact of the matter: are we free or are we not free?) And if we have not been active participants in forging a kingdom of ends, the fault lies in us, for there is in effect nothing that prevents such a realization. Thus we must both act as a member of the kingdom of ends and realize the kingdom of ends through our actions. Freedom is both part and parcel of the practical standpoint itself, and also set as a task.
    If Kant is so understood, we can view “the so-called Masters of Suspicion” as radicalizing rather than opposing Kant at a fundamental level, as setting new terms in which the issue of our freedom can be posed as a practical problem. Pippin follows Kant in subverting the practical/theoretical relation and so I take the above remarks to be in the general spirit of his positive proposal. My suggestion is that the radicalness of this move should be understood as dependent on rather than as overturning the idea that our actions are constituted by the first-person. But of course much more would need to be said to make this at all persuasive, or even clear.

    • Robert Pippin

      Hamawaki is right that whatever adjustments we make in how we hold each other to account or how we count each other as equally free agents at all, some large component of the “rationalizing” story has got to remain. But I think a number of basic elements of it will have to change. The idea that I took myself to have motive A at T1, was wrong and actually had motive B at T1 preserves the idea of such motives or reasons as datable events or states, punctated and acting as proximate causes. There is still too much in this picture of intentions causing actions like people kicking balls. A central position as agents has got to be retrospective and intentions avowed must be considered provisional until they are actualized in some deed. Or so I would want to claim with several books worth of space.

      I don’t think it is at all controversial to consider thinkers like Nietzsche, Marx and Freud as naturalists, attempting to understand actions as bodily events subject to causal explanations, but I agree with Arata that they are multi-dimensional thinkers who are better understood as “offering re-descriptions” of what count as actions and motivations. Freud can even be understand as extending the scope of psychological explanations, not restricting them. (What might have appeared things that happen to us are really intentional doings, just unconscious intentional doings.) We would just have to hear more (from him and from me) about what counts as “an alternative picture of what human agency is really about” to have a sense of what is being suggested.

      I appreciate the point about Kant wanting to say that we can “let ourselves” become the passive spectators of our lives, but that has always seemed to me at bottom a kind of circumlocution that does not get to the main point. We are still unconditionally responsible in such a tortured formulation of something we do (it does not happen to us, but we “let” it happen, decide to let it happen; just another action). Likewise with making our moral vocation a life project in itself. It is still the case hat we should do this because we are obliged to; obliged to develop our talents and be beneficent, to be on the watch constantly for the serpent of self-love rearing its predictable head. Not, I think, a persuasive picture of ethical life.

  • Leigh Van Valen

    Self, agency, free will, responsibility. These are perennially awkward concepts: most of us realize that the world is causal but we introspectively experience agency. Thus I walk to a store; I write this commentary.

    There must in actual fact be a resolution. The world is as it is. Metaphorically there can be your world and my world, but these are only our perceptions and are themselves part of the causal structure of the world.

    There are only two ways to resolve the antinomy, as Kant and others clearly saw. These are of course the monistic and dualistic world views. Either there is a mind that is partly or even entirely separate from the causal material world, or there is not.

    In order to discover how the real world is put together, with all its innumerable interacting influences, we have to investigate it, not just think about it. Such investigation is the purview of the sciences, in a very broad sense; in the present context physics is almost irrelevant. Scientific investigation doesn’t in itself preclude dualism: in principle it could still turn out, even now, that, despite diverse causal influences that partly construct the mind, there is an uncaused residuum that exercises autonomous choice.

    Such a potential residuum unfortunately becomes progressively smaller as knowledge increases. The situation is quite like the religious God of the gaps. It is easily conceivable, partly by comparison with diverse other animals, that there is no uncaused residuum. Thus, in the absence of any positive evidence for its existence, Ockham’s razor rejects an autonomous mind.

    So, in a monistic world, can anything be left of agency and the rest? Causation isn’t deterministic in the sense of fate. What an individual squirrel, or person, does depends importantly on its own volition or agency. There are feedbacks on feedbacks, forever. Events that are probabilistic from an individual’s perspective are pervasive – the squirrel sees (or perhaps doesn’t see) an approaching hawk; chromosomes usually reassort randomly in meiosis; we see a friend in an unexpected place.

    Responsibility requires understanding. We gain moral understanding by socialization and reflection. Most of us (our reference set) come to a generally similar understanding, however hypocritical we may be in practice. Unfortunately, our reference set is incomplete. It excludes psychopaths and others with whom we happen to disagree. There are, empirically, no truly universally shared moral values.

    Is understanding sufficient for moral responsibility as well as necessary for it? Clearly the ability to act is also necessary; I may wish to ban whaling or war, but I can’t realistically do anything about them myself. We may disagree with the values of those around us: we understand them but regard our own values as superior. Still, we understand our own values. To thine own self be true, in all its complexity of tradeoffs among mutually incompatible choices. I take this maxim, with ability, to be sufficient for responsibility, at least to a close approximation. Understanding has causes, but the understanding itself supervenes on these causes, making them irrelevant.

    Thus we can have responsibility and agency, although not true free will, in a fully causal universe. (Quantum randomness is irrelevant to this picture.) One might, with Pippin, regard this result as manifesting an incompletely free will, but I think that this obfuscates more than it clarifies: there is no uncaused residuum.

    What then of the general humanistic perspective? (I note that all the discussion has been restricted to the Western tradition; a broader outlook would be enlightening.) It seems to have suffered no important losses. Free will is gone, yes, but its loss would be important only if it were necessary for agency and responsibility. Absolutism in ethics is also gone, which I regret but which is also liberating.

    Humanism peers into the metaphorical soul and extracts meaning. This meaning is usually more affective or aesthetic than rational, but it is no less important for that. It isn’t accessible scientifically. However, because the criteria of judgment are subjective, it is subject to fads and repressive cliques. Perhaps the best way to counter these is to expose them for what they are.

    The illumination of the soul takes many forms. But souls differ too. How much does (or would) Bach or Tang Xianzu affect Dick Cheney? Gandhi wouldn’t have survived a day under Stalin. The soul is strongly influenced by the socialization process. Expansion of the reference set for humanistic evocation and analysis could have interesting consequences.

  • Professor Pippin has indicated that he intends to submit additional responses.

  • Wayne Martin

    I am all in favour of learning about agency from films and novels, and I look forward to learning with help from Robert Pippin once the gestures in “Participants and Spectators” are developed in his forthcoming and projected works on John Ford Westerns and Film Noir. Certainly I’ll be keen to find out whether the lessons Pippin seeks to draw from Tolstoy bear any resemblance to the theory of infinitesimal freedom that Tolstoy himself proposed in his appendix to War and Peace. (I am guessing not.) So on the whole I am more than happy to sign up for Pippin’s new course. But I do worry about the extent to which the particular motivation that Pippin provides for his proposed syllabus may ultimately turn on a false disjunction.

    Before getting to that, however, let me mark a point of sympathy for one of Pippin’s most important points, viz., that the problem of agency is best understood as a practical problem, rather than a narrowly metaphysical one. Pick your favourite arena of human activity: teaching students in a classroom, treating patients in a clinic, voting in a an election. In all these arenas we face the challenge of combining one perspective that recognizes agency and respects autonomy with another that sees the scene as one more piece of the natural world, governed and explicable by appeal to natural laws and natural mechanisms. (In philosophers’ toy models these laws are still usually taken to be deterministic, even though real science everywhere works with patterns of probability; but the basic problem remains the same.) The tension between these two perspectives is real and ineliminable and must be navigated in practice; no armchair compatibilist solution is going to make it go away. It is a problem, as it were, about the architecture of social space and social encounters. I take this to be one of the most important lines of thought to emerge from the rejection, in the post-Kantian period, of Kant’s strategy of allocating of freedom to one world and determinism to another. On this point, at least, I am in firm agreement with Pippin’s project.

    But in peddling his position, Pippin frames the contemporary alternatives in ways that I don’t recognize. One unpalatable alternative would be to deny any principled difference between human actions and other events in the universe. Everything is just matter moving in space, so all explanation of such motion is logically of a type. I am against that, for sure. Along with Pippin I want to recognize forms of explanation that are distinctive to, and peculiarly suited to, human actions. But on Pippin’s menu that leaves me to choose between either the full-blown Humanist Inheritance or Pippin’s Hegelian historicism which reduces agency to a historically situated and culturally variable status. That is the disjunction I resist.

    In the post-Wittgensteinian positions to which Pippin alludes, what underwrites the distinctive status of action is their admissibility to what used to be called “rational explanation” – canonically the form of explanation that cites a belief and desire that together serve to “rationalize” (or better: defeasibly justify and motivate) the action in question. I fail to see that the suitability of such explanations to a particular stretch of human behaviour requires that one sign on to the principle that people always know what they are doing, or even that they always have deliberative control over their actions. Certainly it doesn’t seem fair (this is the one part of Pippin’s remarks that I thought bordered on slander!) to suggest that rational explanation of this form must be underwritten by “the required metaphysics of interiority.”

    It seems to me that what underwrites the rational mode of explanation of my behaviour is the fact that intentional states (including intentions) and actions are aptly ascribable to me – that is, that the best overall interpretation of my behaviour and condition includes the claim that I have a certain set of beliefs, desires, motives and intentions. That apt description might in many cases be one that is accessible to me from the first person point of view, but there is no reason that it has to be. It may well be some third party who can best recognize the desires that are motivating me, and see the loss of deliberative control that this is wreaking havoc in my behaviour. There is no particular need to suppose that in ascribing such states to me this third party is advancing hypotheses about the action on the stage in the theatre of my mind. The metaphysics of interiority is just one theory of what a mental state amounts to, and it was never a very good one.

    If this is broadly right then the legitimacy of rational explanation is detachable from the Humanist Inheritance, and we should not feel the need to sign on to Hegelian social-status historicism if we want to save the category of agency. But maybe Anna Karenina or Night and the City will prove me wrong.

    • Robert Pippin

      Wayne, someone suing for slander ought to be more careful about how he quotes sources. I said of the Humanist Inheritance that its was “largely influenced by (but not wholly determined by) Cartesian positions on the required metaphysics of mental interiority.” “Not wholly determined by” was to make room for Wittgensteinians like Anscombe who are surely not Cartesians. But the general notion that the idea of agency we have inherited was much influenced by the interests of the Christian position on causal responsibility and blame, and the position on interiority necessary to make it coherent, is hardly controversial.

      I have no problem with the middle-ground position he describes. Sometimes I am motivated by beliefs and desires which are (in some way that will require pages of philosophy) not first-personally available to me. That is another sort of qualification on the Humanist Inheritance we have become quite comfortable with since (at least) Freud. But the problem I addressed remains unaddressed by Martin: what would it be first-personally for me to acknowledge this and live out its implications, and what follows for anyone else from the success of these ascriptions? I am to be held to account? Is it proper to begin to act towards me as if these truly ascribed motives were “mine,” even in this alienated, third-person way. If the “reasons” are not deliberatively accessible to me, why is it right on a “rational agency” theory of agency to count me as an agent?

      I see nothing in what Martin has said to counter my skepticism that how we answer these questions could be resolved by philosophy alone, that they are any less practical problems within a community at a time. One “we” have legislated the status of rational agency as our criterion, how we deal with implications like the ones Martin suggests are also part of the game, not rules for the game set by philosophers.

  • Charles Wolverton

    “if we want to save the category of agency …”

    For ten days I have been reading and rereading the essay and comments, composing and trashing candidate comments and questions, aware that while I thought I agreed with much of the essay and the supportive comments, something was bothering me. This phrase from Wayne Martin’s comment (thanks!) helps me see that I needed only ask a simple, one line question:

    Why would one who apparently appreciates Freud and Rorty discount Freud’s quote (p. 31 of Rorty’s CI&S):

    “If one considers chance to be unworthy of determining our fate, it is simply a relapse into the pious view of the universe …”

    and write:

    “For most of us though, viewing ourselves as ‘products’ of social or evolutionary or bio-chemical processes (and thereby not “running any show”) does count … as hugely deflating to the Humanist Inheritance.”

    Like commenter Thomas Becker, I know first hand that it doesn’t have to so count.