Personal autonomy

Personal autonomy or self-government is not an easy idea to pin down. Usage of the term can be ambiguous; is the emphasis on the self or is the emphasis on the government? Is it much the same thing as agency? How closely is it connected to ideas about rationality, independence, liberty, psychological unity and accountability? The survey on the topic in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy demonstrates the difficulty of applying the term as a diagnostic label.The significance of personal autonomy for both ethics and politics means that, while there is wide disagreement, the concept cannot be avoided. There is…

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The evolutionary origins of subjectivity and agency

The concept of individuation is at the base of a conceptual structure that runs from agency through autonomy and liberty to the idea of the state, law and political legitimacy.These concepts belong to the Geisteswissenschaften, (there isn’t a properly equivalent term in English), the intellectual disciplines concerned with intellectual and cultural entities and events, rather than the Naturwissenschaften, the intellectual disciplines, the natural sciences, that are concerned with natural entities and events.However, the form in which agency, and everything which follows from agency, is attributable to human beings is where the development has arrived but not where it began.The idea…

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Theory, practice & reflective living

There are broadly three categories of critical reasoning, namely, conceptual theorising, practical deliberation, and introspective reflection.Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, is by its nature uncritical. This is not because it is necessarily irrational or prone to error, though it can be; it is uncritical in the sense that it doesn’t explain itself to itself. It is the possibility of explanation, and explanation of the explanation, that makes reasoning critical.The gap between theory and practice is a stubborn reality. Where conceptual theorising is pulled towards abstraction and detachment, practical deliberation is anchored in the concrete and engaged. However, it is…

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Decisions, advocacy & explanation

Deliberation is the reasoning that wraps around a course of action. It is often considered to mean decision making, but I would extend the idea to include advocacy and explanation. Deliberative decisions are made in the knowledge that they will need to be justified and explained.The advantage of this is that it offers a plausible solution to the problem of rational agency. It has always been difficult to conceptualise the rationality of decision making when the paradigm case of rationality is taken to be theoretical, particularly scientific, explanation. However, if rational agency also includes a form of explanation, then the…

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Jumping to conclusions

Intuitive reasoning is unreflective reasoning, thinking that happens without the intervention of the critical mind. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls this fast thinking, tending to reserve the term intuition for instinctive expertise, the choice of terms reflecting a differing assessment of the rationality of these capabilities. However, without trying to come to a view on this question, it seems to me that we can regard them as modes of the same ability, our capacity to make judgements and decisions without conscious reflection which, for that reason, become judgements and decisions that we may not be…

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Streams of consciousness

In an earlier post, in the context of drawing the distinction between observers and participants, I quoted Kierkegaard's statement that:It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.This remark also draws attention to the dimension of time and way in which this causes practical reasoning to engage with the flow of events in a different fashion from theoretical reasoning.We understand backwards because the evidence that confirms a theory must be something that is happening or has already happened. Theoretical reasoning has a formal…

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Reasoning from the inside

In this note, I want to look at the distinction between theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning and their relationship to subjectivity and agency, two concepts which focus attention on significant aspects of introspective individuation.Theoretical reasoning is the reasoning of an observer and comes to a conclusion in an explanation. The term theory comes from the same Greek roots as the term theatre, and conveys an idea of spectatorship, a level of detachment from what is being observed. Practical reasoning, on the other hand, is the reasoning of an engaged participant and comes to a conclusion in a course of action.…

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Concepts and schemas

In my last note I suggested that personal identity was the outcome of a particular mode of individuation. While everything is individuated in some way, only human beings are self-consciously individuated. Self-consciousness or introspective awareness is a form of individuation that is particular to human beings. However, this generates something of an ironic paradox. Conceptual thinking is the most distinctive component of introspective awareness and the basis of rationality. But conceptual thinking is driven away from the individual by abstraction and generalisation. In conceptual thinking, individuated entities become the instantiations of an abstract type and the idiosyncrasies of individuality are…

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Personal identity

1 John Locke (1632-1704) is generally credited with being the first western philosopher to consider the question of the diachronic identity of persons. What does it mean to be a particular human being? This isn’t a numerical and classificatory problem in the sense that you might ask how many people there are in a population. To answer that, you would implicitly answer another question, what does it mean to be a human being, and then, based on this conceptual model, count the number of people present. This is the synchronic aspect to the question of individuation. It applies not just…

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The fallibility of the mind

In his book Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests that our minds are fundamentally lazy. Thinking requires attention and effort and these capacities are easily depleted. We prefer the comfort of the familiar and coherent to the discomfort of unfamiliarity and uncertainty. What matters is the narrative, and the best narratives are simple and coherent. As a consequence, we tend, without being aware of it, to substitute easier questions that we can answer for harder questions that we can’t. This unconscious substitution is the basis of the heuristics and biases model that Kahneman developed with Amos Tversky. In their…

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