Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Generally speaking, the present literature on agency has been heavily focused on human agency. This approach proves to be very useful for the immediate applications of the philosophy of agency, e.g. to develop a definition ready for use in ethics or political philosophy. However, there are some limitations to this line of thought, as, for instance, it poses too restrictive requirements on agency, like purposefulness, consciousness, or willingness. In this paper, I would like to tackle the question of agency with the need to include non-human agency in mind. I will set the foundations for a conceptual framework to define agency in the most general terms possible. This framework should be able to capture the conditions at which something possesses agency and the features of different kinds of agents in a way that includes animals and plants, mobs, institutions, ecosystems, AI machines, artifacts, and so on. In general, I claim that agency is based on a weak notion of intentionality, ‘directedness’, which does not require mentality or purposefulness.

In section 2, I will lay out my methodological approach, which, based on a critical challenge to List & Pettit’s (2011) pivotal treatment, I will term ‘moderate intrinsicism’. In section 3, I will deliver a definition of agency as ‘autonomous directedness’, which ideally bridges the two main families of accounts of agency in the literature, respectively intentionality and (agent) causality; upon closer inspection, my view is a development of Searle’s (1983) approach, where ‘prior intentions’ and ‘intentions in action’ are not only analytically but also ontologically distinguished. In section 4, I will propose a characterization of agency across three levels that a system can qualify for: active, reactive, and proactive. I will then close in section 5 by suggesting that the superiority of proactive agency, i.e. the highest form of agency that characterizes human beings, is grounded in an immediate relation with the ‘pre-intentional world’, what Searle calls the ’Background of intentionality’.

The majority of accounts of agency in the literature adopt some degree of intentionality or mentality as a necessary condition for agency. This choice inevitably restricts the scope of the definition to human agency, as it requires the psychological and cognitive abilities of a functioning human being to develop intentions or mental states. On the other hand, we commonly say that many kinds of objects ‘do’ things. Trees fall, men kiss, landslides kill, thermostats heat, people riot, and so on. Strictly speaking, though, only a few of these expressions may be regarded as literal. This is to ask: what counts as an agent? What has been literally done by the agent and what merely happened with some object as its contingent cause? And even among those entities that qualify somehow as agents: what determines different kinds of agents or levels of agency—e.g. what’s the qualitative difference between a pollinating bee, a plant performing photosynthesis, my dog sneezing, and…


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