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  Roger Smith, Lecture 7, ‘Agency’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 7, ‘Agency’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 7, ‘Agency’


A. The confusion of parallel usages:

(1) In contemporary philosophical language, and everyday language commonly, ‘agency’ denotes a human power – in individuals or in institutions (e.g. travel agent, CIA) – to achieve a desired purpose. ‘Agency’ especially used in social and psychological sciences, and in political/policy debates. No direct translation (not ‘агент’!).

Analytic philosophy links ‘agency’ to ‘intentionality’ and therefore argues only a person (or an institution with legal status like a person) can have ‘agency’.

Is ‘agency’ definitional of a person, or an empirical fact – the opposite of ‘constraint’ – for some people in some societies?

(2) Earlier, from 17th century, ‘agent’ denoted any power to cause an effect (God, the soul, free will, reason, but also matter, spirits, body, race, etc), the opposite of ‘patient’. This use continues, e.g. ‘the agency of the brain’, a ‘chemical reagent’, referring to the principal cause of an event.

So, usage denotes (1) agency as human power, (2) agency as cause, human or non-human.


B. Free will.

Contemporary English usage often links ‘agency’ to ‘will’ (psychological term) or ‘free will’ (moral, legal term), though strict utilitarian thinking has no place for this. Free will understood as lack of constraint.

Close historical and present connection with understanding of responsibility – especially in moral and legal social life.

Brief history of free will debate (late Stoics, Augustine, law of Justinian, Erasmus-Luther, free-will/necessity debate after Locke, free will/determinism debate from 1870s). The ‘enlightened’ dualist response – the agency of reason, exemplified by I. M. Sechenov, Freud.

J. S. Mill and 20th-century philosophy –‘compatibilism’ – the language game of the person not the same as the language game of things. Free will opposed to constraint not determinism?


C. A case study.

Medico-legal decision-making: the insanity defence and mens rea in criminal law.

Anders Behring Breivik (22 July 2011).

Judgement of degrees of agency in everyday life, e.g. in relation to children, drunken people.


D. Some personal comments on agency and free will.

The subject-object distinction and being in the world.

The ‘attribution’ of agency (and responsibility) as world-shaping for a purpose; the political process of deciding where power lies. Debate about what increases ‘agency’.

The social relativity of talk about agency, free will and responsibility.


Descartes (1649): ‘I see only one thing in us which could give us good reason for esteeming ourselves, namely, the exercise of our free will and the control which have over our volitions. For we can be praised or blamed only for actions that depend on free will.’