Philosophy

Agency and autonomy II: Sorrow, pain and soul

The problem with determining agency is that it looks as if we are determining a quality in an actor in the moment. In fact, that is not what is happening. When Wittgenstein examines psychological states he notes that some of them have what he refers to as “Echte Dauer” – real duration – and some do not. Hence, it works to ask when pain starts and stops, or to speak of an instant of extreme pain, but if we were to do the same when it comes to sorrow the result would be almost comical. “Do you feel sorrow now? When did it start, when does it stop?” – Those are questions that make no sense. Sorrow, Wittgenstein suggests, is something we discern over time in the tapestry of life, in a sequence of events. The attitude to a soul would probably be the same thing. We decide that something has agency not on the basis of a single moment, but the attitude to a soul is something that grows over time as we adopt and accept a pattern of behaviour as one that exhibits soul. Could we ever do this for a machine? If we leave aside the rather simplistic answer that if we did it would not be a machine anymore – a valid if somewhat insipid answer – we seem to end up in a very difficult discussions about the corporeality of soul. Can we say about a disembodied system that it has a soul. Would we…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy I: Agency and an attitude to a soul

The notion of agency is essential to understanding our society. If we cannot say who did something, or what it means to be the one actual acting in a specific case, then all of the language games of legal liability, contractual freedom and intellectual property – to name but a few subjects – falter and fail. Agency lies at the core of our legal philosophies, it is a concept so deeply entrenched that it is easy to miss. What, then, does it mean to be an agent, to act, to have agency? There is no simple answer here, but there is a simplistic one: we believe that we all act with agency, that whatever we aim towards, what we will, is what we should be responsible for. It is also fairly obvious that we never hold artefacts or systems responsible for their actions. Indeed, we do not think that systems act, they simply function. We could make an observation here about language games and action. Wittgenstein captures the essence of action in saying that “my attitude to him is an attitude to a soul”, and in that simple sentence he also captures a lot of the complexity around agency and intention. We treat those systems as responsible towards which we have an attitude to a soul. If there is no soul, there can be no agency, and hence no responsibility. We do not arrest the machine that kills a worker. We examine it for flaws, and if necessary we fix…

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