Some thoughts on Agency

January 30, 2011

I am currently reading some materials for my MA on the concept of personhood. This material seems to me to be flawed because of its abstraction from the concrete material existence within which agents are actually formed. It is as if there is an essentially passive environment inhabited by pre-structured individuals.

The paper by Harry Frankfurt, for example, argues that free will is the identification of a first-order desire with a second-order volition, where a second-order volition is a desire to desire. In other words, the agent desires to be a certain way, to act a certain way, to choose which desires are important to him (‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, Journal of Philosophy, !xvii, 5 – 20). I don’t want to get into the details of his argument because it is irrelevant to my point, but I am inclined to agree that this seems tenable as far as it goes. The question for me is that of sufficiency. Does Frankfurt’s account of free will make sense of what it means to be a person, or to choose one course of action over another? Why, as a person who cares about which desires I act on, and therefore choose to act on certain desires over other desires, might I choose one action over another? Even more importantly, why do I have certain desires in the first place?

The fact that personhood cannot be separated from the human organism should be our first consideration. The person is an animal. Animality is clearly an insufficient criterion of personhood, but it must not be overlooked, since the question we are really asking is what kind of an animal is a person? But it might be better to ask first: what kind of a thing is an animal? An animal is a member of the class of living things. But again, we are drawn to ask another question: what kind of thing is a living thing?

We must, from the standpoint of this question, consider in general, the whole of life on the globe. We must do this because without this consideration there can be no ontological grounding of personhood. Life, in other words, must be the basis of the emergence of persons. My critique of the positions of Frankfurt and others is that they fail to view agency as an emergent property of the economy of life, the general economy of the circulation and accumulation of solar energy across the surface of the globe.

All biological growth depends on an accumulation of excess solar energy. If we can understand this, that life is a system of energy accumulation and expulsion, then we can see that living things, animals, plants, human beings, are centers of economic transaction of solar energy (for a more adequate discussion of this see: Bataille, G., The Accursed Share: Volume 1, Urzone, 1989). The human body, and all living bodies, are part of a system of biological growth, which is itself powered by the sun.

Within this context we must understand the emergence of both political economy and human agency. The political economy, that is, is a sub-system of the economy of life, facilitates the extraction of resources and accumulation of wealth (energy) for the use of human beings. The structure of political economies have varied throughout history, but each variation is grounded within nature. As Marx writes:

When man engages in production, he can only proceed as nature does herself, i.e. he can only change the form of the materials. Furthermore, even in the work of modification he is constantly helped by natural forces. Labour is therefore not the only source of material wealth, i.e. of the use-values it produces. (Marx, K., Capital: Volume 1, 1976, pp. 133-134)

This goes for production in every form of human society. Although Marx refrained from attending to this point in any great detail, the idea was already present in his work that the political economy is a sub-system of a larger natural economy.

The problem, then, is how do we account for human agency in all of this. We realize that from the outset, a person is a body, a living body, an animal body. The body is part of a larger system of energy accumulation of which all of life is a function. But human bodies are also subject to the sub-system of political economy. I believe this to be the space within which we can speak of agency, and we might possibly be able to defend Frankfurt’s thesis about the concept of the person.

Let us imagine that underneath the desires of which Frankfurt speaks is a more fundamental desire, the desire to expel a surplus accumulation of energy. This desire would motivate all our other desires, as a multiplicity of ways in which we might expel that surplus. A second order volition could be understood as a value. We desire to expel our energy in a multiplicity of ways, but we select which is the most effective way of expelling the surplus. In other words, we care about our own desires and act on them according to a set of criteria which tell us the best way to discharge our surplus energy.

This, if argued rigorously, would provide a materialist grounding for the questions of agency which seem so irrelevant because of their groundlessness, although it definitely requires more thought.