Rethinking Autonomy and Nature: Notes on Strategy

In a previous post I outlined a potential antinomy between freedom and objectivity. It was generated by two claims: that as free beings we have authority over ourselves to determine how we should think and act; and that as rational beings situated in a wider world, we are also legitimately subject to authority exercised by others as well as that exerted by how things stand in the world at large. The question then is: how are we to understand the claims over us that are externally sourced in a way that is consistent with an account of our own claims over ourselves as self-determining subjects? Without attempting to answer that question here, I want to relate it some wider issues.

How are we as subjects related to each other and to the world we inhabit? This simply articulated question raises a dizzyingly complex set of issues, and is obviously not one that we can approach head on. One way of breaking it down is to ask, insofar as we engage with others and the world, what in that engagement can be attributed to us and what attributed to them. This is one way of understanding what Kant means by spontaneity and receptivity.

Our initial question can then be recast in these terms. If we are free, then this can seem to entail some sort of spontaneity on our parts; some contribution we make in shaping our engagement with others and the world. On the other hand, if we are accountible to authorities beyond ourselves, then this can seem to entail some sort of receptivity on our parts; some contribution something other than ourselves has to shaping our activities. In this case, we seem to be dealing with fundamentally normative renderings of spontaneity and subjectivity. This is because our question is not primarily a demand for a substantive explanation of the processes through which, say, we think about the world or are affected by the actions of others. Rather, we want to know about the responsibilities we are under, the authority we can legitimately exercise over ourselves and others, the commitments we have undertaken and those that we are rationally entitled to, and so on. Thus, our initial question is looking for a way to hold together our accountability to things beyond us with the thought that we have a special role in determining how and what we are answerable to. Giving an adequate account along these lines will show how our spontaneous contribution to determining the propriety of our activities is compatible with the receptivity that is necessary for us to be attendant to the factors outside of us that contribute to the propriety of these activities.

Having set them out thusly, it seems possible to transpose these issues to another level. Here we should introduce a distinction between the space of reasons and the space of nature (leaving these notions relatively intutitive at first). The space of reasons is rationally ordered, being governed by principles or norms such that explaining activity that is assesable with reference to the reasons for it, such as asserting that P or performing a deliberate action, makes essential reference to norms and principles. The space of nature (as traditionally conceived), on the other hand, has a law-like structure such that explaining an event in purely natural terms will be a matter of adducing what caused it and what it in turn goes on to cause. To highlight the difference, following a Kantian formulation we can say that nature can be explained by laws but, insofar they engage in properly rational activity, agents’ interventions into the space of reasons should be explained by their conception of law. In other words, agents as reason-mongering creatures are not (or not merely) explicable in terms of the causal necessity of what they do but in terms of its rational necessity: the way it follows from what they take as laws or maxims.

Although woefully underexplained here, the distinction between the logical spaces of reason and nature can, on one line of thought, be seen to roughly correspond with spontaneity and receptivity respectively. If rational agency is essentially a matter of following concepts of laws (i.e. of acting on the basis of norms), and this is something that requires us to actively take up some orientation towards others and the world rather than being passively determined by laws, then rational agency seems to require a moment of spontaneity. Conversely, merely natural happenings seem to be characterised by a lack of such an active component to them; they simply are, rather than having being brought into being. So too, as we encounter them, it can seem that they come to constitute a horizon of giveness for us. That is, we face them as brute matters of fact, receptively imposed.

Jumping forward a little, we now have on the side of spontaneity freedom, reason and agency whereas on the side of receptivity we have external constraint, nature and causality. I think an adequate resolution of a potential antinomy between freedom, as self-direction, and objectivity, as external direction, must be pursued at the level of spontaneity and receptivity encompassing these further notions connected to the logical spaces of reason and nature as well. Insofar as nature and reason remain diremptive, as I think standard Kantian, Humean and scientific naturalist approaches leave them, trying to account for our autonomy alongside our responsibility to ‘get the world right’ and to acknowledge the claims of others over us, will leave us disappointed. At least, so I suspect.

Part of the reason for my worries centre around something both Adorno and McDowell emphasise. This is the conception of nature that arises with modernity, as something disenchanted and mechanical, bereft of the meaning that was once found in it. The rise of science put pressure on a hermeneutic approach to the natural world, which could find significance in the order of the seasons and the setup of the food-chain, seeing them as signs of divine providence or the natural order of things. But swept away along with this rightful demystification of nature was also the resources for finding certain sorts of normative significance in nature. ‘Rationalised reason’ thus brought with it a sharp division between the subject and the rest of the world, reconstructing ‘oughts’ only from resources to be found within individuals, such as desires or categorically imposed ends or rules necessary to act or think. Freedom then becomes a matter of following or achieving ends that are constituted by the individual — the material world (and often other agents) being mere instruments or blocks to such a process.

The modernist demand for autonomy is thus fundamentally coloured by the modern conception of nature, since its notion of freedom has been conditioned by what it thought the only resources to understand normativity were. Putting this conception of nature under pressure will, I hope, allow us to step away from the one-sided individualism that many conceptions of normativity (and therefore freedom) are pushed towards. While we cannot go back to the Greeks, so to speak — individualism as a value cannot and should not be ignored or wished away — hopefully we will be able to situate it more frutifully when the artificial pressures of a misleading diremption between agent and world are overcome.

This post has been rather messy, impressionistic, clunky and light on argument. Also, it is probably riddled with errors and equivocations. However, it is only meant to outline a very rough trajectory of thought rather than any settled conclusions. Hopefully, in the the future I can polish up the rough edges and provide further connecting tissue for the issues raised.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Autonomy and Nature: Notes on Strategy

  1. Tom – Just a quick note, as to say that I have no time to comment adequately is something of an understatement: just wanted to comment that I think this is absolutely on target – with one caveat – that, as framed above (and, I think, as framed in Adorno and in other authors), you capture this historical development as a one-sided process, in the sense that you problematise the development of a modern “disenchanted” notion of nature, but perhaps aren’t equally and simultaneously problematising the development of concepts of hermeneutics or the conception of the social as meaningful? I say this tentatively, as I know your formulation above is intended as preliminary.

    I’ve tended to try to conceptualise a sort of dual historical development, in which we can perhaps conceptualise something like a process of mutual differentiation that simultaneously sediments out notions of a “disenchanted” sphere of nature, understood as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations, and a “meaningful” sphere of sociality, understood as constituted by intersubjective processes. My gut feel is that both these mutually-differentiated concepts are problematic, and that a critical tug on one side of the spectrum requires a simultaneous critical tug on the other. In my own work, I’ve tended to tug on the question of how we might, for example, conceptualise the notion of “nature devoid of anthropological determination” as a distinctive form of anthropological determination – a form of anthropological determination that, however, tends to go unrecognised as such, because it’s not actually being constituted (or, more accurately, not solely being constituted) intersubjectively or via practices we intuitively regard as “meaning-conferring” – although these practices can still (I would argue) be understood as “social”.

    I know that I am being incredibly compressed here (and I also have to apologise: I’ve been in meetings for the past eight hours, have a splitting meeting-induced headache, and am therefore concerned that I’m sort of repeating what you were trying to express above, rather than actually adding anything – my capacity to absorb what I’m reading is rather diminished at the moment…)

    But my sense with, for example, Adorno, is that he never quite successfully manages to tug simultaneously in the directions that I think need to be tugged – that he is “better”, in a sense, at tugging on the issue of how we conceptualise “disenchanted nature” than he is at how we conceptualise historically simultaneous shifts in concepts of the social. The consequence is that his categories for conceptualising the social (even if you read generously, and see his explicit transhistorical references as intended to be reconstructions from our point of view) are insufficient for grasping our specific social – a situation that leads to the pessimism of his theory, and that also ultimately (I think) indicates that his thematisation of “disenchantment” is inadequate (and inadequate in ways that won’t allow something like Habermas’ sidestep into notions of broader understandings of rationalisation to get around the issue…)

    But I’m sure I’m making no sense – apologies – I’m in no position to develop these positions here, and will have almost no time online for the remainder of the week… Hopefully this won’t prove too much of an irritating distraction from what you were hoping to discuss…

  2. Pingback: » What in the hell…

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