On Failures of Agency

Some Varieties of Failures of Agency

A. Paul Holmer on Weakness of Will (or lack of desire)

… when I can no longer decide between opposing options, or when I completely lack wants and wishes, then much of daily life loses its challenge, and I begin to think there is little sense left. The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that many persons suffer from a weakness of the will.

But a tragedy is in the making when a person does not learn what every person finally must learn: that is, some powerful and persistent wants. For unlike the animals whose wants are given with their very birth and nature, persons have to spend time learning what their proper wants are. And if one does not want what is essential and needful – for example, to be morally sound, to be intelligent and informed rather than stupid, or even to be healthy rather than sick – then a good part of being a person is missing. [29]

If a person is always restless and anxious, there can be no resoluteness of will. With little or no will, there is nothing clear or definitive about such a person. Sometimes it is hard to know whether the lack of volition comes first and the restless anxiety follows, or the reverse. However, we need not decide such questions in order to say that surely the two go together. A sign of being weak-willed is to shift from one thing to another. Having a will for this, then for that, in endless succession, is really to have no conclusiveness and no character at all. Such a mode of life spells chaos after a while. Soon one does not know what will satisfy, and a lifetime can be spent in meaningless pursuits. … Something like this happens to us when we spend ourselves in preoccupation with pleasure. [86-87]

from Making Christian Sense (The Westminster Press, 1984).

B. Oliver O’Donovan on Indecision

The peculiar moral weakness we call “indecision” is not a weakness of love; it cannot be countered by a relentless ratcheting up of the affections. It is a weakness in discerning and hearing a call to act, a weakness in observing a practical possibility given in the shape of the moment, and that is a weakness of hope, for hope discerns in the light of God’s promise what is given to us to do. Where love attends to the “today” that has come to be out of the past, the “today” of the world around us, hope attends to the “today” that has not yet come to be, but opens out in front of us, the “today” of opportunity. Hope presides over the venture of action and focuses deliberation on its possibility.

from “Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, edited by Kelly Kapic, (IVP Academic, 2014), 159.

C. Daniel A. Westberg on Inaction

1. Distraction from purpose

[There are] cases where there is a lack of harmony between the judgments of our practical reasoning and the actual things that we do. … [For instance,] we may simply not “feel like” doing something. The laundry is postponed in favor of reading a magazine; we omit the exercise that we had decided to do; we eat more at dinner than we had originally planned; we curtail or omit our prayer time. We do not get around to writing the letter that we had planned, and we find that we had spent unplanned time on video games, or internet surfing or a number of other things not wrong in themselves but that in reference to our plans and prior decisions amount to a deflection from our aims. This is part of the human condition, of course, and part of the material for our reflection that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” [145]

2.  Imprudence

If you do not carry out in action your brilliant insights and decisions, you lack the virtue of prudence. … Your good intentions, your “to-do lists” and plans for the future, are all very good (and may exhibit a certain insight, practicality and wisdom), but if they are not translated into actions, there is no true virtue of practical wisdom in action/actuality. [162]

3. Lack of initiative

Aristotle included in his understanding of courage the kind of person with noble ambition, capable of major achievements worthy of respect and honor. … [In Thomas’ treatment] this is the virtue of our great heroes and saints, those like Francis Xavier and Ignatius, John Wesley and the missionaries Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson, those who achieved something on a grand scale and inspired many others. … The characteristic of this virtue that makes it part of fortitude is that it has to do with achieving something good and of value on a large scale, and therefore involves challenge and difficulty. It is the ability to pursue a vision successfully in spite of hardship and discouragement that gives Thomistic magnificence, better understood as enterprise or initiative, its place and character as a virtue. [205-6]

from Renewing Moral Theology (IVP Academic, 2015).

Alva Noe on Consciousness

There’s an interesting conversation taking place at the interface between philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience. One of this conversation’s recurring talking points is the hypothesis of the “extended mind.” Some of the key concerns raised speak to whether the human mind is to be identified with the brain, whether the mind’s powers are analogous to the powers of computers, and what difference it might make to the philosophical and scientific study of the mind if greater consideration is paid to the mind’s character as “embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended.” Alva Noë is one proponent of “extended mind” research, and you can get some sense of the flavor of his contribution to the conversation in the following video.

More from Alva Noë:

For some further orienting to related discussions in Philosophy of Mind and Embodied Cognitive Science, consider the following for serviceable introductions:

James Smith’s liturgical anthropology

James Smith’s liturgical anthropology

In an earlier post I offered a book notice for James Smith’s 2009 effort Desiring the Kingdom. I thought I’d like to return to a particular theme of that work that Smith himself expands upon in the second volume of his Baker Cultural Liturgies trilogy Imagining the Kingdom (2013). I thought I’d let Smith speak for himself this time. His topic is a fundamental line of inquiry that I think deserves our continued consideration.

Robert Jenson on humanization

Robert Jenson on the enterprise of humanity

[…] men are those of God’s creatures who have their own true selves not as possessions but as challenges. My humanity is not a set of characteristics that I may be counted on to exemplify: like being vertebrate or brown haired or sapient. My humanity is rather something that happens, and happens exactly as the event of choice and action in which I become something that I was not before. […] that I am not yet myself and must become it, is after all something I cannot very well say to myself. Where would I get the location from which to say it? If I am to discover this peculiar sort of fact, if I am to discover that my selfhood is an opportunity and not a given, somebody else will have to tell me. The challenge to find what I am by becoming other than I am can only come from someone other than me, by some person who is new and strange to me and communicates that strangeness. My humanity is our mutual work. […] Being man, therefore, is an enterprise rather than a condition. It is, moreover, an inescapably joint enterprise. I am man only in that I become it; and this enterprise requires more than one in the same way as marrying and playing football requires more than one. Moreover, the enterprise of being human is also a fearsome enterprise — again like marrying or playing football. For who, after all, is to speak this word that can call me to my true self? You are — and that is what is fearsome. I am dependent on you. I am dependent on your sensitivity to perceive when I need your word; on your judgment to find the right one; on your compassion to risk speaking it. That is, I am dependent for my humanity on yours. And that is a risky bet. There is not only risk here, there is mystery. For if I am dependent upon your humanity for mine, on whom are you dependent for yours? On me. No matter how many members we bring into this circle, it remains a circle. How does it ever begin to turn? The common enterprise seems to hang in time by its own bootstraps. It is obviously impossible that it should ever have begun, and yet it happens.

from “On Becoming Man; Some Aspects,” in Essays in Theology of Culture, (Eerdmans, 1995), 28-29.

Herbert McCabe on natural kinds

Herbert McCabe on natural kinds

I do not know how to give an account of the way we have come to divide up our experienced world into what John Locke would have called ‘natural kinds’ or natural units; it is evidently an extremely important part of the business of living with things and interacting with them in all sorts of ways. It seems to me that the idea that we are completely free to reclassify the objects of experience in just any way at all, or (what is the same thing) to use just any names at all to express what is to be a unit in our world, rests on the idea that we are simply spectators of something that stands over against us called the ‘world’, and we are at liberty to put just any kind of grid we like between the world and our eyes. In fact we are not just spectators, we are involved with and have to cope with things. And recognizing the natural units is part of coping. […]

We distinguish true from false statements by living in our world and talking with others in our world, arguing and so on. We could call this ‘experience’ had not the word been hijacked by empiricists who imagine that experience is simply being hit by sense-data.

from On Aquinas, (Continuum, 2008), 10-11, 22.

Lesslie Newbigin on the social character of human nature

Lesslie Newbigin on the social character of human nature

Human beings find fulfillment not in the attempt to develop themselves, not in the effort to better their own condition, not in the untrammeled exercise of unlimited covetousness, but in the experience of mutual relatedness and responsibility in serving a shared goal. Recent surveys in Britain have brought out the fact that great numbers of people have affirmed that the best years of their lives were those in which they shared the experience of the war. The bombing of cities, the destruction of homes, the absence of rest or holiday, the shortage of food and clothing, and the constant presence of death were all part of the picture; but what colors it all is the memory of shared commitment to a common purpose. That is what brings human beings to their very best, and most of us know it.

From Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Eerdmans, 1986), 122.

Book Notice: James K A Smith

I’m just now getting to a 2009 Baker title that I’d been neglecting: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by the Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova). It’s the first of a projected three volume series in “Cultural Liturgies.” The second volume is also already available — Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker, 2013) — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first volume offers enough material to occupy our attention for the present moment. To give you a sense for its flavor and aims, here’s a longish quote from the introduction:

“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly — who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship — through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.

“The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines. […]

“This, I’m going to argue, should make a difference for how we think about the nature and task of Christian education — and thus what’s at stake at a Christian college. … In short, the Christian college is a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church.

“This vision of the mission of Christian education requires a correlate pedagogy that honors the formative role of material practices. Thus, … education at Christian colleges must be understood as liturgical in more than an analogical or metaphorical sense. Or perhaps to put it more starkly, … we need to move from the model of ‘Christian universities,’ identified as sites for transmitting Christian ideas, to ‘ecclesial colleges,’ understood to be institutions intimately linked to the church and thus an extension of its practices. If Christian learning is nourished by a Christian worldview, and if that worldview is first and foremost embedded in the understanding that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship, then the Christian college classroom is parasitic upon the worship of the church — it lives off the capital of Christian worship.” (32-4)

Not at all a bad start! My first impressions have been largely affirmative. I’ve got quite a bit of patience for a project like this. So far I’m liking these dimensions in particular: (1) its impatience with tired rationalist accounts of human nature; (2) its counter-anthropology that promotes instead human agency — brought to view in the objects and quality of our loves — as the saner entry point for thinking the human animal; and finally (3) its eye for the implications this whole discussion bears for Christian tertiary education (and, arguably, the Church’s catechesis and evangelism, though Smith doesn’t press this). The textbooks would call this a work in philosophical anthropology. Whatever the label, I’m looking forward to reading what else Smith has to say.