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Structures of AgencyReview - Structures of Agency
Essays
by Michael E. Bratman
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Isabel Gois, Ph.D.
Sep 16th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 38)

Michael Bratman's Structures of Agency is a collection of mostly previously published (and some unpublished) articles elaborating and expanding on his renowned 'Planning Theory of Action' (see also his Faces of Intention and Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason, both from 1999). In capsule form, the later is the view that our planning attitudes (at least in some crucial cases) play a central role in the cross-temporal organization of our action and practical reasoning. In the present volume, the focus is on what Bratman calls 'strong forms of agency' – namely, those that figure in our common-sense talk of autonomy, self-determination, and self-government. The aim is to show how these are best understood as Frankfurtian-like hierarchies of intentional attitudes (plans), and, ultimately, how 'freedom of the will' is possible in a world of material causes. The book is a key resource for anyone interested in the nature of rational agency and autonomy, but readers familiar with recent philosophy of action will no doubt find it easier to access the deeper issues.

It is, of course, impossible to do justice to Bratman's detailed and painstaking arguments in such a short space, but a few brief comments will perhaps help illustrate the sort of themes recurring throughout the essays.

Bratman's efforts are guided by two broad aims. One the one hand, he wants to resist an account of self-governance and autonomy that leaves the agent as a separate and irreducible element in the metaphysics of action. At the same time, he also wants to avoid a Platonist view of self-governance whereby an agent is in control of her action whenever the later is rationally responsive to relevant evaluative judgments about what is 'most worth pursuing'. He is looking for a psychological account of agent motivation that also allows him to remain neutral with regards to moral debates on cognitivism vs. expressivism.

In his view, for an agent to be autonomous and act/think in a self-directed way is for her behavior to be guided and controlled by the sort of attitudes that determine for the agent where she stands, what she is to 'treat as a justifying consideration'. 'Agential authority' refers more precisely to those intention-like higher order policies that 'speak for the agent' in practical reasoning and action, and thus can be properly said to emanate from her own Will. Such policies are, moreover, to be understood as general plans that help constitute and support the cross-temporal organization of our activity over time. According to Bratman, "this suggests the conjecture that it is primarily its role in constituting and supporting this organized, cross-temporal , Lockean interweave of actions and practical thinking that confers on a structure of attitudes [higher-order policies] a claim to speak for the agent -- a claim to agential authority." (p. 5).      

What Bratman is, thus, attempting is what he calls a 'Double Reduction': first, he explains the agent's 'identification with a desire' in terms of 'higher-order attitudinal support' for that desire; then he explains 'higher order attitudinal support' in terms of planning structures whose primary role consists in coordinating and organizing the thoughts and actions of a temporally extended agent (see e.g. chapters 2, 3 and 4)

Another important aspect of Bratman's account of agential authority, the one more likely to raise objections among Platonists, is the fact that higher-order policies have agential authority independently of the agent's value judgments. That is, what one treats as a 'justifying consideration' in practical deliberation and action need not match what one judges to be (the) good (cases of 'weakness of the will' and 'perversity' are pertinent here). Accordingly, on Bratman's view, the notion of valuing is tied first and foremost to the (psychological) role played by higher-order self-governing policies in helping to create and support those broadly Lockean ties constitutive of the identity of the agent over time. Of course, higher-order policies are themselves a form of valuing (in as much as treating a desire as a justifying consideration is also treating as a candidate for satisfaction), but 'valuing', in this Bratmanian sense, is crucially distinct from 'judging good' in that one's value judgments often leave open basic questions regarding identification with a desire (see esp. chapters 3, 5, and 7).

What Platonists are likely to continue objecting, however, is that Bratman's appeal to higher-order policies contributes little, if anything, to explain why certain attitudes have authority to speak for the agent, but not others. For, suppose that we accept Bratman's account of 'agential authority', and valuing consists in being (and remaining) committed to a higher order policy regarding the role accorded to a desire in practical deliberation and action. It then seems that an agent must already judge a certain desire valuable in order for her to commit to it, in which case we are better dispensing with appeal to Frankfurt-like hierarchies of higher-order policies and conclude instead that it is such value judgments that determine for the agent where she stands. Although Bratman goes a long way in the essays here collected to reply to the Platonist challenge (see in particular, chapters 7 and 8), my impression is that more still needs to be said about what it is to be 'committed to and satisfied with' one's higher-order policies in order to appease doubts that the later do in fact contribute to an explanation of where the agent stands with respect to how she is to live.

Overall, a book well worth multiples reads.

© 2008 Isabel Gois

Isabel Gois gained her Doctorate from King's College London in 2007, and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Nottingham (UK). Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder.


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