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Thomas Reid on Free Agency
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Thomas Reid on Free Agency TIMOTHY O'CONNOR 1. CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHERS have given a fair amount of attention to the epistemological writings of Thomas Reid, owing to the recent shift towards externalist theories of knowledge. As yet, though, Reid's views on the other main topic of concern to him -- the nature of human free agency -- have pro- voked far less explicit discussion. This is unfortunate, since Reid's discussions of various aspects of this problem are acute and on the right track towards its proper resolution. Reid's invocation of a concept of agent causation as essential to a satisfactory account of free and responsible action is by no means original to him; it is implicit in the thought of medieval philosophers such as Scotus and (perhaps) Aquinas, and (on some readings) it goes all the way back to Aristode. 1 Reid's defense of this approach, however, has a special prominence in the history of philosophy in virtue of his explicit discussion of the notion of agent causation, in which he sharply distinguishes it from event causation. In this paper, I offer an interpretation of the basic features of Reid's theory, taking account of some helpful discussions by a few recent commentators. Clearly, the most penetrating of these is William Rowe's book-length treatment, Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991 ). Though I disagree with Rowe's account on some important points, my discus- sion owes much to his. I also defend Reid's position against a couple of basic objections to the agency theory, thereby setting the stage for a fuller defense of the viability of Reid's general approach, which I have undertaken elsewhere. 9. "By the liberty of a moral agent," Reid writes, "I understand, a power over the de- terminations of his own will." He proceeds to amplify this claim, which opens the ' William Rowe, in "Two Concepts of Freedom," Presidential Address, Proceedings and Ad- dresses of the APA 61: 43-64, has noted that this concept also plays a role in the less-developed theories of free agency put forward by some of Reid's eighteenth-century contemporaries, includ- ing Samuel Clarke and Edmund Law. [605] 6O6 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 32"4 OCTOBER 199 4 fourth essay of his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, with the following remarks: "If, in any action, he had power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free. But if, in every voluntary action, the determination of his will be the necessary consequence of something involuntary in the state of his mind, or of something in his external circumstances, he is not free; he has not what I call the liberty of a moral agent, but is subject to necessity" (599).' Like most eighteenth-century philosophers, Reid works within the general framework of a volitional theory of agency, according to which each action is initiated by (or, in some cases, essentially consists of) a volitional event.3 Reid appears to conceive the nature Of volitions generally in much the same way contemporary philosophers characterize intentions.4 Those which causally ini- tiate behavior are a particular type of volition, which we may think of as the agent's coming to have an intention to act immediately in a certain way.5 (The precise accuracy of such identifications will not bear on the following discus- sion in any significant way.) Reid makes it clear in numerous places that "power over the determination of one's will" is not to be understood merely negatively, as the absence of a (prior) sufficient causal condition for the volition. For example, consider the following: I consider the determination of the will as an effect. This effect must have a cause which had power to produce it .... If the person was the cause of that determination of his own will, he was free in that action, and it is justly imputed to him, whether it be good or bad. (6o2) I grant, then, that an effect uncaused is a contradiction, and that an event uncaused is an absurdity. The question that remains is whether...



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