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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 7.2 (2000) 123-124

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Naturalizing Agency: A Response to the Commentary

P. G. Campbell

Joseph Loizzo's thoughtful commentary on "Diagnosing Agency" gives me the opportunity to deepen the position and to address what Loizzo believes is one of the paper's shortcomings. The focus of my paper is the view that action and its family of agency concepts are diagnostic concepts; that given our interest in understanding and evaluating one another qua rational agents, the first business of action ascription is diagnosis of agency; that theories of action and agency must be sensitive to those interests, and no such theory can be adequate to its tasks that would conflate the ideals and non-ideals of rational agency. I see this project as part of what I understand the larger project of Philosophy to be, which is to promote understanding of ourselves and our world by demanding that we be critically self-conscious in all our thinking and doing. Philosophy would have us take rationality to the very ends of thought. Along the way, we can expect to learn more about the role of reason in our lives, as well as the remarkable variety of ways in which thought can go awry. A nosology of thought, by providing accounts of the pathologies of thought, would, at the same time, clarify its ideals. 1

Having given reason, in the form of belief, a prominent role in agency, intentionality, and self-control, my view may appear friendlier to therapy than are "mechanistic" or materialist theories of mind and agency. But this would be a mistake. I intend my account of agency to be naturalistic: that is, an account that does justice to the distinctive features of the mental that set the mental off from the rest of the natural world, while at the same time showing that, despite those differences, indeed, in virtue of those differences, the mental and the physical interact in ways necessary for both understanding the world beyond the mind and acting within it. Moreover, the geography of the terms and relations of agency that I have laid out must work with whatever the right metaphysics turns out to be, since no account of what it is to be a goal-functional, cognitive and causal creature such as a rational agent can do without belief, desire, and causation, however named. These are demarcations that no theory of rational agency, no theory of ourselves, that is, can describe its way out of. 2 Naturalizing these terms and relations allows for the required interaction. The diagnostic constraint on agency and action ensures that we do justice to cognitivity, intentionality, and the other distinctive features of the mind.

In the natural world, causation is the relation of change. Therefore, we need a theory of causation that is commodious enough to accommodate phenomena as seemingly diverse as billiard balls colliding, and (intentional) action, akrasia, and depression. Depression, one of Loizzo's examples, [End Page 123] is a causal matter. It is also cognitive. Some cases, like some cases of akrasia, may be ameliorated by reason, either directly or through some form of cognitive therapy. Others, perhaps the more serious cases, may be beyond the reach of reason and treatable only by brute causal intervention. The first leave room for therapy, the preferred route since it preserves the ideals of autonomy and self-control through the use of reason. The second, unfortunately, require stronger medicine.

P. G. Campbell (Ph.D., University of British Columbia) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. His research interests include the philosophy of agency and action, including nosology of practical reason, and the agency-foundations of social institutions and practices. He is coauthor with S. C. Coval of Agency in Action (1992). Currently, he is completing a book with S. C. Coval on postmodernism and postmodernist liberalism.


1. Stove, David. 1991. What is wrong with our thoughts? A neo-positive code. Chap. 7 of his Plato cult and other philosophical follies, 179-205. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

2. Coval, S...


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