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Who Acts? Reflections on Identity, Selfhood, and Autonomous Agents

When Feb 27, 2004
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where 158 Willard
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DIANA TIETJENS MEYERS

 

Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Diana Tietjens Meyers is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Her most recent monographs are Self, Society, and Personal Choice (Columbia University Press), Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy (Routledge), and Gender in the Mirror: Cultural Imagery and Women's Agency (Oxford University Press). Her most recent edited collections are Feminists Rethink the Self and Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. She is the author of the forthcoming Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Philosophical Feminism, and a collection of her (mostly) previously published essays, Being Yourself: Identity, Action and Social Life, will appear in March 2004 (Rowman and Littlefield).

Diana Tietjens Meyers' Homepage

Who Acts? Reflections on Identity, Selfhood, and Autonomous Agents

I use the notion of an identity crisis as a basis for exploring selfhood and autonomous agency. I pose two principal questions. How must selfhood be construed given that people's identities are subject to deadly threats? And how must selfhood be construed given that some people skirt identity crises and renegotiate the terms of their personal identity without losing their equilibrium - their sense of self? Both because J. David Velleman he rigorously distinguishes three philosophical usages of the concept of selfhood and because he proposes a canny theory of what the terms designate in treatments of three disparate philosophical problems, I capitalize on his position to build my line of thought.

Velleman invokes three types of reflexivity to account for personal identity, selfhood, and autonomous agency. After setting out Velleman's triadic reflexive theory of selfhood, I raise some preliminary doubts about it by showing that it allows beings that cannot be appropriately loved or trusted and that cannot undergo identity crises to qualify as selves and as autonomous agents. In my view, reflexivity cannot fully account for selfhood and autonomous agency because it rests on an unduly sharp distinction between reflexive loci of understanding and value, on the one hand, and embodiment, on the other. I argue that what is missing from Velleman's account is an appreciation of the psycho-corporeal dimension of selfhood and agency, and I defend a conception of the psycho-corporeal self that improves on Velleman's theory in the following ways: 1) It provides a less convoluted account of everyday interpersonal relations; 2) It avoids distorting the phenomenology of self-regarding attitudes and behavior); and 3) It contributes to an attractive account of autonomy. A theory of agentic selfhood is incomplete, I conclude, if it omits an account of the psycho-corporeal self, for the psycho-corporeal self is necessary to make sense of the conflict and disaffection associated with identity crises and also to make sense of some people's ability to avert impending identity crises.