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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The ABC of Agency, Being up for grabs and Contingency - ABC + process philosophy conference this week in Liverpool

I'm being thinking a lot about agency and contingency - and how agency requires the contrast between the contingent and the non-contingent along the lines rehearsed in Being Up For Grabs. Contingency itself is a departure and as such it is an opening to what lies beyond - to a commencement. In any case, below is the text I will be in principle reading at the ABC + Process Philosophy do in Liverpool:

Process philosophy is to a great extent about agency. If it is about seeing reality through the processes that constitute it and not through the constituted products, agency is brought in as the instance where processes start. To be sure, one can then wonder how to best understand agency. Does it require intentional action directed to an objective or could it rather to be found in any act that determines any other without being at all determined? Is intentionality necessary for agency and, for that matter, is it sufficient (is any intentional act an act of agency)? I will not proceed by providing a characterization of agency. It will be enough for my purposes to take it as being as broad as possible – I will take as enough for exercises in agency to be acts that are both non-determined and determining. I will proceed by consider not what exactly it is but where we find it. This is the way process philosophy proceeds – it assumes that agency is somewhere in the world and proceeds to analyze its effects.

Agency, contingency, spontaneity and (in-)determination belong to a family of concepts that haunt Western philosophy in many of its shapes. They relate to metaphysical issues such as action and the role of intentionality and subjectivity in the world, they also relate to issues around free will and heterodeterminism, to those around the connections and the differences between bodies and minds and to those around government and obedience. These can be understood around the notion of arché – that relate both to command and to commencement. The logical space of a command is that of rules, reasons, laws and causes. The logical space of a commencement is that of examples, foundations, precedence and origins. The two spac1es intertwine often: rules require examples, reasons invoke foundations, laws are often presented as preceding what takes place, causes dwell in origins. Each of these instances have a logical space of its own. If we concentrate on agency, we find two poles. On one of them we find an agency that commands and commences. On the other pole what is commanded, or is available to be commanded – what I call up for grabs. What is commanded follows; it is not beginning anything but pursuing something already started and therefore it is determined. To be sure, what is determined is not necessarily necessary – for it could be otherwise. In fact, what determines, while determining, is never under a necessity because if it were necessary it would not be itself determining anything – not commencing anything – but merely being determined to determine. Agency is an arché: it is contingent and it produces necessity. So there is a connection between agency and contingency – as there is one between agency and spontaneity (lack of external constraint) and agency and lack of determination. I will concentrate on the first connection and only marginally say something about the others.

Now, the absence of agency is a road towards both contingency and necessity. Precisely because agency involves both commencing and commanding, the lack of it spells the lack of command and commencement. If everything is determined – that is, if there are determination without any determining agent (which is like products without producers, or like a constituted order without a constituting reinforcement) – then there is no agency in the world. If further there is no agency that chose this determined world (and not other), then there is necessity. This is perhaps what Spinoza had in mind as his God was immanent and not a creator – not an arché. To be sure, if everything is necessary and out of a single necessity (like Spinoza had it in his substance monism), there is no agency. If there is more than one (irreducible) necessity, then there is contingency in the borders. On the other hand, if everything is contingent, there is no agency – because nothing commences anything, nothing determines anything. This would be like the hyperchaos of Quentin Meillassoux where everything is (necessarily) contingent. Because nothing is either determined or determining, there is no agency. Except, perhaps, for the principle of unreason that makes everything necessarily contingent – lack of sufficient reason for anything is, for Meillassoux, what shows that no thing can possibly have an upper hand on anything else, that nothing is a genuine starting point. The principle of unreason itself is more likely thought as something like the determinations of Spinoza: not an instance of agency, but something that simply makes agency impossible. Both cases of lack of agency are, nonetheless, very different as in the first, everything obeys while in the second nothing commands. In any case, if there is no agency, ontology is deprived of any capacity to commence and command – being is arché-less. There is an ontology without agency where things can be appropriately described in all level of detail (and eventually under any aspect) without appeal to exercises in agency.

In contrast, the presence of agency in the world can take many formats. To begin with, it can be ubiquitous or exceptional. It can be found everywhere in a panpsychism akin to process philosophy, it can be found among living things, it can be found in the human exceptionality – as it can be found in God only. If there is more than one agency – more than one determiner – there is contingency for what is up for grabs can be under more than one determination. To some extent, determination through agency brings in a necessity, and if more than one agency brings in contingency, we can see how contingency can be understood as the plural of necessity (a thesis put forward in my Being Up For Grabs). Plurality of agencies, in any case, put forward an indeterminacy between them – unless there is an over-arching agency ruling them somehow. A second issue concerning the presence of agency in the world has to do with whether or not there are individuated agents. There could be agency without agents if agency is associated with processes that are themselves what give rise to individuals which are no more than a result of the interplay of agencies to be found somewhere else. The idea of agency without agents is present in several process-oriented philosophies: Gilbert Simondon's idea that processes capable of agency are processes of individuation, Etienne Souriau's idea that agency is in the force of instauration (the bringing forth, the sponsoring) underneath any individual or Karen Barad's agential realism that posits agency inside individuals in their intra-actions (as opposed to inter-actions). It can be also found in Gilles Deleuze's and Félix Guattari's idea of agencements of class, race and gender shaping individuals and can be clearly expressed in Michel Foucaut's diagnosis that “the individual is a product of power”. If agency is present in the world, it can take the form of individual agents or some other form where individuals are not themselves an arché. If agency is present in the world, it can take the form of individual agents or some other form leaving individuals outside the space of agency (except for being up for grabs for the agencies). Process philosophy, as the assumption that agency is present in the world, can go both ways, that of Simondon, Souriau and Barad as much as it can posit agents always behind agency – as do Gabriel Tarde, Alfred Whitehead, Bruno Latour but also Graham Harman. If agency is tied to agents, the plurality of agencies is thought in terms of a plurality of agents and contingency emerges from the overlap and borders between the scope of the action of more than one agent.

If agents are the source of agency, they can be so by being fully independent of each other – and defined as individual agents by appeal to a substratum that individuate them – they can act either on each other or on something else that is deprived of agency (and has always been up for grabs). Collective action would have to be understood in terms of the aggregate of agents – the resulting outcome has to be understood as do methodological individualists: by considering the input of each individual agent. The aggregate output is contingent on the individual agents while undetermined by any of the agents individually – it is a contingent output. Harman's object-oriented ontology is a variation in this position as it posits that individuals are also aggregates of individuals – citizens are objects as much as societies are objects. A greater departure from the idea of individuated agents is provided by process philosophers of a more monadological persuasion – such as Whitehead and Latour. In this case, agents are not individuated through a substratum but rather are individual agents with respect to the place among the various interdependent agents they occupy. Whitehead holds that agents – his actual entities – are both primary and dependent on the other actual entities on which they act. Here, in a sense, it is agency that makes an agent what it is while agents are the primitive basic elements of the ontology – Whitehead's ontological principle has that no actual entities, no reason. This monadological (or neo-monadological) position could be placed between the one that posits independent agents and the one that posits agency without agents as it is agency that individuates the agent. For Leibniz, the units of action – the monads – where tied to a world and determined to act in a given manner within this world; contingency comes from the plurality of worlds, the actual world was chosen by God as an unworldly agent and therefore is not necessary (and therefore, Leibniz argues, everything in it ought to be contingent). The agents are tied to a world that surrounds them – this is the thrust of Leibniz's (and monadological) contingentism in the sense of Timothy Williamson: it is not true that everything necessarily exists. In neo-monadological approaches, there is no such determination and contingency is derived from the contingently individuation of each agent. They depend on everything else to act and on everything else for the result of their action. In both cases, contingency is a reliance on whatever else co-exists.

Agency can also be hosted by an agent which is not its source. That is, agency can be brought about not by the being of an agent, but by something else outside it, namely the other, the other agent. If it is so, it is only an encounter with the other that brings in some agency to an otherwise (un-individuated) being. Here there is no ontology of agency because it is not in one's being that agency is to be found – rather arché is instilled into being from outside it. This is the kind of process philosophy I am trying to develop. It portrays arché as foreigner to being. It is because other beings make themselves present to us as other that we are endowed with a need to respond – what Jacques Derrida calls infinite responsibility because there is nothing to determine how I should respond and to which demand should I attend. I find in the work of Emmanuel Levinas elements to understand that it is the other who forces me into decisions that are not determined – the decision is imposed on me, but no answer is given because my response to the demand of one co-existing other conflicts with the response I give to all other co-existing others. So, agency is brought about not from the subjectivity of the agent, but from the subjectivity that interrupts the agent. It is not completely distant from the monadological approach, but it departs from such an approach because agency comes from outside each being – there is no such thing as a unity of action but maybe just units of response – and decisions are imposed from outside and responses to decisions imposed do not stem from the agenda of an agent but from the responsibility the agent takes from the others. In any case, what would move this non-standard monadology is hospitality to a foreign arché and not the internal aims. In such a position, there is agency and indeed agents but there is no ontology of agency. There is a sense in which here there is no ontology as agents are just responses to the others they meet and these others cannot be taken into consideration before they intrude and give rise to agency. In this sense, there is agency (and there are agents) but there is no ontology – it is precisely from outside each agent's being that agency comes from.

To sum up, we have at least 5 positions: an ontology without agency (1), which is either an undetermined determination or a hyperchaos; an ontology of agency without agents (2); a monadological position where there are interdependent agents (3); an ontology of independent agents (4) and a position where there are agents but no ontology (5).

The following butterfly-like figure illustrate the five positions and how they relate to each other:

Position 1 and 5 are themselves close from the point of view of how agency transcends (or is absent) from ontology. In the former case, there is no agency in the world, in the latter, agency transcends the individual being and is brought in by the other.

To wrap up, some final words about agency, contingency and process philosophy in these five positions. Process philosophy holds typically a position like 2 or 3, and 4 if we consider the object-oriented variation. Contingency is then generally thought of as a consequence of the plurality of agencies. Position 1 makes room for no variety of process philosophy and contingency is understood in terms of a separation between being and arché. As we have seen, such a separation has to be enforced from outside, by something like Meillassoux's principle of unreason (or Spinoza's unity of substance). I contend that position 5, which shares with position 1 the idea that being and arché are separated but understands that co-existence gives rise to circumstances where the other is met and agency is brought in, is compatible with process philosophy. If it is so, contingency is also a consequence of co-existence; in this case, co-existence of any being with others. But also, being as such, if deprived of any arché, would be itself contingency and up for grabs.

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