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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Interruption in agency

The challenge of correlationism can be put like this: how can the other reach me (so to break in an established correlation that seems to be what makes thought and knowledge possible). The challenge is indeed often put this way. It can however be understood in terms of agency: how can the other act through me (make me think or know, for instance, what is not already prefigured in me). The issue of the Great Outdoors can therefore be thought in terms of a general co-existence with the other - how can the other be not only interdependent but also external to me?

Last week, in Jon Cogburn's classes about McDowell's changing views on the deliverances of the senses from Mind and World to "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" through his discussions with Travis, we were trying to understand what exactly was at stake in the talk about exculpations (and excuses as opposed to justifications). McDowell refers in a footnote to a discussion with Zvi Cohen around someone being exculpated from being in a banished place because she was deposited there by a tornado. He writes: "Her arriving there is completely removed from the domain of what she is responsible for; [...] there is a basis for mitigating any sanctions." The given understood as an exculpation provides a response to the world (to the other shown in experience) that is only in accordance with the other is, but is from the other, to draw on the Kantian distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty (see my post last year about it). If one is only exculpated by her senses, one is in a position of epistemic luck - like, say, the character in Meno that rightly guesses the way to Larissa without having anything but a correct opinion. In other words, the problem with the given is that it affords no knowledge because it affords no (genuine) response - I can entertain the (true) content that "x is red" if this is imposed on me by the functioning of my senses but if perception is not response, it cannot affect me as an agent. The vocabulary that Kant chose to talk about empirical thinking (that of spontaneity and receptivity) reveals that he had agency in mind - in fact, the Kantian approach is to consider knowledge in terms of norms and normative necessity. In a broader sense, he introduced the idea of responsibility into the claims concerning empirical knowledge. It is clearly an issue of how to deal with the other through experience. But then the bite of correlationism was waiting in the corner: yes, knowledge requires genuine agency, but does that mean that it involves interdependence and prevents genuine externality? The trouble is that my agency seems to be exclusively mine (and our agency exclusively ours). In other words, it is easy when agency is brought in to feel as if we're engaging in an episode of frictionless spin in the void.

My idea of interruption is that we can break out of this spell if we pay enough attention to what is involved in a response. To respond is to act but also it is to be affected up to an extent where I'm not only guided by myself (or by ourselves). I take the agent to enjoy some solitude with respect to her own agency - what Levinas attempts to show with his phenomenology of laziness. This is where interruption could take place: the other can genuinely act through me because there is always a gap between me and my agency (me and my being, the existant and her existence). This is the consequence of the hypostasis: I carry my being, my agency, but there's a me isolated from that. This is what could be shown by a phenomenology of interruption: when my agenda and my convictions are challenged by another agent that does not take possession of my capacity to act but rather require me to respond (and therefore to act).

In my recent controversy with Cabrera about anti-natalism and negative ethics, I have argued that there is a negative ethics (an ethics that doesn't ascribe any special value to life) according to which one's being is interrupted by others and what follows is an episode of responsibility where a decision is imposed - one could either change path or ignore what is asked by the other. If one changes one's path, there is an interruption-based negation of one's agenda (and one's conception). Cabrera argues that the other can be heard and requires a response only if she is acting ethically according to my own standards (and there are no other standards I can use here). He agrees that an interruption is a form of negation (to be contrasted with his emphasis on abstention that yields his negative ethics that condemns both killing and procreating advocating abstention as a way to affirm the valuelessness of life) but disagrees that there could be a (negative) ethics based on interruption. He thinks that if the other asks something immoral (that I help murdering or that I help procreating), that interruption is not to be considered on moral grounds. That is, an ethics defined in terms of attending to the other is not ethical enough - at least a provision concerning the morality (on my standards) of what is demanded has to be added. This is an interesting case: I would like to argue that if this provision is added, one is again confined within one's own agenda and conception - one is confined in one's ethical outlook. To be sure, not all demands can be accepted - this is what Derrida calls the infinite responsibility. However, there is no prior way to determine which demand of the other will interrupt my path and make me open the door for if there were, my agenda and conception would be other-proof and therefore I would be confined to my own uninterrupted agency - which could be interdependent and interrelated with everything else but involves no friction with an other. (This is why a metaphysics of subjectivity in Meillassoux's terms cannot step out of the correlation.)

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