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Intentionality, Agency and Personhood: Outline of a Phenomenological Theory of Acts



Modern tradition takes a person to be a rational (and moral) agent, namely an agent capable of acting on the basis of reasons – often desire-independent reasons, and particularly moral reasons. So, agency and freedom are involved in the definition of personhood. But what about the embodiment of persons? What about their rootedness in the particular circumstances of a human life – time, space, community of origin, material, and axiological culture? What about the individual identity of persons, their irreducible individuality? The phenomenological notion of intentionality has a widely neglected richness of content, making it a key conceptual tool, capable of explaining not only consciousness but also rational agency, that is personhood, right from the level of the most basic and embodied instances of consciousness: perception, emotion, and spontaneous action. These should be considered as acts, rather than as states, and the discussion of the specific intentionality of these acts and their motivational relations purports to be an original contribution to a genetic phenomenology of embodied, individualized personhood and rational agency
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Roberta De Monticelli
Intentionality, Agencyand Personhood
Outline of aPhenomenologicalTheory of Acts
Modern tradition takesaperson to be arational (and moral) agent, namely an agent capable of
acting on the basis of reasons –often desire-independentreasons,and particularlymoral rea-
sons. So, agency and freedom are involved in the definition of personhood. But whataboutthe
embodiment of persons?What abouttheirrootedness in the particular circumstances of a
humanlife –time, space, community of origin, material, and axiological culture? What about
the individual identityofpersons,theirirreducible individuality?The phenomenological no-
tion of intentionality has awidely neglectedrichness of content, making it akey conceptual
tool,capable of explaining not only consciousness but alsorational agency, that is personhood,
rightfrom the level of the most basic and embodiedinstances of consciousness:perception,
emotion, and spontaneous action. Theseshould be consideredasacts, rather than as states, and
the discussion of the specificintentionality of theseacts and theirmotivational relations pur-
ports to be an originalcontribution to agenetic phenomenology of embodied, individualized
personhood and rational agency.
The embodied-enactive phenomenological view of the mind certainlyplaces the
perceiving subject backinto the world,stressing the actual dynamic reciprocity
between embodied agents and the environmentswith whichtheyinteract. Yet,
there is one crucial aspect of perceptual and emotional experience that this ap-
proach has somehow neglected, namely its normative dimension.1Outlining an
overall phenomenological account of normativity compatible withthe em-
bodied-enactive approachseems to be awidely feltneed within the present-day
phenomenological community, given“thestructure and configuration of our
shared world, which is amulti-faceted normative spacethat allows or encour-
agescertainbehaviours and practices and disallowsand discourages others”.2As
we shall see in this essay, afairly common neglectofnormativity in con-
temporary phenomenologyisbound up with its typical account of in-
tentionality whichisincompleteinitself and relative to the more complete anal-
1Taylor Carman. On the Inescapability of Phenomenology. In:David Woodruff Smith
and AmieL.Thomasson(eds.): Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind. Oxford 2005, 67
2Maxime Doyon and Thiemo Breyer:Introduction. In:Maxime Doyon and Thiemo
Breyer (eds.): Normativity in Perception.London 2015,1–13.
Ph(nomenologischeForschungen 2018 · #Felix Meiner Verlag 2018 ·ISSN0342-8117
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ysis provided by classicalphenomenologists,suchasEdmund Husserl, Adolf
Reinach, EdithStein, Max Scheler, and others. We shall takeupand develop this
account, whichconcernsabove all the subjective poleofthe intentional relation.
We shall startwith an apparently minorquestion:what is the pointofcalling
‘acts’, as Husserl and other classical phenomenologistsdo, what current philo-
sophicaland psychological terminology refers to by ‘intentional states’?3The
concept of act willturnout to be crucial for aphenomenologicaltheory of nor-
1. Intentionality:Husserl’s criticismofBrentano
The concept of intentionality as it is usedincontemporaryphilosophy of mind
belongs to Brentano’s legacy, rather thanofHusserl’s. In any case,con-
temporary philosophers of mind do not seem to be aware of Husserl’s criticism
to Brentanoonthis particular issue; moresurprisingly, contemporary phenom-
enologists do not either, as we shall see in amoment.4
Husserl’scriticism of Brentano draws of Brentano’s concept of in-
tentionality, by resistingits possiblenaturalization, as is involved by an inter-
pretation of the relationship between amental stateand its object as a‘real’ or
external relation.5Thereare two aspects of this criticism. The first one concerns
the object-pole,the second one the subject-pole of the intentional relation.Both
depend on the rejection of Brentano’sviewofintentionality as an external rela-
3Franz Brentano generalizes his use of the German expression‘psychische Akte’toall the
threeclasses of whathecalls‘psychischePhaenomene’only whendiscussingquestionsand
inquiries as particular cases of Vo rstellen, that is of mentalstatesofthe first class. Franz Bren-
tano:Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Band II. Hamburg 1924,72. More fre-
quently, he refers the term Akte to the two classes of judgments (Urteile)and emotional/cona-
tivephenomena, (Gem!tsbewegungen), which involve one of two opposite stances or position
takings:acknowledgement/denial (Anerkennung/Leugnung)and like/dislike (Liebe/Hass).
See Brentano:Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt II, 66. Curiously enough, different
from Husserl,hedoes not incorporate this very core of the positionality theory in his concept
of intentionality.
4By ‘contemporary phenomenologists’ Imean authors preparedtoaddress given philo-
sophicalproblemsindifferent areasofphilosophy, including contemporary philosophy of
mind,bythe methodsand the conceptualresources proper to phenomenology,ratherthan
pureexegetes or philosophers confinedwithin an only ‘continental’ tradition.Cases in point
are the worksofDan Zahavi and Shaun Gallagher, which statedthe rules of translation be-
tween the language of current analytical philosophy of mind and that of phenomenology. Yet,
in theirvery influential, and on the wholeexcellentintroduction to phenomenology as ame-
thod of philosophicalresearch, they do not even mention the aspect of Husserl’s criticism to
Brentano that this section addresses. ShaunGallagher and Dan Zahavi:The Phenomenological
Mind:An Introduction to Philosophy of Mindand Cognitive Science.New York 2008.
5Edmund Husserl:Logische Untersuchungen. Untersuchungen zur Ph(nomenologie und
Theorie der Erkenntnis. Den Haag1984, 384 f.
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tion,that is an ordinary dyadic relation,presupposing the independent existence
of its relata.
The consequence of Brentano’s view of the object-pole of the relation is well
known and widely discussed both within the purely analytical and the phenom-
enological approach. Since an ordinary dyadic relation presupposesthe in-
dependentexistenceofits relata, evenfictional intentional objects, such as fauns,
or illusoryperceptual objects,suchasmirages, must exist. That’s why Brentano
introduced the ad hoc solution of apeculiarmode of existence, intentional in-
existence. This ad hoc solution has afurtherunpleasant consequence if we want
to have aunified theory of intentionality. What aboutthe object of averidical
perception, such as this lamp here?Thereare two equally unsatisfactory so-
lutions:either the intentional in-existent lamp justhappens to coincide witha
real object ‘outside’the mind (andthe phenomenological difference between a
veridical perception and an illusion is lost); or the real object is given‘through’
the intentional one, whichinfactcoincideswith arepresentation. The ‘direct’
characterofperception –which is phenomenologically a presentation and not a
representation –islost.
This side of Husserl’scriticism of Brentano is well accountedfor in con-
temporary phenomenology:
Husserl develops aconcept of intentionality that does not run into this problem.For him,
intentionality is not an ordinary relation to an extraordinaryobject, but aspecial kind of
relationtoanordinary object;aspecial ‘relation’ that can hold,even if the object does not
exist;and that can persist evenifthe object ceases to exist.6
That is, intentionality is an internal relation,whosetwo polesdonot exist
independently of therelation (as giventhusly, or Im Wieihrer Gegebenheit).
But the very meaning of this claimfor the side of the subject-pole is generally
ignored, evenifitwouldprovide the necessarylink for aprecise phenomeno-
logical analysisofthe difference between veridical perception and illusion on
one hand,and between perception and imaginationonthe otherhand.
An illusion can be discoveredassuchonlyifthe illusoryperception carries a
claimofveridicality, or an expectation of reality, whichthe furthercourse of
experiencedisconfirms.Anact of imagination on the contrary does not involve
any such claim. These two typesofact have differentinbuilt ‘positions’,ordif-
ferent ‘characters of act’ (Aktcharakter). Intentionality doesnot only explain
consciousnessintermsofthe presence of an object (in aspecific mode),but also
in terms of position-taking by asubject, or positionality. In the relevantcases,
positionalitycoincideswithaclaimofvalidityoradequacyofthe concernedact,
whichsubmits it to whatHusserl willcall ‘the jurisdiction of reason’ in §110 of
6Gallagherand Zahavi :The PhenomenologicalMind, 113.
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IdeasI:the same point, though, is madeinthe Fifth Logical Investigation by the
distinction between ‘descriptive’ and ‘intentional’ content,7where the latter car-
ries the implicit,pre-reflective or na3ve claimofadequacythatmakes dis-
confirmation and correction possible.Aperception canbeillusory, an emotion
inappropriate, aspeech act wrong at any level, fromthe phonematicarticulation
to the grammatical formtothe semantic consistency. ‘Is thatright?’isthe basic
question,articulating the criticalattitudeinto whichthe original uncritical posi-
tion taken in the natural attitudeismodified. Our basic acts are fairly dogmatic,
before running intothe trouble of beingfalsified by the furthercourse of experi-
ence,and having their position modified into uncertainty, by aquestioning atti-
This double criticism of Brentano’sconcept of intentionality is the very basis
of Husserl’s distinction between (empirical) psychology and (eidetic) phenom-
enology. Aphenomenological accountofconsciousness, as opposedtoapsy-
chological one, takescare of the normative constraints to which consciousness is
subject (getting its object right or wrong), in orderfor it to be meaningful and
for theperson’sbehaviour to be rational.Aphenomenological accountofcon-
sciousness, as opposed to apsychological one, is already an accountofreason.
Intentionality carriesthe weight of ideality and normativity rightfromour basic
perceptual and emotional experiences. Acube,for example, prescribes the same
motivations and expectations of furtherperceptions,nomatter how it is empiri-
callyexemplified. Adisgusting object prescribes atype of response, independent
of thephysicalnature of it.
Husserl calls‘act’whatever lived experience exemplifies amode of in-
tentionality, on bothsidesofthe relation.Asithas been rightly observed, Hus-
serl’s distinction between thequality and the matter of an act bearsacertain
resemblance to the contemporary distinction between attitude and content.8
Yet, thereismuch moretothe act’s quality than there is to the (propositional)
attitude: namely, the specific validity claim, and hencethe specific phenomeno-
logical requirementsfor the adequacy (or rationality) of each type of act, or in-
tentional lived experience(intentionalesErlebnis).
2. Actsand states
The upshot of this reconstruction is that the concept of act playsacrucial role in
distinguishing an (eidetic)phenomenological froman(empirical) psychological
7Husserl:Logische Untersuchungen, 411 –414.
8Gallagherand Zahavi :The PhenomenologicalMind, 115.
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levelofanalysis. The further question we shall tackle in therest of this paperis:
how is this concept of act related to the concepts of action,agency and person-
hood?Arelevant part of this question is:how can this act-centred phenomeno-
logical theory of consciousnessbeintegratedwithin the embodied and enactive
view of ourselvesthatphenomenology has developedinmore recent times? 9
The first consequence of an act-centred theory of consciousness is the irredu-
cibilityof(personal) consciouslifetoasequence of mental states.
The reduction of acts to states seems to be theoriginal sin of most con-
temporary philosophersofmind,far beyond the naturalization of intentionality
and consciousness, which onlyfew of these philosophers shareasaproject. Let’s
see why, by considering the naturalizersfirst, and then theanti-naturalizers.
Many philosophers who delveinto the view of intentionalityasadyadic ex-
ternal relation,havegone far beyond Brentanoinadopting afunctional per-
spective on mental states. Mental states are what theyare in virtue of the causal
and functional role they haveinour mental life, independently of how this role
is physically implemented.10 This is afundamental aspect of standardcognitive
science, since it is the cornerstone of the project of naturalizing our mental life
thatliesatthe heart of this paradigm, dominated by suchfigures as Quine, Den-
nett, Fodor, Dretske, the Churchlands, etc. In anutshell,the idea is to showthat
mental states can be properties of the world as studied by the natural sciences11
and, therefore, thatour mental lifecan be described as the functioning of ame-
chanical device. As Fodor famouslysaid:“[…]thinking can be mechanical be-
causeTuringmachines are machines”(italics mine).12
This suggests away to define ontological naturalism aboutpersons:itis(or it
is based on) the reduction of acts to states. We commonlyspeakofthe physical
or mental states of aperson. Apersonal lifecan be described as asequenceof
mental states (e.g., beliefs, desires,emotions). When so described,apersonal life
does obviouslynot set itself apart fromthe sort of lifecharacteristic of an ant –
or eventhe ‘life’ of aTuringMachine,which may alsobedefined as acausal
succession of states. What is wrongwith this?
9Andy Clark: Being There: Putting Brain, Body and WorldTogether Again. Cambridge
MA/London 1998;FranciscoVarela, EvanThompsonand Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied
Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.CambridgeMA1991; ShaunGallagher:
How the Body Shapesthe Mind. Oxford 2005;Shaun Gallagher: Phenomenology. London
2012;Gallagher and Zahavi:The PhenomenologicalMind.
10 Massimo Marraffa:Lamenteinbilico.Lebasifilosofichedella scienza cognitive. Roma
11 Marraffa:Lamenteinbilico, 64.
12 Jerry Fodor:The MindDoesn’t Work That Way:The Scope and Limits of Computation-
al Psychology. Cambridge MA 2001,19.
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To see the point, we mustwiden the targetofour critical examination to some
non-naturalizers of intentionality, who nevertheless keeponignoringHusserl’s
criticism of the original Brentanianconcept.
Some philosophers opposethe objectivation of intentional states, claiming
thatconsciousnessis“an irreductible and ineliminablefirst-personaldisposi-
tional property”13.Some of them, like Lynne Baker,holdthis veryclaimtobe
incompatiblewith scientific naturalism:“no wholly impersonal account of the
world can be adequate;the apparently first-personaspects of reality are genuine
–irreductible and ineliminable”.14 Yet,most philosopherssharing this claimdo
not deem it incompatiblewithaformofnaturalism, allowingfor some sort of
supervenienceofmental or intentional states on physical states of the brain. A
case in point is John Searle, who believesboth thatconsciousnessisontologi-
callyirreductible,sothatintentional states (as my beinginpain)cannot be re-
ducedtobrain states, and thatconsciousnessand intentionality are abiological,
and in the end physical, reality. Be thatasitmay, both Bakerand Searle seem at a
loss whenitcomestoidentifyingalink between lower-level and higher level
intentionality –between,say,basic consciouslifeand rationality.
For what is the pointofvindicatingthe irreducibility of the first-person per-
spective,ifall the lifeofasubjectismerely the stream of its consciousness?
After all,this subject only passivelycontemplatesthe streamhappening‘inside’
it, whereany stateisincausal relationswiththe previous and the followingone.
It has no ‘active’ role in it, except whenitattains the reflective level of self-con-
sciousness, becomingcapable of evaluating its own actions (Baker)15 or of taking
up commitments,such as pragmaticorsocial obligations, providing desire-in-
dependentreasons for action (Searle)16.Conscioussubjects only becomefree
and rational agents –persons –byforce of mastering alanguage and assuming
social roles.Even more: theyonly become spontaneous agents, the origins of
their actions,atsuchahigh levelofperformance.
Now we can see whatiswrong withreducing personal lifetoasequence of
intentional states, whether one endorses hard, soft, or no naturalism at all.In-
tentionality has not onlyafirst-person perspective, but also afirst-person ac-
tuality.Living as asubject(and experiencing oneself as such),evenatapre-re-
flective level, is responding more or less correctly to the surroundingworld –
longbefore mastering conceptsand roles. Positionality changes areaction into a
response,and astimulus into an object –and apossible truth makerfor proposi-
13 LynneBaker: Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective.Oxford 2013, xv.
14 Baker:Naturalism and the First-PersonPerspective, xv-xvi.
15 Baker:Naturalism and the First-PersonPerspective, 129
16 John Searle:Rationality in Action. CambridgeMA2001,86–87.
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tional acts. Positionality, whichatthe highlevel of aspeech act carries the illocu-
tionary force, carries the implicit recognition of aperceivedobject as beingthere
(andbeingaxiologically qualified or indifferent) at abasic level.
But even authors who reject the reduction of the first-tothe third-person
perspective (such as Baker), or authors that, moreover,explain differentmodes
of consciousness (perception,belief, desire, volition) in terms of differentmodes
of intentionality (such as Searle)17 do not generally recognize the defeasible
claimofvalidity (e.g.: veridicality of perceptions,appropriateness of emotions)
carried by positionality.
3. Endorsing possiblemotives
The nature of asequence of mental states is generally described as aflow or
stream, having the temporal orderofasuccession of states, eachofwhich stands
in causal relationstothe states precedingand succeeding it. The latter wouldbea
fairly standarddescription of mental lifealongthe linessuggestedbythe Classi-
cal Model of practicalrationality. Searle –who opposes this model, taking it to
be arepresentation of humanrationalityasamorecomplex version of the ra-
tionality of apes–givessomewhat simplified examples of this model, suchas:18
(i) James is thirstyand believesthatthe liquid beforehim is water –Jamesde-
cidestodrinkthe water.
Here, adecision is typically understood as causallydeterminedbybeliefs and
desires –moregenerally, by previous conative and cognitive states. So, this
modelincorporates averyclassicalformofcausal determinism. Decisionsand
voluntary actions are determined by causes, exactly as any othereventinnature,
the only difference beingthe kind of cause: psychological causes, suchasbeliefs
and desires,rather thanphysicalorbiological causes.Thismodel thusinvolves a
compatibilist account of freewillresembling the standard empiricist line of
thought goingfromLocketo, say, Davidson.
Prima facie,provided thatone can legitimatelydistinguish compulsionfrom
deliberate choice, it wouldseem thatthere is no harm in describing free or vol-
untary actions as causallydetermined by the relevant states of belief and desire –
i.e., the sortof‘psychological’ or mental causes also called ‘motives’ or ‘reasons’.
And yet,phenomenologically, this description is not at all truetothe lifeof
persons. It failstocapture our consciouslifeasweknowit‘from inside’, and it
fails evenmoretocapture our grasp of otherpersons’ meaningful behaviour. A
flow of states of consciousness: thatishow dreaming canbeaptly described. A
17 Searle:Rationality in Action, 45. See below,section 5.
18 Searle:Rationality in Action, 5f.
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consciouslifeand any spanofitlooksmuchmore like aseries of acts whichare
linked together, where the link is the relation of motivation.
Motivationdiffers from causation in that it cannotoperate withoutasubject’s
consent. Giving or refusing consent is the act qualifying each intentional lived
Let’sgive an example. Afriend enters the room thatIam in. Iperceiveher
and feel joy:this response is an act, involving aconsent, as we shall see in more
detail. This joy mightmotivate me to stopwhatIam doing, run up to her, and
hug her, but surely it willnot have me to do so without my consent. If Iwere to
see her whileinthe midstofapublictalk, Iwould not endorse this desire, as I
wouldprefer not to interrupt my presentation.
To make along story short, manymental ‘states’ do not seem capable of caus-
ing the followingstates without‘asking’the subject, as it were,or, lessmeta-
phorically, withoutthe subject’sendorsement.Thisendorsement,this stance or
taking up aposition (either assentingtoitorrejecting it) makesanactual motive
out of an otherwise merely possible motive. Without this endorsement, the mo-
tive would not have causal power. The endorsement of amental state(assent or
rejection) is an instanceofpositionality,a‘position’ beingthe essential or dis-
tinctive feature of an act in astrict sense, conferring on it ‘act-uality’.
4. Actions and events
So far we argued that neglecting positionality, thereby reducing personal acts to
mental states, results in asubjectless accountofconsciouslife.
Agency is an essential componentofsubjectivity. The usualoppositionbe-
tweenthe first-and third-person perspective should be rephrased in termsofan
opposition between the engaged and the merelyobservational perspective.19
An incomplete theory of intentionality blurs this second, and more funda-
mental, opposition. On the otherhand,weshould avoid conceiving of position-
al acts as somestrange sortof‘mental’ actions, indulginginaformofCartesian
dualism, as if there weresome spectral agent over and above aperson –aspectral
To see this point, we can startfrom the difference between ‘actions’ and
‘events’.All actions are events, but not all events are actions. This claimisless
contentious thanthe distinction between (mental)acts and (mental) states. In
19 We accept the suggestion put forwardbyAkeelBilgrami:The Wider Significance of Nat-
uralism –AGenealogicalEssay. In:MarioDeCaro and David Macarthur(eds.): Nature and
Normativity. New York2010, 25.
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any case,Ishallnot argue for it further.20 Let me simply illustrate this distinction
withaseemingly clearinstanceofit.
Goingtosleepisanaction, whereas falling asleep is an event. Ratherthan
beinganaction, falling asleep is somethingthat happens to me. Suppose you
accept thispremise. Now suppose Iamsleepy. Beingsleepy is agood reasonto
go to bed. So, Imay endorse this reason, thus consenting to my state. Iamthere-
by determined to perform acertain action:togotobed. But this stateisnot a
sufficient reason. Imighthave otherreasons to stayup, to resist my stateof
beingsleepy, suchasfinishingsome work, afilm,etc. Sooner or laterIshall
assuredly fallasleep. So –you mightconclude –mystatewas after all asufficient
reason, that is, a cause of my sleeping. Granted,itisacause –yet not of an action
(going to sleep), but of an event (falling asleep).Aslongasweconsider actions, a
mere statebyitself cannot give rise to an action without my endorsement,im-
plicit or explicit, thatisverballyarticulated into aproposaltowhich Isay ‘yes’.
As soon as my stateworks as acause, theaction is no longer there, there is an
Let’sconsider acomplementary example.Slipping on abanana skin is an
event. Getting up afterward is (inter alia)anaction. Now,the set of possible
courses of actions Ican undertake is virtuallyinfinite. Depressedand shocked
by my fall, Imightlie down waiting for help.Even if Idesire to get up, and
‘formthe intention’ to do it, the intentionissurely not asufficient reasontoget
up if brokemyleg. But evenifmyphysicalpowers are not impaired,anin-
tention,i.e., aproject or purpose for action, is nevercausallysufficient for ac-
tion –orover the course of my lifeIwouldhave realized all the projects that I
regret having givenup. What is needed is an act transforming amerelypossible
motive (an intention, apurpose, aproject)into an actual, efficacious one.And
this act is acharacteristic kindofposition-taking,consisting in endorsing one of
the possible intentions and committing oneself to its realization. In its explicit,
reflective formsuch an act is whatwecall a decision: althoughnot all voluntary
actions originate in decisions, let alonedeliberations, all are set out by the en-
dorsements of motives and commitments to them. On the contrary,noassent,
no position-taking is necessarily involved in the event of slipping.What makes
getting up an action is the position taken, more or less reflectively, and perhaps
evenwithoutany reflection at all, aboutthe stateinwhichone is thrown off
balance. Recoveringcontrol and balance is an endorsed motive of action, hencea
reason forit(not acause).Why should we ignore suchablatant difference?
Blurring the difference between (voluntary)actions and events commits one to
20 Edmund Runggaldier:Was sind Handlungen? Eine philosophische Auseinandersetzung
mit dem Naturalismus.Stuttgart/Berlin/Kçln 1996.
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this serious oversight. But evenexpandingthe causal chain, so to speak, by de-
fining actions as events caused by intentions blursthe specific intentionality of
an act of the will, as distinguished from thatofadesire and thatofapurpose or a
project, all of which are possible but not actual motives for action.
The upshot of this section is that, eveninordertoaccountfor the difference
between actions and events, we need aconcept of intentionality allowingfor
positionality. In fact,adecision is avery specific positional act, as described
above. Lacking acomplete theory of intentionality is to lack aplausibletheory
of the will,which is thedisposition for decisionmaking.21 Atheory of the will,
capable of accounting for adecision’s specific Aktcharakter,asopposed to the
mere content (Materie)ofan‘intention’ or apurpose (which may or may not be
endorsed and madeeffective), appears to be absent in contemporaryphilosophy
of mind,asisthe distinction between (positional)act and state. Once again,an
act-centred theory of intentionality has been mistakenfor amythology of ‘men-
tal’ actions, as it is wellshownbyanold, classic boutade by Gilbert Ryle:“No-
bodyever says[…] he has performed five quick and easy acts of the will, and
two slow and difficultones between breakfast and lunch”22
HereRyle is making fun of the picture of alittle inner agent, a‘ghost’hidden
inside our body. But if we reject the idea of the inner agentand regard a decision
as the actual exercise of thatordinary disposition to make decisionscalled ‘our
will’, Ryle’s sarcasm losesits bite:wecan countdecisions; we cansay thatsome
are difficult;others not so much;and so on.
Husserl himself warned against the mythology of mental actions.23 On the
otherhand, it wouldbeabsurd to deny that decisionsexist and thatwe‘make’
21 We essentially reproduced here Alexander Pf(nder’sphenomenological theory of the
will.AlexanderPf(nder:Motivund Motivation. In:AlexanderPf(nder (ed.): M'nchenerPhi-
losophische Abhandlungen:Theodor Lippszuseinem sechzigsten Geburtstag gewidmetvon
fr'herenSch'lern. Leipzig 1911, 163 –195.
22 Gilbert Ryle:The Concept of Mind. London 1949, 64.
23 “Was anderseits die Redevon Aktenanbelangt,sodarfman hieranden urspr'nglichen
Wortsinn von actus nat'rlich nicht mehr denken, der Gedanke der Bet"tigung muss schlechter-
dingsausgeschlossen bleiben.”Husserl:Logische Untersuchungen, 393. In afootnotetothis
passage Husserl approvingly quotes Natorpagainst a‘mythology’ of mentalactions and oper-
ations:“DieMythologie der T(tigkeiten lehnen auchwir ab;nicht als psychischeBe-
t(tigungen, sondern als IntentionaleErlebnissedefinierenwir die ‘Akte’.” Husserl:Logische
Untersuchungen, 393 footnote.
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5. Learning from experience
We remarked that the truncated concept of intentionality thatiscurrent in con-
temporary philosophy of mind results in asubjectless view of the basic levelof
our consciouslife, at leastasconcerns engagements.But can apassive and un-
questioned sequenceofperceptionsand emotionsstill be called ‘experience’?
And how, in detail, doesafull-fledged concept of intentionality account for ex-
Seen aparte objecti, intentionality qualifies the mode of presence of some-
thing, e. g., as aperceived object or stateofaffairs,asmerely imagined,conceived
or remembered, desired or projected, feared or hopedfor,etc. Viewed aparte
subjecti, intentionality qualifies somebody’s mode of responding to the motivat-
ing powerofthe present object or stateofaffairs –amoment of somebody’s ac-
Thereisabasic form of positionality that belongs to the basic forms of experi-
ence,likeperception and emotion. In perception,one takesseriously, or recog-
nizes the existence of whatisperceived,inmost cases togetherwiththe positive
or negative value it bears. Existence recognition and valueassessmentare more
thanbeingaffected by something, because theyinvolve claims of validity, “sub-
ject to the jurisdiction of reason”.24 One can ask whetherone’sperception is
veridical or not, whetherone’semotion is appropriateorinappropriate. Basic
positionalityisthe subjective correlate of the object’sapparent existence, and of
its apparent value-qualities,suchaspleasantnessorfearfulness. Apparent ex-
istence and apparentvaluequalities are characteristics that distinguish perceived
and emotionally felt objects. The corresponding acts are basic cognitive or emo-
tional responses: positive or negative positionstaken in acknowledging the ap-
parent existenceofthe perceivedthing(or rejecting it as asensory illusion), ap-
preciating its agreeable, feltcharacter or shunningits scariness.
What is the role of positionalityinbasic experience?Inother words, why
should we consider acts and not states to be our basic formofexperience? This
should be clearbynow. Only positionality is responsible for the na3ve,‘un-
examined’claimofthe validity of perceptions and emotions. We may see this
better by contrasting perceptions and emotionswithactsofimagination, which
essentially do not haveany claimoftruthfulness (at leastnot in this basic sense),
do not raise any doubt abouttheir adequacy,and which typically have a‘neu-
tralized’positionality (in Husserl’sterminology).
24 Edmund Husserl:Ideen zu einerreinenPh(nomenologieund ph(nomenologischen Phi-
losophie.Allgemeine Einf'hrung in die reine Ph(nomenologie. Den Haag1976, 249.
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Ordinaryperceptions and emotions,onthe other hand,are corrigible. A
claimofvalidity can be cancelledbyamodified position (perplexity, doubt, re-
jection,for instance).
Hence, if by ‘experience’ we mean not just the causal impact of external real-
ity on an organism, but somethingwecan learn from,something whichisoris
not veridical or appropriate, something which canprovide evidence for our
judgmentsoffactand value, thenwemust takepositionalityinto account.
In summary, thedifference between acts and states is the difference between
experienceasevidence for (possible) truestatements (of fact or value) and expe-
rience as the causal impact of reality on an organism. But the experiencethrough
whichweexplore the world,the experiencewe‘learn from’, is of the firstkind.
It is always moreorless adequate – and couldnot be subject to criticaldoubt
without positionality. As afinal statementconcerningthis distinction between
acts and states, we may say thatstates are merely the effects of the world’s causal
impactonanorganism, whereas (basic) acts are adequate or inadequate re-
sponses to reality. Hence, positionalityisthe foundationofnormativity.
This analysisseemsfar more accuratethanSearle’sdistinction between types
of mental states in termsoftheir intentional properties. Perceptionsand beliefs,
in Searle’smodel, haveamind-to-world directionoffit, whereas desires and in-
tentionshave aworld-to-mind direction of fit: for cognitions and conations
have differentconditions of satisfaction.The causationruns in the oppositedi-
rection:aperception is experienced as ‘caused’bythe perceived stateofaffairs,
whereas adesireaims at causing the desired stateofaffairs to be realizedinthe
world. Yet, thereisnoplace, in thismodel, for that validityclaimthatfurther
experiencecan disrupt, inducinguncertainty and perplexity. Not surprisingly, if
intentionality has to be ahigh-level property of biological events:how can per-
plexity arise from biology?
6. Ahierarchy of acts
In the preceding sections, we have put persons back into the subjective poleof
the intentional relation,bydiscovering agency and reason in the making of expe-
In the followingsections,Ishall outline a genetic phenomenology of person-
hood, as constitutedbyand through one’sacts of positiontaking.Positionality
is to the subject of an intentional relation whatthe mode of presentation is to its
object. It is the way in whichthe subjective pole of an intentional stateiscon-
stituted:i.e., the way in which it experiences itself as such,asasubject.
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Our general claimhas beensofar that withoutpositionality, we only have
mental states. Astateinvolving apositionisanact.Now Imustshow this in
greater detail.Todoso, let me propose an outline for a hierarchy of acts.
The basiclevelofour entirepersonal lifeiscomprised of what we may call
basic acts containing firstorderpositions. There are two classes of such basic acts :
cognitiveand emotional –or, to put it more simply, perceptionsand emotions.
Basiccognitive acts, or perceptions,are characterized by first order ‘doxic’ posi-
tionality, while basic emotional acts feature ‘axiological’positionality.
What Icall ‘doxic positionality’ (doxa,Greek for ‘belief’)consists in recog-
nizing aperceivedthing’s existence. It is akind of assentordenial, and it is not
reflective (or apropositional belief) but immediate. It is not a‘judgment’, if we
meanbythat term the illocutionary actofstating apropositional content.Aper-
ception can turnout to be illusory. It could not do so if there were no doxic
position,likeinanact of imagination or day-dreaming (where no question of
truthfulness is relevant). Adoxicposition carries the claimofveridicality that
distinguishes perceptions.
What Icall‘axiological positionality’ (from axios,the Greekwordfor ‘worth’
or ‘valuable’) acknowledges the positive or negative salience, or value, of agiven
thingorsituation. Each emotion includes suchaposition.They can be appro-
priate. But they can also turnout to be inappropriate–imagine, e.g., feeling
panickedwhenfaced withapeacefullittle cat. The negative axiological position
of thecorrespondingexperienceis, in thatcase, wrong.
Firstlevel positions are not freelytaken. Icannot avoidendorsingthe ex-
istence of what Isee or touch. Icannot choose to takeupthe opposite position
of negativevalue when Iencounter an object of fear or horror. This holds even
in the instance thatathing’s existence turns out in the further courseofexperi-
ence to be illusory (something perceived as aliving thing turns out to be ascare-
crow), or in the instance thatafeared object turns out not to be so bad after all.
For this to happen –for the position to be modified into a‘crossingoff’,amo-
dality of perceptual doubt, or, in short,anew position –theremust be an ante-
cedent position.
7. Aconstitutive analysis of personhood
When addressing intentionality, Husserl uses the term ‘Akt’moreorless synon-
ymously with‘intentionales Erlebnis’. Yet, identifying acts and intentional, lived
experiences is not entirely satisfactory, because acts cannot generallybereduced
to the lived or consciousexperienceofit. Acts –even ‘mental’ acts –can tran-
scendtheir consciousaspects. Likeanything effective,anact is partially con-
sciousness-transcendent. There is moretoitthan is experienced, as Iwill show
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shortly. My suggestion goes further: actions can be performed by agents with-
out any explicitorreflective awarenessofthem, as in habitual, automatic activ-
ities. Agency precedesand ‘grounds’ intentionality or consciousness. In much
the same way, positionality can precede self-awareness.
Yet, fromagenetic pointofview,positionality not onlyprecedes self-aware-
ness, but also shapesthe person’sidentity, whichhabitualitysolidifies.Our acts
shape us. In the exerciseofpositionality, personhood is constitutednot only in
the sense of beingexperienced as such,but also in the senseofbeingshaped. The
exerciseofpositionality is the makingofoneself.
In ordertoshow this in more detail Ishall first statethe three claims for
(A) To live as aperson is to emergefrom one’sstates by one’sacts.
(S) Aperson is a subject of acts.
(F) Acertainsubset of acts is anecessarycondition for the emergence of a
personality,and it is the set of free acts.
Notice thatpropositions(A), (S), and (F) contain several notions,i.e., act,
subject of acts,free acts, emergence,thatdeserve further clarification.
In the rest of this section Ishall try to provide somesupport for (A). Ishall
also sketch alineofargument for the otherclaims. Thesis (S) and thesis (F) are,
respectively,acorollary and aspecific instance of thesis (A).
Personal lifeasalifeofreasonstarts withbasic, pre-reflective acts. Or, we
couldalso say that basic acts constitute the first level of the emergence of aper-
son from her states, meaning thatsubjectivity is constituted, or first experienced
as such, in the pulseofbasic positionality. This is the levelofpre-reflective rec-
ognition of afactuallyand axiologically qualified reality.
Let’snow examine the first claim:
(A) To be aperson is to emerge overand above one’sstates by one’sacts.
Aperson is asubject that‘emerges’fromatemporal sequence of biological
and mental states by virtue of the positional componentofperceptions, emo-
tions, and behaviours subject to normativity (right or wrong). Suchbasic pre-
reflective, norm-driven experience may be contrasted withbehaviourthatis
simply adaptive, or biologicallydriven (satisfactionofneeds, etc.).
One mightwonder whatitisfor experience to be ‘norm-driven’. Thisisa
crucial pointfor acorrect understandingofour notions of emergence and sub-
ject: aflow of psychological states through which an animal –let’ssay,adog, a
dolphin, achimpanzee–interacts withits natural and social environment,isno
sufficient condition for apersonal subject to be constituted. Animals seem to
experiencereality as whatresists their drives and desires or satisfies them;not as
whatreveals doxicand axiological positionsaswrong or right. That positions
are right or wrong is whatwefirst learn by sharing the habits and normsofthe
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life-community in whichweare born.Learning whattodowith correct posi-
tions, whattodonext,iswhatImeanbynorm-driven behaviour.
Maybe social learningispart of reachingadulthoodfor (some) non-human
animals;whatseemstobecharacteristic of humans, though, is cultural or norm-
based learning, typicallyrequiring coherence, organization, and order in even
the mostbasic responses to the environment,sothat‘meaningful’ structures of
behaviourcan graduallyemerge fromrelatively unorganizedsequencesofre-
actions to inner and outerstimuli.Reinforcing rightresponses, discouraging
wrong ones, co-executingrightpositions:this is how the care-givers and their
community provide the foundations of an emergingsubjectivity.Aformof
shared intentionality whichthe humaninfanttakes part in –asMax Scheler first
pointed out25 –isthe condition of the infant’s emergingasasubject of amotiva-
tional chainofacts,out of amere flow of states.
We may thenspecify(A) as follows:
(A’)Basicacts bringaboutthe first levelofpersons’emergence fromstates,
the levelof(basic) recognition of afactuallyand axiologically qualified reality.
In fact,itisbymeans of basic acts thatweget in touch with objective reality
and do so in its factual and axiological aspects. (That is, we experiencereality as
objective, and not just as what resists our drives).
But we can do more.Wecan also manage the states in whichthis contact with
reality puts us. In basic acts,Isaid, we experiencereality as objective. We can get
it wrong. But even if we getitright, the use we makeofthesedatais(within
certain limits)uptous. It is in our powertoexpose ourselves more or less to
reality, thatisto accept or reject dataasmotives of subsequent life(experiences
and actions).
This observation leads us to aconsideration of whatwemay call second-level
emergence involved in themanagement of states. We manage our states by asec-
ond classofacts, involving second levelpositions–that is, positionsthat we take
up relative to the basic acts and their objective and subjective correlates (states of
affairs and mental states).
As opposed to the case of basic acts,these ‘managing acts’ are, in abroad
sense, free. Afirst-level act of denying reality to whatIperceive as real is not in
my power;yet,refusing motivational weight to aperceivedfact (or salience) is in
my power.
Ican receive apieceofbad news, or learnaboutaverypainful fact,and Ican
also let myself be motivated by it. But Ican also ‘repress’ it, not in afirst-level
position,but in asecond-level actofnot allowingittomotivatemyfurtheracts,
e.g., my emotions,thoughts, decisions, or behaviour.I‘neutralize’the first-level
25 Max Scheler:Wesenund Formen der Sympathie. Bonn 1985,241.
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position.With this act, Ican manage my states by regulating my exposure to
further experience.
To endorse or ignore basic inputs is to takeupasecond-level position. Second-
levelpositions characterize free acts in abroadsense.
With the phrase ‘in abroadsense’, Imeantoemphasizeatypical characterof
this second classofacts.They are neither necessarily nor entirely conscious. We
can manage our passivity in the darkness, as it were,likeinthe example of re-
pressing agrief,thereby blocking all working-through of abereavement –with-
out admittingtoourselvesthatweare doing so.
As aconcludingremark for this section, we can makeafurther specification
(A’’) By virtue of second-level positions, acts that are free in abroadsense
bringaboutasecond levelofpersons’emergence upon states, i.e., the levelof
managingone’sexposure to further experience.
8. The emergence of personal identity
In ordertosee the proper character of the third and final classofacts, we might
thinkofthe just-discussed second-levelemergence of acts and persons as the
management of one’spassivity. This paradoxical-sounding expression reminds
us thatexperience is nevercompletely ‘passive’. Otherwisewecouldnot even
say thatwe‘growup’ through experience. Yet the ‘path’ that eachone of us
takes through the world, so to speak, by managingpassive motivationsand con-
ditioning their influence on furtherexperienceneed not be aseries of choices,
consciousorotherwise. No doubt personality and charactertraits express them-
selves in second-level acts.They can always be clarified in retrospect, and alter-
native possible plotscan be brought to consciousness, although that is not neces-
sary.Onthe otherhand,byregulating our exposure to the flow of information
comingthrough thebasicacts,weundeniably exertapowerofsome sort,attest-
ing to an efficacyentirelyabsent in basic acts.Wedochoose whetherornot to
authorise the motivationalforce of agivenexperience on further experience.
Further experience, though, does not necessarily meanfurther action. By say-
ing yes or no, as it were, to data and states as motives in our ongoing life, we do
not necessarily engage in active behaviour. Avoiding working through bereave-
ment,for example, is not active behaviour.Fullyconsciousmotive management
concerns only aparticular subclass of free acts that are in fact authorizations to
proceed, or licencestomakesomethingofthe dataofagivenexperience. And,
hence, we give ourselveslicence to actively behave in such and such away:for
example, to startreading aboutmedicine or aboutphilosophy and getting in-
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volved into it, or, at amorebasic level,torun up the hill for the pleasureofit: in
either case,sometimes, starting to acquire ahabitoraskill. Our actions shape
us:bymakingsomethingout of the dataofagivenexperience we also make
somethingout of ourselves.Herewecometothoseactsthatwemay deem free
in the strict sense.
Thoseactsinwhich we endorse (or reject) adatum (or astate) as areason for
action are acts that are freeinthe strict sense.
Theseactsare essentially –even to aminimal degree –commitments to one’s
future behaviour. What characterizesthis classinits mostparadigmaticcasesis
the engagement of one’sfuture self.Engagements can takethe form of obliga-
tionsweimpose on ourselves withrespect to ourselvesorother persons. Deci-
sions are paradigmaticinstancesofthe former, promises of the latter.
Acts that are free in thestrict sense are what we may call self-constitutive acts.
By endorsing areason for action, Inot onlytakeacommitment towardmyfu-
tureself:Ialso accept responsibility for what Ishall be. In this sense, we may say
thatdecisions are paradigmaticinstancesofself-constitutive acts, even if we
might, by further analysis, discover thatthe essential natureofadecision is bet-
ter clarified by analysing it as asortofpromise made to oneself. Adecision real-
ly engages one’sfuture self,or, conversely, one bears responsibility for one’s
pastdecisionsonly in so far as one is actuallyresponsive to otherpeople’sex-
We may in fact discover, as Nietzsche was the first to suggest, thatpersonal
responsibility is genealogically linked to social acts of promising before being
the amazingpowerofself-obligation thatweattributetoour (free) will. Yet,
questionsoforigin, as opposed to question of essence or structure, neednot
bother us here.
While decisionscan be tacitacts, promises are paradigmaticinstancesnot just
of socialacts, but alsooflinguisticallygroundedsocialacts. Now,most speech
acts are self-committing acts, as Searle rightly observed.Bymaking assertionsI
commit myself to sincerityand justification,bymakingdirectiveorcommissive
acts Imay also bindmyself to bearresponsibility for otherpeople’s actions or
takeonobligations towards otherpeople. To enlarge our perspective beyond
speech acts of the familiar varieties, consider furtherhow, by an act of faith, I
mightcommit myself to aspiritualpath, or how by making apolitical choice I
mightadoptacoherent set of opinions, etc.
Further inquiry mightinfact showthat the verypossibility of an act of the
will, namely an explicit decision,presupposes acapabilityfor all sorts of volun-
tary (or free)acts (actions), such as the just-mentioned speech acts, and more
generallyour everydaylinguisticpractice, i.e., our ordinary practice of doing
things with words, like reassuringfriends, instructing children, exchanging
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goods, and so on. There is asuggestion concealedinthis hintthatthe old notion
of will should be explainedasthe faculty of choices and descriptively analysed as
ahigher ordercapacity of managing the class of self-constitutive acts.Because it
is an assessmentofoneself in amoreorlessresolute actofendorsingorrejecting
acertain course of action (‘Yes, Iwill–yes,that’s the person Iam’),achoice
turns out to be an act involvingaposition of the thirdlevel:one that accepts or
rejects other acts involving second-levelpositions(acts thatare strictlyfree or
voluntary). There actuallyisareflective component to any consciouschoice in-
deed,whether or not it is deliberate –whereas avoluntaryaction can be habitu-
al, or, in any case,brought aboutwithoutreflection.
This analysis mightrecall Frankfurt’s theory of the free will as acapacityof
the second ordertoinfluence acts of will (concrete wants or wishes) on the first
order.26 Yet there is asubstantial difference. Frankfurt does not provide us with
ageneraltheory of volition as aspecific act that transforms apossible reason for
action into an actual one. The endorsement or positional characterofavolition
onlyconcernssecond ordervolitions, but first ordervolitions do not differ from
desires:actually,afirst ordervolition is the prevailingdesire. This may seem to
be an onlyverbal difference, but it isn’t. For Frankfurt’saccount of free willisa
compatibilist one, admitting determinism;ours is not,for no motive can de-
termine us without our consent.Nomotive worksasacause. Frankfurtian free
willisawillthat just happens –atthe second order–to agree with the first order
volition/desire. If it does not agree, it is not free, but painfully unfree, as the
‘sinner’suffers his sin despite himself. This does not prevent him frombeing
responsible for his actions.27 Our theory, on the contrary,admitsthatthe suffer-
ing sinner only is responsible for his action if he consented to it or its motive
(evenimplicitly or reluctantly),whether or not approved by the person at a
higher level.Amajor difference is that forus, but not for Frankfurt, wherever
there is will, there is afree commitment, even whenone hateswhathedoes.Or
else,there is no will, but compulsion, or addiction, or involuntary action.
Let’ssum up the result of the preceding analysis:
(A’’’) Acts that are free in astrict sense, or self-constitutive acts, bringabout a
thirdlevel of emergence of aperson over and above her states,namely, the level
of managingher actions. This level is aperson’s peculiarly temporal emergence
fromher present state(projecting, planning).
26 HarryFrankfurt:Freedom of the Will and the Concept of aPerson. In:Gary Watson
(ed.): FreeWill. Oxford 1981,81–95.
27 Frankfurt:Freedom of the Will and the Concept of aPerson,91.
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The lastclause is in needofsomeexplanation.‘Temporal emergence’ refers to
one’sassuming responsibility for one’spast and one’sfuture, preciselyasthe
same selfthrough time.
Let’snow recall thesis (F):
(F) Thereisasubset of acts needed for the emergence of a personal identity,
and it is the set of free acts.
Now we can be more precise:
(F’) Personality emerges upon states in acts thatare free in abroadsense, in
this way intrinsicallycharacterizing humanpersons, e.g., in termsofmotiva-
tional style and the contentsofexperience.
(F’’)Personal identitythrough timeemerges in acts that are free in the strict
sense (self-constitutive acts), whichare also acts in whichone becomes actually
responsible for one’spast and present self.
9. Personhood and subjectivity
My contention is therefore thatafull-blown person is abeingcapable of self-
constitutive acts. Humans are normallycapable of becoming full-blown per-
sons,whenthe relevant biological and social pre-conditions are fulfilled.
Ishall express this pointbymyclaim(S):
(S) Aperson is (essentially)asubject of acts.
The idea is thatpersonal subjectivityisprimarilyacapacityfor acts of all
types. Further, being asubjectisanecessary condition for having asubjective
point of view,i.e., afirst-person perspective. In other words, self-consciousness
presupposes subjectivity as the capacity of meaningful, structured or ‘normal’
behaviour. You must be asubject, and live as asubject, in order to recognize
yourselfasasubject, whichcomes about, among otherthings, by acquiring a
(linguisticallyand conceptually articulated) first-personperspective.
Note thatthe notion of asubject is not presupposedbut rather explainedby
the notion of an act. Our living is not reduciblewithout remaindertobeinga
(personal) subject. Digestion,for instance, does not qualifyasanact, whileeat-
ing and (evenmore so) sexuality do.
In short:
(S’) Only abeingcapable of acts is asubject and canacquirea(robust)first-
person perspective (reflective,articulated self-consciousness).
Let’snow examine the relation between personhood and subjectivity in more
detail. Do the differentlevels of acts somehow correspond to degrees of devel-
opment too? It seems to me thatall we cansay, on the basis of the foregoing
analysis, is the following:
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(S’’)Acapacityfor basic acts is anecessary(but not sufficient) conditionfor
the emergence of aperson;
(S’’’) Acapacity for free acts is anecessary and sufficient condition for the
emergence of aperson.
That is, acapacity for free acts is anecessaryand sufficient condition for ac-
quiring both a(reflexive, articulated)first-person perspective and personal iden-
This perspective marksadiscontinuity between what we may call a‘potential
person’ and otheranimals, adiscontinuityrelated to our capacity to acquire
mastery of language. Suchmastery consistsnot only of grammatical and seman-
tic competence,but alsoofacapacity for appropriate speech acts,and, more
generally, acts of symbolic expression.
Let’sconsider this last claimmore closely. The first levelofemergence –rec-
ognition of qualified reality in perception and emotion –seems to reveal itself as
‘having always been there’ only whenlanguage and propositionalthinkingor
othersymbolic thinkingcan be acquired.Infact,aswesaw, perceiving reality as
objective and expressive of value-qualities (rather thanencountering it as some-
thingresistingour drives) is afaculty whose importance we realize, in away,
whenitprovides evidence for judgments, or acts of symbolic expression(e.g.,
thinkofthe marvellous Altamura’s caves), evenifbasic acts canbetherewithout
these capacities having yet developed.
To recapitulate the main stepsofmyanalysis, we can say that withoutbasic
acts one cannotlearn fromexperience, or enjoylife as experience. Only by man-
aging thatlifedoweemergefromitand somehow rise above it as (moreorless
active) subjects of our lives. But only self-constitutive or self-committing acts
are sources of personal identitythrough time.
Roberta De Monticelli1 54
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