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David Roden: The End of Agency (Symposium: Intelligence Unbound)

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

September: 9th -- 10 am Pacific Time

David Roden

The End of Agency

In this presentation I’m going to review two arguments for a subtractive or ‘unbounded’ view of posthumanist agency, which, I will suggest, is the only posthumanism worth having.

According to the subtractive view, our ordinary practices of assigning and interpreting agents from within what we might call, following Sellars, ‘the Manifest Image’ do not give a complete or consistent concept of an agent. Another way of putting this is that what Donald Davidson refers to as the ‘observability assumption’ (OA) is false. This states that “an observer can under favourable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b: 99)

In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ‘ideal conditions.’

If it is not to be entirely empty, the OA implies a humanist local correlationism (anti-realism if you will) regarding agency since it entails that agents are just those entities that some appropriate ‘we’ (humans, anthropoforms) could read or interpret as agents. If the OA fails then, we must embrace realism and verification-transcendence with regard to agency concepts: whatever the content of the manifest image, our human practices of agent attribution can’t determine the domain of agency. So either there 1) is no coherent manifest image, or 2) there is but adverting to its content cannot show that it is not wholly dispensable for hypothetical posthumans or aliens (pace deVries 2016).

I will set out two lines of argument for this unbounded posthumanist account of agency. The first will consider Brandom’s pragmatist conception of agency in terms of deontic scorekeeping. I will argue that despite Brandom's valid criticism of Dennett’s interpretationist account of agency in Making it Explicit, his own position lapses into a form of interpretationism. Just as Dennett’s intentional stance approach fails to account for the capacities interpreting intentional systems, so deontic scorekeeping either presupposes florid intentional powers on the part of agents or the purview of an undefined, ideal interpreter. Unless we can supply an ontology or phenomenology of agency to plug this gap, the interpreter here is left undefined and thus incapable of constraining or bounding the extension of the agency in line with the OA.

The second line of argument is far more speculative. This has recourse to the idea of a hyperagent, an agent whose capacities for self-modification have been extended to an arbitrary degree. It is fairly easy to show that the OA fails for hyperagents. So everything hinges on whether agency is ‘extendible’ – that is, whether enhancing the powers of agency always yields a more powerful agent rather than a non-agent. I will argue that Extendibility has as good a claim to be part of our informal agency concept as the OA. If it is, then that concept is either inconsistent (because you can’t hold both OA and Extendibility) or incomplete because the OA fails.

Either argument – to an empty Interpreter or from Hyperagency – implies that there is no coherent concept of agency available to us. So reflecting on the practices of agency attribution in the Manifest Image yields no bounds or limits to what agency or intelligence could become. That is the core of Unbounded Posthumanism.


Davidson, Donald, 2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

deVries, W.A., 2016. ‘The causal articulation of practical reality.’ In Sellars and contemporary philosophy (pp. 167-183). Routledge.

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David Roden's published work has addressed the relationship between deconstruction and analytic philosophy, philosophical naturalism, the metaphysics of sound and posthumanism. He contributed the essay "The Disconnection Thesis" to the Springer Frontiers volume The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. His book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Routledge 2014) considers the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical implications of the existence of posthumans: powerful nonhuman agents produced by human-instigated technological processes. Other representative publications include: “Radical Quotation and Real Repetition” in Ratio: An International Journal of Analytic Philosophy (2004); "Nature's Dark Domain: an argument for a naturalized phenomenology" in the Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, Phenomenology and Naturalism (2013); “Sonic Arts and the Nature of Sonic Events”, Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2010).

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