Moving stories: Agency, emotion and practical rationality

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


How are agents made? Which psychological components, assembled with which structure, do we need to engineer a system that acts for reasons, rather than one that is merely shunted around by external forces? One kind of answer to these questions, associated with G.E.M. Anscombe (1957), identifies the crucial ingredient as epistemic – the qualitative difference between agents and mere movers or behavers depends on a distinctive kind of knowledge that agents have of their own actions. As an agent, your knowledge of mere happenings (like your stomach involuntarily rumbling) is observational, whereas your knowledge of your voluntary actions (like your going to the kitchen to make a snack) is non-observational – you have practical knowledge of your own activity through your very act of carrying it out. Let’s assume this framework for now (we’ll work through arguments in its favour below). How should the kind of practical knowledge distinctive of agency be analysed? In particular, what role if any do emotions play in enabling knowledge of this kind?

Over the past 30 years, J. David Velleman (1989, 2006, 2009, 2014) has developed a sophisticated view of practical rationality which aims to address these questions. For reasons we’ll set out below, he argues that the kind of practical rationality distinctive of agency depends on the motivational force of a drive towards self-consistency. To be an agent is to be a system that is driven to act in ways that make sense to oneself. Articulating the nature and operations of this drive towards self-consistency thus becomes the key task for a theory of human agency and practical reason. The main question with which this chapter is concerned is: what role do emotions play in structuring such a drive and its operations?

As we will see, there are two interpretations of the nature of the drive towards self-consistency in Velleman’s work, not always happily related. Agents might aim towards self-consistency by striving to act in ways that make causal-psychological sense – roughly, by acting in ways that maximize the coherence of their beliefs, desires, plans and other psychological states. Or they might aim towards self-consistency by striving to act in ways that make narrative sense – acting in ways that make their lives conform to the beats of familiar story structures. Velleman provides compelling reasons to think that emotions are implicated in narrative sense-making – the beats of familiar story structures are felt rather than thought through, so agency can consist in shaping your life in order to feel a particular way about it. How are causal-psychological consistency and narrative consistency related? As we’ll see below, Velleman initially thought of the latter as an appealing way of redescribing the former, but later came to argue that each kind of consistency conveyed a fundamentally different kind of understanding. I will agree with Velleman that causal-psychological and narrative understanding are distinct, but argue that Velleman’s view of their relations is unsatisfactory. Velleman comes to prioritise causal-psychological over narrative self-understanding in a way that jeapordises the naturalistic credentials of his framework and undermines his claim that a drive towards narrative coherence can constitute a legitimate source of practical rationality. The positive suggestion this chapter aims to motivate is that the problems facing Velleman’s view can be overcome by reversing his order of dependence between causal-psychological and narrative self-consistency – instead of viewing narrative self-understanding as a sophisticated achievement resting on folk-psychological self-understanding, we should understand our drive towards rational self-consistency – and thus our status as agents – as resting on an emotionally structured bedrock of narrative competences.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Value of Emotions for Knowledge
EditorsLaura Candiotto
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9783030156671
ISBN (Print)9783030156664
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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