Institutions in/cognito: the political constitution of agency
Stapleton, Sarah Jane
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Operating at the boundaries of philosophy of mind, cognitive science, politics and social theory, this thesis aims to develop an interdisciplinary model of the relationship between agency and structure. This thesis explores the question of why the agency/structure argument in the social sciences has not yet been resolved and argues for an interdisciplinary model of agency to be utilised by social theory. In the wake of poststructuralism there has been a gravitation back towards characterising the terms of this debate in more strongly dichotomous terms, arguing for the autonomy of agency in particular as a natural kind. This trend can be seen most clearly in Archer’s analytical dualism within the morphogenetic theory of social elaboration, where the desire for the clarity of dualist terms has become tangled with claims to ontology. I suggest that this tendency is not limited to social theory, but is characteristic of the neoliberal political environment from which such theory is being produced, understood and utilised. Understanding the way in which our political and social context influences the ways in which we may understand or conceptualise a problem such as this, establishing the logical intuition and methods which we use to do this kind of deductive reasoning, is key for both performing the philosophical task of engaging in the agency-structure debate, but is thoroughly interrelated with how we need to conceptualise that relationship itself. It is both the method and the content, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’, of investigating the relationship between external social structures and the feeling of autonomous authorship and choice. I argue that the political value system inherent to neoliberal and economic logics, which prioritise and naturalise individuality and autonomous, internal agentic capacity, works to make the experience of agency appear inevitable and universal. This thesis engages with the assumptions that underpin this illusion, looking to philosophy of mind in order to etch out a framework for understanding agency. This framework has two necessary components. Firstly, that it acknowledges the experience of agency as real, and that as a way-of-being-in-the- world it is necessary to continue to explore how individuals experience agency in their environments. Secondly, and most importantly, that this ‘realism’ about agency, does not inevitably indicate that agency has an ontological and epistemological reality that transcends the particular social and political contexts in which it makes sense. The thesis explores how the fundamental components of agency, intelligence and cognition are produced in the interrelationships between a subject and their physical, social and political environment. The argument presented is that deliberative consciousness and self-awareness emerge as a response to, and as an effect of, complex social interaction. In contrast to Archer’s conception of the sui generis, causal efficacy of reflexive agency, this thesis argues that smooth, embodied, coping with the environment is the preferred mode of interacting with the world. By critically engaging with the idea that those studying social dynamics should conceptualize agency as internal and inherent the thesis explores and critiques the prevalent use of the term ‘agency’ within social theory, arguing that an explicit engagement with what agency is is an understudied but fundamental and necessary philosophical task within sociology. A strong position is proposed that social institutions not only precede the self-aware, experience of choice and autonomy, but actively produce it. This proposition stands in opposition to dualistic notions of agency and structure as they are conceived by critical realism. This has widespread political implications in a field that often assumes agency to be an intrinsic part of human nature that stands outside of socialisation. This goal of this thesis is to demonstrate that in order to understand the experience of agency within our particular contexts and how it manifests as a force for social change, social theory must engage critically with philosophy of consciousness.