Chiel van den Akker

Retroaction and Responsibility

2020/21 Keele Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture

In this talk I am interested in the distinction between the modern and pre-modern conceptions of agency as it is drawn by two present-day readers of Hegel: John McDowell and Robert Brandom. McDowell argues that the distinction is to be understood in terms of distinctive conceptions of freedom. In modernity, for the first time, self-determination becomes a real possibility. Brandom distinguishes the modern from the pre-modern and postmodern conceptions of agency in terms of different conceptions of responsibility. According to the modern conception of agency, we are responsible only for what we willingly and knowingly did. The postmodern conception of agency, by contrast, acknowledges that the unforeseen consequences of an action and its relations to subsequent actions of others may retroactively affect what initially has been done. The implication is, in Brandom’s reading, that a community needs to accept responsibility for the actions of each of its members. 

By drawing their distinctions, McDowell and Brandom make clear how Geist – our social-human mindedness – has a history. The most important event in human history, Geist’s most important deed, was to become modern. Distinguishing between the modern and pre-modern conceptions of agency allows us to understand this pivotal moment in the history of Spirit, and why it matters that Spirit has a history. 

About the speaker:
Chiel van den Akker is lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the department of Art and Culture, History and Antiquities. He is the author of The Modern Idea of History and its Value. An Introduction (Amsterdam UP, 2020) and The Exemplifying Past. A Philosophy of History (Amsterdam UP, 2018).
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