Agency and aesthetic identity

Philosophical Studies:1-25 (forthcoming)
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Schiller says that “it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.” Here I attempt to defend a claim in the same spirit as Schiller’s but by different means. My thesis is that a person’s autonomous agency depends on their adopting an aesthetic identity. To act, we need to don contingent features of agency, things that structure our practical thought and explain what we do in very general terms but are neither universal nor necessary features of agency as such. Without these things, the question of what to do for any individual would be underdetermined. The problem is that adopting such a contingent form of agency amounts to a restriction on what we can do, and so it is a prima facie threat to our autonomy. I will argue that one way, and indeed the only way, of meeting this challenge lies in aesthetic experience. Granting our capacity for aesthetic pleasure the authority to determine the particularities of our agency is compatible with autonomy because doing so means identifying with one’s capacity for pleasure in free and creative activity. Doing this allows us to be both particular sorts of agents and creatures regulated by the universalizing demands of reason.

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Kenneth Walden
Dartmouth College


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