the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

on sloterdijk’s view of free will and agency

Posted by rigorousm on November 4, 2015

Sloterdijk talks continually about our practices, our efforts to make ourselves into something other than what we are. For him, humans act out of their subjectivity in a fundamentally passive world. We have agency. Or, precisely, each I is a solo agent. Everything else is merely acted upon, by physics or instinct or gravity or whatever. Sloterdijk’s is an essentially lonely, not to mention exhausting, grammar of human life.

This exclusive emphasis on agency completely misses the way people often understand the changes in their lives, not in terms of what they do but in terms of what happens to them and, in some cases, what is done to them. Sloterdijk is not alone in this mistake; I would bet that nine out of ten readers of that last sentence would imagine that things “done to them” are almost by definition bad. And that just shows the degree to which we today are captive of a terrible picture of ourselves and our relation to the world.

To begin to get a better picture, ask yourself: Was I cared for by others, at least when I was a child? If I am in love, did I choose to fall in love? Did I decide what my vocation would be? In truth, many of the most mundane and the most momentous events in our lives happen because of a complicated dialectical dance between what we do and what we suffer—what, that is, is done to us. To imagine that we are essentially agents, that behind all the appearances of things happening to us is our own agency, or that of some other humans, and that we understand our lives most basically as a pattern established and shaped by practices that we do—this fundamentally traduces our own most basic experiences of life.

— Charles Mathewes, “Can You Change Your Life? Reflections on Peter Sloterdijk and the Confoundments of Religion in Our Time” in The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015). (link)

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