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Engaged Agency


Welcome the wild.

Engaged Agency

Mark Douglas

Heidegger can help us get out of sheer rationalism. This is rationalism in terms of “what were seen as the proper procedures of rational thought read into the very constitution of the mind and made part of its very structure” (Taylor, 1993 p. 318). The problem with sheer rationalism is that it holds humanity disengaged from the world. Heidegger reacted to this by giving “an understanding of the agent as engaged, as embedded in a culture, a form of life, a ‘world’ of involvements, ultimately to understand the agent as embodied” (p. 318). The world of an engaged agent “is shaped by his or her form of life, or history, or bodily existence. As we’ve been saying, the world is founded as a mode of being.

This goes against the rational model. The rational agent “takes in ‘bits’ of information from his or her surroundings and then ‘processes’ them in some fashion, in order to emerge with the ‘picture’ of the world he or she has; who then acts on the basis of this picture to fulfill his or her goals, through a ‘calculus’ of means and ends” (Taylor, 1993, p. 319). The disengaged rational perspective evolves in Cartesian and mechanistic forms. Cartesians detach the mind from the body. Monistic mechanists keep mind in body, but they model it mechanically. Both are “ontologies of disengagement” (p. 324)

Taylor wants an engaged agency. That’s an “agency whose experience is made intelligible only by being placed in the context of the kind of agency it is” (p. 325).  What is context? “The context stands as the unexplicated horizon within which – or to vary the image, as the vantage point from out of which – this experience [engaged agency] can be understood” (p. 325). Context can be in the foreground or in the background depending on where we “attend from” (Polanyi, 1958, 1966). Background context “makes intelligible what I am uncontestably aware of; but at the same time I cannot be said to be explicitly or focally aware of it, because that status is already occupied by what it is making intelligible” (p. 325). Background context is modality as “context conferring intelligibility” (p. 325).

But how can modality shape a world? It is not at all representational. It is practical. Context conferring intelligibility comes through things and practices. Thrift’s (2007, p. 8) non-representational theories can guide us. Practices are “productive concatenation that have been constructed out of all manner of resources and which provide the basic intelligibility of the world.” Things hold meaning. There’s a “sense catching form of things” that’s not a mere cladding. Things call out language from us and promote our practical engagement with them. Taylor reminds us that engaged agency thoroughly involves knowhow and wherewithal. “To know one’s way about is to be really moving around, handling things, dealing with things, with understanding” (Taylor, 1993, p. 327).

Let’s be very clear what understanding does and doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean any kind of one to one subject-object mirroring. Understanding “is not an extra layer of representations mirroring the effective actions; it conveys rater the way we inhabit these actions, differentiating them from certain autonomic process in the body. …This background sense of reality is nonrepresentational, because it is something we possess in – that is inseparable from – our actual dealings with things. Understanding slides into the foreground by way of articulation. Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus (1997, p. 25) also consider articulation as fruitful exposition of understanding. “All articulating makes what is implicit explicit.” Articulation highlights “a way of dealing with ourselves that has lost its prominence and relevance” (p. 3). Taylor contrasts articulation and description in a helpful example. The difference in the way we articulate the care we have for our beloved and the description we give of “a scene involving that person” is the difference between articulation and description.

The rationale for my terminology is evident in Taylor’s language. He says that engaged agency (our mode) “is one whose world is shaped by it mode of being [modality]. This mode of being [modality] provides that context in which the experience of this agent is intelligible, that is, has the sense it makes to the agent, as well as being understandable to an observer. …Engaged agents are creatures with a background sense of things [understanding as mode]” (p. 328).