Human Agency and Selfhood Research Cluster

Human Agency and Selfhood Research Cluster

This strand undertakes research on theoretical aspects of human agency and selfhood, informed by relevant empirical research. Our research aims to extend existing theoretical frameworks for understanding the normative (i.e. governed by legal, moral and rational norms), relational (i.e. shaped by significant human relations), embodied (i.e. originating from and being expressed in distinctive bodily manifestations), and socially embedded (i.e. arising out of characteristic social structures, conventions and practices) dimensions of human agency and selfhood.

Current projects

Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience Through Film (2016)

Robert Sinnerbrink

ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016). Awarded $580,878. 

Summary: This project develops a new interdisciplinary framework for understanding cinema's unique power to evoke ethical experience via audiovisual means. Combining philosophy with film analysis, it moves beyond the prevalent view that cinema merely illustrates moral situations, and challenges the long-held suspicion toward film's manipulative aesthetic power. This project proposes instead a model of cinematic ethics: an investigation of how cinema evokes ethical experience through emotional, cognitive, and aesthetic engagement. This project will advance the emerging interdisciplinary field of film-philosophy by highlighting film's under-recognised potential to enhance ethical understanding, and thus to promote greater social awareness and intercultural communication.

Completed projects

Poor social functioning in schizophrenia: understandings its causes and developing better treatments (2015)

Robyn Langdon

ARC Future Fellowship (2011-2015). Awarded: $674,019

Summary: Most people with schizophrenia find it difficult to function socially, at work, at home and with friends, leaving them economically and socially isolated. Current drug treatments do not improve the poor social functioning which patients and carers report as one of their greatest unmet treatment needs. It is imperative to better understand the psychological processes which cause this poor social functioning so that effective non-drug therapies can be developed. The proposed research focuses on understanding how disruptions of 'social cognition' (the processes of perceiving and inferring the thoughts/feelings of others) affect social functioning in schizophrenia, and ultimately on translating this knowledge into better therapies.

Mindful Bodies in Action: a philosophical study of skilled movement (2015)

John Sutton and Doris McIlwain

ARC Discovery Grant (2013-2015). Awarded: $325,000

Summary: Skilled experts in sport or dance perform extraordinary actions in perfect time, with exquisite control, and display resilient coping under pressure: their mindful bodies blend cognition and emotion in action. This project in philosophy of psychology seeks to integrate disconnected research on skilled movement in distinct disciplines, in a new account of embodied intelligence.  Our studies focus on three sets of issues, concerning (a) timing and anticipation; (b) control and agency; and (c) resilience, personality, and pressure.

Moral reasoning and mental illness: Towards a model of moral judgment and moral accountability (2014)

Robyn Langdon

ARC Discovery Project (2012-2014). Awarded: $180,000.

Summary: People with a psychotic mental illness, such as schizophrenia, experience symptoms of delusions and hallucinations. Sometimes these individuals act on their psychotic symptoms and commit crimes. When they do, lawyers and psychiatrists must consider the mentally ill defendant's delusional beliefs, motivations and mental capacities for moral judgment. There is a gap in current scientific knowledge of moral judgment in schizophrenia to inform these considerations. This project will redress this gap in knowledge. Findings will, in turn, advance psychological theory of moral judgment and inform legal and philosophical consideration of the moral accountability of mentally ill defendants.

Point of View in Personal Memory: A philosophical study of perspective in remembering and imagining (2014)

John Sutton

ARC Discovery Project (2012-2014). Awarded: $114,000

Summary: Why do we sometimes remember our past experiences from an external 'observer' perspective, seeing ourselves in the remembered scene? In a philosophical study of this puzzling feature of subjective experience, I show how memory perspectives can be constructed yet still reliable. I critically evaluate psychological research and apply it to theoretical problems about truth in memory. Distinguishing visual from emotional and narrative perspectives, I focus on the significance of our capacities to switch perspectives, and to hold divergent perspectives in mind. A better grasp on point of view in personal memory helps us understand the complexity of our temporal experience and the way we integrate our perspectives on past, present, and future.

Dignity and respect: a Kantian theoretical approach to practical rationality and human agency (2014)

Paul Formosa

Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (2012-2014). Awarded: $375,000.00

Summary: Appeals to the innate dignity of human beings are commonplace in important public debates in bioethics and on the grounding of human rights. But why do humans, and not other animals, have dignity? Do all humans have dignity? And how should we practically acknowledge the dignity of others? This project will provide systematic answers to these questions by deploying an innovative Kantian theoretical framework. This will be used to show that the demands of practical reason ground the moral status of human agents as the bearers of dignity. The outcome of this project will be an improved understanding of human dignity, its basis, and its implications.

Vulnerability, Autonomy and Justice (2013)

(Joint project with Applied Ethics, Bioethics and Clinical Ethics cluster)

Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, Susan Dodds (UTas)

ARC Discovery Project (2011-13).

Summary: Bioethicists demand that we protect the vulnerable, but the concept of vulnerability is poorly understood. How and why does vulnerability give rise to moral claims? What makes someone vulnerable? This project develops a philosophical analysis of vulnerability and elucidates the connections between vulnerability, autonomy and justice. We will test the applicability of our account using practical examples from bioethics, such as health promotion campaigns, drug trials in developing countries or research with mentally ill people. The project will help us to understand vulnerability in ways that avoid stereotyping and paternalism. Our account of vulnerability will be of relevance for ethical theory, bioethics, and health policy and practice.

Work and Self-development: A Philosophical Reappraisal (2013)

Nick Smith, Jean-Philippe Deranty, Emmanuel Renault (ENS Lyon), Christophe Dejours (CNAM, Paris)

ARC Discovery Project (2010-2013). Awarded: $260,000

Summary: Many Australians are worried about work, perhaps in more complex ways than ever before. Young people entering work lack the orientation once provided by established career paths, mid life workers are often subject to disorienting shifts in role and difficulties finding the right 'work life' balance, and many people leaving work find their lives suddenly bereft of meaning. This project will shed light on these anxieties by framing work within an image of the human that does justice to the depth and complexity of contemporary work experience.

Film as Philosophy: Understanding Cinematic Thinking (2013)

Robert Sinnerbrink, Lisa Trahair and Gregory Flaxman

ARC Discovery Project (2010-2013). Awarded: $147,000

Summary: Cinematic thinking is the fundamental presupposition of a recent trend in the study of cinema known as 'film-philosophy'. Yet what the concept of cinematic thinking entails and how precisely films can be understood as thinking objects remains a neglected or contentious issue in these new approaches. This project will establish the parameters for understanding cinematic thinking by analysing how thought is conceived in both philosophical approaches to film and films by key contemporary filmmakers. The project's significance lies in its critical intervention into a new genre of academic writing and its contribution to the understanding of film as philosophy.

Autonomy and Oppression: A Relational Analysis (2013)

Natalie Stoljar (McGill) and Catriona Mackenzie

SSHRC Grant (2010-2013).

Summary: This project investigates the problem of whether, and how, agents who are subject to oppression can nevertheless be autonomous. We define personal autonomy as the condition of governing oneself; that is, the condition of not being subject to the direction or will of others. Being in the condition of autonomy requires that agents have the capacity for autonomy. Can agents who are oppressed be genuinely free agents? Can they be genuinely self-governing even if their ability to make choices and adopt preferences is curtailed by the social circumstances of oppression in which they are embedded? To answer this question, the project makes three intersecting hypotheses: the first is that autonomy is relational; the second is that the condition of autonomy is substantive and normative, and not the result of a purely procedural capacity. The third is that a relational, substantive account of autonomy will illuminate and explain the invidious effects of oppression on agents' freedom.

Addiction, Moral Identity and Moral Agency: Integrating Theoretical and Empirical Approaches (2012)

(Joint project with Moral Cognition, Neuroethics, and Neurolaw cluster)

Jeanette Kennett, Steve Matthews and Craig Fry

ARC Discovery Project (2010 - 2012).

Summary: Recent scientific advances are clarifying the role of the brain in drug addiction and the impact of drug use on judgment, self-control and behaviour. This project seeks to examine the impact of addiction on the moral self-conception, practical identity, and values, of drug addicted persons themselves and compare it to perceptions currently informing treatment. It will test and refine philosophical accounts of the elements of responsible agency and self-control against the neuroscientific data and other empirical work, and develop a set of recommendations for ethical and effective public policies and practices in the addictions field.

Causes that make a difference: a philosophical theory of token causation (2012)

Peter Menzies

ARC Discovery Project (2010-2012).

Summary: Our understanding of causation, as it relates types of event (type-causation), has progressed in leaps and bounds over the last twenty years. However, our understanding of causation, as it relates particular events (token-causation), has lagged behind. Yet token-causal concepts play a crucial role in explanatory practices throughout the sciences and in moral and legal practices of attributing responsibility to agents. The aim of this project is to apply the techniques that have been so successful in elucidating type-causal concepts to token-causal concepts. The expected outcome will be an enhanced understanding of token-causal concepts and their role in core human practices.

Justice, Democracy, Cosmpolitanism and Political Identity: A Kantian Perspective (2011)

Paul Formosa 

Macquarie University Research Fellowship (2009-2011).

Summary: At the foundation of many of the most serious and important practical problems facing modern societies are questions about the basis of normativity, and the relationship between normativity, values and agency. Through a novel theoretical appropriation of Immanuel Kant's constructivist approach to normative questions this project will provide practical insight into important issues such as: the nature of political identity in multicultural societies; cosmopolitanism and national sovereignty; the responsibilities of citizenship; the future of democracy; the connection between virtue and justice; and the relationship between obligations and values. The outcomes of this project will enhance our understanding of these core issues and their normative foundations.

The social ontology of personhood - a recognition-theoretical approach (2010)

Heikki Ik√§heimo 

Macquarie University Research Fellowship (2008-2010).

Summary: Humans only develop into persons in interaction with others. But what exactly does being a person involve, and how exactly are the features that make someone a person dependent on social interaction, or more generally on social and institutional structures? This project aims, first, at developing a multi-componential model of "full-fledged personhood" that incorporates institutional, interpersonal and psychological elements and shows how exactly these are interrelated. Secondly, the elements of personhood are shown to be connected to fundamental social structures constitutive of any life-form of human persons (social norms, values and cooperative structures). The project enhances understanding on how the prerequisites of flourishing as a person and the prerequisites of flourishing as a society are interconnected.

Mental Causation in a Physical World (2009)

Peter Menzies

ARC Discovery Project (2006-2009).

Summary: It is part of commonsense psychology that mental states cause behaviour. The problem of mental causation arises because this seems to be impossible given a scientific view about the causal powers of the brain. How can mental states make a difference to behaviour when the underpinning physical states of the brain are already sufficient to bring about the behaviour? The current project proposes a novel solution to this problem. The project advances a systematic theory of causation that explains how physical causes of behaviour at one level of description can co-exist with mental causes at a different level of description.

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