The assumption of agency: a realist theory of the production of

The assumption of agency: a realist theory of the production of agency
in everyday social life
Kate Forbes-Pitt
In many theories that explain the transformation of structure, agents who recognize other
agents and interact with them are a presumption upon which they rely. In this paper, I
describe processes that might produce the agency presumed by existing theories. The
everyday and routine processes I outline draw upon a critical realist ontological framework.
The longstanding philosophical problem of other minds shows that humans have little
knowledge that other humans they encounter are like themselves. This presents a problem
for the ignorant human: how to recognize each other as agents and so act and interact
socially? This paper argues that many of the properties associated with being a human agent
must always remain unknown to all but oneself, but that human ability to assume and test
assumption routinely overcomes this knowledge barrier. It proposes the process of the
assumption of agency and two types of human agency: a privileged agent known through
self-knowledge and agents that are ascribed properties in order that they might be regarded
as potential ‘interactees’. I argue for the primacy of action and so that the human ability to
act necessarily precedes the formation of agency. Because of this, I reject notions that agency
is formed by structure, but propose that it is formed through both the necessary selfawareness that one’s action is rooted in one’s mentality and the interpretation of the actions
of others. Using the conditions of agency arising from these arguments, I can illustrate at
least the theoretical possibility of non-human agency.
The assumption of agency is a new theory of the production of agency. Existing realist
theories of agency can be argued to presume the existence of agents that, despite necessary
human knowledge limitations, routinely recognize other agents as agents and interact with
them accordingly. Indeed, theories such as Archer’s morphogenesis (2000; 2003) or the
institutionalism promoted and advanced by Hodgson (2003) are dependent upon action by
humans within social interaction in order to achieve the reproduction and transformation of
social structure and/or institutions that they theorize. But, how is it that humans become
agents? And, perhaps more importantly, how do they recognize one another as agents in
order that they might interact to affect the reproduction or transformation of social structure
these theories describe? The assumption of agency theory proposes answers to these
questions and so posits how the agency presumed by existing theories comes to be.
The assumption of agency theory outlined in this paper describes how the application of the
human knowledge and ability that routinely overcomes necessary human limitations within
everyday interaction produces agency. It takes critical realist ontology as its philosophical
foundation; of particular importance are the four categories of ontologically real within
critical realism proposed by Fleetwood (2005). It proposes distinct types of human agency
which are separated by access to privileged self-knowledge and it posits the processes by
which these types of agency are routinely produced and maintained within everyday
interaction. As a result of theorizing the production of agency as it does, the theoretical
possibility of a non-human agency that is distinct from all types of human agency is
Section 1 below briefly outlines the foundational arguments for this theory, the first of which
is the longstanding philosophical problem of other minds. Second is Searle’s theory of
intentionality, which is utilized as the means of linking human mentality to the external (and
social) world. I have expanded the notion of the intentional represented object to include
Fleetwood’s four-fold categorization of ontologically real. Thus Searle is expanded to
include socially real and ideally real entities as different categories of possible intentional
represented objects. Third is Davidson’s widely accepted hypothesis that reasons can be
In section 2, the assumption of agency theory and its central concepts are described. The
proposed minimum elements necessary for a human to act, deriving from arguments in
section 1, are contended as the minimum conditions for agency. These are shown to be
necessarily linked to form the mind-action chain. Because the problem of other minds shows
unequivocally that the mind-action chain is partly private, the assumption of agency theory
proposes two types of human agency: those who have access to privileged self-knowledge in
their social world – the ego agent – and those who do not – the ascribed agent. The ascribed
agent arises from the process of the assumption of agency in which it is ascribed the elements of
elements of the action-mind chain. This agency can be maintained (or it can fail) in the
subsequent process of the maintenance of agency. Action and the explanation of action is central
to this process, which leads to the theoretical proposition of a non-human agency: the evinced
agent. The evinced agent arises as an explanation when spontaneous action with no apparent
human cause is observed: it obtains no symmetry with either human agent.
The ego agent’s link to structure centers on intentionality and the representation of social
entities. The distinction of intent and intentionality is crucial throughout. Properly
separating and distinguishing these concepts in line with existing theories of philosophy of
mind, as I have done in the mind-action chain, is one element of the assumption of agency
theory that distinguishes it from existing theories of agency. This distinction shows that the
represented social entities are necessarily held before reason and intent. The centrality of
mental representation implicitly argues for the separation of subject and object, which
underscores that the assumption of agency theory is unambiguously a realist theory.
It should be noted that the production of agency and not the reproduction and
transformation of structure is the focus of this theory. Nothing contained within the
assumption of agency theory negates the process of reproduction or transformation of
structure described by Archer as morphostasis or morphogenesis, respectively.
The distinction of knowledge proposed by Ryle (1949) into ‘know how’ – human ability –
and ‘know that’ – theoretical knowledge – is often invoked in what follows. This theory is
concerned with what a human might know in the moment of interaction, which is firmly
rooted in ‘know how’. Ryle’s distinction is also aligned with Tanney’s (2004) of ‘what is the
case’ vs ‘what humans can possibly know’ and Mouzelis’ (1995) pragmatic and syntagmatic
attitudes. The assumption of agency theory seeks to explain how humans can exercise their
‘know how’, to produce, in their pragmatic attitudes, ‘what is the case’ with regard to everyday
social interaction within the knowledge limitations to which humans are necessarily
The foundations for the assumption of agency theory may at times seem arcane and are
heavily philosophical. It is necessary, however, to outline the philosophy of mind theories
before describing the theory. I ask the reader to bear with me, this is a new theory that arises
from material that is perhaps unfamiliar to social science and which uses techniques, such as
thought experiments, that are not usual in social science. However, I believe it is a theory
that offers a new perspective and provides answers as to how agency comes to be and be
recognized in order that interaction can begin.
Section 1: Foundational theories
There are three foundational theories on which the assumption of agency theory rests. What
follows are brief outlines of each. In part because of brevity, I make no claim that these are
either exhaustive summaries or that they address the full detail of what underpins the
further work. I have tried to outline salient points that shaped the thinking behind the
assumption of agency theory.
1.1: The problem of other minds
The longstanding philosophical problem of other minds concerns a fundamental limitation
of human knowledge: it might be said to be a truism. It is something with which social
science has generally not concerned itself. It shows that self-knowledge is privileged and
that similar knowledge cannot be gained about others and therefore it potentially raises
awkward questions for social science. In particular it problematizes social interaction by
implicitly questioning how one human agent recognizes another in order that interaction
might begin.
Central to the discussion of the problem of other minds is the concept of ‘mind’: a reference
to mental events, or collection of mental events. The theory of mind-body supervenience
(Davidson, 1970; Kim, 1996) holds that a mental event is not a brain event, but that they are
intimately connected. The mind is separate from the brain, but supervenes upon it such that a
mental event M1 at time T1 takes place only if a brain event B1 also takes place at time T1.
This is the model of mind that operates as an underlying assumption throughout what
While I will not discuss detailed knowledge of mental content, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to discuss an empty mind. If a mind is to be discovered but yet has no physical
presence, (as is implied above), how could it be identified without content? Evidence of the
content of a mental state is, therefore, taken as evidence of mind in this paper.
In social science it is usual to theorize agents and their relations to structure; it is unusual to
question or theorize how humans are able to interact socially. Indeed, that this is
unproblematic is a base assumption for many social theories. However, when routine
human-human interaction is approached from the perspective of the necessary limitations in
the problem of other minds, it can be seen that the knowledge that the ‘interactor’ is
fundamentally like the ‘interactee’ is not accessible to either party because there can be no
access to mentality outside of their own private mental space. How do I know, for example,
that I am dealing with another human agent who will be able to interact and not, say, a nonhuman automata? Social interaction under these circumstances looks more like a remarkable
everyday human achievement than something unproblematic for and/or innate to humans.
It would appear necessary to be able to ascertain another mind in order to interact.
The traditional answer to the problem of other minds has been inference, in the form of the
argument from analogy:
x applies in case A, case A is relatively similar to case B, therefore x applies in
case B
In other words, when I see someone else perform the same actions that I would in response
to similar stimuli, it is reasonable for me to conclude that they have something very similar
to my own mind controlling their responses. This argument is inductive.
Induction, however, has long been rejected as a way to generalisable knowledge. Hume
(1902) concludes that there is no possible justification for this. He argues that even if the
generalized knowledge is restricted to typical cases based on inductive hypotheses, the
inductive hypothesis itself is a contingent generalization and so the argument ends in
infinite regress. This presents problems for the argument from analogy. In fact, even if local
induction (such as that promoted by Levi (1967)) is used, it can be shown that each human is
left only able to ascertain a mind for any interactee on a case by case basis at best.
If we imagine ourselves operating in usual social life, this assertion appears absurd. When I
buy a latte in Starbucks, I do not automatically believe the barista to be without a mind
because I haven’t managed to prove otherwise. Indeed, can it be realistically argued that I
would get in my car and drive if I did so in the knowledge that I was the only driver on the
road experiencing mental events? The argument from analogy and the metatheoretical
difficulties associated with it do not allow me to operate under any other assumption.
Pursuing the argument in standard metatheoretical terms, then, doesn’t yield much that is
useful in explaining the possibility of interaction. All that can be said is that humans seem to
be able to act in ways that bear little relation to the knowledge to which they can be shown
to have access.
There are approaches to similar problems within philosophy of mind. Tanney (2004) argues
for the strength and application of ‘what is the case’ versus ‘what humans can possibly know’ in
the treatment of the concept of ‘zombie’. Zombies …
... are exactly like us in all respects, right down to the tiniest details, but they
have no conscious experiences. My zombie twin not only looks, behaves, and is
disposed to behave just like me, he is a perfect particle for particle replica. (Kirk,
1974, p.43)
Tanney utilizes ‘John’ and ‘zombie-John’ to argue that zombie-John could not be perceived
as not-conscious. In pursuing her argument, she potentially allows approaches to the
questions above to move away from metatheoretical argument into the realms of
explanation and meaning.
To avoid any potential misunderstandings, however, Tanney’s assertions about the
limitation of her own argument should be acknowledged:
... the possibility of zombies reintroduces the problem of how we could ever
know, or be justified in assuming, other minds exist. Someone might thus be
tempted to misconstrue the argument of this paper as one that mixes up
questions about what one could possibly know with questions about what is the case.
But the argument I offer here does not run from epistemology to metaphysics. It
is logically prior: it concerns meaning. (ibid., p.180, emphasis added)
There is no attempt to misconstrue Tanney. I want to use her to find a way out of a
seemingly intractable problem: to account for social interaction in a way that is acceptable to
both a metatheoretical analysis and social science. Tanney can be seen to move the argument
from theory to meaning:
My argument begins by noting that creatures that are behaviourally
indistinguishable from their human counterparts [zombies] will meet all the
second- and third- person criteria for the ascription of ‘experiential’ mental
predicates in exactly the same situations as their counterparts do. These
predicates will include the sensation concepts of seeing, hearing, touching,
smelling, and tasting; they will include those containing the term ‘conscious’,
itself; and they will include the related concepts of the feelings and emotions.
(ibid., p.174)
Her argument is based on zombie-John’s responses to observers around him. She illustrates
her point by turning it on its head:
Suppose for the sake of argument that zombie-John lacks something the human
John has: something only accessible privately. Notice how difficult it would be to
say what it is that zombie John lacks. For every time we attempt to name
something: a feeling, a sensation, an experience, or a perception, zombie John
will satisfy us exactly as well as human John by his way of talking, his
discriminatory abilities, and by other sorts of responses, that we are correctly
attributing these concepts to him and that he is correctly attributing them to himself.
(ibid., p.178, emphasis added)
Thus when I buy a latte, it is the behavior of the barrista that allows me to apply meaning to
them; a meaning I propose that I understand as ‘human’. In applying this meaning, I
incorporate my understanding of that meaning, which includes mental predicates. As
Tanney implies, my application of the meaning of ‘human’ is logically prior to attempts I
might make at induction.
Tanney’s argument helps unpick such interaction. Using her work, I can utilize the
invocation of meaning and sidestep the need for induction in order to be able ascertain a
belief in another’s mentality (not knowledge of it)1. I have a method to identify potential
social ‘interactors’; if the meaning ‘human’ can be applied to them.
This argument can, I believe, provide a workable solution to the ascription of mentality in
social interaction. However, it cannot be substituted for a theoretical answer to the initially
posed problem because it relies on meaning, per Ryle’s (1949) knowledge distinction.
Tanney opposes ‘what humans can possibly know’ with ‘what is the case’, which aligns closely
with Ryle’s (1949) distinction of ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. ‘Knowing that’ refers to
theoretical knowledge, aligning with ‘what humans can possibly know’, while ‘knowing
how’ references human skill and ability, aligning with ‘what is the case’. I raise Ryle’s
distinction to highlight that one type of knowledge cannot be offered as a solution for the
other: no answers based in ‘knowing how’ can be compatible with questions deriving from
‘knowing that’. Thus, in order to pursue this ‘workaround’ for social science, the problem
must be rephrased from a theoretical one to one rooted in human social or practical ability.
In this way the question and answer proposed can become compatible.
Just as zombie-John’s companion relies on his responses and is unable to detect what he
lacks, my assumption of the Starbucks’ barista’s mentality is based on what I observe. This is
a crucial, basic, fundamental assumption for social interaction because
... with mentality goes agency and personhood, and with agency and
personhood goes the whole framework that would render these creatures
appropriate subjects of respect, dignity, moral praise and blame. (Tanney,
I do not wholly agree with Tanney’s assertion, but I do feel it is another important signpost.
Without mentality and the recognition of it, some reason for social behavior disappears:
mentality, or the recognition of it, is at the root of social behavior.
So, because of the ability to apply meaning – arguably the meaning ‘human’ – and because
of the fact that mentality is necessarily incorporated into that meaning, assumption of mind
is automatically made within interaction on the basis of meaning and skill, not automatically
denied as a function of theoretical knowledge. I cannot overstate the importance of this
reversal. The problem of other minds points us to the latter conclusion (denial); the
Note that this is inextricably linked to the human I am observing and I am not discussing simply
the identification of a mind.
workaround derived from Tanney points us to the former (assumption). This might be
described as substituting the argument from analogy with an argument from assumption as an
initial step to describing social interaction.
1.2: Searle’s theory of intentionality
... intending to do something is just one form of Intentionality along with belief,
hope, desire, and lots of others; and I do not mean to suggest that because, for
example, beliefs are Intentional they somehow contain the notion of intention or
they intend something or someone who has a belief must thereby intend to do
something about it ... (Searle, 1983, p.3)
Thus, ‘intentionality’ does not mean or imply ‘intended to’ or ‘done with intent’. Neither
should it be confused with the term ‘intentional action’. Intentionality is a property of some
mental states.
An intentional mental state is about something; a belief, for example, is a belief about
something. The statement ‘I believe the sky is blue’ is an expression of a mental state about the
object ‘sky’, as is ‘I hope the sky is blue’. These are expressions of different mental states about
the same object. Intentionality is a property of mental states about, or directed towards, things.
It is not a necessary property of mental states per se, but it is a necessary property of mental
states that have direction towards something.
Intentionality provides a connection between the mental and that which is external to it. In
order to recognize other mentality and/or agency, ‘otherness’ first needs to be
acknowledged: the ‘other’ needs to be external. Even in these simple terms, the importance
of intentionality to the recognition of agency can be seen.
Searle asserts that intentional states have a psychological mode and representative content.
So, the intentional mental state ‘I want a coffee’ has the psychological mode want and the
representative content coffee. This he writes as S(r) where S is the psychological mode (want)
and r the representative content (coffee). The representative content is a represented
intentional object: a mental representation or an idea, representation, expression or some
such of the external object held mentally
Searle characterizes intentionality that shows ...
that represented objects are part of mental states
that if these mental states are necessarily intentional, the intentional object cannot be
that objects must only exist externally and are necessarily separate from the holder of
the mental state
... which necessarily requires a mental representation of the object.
Searle regards the ontological status of intentional states to be a ‘mistaken question’ (ibid.,
p.15). This has two consequences. One is that he believes his approach sidesteps the need to
answer questions of the ontological status of intentional mental states rather than the status
of the state (with or without intentionality) itself. Using this argument he circumvents the
need to even address the ontological status of the intentional mental state. The second
consequence is that ‘false’ objects do not need to be created as ontological entities to explain
the ontological status of the intentional mental state. For example, if I believe in the existence
of a 51st state of the USA, according to Searle my belief is simply incorrect. Within Searle’s
theory, there is no need to create an intentional object that has its own ontological status in
order to satisfy the ontological status of my intentional state. In Searle’s view, my intentional
state is simply about nothing because my intentional object does not exist.
It might be argued that in this Searle applies quite a ‘literal realism’. When giving examples
of what can be represented, Searle references only tangible objects. But is this all that can be
mentally represented? If this is the case, representation is limited to that which obtains the
status of actually real within critical realism. I do not believe this limitation is either accurate
or desirable, however. I would argue that Searle’s strict requirements can be expanded
without having to embark upon discussion of the ontological status of the intentional state,
create an intentional object for a false belief, or sacrifice any of the ontological status of the
external object.
I propose that all that obtains an ontological status of real with critical realism be included as
that which can be mentally represented within intentional states. An object that is, for
example, ideally real can be conceivably represented as a real object and held as part of a
mental state. I argue not only that we can hold them as a solid mental representation but
further that we can, and do, attach psychological modes to them. In other words, ideally real
objects are represented within intentional states; I am not proposing something that isn’t
already happening.
Take Harry Potter, for example. Is it realistic to say that no-one in the world is capable of an
intentional mental state towards the fictional wizard? The protests of the campaign groups
who sought Harry Potter books banned in certain US2 State school systems would be hard to
describe without accounting for a single intentional mental state towards the fictional
character. It is hard to see how such states could be regarded as false.
Given that arguments can be made to show both the representation of ideally real entities
and intentional states held about them, I propose that ideally real objects be accounted for
when characterizing intentional mental states. Where the representational object is ideally
real, it might be an ‘ideal representation’. In other words, the idea otherwise held mentally
becomes represented to the intentional mental state in order to become its content. I propose
such intentional mental states are represented as intentional in the form S(i) where S is the
psychological mode and (i) the ideal representational content. This is in addition to the form
S(r) described earlier. S(i) links ideally real objects to individual mentality and both
reinforces their status as objects and allows humans to enter into meaningful relationships
with them.
There is another important facet to critical realist ontology and another important link with
externality for humans: socially real objects. Socially real refers to social structure in general
(Fleetwood, 2005, p.201) obtains an ontological status of real.
Critical realists use the term ‘social structures’ as a portmanteau term to refer to
configurations of causal mechanisms, rules, resources, relations, powers,
positions and practices. (ibid.)
I argue that these also can be and are mentally represented. To distinguish the
representational object of socially real entities, I will use the form S(s) as after Searle’s S(r). In
S(s), S is the psychological mode of the intentional state and s is the representation of the
socially real object. In this way, a psychological mode of desire can be held either to an
institution or a rule contained within it. Just as it is not commonsensical to propose that no
'Ban Harry Potter or face more school shootings' “A woman who maintains that the Harry Potter books
are an attempt to teach children witchcraft is pushing for the second time to have them banned from school
libraries. Laura Mallory, a mother of four from the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, told a Georgia Board of
Education officer that the books by British author J.K. Rowling, sought to indoctrinate children as Wiccans,
or practitioners of religious witchcraft.” Last updated October 4th 2006
intentional state can be held towards Harry Potter, so it is difficult to support the notion that
no intentional state can be held towards a law, for example.
Intentionality connects mentality with external objects; it is a necessary property of mental
states that are about, or directed towards, something. This ‘something’ is represented
mentally and contained, along with a psychological mode, within intentional mental states.
Searle characterizes this as S(r). I propose that the possible mental representations include
that which is ideally real and socially real within critical realism. The resulting intentional
states are expressed as S(i) and S(s), respectively
1.3: Reasons as causes
In 1963 Davidson proposed his now widely accepted hypothesis that reasons can be causes.
[T]here is a certain irreducible ... sense in which every rationalization justifies:
from the agent’s point of view there was, when he acted, something to be said
for the action. (ibid., 2006, pp.27-8)
Davidson argues that “... the primary reason for an action is its cause.” (ibid., p.24) He goes on
to set rationalization apart from other causal explanations.
If rationalization is, as I want to argue, a species of causal explanation, then
justification ... is at least one differentiating property. (ibid., p.28)
Under the term ‘justification’, Davidson includes “... that the agent has certain beliefs and
attitudes in the light of which the action is reasonable.” (ibid.) Note the lack of emphasis on those
beliefs being ‘true’, in fact this extends to the reason itself. However, simply concentrating
on the beliefs and attitudes omits the ‘because’:
Central to the relation between a reason and an action it explains is the idea that
the agent performed the action because he had the reason. (ibid., emphasis
Davidson refers the ‘because’ back to reason. He says that the reason is the agent’s
interpretation of why they performed the action and that either the reason or the
interpretation may or may not be ‘true’. This interpretation will include the agent’s beliefs
and attitudes (as well as goals, principles etc.) and will also place the action in context:
To learn, through learning the reason, that the agent conceived his action as a lie,
a repayment of a debt, an insult, the fulfillment of an avuncular obligation, or a
knight’s gambit is to grasp the point of the action in its setting of rules, practices,
conventions, and expectations. (ibid.)
So, Davidson not only brings the ‘because’ back to reason, but also actions into a situated
framework by understanding the interpreted reason for an action to be the cause of that
action. His primary reason can thus be understood to be interpreted internally by the agent
according to their own pro attitude and set of beliefs. This may then be reported as
rationalization – the term Davidson uses for a reported reason. So the reason, the cause, is
modified by elements the agent holds that are necessarily interpreted. Taken with
Davidson’s lack of emphasis on the ‘truth’ of the rationalization, interpretation, context and
belief can be seen to play a substantial role in his formulation.
There are positions, however, that challenge reason as cause. Davidson defends against six
of these in his 1963 paper. He cites the argument that as attitudes and beliefs are dispositions
and not events, they cannot be causal. His defense is that dispositions are often named as
causes; e.g. a structural defect in a bridge is stated as the cause of its collapse.
He also defends against the notion that events have to be distinct to constitute a causal
To describe an event in terms of its cause is not to confuse the event with its
cause, nor does explanation by redescription exclude causal explanation. (ibid.,
He states that causal relations can be logical as well as empirical and defends the idea that
causality does not need to be defined by criteria – at least not for rationalisation:
The person who has a desire (or want or belief) does not normally need criteria
at all – he generally knows, even in the absence of any clues available to others,
what he wants, desires and believes. (ibid.)
Davidson discounts the need for laws in rationalizations, eschewing prediction and
generalization in dealing with Hume’s doctrine. He claims that only the second version of
Hume’s doctrine – “... no particular law is entailed by a singular causal claim...” (ibid., p.34) – fits
most causal explanations and that this fits rationalization equally well:
The most primitive explanation of an event gives its cause; more elaborate
explanations may tell more of the story, or defend the singular causal claim by
producing a relevant law or by giving reasons for believing such exists. But it is
an error to think no explanation has been given until a law has been produced.
He also deals with criticisms based on the issue of the truth of the rationalization. Humans
are fallible and may either give a false reason, or believe a false reason to be true (or a true
reason to be false) where the ‘true’ reason is unpalatable to them: they may engage in selfdeception. So, while they believe they are giving a true explanation for their action their
reason is, in fact, incorrect. Consider the example of a helper in assisted suicide. It is possible
that the reasons for their actions are entirely selfless. It is also possible that while they believe
this to be the case the lack of future care incumbent upon them or perhaps the possibility of
an inheritance might play a less palatable part in their decision. So, even though the reason
given – the rationalization – is selfless, this may not be a ‘true’ reflection of their primary
reason. This would be held by some to negate reason as a possible cause.
Davidson defends against this saying that because the helper – in this example – may be
wrong, it makes no sense to not ask for the evidence. Indeed, on some occasions, those
engaged in self deception may accept alternate evidence to concede that their initial reason
was false. For Davidson, this indicates that the knowledge for these reasons is inductive “...
for where there is induction, there is evidence. Does this show the knowledge is not causal? I cannot
see that it does.” (ibid.) Thus a given reason does not have to be ‘true’ for it to be causal.
Lastly, Davidson dismisses the tendency to not want to link cause and action. Some argue
that causes must have agents, thus if mental states are deemed to be causal, there exists an
infinite regress. Davidson is vehement against this point:
Why on earth should a cause turn an action into a mere happening and a person
into a hapless victim? Is it because we tend to assume, at least in the arena of
action, that a cause demands a cause, agency and agent? ... Some causes have no
agents. Among these agentless causes are the states and changes of state in
persons which, because they are reasons as well as causes, constitute certain
events free and intentional actions. (ibid., pp.35-6)
Thus he maintains that cause per se is not dependent upon an agent, there are ‘agentless’
causes, including changes of state in a person.
What can be said about rationalization as a result of Davidson’s proposition and defence? In
his characterization, rationalization is a species of causal explanation with justification as
one of its defining properties and which contains a ‘because’. This ‘because’ expresses the
agent’s interpretation which, in turn, contains their beliefs and attitudes and which
contextualizes the rationalization. Rationalization is not a distinct event, it is a logical and
not empirical form of causation that offers explanation and not laws. Rationalization may
involve induction, but this does not make it non-causal. Lastly, and obviously,
rationalization has no agent – no homunculus we might cite as agent, flicking switches to
initiate a state of desire, for example – because if it did there would be infinite regress. This,
however, does not negate the existence of the ‘agentless’ cause, or its causal nature. A
primary reason, thus characterized, causes action.
Davidson argues, then, that a primary reason containing beliefs and attitudes can be
construed as the cause for action. The addition of Davidson to the arguments advanced so
far allows me to conjecture that a human is in possession of mentality and that some of the
mental states resulting from this possession will be intentional. When this human forms a
reason to act, it will include belief and the primary reason formed will be linked to the action
by intent.
Section 1 summary
The assumption of agency theory rests on a problem, a theory and a hypothesis: the problem
of other minds, Searle’s theory of intentionality and Davidson’s hypothesis that reasons can
be causes. The problem of other minds questions the unproblematic nature of humanhuman interaction. Tanney’s work on zombies is introduced to provide the foundation for
the substitution of assumption for analogy, always with the caveat that each references
different ‘sides’ of Ryle’s knowledge distinction. Intentionality connects mentality to the
external world, in part by utilizing mental representations of it. I propose that these
representations include those of ideally real and socially real entities. Finally, Davidson
proposes reasons as causes of actions. He includes belief in the characterization of his causal
primary reason. He defends his hypothesis consistently bringing the ‘because’ back to
Section 2: The assumption of agency theory
Building upon section 1, it is possible to suggest that there are minimum elements in place
when a human acts. Mentality is the first necessary element. Without my mentality –
without a mind – it is fairly safe to say that I would not be able to act. Mentality entails
mental events and states and these are an obvious prerequisite for intentional mental states.
Intentional mental states are a necessary condition for the holding of a primary reason
because of the role of belief. A primary reason is the causal basis for action and is linked to
action by intent. So, in order for a human to act there are required minimum elements:
mentality, intentionality, primary reason (or the ability to hold one), intent and action.
Can there be agency where there is no possibility of action? It is hard to see how an
argument for agency can be made for a non-acting human. Where agency and structure join,
the majority of social theories place action at the centre of arguments accounting for agents’
reproduction and transformation of structure. Could a non-acting human be regarded as
having agency in these theories? I would argue that it is not possible to conceive of an agent
that is unable to act and I place the ability to act as central to what it is to be considered an
The minimum elements that enable mentality to result in action I have joined by the
necessary linkages outlined above as the mind-action chain, shown in figure 1 below:
is a necessary
condition for
Primary reason
Linked by
is a necessary
condition for
verbally reported)
Figure 1: the Mind-Action Chain
There are two principal functions of the mind-action chain. It lays out the minimum
elements required for a human to act and their necessary connections. If agency is linked
fundamentally to the ability to act, which I believe it is, then the minimum elements for
action that are shown in the mind-action chain are going to be closely related to the
conditions for the presence of agency. Of course per issues highlighted by the problem of
other minds, many of the elements within the action-mind chain are necessarily private. The
mind-action chain also shows the basis of self-knowledge for any human and what they can
know about their own mentality leading to their own action (which is not to say that they
The mind-action chain concerns a mind that is known. There is, of course, only one case
where this is true in any social world. If it is my social world, only I will have access to this
knowledge and only about myself; I have first person access to my own mind and no third
person access to anyone else’s. I can be aware that my mentality leads to my actions and this
self-knowledge is privileged knowledge. Thus, I know more about my ability to act than
anyone else ever can and, I would argue, I also know more about the origin of my own
agency than anyone else ever can (even if it transpires that I actually know very little about
myself). Because of this, my own agency is never in doubt for me. I know myself, I know
myself to be a conscious being, I know myself to be separate from the things and other
humans in the world around me and I know that my consciousness can affect that world. I
will use the term ego agent to refer to this privileged agent who has access to private
knowledge about themselves. For every human there is one ego agent, and one only, in their
world: themselves. There can never be more because of the knowledge restrictions imposed
on them about everyone else.
Part of, or perhaps the culmination of, the privileged knowledge of the ego agent is the
knowledge of what it is to be human. They know that they are conscious, embodied and
intelligent. They may well not be aware of all of the individual elements of their mind-action
chain, but they know its basic function: the initiation of action arising from mentality.
Because of this, the ego agent is also aware and sure of their own humanity and their own
agency; they have intimate, unique and privileged knowledge of what it is to be human and
what it is to be an agent.
The self-knowledge of what it is to be a human agent is the meaning that the ego agent is
then able to apply to others. It is deeply rooted and learned from pre-verbal development in
the creation of the knowledge of being an individual. Thus, what it is to be an individual, a
human, a man or woman and the particular instance of human that is ‘me’ is all special,
privileged knowledge we each have about ourselves but no-one else. We are each an ego
agent in our own social world, the differentiation between ourselves and all other agents is
inescapable. That our knowledge about what those other agents might be like is necessarily
derived from ourselves is inexorable.
Each ego agent needs to be able to interact with other humans in order to be social and in
order to exercise their agency. Given the knowledge limitations previously described and
the privileged nature of the knowledge that is available to the ego agent, how is this
I have argued, after Tanney, that recognition of mentality other than one’s own comes as a
function of the application of assumption as a result of the application of the meaning
‘human’. I have also argued that inherent in the application of the meaning ‘human’ are the
properties that the ego agent understands as comprising that meaning: the elements of the
mind-action chain.
So, when an ego agent comes across another human they apply the meaning ‘human’ to
them, which includes mindedness. In this way, they are able to recognize another human
who will be a social agent in their world. Everything that the ego agent ‘knows’ about this
other human at this point is, however, only attributed to them as a function of the
application of meaning: it is not factual knowledge. The ego agent may gain more
knowledge about the other human as they interact. However, as has been shown, some of
the knowledge about the other human that the ego agent needs in order to ascertain agency
can never be known; it must remain forever attributed. The process that I have described in
which the meaning ‘human’ is applied and which results in an ‘other’ with whom the ego
agent can interact I propose as the process of the assumption of agency.
Having applied the meaning of human, and all the attendant properties, to the ‘other’ in
order that they can interact with them, i.e. having completed the process of the assumption
of agency, the ego agent has transformed the object in front of them that appears to be
human into a human agent. This other human agent can never attain a status that matches
the ego agent’s own agency (in the ego agent’s world) because of necessary knowledge
limitations described above. The ‘other’ agent I propose is an ascribed agent: an agent to
whom the ego agent has ascribed mental properties as a function of the process of the
assumption of agency. The ascribed agent is distinct from the ego agent.
Each ascribed agent is an ego agent in their social world because they will have access to
their own private mental space and therefore their own self-knowledge. In other words,
each ascribed agent also has privileged access to a private mental space – their own – and
will also be applying their own self-knowledge through the assumption of agency3. The
position of ego agent in every social world is privileged because of this private access: the
principal reason for defining two types of human agency. Once the privileged nature of the
underlying private knowledge available to each human about themselves is examined, it
becomes undeniable that human agency must fall into two types: the ego agent, with
privileged knowledge and the ascribed agent to whom meaning is applied and about whom
knowledge is (and can only ever be) assumed.
So, I have argued that the mind-action chain is part of the self-knowledge that the ego agent
understands to form part of being human and, unsurprisingly, I contend that when applying
the meaning ‘human’ this fundamental understanding forms part of the application. The
assumption of agency is, however, only an initial process. It transforms the object with
which the ego agent is faced into an ascribed agent. However, the ascribed agency needs to
persist for the ego agent. This is achieved by the ego agent maintaining their understanding
of the ascribed agent’s continued possession of the elements that they initially ascribed in
the process of the assumption of agency. In this way the application of meaning is not
That is, unless the ascription was mistaken and the ascribed agent has no private mental space a la
zombie-John. I will examine the possibility of mistaken ascription more closely in chapter 7.
permanent but once done can fail and then be undone if it was initially mistaken (and the
mistake shows itself).
In order for the ego agent to be as sure as they can be that their initial ascription was not
mistaken and to maintain and update the represented object that they have created for the
ascribed agent, they enter the process of the maintenance of agency. The ego agent is limited in
this process to what they can observe in the interaction: in other words, to verify the agency
before them, they have no choice but to utilize observable elements of the action-mind chain.
The only elements of the action-mind chain that are amenable to observation are action itself
and the reporting of a primary reason. It makes sense for the ego agent to think of the
relationship of action and mentality beginning with mentality with reference to themselves.
It makes no sense, however, for them to think this in relation to an ascribed agent and their
interaction with them; the relationship with the ego agent and the ascribed agent’s
(assumed) mentality always begins with the ascribed agent’s action (in the form of action or
speech). This is the reason for the reversal of the chain that the ego agent knows from the
mind-action chain of self-knowledge to the action-mind chain of applied meaning and
assumed knowledge.
The process of the maintenance of agency is centered on the action-mind chain which is
diagrammatically represented in figure 2 below:
has as a necessary
Is caused
Primary reason
Linked by
has as a necessary
verbally reported)
Figure 2: action-mind chain
(with observation)
The overarching contention in the proposition of the process of the maintenance of agency is
that the ego agent will effectively ‘monitor’ interaction for the demonstration of elements of
the action-mind chain. Inherent in this proposition is that causal action, in general, demands
explanation, however mundane. In attempting to find explanation for observed actions and
the cause of the action, the ego agent examines intent and reason.
Because action is caused by a primary reason via intent and because of their own selfknowledge, the ego agent is aware that there ‘is something to be said’ for their own action as
a function of their reason. They apply the meaning ‘human’ to the ascribed agent that is
based on their own self-knowledge, so they presume that there is also something that the
ascribed agent can say for their action. This is an ‘automatic’ process that forms part of usual
everyday human ability or ‘know how’; it is what results in ‘what is the case’. That is, unless
or until there exists no obvious or usual reason that the ego agent can presume on the part of
the ascribed agent. When the ‘automatic’ process fails, the reason and/or intent is explicitly
In this way, I argue that the action-mind chain is constantly ‘in use’ when agents interact as
part of the process of the maintenance of agency. Every ego agent is someone else’s ascribed
agent answering for their agency and every ascribed agent is their own ego agent ‘testing’
the agency of others in the process of the assumption of agency. There is no doubt for the
ego agent of their own agency and its persistence, but if ascribed agency, via the
maintenance of agency, persists throughout the interaction, then each ego agent will leave
the interaction with an updated mental representation of the ascribed agent with whom they
have interacted. This representation will then incorporate part of the meaning applied to
that particular instance of human.
Of course, the arguments about zombie-John show that the ego agent may be mistaken in
the process of the assumption of agency and yet never discover it. Is this important? Not
really. As far as the ego agent is concerned there is no reason to doubt zombie-John and so
his agency persists. The ego agent will never have access to the knowledge that zombie-John
is not, in fact, human and each time they meet him, he will satisfy all the requirements for
the ascription they are making. The assumption of agency, then, is not a definer of ‘human’
in the social realm, there is too much room for error. What it does is provide a working
knowledge of other agents that is, on the whole, efficacious in the enabling of interaction: in
other words, it enables ‘what is the case’.
The agency of the ego agent, in its inception at least, is not ‘shaped’ or ‘formed’ by or within
social structure. This agency begins in self awareness and the possession of the necessary
elements to act that reside within the agent themselves. The ability to act is primary for three
reasons: 1) because of the process of self awareness 2) because intentionality connects us
with the external world and thus is a basis for action and always prior (because until this
connection is made we cannot act) and 3) because action is the fundamental way to identify
the agency of others or ourselves as agents. Action not only links the agent and the social in
a practical way, without it there is no ‘evidence’ of agency, apart from our own. Therefore, I
assert that it is only through action that any agent can enter interaction with social structures
or institutions. The formation of the agent and their subsequent ability to act, I believe, is
necessarily prior to their involvement with structure.
Two elements from section 1 are important to the relationship of the ego agent with
structure and should be briefly restated: the ontological status of structure and the
characterization of intentionality and extension of Searle’s intentional mental states. Because
of my extensions of Searle, I contend that intentional mental states can be directed towards
all that is characterized as real, including socially real entities.
In my formulation of action shown in the mind-action chain, the mentally represented object
is used within intentionality to form action through the linked. An intentional mental state is
formed, linking the real object to the mind using the representational object. This is a
necessary condition for any primary reason concerning that object. If the reason is acted
upon, then the primary reason forms part of the intent that is necessary for action. The
primary reason is known to be causal, therefore any action resulting from the primary
reason via intent can be said to have been caused.
Given my proposition formulation S(s), intentional states can be held towards social
structures and the rules of which they are, in part, comprised. Thus, action towards such a
rule or structure is caused by a primary reason, of which an intentional state is a necessary
condition, and formed via intent. As a represented object, structure can be altered – reformed – for the ego agent as a result of encounter. Note that I am referring to a change of the
represented object, not the object. Describing the change in the external social object is not
the aim of this theory.
Take school uniform rules as an example. I was a rebellious adolescent who consistently
defied such rules. It might be said that I held an intentional mental state(s) – belief(s) –
towards the structure ‘school’ that included these rules. My beliefs did not include a
willingness to conform. As Davidson states, belief is a constituent part of primary reason.
My reason in this case – although probably not reported as such – was defiance and so the
resultant intent and actions were disobedient. My actions were causal because they
contained a primary reason. My encounters with those uniform rules that resulted from my
intentional actions brought about many detentions for my transgressions. These encounters
changed the formulation of the rules I was representing – the represented social object was
re-formed for me – but perhaps not quite as the school may have wished. Nevertheless, the
rules were represented, I held intentional states towards them and I formed primary reasons
incorporating my set of beliefs that rules were mostly to be defied. In this case, I failed to
alter the rules despite the re-forming of my represented rules, the rules failed to alter me, or
more properly my belief set, but our relationship was an interesting one for some years!4
It is apparent that action is altered by sets of beliefs. Belief is an intentional state, and so
beliefs about represented objects will be formed in this way and any resulting primary
reason containing belief (whether acted upon or not) can alter the represented object. The
represented object is manipulated within the processes of working through the elements of
the mind-action chain, whether or not that results in action. It is worth restating that without
intent there will be no action, but that this does not preclude an intentional state. I may want
desperately to leave my job, but never act on it. This intentional state may well effect my
understanding of my employer and so the formation of my represented object ‘employer’, or
‘job’ but yet is never followed through as action. Therefore I can say that my desire does not
have intent: intent does not come into play until the intentional state and/or reason results
in action.
My represented object is private and inaccessible except through action or report. The
represented object is moderated by the intentional states of belief even before any experience
can further re-form it. As discussed, represented objects must obtain an intentional state
before action, though this state does not necessitate an action.
The actions of both the ego agent and the ascribed agent will, at some point, have an effect
upon the structure, but nothing in my formulation of how structure and the ego agent relate
negates other accounts of this such as morphogenesis. What I am trying to do is show how I
believe the agent is able to act in relation to structure – through a largely private formulation
of action based on representational objects.
So, the ego agent can be said to hold mental representations of social structures and to
operate with them in a similar way to how they are able to operate with actually real
entities. When they come across objects, they are able to apply meanings that they hold and
then relate these to represented objects in a directed intentional mental state. The
represented objects are formed and re-formed through encounter and are acted upon in
encounter and re-encounter. The same holds for all represented objects including social
structure. The forming and application of meaning and subsequent action is learned at an
early age; intentional mental states have primacy over action, intent and reason.
The ego agent’s encounters of other agents result in similar processes. It is through the
experience of these encounters from birth that the ego agent is able to form and apply the
meaning ‘human’. Human, however, is a special represented object because it is one of
which there is more knowledge than of any other object: the ego agent is human themselves,
after all. Therefore, the knowledge held about humans – as opposed to about ‘human nature’
– and how they operate is privileged, gained in part through self-knowledge and well
Note that this example only addresses the pragmatic attitude; it only refers to the ‘involved’ agent
understood. The central problem with this, as has already been extensively rehearsed here,
is that this knowledge is only knowledge of the self and it can never be truly gained about
another human. Thus, when the meaning ‘human’ is applied, detailed and privileged
knowledge is applied, but this is done by assumption: it is ascribed.
These assumed private human properties include how structures are related to. This part of
the ascription does not, however, comprise an extension of the action-mind chain (reversed
because it is ascribed and so must begin with action). There need be no extension because
the way these structures are related to is already accounted for within it: intentionality and
its application to primary reason. No further states are required in order to enable me to act
socially in relation to structure than are required for any other action. The ego agent who is
ascribing the private properties in the action-mind chain knows this about themselves
(consciously or otherwise) and so their ascription will reflect this.
I propose, then, that the ego agent is linked to structure through mental representations of
socially real entities that are utilized within intentional mental states as a function of the
general linking of the ego agent’s mentality to the external world. This approach of
distinguishing between intentionality, reason, rationalization and intent in the mind-action
chain, in line with theories of philosophy of mind shows the ‘proper’ place of the
represented object. It must be held and utilized prior to reason, intent and action.
The assumption of agency theory, because of its emphasis on assumption, highlights the
ability of the ego agent to deal routinely with complex intangibles such as mind. Indeed, in
arguing for assumption, it is implicitly proposed that there is no a priori presumption on the
part of the ego agent that such complex intangibles do not exist. Taken with the primacy it
gives to action and it becomes possible to theoretically propose a non-human agency.
I have argued that the ego agent seeks to explain all action that they encounter by seeking
reason and intent: the ego agent seeks to make sense of the action. However, in order for the
action to make sense, its origin must be accounted for. So, when action is observed, sense
making is initiated as a result of seeking the cause of the action. This sense making process
occurs in the pragmatic attitude with little or no recourse to the syntagmatic attitude: it is
immediate, involved. Because of this immediacy, ‘know how’ is primal over ‘know that’ in
both the encounter and the initial accounting for, or explanation of, the action.
As I argued within the explanation of the process of the maintenance of agency, the ego
agent seeks explanation of action by seeking the existence of both intent and reason. I argue
that where there is no need to explicitly question either presumed reasons will suffice. As
long as the chain of expected responses remains unbroken, agency is assumed without
further questioning. This argument follows from the contention that the action-mind chain is
at the centre of the maintenance of agency: action originates from mentality which can lead
to causal action and this indicates agency and therefore action indicates agency.
There is always the possibility, however, that the ego agent will come across an
‘unexplained act’. An unexplained act, I propose, occurs apparently spontaneously, yet
outside of what I have so far attempted to define and elucidate as understood norms of how
acts originate: from patterns of agency that are well understood. How would the ego agent
deal with a spontaneous act that does not emanate from an ascribed agent?
There is, of course, the argument that all social action originates from humans. In my
arguments every human is someone’s ascribed agent so if actions could only emanate from
humans, which would negate the possibility of the unexplained act. But I would argue that
this position does not reflect life in the 21st century in which there exists the distinct
possibility of apparently spontaneous acts that do not originate from anything to which the
meaning ‘human’ can reasonably be applied.
Where action has emanated from something that is not human, I argue that it still has to be
explained. The ego agent, in the immediacy of the interaction, automatically draws upon the
resources that usually, involuntarily, follow action. Upon what else can they draw? My
usual interpretation of agency relies entirely on what I see combined with my own selfknowledge and ‘know how’. I see spontaneous action and this I know something about; it
derives from mentality. Given on what I can draw in my pragmatic attitude and with what I
am faced, I don’t have much choice but either to utilize this knowledge and accept the
conclusions that arise from it. In other words, I propose that the ego agent will cautiously
translate the object into something that obtains a minimal form of agency to achieve the
initial explanation; that the action derives from mentality. This explanation maintains
unbroken the self-knowledge of the ego agent and their social ‘know how’. The spontaneous
causal action has demonstrated an element of the action-mind chain: the agency, for me, is
evinced. I will term this form of agent that shows itself through action the evinced agent.
Following this, the ego agent will enter into a maintenance process of the evinced agency. Of
course, the process of maintenance might show that the initial transformation was mistaken
and the transformation will be reversed: the object returns to being an object. In some cases,
however, the interaction and the ego agent’s interpretation of it will warrant the
maintenance of this minimal form of agency with the mentally represented object being
altered to account both for it and – as it persists – the accumulated experience of the evinced
agent for the ego agent.
The ascribed agent is always dependent upon being enough like a human for the initial
meaning to be applied and ascription made and so is dependent upon action for the
maintenance of the agency. The evinced agent, however, is always dependent upon action in
its inception. The action shows itself; it demonstrates agency before the possibility of its
agency can be considered. No recognizable human will ever be an evinced agent and the
evinced agent will never be assumed to be human5.
In this way, I open up the possibility of agency to non-humans. Though note this possibility
is not extended to all non-humans. Because agency is linked to causal action, evinced agency
can only appear where there is spontaneous causal action that, for the ego agent, defies
alternative immediate explanation in the pragmatic attitude. Neither is there is symmetry
between the non-human and human agents within the assumption of agency theory.
To illustrate the lack of symmetry between the different forms of agency, I can make a clear
distinction between what it is to act as oneself, what it is to observe action in other people,
what it is to observe people acting on an unintentional object and what it is to try and
account for spontaneous action not emanating from a human. The ego agent acts as
themselves through the possession and use of the mind-action chain which contains the
minimum elements necessary for a human to act. The ego agent observes other people,
initially entering into the process of the assumption of agency to recognize an ascribed agent
and then the process of the maintenance of agency to observe and explain causal action.
People acting on an unintentional object, whether ego agents or ascribed agents, are utilizing
the elements of the mind-action or action-mind chain to act upon the object in the external
world; the object obtains no agency. The ego agent tries to account for action emanating
from a non-human by bringing about a form of agency: the evinced agent. The ego agent,
If a non-human such as zombie-John is assumed to be human, they simply become an ascribed
agent because the meaning ‘human’ is applied to them.
the ascribed agent and the evinced agent, then, are distinct forms of agency with distinct
functions and about which the ego agent has distinct knowledge and/or beliefs.
The characterizations of these distinct agencies are as follows:
the ego agent with privileged self-knowledge and awareness of their private mental
the ascribed agent to whom that knowledge is attributed and who represents the
only way that ego agent can operate with other humans
evinced agent, something that takes the ego agent by surprise but nevertheless
appears to be offering some sort of agency.
The ego agent, upon reflection (in other words upon entering the syntagmatic attitude and
utilizing ‘know that’) may not be convinced about the mentality of the evinced agent, but I
propose that in the moment of the interaction, in the pragmatic attitude with the
spontaneously acting object, it is almost impossible for them not to believe, on some level, that
they are dealing with something that possesses some kind of mentality however limited. In
order to account for this the minimal agency, the evinced agent is assumed in a process of
the assumption of agency.
To summarize, the assumption of agency theory proposes two types of human agency and
two processes in which these human agents engage. Every human is an ego agent in their
own social world. The ego agent is a privileged agent because they have access to their own
private mental space. This access results in privileged knowledge: self-knowledge. The selfknowledge fundamental to the ego agent’s understanding of their relationship to the social
world is the knowledge that their own mentality leads to their own actions. This knowledge
is illustrated in the mind-action chain, which comprises the minimum elements required in
order that an ego agent can act within the world. This self-knowledge forms the basis of
what the ego agent knows of what it is to be human, what they know about their own
agency and so what it is to be an agent. The ego agent’s own agency is never in doubt for the
ego agent and, because of the knowledge of the root of their action, does not need to be
The ego agent, when faced with an object to which they are able to apply the meaning
‘human’, enters into the process of the assumption of agency. In this they apply the meaning
‘human’, in which their own self-knowledge is contained as an exemplar that becomes part
of the properties of the meaning. Thus, in applying the meaning ‘human’, the ego agent
ascribes attributes to the object to which they are making the application: the elements of the
mind-action chain. Once this is done, the object with which they are faced is transformed, for
them, into an ascribed agent. In other words, a human with ascribed attributes: attributes
about which the ego agent knows because of their own self-knowledge.
The ego agent then enters the process of the maintenance of agency utilizing the elements of
the action-mind chain to ascertain if their ascription of agency was mistaken and if the
agency before them can persist. In doing this they seek the presence of reason and intent of
observed action (including speech). Because of the need to explain action in this way, the
possibility of agency emanating from something non-human exhibiting spontaneous action
is theorized: the evinced agent. This agency also enters a process of maintenance.
The assumption of agency theory offers a new way to look at the production of agency and
addresses how both the agents and interaction presumed in existing theories come to be. In
doing this, it theorizes human interaction and the production of agency therein to show how
routine interaction is achieved despite the necessary knowledge limitations of being human.
The theory, then, proposes distinct agencies and processes. It argues that knowledge of one
human by another depends largely upon the application of complex assumptions in
everyday life; the skill of applying these are learned and honed from an early age. It
accounts for private mental space and the arising of individuality as well as the interaction
between recognized agents that is assumed by many existing social theories. Finally, it
proposes that the skill humans possess that allows them to operate in this way and enable
social interaction also allows them to deal with strange and new objects they come across.
The snag is, that they cannot abandon the knowledge they routinely bring to interaction,
especially when they are given little reason to. This contention leads to the theoretical
proposition of a distinct non-human agency.
The notion of two types of human agent is a new and contentious proposition. However,
once the problem of other minds is incorporated into human interaction I argue this is
unavoidable. The evinced agent is also a new proposition. The most notable previous
proposition of non-human agency within Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (Callon & Latour,
1981; Callon, 1986, 1991) argues for symmetry between human and non-human actors. The
Assumption of Agency Theory does not do this, it offers non-human agency as an
immediate explanation for the ego agent in the pragmatic attitude. However, because of this,
it offers a new way to understand the embedding of technology in social life.
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