Wednesday 3 July 2024

Agency and the Manic Point of View

This post is by Elliot Porter. Elliot is currently a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham. He is interested in personal autonomy, the philosophy of madness and mental health, and broader themes in social and political philosophy.

Elliot Porter

Autonomy is not much of a folk concept: few people commiserate with their friends over how their autonomy has been disrespected, in quite those terms. Still, it’s something that everyone cares about. We take it as a slight when our view of what is good or reasonable is overlooked. 

Mill has something like autonomy in mind when he tells us that someone’s mode of living is the best “not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode”. At the heart of our interest in autonomy, lies an interest in our perspectives – what seems good or worthy to us.

But not every perspective gets a hearing. Mill’s principle is conditional on our possessing “any tolerable amount of common sense and experience”. We mustn’t abandon anyone to their freedoms, of course, but qualifications like this can hide a multitude of sins. Mad Studies is rich with discussions of what it takes to get taken seriously. 

Mania, in particular, is a fascinating case. Occasionally, mania sees us cast as visionaries, whose words should be hung upon (and sometimes, who should be discouraged from seeking treatment). More often, the manic point of view gets lost, seen as symptom when it is trying to be testimony. What makes perfect sense from an insider perspective can seem disjointed and unintelligible from the outside.

My recent paper, Mania, Urgency, and the Structure of Agency, identifies something distinctive in manic points of view that could help secure recognition. Close attention to the reports of people who experience mania reveals something distinctive in the way our reasons look to us when we are manic. Normally, reasons are facts that tell us something about what we should do. They pile up, for or against, some action or attitude, and we can carefully sift through them and weigh up what we should do. But sometimes we don’t get to deliberate, sometimes, matters are urgent.

I suggest that the phenomenology of mania turns, in large part, on a pervasive sense of urgency. This sense changes the way we see and handle our practical reasons. Even if we have all the time in the world, some things are morally urgent, or even artistically urgent, in a way that tells us to act, now. Urgent reasons pre-empt others. If matters are urgent, we don’t get to deliberate further. It’s not only superfluous, it’s an inadequate response to urgent reasons.

This, I suggest, is the view of practical reasons revealed by testimonies and observations of mania. When we’re manic, the same facts that normally speak in favour of writing a novel or buying an outfit become demanding in the way urgent reasons are. Manic points of view can seem disjointed or arbitrary from outside, but once we understand the way considerations can pre-empt each other, an intelligible picture of the moral world comes into sharp focus.

Understanding the perspectives of people with minority minds can be desirable in its own right. We can all see each other straight in a way we might not otherwise, and perhaps we will all feel more at home in the social world. But more hangs on perspective recognition than inclusion.  

If we are to enjoy any tolerable degree of autonomy, we must be seen by our peers as someone with a perspective, whose view of reasons sets a standard against which our own actions can be judged. Without this recognition, we can’t raise an idea, remonstrate with others, or even recommend a good book.

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