Structure, Agency and The Crisis

Structure and Agency are presented as two ends of a spectrum. However, what that spectrum is, is a point of contention. The idea of pure agency is presented as an autonomous decision process, devoid of outside influences, only driven by a claim that the person is making a decision based on “natural” or “inherent” knowledge and decision making faculties – in short, instinct.

I take issue with the claim that such agency exists in any meaningful way, or in fact that agency, as it is popularly defined, exists at all.

First, let us take the notion of a decision made on “inherent” knowledge or decision making in a person. As such, this decision must be based on instinct. For if it were made based on knowledge or experiences bestowed upon them through virtue of their circumstance of birth, or a product of said circumstance of birth, their decision-making process would be merely a more elaborate collaboration of pure structure – a higher level structural construct as it were. It would not be agency.

But then, that instinct, if it is not based on nurture but nature, must be the result of genetic triggers, natural to humans or at the very least that person in question. For what feasible other source of inherent knowledge may a person possess that is not embedded in them through biological triggers? More on that in a moment. Regardless of whether the response in any given situation is a genuinely natural one, the response is still due to a factor outside of one’s control.

You do not decide how your body grows from the moment of your conception. You do not control what mutations you may have that may trigger new instincts within you.

So it would appear that it is near impossible to find a single case of human decision making that fits the popular definition of agency.

But if I argue so vehemently against the notion that this popular agency is possible in any of these circumstances, what circumstances would permit it to happen? For if everything is structure, it would appear to devalue and demean the word of any actual consequence (much in the same way that selfishness does within the context of utilitarianism).

If a human were to make a decision not based on instinct and not informed by experiences in their lives, they would need to have some other source for their decision making knowledge. The popular notion of colloquial enlightenment (not the philosophy) seems to fit this bill. Specifically, having some omniscient all powerful and all-knowing force impart its entire knowledge onto your person, entrusting you with the shared knowledge of some universal objective truth, divorced from any subjective experience any person might have.

However, such condition includes by necessity the condition for an absolute universal truth – a condition which has not been proven to have ever existed or been perceived by any person, and some argue never will be.

As such, I do not think it is useful to envision agency in the way discussed up until now.

Therefore, I propose a different understanding and definition of agency: agency is nothing more than a higher-level decision making model, informed by our instincts and experiences.

This definition gives agency an actual meaning – as the definition can be applied and used with meaningful use.

Your place of birth or your biological parents are therefore agency, and your decision in choosing a philosophy to align yourself with is based on your own experiences of your life up to that point and instinct.

Agency in this context doesn’t excuse the concept of guilt either – a murderer is still the person who kills people, and should not just be a part of society without consequence after the fact. But it does serve the function of allowing us to recognize the reality of why people do heinous acts. It doesn’t necessitate that we permit these people to keep doing these things, or deny any other kind of judgement of them. But it does treat them as people, instead of resigning ourselves to the idea that “well, I guess some people are just somehow mysteriously broken and that’s their choice to be broken”.

Since I am using this understanding of structure and agency, the answer to the question which of the two I deem more important and which one is the source of the ongoing crisis must therefore be structure. For all agency is derived from structure, and cannot be changed on its own.

Therefore any actions hoping to change the current proceedings must be aimed at changes to the systems and structures informing our agency.

Because our agency is derived from structure, I find it increasingly unlikely that we will see any actual changes to our structure. For the structural thinking overwhelmingly encouraged by an increasingly capitalist society becomes more and more prevalent with time. There will always be the capacity for change, but it is increasingly unlikely that we will actually act on it.

Below is an excerpt of a discussion I had with my classmate Morgan, where he succinctly sums up my own position on the subject matter.


2 Replies to “Structure, Agency and The Crisis”

  1. Thoughtful stuff. It sounds like you are a strict determinist. I am curious if and how you might be able to reconcile that determinism with any concept of morality? That’s a big question so don’t feel obliged to answer it. Just food for thought. Good work.

Leave a Reply