Expansive Agency

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, “self-conscious individuals” (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e., everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism.

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities are greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.


Agency is not causality or causal power in the modern sense. Acting and doing are distinct from mere occurrence of an event by virtue of their meaning or interpretation.

The modern notion of causal power is something blind, mechanical, taken over from mathematical physics. Events follow one another in accordance with mathematical law. Even physical causality, though — insofar as we seek to understand it — is more about mathematical form than about the operation of raw power.

Talk about agency belongs in the register of semantics rather than physics in the modern sense. This takes us even further away from considerations of raw power.

Greek mathematics was really just getting started in Aristotle’s time. Aristotle correctly judged that that mathematics did not begin to address interesting problems of the intelligibility of becoming. Accordingly, he developed a discourse about the intelligibility of becoming in other — we could say, more semantic — ways. For Aristotle, even physics is fundamentally a semantic investigation. As Leibniz saw, there need be no contradiction between Aristotle’s semantic physics and modern mathematical physics. They simply investigate different things.

Aristotle originally introduced talk about agents, and did so in the context of his semantically oriented physics. From early modern times, physics moved to a mathematical approach that was immensely fruitful. At the same time, the Aristotelian semantic-physical notion of agents was (badly) translated into a register of mathematical-physical causes. (See also Aristotelian Matter.)

Because of its fundamentally semantic character, the semantic-physical notion of agency was well suited to be extended to social and ethical contexts. Its mathematical-physical analogue is not nearly so well suited. It took the monumental achievements of Kant and Hegel to begin to restore a semantic notion of agency. (See also Expansive Agency.)