Agency and Rationality as Objects of Philosophical Enquiry

Marco Ruffino, editor, University of Campinas, CNPq, Campinas, SP, Brazil

This thematic issue Manuscrito (Vol. 41, No. 4), guest-edited by Sergio Tenenbaum and David Horst, brings together contributions from several leading researchers in the philosophy of rational agency, both epistemic and practical. The papers contained in this volume can be divided as those that approach the issue of rational agency from the perspective of ethics, and those that approach it from the perspective of the philosophy of mind and action. This wealth of approaches ensures that the volume contains a rich and interdisciplinary exploration of many distinct, but interrelated, contemporary problematics.

Hagit Benbaji, in his contribution entitled “Mental Painkillers and Reasons for Pain”, discusses Korsgaard’s (1996) evaluativist theory of pain, i.e. the theory according to which the phenomenal character of pain is explained by the fact that pain represents bodily disturbances as bad, and argues that it leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that taking painkillers is as irrational as killing a messenger that brings you bad news. The author goes on to argue that this influential criticism, based on the fact that “the very idea of a bad representation, a representation that constitutes a reason to seek its elimination, is suspect” (p. 2), indeed poses an important challenge to an account of bodily pains, but not to one of mental pains. The latter, but not the former, are such that their painfulness is sometimes rationally appropriate (such as when we have reasons to feel grief after the loss of a love one), unlike the former, whose painfulness is not reason-responsive. This sharp distinction between the nature of bodily and mental pain thus paves the way for a new appraisal of evaluativism.

In the paper entitled “Against Autonomy: Why Practical Reason Cannot be Pure”, Jennifer A. Frey brings the interrelations of morality and agency to the forefront by arguing against Kant’s view that a good life is an autonomous one, that is, one that “does not consist in our obedience to any external authority” (p. 160). The author criticizes the Kantian conception of autonomy by pointing out that its defenders obscure the distinction between practical and theoretical rationality. This results in a conception of goodness that is “wholly a matter of practical reason” (p. 175). However, as Aristotle forcefully pointed out, human beings’ practical reason, with its own specific capacities and goals, is not universal — there could be different rational beings to whom different things would be practically good. The author concludes that, contrary to the Kantian conception’s ambitions, no conception of the good can be both practically efficacious (and thus, relative to different rational beings), and universally self-legislating (and thus, valid for all finite rational beings).

In the closing paper of the issue, Karl Schafer develops what he calls a “conjectural history of philosophy” (p. 504) approach to the interrelations between the concepts most fundamental to agency and rationality, such as that of reason, rationality, reasoning, reasonableness etc. The paper, entitled “A Brief History of Rationality: Reason, Reasonableness, Rationality and Reasons” narrates the philosophical history of these concepts from the modern period’s dispute between rationalists and empiricists to the appearance of what the author calls ‘reasons fundamentalism’, a tradition rooted in the work of John Rawls according to which a minimal conception of rationality can be made compatible with a robust constraint placed on us by our reasons for belief and action. An important lesson that Schafer extracts from his narrative is that the web of concepts he analyzes used to have their content determined by their interrelations to one another, and, more specifically, with the concept of reason as a faculty. This is in stark contrast with the contemporary tendency — which Schafer identifies in the work of e.g. Gibbard (1990) — to disregard the centrality of the concept of reason as a faculty. But if that is true, “shouldn’t we be concerned about whether these concepts […] still possess the meaning we, as philosophers, tend to assume they do?” (p. 522).

Among the topics dealt with by the other contributions in this volume are: constitutivist theories of normativity and the prospects of overcoming David Enoch’s (2006) influential ‘shmangecy challenge’, knowhow knowledge and practical rationality, the nature of belief as a mental state or as an activity and knowledge of one’s actions’ achievements.  


ENOCH, D. Agency, Shmagency: Why Normativity Won’t Come from What Is Constitutive of Action. The Philosophical Review, v. 115, n. 2, p. 169-198, 2006. e-ISSN: 1558-1470 [reviewed 15 Decembero 2018]. Avaliable from:

GIBBARD, A. Wise choices, apt feelings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

KORSGAARD, C. The sources of normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

To read the article, access

BENBAJI, H. Mental painkillers and reasons for pain. Manuscrito, v. 41, n. 4, p. 1-32,2018. ISSN: 0100-6045 [viewed 15 December 2018]. DOI: 10.1590/0100-6045.2018.v41n4.hb. Avaliable from:

FREY, J. A. Against autonomy: why practical reason cannot be pure. Manuscrito, v. 41, n. 4, p. 159-193, 2018. ISSN: 0100-6045 [viewed 15 December 2018]. DOI: 10.1590/0100-6045.2018.v41n4.jf. Avaliable from:

SCHAFER, K. A brief history of rationality: reason, reasonableness, rationality, and reasons. Manuscrito, v. 41, n. 4, p. 501-529, 2018. ISSN: 0100-6045 [viewed 15 December 2018]. DOI: 10.1590/0100-6045.2018.v41n4.ks. Avaliable from:

External link

Manuscrito – MAN:


How to cite this post [ISO 690/2010]:

RUFFINO, M. Agency and Rationality as Objects of Philosophical Enquiry [online]. SciELO in Perspective: Humanities, 2019 [viewed ]. Available from:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation