Understanding Autonomy

23 October 2018

As those having the pleasure to read my recent job applications know, I’m in the process of expanding my research regarding motivational change to the question of autonomy. I argue that using models of motivational changes we can make a step forward in answering this questino. But what do I mean by “the question of autonomy”? A little bit of metaphilosophical reflection is at place.

Philosophy offers a variety of ways to conceptualise the different projects one might undertake in addressing the question of X. I just pick one I happened to teach last year. In her work on gender and race, Sally Haslanger (2005 and other places) has distinguished three types of approaches:

  • conceptual analysis: The analysis of the meaning of a term in natural language (roughly, Bachelor = man + unmarried).
  • descriptive analysis: The analysis of kinds in the world, mostly natural kinds (think: the analysis of water as H2O).
  • ameliorative analysis: The attempt to find a concept (description?) which advances normative purposes. Haslanger looks for the concept of women most useful for feminism.

Drawing on this distinction, one might ask where my project fits in. Do I seek to analyse the ordinary language concept of “autonomy”? Offer a description of a natural kind?[0] Or find a concept of autonomy suitable for particular purposes? I don’t see the need to settle for just one or the other approach. Haslanger settles for her work on the ameliorative goal, but we can also see her as offering different competing targets and I am seeking an acceptable compromise. I neither want to leave the ordinary language entirely behind, nor ignore the distinctions in the world. The normative impetus is also baked into my research project. What I am looking for is an account of autonomy describing something I value.

Not only do I endorse more than one target, I also don’t see the need to just offer one concept under the title of “autonomy”. There is a family of related issues that I want to investigate. They all are associated with autonomy in an intuitive sense, hang together with self-direction, and deserve our attention as normative considerations. At various occasions it might turn out to be helpful to distinguish forms of autonomy (in my currently circulating research proposal I hint at that).

These metaphilosophical reflections remain incomplete. I’m not committing to a specific trade-off for the three competing targets I have taken from Haslanger. But it should suffice for getting started, pragmatism suggests a more exploratory stance: See what project flourishes, where the models and arguments take you and provide palpable success. Then reconsider your metaphilosophical position and specify it in more detail. That is how I intend to proceed.

[0] I don’t think it is outrageous to think of autonomy as a natural kind, at least on an appropriate understanding of such kinds. But I hope to argue that another time.


Haslanger, S. (2005). What Are We Talking about? The Semantics and Politics of Social Kinds. Hypatia, 20(4), 10–26.