Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling (Eds): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Edited By Christopher Erhard, Tobias Keiling
Hardback £133.00 eBook £27.99

Reviewed by: Florian Markus Bednarski (PhD researcher at Leipzig University and The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.

Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.

Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl.  The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.

In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.

Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.

In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.

Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?

In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.

Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.

In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)

The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.

In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.

This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.

Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.

Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.

Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.

The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).

Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.

Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.

This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.

Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.

The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.

Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.

Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.

Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.

While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.

While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.

The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.



I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.


Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.

Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.

Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.

Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, Ohio University Press, 2021

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00
6 illus. · 264 pages