Steward, Helen. A Metaphysics for Freedom

By Liu, Yu | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Steward, Helen. A Metaphysics for Freedom


Liu, Yu, The Review of Metaphysics


STEWARD, Helen. A Metaphysics for Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xii + 267 pp. Cloth, $58.04; paper, $30.24--Whatever expectations her title might give a reader, Helen Steward's book is not the usual libertarian repudiation of determinism or the usual incompatibilist joust with compatibilism. If anything, she is almost as critical of the one as of the other, and a striking feature of her book is her ready use of concessions to the latter to help undermine conventional presumptions of the former.

The unusualness of Steward's approach displays itself right in the first chapter where she not only refuses to confine her discussion beforehand to situations involving rationality, ethical choice, or otherwise exalted deliberation, but also questions all attempts to define freedom as something uniquely human. To her, these attempts conflict with the well-known recognition of continuity between human nature and that of animals and therefore strengthen rather than weaken the opposition. To think about freedom differently, she argues for exploring forms of agency which are possessed by humans and animals alike and which, while appearing to be humble, are in reality fundamental to any well-grounded metaphysics of mind, action, and causality.

In the second chapter Steward more clearly stakes out her argument which she terms "agency incompatibilism." Over against the Consequence Argument of Van Inwagen, regarded in current literature as the most important argument for incompatibilism but considered by her as incapable of establishing its validity, Steward proposes to look at the exercise of an agential capacity which, at the time of an action, settles matters such as whether or not it is to be carried out, and, if it is, when, how, and where it will be done. For Steward, the freedom-associated idea of agency is inextricably linked with this process of settlement, because each involved matter represents a question which can be resolved in different ways up until a certain moment when something happens and causes it to be resolved in a particular way.

After tackling anticipated objections in the third chapter, Steward turns attention in the fourth chapter to the notion of animal agency, which most definitively distinguishes her from many, if not all, other current incompatibilists. As elsewhere throughout her book, her task is twofold. First, she exposes the misleading nature of much technical and supposedly scientific language which, inadvertently or not, unjustifiably makes animals seem mere automata whose behavior is entirely explicable by the sequential mechanism of stimulus and response. …

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