Defining autonomy: a brief philosophical overview


The topic of human autonomy, or self-determination, has occupied philosophers, both Eastern and Western, since the onset of recorded thought. No short discussion could do justice to this history, so we briefly review just two broad traditions that are especially relevant. The first, based in post-Husserlian phenomenological studies (e. g., Ricoeur, 1966), concerns the experience of autonomy versus heteronomy and the capacities, conditions, and consequences related to it. This tradition underlies Heider’s (1958) and de Charms’s (1968) work on personal causation, from which SDT evolved. A second tradition concerns analytic approaches to autonomy that focus on the concept’s usage, plausibility, and value. This tradition has many representatives, but we focus on those derived from Frankfurt (1971) and those embedded in feminist / relational perspectives (e, g., Friedman, 2003; Mackenzie & Stoljar, 2000).

Phenomenology and Autonomy

Pfander (1967) provided a foundational phenomenology of autonomy. Using methods drawn from Brentano and Husserl, he distinguished self-determined acts, which he described as those reflecting one’s will, from other forms of striving or motivation. In Pfander’s analysis, acts of will are exclusively those experienced “precisely not as an occurrence caused by a different agent but as an initial act of the ego-center itself” (p. 20). He elaborated that external others or inner urges may often supply the “grounds” or impetus for self-determined acts, but when this occurs, the self or “ego-center” must endorse actions that follow from the external prompts.
Ricoeur (1966) provided a more elaborate analysis of will and self-determined acts. Like Pfander, he argued that such acts are those fully endorsed by the self and thus are in accord with abiding values and interests. Ricoeur stated that having autonomy

need not entail an absence of external influences, pressures, or mandates to act. A person can be self-determined even when acting in accord with an external demand, provided the person fully concurs with or endorses doing so. Circumstances must, however, engender in the actor a reason for willingly complying to have autonomy. Thus, autonomy is not restricted to “independent” initiatives but also applies to acts reflecting wholehearted consent to external inputs or inducements.
The existentialist distinction between authentic and inauthentic actions is also related (Ryan & Deci, 2004; Wild, 1965). Authenticity describes behavior “really proceeding from its reputed author.” Authentic actions are those for which one takes responsibility; they are not half-hearted or disowned. Ekstrom (2005) and Kernis and Goldman (2005) similarly stress that authentic or autonomous acts proceed from one’s core self, representing those preferences and values that are wholeheartedly endorsed.
These analyses specify that for an act to be autonomous it must be endorsed by the self, fully identified with and “owned”. This, of course, can apply to behaviors that are easily chosen (e. g., playing at a sport might be autonomous, being fun and intrinsically motivated), as well as to those representing more difficult undertakings (forgoing fun to work on a valued task).

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Defining autonomy: a brief philosophical overview