Delivered to The Philosophy Forum, June 11, 2005


The Spirit of Danto’s Autonomy 


D. Seiple


We spoke last time about the key features of Danto’s philosophical view, and I suggested then that these could be pared down to two problems: indiscernibility and representation.  These are not easy ideas in and of themselves, but (as you may have discovered) when we mix in some other relevant concerns – ontogenesis, historicism, self-consciousness, and eschatology – one wonders how we can possibly make sense of all this in but one more discussion. 

The answer is: we probably can’t.  Instead, I’ll do my best to pull it all together, though very roughly, around the most helpful concept I can find, which is what I call “spiritual autonomy.”  And perhaps the best way of making this clear is to contrast Danto, once again, with Richard Rorty. 

First, I’ll sketch briefly an argument as to why we don’t have to look at the world the way Rorty does. But that alone leaves us at an impasse.  For just because we don’t need to see things according to Rorty, that’s not itself a reason to see things according to Danto.  So why should we look at the world the way Danto does?  I’ll sketch an argument for that, and one of my points will be that there is a deeply pragmatist dimension to Danto’s work.   



            First some preliminaries.  It’s worth asking first what all the brouhaha is about indiscernibility.  Remember that Danto thinks that  art, and also action (as you may have gleaned from today’s reading) provide paradigm cases of genuine philosophical topics.  Every truly interesting philosophical problem, Danto thinks, can be restated in terms of indiscernibility.  And you can easily see why.  After all, if we could just look and see what the solution is – by better observation, or running an experiment – it would be a scientific problem, not a philosophical one.  Descartes and Plato – for reasons we have talked about in past discussions --  were both concerned with deeply philosophical issues for just this reason (though both, Danto thinks, got key aspects of it entirely wrong).  Now the point about indiscernibility, I think, is simply that indiscernibility brings into focus the idea that if philosophy, in any robust sense, is to have a continuing place in culture, it has to do so by addressing the kind of problem that indiscernible examples point to.[1] 

Last time we spoke about Andy Warhol’s art as an example of how indiscernibility matters. Remember that the Brillo Box is virtually indiscernible from a commercial product on the store shelf.  (Duchamp’s ready-mades are perhaps a better example, since these are commonplace items simply transported into a gallery.) This time, let’s mention action theory as an example.  Danto early on was intrigued by the apparent indiscernibility between an action – say, an intentional signal to someone – and a merely wild reflex which might lead some poor sufferer to twitch his arm in an exactly similar movement. (Clearly we can imagine such a case.)  Here is where the other key notion of Danto’s enters the picture – representation.  For what makes the difference between the signal and the twitch is certainly the idea that intention plays a part in the signaling but not in the twitching.  Intentions are cases of representation, owing in part to their semiotic associations – what Analytic philosophers have called intensionality.[2]  Here it’s important to remember (from last time’s discussion) that representations really move on two dimensions, both laterally (via meanings, “intensionality,” semiotic associations) and vertically (as to truth): in other words, “representations are [semiotically] of something, and it is always open to question whether there exists something outside the representation...of which it is true.”[3]

Now this idea -- that representations are more than semiotic condensations -- points to one main difference between Danto and someone like Richard Rorty. For Rorty, the idea that reference could ever achieve a real connection to the world seems just antiquated, owing in large part to the difficulties philosophers have had in trying to account for this.  A disciple of Rorty might point out of course that we never escape from language in any such account, and so the purported object of philosophical reference, when put into language, is always open to the Saussurean complexities and instabilities that made Derrida such a famous provocateur. But there is a ready response here.  For the unspoken assumption on the Derridean’s or Rortyan’s part would seem to be that just because we cannot speak about the object of reference except through language, then the object of reference has to be language. But as a philosophical claim – that the object of reference has to be at the same ontological level as the vehicle for reference -- Danto thinks this has to be wrong.  One of Danto’s main points is that what we have called “vertical reference” – our connection to the real world -- logically depends on no similarity whatsoever between the representational vehicle (here: language) and its object (the world), and this includes the linguistic (semiotic) properties possessed by the words we use. All this is just a complicated way of pointing out that the instability ascribed by deconstructionists to language need not be ascribed as a feature of what language, in this sense, refers to.  So the burden of proof passes back to the postmodernist to explain why language cannot refer extratextually.

This does not however show us why language should be regarded as doing so.  And this shall bring us – eventually -- to the point about spiritual autonomy.


*  *  *

What I am about to offer is not a definitive proof, but it does bring out a moral point, and in matters of ethics, one has to be one’s own judge.[4]  It is a point raised by both Hegel and Foucault, though in very different vocabulary, in speaking about the formation of the self.  And it’s a point that arises out of the peculiarities of that insatiable conundrum that has perplexed philosophers from Plato to Gödel – the problem of self-reference. 

I formulate this in terms of what I call the Argument from Intelligibility  -- which is simply my name for the kind of argument Danto himself is always making.  This argument depends upon what used to be called “logical oddness.”[5] For example, notice that there is no overt contradiction in claiming, of any sentence P, that “P is true but I don’t believe P.”  Indeed there are many things that are true which I don’t believe -- much to my own misfortune!  But it’s still a very odd thing for me to say. Why?  Well, if I sincerely utter that complex statement –a conjunction of both separable grammatical clauses -- I appear to be making a kind of claim, but apparently I am not really doing so.  What the utterance gives with one linguistic hand, it takes back with the other.  

And this, dear friends, is the same kind of thing that happens throughout the work of Richard Rorty.  For Rorty is always using language that appears to make reference to the real world, but in fact (he would say) does not.  His utterances are not to be taken literally – Rorty, we might say, is no linguistic fundamentalist on this.  His utterance are taken in the spirit of bourgeois “ironism” – which he (unfortunately perhaps) identifies as “liberal.” It involves not a “neutral and universal metavocabulary,” not any “attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real” (not, in other words, to resolve indiscernibilities), and certainly not any stance on the part of the utterer as if she were “in touch with a power not herself.”[6] In other words, Rorty’s is a studiously slippery enterprise, all the way through. What it depends on is keeping oneself, as the speaker, at a kind of languid distance from the stuff of one’s own utterances, and, I strongly suspect, at arms length from life itself.  Why?  Because only when we get engaged in what we think really involves us as persons, and not just our ideas of us as persons – only, in other words, when we represent ourselves not just laterally but vertically as well – only then do we feel the full power of actually living a full human existence. As Foucault would say, truth and power are intimately connected. 

We can try to wiggle out of this perhaps.  We might take a more engaged, objectivist stance toward our own lives at moments of decision, and then as philosophers, back off to the climes of ivory-towered ironism.  But isn’t that, to put it bluntly, one big cop-out?  Isn’t it just bad faith not to continue to take responsibility for thinking as one does in real-life situations, even when we have the luxury of withdrawing for a time to reflect on who we really are and what we’ve really done?  At the very least, the ironist is bound to feel a dissipation in productive power after a time, since what we do at any one point is likely to have at least unconscious effects on what we do at another.  And Sartre, despite all his other flaws, really understood this.

I think the notion that speaks best, at least to me, about this point is the concept of “autonomy.” However, this is a notion that needs to be qualified by four points.  (1) It does not require, as in Kant, an improbable freedom from the causal chain that governs relations in the natural world.[7] (2) Neither is autonomy just a matter of what Isaiah Berlin[8] famously called “negative freedom” – the freedom just to do what one wants without external constraint, a delicious liberty espoused by any adolescent who contests whatever feels hegemonic to the fulfillment of his own impulses.  “Autonomy,” as I began to suggest to this very group almost four years ago,[9]also has to involve how we come to have the desires we have, and (even further) whether our deepest desires gain fulfillment as our lives develop over time.  Our coming to have our own desires must, in other words, occur through a certain kind of interaction between our biology and our socio-physical environment.

But precisely what kind of interaction?  This is not easy to define – Bernard Berofsky (one of Danto’s Columbia colleagues) admits that the notion is “indecently vague.”[10]  One thing however seems obvious: (3) one’s deepest desires must be in some sense “self-determined” as opposed to being imposed from outside – they must not, for example, be the work of some Power (Evil or Otherwise – Cartesian or Calvinist!) that would, like a puppeteer, implant our wants within us.  This seems obvious enough – what autonomy is not

What is not perhaps obvious is what autonomy is.   We know, for example, that family (and culture generally) play the largest role in determining what desires and beliefs we happen to have, at least as we enter adulthood.  How is this any more autonomy-producing than, say, some Evil Genius subjecting us to continual mind-control through advanced sci-fi technology?

Well my thought on this is that the answer, if there is one, has to be closely akin to what Danto means by the notion of “basic action”: the idea that if humans can be said to act rather than just respond, some element within the action sequence has to occur “directly.”  This involves a distinction between basis and non-basic actions which, if our patience holds out here, we can make sense of fairly easily.  And so, with your kind indulgence and very much aware of the frustration level that an audience might be feeling at this point, I offer just a short digression on the topic of action theory.  The eventual point to keep in mind here is where we’re going to end up – at the conclusion that (4) autonomy essentially concerns the locus and the phenomenology of power.  Since being autonomous is the opposite of being coerced, and since coercion involves a significant restriction upon one’s own power, the autonomous formation of our own desires, at least as adults, has to involve a power to reassess and either endorse or reject the desires we already find within us, and the power to create for oneself whatever substitutes are appropriate.  )Otherwise, then, we would indeed be a kind of environmental “puppet.”)




So let’s talk briefly about action theory.  Danto used to make a great deal out of action theory, back in the 1970s, in the days when he was not as convinced as he later became that foundationalism really is philosophically bankrupt.[11] (This is going to require just a bit of complicated commentary, so buckle your bumpy seatbelts!)  Danto once thought that you could construct a philosophical argument in favor of “basic actions,” which are actions (like the raising of one’s arm) which one performs directly, i.e., without having to perform another prior action.  An example of a non-basic action might be when one signals someone by raising one’s arm (and Donald Davidson pointed out, around this same time, that these events are one and the same physical occurrence, though described differently in important respects.[12]) Danto still thinks this is true: that if there are actions, there must be basic actions, simply from the implications non-basic actions call forth.  For if I do something (say, moving of a stone) by doing something else (say, pushing a lever around a fulcrum) – and if as part of what “non-basic action” is, I always have to do one thing by doing something else, then unless we stop somewhere with an act that requires no more basic action to cause it to occur, we don’t have an action to being with![13] (Here is an example of the famous “infinite regress” argument, which philosophers at least since Plato have used punch out their opponents.)  So if there are actions at all, there must be basic actions.  

But for Danto these days, this no longer seems nearly as exciting as it once seemed.  He once thought that identifying basic actions would produce an epistemological windfall: the sheer awareness of a basic action – the voluntary movement of arm or vocal chord – he imagined to be a kind of direct access to the lived body of the subject.  It does seem true, after all, that we have a different relation to our own bodies than we have to the body of another person, and so it was thought that this difference involved not only direct volition, but direct awareness of its physical mechanism. What would this mean? If true, this would reap a momentous philosophical benefit: the Cartesian story, which aimed at grounding knowledge of reality upon directly certain foundations, would have a happy ending after all.  There would be no logical space between our selves and our bodies – no problems about being duped by evil geniuses, because we would have an inward knowledge of the physical world, and so a certain point of entry and habitation within it. (This sounds very much like Merleau-Ponty.[14]) Not only would there be a metaphysical identity between mental intention and physical execution: one’s very self – albeit a thoroughly embodied and not a purely mental self – could be directly known! 

Unfortunately, this grand idea is now generally discredited, by Danto as well as by just about everybody else. I won’t go into why.  Danto explains it at some length in a recent essay.[15] The important thing for us to notice is a related point, which is that signals and twitches are not, strictly speaking, indiscernible in the way Danto once liked to think.  For surely if the difference between the two is the  intentional motivation present in one but lacking in the other, and since intentions are (arguably) brain events, it just takes a little more sophisticated technology to determine the distinction as an empirical rather than a philosophical issue. Certain brain events show up in signaling and not in twitching.  End of story.  And perhaps for this reason as well, action theory has pretty much disappeared from philosophical interest.

But not so fast.  Maybe something like this notion of “basic action” is exactly what we need to make sense of “autonomy.” Maybe the real interest in basic action is not its epistemological impact at all.  Maybe the real interest is moral and ontological.  I suspect in fact that one can make an argument for autonomy similar to the argument for basic action in general – not surprisingly, since autonomy is about the larger intentional framework in which actions occur.  The argument would be this: just as a non-basic action presupposes a basic action, on pain of infinite regress, so too reflectively assessing our own desires and interests seems to fit a plausible story about what an autonomous being would do. If correct, that story presupposes what we might call basic autonomy,  and this concerns the locus of power.  Once again: A non-basic action, such as a priest blessing the congregation, presupposes a basic action (the intentional raising of the arm); and if the priest was made to do this by implanted electrodes, no such action of blessing occurred.  Similarly, the act of reflecting upon the values and notions that we have received, as fledglings from others, presupposes (at some perhaps unconscious level) an element of self-directedness or self-determination. One might want to say, in fact, that to perform an act directly is to perform it in a self-determined manner.  And the final point here is going to be that self-reflection, when raised to a certain level of self-consciousness, is a “spiritual” activity.  And this just is what we mean by “spiritual.” 

But first, all this raises an immediate objection.  For could the “direct” or “basic” action supposedly involved here not itself be the result of that Evil Puppeteer?  (Think here: Descartes sitting by the fire, wondering if he’s really dreaming.)  Well, yes it conceivably could be.  But that is precisely the point, is it not?  For here is an instance of deep philosophical significance, just because of the indiscernibility issue.  It might be that the sci-fi technology is in place, acting upon us entirely out of sight, such that no subtle, yet to be discovered neurological evidence could decide this case.[16] But the point, again, is not epistemological – it’s ontological and moral.  And now, finally, we are in a position to discover why this might be an important point to make.

Two items in fact remain here on this discussion’s far too-crowded agenda.  (A) The first is to make a little more plausible what the “spiritual” part of “autonomy” involves.  (B) The second is to return to the point made early on, and to indicate why this involves a non-Rortyan view of objectivity. 




(A) The human brain being what it is, autonomy is likely to be a rather messy affair, requiring not just the mechanical skills of a logical computer (if that’s what the mind is), but also the fuzzy free associations that pervade the unconscious, made known to us through the work of Freud, Jung and others.  And this is exactly why the lateral referentiality of representations is crucial.  Our minds are motivated by the complex semiotic associations of folk psychology, which variously incite deeply embedded aspects of the primitive levels of our brains.  This process, as we all know far too well, can leave us disoriented, distressed, and otherwise discombobulated; but this is not (arguably) an inevitable condition for human beings as such.  And just  imagine: If all of the energies that overtake us at moments of frustrating and even disabling internal conflict were integrated into the accomplishment of a consistent set of life tasks for a significant element of our population, the powers at work in our lives, and in the possibilities for life in culture at large, would be almost impossible for us, in our current state, to imagine.

The feature of autonomy that would promote this is, in Danto’s rather broad-ranging sense, “spiritual.”  This loaded word seems a convenient designation for this kind of empowered life just because religious discourse, especially as it employs the allusions of our aesthetic sensibilities, can (though, infamously, it does not always) supply the space for recalibrating and reinvigorating those latent or misdirected energies (powers).  I think in fact that this can be done only by something like religious discourse (which is not perhaps to disallow its “secular” versions).  What’s required for this to happen is what Danto has called (remember?) the “z-coordinate” – that linguistic space where a person refers not just to the external world and not just to the semiotic associations of a particular representational schema, but rather to that person’s very subjectivity.  Self-consciousness, in other words.

And this brings us back to the possibility I raised towards the outset of this discussion – that the only way to engage in this kind of self-reflection is to leverage the full power of Danto’s “orthogonality thesis” and regard persons on a par with artworks.  Just as the distinction between art and commonplace objects rests on the act of enfranchisement, so the difference between: 

(i)      an autonomous person, fully inspirited by the capacities latent to our humanness, and

(ii)    a truncated, wounded or benumbed individual product of the current social marketplace – which we all to some degree perhaps are –

rests upon the act of self-invention that can be undertaken only with the help of the objectivist categories one applies to oneself.  Otherwise, the invention itself is truncated, because the effort is playfully unserious.



(B) This then is the final point.  Postmodernists have eagerly and endlessly critiqued some of the objectivist pretensions of modernity – arguing that the supposedly “neutral” God’s-eye view of philosophy and science, promoted at least since Descartes, is a figment of genealogical naiveté.  They claim that every view carries with it some “prejudice,”[17]which is obscured but not eliminated by simply ignoring this fact.  Every claim to knowledge is perspectival. 

This is a criticism with which I am entirely in agreement.  But what really follows from it?

But what these critics often go on to say (or at least imply) is that such perspectivalism (or “subjectivism” or “contextualism” or even “historicism”) is incompatible with any and all forms of objectivism, if we mean by that roughly what Richard Bernstein means: viz., “the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal.”[18] This is invalid reasoning.  It is true that Objectivists have often been foundationalists,[19] and many attacks on the former are really challenges to the latter.  But we don’t need to be foundationalists in order to hold to objective categories: we simply hold to them, and treat any “appeal” the way fideist[20] might.  (In other words, just because we can’t definitively prove something to be so doesn’t mean it’s not objectively true.)  I don’t think we need to reject contextualism (etc) to do this: we simply deny that contextualism and objectivism are binary opposites, and affirm that objectivity can be represented through some of the perspectives we always already adopt.  This is what any of us does when she engages in serious self-conscious reflection.

Accordingly, it seems to me that the relation between our subjective, “prejudicial” perspectives and the tiny corner of reality that we are, is roughly the representational relation between form and content in art, where content gets expressed in its form.  Persons, in other words, are like works of art.  The most engaging artworks are those that show, through physical embodiment, what they seek to tell.  (Poetry is an especially good example of this.)  So too persons are most fully human when their actions, psychologically integrated with both internal and external factors, show (represent) the objective power of subjective invention – which is, I would say, really the subtext of any highly evolved human life.   This is what I call “spiritual autonomy.”  And despite appearances to the contrary, from one angle at least, this is a deeply pragmatist notion. 

            The “pragmatist” spirit of this project may not be immediately apparent, to those who have (rightly) divined that this project also reflects the critical attitude taken by Danto and others regarding pragmatism in some of its forms.  There is pragmatism, and then there is pragmatism – as Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty, Quine, and all who have called themselves “pragmatists” at one phase or another of their careers, have made apparent.  (Peirce of course even invented his own term, to deal with this confusing fact.)  But the family resemblance that keeps this rather unhappy term in use is not hard to state: it is the vague but still serviceable notion that what we should say about something depends upon how well the saying of it “works,” in some sense.  This is I think a deep truth. But it is also compatible with the idea that there are objective traits to reality within which our speaking takes place – Dewey himself held to such an idea, much to Rorty’s evident dismay.[21] Those objective traits account for what one formulation works better than another.

            If I am right, what Danto has implicitly to say about spiritual autonomy is “pragmatist” in just this sense.   If I am right, Rorty’s own neo-pragmatism gets complicated by a question that Danto’s way of doing philosophy poses.  The question is this: What if objectivism itself is a performative precondition for a robust culture?  In other words, what if presupposing objectivity – what Danto calls “extratextual reference” -- is necessary in order for human life to fully “work”?  What if the only way to access the full powers of creative self-invention is to take seriously the other side of Foucault’s famous claim, which is that truth and power belong together – to hold, in other words, that subjective power (“productive power” which might is accessed only when we actually commit ourselves to the “truths” which a particular discourse makes available?  The truths of any discursive practice are assumed, for that community, to be objective truths. 

In that case, the choice that Danto’s kind of view offers begins to look rather momentous, in the spirit of William James, who (surprisingly in this discussion) turns out to be anything but the kind of ally Rorty might have expected. 



[1] Whether Danto’s specific examples turn out to be genuinely indiscernible from their counterparts (as in the case of certain artworks) or only superficially so, is not so important.  I hope the discussion here will make this apparent. 

[2] William J. Rappaport, "Intensionality Vs Intentionality," <>, 2001-2004.

[3] Arthur C. Danto, Connections to the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 51.

[4]  This is not the same things as saying that whatever one judges to be ethically true is true – but only that the truth is available to some but not, apparently, to others; and there is no convincing those to whom it is not.  We see what we’re ready to see, in other words.

[5] P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954).

[6] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 73.

[7] This is too complicated a topic to engage fully here. The best discussion I find of these topics is in the writings of Harry G. Frankfurt, especially the collection entitled The Importance of What We Care About.  This anthology also contains the recently famous piece “On Bullshit.”

[8] Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118-72.

[9] D. Seiple, "Autonomy: Its Nature and Importance to the LGBT Community" (  Http://  DSeiple%20Writings  /AutonomyPhilForum.htm, 2001).

[10] Bernard Berofsky, "Autonomy," in How Many Questions? Essays in Honor of Sidney Morgenbesser, ed. Leigh S. Cauman, et al. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 301-20.

[11] Arthur C. Danto, "Basic Actions and Basic Concepts," 1979, in The Body/Body Problem (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1999), 45-62.

[12] Donald Davidson, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," The Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963 1963), reprinted in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 3-19.

[13] Danto, "Basic Actions and Basic Concepts," 46.

[14] Arthur C. Danto, "Action, Knowledge and Representation," in The Body/Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 65.

[15] Danto, "Basic Actions and Basic Concepts," 47-53.

[16] Though we might someday come into possession of the right sci-fi diagnostic tools, and the issue would then cease to be philosophical.

[17] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, edited by Garrett Barden and John Cumming, 2d ed. (New York: Crossroads, 1975).

[18] Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 8.

[19]Foundationalism is the general name for theories in epistemology (typically, theories of epistemic justification, but also of knowledge or other types of positive epistemic status) that hold that beliefs are justified (known, etc.) based on what are called basic beliefs (also commonly called foundational beliefs). Basic beliefs are beliefs that give justificatory support to other beliefs, and more derivative beliefs are based on those more basic beliefs. The basic beliefs are said to be self-justifying, that is, they are justified but not justified by other beliefs.”  Wikipedia,

[20] “Fideism” is a view, normally a religious one, which holds that certain kinds of knowledge are not based on objective certainty, but on “faith.”

[21] Richard Rorty, "Dewey's Metaphysics," New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey (1977), reprinted in Consequences of Pragmatism, 72-89 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982).


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