Here we describe the basic framework of the Rational Self-Government project. We identify its core concerns and outline why these are important. In addition, we also try to relate the project and its ancient orientation to ongoing debates and show the relevance of the project and its expected results for contemporary research.

From its Greek derivation, the word autonomy means something like self-government or being ruled by one’s own laws. In this sense the word is commonly used to characterize the independence that a sovereign political community constitutes by rejecting the influence of what it considers to be external sources of authority. The notion of individual, or personal, autonomy is often understood against this background and is hence reasonably defined as the individual ability to determine one’s own thoughts and actions unaffected by external coercion. One influential understanding of this notion is that it includes the unimpeded and self-sufficient capacity of wish and desire satisfaction. In contemporary philosophy, this basically Aristotelian idea (Broadie 2002, 15) is often qualified in preferentialist terms. On the general preferentialist view, human welfare or happiness is conditioned by wish and desire satisfaction (e.g. Overvold 1980; Scanlon 1998; Keller 2004; Portmore 2007), and the word autonomy is in this context used to denominate the inviolability of the complex of preferences that a certain persons happens to have (e.g. Fehige and Wessels 1998, xxi). Criticized for providing an insufficient explanatory model of the moral value of autonomous agency, this preferentialist understanding has an important rival in what we shall call a rationalist view. On this view, instead of being based on the authority of individual preference, personal autonomy is distinguished by the ability to ground one’s thoughts and actions in a higher order deliberative evaluation of one’s motivational inclinations and their moral repercussions (Frankfurt 1998; Dworkin 1988; Brännmark 2006; Rosati 2006). Conditioned by the linguistic capacity to entertain a self-critical and distanced scrutiny of the reasons on which to think and act (McDowell 2010), personal autonomy means to submit to the rule of reason. But the rationalist view faces its own problems: In contending that rational deliberation is fully operational on an individual level, and that it is unaffected by or invulnerable to the ways it manifests itself in human speech and writing, it leaves the scope of rational deliberation undetermined and its linguistic underpinnings unexamined. Without a proper understanding of these conditions, we are however left with an inadequate analysis that subsidizes a reductionistic account of personal autonomy.

Ancient philosophy, and especially Plato, provides a robust framework for a thorough inquiry into personal autonomy and its concrete conditions. The concept originates in Plato’s ideas about self-government and of what it means to be a person, a responsible discussion partner, as well as co-citizen (e.g. McCabe 2000). Taking into consideration both Plato s dialogical methods and presented arguments, his philosophy comprises of an attempt to establish something very much like competency and authenticity conditions for autonomy: to show what is needed for the development of coherent and rational thinkers (Long 2013) who know their own epistemic limits and have a reflective stance towards their motivational inclinations and ethical commitments. Yet, the Platonic insights are significantly absent in the contemporary discussion (e.g. Piper 2014). By means of a detailed investigation of the conceptual origins of the notions of personal autonomy and self-government, this project aims (1) to produce new knowledge within the history of philosophy and (2) to show how this knowledge is pertinent to contemporary philosophizing.


There are several reasons to think that a cross-illumination of the suggested sort will prove to be worthwhile. Methodologically, a good grasp of contemporary discussion is crucial for an argumentative – and not merely descriptive – take on ancient source materials, combined with a careful work on the Greek materials in their original language and context. We suggest that the method of the history of philosophy that we will apply will be prolific for this particular thematic if it is proportionally more engaged in contemporary or systematic questions than some other history of philosophy studies. This is because there is a potentially closer affinity between ancient and contemporary philosophizing about autonomy than there is, say, in a study of such conceptions as mind or matter. As we will show below, besides broad affinities within moral rationalism, there is a set of specific questions and problems in contemporary discussions on autonomy that have important Platonic counterparts, either because they conceptually derive from ancient discussions, or through engagement in overlapping areas of concern.

Emerging Questions

Contemporary versions of preferentialism are often criticized for their inability to explain value facts. That a person wants or desires p cannot be the explanation for why p is good (Carlson 2000, 248; cf. Tännsjö 1998, 80-96). Insofar as personal autonomy is understood in terms of the unimpeded capacity of wish and desire satisfaction, it is open to the same critique. Without a proper explanation for why the ability to get what you want is morally justified, personal autonomy ends up being morally vacuous. If there is no explanation for why p is morally valuable, there are no reasons to think that the independent and unrestrained ability to acquire p is any better. What is needed is an account of personal autonomy that can explain its moral value.

From a rationalist point of view, this explanation is built into the definition. Understood as the ability to entertain a rational evaluation of one’s motivational inclinations, autonomous agency involves moral considerations and justifications (e.g. Brännmark 2006; Rosati 2006; McDowell 2010). However, in consequence of the requirements of a fully rational deliberative process, the rationalist’s account may fail to assess the scope of what can be accomplished on an individual level. On this view, autonomy does not only require the ability to entertain something like infallible deductive reasoning. It also requires that the agent can access all relevant information. In actual practice, no one can of course live up to these criteria. So, even if personal autonomy, on this view, may work as a regulative ideal, it seems to neglect the importance of the self-critical and reflective aspects of autonomy. What is needed is an account of personal autonomy that includes considerations of the scope of rational deliberation and of how knowledge of this scope is constitutive for individual autonomy.

Closely connected, most versions of rational autonomy can also be criticized for discounting the discursive and interpersonal structure of rational deliberation (cf. McDowell 2010; see also below). In treating reason as an abstract and individual capacity, unaffected by its concreate and contextually bound manifestations in human speech and writing, the rationalist view leaves the social and linguistic underpinnings of rational deliberation unexamined.

From these brief considerations we can distinguish three central and general questions: (1) How is personal autonomy morally valuable? (2) Why and how is the ability to assess the scope of one’s own capacity for rational deliberation relevant for autonomous agency? And (3) what are the interpersonal and linguistic conditions of rational deliberation? Within the platonic tradition there are three rich and detailed discussions that are especially relevant for inquiry into these questions. In this project, these discussions answer to the project’s three central sub-themes.

› Integrity
› Self-knowledge
› Language

Click on the links above to read more about these sub-themes and their relevance to the project’s overall concerns.


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