Institut für Philosophie

Institut für Philosophie

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Begleitseminar zum Studienprojekt: Dimensions of Personal Autonomy




Personal autonomy has been a central theme of practical philosophy from about the 1970s to the present, and is of "existential" interest, so to speak.
Important initial questions are:

When, under what circumstances, has one actually made a (major) decision in one's life in a truly free and self-determined manner? When are a person's fundamental values and attitudes really their own? When do they merely reflect the person's upbringing and social circumstances, without the person having really made the values their own?

There are very different approaches to this. Harry Frankfurt, who plays a decidedly important role in the whole debate, thinks that autonomy is only a question of the inner structure of the individual will. The will must, so to speak, be harmonious, possible conflicts between desires etc. must be resolved by identifying oneself with one of these desires "wholeheartedly", and this identification must also translate into actions and ways of life. Frankfurt has developed this basic idea over decades, and a number of fascinating essays have emerged from it. More recently, it looks increasingly as if Frankfurt is taking the position that these identifications are not based on choices, but rather that one finds oneself equipped with certain fundamental concerns and values ("cares") – that one discovers rather than creates oneself as an individual.

Many other authors refer to this approach, often critically.
John Christman suggests that it also matters that fundamental attitudes, personal values and concerns have been developed in the right way, that is, not through manipulation, for example.
Paul Benson argues in an early essay that autonomy is hardly possible under conditions of (more or less) subtle social oppression – he refers, for example, to the desires produced by the "cosmetic-industrial complex" to conform to certain ideals of beauty.
Marina Oshana believes that autonomy is not a matter of a single person at all, but that it essentially depends on relationships between persons (relational autonomy): in particular, it is not possible to autonomously subordinate oneself completely to the will of another person, even if this would be based on a "voluntary" decision. Therefore, there can be no autonomous slaves and no autonomous "submissive housewives".
This approach is again criticized, for example, by Andrea Westlund, who thinks that it depends on whether the persons in question can give reasons for their behavior, reasons they have adopted in a particular, personal way.
The topic of autonomy is also related to all sorts of political issues, since in democracies it is presupposed that citizens can represent their truly own positions. Therefore, democracies must have an interest in ensuring that their citizens are autonomous in relevant respects and are not prevented from being autonomous by circumstances.

These are only a few examples of established positions. In addition, there are also more applied questions, such as to what extent self-tracking via (e.g.) apps can promote autonomy; on this topic, a cooperation with a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems is envisaged.


Basically, the idea is that after a phase of joint orientation, the participants each look for a particular focus on the topic and work on it persistently, so that in the end a longer seminar paper emerges. This focus can be, for example, an author, but also a field. The idea of the whole project is that we stay in continuous discussion, report on progress and problems in the meetings, and read and comment on each other's texts; each participant can thus simultaneously acquire a particular perspective on the debate and gain a certain overview of the field.
At the end of the project, there a small conference is envisaged, where the results will be presented and discussed. This conference will be also open to other students or also interested lecturers.
For the participants, this has the following advantages:
Practice in writing somewhat longer papers before the master's thesis;
if you are interested, a master's thesis could even follow, for which you would then be quite well prepared;
practice in giving presentations and discussing at conferences.;
insights into a really interesting and also "existential" field of research (depending on the focus also with all kinds of political implications);
hopefully lively discussions and collaboration.

The course can be taken as a study project or as an interdisciplinary seminar. We will talk about the different requirements at the beginning of the lecture period.

Depending on the situation, the course will take place online or hybrid.

Literature references will be given on Stud.IP during the lecture-free period.

Weitere Angaben

Veranstaltungsart: Seminar (Offizielle Lehrveranstaltungen)
Veranstaltungsnummer: 8.3490
Ort: nicht angegeben
Zeiten: Fr. 08:00 - 12:00 (wöchentlich)
Erster Termin: Fr , 16.04.2021 08:00 - 12:00


  • Cognitive Science > Master-Programm