Christopher Erhard / Rethinking the active-passive distinction from a phenomenological point of view

Christopher Erhard, postdoctoral visiting researcher from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (LMU Munich), holder of a DFG fellowship, currently working on a Habilitationsschrift on the Phenomenology of Being Active and related issues.

Using resources both from the (largely neglected) early and classical phenomenological tradition and from contemporary approaches, the overall goal of my project is to rethink the active-passive distinction from a phenomenological point of view.

While most recent contributions still focus on decision-based (intentional) actions and contrast them with things that “merely happen to us”, I take the rather neglected, yet venerable and broader distinction between the active and the passive as starting point. In addition to the rather narrow focus, in which everyday activities such as laughing, smiling and breathing reduce to “mere happenings” along with hiccups, headaches and allergic reactions, the majority of classical approaches in action theory have ignored the phenomenal dimension of agency – mostly for fear of a Cartesian will and other putatively superfluous and causally miraculous entities haunting the body like “ghost[s] in the machine” (Ryle). The idea that there might be a peculiar ‘what-it-is-likeness’ of being active (in contrast to being passive) has therefore been ignored for a long time.

However, against the background of red-hot discussions on the “phenomenology of agency” that argue that there is indeed an irreducible phenomenal dimension pertaining to the active side of conscious-cum-intentional minds like ours, I address the following questions: Which basic kinds of activity (besides intentional action) can be distinguished phenomenologically? Is it true that the notions of activity and of intentional agency coincide? What (if any) is the role of non-intentional activity for our pre-theoretical self-understanding? Given that activity comes in different flavours, is there a sense in which all these variations share a common agentive ‘core’, so to speak? How are activity and passivity in general related towards each other? Do they exclude or even contradict each other, or can they interfuse thereby constituting a spectrum with ‘pure’ activity and ‘pure’ passivity at each of its ends?

A final part of the project concerns the problem of the alleged unreliability of our own experience of agency. In particular, I critically address the idea put forward by some philosophers and scientists (cf. Daniel Wegner’s Illusion of Conscious Will) that the phenomenology of activity (especially in the case of intentional action) is nothing but a massive illusion systematically misguiding our view of ourselves as ‘autonomous’ agents (partly) in control of their lives. I argue that most arguments in support of such a systematic illusion fail. Although the experience (as) of being active does not necessarily, infallibly and exhaustively indicate that we ‘really’ are active in the way we experience ourselves to be, this does not entail that we might be victims of a pervasive illusion vis-à-vis our own agency. What is especially needed in this context is a more sophisticated and phenomenologically adequate notion of “pre-reflective” willing (volition) which can be developed with reference to Husserl’s analysis of the will, Brian O’Shaughnessy’s will-based, causal, and yet non-dualistic theory of trying, and Robert Hanna’s and Michelle Maiese’s recent modification thereof. The main challenge for such a view consists in navigating between the Scylla of a metaphysically (and temporally) prior event of willing, which causes a subsequent bodily movement, and the Charybdis of completely eliminating the will in terms of purely physical bodily movements.

Currently, I’m also working on a paper on the forgotten German philosopher Hans Reiner (1896-1991) whose dissertation Freiheit, Wollen und Aktivität. Phänomenologische Untersuchungen in Richtung auf das Problem der Willensfreiheit (1927) addresses the active-passive distinction from a phenomenological perspective and also tries to develop a phenomenologically grounded understanding of free will. In this book, Reiner pleads for a broader understanding of volitional activity which encompasses but is not exhausted by premeditated and planned goal-directed intentional action. In this spirit, for instance, Reiner argues that (normal) forms of emotional behaviour such as laughter and crying should be properly characterized as active and not as “mere happenings”. In doing so, Reiner introduces the notion of an “inner will” which works analogously to Brentano’s “inner consciousness” and which is supposed to be a constitutive aspect of all volition-based activity – be it reflective or pre-reflective, planned or spontaneous, affective (emotional) or rational. Reiner’s book (and other works from early phenomenologists) show that recent trends in the “phenomenology of agency” that do not take the phenomenological tradition seriously into account run the risk of redundancy and of ‘reinventing the wheel’.

In this spirit, Dr. Tobias Keiling, PhD (Freiburg im Breisgau) and I will also soon edit the Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency in which both historical and systematic contributions address the significance of thinking about agency from a phenomenological point of view.


Bayne, T. (2006). Phenomenology and the Feeling of Doing: Wegner on the Conscious Will. In Pockett, S., Banks, W. P., and Gallagher, S. (Eds.). Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? (pp. 169-186). Cambridge/MA, 169-186.

Hanna, R. and Maiese, M. (2009). Embodied Minds in Action. Oxford.

Kriegel, U. (2015). The Varieties of Consciousness. Oxford.

Nahmias, E. (2002). When consciousness matters: a critical review of Daniel Wegner’s The illusion of conscious will. In Philosophical Psychology 14/4, 527-541.

O’Shaughnessy, B. (2008). The Will. A Dual Aspect Theory. Two Volumes. Oxford.

Reiner, H. (1927). Freiheit, Wollen und Aktivität. Phänomenologische Untersuchungen in Richtung auf das Problem der Willensfreiheit. Halle/Saale.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge/MA, London.

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