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Is there a "dispositional modality"? Maine de Biran and Ravaisson on agency and inclination

Sinclair, M (2015) Is there a "dispositional modality"? Maine de Biran and Ravaisson on agency and inclination. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 32. ISSN 0740-0675


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In Getting Causes from Powers, Mumford and Anjum argue that (1) powers or dispositions, as inherently tendential, have a modal status irreducible to more familiar notions of necessity or possibility and (2) we have a direct experience of this sui generis modality in our experience of agency. What they call the "dispositional modality" is, they contend, a phenomenological datum, and this datum can serve as the basis of a general theory of powers. In this essay, I respond to this argument with reference to two nineteenth-century philosophers seldom studied in the anglophone world but no less pivotal in the development of French philosophy: Pierre Maine de Biran and Félix Ravaisson. Maine de Biran, I contend, allows us to see how the appeal to voluntary agency in Getting Causes from Powers is unconvincing and ultimately illegitimate, whilst Ravaisson's account-in his 1838 De l'habitude-of agency becoming, in the acquisition of a habit, a function of inclination, provides one way of thinking about what is required if we are to justify and cash out Mumford and Anjum's interesting ideas concerning the modality of dispositions.

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