Virtue Theory and the Medio-Passive Agent


Our end of year conference, ‘Virtue Theory and the Medio-Passive Agent’, took place in the Wolfson Conference Room, Senate House, London on Friday and Saturday 17-18th of June, 2016.

This event gathered together philosophers, working at the intersection of virtue theory and the philosophy of action, to discuss whether and how the idea of medio-passive virtues can be made theoretically coherent and practically applicable. The adjective ‘medio-passive’ is a reference to the Greek middle voice. In ancient Greek, one of the main uses of the middle voice – the so-called ‘ eventive’ use – was to indicate that the action is not under the full control of the agent but part of a more general process which befalls the agent. As noted by J. Gonda, a man taking a spouse would use the active voice, ‘γαμέω’, followed by an accusative, to say ‘I marry [you]’; but a woman in the same situation would use the middle voice, ‘γαμέομαι’, followed by a dative, to indicate that her taking a husband is also her being given away to him through marriage. In the same spirit, medio-passive virtues would be virtues the exercise of which requires both activity and passivity from the part of the agent. So conceived, the idea of medio-passive virtues promises to help overcome a problematic dichotomy in our ethical thinking: between agents, as those who do things, and patients, as those to whom things are done.





Day 1

09.00 – 09.30: Registration and Welcome (tea and coffee)
09.30 – 11.00: Jamie Ferreira (Department of Philosophy, Virginia): Ethics and Diminished Agency – a Kierkegaardian Perspective.
11.00 – 11.15: Break (tea and coffee)
11.15 – 12.45: Irene McMullin (Department of Philosophy, Essex): Patience is a Virtue.
12.45 – 13.45: Lunch
13.45 – 15.15: Béatrice Han-Pile (Department of Philosophy, Essex): Hope, Powerlessness and Agency.
15.15 – 15.30: Break (tea and coffee)
15.30 – 17.00: Robert Stern (Department of Philosophy, Sheffield): Surrendering or Overpowering? Medio-passivity in Løgstrup’s ethics.

Day 2

10.00 – 10.30: Registration and Welcome (tea and coffee)
10.30 – 12.00: Paul Katsafanas (Department of Philosophy, Boston): Two Conceptions of Motivation: Drive Psychology, Receptivity, and Spontaneity.
12.00 – 13.00: Lunch
13.00 – 14:30: Cornelia Richter (Institute of Protestant Theology, Bonn): Resilience – Baseline Characteristic, Coping Strategy, Virtue or Belief? An Ambivalent Phenomenon Under Critique.
14.30 – 14.45: Break (tea and coffee)
14.45 – 16.15: Mark Wrathall (Department of Philosophy, California): Human Agency, Immanence, and the Life of the Spirit.


Professor M. Jamie Ferreira received her PhD from Princeton University and taught at Yale University and the University of Virginia. In addition to numerous articles, she has published the following: KIERKEGAARD: An Introduction. Great Minds Series (2008); LOVE’S GRATEFUL STRIVING: A Commentary on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (2001); TRANSFORMING VISION: Imagination and Will in Kierkegaardian Faith (1991); SCEPTICISM AND REASONABLE DOUBT: THE BRITISH NATURALIST TRADITION (Wilkins, Hume, Reid, and Newman) (l986); DOUBT AND RELIGIOUS COMMITMENT: The Role of the Will in Newman’s Thought (1980)

Béatrice Han-Pile studied philosophy, history and literature at the École Normale Supérieure and was awarded a Fellowship from the Thiers Foundation while completing her doctoral thesis on Michel Foucault. Before coming to Essex in 1997, she taught in France at the Universities of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Reims and Amiens. She is the author of L’ontologie manquée de Michel Foucault (an updated version came out in 2002 with Stanford University Press as Foucault’s Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical). She has published a number of papers, mostly on Foucault, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger and aesthetics. She is currently working on medio-passive agency and its relation to the theological virtues, in particular hope and love.

Paul Katsafanas is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He works on topics at the interface of ethics and philosophy of mind, including the nature of agency and motivation; the structure of self-consciousness; and the way in which normative claims might be justified. He addresses these topics in part by mining the work of nineteenth-century philosophers including Nietzsche. Recent publications include The Nietzschean Self: Moral Psychology, Agency, and the Unconscious (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Agency and the Foundations of Ethics: Nietzschean Constitutivism (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Irene McMullin is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex. She specializes in phenomenology, existentialism, moral psychology, and ethical theory – especially virtue ethics and deontology. She completed her postgraduate work in Philosophy at the University of Toronto and Rice University. After spending a postdoctoral year at Bergische Universität, Wuppertal, she taught at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for six years before joining the Essex department in 2013. She is the author of Time and the Shared World: Heidegger on Social Relations (Northwestern UP, 2013), as well as articles on Husserl, Kant, Sartre, Arendt, and moral psychology. She is currently working on a book that combines existentialism and virtue ethics entitled “Existential Flourishing: A Phenomenology of the Virtues.

Dr. Cornelia Richter is currently Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Bonn, in addition to which she holds the position of director of the Bonn Institute of Hermeneutics and head of department of the Institute for Protestant Theology at the University of Cologne. After studying Theology and Philosophy in Vienna and Munich, in 2002 she was awarded a PhD in Systematic Theology in Marburg, Germany. During the years from 2003 to 2005 she was Assistant Research Professor at the Center for Subjectivity Research in Copenhagen and from 2005 to 2010 she completed in Marburg/Germany her habilitation, a prerequisite to receiving a full professorship at a German university. This was followed in 2010-2012 by affiliate professorships for Systematic Theology at the universities in Gießen and Zürich. In 2012 the University of Bonn accorded her full professor status for Theology.

Robert Stern has been professor of philosophy at University of Sheffield since 1989. His main interests in the history of philosophy are in nineteenth century post-Kantian German philosophy, especially Hegel. His interests in contemporary philosophy are in epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. He is currently working on the Danish philosopher and theologian K. E. Løgstrup. His first book was Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object (1990), and he has also written monographs on Transcendental Arguments and Scepticism (2000), and Understanding Moral Obligation: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard (2012), and a commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (2002). Two collections of his papers have been published: Hegelian Metaphysics (2009) and Kantian Ethics (2015). He has also edited volumes on Hegel, transcendental arguments, and pragmatism, and run a three year research project on idealism and pragmatism.

Mark Wrathall is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of California, Riverside. He works in the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, and is interested in issues surrounding selfhood, responsibility, authenticity, temporality, and the phenomenology of religious life. He is the author of Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History (Cambridge UP) and How to Read Heidegger (W.W. Norton). He has edited a number of volumes, including Religion after Metaphysics (Cambridge UP) and The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time (Cambridge UP).


Titles and Abstracts

M. Jamie Ferreira
I will examine how Kierkegaard’s thought can provide an important perspective on the ethics expected of those who experience diminished agency as well as the ethics expected of those who care for those with diminished agency. I will focus on how his thought can broaden our view of ways in which people need to be cared-for and can be cared-for even in situations in which little or nothing can be done by or for them in terms of reversing a terminal condition. First, I will use Works of Love to present Kierkegaard’s views on ethical equality, ethical obligation, ethical engagement, and compassionate love. Second, I will develop Kierkegaard’s general understanding of the value of imagination and the positive role it can play in ethical development and the practice of virtue because I consider it an important resource for reconstruing notions of ethical agency and choice, particularly in contexts of dependence. In both cases I think Kierkegaard foreshadowed many who later challenged traditional notions of autonomy as absolute independence or individuation through separation.

Béatrice Han-Pile
What has become known as the ‘orthodox’ definition of hope (OD) defines the latter as follows: A hopes that p if and only if (1) A desires that p and (2) A assigns to p a degree of probability between (and excluding) 0 and 1. Most recent critics start from the OD but deem it insufficient to account for strong hope and so propose further conditions. I identify the underlying problem they try to address, namely the ‘Low Probability Assignment Problem’ (LPAP). I return to the OD and draw out its agential implications for hope. I argue that two of the most influential accounts, P. Pettit’s and A. Martin’s, fail to provide a fix to the LPAP because they rely on an overly cognitivist and voluntaristic conception of the agency involved in hope, a conception which is in direct tension with the agential implications of the very OD they are trying to build upon. Finally, I clear the way for an alternative fix to the LPAP by exploring the minimum conditions on agency which would make an alternative solution compatible with the OD and true to the phenomenon. I refer to this kind of agency as ‘medio-passive’ and outline some of the ways it is played out in strong hope.

Paul Katsafanas
In the eighteenth through the early twentieth century, the concept of drive or instinct played a central role in explanations of human behavior. The essential claim about drives is that conscious appearances of activity often belie a deeper passivity: we’re ignorant of the way in which our conscious thoughts, intentions, deliberations are influenced or perhaps generated by typically unnoticed drives. Our conscious commitment to various goals would loose its force absent these deeper processes. Yet the correspondence between these consciously adopted goals and the drives motivating their adoption is often tenuous. This paper explains the notion of drive and discusses a tension in the concept that ultimately leads to its abandonment. According to one conception, made prominent by Freud, drives are responsive to perceptions of lack or deficiency; thus, hunger is a paradigmatic drive. This conception of drive, though familiar, ultimately reduces drives to generalized desires. According to an earlier conception of drives, embraced by Fichte, Nietzsche, and others, drives are spontaneous sources of activity: at root, they motivate us not to fulfill various lacks or deficiencies, but to be active merely for the sake of being active. I argue in favor of this earlier conception of drives and discuss the way in which it goes along with a distinctive conception of agency.

Irene McMullin
In this paper I examine the virtuousness of patience on the basis of an account of flourishing understood as adequately responding to and balancing claims arising from the three different normative domains that shape and constrain human life; namely, the claims posed by self, other, and shared world. On this picture the virtues can be understood as the stances through which we respond well to these three normative terrains, and in particular, the way that we accomplish this responsivity in the face of particular existential challenges. Thus like the other virtues, patience is a problem-solving stance directed toward overcoming a particular challenge to human excellence that is built in to the human condition. In this case, the challenge posed by human finitude – especially temporal finitude. Patience involves granting the other person time and space for the expression of her agency at the cost of one’s own, often in the face of that person’s limitations and failings in doing so. I will argue in particular that patience and tolerance are two different aspects of what might be considered the same virtue. They differ in whether giving the other person time is motivated by love for that particular person or by a commitment to a world in which all people have a right to such expressions of agency. I will also examine the extent to which the patient person must understand human limitations and failures – in both herself and others – as simply conditions of life to be accepted as opposed to flaws that warrant blame.

Cornelia Richter
Resilience is currently not only a topic of research but has made its way to the broader public as well: It serves as an idea of recreation and hope for better overcoming experiences of crisis. Even though research has been running high for over forty years now since Emmy E. Werner first published her longitudinal study in 1971, there is no clear answer yet on what generates resilience in the end: Some focus on baseline characteristics, others on coping mechanisms, others again put the accent on outcome variables. In my first part I will show in which way all three approaches have contributed excellent and convincing results but still do not cover the phenomenon as a whole. One of the main problems is that resilience is considered as something coherent in a dominantly positive way so that everybody would certainly want to achieve resilience. In my research, however, I start the other way round – which I will present in my major and second part: Resilience is approached as a highly ambivalent phenomenon of crisis which develops or at least becomes visible only in and by experiencing situations of deep crisis. If that were the case, however, then resilience would certainly lose its character of innocence and simple factor of well-being. In my third part I will explain in which way this approach has been shaped by my former research on trust and belief: The Christian faith is based on the core idea that it is through death that we will discover new life. So there is high awareness for the desparate and existentially demanding experiences of crisis leading to experiences of ultimate powerlessness. Because of that awareness the Christian tradition has found many ways of expressing such existential crisis, of living with (not: against) it and of therein opening new perspectives on life itself.

Robert Stern
This paper will discuss the ethics of K. E. Løgstrup from the perspective of medio-passivity as an account of ethical agency. Some degree of passivity is important to Løgstrup’s account, as he holds that only then can the inherent selfishness of the agent’s own will be overcome, in such a way as to enable him or her to act for the good of the other person. On the other hand, if the will has to be overcome completely, then it is not clear that we can attribute any agency to the individual at all, and thus see individuals as agents who bear any responsibility for what occurs. Insofar as medio-passivity combines passivity with some remaining element of agency, in the idea that the self surrenders itself, this may seem an attractive option for Løgstrup. However, the paper will consider whether this option is really open to him, and whether instead he has a more radical view, so that in ethical action the self does not give itself up, but is rather overpowered. We will also consider whether this is a form of total passivity that raises the worries mentioned above, or rather still a way of combining the passive and active but in a manner that diverges from the medio-passive conception.

Mark Wrathall
A consummate form of Christian life is the life of the spirit, and the practice of Christianity is aptly described as learning to walk by the spirit (see Galatians 5: 16-25). “The instinct [phronēma] of the flesh is death,” Paul wrote, “but the instinct of the spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8: 6). In this paper, I look at some ways in which those who aspire to the life of the spirit understand and describe their own experience as agents. These self-descriptions of this practice resist interpretation using the conceptual resources of the modern secular age. Taking the ideal and the practice seriously in their own terms, I shall argue, points us to a different conception of human agency and human transcendence.


The conference took place in the Wolfson Conference Room at Senate House.

You can find directions to this location here or on Google Maps using the postcode WC1E 7HU.

Please note that the conference is in the North block of Senate House. Once you get into the foyer you should go through the entrance marked ‘Institute of Historical Research’ (please see map below).

Senate House Map



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