Autonomy as self-authorship, a brief history


This material, including the bullet points at the end, comes from a handout by Ben Colburn.


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, 1486:

thou mayest feel as thine own, have as thine own, possess as thine own the seat, the form, the gifts which thou thyself shalt desire... In conformity with thy free judgment, in whose hands I have placed thee, thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself... Thou, like a judge appointed for being honourable, art the moulder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer.”


Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1810:

“There is no pursuit whatever that may not be enobling and give to human nature some worthy and determinate form. The manner of its performance is the only thing to be considered.”


John Stuart Mill, 1859:

“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”


Joseph Raz, 1986:

“The ruling idea behind the ideal of personal autonomy is that people should make their own lives. The autonomous person is a (part) author of his own life. The ideal of personal autonomy is the vision of people controlling, to some degree, their own destiny, fashioning it through successive decisions throughout their own lives.”


Two shared components to all these views:

·         Determining one’s plan(s) in life; settling what counts as being successful or not. (‘Deciding for oneself what is valuable...’)

·         Actively and successfully pursuing those plans (‘... and living one’s life in accordance with that decision’)