Tag Archives: Lewis White Beck

Agent, Actor, Critic, and Spectator

To understand all (causally) is to forgive all (normatively). To understand all (normatively) is to forgive nothing, for it is to talk about norms, not people; about mathematics, in which there is no error and no responsibility, and not about mathematicians, who do make mistakes.

— Lewis White Beck

Here is a set of distinctions by philosopher Lewis White Beck that may have some relevance to thinking about human determination and action. Beck was most renowned as a scholar of Kant.

  • Agent: a person X who thinks they are responsible and free in choices and actions (essentially a “free” agent), with motives and reasons
  • Actor: a person X who thinks they are an agent but is judged by a Spectator Y to not be free and instead determined by external causes
  • Spectator (diagrammed as Viewer): a person Y who observes any X and explains their actions exclusively by causal terms, and so judges them to be an Actor
  • Critic: a person Z who is in a position to agree with X that X is indeed an Agent or a Spectator Y that X is instead an Actor

A great deal of language revolves around explaining our behavior and that of others, both for the benefit or detriment to ourselves and others. All of us would usually rather be free and responsible agents than causally determined actors, but certainly we are not entirely free to act no matter how little we are not. Philosophical discussion of human action continues to be commonly cast into terms such as agency, action, intention, and even authenticity.

Beck later returned to these ideas for his Ernst Cassirer lectures, and a book of them was published in 1975. By the title and a short description, it appears that Beck reduced the fourfold to a mere dual, in order to simplify as well as elaborate his ideas (but I cannot say for sure as I have not read it). Still, I like the original fourfold scheme that in my mind bears likenesses to others presented here (for example, Modal Verbs.)

Further Reading:

Lewis White Beck / Agent, Actor, Spectator, and Critic, The Monist , April, 1965, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 167-182
http://www.jstor.com/stable/27901588

Lewis White Beck / The Actor and the Spectator: foundations of the theory of human action (1975)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_White_Beck

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy)

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/agency/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_(philosophy)

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/action/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intention

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intention/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authenticity_(philosophy)

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authenticity/

[*4.40, *4.108, *7.38, *9.66]

<>