On the Concept of Sovereignty
Sovereignty is a helpful way to think of personal conscious agency.
Posted September 12, 2019
I am choosing to write this blog. But what exactly does this mean? The “free will versus determinism” has a legendary status in philosophy. The reason is that the lawful, mechanical physical deterministic nature of the universe clashes with our personal sense of the freedom of choice. Although many argue there is no way to resolve the conflicts, I think there are. A recent article by fellow Psychology Today blogger Michael Mascolo (and Eeva Kallio) published in Philosophical Psychology offers a brilliant analysis of how to think about these complex issues. Titled Beyond free will: The embodied emergence of conscious agency, the article articulates a model of self-conscious choice-making that is both consistent with modern psychological science and is commensurate with the obvious fact that it is meaningful to say humans make choices and have responsibility and are held accountable for their actions in the social context.
The key point to realize is that there are emergent regulatory feedback loops that result in increasingly complex adaptive systems of self-organization. As I describe, here, here, and here, human self-consciousness (which emerges in an interpersonal context) is an example of such a self-organizing, self-regulatory process. As Mascolo and Kallio point out in their work, this sets the stage for understanding human choice-making.
Let’s put this in the first-person language. Consider your life from your own vantage point. As you do, let me invite you to divide your experience of being-in-the-world into the following domains: First, there is your body that exists in relationship to the external environment. So, that is one basic division that is pretty obvious.
Now note the fact that you have a unique perspective on the world. A subjective point of view that only you have. This is your “lifeworld”. Now, let's categorize your experience into three levels: 1) the personal; 2) the mental, and 3) the biological. The personal is the self-conscious part of you. This is part of you that is deciding to read this blog and the part of me that decided to write it. The mental domain consists of your sensory inputs, motor outputs, and feelings and drives and other subconscious processes. These are "sub-personal" in that they connect to the personal domain, but they are not as directly controllable as the personal domain. For example, you can personally decide to stop reading this blog, but you cannot decide to “not see” the visual input that comes to you when you open your eyes. The biological part of you can be described as more "impersonal". It includes things like how your gut digests food or your kidneys work. As Mascolo and Kallio's analysis makes clear, these domains interrelate via complicated feedback loops.
This background on the concept of self-consciousness enables us to situate an important new analysis that is being developed by the futurist Jordan Hall and his collaborators called “sovereignty”. In his words, "sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.” If you are interested in a helpful conversation about the concept, see here.
Given the domains of the lifeworld described above, sovereignty relates to the domain of the personal. What is cool about it is that it enables us to consider the elements that go into the concept of the personal. Specifically, Hall divides personal sovereignty into three domains. First, there is the domain of (directed) perception. This refers to where one directs one’s attention and the facts and other patterns of the world one focuses on (i.e., the where and what you look at). Second, there is the domain of conceptual sense-making. In the language of the unified theory, this connects most obviously to one’s system of justification. It is the story that one develops of one’s perceptions—it is what one thinks is true and why that is the case and what should be done about it. Finally, there is agency. This refers to one’s capacity to act in the world and make the desired changes.
These are helpful frames for characterizing the personal dimension of existence. Another helpful feature of the concept is that it creates a dimension of functionality. High sovereignty refers to the experience of good perception that is aligned with effective conceptual sense-making and action that delivers expected and desired consequences. It would likely be associated with feelings of mastery, growth and adaptive control. In contrast, low sovereignty is the converse. Folks who are low on sovereignty feel things are out of control, confusing, and difficult to adjust to with any sense of regulatory mastery.
The three domains, together with the idea of a function dimensional analysis, make sovereignty a useful tool for understanding. Specifically, when we are feeling low sovereignty, we can then reflect on why this might be across the domains. For example, if one is feeling low sovereignty, perhaps they are focusing their attention on the wrong facts, patterns or indicators. Or maybe they are making sense of the patterns in a maladaptive or unhelpful way. Finally, maybe the person lacks the skills necessary to achieve the desired outcomes.
The point here is that the personal self-conscious system is a governing regulatory system that emerges out of experience and socialization. It enables us to act like persons who are responsible. And it follows from this responsibility to understand why we are held accountable for those actions by others in the social field. I am responsible for this blog. It resides within my domain of sovereignty. It seems that by describing the domains of sovereignty and whether a person’s sovereignty is high or low and situated in a broader context, a clearer picture of human personhood emerges.