Sunday 23 December 2012

Relics and agency

For many years, I have made a point of visiting the graves of philosophers, writers, artists, composers, mathematicians and scientists. I have made substantial detours for major philosophers. But a short walk from home today gave me pause for thought.

The walk was to St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, which is particularly associated with actors. I went there in search of Samuel Butler (Hudibras), Samuel Butler (Erewhon), and Janet Webb (the lady who comes down at the end, from Morecambe and Wise). I found none of them. Tombstones were too worn, and smaller markers had disappeared or become hidden in undergrowth. But the church is full of fresh, clear memorial tablets to many well-known actors. The bones or ashes of most of them are, so far as I know, elsewhere. The tablets may remind those who knew those commemorated, but for the rest of us, they do not seem to count anywhere nearly as much as the graves themselves would count. Why is that? Bones and ashes are not people, and after a few decades in damp soil, nothing will be left, as was found when an attempt was made to dig up relics of John Henry Newman in 2008 (although there is controversy about exactly what happened there).

One explanation of the magic of a real grave would be the existence of direct material connections between the living person, the fresh body and whatever now remains. But there is an alternative. This would be to say that what is important is not that the remaining matter was once part of the person, placing the emphasis on mereology, but that it was once intimately bound up with the person's activity, placing the emphasis on agency.

Why should we consider this option? One reason is that a person matters to those of us who did not know him or her because of what he or she did, so if things matter, it should be because of their roles as instruments of agency. (I use "instruments" in a broad sense, so as to accommodate both the view that our limbs are outer tools of an inner agent, and the view that an action is performed by the body as a whole, with no part of it being a mere tool of some inner agent.)

Another reason is that it would allow us to merge an account of the magic of graves with an account of the magic of writers' notebooks, artists' palettes, and the other items that one often finds in museums. Those items were also instruments of their owners' agency. Indeed, if one were to follow the line of thinking of Andy Clark, they would be extensions of the person, rather than mere external tools (see, for example, his paper "Reasons, Robots and the Extended Mind", Mind and Language, volume 16, number 2, March 2001).

A third reason is that a focus on agency would allow us to limit the extension to items in museums, so that it stopped at a sensible place. Items that anyone might happen to own, such as walking sticks or items of clothing, would be excluded from being legitimate possessors of magic. We would not become like Chick in L’Écume des jours, who obsessively collected anything associated with Jean-Sol Partre.

It might, however, allow us to continue to find magic in a great person's home. Home is where creative work is done, influenced by the atmosphere, the surrounding streets or fields, and the view. There are some things that are not directly instruments of agency, but that are so bound up with what someone did, that an agency-based approach to relics could accommodate them.