Philosophical Studies

, Volume 172, Issue 10, pp 2777–2798 | Cite as

Performance, self-explanation, and agency

  • Ron MallonEmail author


Social constructionist explanations of human thought and behavior hold that our representations (e.g. of race, or gender, or mental illness, or emotion) produce and regulate the categories, thoughts, and behaviors of those they represent. Performative versions of constructionist accounts explain these thoughts and behaviors as part of an intentional, strategic performance that is elicited and regulated by our representations of ourselves. This paper has four aims. First, I sketch a causal model of performative social constructionist claims. Second, I articulate a puzzling feature of performative claims that makes them seem especially implausible: the puzzle of intention and ignorance. Like other constructionists, performative constructionists are especially interested in explaining thoughts and behaviors that are widely but mistakenly believed to be the unintentional consequences of membership in a natural kind. But why doesn’t the intentional performance of a category undermine this ignorance? My third aim is to resolve this puzzle. I suggest that a plausible understanding can be found in the failure to locate one’s mental states in a causal explanation of one’s thoughts and actions. Finally, I argue that this model implies that the sorts of theories we (as a community or as a culture) offer of particular behaviors can create or destroy agency and responsibility with regard to those behaviors.


Social construction Race Gender Self-knowledge Agency Responsibility Performance Performativity 



Research and writing of this paper was supported by the Princeton University Center for Human Values and the American Council of Learned Societies. I am grateful to Chrisoula Andreou, John Doris, Anne Eaton, Aaron Meskin, Shaun Nichols, Philip Pettit, Anya Plutynksi, and Stephen Stich, and audiences at Arizona, Arizona State, Duke, Houston, Princeton, Tulane, Washington University in St. Louis and Western Michigan for helpful discussion or comments on earlier drafts.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology ProgramWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

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