Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Manifested by an Agent

The word "design" has recently been given new importance by its association with creationism. This is the belief that life on earth did not (just) evolve, i.e., develop through a series of random mutations that were then "selected" by the environment. Rather, argue the "intelligent design" theorists, someone or something made us. Something or someone wanted us to exist, intended us to be (more or less) as we are. Our bodies and their capacities are the expression of a plan, not just, as evolutionists believe, the fortuitous result of a long, natural process. Whether the designer is God or an advanced alien life form, the important thing is that it possesses agency, it is able to act with the aim of bringing something about.

Ralph and Wand's (2009) definition of design, completely unrelated to creationism of course, also stipulates an agent. Design must be "manifested by an agent", they tell us. A designed object is always "artificial", man-made. And, though I suppose this is open to stylistic variation and shifting tastes, a designed object is generally made to look artificial. The attempt to make an object look like something nature made often results in kitsch. In an important sense, the object must not just be the product of design; it must manifest the will of the designer.

In any case, scholarly articles, too, must manifest agency. They must appear to be created by an intelligent being, who wanted the text to be as it is, who had a "plan" for it, and exercised his or her (or its) own capacity for action to realize that plan in the "specified object" (the article). A journal article must not look like it came about through a series of fortunate accidents, random mutations that just happened to survive the dangers in some hostile environment (the peer-review process). A journal article is a paper that is manifestly trying to say something and there should be a sense, in reading it, that there is some agency behind it, some one who is trying to say it.

The agency that a journal article manifests is known simply as "the author". In the case of the co-authored paper, this "one-ness" of the agent is important, I should add. A paper should not look like it is the result of struggle for dominance between two brutes. It should manifest a "meeting of minds" that is, for all intents and purposes, a single intelligence. This authorial persona is of course a construction—it is in many ways part of the design. It certainly should be. Indeed, the sense we get of the agency behind the text is part of the meaning of the text as a whole.

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