AUTONOMY (Greek ’αυτονομια, from ’αυτος [autos]—alone, νομος [nomos]—law)—the property of one who decides for himself or directs himself by his own laws; in general—the independence of some realm of reality or action from another, in particular—the independence of the practical order (values, customs) from the theoretical order (concerning being), the independence of man from society or institutions, of some institutions from others, of particular domains of culture from each other, or of culture from various institutions, and the independence of the natural world from the supernatural world.
In ancient Greece, autonomy was a central political concept. The Greeks pondered various forms of the political independence of society (Plato, Aristotle) and the relation of autonomy to freedom (the Stoics). In the literature of the Renaissance, writers considered man’s autonomy, and in particular the autonomy of his creative powers (Erasmus of Rotterdam). M. Luther thought that divine grace limited man’s autonomy. Religious wars were fought over man’s religious autonomy or the negation thereof. The degree of the individual’s autonomy from every kind of social group was defined in extreme terms and was explained in the theory of the social contract. A man may make a contract with other people to form a society and determine the conditions of the life of society, and so relinquish completely (T. Hobbes, J. J. Rousseau), or in part (J. Locke) his own natural rights to another individual (Hobbes, Locke), or to society (Rousseau). In the theory of the social contract individualistic liberalism and political absolutism both later sought rational justification. I. Kant presented a philosophy of the autonomy of the practical order in relation to the theoretical domain. Kant based this primarily on the autonomy of the will. He argued that the will does not derive any motives from outside of itself, as the ethical heteronomists would teach. One should behave in such a way that the rule of one’s conduct could become a universal norm. Ethics should need be constructed upon the proper order of being (ontonomia: ’ον [on]—being, νομος [nomos]—law), or on any authorities, but should be constructed according to the practical reason that decides for itself. Later N. Hartmann, M. Scheler, and the phenomenologists taught a certain type of autonomy in ethics. Legal scholars and politicians, beginning in the nineteenth, developed various kinds of autonomy of partial societies in relation to superior societies (e.g., sovereignty, i.e., absolute autonomy, federalism, decentralism; political autonomy understood as the possession of one’s own legislative organ was distinguished from self-government). Philosophers and theoreticians of culture tried to provide a rational justification for the need of various types of autonomy, e.g., the autonomy of one’s own I (J. G. Fichte), the autonomy of art (F. C. S. Schiller), the autonomy of the individual (H. Rickert), the autonomy of moral and legal norms (H. Kelsen). The political concept of autonomy was carried over to sociology where it was described in the categories of a theory of society (M. Weber). It was also employed in psychology and pedagogy (L. Nelson, G. W. Allport, J. Piaget). Theologians discussed the question of whether autonomy hinders theonomy, or vice versa (R. Otto, P. Tillich).
An exaggerated accent on the autonomy of the practical order (mainly from the times of Kant) divorced the practical order from the ontological hierarchy of reality. Meanwhile values and obligations are most closely connected with the ways persons and their products exist. For this reason, any theory of the practical order that does not explain it in terms of the ontological order of the world face insoluble difficulties. On the other hand, if they take as their starting point in the investigation the earthly realities of the ontological order, they properly establish the autonomy of these realities. The contingency and dependence of created beings leads to the conclusion that the autonomy of creatures (particularly man and his products, also familial, political, and ecclesial society) cannot be limited by anything. Their ontological and natural truth and goodness (cf. Genesis 1, 31) requires us to recognize and respect their laws. True autonomy thus belongs to created realities in the sense that they have their own laws and values (Gaudium et spes, 36); autonomy is thus not equivalent to independence from the Creator (Gaudium et spes, 20, 36), nor with breaking free from under all the norms of the natural and positive law (Gaudium et spes, 41).
The autonomy of society and institutions is necessary that they may fully achieve their ends. Thus, “the political community and the Church are independent and autonomous in their domains” (Gaudium et spes, 76). To realize her supernatural mission and to join human communities and nations, the Church must have true liberty (Gaudium et spes, 42) and freedom “in proclaiming the faith, in teaching its own social doctrine […], in passing moral judgment […], when the basic rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires this” (Gaudium et spes, 76). Regarding the family, “civil legislation should protect [its] absolute inviolability […] the right to provide a Christian education for children […] [it should] consider the needs of the family with regard to habitation, the education of children, the conditions of work, social protections, and taxes, and in the case of migration [it should] absolutely protect the community of family life” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 11).
THE AUTONOMY OF SCIENCE AND CULTURE. With respect to the distinctness of the supernatural and natural order, and with respect to differentiation within the natural order, we should recognize the autonomy of the domains of knowledge that are concerned with these orders and domains, and their own proper methods of research (cf. Gaudium et spes, 59). Investigations aimed at finding the truth performed methodically and with respect for moral norms are not opposed to the doctrine revealed by the Creator but are a participation (although often unconscious) in realizing the Creator’s plans for the created world (cf. Genesis 1, 28). The autonomy of culture and its particular domains is also necessary for the progress of humanity. “Culture should refer to the full perfection of the human person, to the good of the community, and that of human society as a whole” (Gaudium et spes, 59).
AUTONOMY IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF MAN. In philosophical anthropology, autonomy occurs on three planes of though about man: it expresses his absolute superiority (transcendence) to the reality that surrounds him, it emphasizes the complete and objective existence proper to him, and it points to sovereign subjectification (individual personal existence).
In relation to the world of nature, man appears as he who, while remaining profoundly connected with the world surround him, directs himself by his own laws (the laws of his own being; the mode of being determines the specifics of action), whereby he essentially transcends the world of animals and nature.
Man appears as an objective reality, a reality that is autonomous in the sense of being from how it known or the presuppositions of any system (more or less a priori). The character and meaning of his existence is objective. Human reality is not created by cognition. Nor is it created by society or culture broadly understood. In the context of culture only the actualization of what is objective occurs. Consequently, philosophical anthropology as it is practiced in the current of realistic philosophy is concerned with man as an objective reality, not as a more or less subjective product of man’s own experience of his existence.
Finally, autonomy refers to the sovereign subjectification of one’s own actions. Man appears as an autonomous, sovereign subject called “I” who performs “my” acts. Despite the real influence of various situational factors, it is man himself who autonomously undertakes actions. The fundamental limitation of subjective autonomy comes from within, while external factors are secondary. Actual subjective autonomy has been questioned by structuralism, among others.
In the history of human thought there have been attempts to deny or limit partially man’s autonomy for the sake of another man (T. Hobbes, J. Locke), or for society (J. J. Rousseau). All such attempts should be regarded as contrary to the affirmation of man’s proper dignity.
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Stanisław Kamiński, Bogdan Czupryn