Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 19–37 | Cite as

Process, habit, and flow: a phenomenological approach to material agency

  • Tailer G. RansomEmail author


The artefactual environment is not just the passive, inert background against which the drama of human and non-human animal life plays out; but rather, the built environment plays an active role in the structure of agency. This is an insight that Lambros Malafouris (2013) has articulated in his framework of Material Engagement Theory (MET). I will discuss the enactive-embodied and dynamic approaches to cognition and action, emphasizing the ways that this approach leads to taking MET seriously by force of its own theoretical commitments. That is, material engagement is a natural development of these models of mind, specified to the particularities of the human historical situation. I will then discuss Theiner and Drain’s (2017) critique of HMA, in which they argue that we should replace material agency with materially-scaffolded agency. Scaffolded agency, however, is too weak of a conception of how material culture shapes agency, and is a notion continues to privilege the sense of agency as a mark of what genuinely constitutes agency proper. Drawing on Steward (2016) I propose a definition of material agency that emphasizes the idea that agency is a process, and I suggest that material agency is better captured by the phenomenological experience of flow (Vuorre and Metcalf 2016). This phenomenological understanding of material agency both responds to Theiner & Drain’s critique, and emphasizes the importance of investigating material culture phenomenologically.


Material agency Experience of flow Habit Enactivism Material engagement theory 



This work has benefitted tremendously from the feedback of Mike Butler, Nicolle Brancazio, Marta Caravà, and Morgan Elbot. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their careful and insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of MemphisMemphisUSA

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