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Aspiration

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Agnes Callard’s primary areas of specialization are Ancient Philosophy and Ethics. Here she discusses the problem of our future selves, the distinction between hedonism and desire-satisfaction,the practice of Socratic protreptic, why aspiration is not the same as ambition, why adventures aren’t aspirational, akrasia (weakness of will), how aspiration helps us overcome old points of view, whether we’re responsible for the people we become, and should we work on becoming the future person, whether her view denies free-will and choice, how aspiration helps avoid two evils of liberal education and whether she’s an Aristotelian or Humean about all this. Then she talks about reasons to be angry forever and the contrast between anger and sadness.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Agnes Callard: I did. (I just wrote a book defending the possibility of self-creation.)
Do you want to know why I did it?

3:AM: I really do.

AC: I am someone who is constitutionally susceptible to flatterers. Flatterers sniff this out in me, and they tell me what I have always longed to hear: “You are different.” “All your critics misunderstand you.” “You are already exactly who you should be.” The more absurd, the more over-the-top, the more inclined I am to eat it up. It is like a drug, in that you become willing to do anything to get more. But drugs only destroy your body and your mind. Flattery destroys your soul; in the end, it is you who are eaten.

There is a story for when the flatterers come whispering, and it is the philosophers’ story: once upon a time there was a man who heard the words of the oracle. It said no one was wiser than he. Was he flattered into thinking of himself as the lone wise unicorn in a land of foolish mules? No. He understood that the words of the oracle were not just for him. The oracle was just using his name, “Socrates,” as an example; the oracle was not saying he was wise, so much as saying that he was right to seek wisdom; the oracle was not setting him apart, it was telling him to go out and learn from the people around him by refuting them.

The words of the oracle are also for me, and they tell me what they told Socrates: that I am not a unicorn. They command me to go out and learn from the people around me. I must refute and be refuted. Refutation is the philosopher’s secret weapon against flatterers. It flushes them out. Flatterers are on the lookout for the vulnerabilities on which they might capitalize; they are listening for what you are unwilling to come out and say. They can criticize and degrade, but they cannot refute. Nor can they acknowledge being refuted—for they reflexively evade. Refutation means running headlong into your interlocutor; refutation is never circumspect.

Refutation also protects you from your greatest flatterer: yourself. Right now, as you are reading this, you are probably telling yourself, “I am basically ok, I roughly understand how things go, or at least well enough to soldier on.” You are telling yourself that (your) human wisdom is worth something. But is it? Do you even know what it is to do anything? Philosophers worry, for example, about what an action is, how an action could be rational—especially in light of the possibility of intentionally acting against your better judgment (akrasia). To some, the possibility of akrasia has seemed to threaten the project of giving any coherent account of what it is to act intentionally.

One might respond to those kinds of worries by saying, “What’s the problem? Either way, the bridges stand and the cash registers work.” This response implicitly accuses the philosopher of retreating from the real world to invest herself in arcana. But the accuser assumes that, even without philosophy, we have everything we need to get by in the ‘real’ world. That’s a bad assumption.

Because consider: what is a bridge? It is a tool that makes the crossing of water up to us. Without bridges, one could still happen to get across—for instance, if by chance a strong wind blew one across. Bridges are there to facilitate the intentional action of crossing; they let us choose to cross, to cross at will. If there is no such thing as “choosing” or “willing,” then everything is by chance, and it doesn’t matter whether there’s a bridge there or not. Likewise, cash registers facilitate the action of buying food. If there were no actions, the keys of the cash register could still be pressed, and people could hand over their money and take their food, but “pressing” and “handing” and “taking” would mean something different from what we standardly mean by them. Because we use those words to describe what people choose or will to do. If the concept of intentional action is broken, all the bridges and cash registers of the world are broken alongside it.

It’s not ok not to understand what you are doing, to be ignorant of who you are and what your life is about. That isn’t “getting by.” If you think you can get by without philosophy you are flattering yourself, indulging in a fundamental kind of complacency that is native to us all, and from which we vainly seek freedom through travel or wealth or power or sensual indulgence. The only true liberation from it is philosophy. The Big Questions in philosophy—external world skepticism, moral realism or anti-realism, deontology vs. consequentialism, freedom of the will, the existence of God, the problem of consciousness, the—these are all ways of calling into question the basic conceptual tools we use to get around everyday. What it is to ask these questions is to continuously be engaged in refuting your own life, which is to say, looking it squarely in the eye.

All of this is hard to see, because we have built up many defenses against letting arguments in to our lives. We think arguments are there for convincing others, not for becoming convinced ourselves; we view being moved by argument as a form of vulnerability or weakness. We don’t see that the beneficiary of the refutation is always and only the one who is refuted. This is what someone misses who asks philosophers to be more productive or supportive or friendly: “why don’t you say positive things, build one another up, improve one another’s arguments instead of tearing them to shreds?” Refuting someone is improving her argument; it is helping; it is building her up. Unless what is meant by “bulding her up” is: preserving her defenses against argument by supporting the illusion that she is getting by. Philosophers refuse to flatter.

Philosophy opens you up to the Socratic point of view, which is that refutation is the greatest favor one human being can do another. I actually think Socrates understated that point. I made myself a philosopher because I think refutation is the only way I can really, substantively, help either myself or those around me.

Cover for Aspiration

3:AM: Your new book is called Aspiration and for you aspiration steers close to normal usage meaning something like ‘rational value acquisition’. Can you first say something about what the problem of our future selves is that this is designed to solve.

AC: Sure.  It might actually be easiest to start by thinking of past selves—if we think back, we can recall earlier versions of ourselves who didn’t care about many of the things we now care about. The question is: how did we get from there to here?  How did we come to be passionately invested in political activism or motherhood or fashion or classical music or whatever?

One possibility is that we were shaped by outside forces: other people or events made us into the people we are now—they made us care about what we now care about.  If that were true, our values would be wholly produced by our environments.  But that answer is unappealing.  First, it robs us of agency with respect to what is, arguably, the core of ourselves: our values are what matters both to and about us.  Second, is seems false to our experience of “growing up.”  Many of us feel that we spent some of those early years searching for a kind of meaning and we found it in motherhood or music or philosophy.  Coming to care about those things was work that we did—it was hard!—and that work of searching and perfecting our grasp of the value was not done for us by outside forces.  We did it.

Another possibility is that we made ourselves into the people we are now by deciding to care about motherhood or music or philosophy.  This is a way of acknowledging the ‘activity’ of the process, putting the agent at the helm of her own self-transformation.  But it seems to overstate the point.  If I knew then what I know now, I certainly would’ve “decided” to become a philosopher.  But back when I was working my way here, I didn’t really know what a philosopher was, or why one would want to be one.  I didn’t have the materials for making the relevant decision—and by the time I did, I was already a philosopher.  It doesn’t seem as though it would ever be rational to “decide” to acquire a value whose value you cannot yet grasp—and yet, I think, becoming a mother or fashionista or philosopher can be a rational process.

If you don’t think that value-acquisition can be modeled as fully passive (being shaped by outside forces) or as fully active (the product of decision making), then you see a problem.  The theory of aspiration is a solution to that problem—it says that I do make myself into the person I become, but that “making” has less the character of deciding and more the character of learning.

3:AM: Is this process one of getting one’s desires satisfied and in this sense is the aspirant a hedonist? Or is it a Socratic process that desires the good as distinct from just what one wants and is the latter what characterises the ‘proleptic reasons’ involved in aspiration?

AC: So first I’d want to distinguish between hedonism and the project of desire-satisfaction.  I’m using the word desire broadly—it covers anything you want, for any reason.  Given this usage, hedonism and desire-satisfaction only come together insofar as what one desires is pleasure.  Consider what happens when I desire, e.g., world peace.  Insofar as I seek desire-satisfaction, I seek to bring about world peace.  Success might give me pleasure, but pleasure wouldn’t have been my goal.  I think aspirants aim neither at pleasure nor at desire-satisfaction.  They aim at desire-acquisition, and, in terms of pleasure, at developing the capacity to take pleasure in something new.

Now in order to try to acquire some new desire, one must presently have some old desire that orients one at least roughly in the direction of the new one.  But it doesn’t follow that the new desire is a way of satisfying the old one.  The new desire could, instead, be the proper articulation or fullest expression of the old one.  When Socrates is engaging in a protreptic argument to turn his interlocutor towards the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, he often identifies some (old) kernel that he hopes to “work up” into a (new) love of wisdom: “if you like money, prestige, good fortune, friendship, etc., you’ll love wisdom.”  What he’s doing is trying to show them that what they really wanted in wanting, say, money, was wisdom (or knowledge—I’m using the terms interchangeably here)

So, for example, in Alcibiades I, he turns Alcibiades’ attention to his own boundless tyrannical ambition: Alcibiades wants to rule, but if he had to restrict himself to ruling only over the Athenians (and not the Spartans), he would rather die.  And if Alcibiades had to restrict himself to ruling only over all the Greeks, but not the Persians—once again, he would rather die.  Such a paltry amount of power would not suffice to make life worth living.  Instead of criticizing Alcibiades for this ambition, Socrates praises him.  Alcibiades’ ambition is Socrates’ only reason for being interested in talking to him.  If Alcibiades could be contented with anything shorter than ruling the world, Socrates would have lost interest in him long ago.  But—and here is that distinctive Socratic turn—Socrates is going to show Alcibiades that when he says things like “I want to rule the world,” what he really means is “I want to acquire wisdom and virtue.”

So yes, I do think that my conception of aspiration owes a lot to Socrates, and to the practice of Socratic protreptic specifically.

3:AM:     Can you say a little more about how we should understand proleptic reasons and why the work they do can’t be done by more familiar reason and why they can’t be internal reasons?

AC: A proleptic reason is an acknowledgedly defective variant of a more standard reason.  So suppose I want to go to the store to get milk.  I know what I am doing and why.  By contrast, when I want to become a lover of classical music, I don’t (exactly) know what I’m doing, and I don’t (exactly) know why I’m doing it.  If you want answers to those questions, you’d be well advised to ask my future self rather than me.  But I’m the one who needs to become motivated—so what are my reasons for advancing towards the knowledge that my future self will have?

I think the aspirant’s reason has two parts: a proximate face that speaks to her current motivational makeup and a distal face that points to the motivations of the person she will become.  If I am an aspirant with respect to classical music, I might be motivated by the fact that I want a good grade in my music appreciation class, or I want to be sophisticated and cultured—but for a true aspirant these will only constitute part of the story.  The aspirant is embarrassed that grades and appearances matter to her, and she is trying to become the person whose responses to classical music aren’t driven or dictated by those sorts of considerations.  In order to understand her rational makeup, we need to take account of both of these facts.  Internalism has an easy time with the first, a harder time with the second.

The thesis of internalism is one that relativizes reasons to one’s motivational makeup: very roughly, I have reason to do what (I have reason to believe) will satisfy the desires I currently have. I’ve argued that facts about desires one seeks to have cannot be re-expressed as facts about what one already desires.  When I apprehend the inadequacy of my own motivational makeup, in the form of my dissatisfaction with the fact that grades are what motivate me to listen to classical music, that is not just another desire.  It is an attempt to acquire a desire.

As an analogy: if you think there is (really) such a thing as, e.g. an arrow’s being in motion, you will think that it is not expressible as a set of ‘static’ facts about a series of positions the arrow occupies over time, no matter how densely ordered.  I believe Aristotle thought this—he was a realist about motion/change. He felt that anyone, such as the ancient atomists, who analyzed change in terms of a series of instants rules out the possibility that something is moving.  Likewise, internalism seeks to understand all forms of agency in terms of rational responses to what the agent (statically) desires at a given time.  But this doesn’t leave room for realism about aspiration: the aspirant is in a kind of ethical motion.

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3:AM: Aspiration is not the same as ambition is it for you? Can you say why ambition and aspiration are distinct for you, and why ambition doesn’t help resolve the question of future selves?

AC: Correct, they are not the same, though here I want to grant that the point is somewhat stipulative: I think sometimes people use “aspiration” and “ambition” as synonyms, but I use those words to mark two different concepts.  Ambition is the process of improving one’s lot by making a large change whose value one fully grasps in advance.  It aims to satisfy desires rather than to acquire desires.  So, for instance, if I want to become President or bring about world peace or make 1 million dollars—and if I believe that I know exactly what I will get out of reaching my goal—then the process by which I get from here to there is ambition.

The reason this doesn’t raise the problem of future selves is that when the successful ambitious person looks back to the period in which she was making the money or running for office or calling for an end to war, she sees a past self who grasped the values in question in exactly the way her present self does. She knew, before she began (e.g.) campaigning, just what her goals were, and why those were the goals to have.  So the path from there to here is not one of self-change.  Though we couldn’t analyze aspiration in terms of a decision to become a new person, we can analyze ambition that way: the ambitious person decides to embark upon the project of wealth or presidency or world peace, because she already knows why it would be good for that project to succeed.

It is, however, worth noting that ambition can turn into aspiration: someone who thinks he has a handle on what he is going to get out of, e.g., a certain career comes to see how much he has to learn about the distinctive mode of life he is coming to inhabit.  Aspiration can also turn into ambition.  This happens when someone comes to fully grasp a value before she can fully realize or achieve it.

3:AM: Why don’t you think people going off and having adventures count either?

AC: In my book I say that a young adult who sets out for Europe to “find herself”  won’t count an aspirant “unless there is something more specific she is trying to find.” (p.7)  What I mean by that is that aspiration is not a matter of putting yourself in a position to let the values, as it were, impress themselves on you.  That process is more passive than aspiration.  The aspirant actually reaches out for some specific value and tries to grasp and understand it.  In order to be the one who does this work—to guide herself towards it—there must be somewhere she is trying to go.  She cannot be, as it were, allowing herself to drift down the current of value.  Here’s something I don’t come out and say in the book, but I think it’s true: there is no such thing as fully passive value-acquisition.  Values aren’t the sort of things that can be acquired that way, they can’t, to adapt a Socratic line, just get ‘poured into’ you.  I didn’t say that in the book—I restricted myself to arguing that aspiration isn’t passive value-acquisition—because I couldn’t produce the argument for the stronger claim that there is no such thing as passive value-acquisition.  But I’m working on that!

3:AM: Can you say whether akrasia is important in this and what conception of akrasia you think relevant if it is?

AC: So if what you mean by “is important in this,” is, “is important for understanding aspiration,” the answer is that I don’t think it is.  I don’t think you need to understand akrasia in order to understand aspiration.  The situation is close to reversed: aspiration helps you understand akrasia– and this is how I came to think about aspiration in the first place.  I was trying to explain the fact that people sometimes intentionally act against their better judgment—for instance when you break your diet to eat a cookie you know you would be better off leaving on the plate—and I was hitting a road block:  If the akratic is acting intentionally, which is to say acting for a reason, then she must be doing what she thinks she ought to do.  But if acting intentionally entails acting non-akratically, then akrasia is impossible.

The standard way to respond to this argument is to say that akratics act on a reason, just not on what they take to be their best reason.  They act on a reason that has already been outweighed in the deliberation that led them to the conclusion that they ought to act otherwise.  So, for instance, I eat the cookie because it is tasty, even though I judge that considerations of health outweigh those of gustatory pleasure.  But I argued (in my paper, “The Weaker Reason”) that it is conceptually impossible to act on a reason you have already acknowledged to be outweighed by another consideration.  You can’t count the reason in favor of acting if you’ve already counted it in the deliberations that lead you to the conclusion that you ought to act otherwise.  That’s double counting.

So how is akrasia possible?  What I came to see was that akrasia required a new moral psychological framework, one that allows an agent to apprehend sets of considerations without being able to reckon them all up.  The reason the akratic acts on is one she didn’t—couldn’t—take account of in your deliberations.  In order to construct a partition that runs deep enough that deliberation can’t cross it, I found that I had to think in terms of the kinds of partitions that separate us from our past and future selves.  I call this the theory of “intrinsic conflict.”  An intrinsically conflicted agent is one who sees the world from two ethical points of view, where the divide is deep enough that the reasons can’t be “added up.”  I argue that aspiration is the way in which we act to resolve intrinsic conflict, and akrasia is a mark of intrinsic conflict that has been left unresolved, usually from the evaluative perspective of childhood: a desire for immediate pleasure/gratification is the evaluative perspective we’ve all inhabited at one point, and some of us have aspired out of it more successfully than others.

3:AM:     How then are we to overcome our old points of view for a new one that isn’t yet ours?

AC:By aspiring!  What that amounts to is going to differ under different circumstances, but here’s a paragraph from my book that attempts a bird’s eye-view: “We [aspire] by becoming spectators, taking classes, doing exercises. We find mentors to emulate or fellow travelers with whom to commiserate— and compete. We do the same thing over and over and over again until we get it right, without knowing in advance what “right” is. We do work we don’t always enjoy, and we pretend— even to ourselves— that we enjoy it. We leave ourselves open to certain kinds of experiences and closed to others, knowingly risking disappointment and disillusionment down the line. We alert ourselves to and steel ourselves against temptations to abandon course in favor of a more readily available and more immediately intelligible form of value. Candy, television, alcohol, a nap, video games, internet surfing— pick your poison; it’s waiting in the wings. We struggle against implicit or explicit messages, from individuals or groups of individuals, to the effect that this kind of value is “not for you.” Often these struggles are heightened by the fact that we have internalized the judgments in question. The work that we are engaged in is the work of bringing something into view. But because what we are bringing into view is something practical— a value— the work is a matter of acting and feeling, as well as thinking.”  (p.195)

3:AM: How responsible are we then for becoming the people we become? Should we actively work to create our future personhood?

AC: The answer to this question depends, first, on to what extent the people we have become are good people and, second, to the cooperativeness of our environment in our aspirational projects. So, assuming that we have become the sorts of people who value things that are in fact valuable, I say that we are responsible for having become those people to the extent that we got there by aspiring.  If two children both learn to appreciate the same piece of music, but one grew up with every musical advantage one could think of (innate talent, musical family, ample leisure time) and the other has had to struggle in all those respects, the first is likely to be less responsible for the relevant value-acquisition than the second.  But I do not tell the analogous story about cases in which we become bad people.  I argue that we cannot become bad by aspiring: aspiring is a form of value-learning, and you cannot learn what is not the case.  Responsibility for the acquisition of bad values is a matter of one’s culpability for failing to aspire out of those bad values, and into good ones.  Here again, questions about one’s environment are relevant: if your learning environment was impoverished or abusive, you are less responsible for failing to aspire than you would be in a supportive environment.

3:AM:Should we actively work to create our future personhood?

AC: Socrates thinks the answer is yes.  A well-lived human life is one that contends with the bottomlessness of our ignorance, and the distance from which we stand to virtue.  Not only are we never done perfecting ourselves, but that project is necessarily such a taxing one that we should devote the whole energy of life to it.

On (what I take to be) an Aristotelian picture of human development, the answer will be that it depends on how old “we” are.  Aristotle thinks that the aspirational period of your life is the first part, when you are developing the fixed character that will mark your adulthood.  It would be self-indulgent to spend your whole life aspiring, because that would be a way of spending your whole life benefitting yourself.  You should acquire some virtue, and then you should exercise that virtue by doing good things for the people around you, building a flourishing human community.

I don’t take a stand on this issue in the book, but I’m inclined to try to carve a middle path here—aspiration continues to be appropriate past one’s teenage years, but it does come to occupy a less central part of one’s ethical endeavors.

3:AM: Doesn’t this view suggest that there are fewer excuses for my being who I am than would be the case if we didn’t have this view of active self-creation. For someone who doesn’t believe in freewill, for example, they might say that there is no chance of escape from determining factors such as genetics and environment. Is your theory a denial of lack of freewill and choice?

AC: First, let’s distinguish two kinds of questions about freedom of the will.  One might ask whether someone is responsible for what they do—let’s call that responsibility for action—and one might ask whether someone is responsible for the kind of person they are—let’s call that responsibility for self.  Galen Strawson has argued that responsibility for action boils down to responsibility for self, and many philosophers have resisted this move.  I don’t take a stand on the connection between the two forms of responsibility, and I don’t have anything to say about responsibility for action.  My theory of aspiration is only a theory about responsibility for self.  And it is, indeed, a way of resisting a radical skeptic on that front: I argue that the thesis that we are never responsible for the kinds of people we are is wrong.  But I don’t hold the directly opposing view either—I think we aren’t always responsible for being the kinds of people we are.  Instead of suggesting that there are fewer excuses, the aspiration theory gives you an account of what excuses are and how they work: an excuse for one’s badness would have to point to a feature of one’s environment that explains why one isn’t culpable for having aspired to be other than one is.  I think there are in fact such features, though, once again, I don’t offer a theory of what those are.

It’s worth noting that my approach to responsibility for self is less totalizing than most others on the market—most philosophers tend to argue that either no one has free will or that everyone (apart from a few weird cases) has it.  I think that we are all (partly) responsible for having created ourselves.

3:AM: As a teacher myself I like your linking aspiration to education and as a way of avoiding what you call and I agree are twin evils of liberal education – students not in charge of their own learning and a consumer model of education. Can you say how you develop aspiration to do this?

AC: Sure.  I think that if we see our students as aspirants, we can get out of one of those evils without falling into the other.  None of us wants to take a  paternalistic approach to our students, to cast them as children into whom we need to plant the ‘correct’ set of desires and preferences—i.e., our own.  But quite often, the alternative to this is to see our students as fully self-standing adults who are in a position to say what they want out of their educations.  This “consumer model” presupposes that our students go to college with a set of desires they want to satisfy—instead of going in order to acquire desires.  The aspiration model of education allows us to see that our students as being in charge of their education without thinking they know what they are doing, or why they are doing it. They are actively, consciously searching, and our job is to be the ‘supportive environment’ that makes it most likely that they will find what they cannot yet articulate they are looking for.

3:AM: How far is the approach to deliberation in all this Aristotelian rather than Humean?

AC: Rather than directly answering the question, let me first explain why an answer to it isn’t part of the project of the book.  As I see it, deliberation is reasoning about how to satisfy desires (or, more broadly, achieve goals) whereas aspiration is reasoning about how to acquire desires and goals.  We deliberate from our fixed character—from the fact that we already are people of a certain kind—and we aspire from our lack of such a fixed character.  All of this is a way of saying that the theory of aspiration doesn’t presuppose any particular account of deliberation.

That said, let me Humeanism about deliberation is the theory that we deliberate in order to pick the best one among our options.  We calculate the causal upshot of each option, and select the one we predict will best satisfy our desires.  Aristotelianism about deliberation is the theory that we deliberate in order to generate an option.  Deliberation begins from a conception of the desired end, and reasons backwards to something in our power—which, as soon as we arrive at it, we immediately perform.

Am I a Humean or an Aristotelian?  Do I think of deliberation as picking the best among one’s options or as deriving an option from an end?  I think I’m a Humean, but that’s a matter of practice more than theory.  I’ve inherited the modern world just as much as the next gal, and I frame my practical situations accordingly: Which kind of cereal should I buy?  Which form of transportation should I take downtown?  Where should I send my kids to school?  My practical life shows up to me as a series of problems calling for a Humean solution.

But I do find it valuable to inhabit the Aristotelian vantage point, as a way of getting into view its strangeness and presuppositions of our modern, calculative approach: why should the world present me with “options”?  If I have more than one, doesn’t that mean both are fine?  Reading Aristotle gives you a sense of what it would be like not to see the world as fundamentally friendly to one’s projects and purposes: Aristotle saw deliberation as carving out a single handhold in the stone wall of life, whereas we are asking ourselves which stairway to take.

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3:AM:   You’ve written about the reason to be angry forever. Standardly people argue against this view but you think these standard arguments are wrong. Can you first say what the arguments are and what they show?

AC: Suppose I have betrayed you, and that’s why you are angry at me.  It will always be true that I betrayed you, so you will always have a reason to be angry at me.  You might wonder: What if I apologize and offer compensation? Or what if you get revenge on me?   Well, what then?  It is still true that I betrayed you, and that it was wrong of me to do that.  Nothing that either of us does after the betrayal can change the facts that constituted your reason.  That’s why it seems like those facts supply you with a reason to be angry with me forever.

One way to get around this problem is to claim that what you’re angry about is, e.g., that I haven’t yet apologized or that I am currently higher in status than you are or that you haven’t yet gotten revenge on me.  If those are your reasons for being angry, then your anger is subject to revision in the light of subsequent events: apologies, status reversals, or revenge.  If we make the target of your anger something practicable, we have indeed found a way around the eternal anger argument—but it is one that does not seem to me to be true to the phenomenon of anger.  I think that if I betrayed you that may well be what you are angry about—the betrayal—not my failure to apologize.You propose an alternative – can you sketch it and the contrast you make between anger and sadness?

3:AM: You propose an alternative – can you sketch it and the contrast you make between anger and sadness?

AC: I found the eternal anger problem intractable so long as I assumed that anger was a self-standing attitude, akin to belief or desire.  Instead, I came to see it as a facet of something bigger—the trunk of the elephant, so to speak.  The elephant is valuing. I think negative emotions are the ways in which we engage in the practice of valuing under nonideal circumstances.  So if you love me, sadness will be how you manifest your love under the circumstance of (e.g.) my being injured or killed, and anger will be how you manifest your love under the circumstance of (e.g.) my betrayal of you.  These are secondary manifestations of valuing, since the primary manifestations of valuing are positive.  Sadness and anger may be the best way of manifesting love under the circumstances, but they are not the best ways of loving simpliciter.

Angry and sad people have suffered valuational disruptions. In the case of anger, I argue that the disruption takes the form of one’s partner’s defection from a shared valuational practice.  Anger only applies in a situation in which you and I were valuing something together—co-valuing—and one of us experiences the other as violating the norms that are constitutive of that shared valuational activity.  (Sadness is more all-purpose: I can be sad about any kind of damage to the valued object.)

When we speak of the reasons that rationalize negative emotions, we are articulating the internal logic of valuing: we are explaining the fact that the valuing has been demoted to an inferior form.  One’s reason for being sad or angry is, then, a reason for devolving one’s valuing from happiness and appreciation down to one of its secondary and inferior manifestations.  If what the reason rationalizes is a transition within valuing, then it is, in the first instance, not a reason for being angry or sad but a reason for having become angry or sad.

Your reason for anger is indeed the fact that I betrayed you, but what that reason rationalizes is not the state of anger but the devolution from loving respect to anger.  Nothing will ever change the fact that that devolution was a rational one.  But I might do something—e.g. apologize—that would rationalize a different transition, namely the one back up to (positive) valuing.  Thus you could acquire a reason to desist from anger.

3:AM: And finally can you recommend to the readers 5 books that will help us go further into your philosophical world?

AC:

Plato: Alcibiades

Plato’s Alcibiades

Socratic psychology conceives of desire as layered: what we want can be a mask for wanting something else, and we can learn this about ourselves by noticing a certain incoherence in how we talk and think about what we want.  Consider Alcibiades’ ambition, which won’t be satisfied until, as it were, the whole world is changing his name. That desire is so extreme that it transcends politics—it reaches out for something that cannot be achieved by coming to rule over people.  Socrates’ analysis of Alcibiades’ ambition is the birthplace of my theory of proleptic reasons: securing political office is merely the proximate face of Alcibiadean desire, the distal face of which must be supplied by the only thing that could ultimately satisfy the person he’s longing to be: wisdom.

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

This book is the first of a quartet of novels that changed my life.  Ferrante tells the story of two women—they start out as girls—who leverage off of each other in parallel quests to break free of the poverty, sexism and ignorance that constitutes a continuous stream of counterpressure to their efforts.  It is a case study in the nitty gritty reality of aspiration.

On Free Choice of the Will

Augustine, On The Free Choice of the Will

When did philosophers start thinking in terms of the existence of a ‘will’ that could be free or unfree?  Arguably, this book represents the dividing line, and therefore the definitive break between the ancient world and ours.  Augustine’s question—why does God allow us to sin—continues to resound in modern discussions of, e.g. whether actions are done under the ‘guise of the good’ and how it is possible to act against one’s better judgment.

Physics

Aristotle, Physics

Parmenides raised a problem about the thinkability of the world: how can we ever say anything other than “it is”?  Parmenides challenged subsequent generations of philosophers to make sense of change, which is to say, to talk about it without contradicting themselves.  Plato’s answer to that challenge is the theory of the forms: the realities are unchanging, simple, Parmenidean entities that occasionally infiltrate the world of ‘appearances.’  Aristotle went one step further towards rendering the world of sense-experience itself thinkable: he made those forms inseparable from the matter of the particular, e.g., tables, trees and people around us.  In this book, Aristotle presents his solution—hylomorphism—as a theory of nature, chance and determinism, change (including coming into being), locomotion (and its attendant paradoxes, due to Zeno), and the organization of the universe as a whole (including God).

 

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

 

Genesis

This is the story the family of Jacob (Israel), and how they become the first family to (just barely) hold themselves together.  It addresses itself to the problem of how the nation can arise out of the family, given that the family is subject to natural pressures of dissolution: daughters depart to marry and sons kill each vying to inherit the father’s leadership position.  I read it as, among other things, a foundational work of political philosophy.

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Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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End Times Series: the first 302

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 27th, 2018.