Agnes Callard

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I like reading short articles (and tweets) from Callard, so I was eager to try out her book. It’s about an intriguing topic, a philosophical investigation looking at a person’s desires to change. But after I got 90 or so pages in I realized it’s a little too advanced for me, and while I think the topic is interesting, it turns out that it wasn’t quite interesting enough for me to struggle with.
steve02476 | 1 annan recension | Jan 3, 2023 |
I was deeply excited by Callard's analysis of this category of human endeavor--aspiration. To me, she makes a breakthrough or a 'breaking up' of the constant pressure to reject the fact that some aspects of human life are, at bottom, undefinable. The field has tended to force a tight definition of rationality on how humans do things -- that makes me think of the way too much ketchup on your hamburger bun, just leaks out and makes a mess, doesn't work. Aspiration -- the choice a person sometimes makes -- to better themselves in some way despite obstacles and pressures -- is both rational and mysterious.

Callard peels away the layers, always circling the question of why is it, how is it, that a person will, seemingly out of very little context, decide to push past their limits into something about which they know nothing. I had this happen to me at 47 when I was knocked sideways by the traditional harp and Irish music, I mean seriously blown away, and embarked on a journey I'm still on to learn to play the instrument, to learn about Irish music, to learn how to play with other people playing the music -- believe me there is no limit to the challenges involved.

Aspiration is a subset or side-set or whatever of that kind of inquiry into the hows and whys of the choices we make (including omitting to make choices) whether it is to learn Italian or have a baby. As she puts it in more complex form: 'it is the process of rational value-acquisition' which in ordinary English can be summarized as 'learning to become a better person' (e.g. by learning to recognize what is of value and moving toward it.) Callard's primary focus has been Greek philosophy, which, I guess one could say is centered around ethics and identity, ideas of the individual and choice (e.g. good and evil), that were then beginning to emerge. (We think so entirely inside the outcome of their thinking, we can't imagine how anyone lived before these ideas became so commonplace as to be unconscious.)

The book begins with a look at Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, both drawn to his ideas and repulsed by them as they conflict with his comfortable status quo. Alcibiades, handsome and arrogant, is only drawn 'to become better than he is' when directly in the presence of his mentor. Away from his mentor, he slides into his usual habits. The mystery, of course, is why, once we become even the smallest bit aware of a 'better' choice, we are sometimes drawn to move toward a greater understanding of that 'value' -- a value of which we don't, at present, have more than a smidgeon of understanding. Maybe no understanding, only a recognition that there is 'something' pulling at us. This lies at the heart of Callard's inquiry.

Many of the ideas Callard presents were momentous to me -- for example, extrinsic versus intrinsic conflicts and akrasia. An extrinsic conflict would, at its simplest be -- do you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream tonight? You may feel conflicted, but you know that the choice you make is not important to who you are, ditto what car to buy, or even what college to attend. An intrinsic conflict is when you are faced with a choice that can impact the course of your life: to marry, to go to college at all, to have a child, to conquer an addiction you have come to see is killing you. But intrinsic conflict can be smaller, say, if you aspire to learn to love music and are taking a class and a friend says, let's go to this cool movie, and you have tickets to Brahms . . . not some ordinary concert, but something once in a lifetime . . . One choice may not matter, but it may, as it was for Alcibiades, indicate that you may continue to undermine your own aspiration. Akrasia, or 'weakness of will' is the next concept she examines. That is a tendency on the part of people who know better, to make the poorer choice. Callard looks at this differently from other philosophers, that the poorer choice (which once might have been the only choice for this person) still has a strong hold over that person's thinking, exerting its own rationality (sure I'm on a diet, but I can have this cookie because it is so tasty). Eating something that tastes good is not irrational! Not for an aspirant who, as yet, has no real idea of the rewards of a successful diet. That makes sense to me. Less harsh, less judgmental, and less limited.

Here and there Callard has to directly address the ideas of predecessors and colleagues and for several pages things get pretty hard to wade through, but she always emerges into clarity.

Callard, in her conclusion, takes on something down-to-earth and different from anything I have ever encountered in a book of philosophy, something only a woman philosopher could bring to the field. She takes on the intrinsic conflict that a woman who has decided to become a mother who discovers she is infertile must face. There is a shift in young(ish) adults that happens (or doesn't) when the decision to become a parent is made. Women and couples (men who are entirely on their own do not decide to become fathers, by the way, a gay couple, yes, sometimes.) Once you aspire to become a mother, however, you are vulnerable in a new and profound way. Callard writes: "Aspirants often open themselves up to a distinctive experience of losing everything without seeming to have lost anything at all. . . Aspirants have, to various degrees and in various ways, put down roots in a possible world." Soon after that Callard makes the point about why it is profoundly cruel to say to someone who has to face infertility (or miscarriage) "Oh, but you can just adopt, can't you?" The potential for profound grief at the loss of an aspiration is, in fact, a distinctive property of it, and that gives aspiration a body, a reality, as well as a mysterious connection to our most inner selves, that say, ambition entirely lacks. Proof, if you will.

In a fascinating section on moral responsibility, Callard offers the possibility of viewing evil -- viewed through the lens of aspiratio-- may be primarily the outcome of the choice of omission of value acquisition, and therefore of aspiration in any form.

I feel this book has applications for helping people clarify and distinguish their aspirations (coming from within) from the stuff they have to do to live, from making poor choices, or no choices. Aspiration is what gets us out of bed in the morning, makes life worth living, and thus make the relative weight and value of decisions clearer-and intensely rational (while remaining mysterious!) *****
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sibylline | 1 annan recension | Feb 11, 2021 |



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