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Agnes Callard

Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming

Is this book necessary? This was a question that I asked myself no less often than every tenth page, even though I couldn't put it down. Do we really need to analyse the surprisingly intricate difficulties of deciding to transform your life in a rational way, without acting on impulse? Perhaps we do, more than you might think. Now we have Agnes Callard's Aspiration, which guides us through a good, long think about what it means to make good decisions and then to act on them. It's something like meditation —only with consequences.  

I haven't much use for philosophy. It seems to boil down to mansplaining the importance of rationality. While I believe that the basics of reasoning ought to be taught in schools, I do not agree with the proposition that man is a rational animal, or that it matters one way or the other. Reason is a tool, no more, and like all tools it can be put to good purposes and ill. There is nothing in reason (or its everyday sibling, rationality, which is more concerned with common sense than with formality) to protect the user from the old coders' warning: Garbage in, garbage out. Reason itself is no guarantee of the worth of the premises on which it operates. There is really little of interest to be said about reason itself.

Beyond rationality, philosophy seeks to do what all religions do: to tell us what the world is really like, despite appearances to the contrary, and, if possible, to answer the question, how did it happen? Unlike religions, philosophy tries very hard to do without superpowers, but it can't. The moment you began talking about what can't be apprehended by the senses, you invoke deities of one kind or another, and philosophy in the West has simply pushed the problem into a small but highly concentrated corner labeled "Unmoved Mover." Astrophysicists call it "the Big Bang."

Many thinkers explain philosophy etymologically, as the love of wisdom. This is understood to be a quest for moral guidance: What should I do? Early philosophers were inclined to believe that reason and virtue are the same thing: that, if you know what was good, you will therefore do it. We have lost that faith. But philosophers still believe that making a rational decision is the best bet. For best results, be sure to employ the conclusions of philosophers as your premises whenever possible. Wisdom in, wisdom out.

To make a rational decision, you will need a clear idea of what you want. To implement a rational decision, you must not be distracted by conflicting goals. And for the decision to be rational at all, your goal must be good. The last point is very tricky and I am not going to wrestle with it here. Perhaps it's enough to remind the reader that efficiency in itself ("without more," as lawyers say) is not a value. It is possible to do something bad very well, but it is not possible to do something bad rationally.

I used the word "mansplaining" advisedly, because, as Agnes Callard makes very clear in her new book, Aspiration, it is impossible to make a fully rational decision to be a parent. Or not to be a parent. The entire apparatus that I have outlined collapses in the face of a problem that women face every day and have faced every day for as long as women have been able to make the choice. (Not a very long time in the long view.) Men don't make the decision whether to be a parent, partly because modern parenthood has only recently become an option for men and partly because what men do decide is to let nature take its course. The latter can be an eminently rational decision (whichever way it is decided), because it can be made on the basis of objective facts and figures, among which a dexterity at changing diapers does not figure. The question, then, is how does a woman make the rational decision to have children?

You see, nobody who is not a parent, and not the parent of particular children, knows what it is like to be a parent (and the parent of those particular children). Therefore, how can one rationally intend to become one? Until Agnes Callard tackled the problem, the answer to this question was little more than throat-clearing, because as Callard reminds us, the decision to have a child is tantamount to the decision to become another person. Everyone has some idea of what will be expected of the parent-person, but nobody really knows how he or, far more importantly, she will meet the demand. Bear in mind that it is not rational to decide to make yourself unhappy, any more than it is rational to jump in front of a bus to see what happens.

Philosophers dislike the idea of "becoming another person" for reasons that Callard does not explore, partly because I'm sure she's aware that she doesn't need to. Philosophers, to the extent that most are either men or women who want to be taken seriously by men, are fond, for thoroughly unphilosophical reasons, of the idea that human nature is immutable, unchanging. Just read a page or two of Gibbon, on, say, the subject of the Nike Riots for a jolly good taste of how men used to deal with history. Gibbon's Byzantines are indistinguishable from modern Englishmen dressed in funny clothes. The idea that an individual human being might be capable of change is even more terrifying to philosophers (ie men). They cope with it by insisting that the alleged change was nothing more than the ripening of latent tendencies that were there all along. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree" is as far as philosophers will go toward allowing that human character can be shaped, and the rational decision to bend the twig in the first place is made not by the child but by a grown-up. Beyond the surprises that passing through life's early developmental phases can present, people do not change. And if a philosopher can be cornered into arguing the point, he is sure to insist that change is so difficult that it almost never happens, even as the result of rational decisions.

And yet women — highly intelligent women, faced with enticing career prospects but also drawn by the possibility of great love — make the manifestly irrational decision to become mothers every day. Are they idiots?

Or do they? Callard thinks not, and she has written Aspiration to start a discussion — to open a new philosophical "topos" —  about the possibility of making an intelligent decision to become a different person. If you think I'm going to summarize her argument, you're nuts. If you think I'm going to show why it's necessary to write a whole book about something so commonplace, you hold me in excessive esteem. If you think I can explain how Callard's thesis differs from "Fake It Till You Make It" (which it most certainly does), you're too cool for school.

What does tempt me to discuss Aspiration a little more fully is Callard's demonstration that, in order to become different, and presumably better people, we need a little help from our friends. But I resist.

It remains only to point out that if Callard's book is not a snap to read, that's because it can't be; like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, Callard has to hack away overgrowths of laborious argument (mansplaining) in order to prove her points. But she manages the job as gracefully as can be imagined, and without gratuitous jargon. Be ready to look up the word prolepsis — like so many of today's fancy philosophical terms, it's a rhetorical term that originally referred to a figure of speech. But not to worry; long before the end of the first part of the book, you'll know just what it means, or at least enough to want to know more.

— 23 February 2021

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