I’m a longtime fan of philosopher Agnes Callard’s essays, but only recently read her 2018 book: Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. Below are a few of the ideas that will stick with me. (Note that these are my own interpretation of various concepts. Highly recommend reading the book itself—very provocative read.)
Callard defines aspiration as the rational process by which we work to care about (or love, or value, or desire) something new. “Aspiration, as I understand it, is the distinctive form of agency directed at the acquisition of values.” Let’s say we aspire to love classical music.
Callard argues that we come to care about something new by doing/working/practicing caring about them, not merely by deciding to care about it. Deciding to care about classical music doesn’t make you actually love it. Instead, we might take a class on it, or go to the symphony, or listen to it often. “The explanation of how we come to value, or to see-as-valuable, so many of the things that we once did not is that we work to achieve this result.”
The ‘doing*’* can feel and look fake or inauthentic at the beginning. We put on classical music when really we’d rather listen to something else. We pinch ourselves to stay awake at the symphony because we’re rather bored. We borrow opinions from music critics because we haven’t yet formed our own.
“In the beginning, we sometimes feel as though we are pretending, play-acting, or otherwise alienated from our own activity. We may see the new value as something we are trying out or trying on rather than something we are fully engaged with and committed to. We may rely heavily on mentors whom we are trying to imitate or competitors whom we are trying to best. As time goes on, however, the fact (if it is a fact) that we are still at it is usually a sign that we find ourselves progressively more able to see, on our own, the value that we could barely apprehend at first. This is how we work our way into caring about the many things that we, having done that work, care about.”
It initially struck me as rather counterintuitive that aspiring, a process that seems so wholesome and authentic (ie one really wants to become a classical music lover), can actually feel deeply inauthentic to the person who is trying to acquire that value. But, it makes sense. By definition I don’t yet have fully have the value I want to acquire. The feeling of inauthenticity, especially at the beginning, is inherent to the process of aspiration. It looks and feels inauthentic because, in a sense, it is inauthentic.
So what? There are a few ways in which I expect this idea may make its way into my day-to-day:
Callard introduces a new type of reason—a proleptic reason—to explain how someone can be acting rationally even if she doesn’t deeply understand the thing she’s working towards, and knows that. Proleptic reasoning plays a central role in making the logic of her argument hang together.
But the part that resonated with me was the preceding concept of proleptic engagement:
“The word ‘proleptic’ refers, usually in a grammatical context, to something taken in advance of its rightful place. I appropriate it for moral psychology on the model of Margaret Little’s phrase “proleptic engagement”, by which she refers to an interaction with a child in which we treat her as though she were the adult we want her to become.