Newsletter: January 2021
Happy New Year, everyone!
I’m writing to you from Galiano Island, British Columbia, which has a damp, quiet beauty in the winter months. Christmas morning was merely cloudy so I went on a hike up Mount Galiano. From the summit I could see someone doing donuts in a boat below, which from my vantage point left an infinity loop on the water. The sight felt strangely auspicious.
This is the first of what I intend to make monthly newsletters, where I’ll share news about my online philosophy courses as well as a bit of philosophical reflection.
The big news this month, of course, is that we’re gearing up for our winter session of classes. On Wednesdays from January 20 to March 31 I’ll be reprising last fall’s successful course on ancient wisdom: “How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World.” And on Mondays from January 18 to March 29 I’ll be offering a new course on philosophy and literature: “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy.” If you want to make philosophy your New Year’s resolution, I encourage you to sign up! Better yet, sign up a friend: I’m offering a 25% discount to anyone who encourages a friend to sign up for the full price.
So what is a New Year’s resolution anyway? For most people it’s a commitment to yoga or laying off the chocolates that lasts, in most cases, less than a month. But for philosophers, the very idea of a New Year’s resolution poses a problem: how is such a thing so much as possible in the first place? To make a resolution is to aspire to become someone else. If I resolve to take up yoga, what I have in view is a kind of person that I’d like to become but that I am not yet: someone more in touch with their body, perhaps, more integrated, calmer, more mindful. I like this person better than the person I am right now. Where I struggle to stay mindful or spiral into negative thinking, this person is clear and steady.
So I start taking yoga classes. I buy my yoga mat and splurge at Lululemon, I do my sun salutations and my downward dogs, I take in deep breaths through my nose, I relax with a cup of herbal tea or maybe a kale smoothie afterward. I start pretending to be that full-fledged yogi that I’m not (yet?) but wish I were.
But here’s the problem: my reasons for doing these things aren’t the reasons of the full-fledged yogi. Because I haven’t (yet?) become that person, I can’t really understand that person’s reasons for doing these things. I strain and grunt as I try to hold these poses that I see demonstrated online by all the svelte, contented people glowing under soft light. There’s clearly something these people are getting out of this practice that I’m not (yet?) getting. But I keep at it even though I don’t (yet?) know what that something is.
Does that make aspiration irrational? If I don’t already like donning yoga clothes, doing sun salutations, and the rest, what reason do I have for doing these things? And if I do already like doing these things, what is there to aspire to?
In her book Aspiration: the Agency of Becoming, the philosopher Agnes Callard tackles this puzzle of aspiration. She defines what she calls “proleptic reasons” as reasons that a person has for acquiring values that they don’t yet have—values that only retrospectively make those reasons seems reasonable. I might not yet enjoy sun salutations but I resolve to change myself so that I do enjoy them, even though in some sense I can’t really know what’s so great about them until after my transformation.
Here’s how it works. According to Callard, proleptic reasons have what she calls a “distal face” and a “proximal face.” The distal face of a proleptic reason is the way that reason looks to the person I aspire to become. I can recognize, even if I don’t (yet!) fully understand, the sort of contentment sun salutations and kale smoothies bring to the full-fledged yogi. The proximate face of a proleptic reason is the way that reason makes sense to me now. I might not have the yogi’s reason for enjoying yoga but I have other reasons: people I admire seem to enjoy this stuff, they seem more relaxed than I am, they seem to get something I don’t. These are reasons that make sense to me right now but I also recognize that they aren’t the whole story. There’s a person I’ll (hopefully) become to whom all this will make a different kind of sense. In the meantime, I’m acting on a kind of trust that, with time and diligence, that person’s reasons will become clear to me, and will become my own.
So New Year’s resolutions are a leap of faith, a decision to become someone you aren’t (yet) for reasons you can’t (yet) fully understand. Curiously, this isn’t far off what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described as the essence of religious belief.
Agnes Callard is not just an excellent philosopher, by the way. She’s also an excellent writer. She writes a public philosophy column for The Point magazine, which I highly recommend.
Be well out there. I look forward to connecting with many of you later this month.