“Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming”

Matt Rosen ’20 reviews a recent book through a philosophical lens

By Matt Rosen

Many of us aspire to be other than we are. We may have come to an institution such as Colorado College with the intention to recreate ourselves, to find ourselves ­— where discovery cannot be so neatly differentiated from invention — to figure out with greater clarity what our interests are, and to enter circumstances by which, through a process of elimination, it might become apparent to us what our interests, in fact, are not. Education is perhaps aspiration par excellence.

Agnes Callard’s recent book, “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming,” aims to present us with a theory of precisely this phenomenon. What do we do when we aspire to be a person with particular tastes and virtues? How should we go about it? And how might we make sense of those who are in various stages of the process of aspiration and of their actions along the way? 

Suppose that Sophie is not the sort of person who enjoys listening to jazz but wishes to be. We might say that Sophie aspires to be a particular sort of person who finds pleasure in a genre of music previously provoking in her only indifference or even distaste. Sophie aspires not on the basis of values she currently holds, but on the basis of values she wishes to hold at the end of the process of aspiration. In this sense, aspiration is value acquisition: it is a sort of learning to value what one at first did not. 

Against claims that aspiration contradicts the rationality of decision-making based on the current preferences of the deciding agent, Callard tells us that the rationality of aspiration can be upheld. In order to make this case, she draws a distinction between aspiration on the one hand, and ambition and self-cultivation on the other. 

The desire to be the sort of person who would write a novel, for example, might be understood in the context of aspiration if the desiring person does not presently value the writing of a novel in such a way as to take on that project. Nonetheless, this person can see the value of being someone who would attempt this project, and undertakes the learning process through which this becoming is possible. 

The ambition to write a novel is a phenomenon whose signification stems from already held values; she who has this ambition already values it. If an agent can become, via self-cultivation, the sort of person who would write a novel, then this becoming is intelligible in light of the growth of already held values. The cultivation of these values leads to the desired result, and thus no acquisition of novel values is required. 

Self-creation, Callard thinks, is possible despite objections to the contrary. As a process of learning to value, it is teleological: it is the self to which one aspires that justifies the action of the aspiring subject in the present. The self-to-come is the endpoint that renders sensible the action of the self along a trajectory from the vague sense of a certain character with desired values to the acquisition of that character. 

Because the self-creation of aspiration is a form of ethical learning, Callard defends the thesis that one cannot aspire to what is not good. One can have the ambition to become a gangster, and one can engage in self-cultivation to realize the wish to become a gangster, but one cannot aspire to this becoming. This is another way in which aspiration is a distinct phenomenon — one that forces us to reconsider what we think about practical rationality, moral psychology, and moral responsibility. 

There are a number of objections one might raise to Callard’s account. Concerning responsibility, Callard’s theory of aspiration is such that an agent can be lauded for his traits or features, but only if those traits or features are the product of a process of aspiring. Given the condition that one can only aspire to what is good, it follows that an agent is worthy of blame regarding his traits, only if he has neglected to aspire to change them for the better. 

Because aspiration is, especially in its early stages, something of a communal endeavor, we might worry that Callard’s account will lead to praising people or holding them responsible for the effects of the environments they inhabit. We might take seriously the intuition that one can be held culpable for a vice even while aspiring to change it into a virtue.

Another question we might ask concerns the relation between aspiring to be other than we are and hospitality toward ourselves: Can we aspire and yet accept who we are in some fundamental way? 

We might also wonder about the very need for a theory of aspiration: If we already aspire in our lives, why bother conceptualizing the phenomenon? Perhaps the picture we typically hold of aspiration is not satisfactory and leads us to aspire poorly, and so Callard is betting that understanding aspiration will result in aspiring with greater aptitude. 

There is a case to be made here concerning the relationship between understanding a phenomenon more thoroughly and leading the moral life with greater ease or preparedness. It remains to be seen if Callard’s book will have the latter impact on those who read it, but since there is at least a chance of this, and since all of us who, in whatever sense, wish to learn are thereby aspiring to something, it seems that we would do well to read Callard’s book and to recommend it widely. 

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