Intro. [Recording date: August 25th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is August 25th, 2020 and my guest is philosopher and author Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago. I want to thank Plantronics for providing her with the Blackwire 5220 headset. This is Agnes’s second appearance on EconTalk. She was here in June of 2020 discussing philosophy, progress, and wisdom. Our topic for today is her book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. Agnes, welcome back to EconTalk.
Russ Roberts: What is aspiration?
Agnes Callard: Aspiration is the rational process of value acquisition.
Russ Roberts: And, what does that mean in everyday life? Give us some examples.
Agnes Callard: It means–so, if you just think about like most of the things that you value right now, like in relation to your career, your kids, some hobbies you have, some of your, like, political values or ideology–if you just go back far enough, there’ll be some point in your life when you didn’t value those things. Like, before your kids existed for example, or when you had different political beliefs, or when you hadn’t yet gotten super into some hobby or some novelist or something.
So, aspiration is how you got from there to here. How you came to care about the things that you care about.
Russ Roberts: So, an example I’ve used occasionally here is Faulkner. I hated Faulkner. I thought he was silly. I tried to read, The Sound and the Fury, read the first couple pages–I was 16, 17 years old. I thought ‘This is awful,’ and foolishly took a class on Faulkner and Conrad in college because I loved Conrad. At the end of that class, I didn’t like Conrad so much and I loved Faulkner. But, in your language, I aspired–I could have; I got lucky in that case–but, a person could aspire to appreciate Faulkner even though on first glance they don’t like them.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, actually I think that the–I’m less inclined to separate the aspire cases and the get-lucky cases. I think they tend to work together, aspiration and luck.
So, most of the things that we care about, there was an element of luck in how we got started. But I don’t think that there’s anything anyone could have done to you such that sort of all of the explanation of your appreciation of Faulkner is the stuff that they did to you. Right? There was some part of it where you were reading it, you were thinking about it. You were coming to see that there was something there that you hadn’t seen before and wanting to see more of that thing. That bit of the process that you’re doing, that’s aspiration.
Russ Roberts: And, you contrast it with ambition. So, talk about–I mean, a lot of people aspire to be rich or to travel a lot or something like that. What’s the difference between ambition and aspiration?
Agnes Callard: Yeah, good. So, one thing I point out in my book is that the English word ‘aspiration’ is a pretty good word for the thing I’m trying to talk about, but it’s not a perfect word.
So, there are some ways that we use the English word ‘aspire’ that don’t correspond to what I mean when I’m talking about aspiration, and one of them is that we sometimes use ‘aspiration’–e use the English word ‘aspire’–to talk about cases where the person isn’t trying to learn to value anything new. They’re just trying to satisfy a value or desire they already have. And, that value might be sort of quite large-scale and it might dominate their life, but they don’t think they have more to learn in that respect about, like, what’s valuable about the world.
So, somebody who, quote-unquote, “aspires” to make a lot of money already knows why they want money. They’re not trying to learn why they want money. They’re not trying to learn why money is good. Interestingly, money is like one of the few things where, like, sort of the knowledge of why it’s good seems to be one that people take to be extremely available to themselves–to not in need of learning. Perhaps not correctly.
Russ Roberts: A mistake, I think.
Agnes Callard: Yeah, I agree. But, in any case, you know, they’re not adopting an aspirational attitude. They just have a goal and they’re trying to satisfy it. And that goal might require a lot of them, right? Require a lot of work. But, the goal is in itself value learning. And so, those are cases of ambition; they’re not cases of aspiration.
I also distinguish aspiration from something I call ‘self-cultivation,’ which is a case where you are trying to learn to value something, but it’s kind of a small thing where you know why you want to come to value that thing. You’re not changing yourself fundamentally.
So, a case where it’s like I want to start wanting to exercise, right? Suppose I don’t want to exercise. But, I’m like, ‘But, if I wanted to, then I would be able to get myself to exercise more.’ And so, I’m trying to change myself, right? But I’m not–I’m trying to sort of add a desire to my repertoire because I have this other desire, say, for health; or I’m not learning with respect to that fundamental desire. So, it’s not a fundamental change.
So, both ambition and self-cultivation are distinct from aspiration though people sometimes use the word ‘aspiration’ for those phenomena.
Russ Roberts: The reason I love what this book is about–and as I think I’ve told you, and as listeners know, I’m trying to write on some related issues myself–is that, to me, this is sort of the essence of life. It’s not like a little corner here, or ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I like, say, classical music? An example you use in the book. But most–much of life is of this character: that, there are things I don’t know much about it. I might not like it once I know more about it, but I’m open to the possibility. And, as I explore it, my appreciation, my fundamental understanding of it, is going to change.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, that’s a great point and I actually think–this is something I feel is missing from the book–but I actually think there are two, broadly speaking, two perspectives you could have on the way aspiration fits into a human life. And the one that you’re gesturing at is sort of totalizing. You might think just most of what matters about life is value-learning. It’s like learning to value to appreciate new things or to appreciate things more and more; and sort of life is this kind of process where we are always aspiring and where aspiring is the fundamental essence of who we are.
I call that the Platonic picture. Right? I think Plato thought of life as a kind of project of self-perfection.
Aristotle, I think, disagreed with that. I think he thought, ‘No,’– that the first part of your life is that. Maybe until age, like, 20, 30 or something. Like, ‘Yeah, you’re cultivating yourself, you’re learning, you’re learning to value new things; but, hey, life isn’t all about you.’ At a certain point, the point of your life isn’t like that you come to value more things or that you come to value things more perfectly, but that you learn to activate and exercise the values that you have so as to achieve those things. Right?
And so, on the Aristotelian picture, aspiration is really relegated to a part of your life. And it may show up in other bits. Like, it’s not that it’s completely gone. Right? But this question of how fundamental is aspiration to human life is itself one that I think one could have an interesting philosophical dispute about.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about that for a minute. We’ll get to other things, too, obviously.
But, I think if we’re not careful, it’s easy to confuse self-perfection with what you’re talking about. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to get better and better at what I am.’ It’s that ‘I’m going to strive, perhaps, for some ethical improvement,’ that we want to make clear as part of your story, right? ‘I’m going to be a better spouse.’ ‘I’m going to be a better teacher.’ ‘I’m going to be a better parent.’
Agnes Callard: That is self-perfection.
Russ Roberts: It is;; but it’s not–to me, it’s thinking about more, ‘I want to value those things more than I already do.’ That’s what I’m thinking of as self-perfection.
Agnes Callard: Absolutely. Aristotle–
Russ Roberts: It’s self-improvement.
Agnes Callard: Absolutely. Aristotle would think if you devoted your life to that, it would be selfish. It’s not all about how perfect, how improved you are. Sometimes your life should also be about other people.
Russ Roberts: Right. But, if I’m improving myself to be a better friend or a better spouse or parent, that would seem to be okay. With both of them.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I mean, I think that, even so, like there’s something–at least, I think there is something–and in this I agree with both Plato and Aristotle though maybe not with everyone, maybe not with you: I think there’s something self-focused about aspiration, even when it’s moral, even when I want to be a morally better person.
And, here’s a way you could bring that out. Suppose, I’m really aspiring to be–let’s say I’m like a kid in school and I’m aspiring to be more courageous and to stand up to my peer group more, right? And, I see something where I really should intervene, but I don’t–out of cowardice, okay? And then the question is, ‘How do I feel about that?’ Right? And, if I’m thinking of this fundamentally in terms of my own aspirational project to be more brave, I’ll feel bad about what this means for my cowardice.
And I should feel that way. That’s a good response, right?
But, suppose that I were not interested in my self-improvement project. I might just be like, ‘I feel bad about that kid who got bullied where I didn’t speak up.’ Like, ‘This is about them, not about me.’ That’s a kind of reaction where I forget the place of this event in my aspirational journey.
And so, I do think that Aristotle thinks that at a certain point, like, your character is kind of fixed and your life is no longer about coming to appreciate values more fully. You appreciate them to some degree. You should do as much good as you can with the appreciation that you’ve got.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have to think about that some more, so I want to move on. It makes my head spin a little bit, because I think of–you know, improving my character is to some extent a selfish–a self-centered–activity. But it also seems to have a lot of impact on the people around me. So, I’m going to hold both of those, don’t you think?
Agnes Callard: Yes. And, Aristotle thinks a big part of why you should improve your character is the effect on the people around you.
But, there is a question of, like, what is coming to the fore of your attention. And there is a distinction. If you think about anyone who is trying to learn anything, we don’t fundamentally judge them on their achievements. We judge them on sort of their learning process and their progress in learning, right?
And I think Aristotle thinks, ‘Yet, not all of life is that.’ There’s a part where you’re done with that–where you’re done with school so to speak and you’re acting in the world and you’re to be judged by the results of what you do, not by their place in your learning process.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Here’s where I disagree with Aristotle, then. Easily said since I really never read Aristotle. So, let me take a crack at it. It seems to me that it takes a long time to be aware of how you do. I mean it’s one thing to say you’re a great football player and it’s time to stop practicing and get on the field. But life isn’t like that. I have trouble being aware of my–it’s taken me 65 years to be aware of my character flaws. If I’d start at 30, I was way overconfident about myself–you know, abilities, and my self-righteousness. And I think I’m a better person now. Terribly flawed, still.
But, it seems to me that it’s a lifelong process. How could Aristotle argue that it’s something you just kind of, ‘Time, now: Time to get into the game.’ What’s he thinking there? He’s an idiot, Agnes. Obviously, overrated.
Agnes Callard: Heh, heh. I think that one thing that’s interesting for me in terms of–I’m more drawn to Plato’s view, as well, on this question, right?
However, one thing that I find myself sort of bound up in is: I think Plato’s view on, their disagreement on this, is very closely tied to their disagreement about the immortality of the soul. Right?
So, Aristotle thinks that when we die, we die and we’re dead, and we’re gone, and it’s over. He does not think that the soul can exist once the body is destroyed.
Plato thinks, ‘No, not only can the soul exist when the body is destroyed, it can be reincarnated and you get future chances.’
There are interpretative questions over whether we are supposed to read Plato literally in the myths where he talks about this reincarnation. And some people don’t. I’m sort of inclined to be like, ‘He probably thought something like that was plausible if he said it a bunch of times.’
But, in any case, certainly whether you think whether you buy the reincarnation bit, Plato–or Socrates, I mean–he definitely thought the soul was immortal, right?
And you could see how the Socratic picture of infinitely perfecting yourself, at least to me it fits with the thought of the soul being immortal. Because it’s like–but the Aristotelian picture is like, ‘Look, at some point, you are someone. You are what you’re going to be, and you should sort of like inhabit the world in your full standing self and do what you can with that self.’ Because, it’s something like that life is not a dress rehearsal. It’s like some part of life is a dress rehearsal, Aristotle thinks.
And so, maybe one way to think about it would be to give Aristotle–it would be a slightly more charitable view of Aristotle: It’s not that you can’t in some ways keep learning, but the sort of learning-element of your life gets backgrounded relative to the doing-element of your life. And, the importance of that backgrounding for Aristotle is driven by the fact of death.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I see that.
Russ Roberts: Let’s put this in some context for a 20-year-old listener who is listening to this thinking, ‘Oh, this aspiration stuff seems kind of good.’ Like, for me. But, I think it’s partly because of my nature. I see it as sort of central aspiration. That’s why I liked your book so much. For me, it’s like the essence of how I think about my life story, my narrative, my personal arc. But, if I’m 20 years old, it’s like, ‘What is all this high-falutin’ aspiration stuff? Is it going to make me happy, Agnes? Or is it just going to be a burden? I don’t want to aspire to be a good person. Why would I do that?’
Agnes Callard: So, I think that if I were talking to such a person, the first thing I would say is: You already do aspire. I’d just find some area in which they–as a matter of fact, I’ve never met a 20-year-old who didn’t aspire in some way. At the very least, romantically.
There’s a kind of problem about selling aspiration considered generally. I’m not even sure we should do it.
So, one of the ways that people use the word ‘aspire,’ another one of these ways where the English word ‘aspire’ pulls apart from what I’m talking about philosophically, is, sometimes if someone goes to find themselves in Europe or something and they’re just like wandering around, like, ‘I’m finding myself.’ We can call that aspiration sometimes, right?
And, I don’t call it aspiration. Unless there’s something more specific you’re trying to find than yourself. That is, I think that it’s pretty important that aspirational projects are tied to concrete values and we sell the aspirational project on the strength of the value, not on the strength of aspiration. Aspiration isn’t a good thing. It actually kind of sucks. It often feels terrible. It means you’re bad at something. You feel embarrassed and ashamed of yourself. You’re learning instead of knowing. Like, none of that is good.
What’s good is the improved condition that you’re going to get to; and it’s worth it because that value is important. And, if that value is not important or if it’s not worth the effort you’re putting into it, you shouldn’t do it.
And so, what I’m saying is: It’s both–on the one hand–impossible to aspire in a generalized way. There’s no such thing that you’re doing. And, also in a concrete way we would want to sell it on the strength of the particular value. But, if what I’m trying to do is just show someone sort of what this is and that it shows up for them, I would just find some arena in which they are already doing it and point out to them that this is something that they value.
Russ Roberts: I guess for me, the process itself has a lot of value and that’s what I would–I would encourage young people to aspire, I mean, it’s your word, your concept, your narrower focus.
But, it seems to me that the process by which, I would call it, by which we grow in both, not just mastery, although that can be part of it. Mastery is not really exactly in the wheelhouse of what you’re talking about because mastery suggests you’re already–if it’s a skill, it’s not really what we’re talking about. You’re really talking about something much deeper, which is: Often young people will explore different religions, because they aspire to have a spiritual part of their life; and so they’re going to try different things and see what uniform, what clothing, what hat fits well with their self.
I think that’s–again, I don’t want to push too far that you should try that for 60 years. You probably want to wear some of it for a while and get into the game. But, I think that the search–the process, the tasting–that you refer to at various times–the beginnings of seeing the value of the value that you’re aspiring to–seems to be a big part of what makes life meaningful for many people.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, this gets to sort of another one of my views, which is like I sort of don’t believe in advice. And, I think that telling someone that they should aspire and try things out and be open to new things–like, that could be the right thing to say, if you knew the person. It could be exactly the wrong thing to say, right? You can easily conjure up situations in which it’s the wrong thing to say. Like, what I want to say is like, ‘Yeah, the right amount of that in a life is good at the right time.’
But, you know, I think–I mean one thing I guess I think I can say–so when I wrote the book, I had this view that is kind of open-ended as aspiration, where there’s nothing in particular: You have no value that you have in view. You’re just almost hoping something will hit you and you’re just like–like, the finding yourself idea, I thought that was just empty and that that was not aspiration.
I then actually, like, refuted my own view in another paper I wrote after the book, which is to say: I think that you can actually set up very special contexts in which that kind of open-ended aim of growth, in a certain institutional context, actually can become productive.
And, I think that’s what a college is. It’s an institution that exists in order to make open-ended aspiration not be pointless. But, you need a lot of structure in place for that to be possible, right? You need there to be things like classes, right? Where a class is a good example of something where you’re selecting things and you’re trying them out and you’re seeing what resonates with you. But it also–and it’s not just seeing what resonates, right? There’s a structure inside of it that allows you to try, and to strive, and to work. There’s a kind of–there’s a manner of work that is laid out for you within the context of a given class; but then there’s also all these other aspects of yourself that are being addressed by–you know, there are romantic opportunities, there are sports, there are cultural opportunities, right?
So, I actually think that we are lucky enough, so, far, that we still do live in a world in which there exist institutions for this purpose. So, it’s a contingent fact that it is possible now and it wasn’t at a certain time.
Russ Roberts: Or not for many people anyway.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about this idea of giving advice for a minute. We’re going to come back to aspiration in a second. But, you point out it a number of places in the book, that an aspirant–a person who aspires–often will use a teacher or a role model to help them. You’re kind of saying you’re a little uncomfortable being such a role model until you’re asked–is the way I take your statement. That, proselytizing is not generally a good idea because you could encourage somebody to aspire to something that they might not like or be harmful to them, but otherwise the doctor is in. I’m sitting at my table on the sidewalk and if somebody comes by and wants to know what’s great about say, economics, or Judaism, or being a Red Sox fan–three things I’m involved in–then I’m happy to tell them why it speaks to me, those things speak to me. But, I shouldn’t be out there telling people what they should aspire to. Even aspiration. So, you’re going to tell me, Agnes, you’re not even going to tell people that philosophy is a good idea? that thinking is a good idea? that they ought to aspire to be thinking?
Agnes Callard: So, I want to distinguish, first, between giving people advice and saying why something is good. So, I think–like, I have an academic paper, okay, on aspiration in Elena Ferrante, this novelist whose next novel is coming out in a couple days–I’m really excited. And when I write about Elena Ferrante, I’m actually, trying among other things, to convey my own love and enthusiasm of the novels. I want to convey that to people. I think that’s a good thing to do. Like, show people what’s beautiful in something: because it helps them aspire. Including aspiration, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Agnes Callard: Absolutely. But, I think that’s very different than telling someone what to do. It’s not telling them, ‘You should choose this over something else,’ because I don’t know that they should choose it over something else. It’s not giving them a recipe for how they might succeed in that domain. It really is in no sense telling them what to do. It’s just showing them that here is a good thing that is in some sense available to them.
Now, it’s not that I want to deny either telling people what to do. I do that all the time. I’m totally comfortable telling people what to do, but the issue is not whether I know them. So, the issue is not whether they’ve asked me, it’s whether I know them. I don’t think I can productively tell someone what to do unless I know them pretty well.
And so, when people ask me for advice who are strangers, I fear that I will give them bad advice–because I don’t know them.
But, something I can do for them is just explain why something is good or beautiful in such a way that it might hopefully resonate with them and they’ll be inspired to pursue it. That’s absolutely a thing I can do–including with aspiration. And I try to do it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Adam Smith says, ‘We care that our friends–we like that our friends like what we like and dislike what we dislike.’ And we care a lot more about the latter. We really want them to hate what we hate. That’s really, essentially, he argues. It’s an interesting argument.
But, I’m just curious–when you were telling me how beautiful Elena Ferrante’s novels are, which, who I’ve never read, and now, of course, I’m going to check her out. Her book is out. Is that a selfish–is that a self-centered goal? Or is that an altruistic goal? Are you doing that for me, or for you, or for both?
Agnes Callard: So, Smith has this fascinating passage–I think it’s towards the end of Theory of Moral Sentiments–where he says something like the basic function of, like, language is people want to be believed. Like, they want to shape other people’s opinions. So, they want to in some sense be followed. And language is like a tool for being followed, right? And, that’s related to the thing you said about wanting your friends–in some sense, we all want to be influencers–right?–is the thought there.
So, now, so one thing is like that you could say that’s a fact about us and then you can ask is that fact selfish or selfless?
I suppose, I think I agree with him that that’s a fact about people. Whether it’s selfish or selfless, I actually think depends on how you do it. Right.
So, there’s a distinction in Plato’s “Gorgias” between two kinds of persuasion: the kind of persuasion where you will do whatever it takes to persuade the person and the kind where you will only persuade them so long as you think what you’re persuading them of is true. And, Gorgias, who is an orator, who is a famous respected orator, is like, ‘I’m a master of persuasion.’ And Socrates is like, ‘I want to know which kind. That’s really super important to me. Is it the truth kind or is it the anything kind?’ Right?’
And I think that being really committed to persuading people and it being super-important to you to persuade people of the truth of what you’re saying and of the value of the things that you value, I think is not–it’s at least not selfish in a blameworthy way so long as you are subjecting yourself to the constraint of doing the right kind of persuasion.
Russ Roberts: So, hard to know, though. For each of us.
Agnes Callard: Yes, I agree–
Russ Roberts: My wife has a skepticism about charisma, which I really appreciate because I’m a sucker for charisma, charismatic speakers. My first response to a charismatic speaker is to dive in. ‘Yeah, take me. I’m yours. I love what you’re saying. Yeah, I’m going to take it really seriously.’ Her first reaction is like, ‘Whoa, charisma. I don’t want to be drawn in just by that.’ But, of course a lot of great influencers are charismatic. I suspect Socrates was more than just logical. I suspect he was charismatic.
Agnes Callard: Yeah, I mean there’s really interesting places in which he sort of tries to deny that. At the beginning of the “Apology,” which is his speech of self-defense in his trial. He’s on trial for his life, for impiety and for corrupting the youth, right? And he opens his speech by denying that he’s good at speaking. And it’s like, ‘Wait, what, Socrates?’ And he’s like, ‘Look, what I do is I just say the words in the same order that they come into my head. I’m not, like, arranging them.’ Which is kind of true, because you get these other examples of speaking, people like Gorgios and company where they are kind of rhyming. They’re talking rhymes or they speak in an overly ornate way, etc.
But, there was something super-charismatic about Socrates’s simplicity, about the fact that he always talked about cobblers and use these everyday examples.
And, so, I think it can be very difficult to dissociate yourself from that. And it’s something I think about very much, because I think I am a charismatic speaker and a charismatic writer. And, I worry about persuading people for the wrong reason. So, it’s absolutely something I think about.
I had a Twitter thread this week about how for me that’s part of the real value of assigning, like, great books: is that the book, in a way, is a kind of test and a kind of something independent of me that’s in the classroom, like another voice.
And, if I say something that sounds super-plausible or appealing about the book, a student will often raise their hand and be like, ‘Wait, that’s not how I interpret it.’ Or, ‘What about this bit of evidence?’ It gives them this sort of ground to use to push back against me.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I love that Twitter thread. We’ll try to link to it. I thought that was very thoughtful about how dead people–it’s harder for dead people to be charismatic. They only have their language. They only have their thoughts. They don’t have their oratory skills, their physical appearance as a way to enhance their argument.
Russ Roberts: It’s a very deep issue for me. And just thinking–I think we like to think we’re reasonable–meaning rational. But the role that charisma plays in getting us to decide what we aspire to is not unimportant in our parents’–like, some of us were blessed or cursed with–I don’t know which is better a charismatic parent or an uncharismatic parent. But, those parents, those teachers–and there’s a handful that all of us have in our lives. If we’re lucky, it’s more than a handful. But, people that we remember who created a set of values for us and those aspirations that we’re dancing around right now.
And, I’m very grateful for them in my life. And I’ve tried to tell them so. I think it’s a great thing. And, so–but, there’s a tension there, between the power of that to open the world for you–right?–versus steer you down a path that maybe it’s not so good for you, but you’re seduced.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. It’s interesting when I think about it, because I think I am charismatic, say, in relation to my students and to, you know, people who read what I’ve written. And this could be my own illusion. But my experience is that my children find me not at all charismatic. Like, not even slightly. Like, it’s almost like, ‘If you try any of that on us, we’ll see through it in an instant.’ Like, especially my 16 year old. And so, it’s like this–for me almost a very jarring realism that I hit when I come home of people who don’t find me charismatic. And I really kind of appreciate that. It’s almost like the home world is a little bit of a–I mean, sheltered from something.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There’s an expression in Hebrew that I think most people assume comes from the Bible, but I don’t think it does, but it’s a deep expression. [30:32]It’s ‘ayin n’be bin komo’: Not a prophet in his own place, or in her own place.
So, when you’re out on the mountaintop talking to the masses, people are going nuts. Then, you’re back in your hometown. It’s like, ‘Isaiah? Oh, that was that kid who had trouble with algebra. He’s a nobody.’
So, I think it’s a–when we come home, it is a time of humility, right? I think that’s painful but healthy.
Russ Roberts: Well, let’s talk about rationality, which I think is overrated but as a philosopher you’re kind of stuck with it. You say the following. I’m going to read two quotes from the book. “Aspirants–those who aspire–aspirants exhibit a distinct form of rationality that is not a matter of decision at all.”
You also write, “I propose that the large transformations in people’s lives are rational though their rationality is not best captured through the framework of decision-making.”
Talk about what that means. What do you mean by that, those two expressions?
Agnes Callard: Great. I think that’s a really important claim in the book.
And, so, maybe one way to frame this whole thing is like: You might think I’m not such a big fan of rationality. It’s overrated. Etc. That’s one way you could respond to a certain set of phenomena.
And I think I’m looking at those same phenomena. What I’m saying is, ‘Let’s stretch the concept of rationality,’ to cover some of that territory. Because part of the function of the idea of rationality is that it ought to cover a lot of what’s important to us.
Okay. So, here’s how I’m doing it. What I’m saying is that there’s a way–there’s a kind of classical way–to think about rationality and that is something like rational choices, right?
And, once I say ;rational choice,’ you’re immediately in the framework where somebody has like a few different options. Those options somehow are magically pre-articulated for them. Like, we’re automatically in the supermarket somehow, right? A supermarket of choices.
And, the question of their rationality is the question: Which of those things do they pick? Right?
And, in addition to the choices being given to them, somehow magically, all the information that they will ever have about these choices is given to them somehow magically. Okay?
And, some of that information might be information about what they don’t know, right? But that’s also given, fixed. Everything is fixed there, right?
And, the question is just, okay: Given these choices, given this information, given what they desire–which is also fixed, right? All those things fixed–what should they do? Right?
And, the theory of rational choice is the theory of how to navigate that situation.
And, what I’m trying to say is that there are situations in life that require rationality where not all those assumptions can be met. Not all those things are fixed.
So, there are–there’s a kind of rationality that we’re expected to exercise when our information about a situation is in the process of changing. Our desires are in the process of changing. And, our mode of thinking about the value of the thing–in some sense what would correspond to deciding–is itself also changing.
And so, the thing that marks what is happening as rational isn’t the decision, there. In some sense, there isn’t a decision. There is a process, a temporally-extended process, which is something like learning that involves changes in the information structure, the desire structure, of the person. And, in order to sort of pick out what is happening and see its rationality, you have to see a stretch of time. You can’t just look at an instant, which is how you look at decision. [More to come, 34:28]