In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Agnes Callard – professor of philosophy and author – about the philosophy of change.
Many decisions in life can be made by weighing our values: if an action accords with our values, then we do it, and if it doesn’t, then we don’t. But when it comes to deciding what our values should be, we may need a different paradigm.
Tune in to hear a conversation about the philosophy of change.
Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming by Agnes Callard
Transformative Experience by L. A. Paul
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Professor Agnes Callard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, specializing in ancient philosophy and ethics. Professor Callard received a Masters of Arts in Classics and a PhD in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. Unlike many academics of philosophy, her writing is powerfully accessible, making her a popular voice on issues of contemporary ideas. Agnes’s book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming is a stunningly deep exploration of the foundational aspects of change, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy and psychology of personal growth. Agnes joins us to talk about self-creation, growth, and the philosophy of transformation.
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring change, or teshuva, how we reconstruct and recreate our religious identities. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.
When I was in high school, I remember I had a teacher, a Rebbe, who would always, it became a shtick where he would always talk to the guys in his class about wanting to learn. That so many guys in the Modern Orthodox, single gender school that I went to – DRS, as it’s known – would go to Rebbe and say, “Rebbe, I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to do this.” And the Rebbe would always respond with his classic regression, he says, “Okay, you don’t want to learn, but I know you want to want to learn.”
Meaning, you don’t actively want to study Torah, you don’t actively want to engage in religious life, or whatever it is. We were all burnt out teenagers, classic teenagers. But the Rebbe would always remind us, “Well, at least you want to want to learn.” And this became an infinite regress, where guys would be like, “Well, I don’t want to want to learn, but I want to want to want to learn.” And it just went on forever. But it always fascinated me, because I think in many ways, this notion of wanting to want – I don’t yet have a relationship with davening, with prayer. I don’t yet have a relationship with Shabbat. I don’t yet treat people the way I would want to treat them. But at the heart, very often, we want to want. I want to want to become that better person. I want to want to radically change the way that I interact with people, the values that I have that navigate and direct my life. I want to want. And I think at various points in our lives, we have this nagging feeling that we want to want to change. We want to want to be different. We don’t quite know what that change or what that difference looks like or feels like, but we know we want to want it, and we’re not yet quite there.
It reminds me in many ways of a scene from an absolutely dumb movie, but if you look, I believe in 1997, there was a Time magazine article that highlighted that this scene was the early foreshadowing for the quality actor that Jim Carrey became. Jim Carrey, among all actors who excel at both drama and comedy, I would put Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Robin Williams is probably the greatest in that category. But there are certain actors who have this emotional range where they excel at comedy and drama. Usually, they start in comedy and go to drama. Sometimes it’s vice versa. I’m not going to give you examples of that, but there are plenty. And Jim Carrey became known as this comedic actor. And in his absolutely dumb movie, aptly titled Dumb and Dumber, he has this scene where the characters that they’re playing, Harry and Lloyd, he’s looking out into the distance and saying, “I want my life to be different.”
Jim Carrey (Lloyd):
You know what I’m sick and tired of, Harry? I’m sick and tired to having to eke my way through life. I’m sick and tired of being a nobody. But most of all, I’m sick and tired of having nobody.
That feeling of being sick and tired, of being, so to speak, to paraphrase Ozzy Osbourne, being sick and tired of being sick and tired, of that feeling that I want my life to be different, I don’t know the mechanics of change. And there is a thinker that I recently, not so recently, in the last I would say five years, became really enamored with and just absolutely fascinated by, and that is Agnes Callard. I think most listeners to our podcast fall into three categories in terms of the types of personalities that we expose them to.
I think many of our guests or personalities our audience is quite familiar with, and we’re now casting them. We’re doing a deeper dive into their thought, into their life experiences. That’s one category of guest. There is a second category of guest, of somebody who is not famous or well-known at all, but has a story, experience, approach that I believe is worth sharing with a wider audience. I would not put Agnes, Professor Callard, in that category, either. I think she falls into a third category, of which we’ve had many guests on 18Forty, which is somebody who’s probably well-known in other circles, but their thought, their experiences have never been recast within a specifically Jewish, or sometimes religious, light. I would put our earlier interview that we had with the author, Andrew Solomon, following our series on religious divergence in that category.
And Professor Callard is somebody whose thought and work to me is just so spellbinding. It is absolutely brilliant. She wrote a book. A little bit about her. She is a professor at the University of Chicago. She is a very serious philosopher. She writes a great deal in the public square. And she wrote a book that I discovered many years ago called Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.
I was so excited when I read the review of this book, which we make reference to in our opening video. It was reviewed by Joshua Rothman, I believe for The New Yorker. And her book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, I was so excited when it first came out that I actually accidentally bought two copies. They weren’t that cheap, so I was that excited, and I still have two copies in my house waiting for the right person to give that second copy to, feel free to reach out.
And her book, Aspiration, is absolutely brilliant, and I believe should be on every single shelf, as people think about the High Holidays, about Yamim Noraim, about teshuva, about what the mechanics of change actually are. It is not a specifically Jewish book, though Professor Callard is absolutely Jewish. But I believe that the entire book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, should be, can be, and possibly should be, particularly in these times, be read with a Jewish lens.
Her book is about how aspirational change happens. It’s almost the philosophy of teshuva itself. How do we become better people? How do we hope to aspire to become different people, and this problem is at the heart of the book, when we don’t know what embodying and becoming that different person actually is like? If you aspire and hope to want to want to be something else, the difficulty is, you very often don’t know what that something else actually feels like, what that experience actually is like.
This is how she opens her book: “We can all think back to a time when we were substantially different people, value wise, from the people we are now. There was a time when we were not even aware of the existence of some of the people, activity, institutions and ideology that now figure so centrally in our lives. Maybe we had different political views or no political views at all. Maybe we used to be religious or used not to be. Maybe we now feel deep ties to a place that is spatially, culturally, and linguistically far from where we grew up. Maybe we find our interests and concerns resembling those of our parents more than we ever thought they would. We care about many things that we once did not care about. How did that change come about?”
And that central question, “How did that change come about,” is the heart of her book, and the heart of our conversation. Now she is a trained philosopher, and much of the way in which she describes change and the language that she used to describe change can sometimes be a drop technical, and certainly informed from her philosophical background. But the way she goes about describing it, and I would recommend aside from reading the book, find her op eds, find her interviews, because I find her to be just brilliantly insightful in the way that she approaches life.
She continues in her book, “In accounting for the genesis of our new values, we often have occasion to mention the effects on us of forces outside our control, such as fortuitous coincidence, an influential mentor in inspiring local, a tragic loss, a bitter betrayal, a domineering parent, the emergence of an innate facility, the process of getting older. Nonetheless, none of these sorts of factors can amount to the whole story. A mentor cannot implant the love of music. The betrayal cannot of itself create a devotion to independence. Coincidence cannot produce love. Being in a culinary Mecca cannot make one into a chef. Talents do not develop themselves. There is no doubt that our parents, friends, and romantic partners influence us deeply, but they do not fashion us. We have a hand in answering the question as to what things in the world are important to us, and our answers need not be and typically are not arbitrary or random. Agency, as distinct from mere behavior, is marked from practical rationality.”
And this is a theme, and this is me talking, that we kind of lay the groundwork on in our opening video. She continues, “Insofar as becoming someone is something someone does and not merely something that happens to her, she must have access to reasons to become the person she will be. Giving a philosophical account of how it is possible for value acquisition to be a form of practically rational agency is the project of this book.”
And it really is an incredible book, particularly, I believe, within the Jewish community. And I’m not just talking about our religious commitments, I’m talking about our sociological commitments. One of the most important distinctions that she makes in the book, and one that we discuss, is the difference between aspiration and ambition. I think a lot of people in the Jewish community are very ambitious. They want to become that doctor, that lawyer. They want to have that success that they may have grew up acquainted with, either because they had it themselves, or because they saw their friends, or classmates, or schoolmates have it on their own.
This is how she describes what ambition is, and it is markedly different than aspiration. “An ambitious agent’s behavior is directed at a form of success, whose value she is fully capable of grasping in advance of achieving it. Hence, ambition is often directed at those goods, wealth, power, fame that can be well appreciated, even by those who do not have them. And that’s as opposed and in contrast to aspiration. Aspiration gets into that mystery of identity, of wanting to become something that we do not know what that experience when we arrive at it actually is.” And it’s at the heart of the project of this book, and it remains at the heart of our conversation. So it is my absolute pleasure to introduce my conversation with Professor Agnes Callard.
So, thank you all for tuning in to the 18Forty Podcast. I am so excited to introduce someone who has influenced my own thinking, particularly about the subject that we’re talking about today, which is about change, or in Hebrew, what we’re talking about is teshuva, the idea of returning, which is where the word to teshuva derives from. And it is our absolute privilege and pleasure to be speaking today with Professor Agnes Callard, whose name I desperately hope I pronounced correctly. How did I do?
Perfect. She is an Associate Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Chicago, where she is a professor of Philosophy. A lot of her work deals with what we’re going to talk about today. So, I wanted to really dive right in, because I really can’t overstate enough how influential your book was, for me, in the way I think about particularly religious change.
But before we talk about religious change, I wanted to maybe begin with the question of, what problem is your book coming to address? Your book is called Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. I have it in front of me right now. Published by Oxford. Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. It’s about decision making. But I make decisions all the time, what I have for lunch, where I want to go on vacation. What is the problem that this book is addressing?
It’s about a species of change, personal change, large scale personal transformation. And one reason why one needs a theory of those changes is that it doesn’t seem as though they can be the product of conventional decisions. So a lot of the decisions we make, like “What kind of car do I want to buy? What book do I want to read next,” right, we can weigh pros and cons and decide which of these options is going to best satisfy our preferences. That’s how we make these decisions. But sometimes we’re trying to figure out what preferences we want. And in fact, sometimes we’re trying to figure out what core fundamental preferences we want. And that model of, “well, just make the decision that best satisfies your preferences” isn’t going to work when what we want to know is “What preferences should I have?”
So, I read your book about change and about figuring out your preferences, about the problem about wanting to become something that you don’t know what that thing is. “I want to become…”
You used the analogy throughout your book, “I want to become a classical, somebody who loves classical music.” You borrowed the analogy from L.A. Paul’s book of Transformative Experiences. “I want to become a vampire. I want to figure out how to drastically change what I am.” And I read this book through the lens of religious change. I’m interested in becoming a better Jew, a better Christian, a better service, somebody who wants to serve God more devotedly. Do you think your book addresses the challenge of religious change?
Yes, I think that it’s supposed to be a general account of coming to have new core preferences, which maybe the better way to put that, if we’re not going to be wedded into the decision theory framework is coming to have new values. So, you’re going to, and not, maybe not radically new ones, but typically, it’s going to be coming to more fully inhabit and grasp some values that you already grasped in an attenuated way. And I think those values could really be any values. But one condition that my book places on the way that I want to use the word “aspiration,” which is close to, but isn’t, doesn’t always perfectly overlap with the way we use that word in English, is that I think something only counts as aspiration if the thing you’re trying to value is actually valuable.
So, I use the example in my book of somebody trying to become a more perfect mafioso, and to really inhabit that world of being a mafioso. And I think that’s not aspiration. They might think it is, right? They might mistakenly think it is. And so, where this gets interesting with religion is whether or not you’re going to call the religious transformation, a case of aspiration, might be a function of where you’re located in relation to the religion. And in my experience, for instance, I think religious people tend to be actually quite generous with respect to one another in recognizing that I as a Jew might see someone trying to more fully become a Christian and see that as aspiration. A nonreligious person looking at me and that person might be like, “I don’t even see what they’re going for there.” Right? They don’t have enough of a grip on the value that we’re after to even see us as aspiring. So religion raises this interesting case of, from whose point of view is it going to get called aspiration?
So I want to dig in, in what I could only call in Hebrew, which is the chiddush, the innovation, the new idea of how decisions actually work in this arena. And I’m hoping you could elaborate on this. Normally, when I was… I dated for a long time, and you figure out, “Do I want to marry this person?” And I know that there’s this scene on The Office where Michael Scott, who is the Branch Manager at Dunder Mifflin, is trying to figure out if he should stay with his girlfriend, Jan. And he’s in the mall. And all of his employees say, “Make a pro and con list. Figure out what you like about being with her and what you don’t like about her.” And he makes a pro and con list, and he can’t really figure it out.
And then they say, “Well let’s do a split second reaction. Jan. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” And he says, “I don’t like being around her. I don’t like being there.” Your book doesn’t do either of those approaches. It’s not a quick pro and con list. It’s also not like a visceral, intuitive reaction, yes or no. What is your approach to how people aspire? What is that process?
So, you just said the key word, which is process. So I think what is distinctive, the two things that are really distinctive about my approach is first, that I think there are some phenomena that you only get a clear picture of if you take in a larger extent of time. And the second one is that what’s happening during that time is learning. But let’s start with the first one first, right?
So, I think we very much have a tendency to frame the space of practical phenomena, so actions and personalities and decisions and all that, in a framework that can at least conceptually be contained in a moment. So, a decision is something that can be contained in a moment. Like, at the end of the day, you have to just decide. And there’s that moment of decision.
And then a reaction, right? A hunch, right? A split second reaction is also something that can happen in a moment. But suppose you were trying to study motion. The motion of a horse or something. And suppose you decided you were going to study that by looking at a freeze frame of the horse. And you might think, “That’s not a good way to study motion.” Your topic is not one that is well-suited to be studied in a way you’re trying to study it. If you want to understand the motion of a horse, you’re going to have to take in a longer extent of time than a moment.
And I think there are a lot of things in human life that are too big to fit in a moment. And yet, we still try to study them as though they could be squeezed into a moment. And that’s, in fact, what’s happening in that scene in The Office. It’s like, “Well, either you make a decision or you react. One way or the other, we got to decide this in a moment.” And I think that anything that is a learning process is going to take time. So, learning is something that takes time, because what happens is that your ability to understand gets shaped by the things that you’re understanding, and then you’re able to take in more, and it’s a virtuous circle, I’ve described it.
And so, with these value changes, what’s happening is that over time, you’re learning to come to appreciate that value. So your desire to do the thing, for instance, or desire to be with the person is actually growing over time. So you can’t just base the question, “Do I want to keep going on this road based on how much I like her right now? Because maybe I like her way more in the future. And in fact, one of the things I’m trying to do is to come to like her.” So the question is, comparing that whole trajectory is really what you’re looking at. And it’s very hard to assess that. But I think often we try to take refuge from the difficulty of assessing that to trying to squeeze the decision into a moment, and that just doesn’t make sense.
So one thing that I just found so fascinating, and your book, I don’t think it would be an overestimation to call it philosophical mysticism, where you’re really trying to parse apart this mystical entity called the self, called what an individual is, and break it apart in philosophical terms. And everybody has multiple selves: they have the me in the present, they have the me in the past, and then they have the me in the future. I one day want to be a better person. I want to be like my parents. I want to be like my role models.
And one thing that I found really interesting that you talk about is the role of promises: that normally we think about commitment and a promise is your past self or your present self holding your future self accountable. I make a promise now. I say, “This coming year, I am going to accept upon myself to pray every day. This coming year, I am going to be the kind of person who sets aside time to study Torah, or any religious activity, or to treat my wife better, to treat my spouse better, whatever it is.” You have a present self that holds the future self accountable. But you actually flip that model in almost this Christopher Nolan-esque philosophical, I’m telling you, your book was… and I love Christopher Nolan’s movies because they play with past and future.
Explain to me what’s happening when you make a commitment through the lens of your book, through aspiration. Is it just my present self, it’s the High Holidays coming up, I’m in synagogue, and I’m saying to myself, “Future self, future David,” that’s my name, “Future David, I want you to be the kind of person who, in six months from now, is springing out of bed, going to prayer, and doing all the things that you know are right, but you can’t get yourself to do. In six months from now, I hope my future self stays accountable to that past self, but what’s really happening when you make a promise or commitment to change?
So, I think there are two different kinds of commitments that we can make to change. And maybe we could just classify them as small and big. So, the small ones I call self-cultivation, right? And those are cases where you might want to acquire a new desire or a new preference or a new value, but it fully serves some other value that you already have and that you have a complete grip on why it’s good. So, an example might be, you want to come to wake up early and to enjoy waking up early, because you think you’ll get more work done if you wake up early. Or you want to come to exercise more, and to enjoy exercise, because you think you’ll be healthier. And you already fully understand why you want to be healthier, right? So, that’s what I call self-cultivation.
And in those cases, I think the model of, “I make some promises or commitments and I try to hold myself to them” is perfectly fine. But I think that in the case of aspiration, where what I might hope from increased religiosity is that the person I turn into understands more than the person I am now. I shouldn’t be the one binding her, right? My future self knows more, is more educated, and has a better grip on the norms that I’m trying to learn than I do. So, the idea of me laying down the law for her doesn’t really make any sense.
And I think a lot, when you asked me at the beginning, what needed to be understood in this? I think that one way to put what needed to be understood is that people were inclined to take that promising small change framework and apply it to all kinds of personal changes. And that erases the possibility of the big changes, where it doesn’t make sense to be… for the more ignorant person, the worst self to be doing the legislating. And so I think in the case of these bigger changes, it’s still true that you lay down a bunch of laws, right? But you also expect that it’s as you start to follow them that you will start to grip the meaning of those laws, and that you will be able to lay them down better for yourself once you do that.
So, even something like, suppose, I think that one could be in this position with respect to exercise. You could, instead of wanting to exercise because you independently know that it will make you healthy, maybe you think, and I did think this at one point in my life. I want to kind of appreciate just having a bodily self and being in the world in that way more than I do. And I think exercise is a way to appreciate that value that I’ve sort of shunned with my bookish nature. And so, I might make some rules for myself, like “I’m going to do this such and such every day.” And there are kind of a set of rules that I will come to see as being a bit silly. And I kind of know that I will, but it’s like a stepping stone.
And so, the way you come to see any rules that you make for yourself, insofar as you see yourself as engaged in this larger transformative project, is that you are just getting to a point where more of the value is in view, and then you’re going to have to revise. And the person whose judgment matters about the whole process, the person who will know how to assess this initial set of rules that you made for yourself, and maybe some of them were good and some of them weren’t, is the person at the end of the story. Not the person at the beginning of the story.
It’s so fascinating, because, again, it flips the model that, instead of the present self holding your future self accountable, what you really are talking about is a future self, what I can possibly become holding the present accountable. Which I think is a very moving imagery to think about how all change, particularly religious change, works. What I may become. What I might turn into or transform into one day.
You wrote an article in The New York Times that I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see it when it first came out. The article was called, “Can We Learn To Believe in God?,” which is such a foundational question. It was kind of the one place that I saw you take your book through a very explicit religious lens. And I’m wondering, again, I have a couple quotes from the book that basically contrast famously Pascal’s wager, which was this philosophical way of phrasing that if you just believe in God, and you kind of fake it until you make it, you don’t really lose anything. So it’s a better greater good than just not believing, where ultimately, you don’t risk eternal damnation. And you explained why that doesn’t really work. So, maybe you could answer and explain, can one learn, or how does one learn to believe in God?
Yeah, so I think that, so it’s in general true of aspiration that we aspire to grip more or to get a better grip on values where we already have some inkling that those values are there, right? So, it’s a theory of how to come to more fully appreciate values that you have some connection to. And so, that’s important in terms of, why does someone come to want to take courses in which they’ll come to appreciate classical music unless they have some sense that it’s valuable, right? That is, if they had no clue, there would be no reason for them to embark on this project. But I think many people actually, even those who might even explicitly reject religion, a lot of grounds actually have some sense that there’s some value there, so that’s the first part.
And then, I think the second part is, the thing with Pascal’s wager is that Pascal puts it to you in terms of, you already know why you don’t want eternal damnation. That is, you independently have a grip on the evil that you would be avoiding by being religious. And so, you should trick yourself into being religious, because you can get this good thing where you already know why that thing is good. And the difference, I think that that’s a kind of insincere way in effect of becoming religious and it’s so unattractive to people. And people haven’t taken Pascal up on that offer, right?
And what we want is we want to come to acquire, we want it to be the case that this process, we’re not like duping ourselves in to a belief. But we’re rather learning the value of something that we didn’t have access to at the start, right? So instead of saying, “Okay, well, there’s this fear of eternal damnation,” right? You want to say, it seems religious people have access to a kind of meaning and a way of thinking about community that the nonreligious, maybe you can sort of see something in that, but they’re not sure what they see in it. And they may even be worried, like maybe it’s not real or maybe it’s some kind of trick, similarly to how you might be with classical music.
And what you’re doing as you’re aspiring is you’re actually trying to see the value in it. But trying to see the value in something is not just something you do by sitting and thinking, right? Any more like trying to value classical music, I don’t just sit there and think about classical music. You have to, for instance, listen to music, right? So, there’s stuff that you do. And I think similarly, trying to value religion is going to involve religious activity, right? And it may be that, there is, there are going to be contingent features of people that click with domains of value, or not, such that, you might think there are sort of tragic cases where somebody does put themselves in a kind of religious situation and tries to value them. It just doesn’t work for them.
Certainly, that happens with music to people. I happened to me with classical music. And I mean, I see some value, but I didn’t make as much progress as I thought I would, right? So I think that this is a kind of process where one doesn’t actually exercise full control over it. And the question of what kind of environment are you in, what kind of support do you have, I think, has huge bearing on the kind of progress you can make with respect to value.
So, it’s a perfect segue to my next two questions, and I’ll start with one. You said in an interview, I’m sure you have something like that in the book, but you just said it so bluntly in a previous interview, where you said, “We can’t aspire by ourselves.” Meaning, as you just mentioned, aspirations emerge within the context of a community and others. Why can’t you aspire by yourself?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And in a way the next book that I’m working on is sort of about that. It’s an instance of a more general phenomenon, which is I think you can’t even think by yourself. But let me narrow it to aspiration for now. So, I think that once you already have a settled sense of why something is valuable, what you can do is just assess whether or not your various options satisfy your values, right? And that’s something you can do by yourself if you have the relevant information about the things.
But suppose that your values are themselves in transition, right? Then you actually don’t have such a good grip on what your values are. And what you want is to make the choices that sort of help your trajectory progress, so that you come to learn more. And it’s just very hard to know what that is, right? So, I think that it’s sort of like, “Why can’t you learn by yourself?” In general, we learn when we have teachers. Those teachers might be dead. They might be in books, right? But why can’t you teach yourself stuff? Because you don’t know the stuff you’re trying to teach yourself.
And so, what we do is we rely on other people’s having either a better grip on that value, or at the very least some grip on the parts of the value that we don’t yet have a grip on, right? So often, the person that can help you is a close friend, who is also struggling in this domain, but their patterns of struggling don’t perfectly match yours. And you can hold each other accountable. And you can see very well exactly how they’re going along because you did that thing yourself. So, I think it’s the simple, maybe the underlying thing, the simple fact is that people who are learning require help in order to learn.
It’s so fascinating, and the parallels in your book between the structure of the Jewish community, particularly the places of learning within the Jewish community, what’s known as the Beit Midrash, where everybody goes to study, and the role of Chavruta learning, which is paired learning with one another. I feel like your book gives a certain philosophical language to explain why the community is structured in this way, and how in many ways reading your book, I kept thinking about things that frustrate me within our own community. But how I started to realize that in many ways, the Jewish community, at least where my experience is, is structured as an aspiring community. Meaning, it’s structured in this way and their patterns, and built in these ways.
But I had a question for you and maybe, I don’t know, again, enough about your own experiences, though I’d love to learn more, you kind of touch on them. But I’m an educator. I also happen to be a rabbi, though it’s not how I introduce myself, but I want you to give educators, rabbis, religious leaders advice. What should we, they, this group learn about the process of religious change? How should we think about religious education? How should we think about, if we want to cultivate among teenagers, particularly in religious outreach, people who are, they’re not affiliated. And we want to think about how can we position Jewish life in a way that this is something they would want to aspire towards in a healthy, organic way? So, what advice would you give, a pamphlet that you’ve never written, to religious leaders, regardless if they’re a particular, Christian, Jewish? What advice would you give them? What are we doing right? And what are we doing wrong?
I’ll tell you how this, one way that this come up for me is I write a lot about Socrates. And Socrates is one of my heroes. And when I write about him, I have this inclination to adopt a kind of almost pious and preachy tone, my attitude is a bit religious, right? And I’ve found that I have to, the thing that I want to do is convey, in some sense, my extraordinary respect and admiration for this person. And this sense that he sort of offers us a a different way of navigating our lives. While in some sense not dictating a way of life to people or and not kind of coming off as overly pious. And I think the danger of the piety isn’t that it turns people off. I actually think it doesn’t turn people off and they like it. That’s the danger of it.
It’s that it’s easy to say stuff to people where you give them the impression that they’ve learned something, and that they’ve changed through by means of your words, but they actually haven’t, right? That’s a danger of preaching, right? And so, I think that, and yet I deeply believe in preaching, too. So, this is the danger, right? The positive side is that I think that we, all of us, need more sermons in our lives. That is, there are things that we all value that we are not as attuned to as we could be, and there are other things that pull us away from the things that we value, right?
And so, we need ways of being redirected onto the things that really matter to us, everyone needs that. And people who, one advantage of being religious is that you recognize that you need that and you go to someone for it, right? But once you’re in that system, where you recognize that you need it and you go to someone for it, then there’s this profound danger of providing an illusory version of it or an incomplete. It’s always going to be incomplete, but a version of it that doesn’t make evident to the person sort of how much work they have to do in trying to come to appreciate this thing.
And so, I mean, I think that one of the things I found about basically any rabbi I’ve ever interacted with is they’re very ready to have individual conversations with people. Maybe the general population doesn’t notice that about rabbis, but at least in my experience it’s true, right? And kind of on any topic, right? They’re sort of very open to conversation. And that’s saying to people, “I am going to meet you wherever you are right now.” And that might be, “I don’t believe in God,” right? That might be, in the case of my son, is about to have his Bar Mitzvah in two weeks.
Thank you. And he has had all these conversations about morality with the rabbi that he’s been working with. And that’s what he wants, he wants to have these philosophical conversations about, “Are there objective moral truths? And if we have to kill one person to save five, should we do that?” And for him, that is what the current moment in his psychology, in terms of moving forward religiously, involves that. It’s going to be different things for everyone, right? But I think that being good at finding that spot in a person, especially in a one-on-one interaction where this is the place where I have to engage them in order for them to be able to see that these values are going to actually be action guiding and life guiding for them to be able to find those spots, I would say, that’s a really valuable thing to be able to do, or at least one valuable thing.
And I’ll apologize in advance if I’m asking a personal question, or one that I missed or forgot in the book, and maybe I’m wrong. But it felt there were decisions in your life that were cast, however quietly, in the writing of this book. In the acknowledgments, you actually write explicitly, “The book draws on my own experiences as an aspirant.” So, I was curious about what the personal aspirations that you grappled with that hovered beneath the text of this book?
Yeah. And so there’s lots of them. I think, maybe the main one that I was thinking about when I was writing it was becoming a philosopher and also becoming a teacher. Since then, I’ve felt more about parenting, and lots of other categories, but I think that when I was an undergraduate, I didn’t major in Philosophy. And it didn’t seem to me the kind of thing that I could just sort of choose to do like, “I’m going to be a philosopher.” I’d been interested since high school. I’d been reading Philosophy.
But I think the thing that sort of allowed me eventually, I dropped out of grad school in classics and switched over to grad school in philosophy, so I went to… I arrived at Philosophy kind of late in my career, was I think, the way we put it now, though, I didn’t quite put it that way then, to come to see that being a philosopher wasn’t something that I had to choose. Where I had to fully understand the value at a certain moment, and then I would choose it then. But something where I was going to work my way into an understanding of what it meant. And that understanding, I should expect would change over time. And it might, for instance, be able to be fully contained within the practice of academic philosophy for some period of time.
And then later, I might be like, actually, now that I have a better grip on what being a philosopher is, I see that it has all these other implications that are just as important and involves engagement with the outside world in all these ways that I wasn’t able to see earlier. And that’s okay because I wasn’t dictating and defining what being a philosopher was when I would first go to grad school. And so, being able to see this, the possibility of this kind of expansion, this kind of value expansion as describing my own activity allowed me to orient myself better with respect to that activity.
That is absolutely fascinating. I want to know, my sister one time asked me a question, and said, and it gave me an absolute panic attack. I fell apart. She said, “David, is this what you planned on doing?” Meaning, looking at my life, I’m an educator. I teach in college. I write. I’m an author. But it’s not a traditional path. And definitely in the community I came from, there were a lot more doctors like my father.
Actually, my father is a hematologist/oncologist too. So, we have that bond, and I don’t know if that’s unique to the children of hematologists or oncologists, where you grow up in a home, your mother was one, where you just, the gravity of their professional lives is so obvious. That leads to this very, it’s very easy to access inadequacy when your parent’s job is curing cancer. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take a lot of effort on my behalf.
And my sister asked me, “Is this what you planned on doing?” And the question I wanted to kind of ask you about are, what do you see as the most common mistakes that people make that lead them to lives that they did not plan on living? And I’m not saying that I didn’t plan on this life, but I am acknowledging that not everybody’s aspirations work out, and there are roads, or mistakes. There are patterns in the process that erode our ability to become what we one day hoped we would embody. So, I’m wondering if on the flip side, if your book is about the healthy way of becoming and embodying what you are. What are the most common mistakes you see people making on the road and process of aspiration?
So, I would say that I don’t have so much expertise on this, that is, I have only my own life, which may not be a representative sample in any way. But I think that there are different ways to rely on other people. You have to rely on other people when you’re an aspirant, right? But there are, say, one way I can rely on other people is I plug myself into a system that will tell me whether or not I succeeded. So, I try to get good grades in my classes. I try to get one of the top jobs, et cetera.
And I think that success in those fronts, in effect it’s like the other people are affirming, “Yes, you’re doing this right.” And some of that is important, right? But it can sort of stand in the place of a more one-on-one guidance, where you ask someone for help, that a lot of us need this more direct guidance of, “Am I doing this right?” We’re just relying on signals from institutions, or from forms of social coordination, “Am I getting one of the top jobs,” et cetera. You’re not getting as much guidance as you think from those signals in terms of the fine details of actually coming to appreciate the value of the thing that you’re doing as well as possible.
And so, I think there’s a way in which we privilege a certain kind of reliance on other people, namely one that doesn’t really involve an eye-to-eye interaction in which a given human being is going to see our failings, right? We privilege the systemic use of other people, and that can land people in lives that they feel are kind of empty, because they sort of succeed by some measure, but it’s not their own measure. And I think, I mean, my sense is the best thing you can do you feel that is ask for more help. People, I think, don’t ask for help in general. Mostly, I find when I ask people for help, they help me. People are actually happy to help you. “Am I doing this right?” Lots of students come to me and ask me this, “I’m studying Philosophy, but am I doing it right?” And if somebody kind of knows you well, they’re able to give you a much more fine grained guidance than, “Oh, I’ll know I’m doing it right if I get an A.”
I love that distinction between systemic institutional signals and that heart-to-heart that you have with somebody that actually figures out, because it’s such an easy cover to have. And I know I’ve used this in my own life of, “I’m doing the right thing, because I’m checking all of the boxes.” And then you think you’re aspiring towards this self-actualization and then you start scratching your head, and you say, “Okay, why am I so empty right now?” Why? Because your aspirations were never really your own. Is that kind of what you’re…
Yeah, in effect, to put it in the language of my book, your aspiration turned into an ambition, right? So, you stopped doing the part of the process that was, you’re coming to learn how to value that thing more. And you just were like, “Well, I’m just going to achieve certain goals.” Where I have already independent knowledge that those are desirable goals to achieve, like having a high salary, getting certain kinds of recognition, et cetera. And I already know why I want those things, right?
But if you just have those goals, and you don’t actually make the kind of progress in coming to appreciate, enjoy, value what you’re doing, then you’ll just be meeting a bunch of other people’s standards and not your own standards. And you won’t see the meaning of what you’re doing. You’ll still be useful to other people. Oftentimes, people are still quite useful to others, in the sense of, they’re in a system and this system is designed to make their hard work pay off for other people. And that’s good, right? But it should pay off for the person themselves, too.
So, could you just elaborate, because I do know you, and I want to almost warn people. Your book is written, it’s not overly dense philosophical language, but it’s also not a self-help book that you’d find in the airport necessarily. But can you elaborate on that distinction? Because particularly in the community that I live in and that I grew up in, the mistake and the confusion between ambitions and aspirations, I see in my own life, and among those, so many of those around me. So, could you succinctly in plain language explain, what’s the difference between an ambition and an aspiration?
Yeah. So, an ambition is, and there’s nothing wrong with having some ambitions by the way. But an ambition is like a large scale goal where the effort is going into the achievement of the goal, not into learning to value the goal, right? That is, you already know, say, why you want to make a million dollars, right? And it’s your ambition, right? Or maybe you want to cure cancer, right? You already know why it would be good to cure cancer, right? That’s an ambition, too, so ambitions can be altruistic, right?
And, but learning to appreciate classical music, that’s not an ambition because the thing that you want is not something where you already fully understand why you want it, right? Part of what you’re trying to do, part of where your efforts are going, is in the value learning process. So I think that if too many of your efforts are taken up by ambition at too young an age, you just don’t enrich your value repertoire enough to enjoy your life later, right? Because a big part of what it is to enjoy one’s life and to see meaning in it is to have values that are being met by one’s own activities.
I absolutely love that. And the language that you used throughout your book is this, particularly at the very end, is this notion of self-creation, where, it feels like ambition sometimes is following a roadmap that you’ve been given and it’s just figuring out how to get there. And aspiration and self-creation is really through the help of others, developing your own value system of, “What do I want my life to become? And it’s one of the most essential, again, I’m shocked that rabbis haven’t just flooded your inbox with, it’s honestly shocking to me.
And my final question, which is not related to my knowledge to your book, Aspiration, but I think it is parallel to your book, is you wrote an article on prayer. And in that article, you reorient in similar ways that I found that you do in your book. If your book is breaking out of the transactional nature of what you want to become, the pros and cons list, this rational decision theory that we think, but rarely is the road to becoming who you are, you uproot the notion of prayer in similar ways. Not as a transactional activity, but, and again, I know, I’m conflating a lot together, but you do something similar that you do with promises. We often confuse prayer as an experience of the present self and hoping that we’ll get something for a future self, but you do something very similar with prayer, and you say that prayer, perhaps, is less about what you get after, but more about what happens before. Can you explain your philosophy about the value of prayer?
Yeah, so it’s something I’ve puzzled over from a young age, because I went to religious schools, and we would engage in this activity where I’m like, “Am I asking God for stuff?” Because that doesn’t seem to make any sense, right? God has a much better understanding of what ought to happen than I do, so it doesn’t make sense for me to ask God that something happened or, right? That is, it doesn’t make sense for me to make requests in that way. But it does to me make sense that I would want to talk to God, that I would want to communicate.
And I think that part of it is that we have all these, this kind of churning thoughts that come from our wishes and yearnings for things we can’t have and our various hurts that we’ve experienced in the past, right? We have a kind of wounded mentality, like wounded thought, right? And I think that prayer, at least one function of prayer is to present that to God in some way, where the very presentation of it kind of organizes it and gives it a stopping point. So that I can say this much, and now I’ve said something, and now it stops for a bit. And then I will have to say it again later, because the sufferings of life don’t really end or stop.
But it’s a way in which I can not be overwhelmed by my suffering and my needs and my unmet desires, but also not dismiss them, which I think is really, it’s really very dangerous to dismiss your own pain and be like, “I can just get over this. I can just ignore it.” You kind of killed a part of yourself. And so, prayer offers you a way out of that dilemma of either, “I’m overcome and sort of destroyed by these thoughts,” or “I dismiss them and kind of deaden myself.” And prayer allows you to sort of get some of it done. And now it’s done, and now you can go on for a bit until you need to pray again.
I’ll just read because it’s so powerful your own words, and I’m sorry if it’s awkward to hear your own words being read back to you. But you write in that article, “When we are trying to figure out The Point,” capital T capital P, well not literally capitalized, but “We’re trying to figure out The Point of any activity, our instinct is to consider what might happen after it. In this case, that is a mistake. We should be thinking prequel, not sequel. What was I up to before I started talking?” And that is to me such a moving way of thinking about the residual and enduring power of prayer.
We always end interviews with rapid fire questions. I wanted to ask one, particularly for you, I’m going to add one and then we’ll go to the other three. I’m so curious, you said you were kind of raised in religious, Jewish religious schools as a child. I’m curious for you now as a philosopher deeply immersed in philosophical texts. And you have a very public facing, which I think is so wonderful, bringing philosophy to the masses. So, it’s not just stuck in that ivory academic tower.
I’m curious if there are any Jewish texts or ideas that you still return back to in your own life. That when you think and approach philosophy, when you approach aspiration, these big self-creation topics. What, if any, are there ideas from within your Jewish upbringing that still emerge and you return to?
Yeah, so there are a bunch, but maybe the one that’s sort of jumping into my head, because I have been trying to think of how to present it as in public writing, is, “Maimonides is ladder of charity.” So, this idea that there’s a form of giving to others, where the person you’re giving to knows that you’re giving to them and you know them, where the giver and the recipient know one another, that’s the standard way we think about helping someone, “Oh, here, I’ll help you.” But that’s actually the lowest rung of a ladder, right?
And the highest rung of this ladder, at least as I was taught it as a child, I’m still carrying this memory with me, is putting someone in a position where they’re able to help themselves. And then in between there are these rungs where it’s like, well, the donor knows, but the recipient doesn’t know or vice versa, right? So, this is this ladder, where there’s different things that it can mean to help someone, and helping someone isn’t just a matter of making them be better off, but the very act of helping can create a relationship that is itself problematic for the recipient of the help.
And this ladder of charity sort of acknowledges that. Right? And it acknowledges the value of independence. And something I’ve asked myself is, is my Maimonides right that the top one is helping someone help themselves? And I thought about, there are forms of helping where actually neither the giver nor the recipient know who is going to be helped.
So, and I think conversation is one of those like Socratic refutations where Socrates is like, “Look, I’m going to try to prove you wrong, but maybe you’re going to prove me wrong.” And in his world, the person who is proven wrong is the beneficiary, is the person who got the good thing, because they got to learn the truth where they didn’t know it before. And so, it has occurred to me that maybe there’s even a higher level of charity, where you enter into a situation with someone where one of the two of you will be benefited, but you don’t in advance know who. Anyway, so that’s one that I just happened to have been thinking about.
I absolutely love that. A call to mind of the experience of learning itself, where the Talmud says that the teacher ultimately learns more from the students than the students even learned from him and/or her. And to me, this notion of independence in the context of community, this agency of becoming, as the subtitle of your book is about, is just so incredibly moving. And I cannot thank you enough for just your work, your writings. It’s really had an impact on me, quite personally.
I always end interviews with a little bit of quicker questions.
Okay. I’ll try to be quick.
I’m wondering if you’ll indulge me. We’re almost out of time. My first question is, if you could recommend another book about the notion of change, we obviously have recommended your book, what other books about change have you found particularly inspiring, perhaps in your own journey and in your own life?
I actually think that there isn’t a lot of recent philosophy that is about change. There is Laurie Paul, who comes up in my book, so she has this book on Transformative Experience. But that’s less directly agential in my sense of agential, but that’s a great book if you want contemporary philosophy. I find that I often get more of what I want on this topic out of novels. So, when I teach –
Give us a novel about change.
So, I think that Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it’s about the aspiration to become an artist and how that shapes a life and it includes questions about religious aspiration. I think Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are also novels about aspiration. So, those are two that I regularly teach in context of aspiration.
I love that you went to the world of fiction to explain the philosophical notion of change. My second question is, if somebody gave you a great deal of money that allowed you to take a sabbatical for as long as you wanted to write either a second PhD or a book of any topic of your choosing, what do you think the title and topic of that work would be?
I don’t think it would depend on people giving me money, because I get sabbatical anyway. So, my next book is on Socrates, and so, maybe it would get written a little faster. After that I’m planning to write a book about marriage and divorce. What is the meaning of marriage? And I want to make use of a bunch of movies actually to think about marriage. And so, I think I would still do that same thing if I had money. But I find that when I spend too long away from teaching, I become miserable. So, I think I wouldn’t actually take so much time off from teaching because I wouldn’t do well all around.
I love that. My last question, I’m always curious about the sleep patterns of the people I speak to, I’m a terrible sleeper. What time do you go to sleep? And what time do you wake up in the morning?
I have extremely irregular sleep. Actually, everything I do is quite irregular. So, I don’t know if you averaged it, maybe it would be, maybe it will be 11:00 to 7:00. I wake up in the middle of the night, typically also and I’m awake for a bit. So yeah, but it varies within a one or two hour range of both ends, pretty much every week of my life, so my sleep patterns just aren’t very regular. Sometimes, I sleep a lot less and sometimes I’ll sleep more.
Professor Callard, it is such a privilege and pleasure speaking with you today. And thank you so much for your time and for your work.
Thank you. It was my pleasure to be here and my honor.
I think it’s worth thinking about, and a distinction that I left my conversation with Professor Callard with, and the distinction that stayed with me throughout the reading of this book, is the distinction between ambition and aspiration. And I think it’s a worthy exercise for all of our listeners to almost take out a blank sheet of paper, and on one column, write ambition, and on another column, write aspiration. And see for yourself, what are the things that you are ambitious to become, that highlight what ambition is in your life? Maybe it’s professional ambition, the way that you’re seeing, the way that the type of wealth, power, fame, or all of those things, and what do you aspire to become?
And I think at the heart of aspiration is realizing that we have this past, present, and future self, that all need to be integrated into who we are and who we hope to become. And on this column, on this blank sheet of paper, figure out, what are your aspirations? What do you hope to become? What are the values that you hope to acquire in your life, and even not knowing what those values may actually be once they are acquired, what are those aspirational values? Because I think at the heart of teshuva is this notion of aspiration, of becoming and transforming ourselves into something else, and we don’t even know what the destination is necessarily, as we initially embark on that journey.
So, I want to wish everybody safe travels on their journeys of personal change, transformation, and teshuva. And thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt, so we put so much work into 18Forty, so if you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y, 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious, my friends.