How do you make a decision?

There’s a discussion that Terence Blake and I are having in the comments section for this post that I find fascinating. Terence is an Australian philosopher, living in France, who knows tons about contemporary European philosophy. I’m always grateful to him for putting my project, and Bert’s project, in the context of the work that high profile French philosophers are now pursuing. But one downside of this conversation between two philosophers is that it may seem to some non-philosophers as though it is happening in code. I fully believe that the things we are talking about are rooted in everyday phenomena that anyone should be able to recognize if they think about their own experiences carefully enough. It’s one of my firmest beliefs about philosophy that at its core it ought not only to be accessible to everyone, but it ought to enrich and enliven your understanding of yourself and your own existence. So let me try to talk about the phenomena Terence and I are discussing in a different, more colloquial context. One way to approach these issues is to ask a basic question: How do you make a decision?

Real decisions are hard. They require commitment, and in that sense involve an understanding of who you are and what you are up to. Furthermore, that understanding needs some grounding. That is to say, it needs to be firm enough to allow you to sustain the commitment in the face of adversity, to allow it to stand steady even when events conspire against your sticking to it. These events could be internal (lack of “willpower” for instance, as we sometimes say) or external (lack of progress or success, for example, and the discouragement that comes along with it). Perhaps there are other kinds as well. But every commitment will come up against adversity in some form or another. So where does the “grounding” for a decision like this come from? How do we get to be “committed” to something, so that our actions flow out of that understanding of ourselves, instead of caving in the face of challenges to them? To approach this question, let me tell you about how I made a decision recently. It was the decision to write the book I am working on now: The Proper Dignity of Human Being.

In the last post, I gave a potted history of what I have been up to for the last eight years. It ended with a quick story about teaching Later Heidegger in the Spring of 2018, about writing a huge number of notes for my students, and eventually, with their help and Cheryl’s, about deciding to write a book. But it was actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

Not too long after Bert’s death, in April 2017, I knew that I would start on a new project. Partly, this was because I felt clearly that I had been released from the project he and I had been working on together. The Lofty Sway of the Dark could not continue as our joint project, now that Bert was gone, and at least for the time being I could not take it on by myself either. In this way, although Bert’s death was an enormous blow, it also freed me up for a more open future. And I knew that, in some sense or another, it was up to me to figure out what version of that future called me most. As my agent, Jill Kneerim – an incredibly wise and caring woman – said to me: “You’re the man now.”

Now, I had been struggling for a long time to figure out what project I should be pursuing – what man, in other words, I was going to be. I talked before about the way that struggle may have interacted with my relation to Bert, and the decline in his health. But whatever its source, my inability to commit to a serious project was palpable. I don’t know how, but I suspect that at least some of my students understood this. At the end of the Later Heidegger course, I met with one of them to talk about her plans for the summer and the coming year. What really happened, though, is that she helped me to focus myself.

The details of our discussion are not important, but the way it ended is. As we were saying our goodbyes, my student gave me a small gift. It was a Japanese daruma doll. I had never heard of such a thing, but my student explained to me that it is the custom in Japan to use these hand painted red dolls for encouragement and perseverance. The way it works is this. First, you decide upon a goal and fill in one of the eyes of the doll as a way of “waking it up.” Then, as you pursue the goal the doll looks over your progress and helps to keep you on track. Finally, when you have completed the goal, you fill in the other eye. It seemed to me the ultimate kind of polytheism: a god to watch over even a single, important aim.

I was simultaneously touched that my student had been so thoughtful and kind as to give me such a gift, and also slightly embarrassed that my struggle had been so obvious. Unfortunately, however, even with the help of the daruma doll my condition did not improve that summer. Deciding what to commit yourself to, it turns out, is made no easier by having a doll that will encourage you once the decision is made. If anything, the little red puffball seemed to mock me and my curse of indecision. There it sat on my desk, still asleep, continually pressing the question when I would finally decide what to do. Every time I thought I was ready to make a decision – I would write this book, or that essay, or maybe do some other kind of work entirely – I found that I could not wake up the doll to oversee the commitment. For I knew, in each case, that I was not ready really to commit to any of these projects. It’s not like I did nothing that summer. I explored a bunch of options, all of which fizzled. I wrote a lot and threw it all away. But what I didn’t do was actually decide to do anything.

Things changed dramatically as the summer came to a close – but not in the way you’d think. On Sunday, August 5th, 2018, while bodysurfing in the ocean with our 14-year-old son Ben, I was thrown violently onto the shore by a powerful wave. As my outstretched left arm slammed onto the sand above my head, the wave continued forward, taking my legs and torso over the stationary limb. It was a movement the human body was not designed to make. When the wave finally released me, I lay dazed and dizzy at the water’s edge. As I struggled to get up, my left arm dangled helplessly, motionless and alien. I stabilized it against my body with my good, right arm, but the left one felt a dead, portentous weight. My shoulder, it would turn out, was shattered into dozens of pieces.

At first, the shock of the whole thing was deadening. I checked quickly to make sure that Ben was ok, and then focused my entire being on getting somewhere safe away from the power of the sea. As I walked up the beach away from the ocean I must’ve been stumbling, because in a much shorter time than I expected the lifeguards were there to help. The beach was very crowded that day, and it was amazing the teenage girls on the lifeguard stand could see through the dense thicket of bathers and tanners at all. But they got to me quickly, and Ben did too, and when I told them that I had injured my shoulder, they all sprang into action. One of them got me ice, another water, a third a shady spot to sit in and a triangle sling. A fourth lifeguard held an umbrella over me, looking worried. Although quickly done, none of this was either diagnostic or therapeutic. Still, their concern was genuine, and I was grateful for their help. As I sat there with people buzzing all around, I seemed to enter some weird, liminal zone. The world continued on without me. I became the object of other peoples’ action instead of the originator of my own. It was comforting in a way, to let the world simply persist, endure, to be riding atop its wave, to be carried along by its power. But I also knew the limit of the training these young lifeguards had undergone. I had been in their position once myself, and I understood that in a certain kind of emergency the main goal is just to get someone else who can help.

The hours after that event stretched on as if for days. They are a blur of hospitals and car rides and pain and conversations. I could not have made it through them without the help of a huge number of family members, friends, and professionals. My mother, my wife, my two sons, my brother, his entire family, the medical staff who works under his supervision, my father – I cannot imagine what I would have done without them all. I will not bore you with the details, but I made it to my brother’s hospital in New York City the following day, and was eventually sent to my parents’ house in Connecticut after that. Finally, about a week after the accident, I arrived back at my home in Cambridge, MA.

The days and weeks after that are a blur. The pain in my shoulder was excruciating, and only the fear that I would become yet another data point in the opioid crisis kept me from taking pills for much longer than I should have. But perhaps even worse than the pain was the utter sense of uncertainty about the future of my life. It was mostly little things. I did not know for sure whether I would ever be able to lift my arm again. I did not know whether I would ever be able to swim, or grab a glass out of the upper cabinet, or scratch the middle of my back. I did not know how many of the things that only hours or days before had seemed so natural and obvious would ever be a part of my life again. They were small things from the outside, even if there were immeasurably many of them. But the possibility of their loss was utterly disorienting and raw. The future that had so recently seemed wildly, uncontrollably, terrifyingly open, now had become unintelligibly constrained. In fact, it seemed to close down to almost nothing at all.

As the days passed I became impatient to do whatever I could to aid my recovery. I was so anxious to get to work that I arrived for my first physical therapy session a full week before I was actually allowed to move my arm. There was not an awful lot the therapist could do, so she spent the half-hour session just talking with me about my condition. It was probably not the kind of therapy she was trained to offer, but I was grateful for it. Still, the future was an enigma curled up before me. Nobody could say for certain how long my recovery would be, or how many of my abilities I could hope to regain.

It turns out that this was a strange benefit. Who knows from where our help will come. But somehow, the dread uncertainty of my recovery made me even more desperate for it. The more I thought about all the things I might not have, the more I became dedicated to gaining them back again. And then one day, while I was sitting at my desk, trying disconsolately to pluck out a few words on the computer with my one good arm, I saw that daruma doll staring back at me. For the first time, its gaping, blank, white eyes, were filled with significance. They were clear and it was as if they were speaking to me. They said, “You know what your decision must be.” It was at that moment that I knew a decision had been made within me. I took up the doll, filled in its left eye to wake it up, and wrote on its base these words. “I will swim again.”

And that’s the basic part of the story I want to tell. If it has a moral, then I guess it is something like this. To make a decision, to make a genuine decision, is to be moved within to an understanding of yourself that is unshakeable and true. We call this “making a decision,” as if it is something that the decision-maker does. But the fact is that in my case, and in many cases like mine I believe, there is not really anything that the person does at all. Instead, the decision is made within you, it gains authority over you, it is a gift. I think this phenomenon is part of our everyday experience – it is something that people can recognize once it is described to them because it happens to us all. But it is covered up by the way we talk about ourselves and the basic phenomena of our existence. It is covered up by the fact that we think the basic thing a person does is to make decisions about what she cares about or is committed to. But this is a mistake. A decision is a gift. It is given to us.

And a gift requires gratitude.



About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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27 Responses to How do you make a decision?

  1. Charlie says:

    May I share a similar story. I had instant/complete cardiac arrest from an unknown genetic mutation in 2014. I was resuscitated literally seconds before a vegetative state or death. My wife, an exercise instructor with emergency training, pressed my chest to get fresh blood to my brain – before medics arrived with paddles after 10-12 minutes. I was then induced into a frozen coma for days before re-entry. In sum, I was preposterously lucky, having collapsed at 3am in my own house with my wife hearing the fall. The recovery was halting, but complete. Notwithstanding infinite resolve, my emotional recovery was, similarly, given. I won’t bore you with the details that spurred the “decision”, but it is indeed best characterized as a gift (presented/affirmed). I literally now live in a state of grace/gratitude, which is hard to explain. FWIW, given your expertise, the phenomenology of death was quite interesting: infinitely less than nothing.

  2. don socha says:

    While I appreciate your blog and this post in particular at this time because it seems quite relevant to important struggles I decided to engage in long ago, I can’t help feeling, and so must ask, is it possible that an attempt to speak colloquially, will take more language than otherwise, and that a philosopher in particular, doing so, will sound more analytical in hir approach?

    • terenceblake says:

      Hello Don, I have been grappling with this problem myself, and my tentative conclusion is that there is no final or absolute answer. Sometimes colloquial language that sticks close to the experience as it seems to present itself can be clearer, and even more concise. Sometimes using abstract philosophical language that has been evolved to help us reconceive our experience outside dead clichés and dogmatic presuppositions will be clearer, and often more concise. Perhaps my experience as bilingual will be of use here. Given that I was born in Australia and spent the first twenty-seven years of my life there, and then moved to France where I have lived for the last 38 years, I think, speak, dream, and feel spontaneously in both French and English. However, the experiences that I have had in both languages are not the same, as they correspond to very different stages of life. Further, French is a more abstract language as it is more Latinate, and English can be more concrete when it sticks to its Saxon roots. So when I read or think something in one language I often “clarify” it by reformulating in the other. This has made me sensitive to a more subtle bilingualism within just one language, such as English. By moving inside English from an abstract register to a concrete one, and vice versa, I can sometimes not only clarify things but generate new ideas or perspectives. So for me there is no primacy of colloquial language and modes of speech, it’s just one good tool to have in your tool-box. I talk about this here: Your second question is whether using colloquial ways of speaking can make you be, or sound, more analytic in approach. I think there is some truth to that, and one can think of Wittgenstein’s example in his later phases. My feeling here is that when a philosopher uses familiar colloquial expressions he often makes them “resonate” in unfamiliar ways, so as to mean more, on more levels, than they usually mean. Colloquiality can be a mask, or a Trojan Horse, for abstractions.

      • don socha says:

        Thank you for your response, Terence. Having studied under a couple teachers who I think leaned toward the analytic, and having attended a few lectures by scholars I play at alluding to here, I wonder what it would take for their kind of writing to be more like Wittgenstein’s, or better, more like that of Bachelard, or Barthes, for example (both of whom I’ve only enjoyed in translation). Certainly, to an extent it’s a question of maybe innate poetic ability, but I can’t help feeling it’s one of self-consciousness, not to mention vision and a more elemental rather than duty-bound enthusiasm. Perhaps this relates to your own ‘need,’ might we say, for the more speculative side of things, as in science fiction?

      • terenceblake says:

        Don I have written up my responses to this comment of yours and the succeeding one. Thanks for your discussion, which helped me to push my thought further:

      • don socha says:

        I appreciate your work, Terence.

  3. dmf says:

    This partly why I’ve raised the issue of the enabling/restraining background as we tend to think of the individual as somehow separate from their environs and the individual as being identical with their conscious sense of self and choice making (as with homo economicus) while leaving out all of our non-conscious processes, as Rorty notes in the quote I left on a previous post we are really often rather in the position of claiming I willed it after the fact in relation to blind (not consciously chosen) impresses/circumstances that we might commit ourselves to developing. There are of course many other happenings that we might think of along the lines of a sort of depth psychological (perhaps along the lines of and update of Jung’s idea of feeling-toned complexes) take on polytheisms, when we fall in love, are struck by absurdity or rage, gifted with a melody or insight, come to feel forgiveness for what had seemed unforgivable, etc we can acknowledge being in the grips of powers (pathoi) that expand our sense of self and our relations to worlding,
    now many of these happenings/gifts may be terrible, may scar or maim us or cost us dearly in other ways so I’m not so sure we should always be (why this imperative?) grateful for them even as we might come to give them their due.

    • There are two different things to pay attention to, dmf: *what* is given and that it is *given*. We needn’t always be grateful for the first, that’s for sure. But the second? That seems to me a more interesting question.

      • dmf says:

        ok but along the lines of the post doesn’t gratitude come to/over us or not (not a conscious choice or a project)? Or perhaps along the lines of your exchange with Terence gratitude isn’t necessarily the term/subject, perhaps we are talking more generally about the kind of dues that come in the wake of experiences of the powers/pathoi of the not-me?

  4. terenceblake says:

    Hello Sean, thank you for sharing this story from a difficult part of your lifr. I find it interesting and moving, but also a little strange. You begin by saying that as an example of the phenomenon of decision you will give an account of how you decided to write your new book, but you end with the decision to swim again. It is left to us to connect the existential dots.

    At first your story sounds like a familiar one of loss, mourning, retreat into over-activity, a gnawing need to do something deeper, a task that is calling but that one is as yet unable to respond to, a traumatic awakening to one’s own fragility, culminating in a firm commitment. On the literal level the commitment is to swim again, and I hope you are well on the way to fully retrieving that capacity.

    However, given the apparent disconnect between the beginning and the end of the story one feels that there is something more going on, that there are other resonances at work, that there is an “allegory” of meaning. I do not wish to show disrespect, or to seem to speak lightly of serious matters in your life, but I think we can find even more to say, within your own terms, about what meaning your lived experience can bear, for you and for us.

    I do not know how much you still adhere to of the “polytheism” of ALL THINGS SHINING, but given that we have been discussing thinking human phenomena outside the old theistic frameworks (that still inhabit us, whatever we believe) I would like to view this story in that light.

    First, we could see the story in quasi-theistic, Providential terms, making use of Dante’s poetic, and so partially laicised, vision. You recount a sort of “mid-life” crisis:

    “In the middle of life’s journey I found myself within a dark forest where the straight way was lost.”

    You mention several women in your account, who helped you on your way. providing caring attention and encouragement: your student, your agent, the “teenage girls on the lifeguard, the physical therapist. Finally your student again by the intermediary of the Daruma doll. These are Beatrice figures manifesting care and loving-kindness when the dark (pain, doubts, uncertainty, lostness) surrounds us. Perhaps with Bert gone you had lost your Virgil and needed to go on to insights that were not destined for him, but for you. One could feel that even the accident was part of the destining.

    However, even if we can’t help sometimes seeing or feeling things through a quasi-providential grid, as if the journey was necessarily of this form, with the end decided even if not in sight, there is something unsatisfying. This vision can seem to us like a machine for transforming contingency into necessity, bringing the wrong sort of starry-eyed static “reconciliation”.

    Another way of looking is provided by your book. For it is your book, even if you wrote with Bert. We do not have much philosophical reflection on the phenomenology of collaboration. Deleuze gives us some insight. He insisted that it was useless to try and isolate out which idea was contributed by which author, it was a creative fusion in that sense. Nevertheless, he declared that he and Guattari never had the same understanding of the words and concepts, nor the same way of going further with them. So I do not know how you understand the ideas and perspectives in the book.

    There is another perspective, that you call “polytheism”, that is more conflictual, lmore open-ended, less providential and reconciliatory. One version of this polytheism you find in the Homeric poems, especially in the ODYSSEY. In these terms one could see the part of your journey that you recount here as the passage from Telemachus to Ulysses. “You’re the man, now”, says your agent, by your account an Athena figure, “an incredibly wise and caring figure”. But there is a price to pay for such a passage.

    We know that in the ODYSSEY Ulysses’ fate is to be constantly navigating between the conflicting influences of Athena and Poseidon. You seem to be an athletic person, so perhaps you have been seeking a more dynamic reconciliation. The women you describe as having influenced you are Athena figures (appropriate to a philosopher), and so more multi-dimensional than Beatrice. At the same time, with Bert gone you were more exposed to the waters of chaos, a chaos that he protected you from by the understanding and vision of the future that you actualised with him.

    On the day of the swimming accident the god Poseidon was constellated physically as well. I am sorry, but in view of our discussions I cannot help asking: were you at your best that day? Was it then just a case of bad luck and overwhelming force? Or were you for an instant at slightly less than your best, did you leave a tiny breach that the god could seize upon? Finally you achieved a new balance between Athena and Poseidon, as you begin the story of your decision to write the book but end with the decision to swim again. Which is it? It seems to be both, a dynamic reconciliation on new terms.

    The end result of your suffering was a new resolve. I do not think that we should see your accident as necessary, providential, even if something good came out of it. Perhaps you could have resolved your creative and existential crisis after a dream, a very interesting and moving conversation, a psychedelic trip (as apparently Foucault did). No matter, this is what actually happened. Should you be “grateful” to it?, or rather as dmf suggests “give it its due”? There may be no clear or stable answer to give here.

    I feel there is life here in this sort of polytheistic language, it can help us describe other aspects of the phenomena than we would usually see without it. It is not a “pure” phenomenological language, but it is (at least sometimes) a fitting one.

    At the end of your story you make use of a third language, that is more abstract. You talk of gift, gratitude, and authority. This is not my usual vocabulary, and it raises my shackles. Perhaps if I manage to see ii less in terms of a theistic understanding and as fully appropriate to a polytheistic one I will be able to “reconcile” myself to it.

    I hope I have not spoken out of turn. I was not trying to psychoanalyse you at a distance, quelle horreur! I think it is useful to attempt to redescribe the phenomena in your account in terms of the other languages you have explored, to approach them closer.

    • terenceblake says:

      Oops, I meant “raises my hackles”

    • Dear Terence,

      Thank you so much for your generous and sympathetic reading of the story – I find it fascinating! Far from disrespecting or diminishing the piece, your attention and thoughtfulness do it honor. You talk about it in the context of a fascinating range of other phenomena, give detailed suggestions about the possible connection to other things I have written, and in this way give more nuance and resonance to the whole thing. I love the creativity and intelligence of your piece!

      Now, I must say that yours is not the interpretation I would have given. When I say this, though, I don’t mean it as a criticism. If the piece is worth anything at all, it is because of the resonances it offers to those reading it. I don’t claim any special privilege as the writer – how could I? As I said at the start, I intended this story to point people in the direction of a phenomenon I hoped *they* would recognize! You have told me what you recognize or understand in it, and this is something that precisely required a contribution from both of us. It is, as Heidegger would have said, an Auseinandersetzung, an active coming together when one stands against another. This can only enhance the piece, give it the chance to speak to others in yet different ways. That said, let me say a word or two about how I understood what I was up to in the story.

      First, you are absolutely right to start by pointing out the central asymmetry in the piece: it starts with a promise to talk about one decision, and ends by talking about a different one. I did, of course know this, as you rightly surmise. I even went through a period of wondering whether it was something I needed to “fix” in the presentation. But in the end, I decided to keep it that way. Why? Well, as you say, it forces an allegorical reading of the piece. Somehow, this seemed to me like the story to tell, in talking about the decision to write the book, because it stood in for or exemplified what was going on in that other decision. The question is, which aspects of the actual story were relevant to the allegorical reading of it?

      Now, the parts that you highlight are definitely in there. It really is a story of loss, mourning, and traumatic re-awakening. There really are people who could be Virgil figures, who disappear, and Athena figures who point the way. I had not noticed the number of possible Beatrice figures (and feel somewhat uncomfortable about it!). But they really are in there too. Still, I didn’t intend to put these folks in the story *because* they had those kinds of symbolic meanings. I was just telling the story as it happened. It really did have that trajectory; the people I talk about really were who they were, and really did what they did. All that gave the story concrete detail, and made it a *story*. But the thing I really intended to highlight with the story was something else.

      What I thought the story was about happens at the end, rather than the middle. It lies in the way the story exemplifies the phenomenon of a real decision getting made. What I really wanted to get to, to highlight, to bring to life – and for me, therefore, the basic point of the story – is the experience of a decision coming to fruition. This involves something about its taking root in one’s understanding of oneself, of its becoming a ground firm enough to support a commitment and a mode of existence. It involves being “moved within to an understanding of yourself that is unshakeable and true.” And it involves the demand for gratitude in its wake. That is what seemed to me important in the piece.

      It is true, of course, that the other parts of the story lead up to this moment, they are part of the trajectory of the story qua story. That said, it did not seem to me that those concrete details *explained* the basic phenomenon, or were a *necessary* prelude to it. They were merely the *contingent* factors of the story, what came before that basic phenomenon in this particular, unique instance. They are a stand-in for all the myriad trajectories that could lead up to a decision’s being made. After all, “Who knows from where our help will come?” What I was really interested in, instead, was the phenomenon itself; the phenomenon of *being given* a decision.

      You might well ask why I wanted to tell this contingent version of the story at all. The answer is that a complicated and originary phenomenon like this doesn’t really come to life out of the context of a story about a dramatic time in which it actually happens for someone. And isn’t that why we tell stories and give them allegorical readings in the first place? We understand the Christian story of conversion and re-birth, for instance, (to the extent that we do!) at least in part because of the story of Paul being struck on the road to Damascus. But being on the road to Damascus, although a concrete part of that story, is just the contingent prelude to the phenomenon in question. It is what was happening to *Paul* when his conversion experience struck. That contingent aspect of Paul’s story, though necessary for making it a relevant *story*, doesn’t play much of a role in articulating the essential features of the phenomenon in question. After all, we needn’t think that having a conversion experience requires being on the road to Damascus. Just so, we needn’t think making a decision requires traumatic injury.

      In my reading, therefore, the main thing that is relevant to the story is the phenomenon itself: the conversion experience in Paul’s case, the decision-making experience in my own. And although these phenomena always take place in the context of one set of circumstances or another, the core of the phenomenon is something else. In my reading of it, the core of both of these experiences is minimal and bare: it is that it was given to you, and that your gratitude is an appropriate response to it. That is all. It is because the story exemplified that core – because the decision I promised to talk about and the one I actually described were both characterized by it – that I thought the one could stand in as an allegory for the other.

      Now, you ask about my commitment to polytheism. If we take the interpretation I have just offered seriously, it points in the direction of something that may be more important to my current thinking than I realized. It is the fact that I understand this story as the presentation of a more radical, perhaps even an “utlimate” kind of polytheism: “a god to watch over even a single, important aim.” This seems to me now to be of a piece with the very minimal reading I want to give of the allegory itself. Figures like Athena or Virgil or Beatrice oversaw much broader regions of existence than I am interested in pointing to. Perhaps that is why I found it so odd when you interpreted the story in terms of them. I had not thought the key to the story lay in what it had in common with those old types of polytheism or even with monotheism. That’s because I don’t think in our current world we chunk up the regions of existence in much same way at all as the Archaic Greeks or the Romans or the medieval Christians did. Indeed, there seems to me to be much less of a sense of coherence across the various aspects of our lives than there was even for the very polytheistic Archaic Greeks. One way of saying this is to insist that, if ours is a polytheistic world, it’s not obvious how much of a family resemblance there is between its pantheon of gods. Still, we do have a distinction between moments that are worth highlighting, and those that recede into the background, between those that demand our gratitude and those that are insipid or worse. And the meta-phenomenon of a decision’s coming to root within one – never mind what the *content* of the decision is – seems to me an example of one of those moments worthy of note. I am hopeful that that, if anything, explains the asymmetry of the story that you rightly pointed out.

      In conclusion, then – if you are still reading! – let me thank you again for your interpretation, and the seriousness with which you read and thought about the story. I hope you will take my comments not as a repudiation of your reading, but a response to it. A response that I couldn’t have given without your contribution. Thanks!

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  6. dmf says:

    “That said, it did not seem to me that those concrete details *explained* the basic phenomenon, or were a *necessary* prelude to it. They were merely the *contingent* factors of the story, what came before that basic phenomenon in this particular, unique instance. They are a stand-in for all the myriad trajectories that could lead up to a decision’s being made. After all, “Who knows from where our help will come?” What I was really interested in, instead, was the phenomenon itself; the phenomenon of *being given* a decision”
    ok but aren’t we often enough so converted to positions that turn out to be un-fortunate to some degree or another?
    Been ages since I read ATS but seems there was a similar issue in that we might have experiences (collective and otherwise) of people/things being excellent in unfortunate affairs. If one delves into the nascent research into cognitive biases we are blinkered into being certain/rooted in all kinds of ways that can hurt ourselves and others.

    • This is an incredibly important observation, dmf – thank you so much for pushing it! I am writing a post now to respond to it.

      • dmf says:

        my pleasure I’m grateful for the conversation and look forward to reading your post
        Seems to me that the more basic/general existential/phenomenological point of becoming determined in one’s ways is one that undermines our general identification with something like calculative reason-ing in ways that are akin to the supposed wound that Freud was supposed have delivered by decentering the sovereignty of the ego, I would think both individually and collectively we suffer more from certainty than we do from uncertainty, what has become more of a front and central issue for relatively prosperous citizens of the 1st economic world is the awareness that the shape, direction, and even contents of our lives are largely out of our controls, the shallowness of the choices actual in our hands becoming more evident, so how to deal with not being prosthetic gods but mere mortals?

    • terenceblake says:

      Yes, if I can apply my loose set of meta-criteria to the ATS project, one of those criteria is having a place for testability (and a corresponding fallibilism. Sean says: “To make a decision, to make a genuine decision, is to be moved within to an understanding of yourself that is unshakeable and true”. While the term “unshakeable” may pass muster, with the understanding that it is hyperbole, the reinforcement brought by “true” is not just hyperbolic but excessive. Unless you re-weaken it by reading “true” as “true to”, or faithful, there is a cognitive component that as you say dmf may reflect a bias rather than a validated apprehension.

    • terenceblake says:

      Sean, thanks for your kind words and laudatory reception of my comments. It’s true that sometimes in an exchange, the dialogue takes over, and becomes more than the sum of its parts. I have written up my comments to make clear that I was engaging with what for you is the core of your post. However, I am a little more sceptical than you about this distinction between the core and the circumstances, if applied absolutely.

      Perhaps your image of the Auseinandersetzung could be applied to the relation between core and circumstances, and the core, in this case a “decision being given” (I find this formulation slightly more satisfying than “being given a decision”) may sometimes bear traces of the circumstances in which it was formed.

      What you call a “radical” or a “minimal” reading, I tend to call “generic”, to indicate the attempt to free the descriptive language from unnecessarily specific properties, images, or assumptions. This generic language need not seek to isolate the core, but rather that aspect of the phenomenon that is shareable by people with quite other assumptions than one’s own.

      So with this distinction in mind I still have the feeling that some of your expressions are more generic, and thus more acceptable to me, than others. For example, when you talk about how some moments are “worth highlighting” as compared to others that recede into the background, this is not the same as saying that some moments “demand our gratitude”. The first expression is more generic, in that we can easily imagine other forms of highlighting than gratitude. The former I can go with, the latter (taken as a general characteristic) leaves me uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

  7. Pingback: NO TERMS ARE PRIMARY: towards a generic language of the phenomena | AGENT SWARM

  8. Dean Rose says:

    A decision brings
    Hidden meanings to the fore
    Second Life blogs on

  9. Matthew says:

    Sean, I am struggling to see what kind of a decision “swimming again” is. How does it show up to you: a re-commitment to the causes of old but in the shape of small steps? A resignation and turning away from those causes – a kind of passive nihilism? A re-gathering of yourself after the events that had such an effect on you? A start or an ending? Is it a “sea-change of mind” (forgive the imagery) or a confidence-builder? You have left me asking whether the gift shows you what decision you have made and also whether all decisions are the same.

    In Badiou’s theory of points that he developed to explain the co-creation of a new truth and a new subject, the subject frequently has to re-commit or stay faithful to “the cause.” Yours sounds like the old manifestations of that cause – the sequel – no longer held any joy and it dwindled. Only an old practice, swimming, glimmered. But does it show you anything of what it opens up?

    In my work life, thirty years strategy consulting, disaster has struck over and over again as I have tried to develop a post-neoliberal (for want of a better word) business strategy consulting that also cares for goods outside of capital and competition. Every so often, the particular invention I am working on collapses along the relationships that support it. I lose reputation, income and prospects. But each time, without conscious rationalising, some infinitesimal spark seems to hold and some new configuration appears. Usually, an old friend or colleague comes back into my life and a new idea for actualising the idea begins to take shape – quite different from any old ones. The decision, where I can see a decision-making self, is to discern if the gift of the encounter holds promise and whether to hold on to it.

    On another note, a developmental one, it’s not a smart game to fit experiences to a theory but I can’t help but think of the stage shift Bert sketches when an early virtuoso must be pushed out from the original teacher to find a new one. I don’t remember the names for the stages that Bert set out. What kind of a decision is that one to pick oneself up? I have never been in your situation.

    Apologies for typos – I have a retinal condition that leads to unspotted errors and type on a phone that encourages them!

  10. Pingback: Ontological gratitude (and disjunctivism too) | All Things Shining

  11. Pingback: ONTOLOGY WITHOUT CERTAINTY: towards a diachronic pluralism | AGENT SWARM


  13. Pingback: LOOKING A « GIFT  THOUGHT IN THE OTHER: on etymology, genericity, and thinking | «AGENT SWARM

  14. Pingback: THE MYTH OF THE GIVEN and the three maxims of gratitude | AGENT SWARM


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