Why do we want what we want? UChicago scholar’s new book explores the mystery of aspiration

January 11, 2019

Have you ever wanted to try something new? Maybe you’d like to learn ballet, even if you’ve never danced before. Or perhaps you’d like to master Italian cooking, although the closest you’ve come to it is heating up a jar of tomato sauce. But if you want to embark on a new hobby that you’ve never tried, how can you have a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to achieve?

In her new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, Agnes Callard, BA’97, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Philosophy, uses similar examples to illustrate value acquisition and the transformative process individuals undergo when they seek to revise their current set of values in search of new ones.

“The book examines what we can do to acquire new values,” Callard explained. “There’s a real paradox here, because if you know you want to value something, why don’t you already value it?”

Callard asserts that this process can be explained using the theory of aspiration: people are often motivated to change their values based on an imperfect or inchoate grasp of the final value; the agent’s inability to pursue the final value (purely) for its own sake relegates them to relying, in part, on extrinsic motives and incentives.

“There are features of the exploration of value acquisition that we are inclined to ignore,” Callard said. “Pretentiousness is one example: it’s repels people, yet it can be an active part of the aspiration process. You can’t learn a value for the sake of the value because you don’t yet understand the full value of it. Pretense can be a sign that someone is working her way there.”

Aspiration was published in March 2018 and has been reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement and Philosophical Quarterly. An upcoming symposium on the book is planned for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. In November 2018, Callard discussed her book at an event at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore moderated by John W. Boyer, Dean of the College.

Last January, Callard wrote a New York Times op-ed linked to the theory of aspiration, which generated a great deal of public interest. As a result, Callard started a blog and launched a Twitter account in an attempt to broaden the audience of her work.

Along with continuing to promote Aspiration, Callard is already working on her next book about Socrates and refutation. That book will attempt to explain why proving people wrong is such an important pillar of intellectual life generally, and philosophical life in particular; and also show why being proven wrong is nonetheless so naturally experienced as a form of intellectual assault.   

Agnes Callard is an Associate Professor in Philosophy. She began her tenure at the University of Chicago as a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor. Callard received her BA from the University of Chicago in 1997 and her PhD from Berkeley in 2008. Her primary areas of specialization are Ancient Philosophy and Ethics. She is currently Director of Undergraduate Studies.