The Reflexive Imperative and Shaping a Life

In the previous post of this series I explored Archer’s arguments about relational reflexivity: on this view the socialisation process should be understood as an active and ongoing engagement by a individual that is profoundly shaped by the matrix of relations within which they were embedded at any given point in time. There are two key concepts Archer uses to make sense of this biographical process:

  1. The necessity of selection that obtains when morphogenesis impinges on the social context(s) a subject inhabits: “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). However the novelty which characterises these opportunities also precludes any authoritative source of normative guidance. While the subject might not confront them alone, either in the sense of the opportunity being unique to them and/or lacking others from whom an attempt can be made to solicit guidance, these others are similarly situated vis-a-vis the novelty as novelty. There is no ‘common sense’ view to turn to where such novelty is concerned and, as a consequence, confrontation by it constitutes an initial spur towards reflexivity. Though, as discussed in the last post, the form this takes is empirically variable. In a natal context characterised by established ‘relational goods’ and a relative degree of normative consensus, the necessity for selectivity will tend to be low given the subject’s likely investment in their (highly valued) present circumstances. However as they begin to explore beyond this context, encountering variety will increasingly necessitate selectivity: other things to do and other ways to be poses the challenge of either recommitting themselves to their initial investment in their natal context or beginning to look beyond its normative horizons.
  2. Shaping a life refers to the ongoing and unavoidably provisional attempts made by subjects to establish a satisfying and sustainable form of life for themselves. This involves inventorying, accommodating, subordinating and excluding concerns: working out, under our descriptions, what matters to us and how to live life in a way which expresses these concerns. We have limited time, energy and resources. We find ourselves situated within a stratified social world which leaves some opportunities available and others foreclosed. The practical projects we might otherwise form on the basis of our concerns could require resources we do not or are never likely to possess. Furthermore such projects, as well as the underlying concerns themselves, exist in relation to each other. Some are mundanely compatible or incompatible but others are complementarity or contradictory. We can enjoy rich food & fine wine while seeking to preserve a certain level of physical fitness (incompatible) – there is a tension between them but it can be negotiated reflexively. On the other hand, our love of fine wine cannot be sustained alongside, say, a religious commitment to teetotalism (contradictory). Ultimately, one commitment or the other has to be surrendered by us given the necessity of ‘shaping a life’. It’s important to recognise that this is not the pursuit of an isolated ‘Sartrean Self’: our placement within the social world is integral to the challenges we confront in ‘shaping a life’ and, in turn, individual or collective projects of modifying that placement (or the overarching structures within which we are ‘placed’) can be well understood within this framework. Furthermore, as per the notion of relational reflexivity, “the reflexive practical reasoning involved is shaped by the networks of relations within which it takes place because these profoundly affect what does and can satisfy the subject and be sustained by each of them” (Archer 2012: 97)

Shaping a life is a messy and complex process. This is particularly true during adolescence where subjects are preoccupied by discerning and deliberating about their nascent concerns because they are learning about their selves and their circumstances. Archer places great stress upon novelty at the biographical level and this is integral to her project of linking an account of social change at the macro and micro levels in a non-reductive way. Any encounter with novelty is understood as producing a response in the individual, with the nature of this response being a variable matter conditioned by the subject’s relational-reflexively shaped pre-dispositions towards their context and the personal concerns which act as the normative ‘sounding board’ through which novelty is ‘filtered’:

Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

The notion of ‘concern’ here is emphatically not that of wanting or desiring. The things I want can matter to me but, from Archer’s perspective, it’s the concern in virtue of which they matter that is important here. When we experience things as mattering in this way, it leads naturally to the challenge to commit presuming circumstances allow. On this view, our relations with the world are unavoidably evaluative: what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ cannot be ignored if we want to provide an adequate explanation of social action. However the fact things matter to us does not, in itself, provide guidelines for practical action and we can be sure about a concern while still later coming to feel we’ve mischaracterised or misunderstood what mattered to us and why. Even with a clear understanding of what matters to us, the process of subsequently shaping a life is a complex task:

Yet this is of real concern to students, who at least want to make lasting commitments and are quite capable, for the most part, of projecting ten years ahead and describing the contours of the life they would then like to b leading. this means their undergraduate years will also be the time (for some) when the necessity of selection meets the need to shape a life. Why is this described as a ‘need’? Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. This is why subjects (excepting the ‘fractureds’) actively though fallibly seek to dovetail their concerns. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

On Archer’s account, the process of shaping a life necessitates the prioritisation of some concerns as qualitatively more important than others. In committing ourselves to such final ends, these may then serve to filter novelty much more powerfully than our other concerns e.g. the ramifications for one’s family becomes the immediate frame of reference through which any new opportunity is assessed. Establishing final ends in this sense does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of other concerns – though sometimes it can do this and it’s an issue which fascinates me at the level of individual biography – but it does provide a principle which allows for their relativisation, as an ultimate concern implicitly subordinates other concerns without negating their value. Archer’s extremely sympathetic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt rests on their occlusion of the relational dimension to these existential questions:

The process of shaping a life is necessarily a matter of relations, but these are not approached relationally by most philosophers, even when they are dealing with careers or, more blatantly, with friendship, romance of parenthood. Instead, they are considered unilaterally, from the standpoint of a single lover. My argument will be that the social relations, within which the designation of ultimate concerns is enmeshed, are indispensable to explaining the life that is shaped. Taylor will be of considerable help here, but his approach will need supplementing by relational considerations. (Archer 2012: 112)

The particular argument of Taylor’s she refers to here is that “in the end, what we are called upon to do is not just carry out isolate acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human being” (Archer 2012: 112). The crucial question here is how our concerns ‘fit, or fail to fit, together in the unfolding of our lives’. However Archer argues that without a ‘sense of unity’, such that we do not know what kind of life we wish to lead and what sort of person we wish to be, such considerations cannot adjudicate on the present dilemmas we confront. Instead she proposes that this process be seen relationally and cautions that, contra Taylor, the fact that an “internal, subjective sense of what gives unity to his or her own life” must be a personal property by definition does not mean that it is a personal achievement. From a relational perspective,

 it is the relationships accompanying and surrounding her concerns that promote both the subjective sense of computability and objectively make concerns compatible, or the opposite. how do relational considerations help in answer the question Taylor has effectively posed: what does complementarity require, such that it can give rise to the ‘sense of unity’ of a life?


The difficulty for most students at the point of university entry (and usually aged eighteen) is that their concerns are fluid and often incomplete. In other words, they provide insufficient guidance for shaping a life. Whilst ever concerns can be displaced and replaced (without such shifts being prompted by dramatic contingencies), this indicates that discernment and deliberation are still ongoing and thus cannot provide the necessary traction for even being preoccupied about coherence amongst the components that the subject has started to flag up as important to her. This is where the majority of university entrants find themselves.

It is obvious that the eventual constituent concerns giving unity to a life must not be blatantly at odds with one another, such that it is volitionally impossible to serve both (wishing to remain a teetotaller and seeking to become a sommelier). Yet, something more than bald compatibility seems called for if the shape of a life is to prove durable and if it is to be more than one of several designs that ‘on paper’ might seem to yield the same ‘life goods’, to use Taylor’s term. The ‘constituent goods’ endorsed also need to be mutually reinforcing in a manner that requires further clarification. For instance, a concern to continue playing football during someone’s career as an engineer appears neither complementary nor contradictory, but the two do not reinforce one another in any self-evident way. This is where introducing relations and relationality can assist with both of the problems posed above; how to shape a life non-arbitrarily and how to cope with having two final ends. This is because both relations and relationality generate emergent properties whose effects exceed terms like ‘reinforcement’ or ‘deterrent’. They can make a life possible or impossible rather than simply being neutral towards it, as in the above example  (Archer 2012: 115)

The text then offers an extremely detailed example which, for the sake of getting something else done today, I won’t try and summarise. In brief: Archer’s point is that ‘final ends’ can be shared between people and that plural final ends can be incorporated into the ‘unity of a life’ which Taylor invokes. The broader message is that relations and relationality (relations between relations) are integral to understanding the biographical process of shaping a life because, without such a frame of reference, it becomes difficult to understand  at an empirical level the complementarity or contradiction between concerns which we can say at a theoretical level to be necessary for ‘shaping a life’. In successive posts (communicative reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, meta reflexivity, fractured reflexivity) I’ll try and show what this means in practice.

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