The gaps in which being human happens

I’m currently reading Vincent Deary’s How We Are. It’s the first book in a planned trilogy exploring how people change. For the last few months I’ve had a vague idea that at some point I’d like to develop themes from my PhD into a book for a wider audience. My project sought to develop a framework for studying the processes through which people change in a sociological way. But I’ve realised recently that there’s a sense in which that focus was as much a reflection of the process which led me towards these questions as it was an expression of my underlying interests (not to mention the fact that I had to write something sociological in order to be awarded a PhD).

What I’m really drawn towards are these questions of stasis and change – what does it mean to say someone stays the same and what does it mean to say they’ve changed? How do our circumstances facilitate or frustrate these processes? Where do these processes originate and how do they fit together over time? How can the lives we live be our lives when they are composed of moments we so often miss? It’s this last question in relation to which Deary’s book is most illuminating. It’s a poetic reflection on the relationship between stasis and change, exploring how a life composed of fragments can nonetheless avoid fragmentation. It’s this relationship between the whole and the parts of a life which I was trying to understand in my PhD and I’m left with the impression that Deary understands it much more profoundly than I do. He’s certainly written a book which occupies the same space as the one I aspired to write, even if it occupies that space in a slightly different way than would likely have been the case with the one I imagined.

One of many things I like about his book is how carefully he treats the relationship between cognition and agency. The philosophical tradition left us with a conceptual minefield here that Deary adroitly sidesteps, avoiding the parallel temptations of affirming a deliberative faculty from which reasons-as-causes inexorably originate and dissolving that deliberation into casually determined automaticity. Our deliberation often supplies us with reasons that many times lead to action but in a way that is far from inexorable and is dependent upon a vast assemblage of learned routines (“thousands of little rules so rigid they are no longer up for negotiation”) that are folded into our capacity for both deliberation and the action to which it sometimes leads. As he puts it, deliberation is “a late arrival at the evolutionary party, a tiny mote atop the massive mountain of automatic life, of knack and gist” (loc 693). But that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed as phenomenological froth, as a tendency towards higher level rationalisation of still basically automatic responses to environmental stimuli. The question then becomes one of how the two faculties operate in tandem, an issue made even more complicated by the demonstrably different temporal sequencing which characterises the operation of each. In addressing this question Deary uses the notion of the ‘gap’:

Between the impulse and the act, there is a gap. A gap in which imagination can picture outcomes, in which alternative impulses can compete, in which, for instance, morality (such as yours is) has time to encounter impulse (such as yours are) before it commits to act. There is time to think. (loc 704)

During that pause, our ability to remember and imagine comes into its own. Without the recourse to the gist of all our past, of who we are, without the ability to use that same faculty to imagine and construct future possibilities, there would be no space or time to think – no deliberation. (loc 713)

This is the gap in which reflexivity operates. It relies upon automaticity in the sense that as he puts it, automaticity reflects “everything you’ve ever thought, every place you have ever been, every action you have ever practised or mastered, every dream and wish and hope, every encounter, every place, every face and feeling, everything you know”. We encounter our situation already constructed (with the viability of interventions like CBT resting on the inherent possibility that we could reconstruct it in a different way) in a way that isn’t arbitrary but eludes our immediate control. The framing reflects who we are as a particular human being with these particular concerns and with this particular past that’s led us to this present situation and the future possibilities we (fallibly) perceive within it. Who we are is further expressed in how these possibilities come to matter to us – are we drawn towards some and repelled by others? Therein lies our inclination to be a person who does this and avoid being a person who does that. In acting within this gap, acting on the basis of inclinations or struggling against them, we contribute to the reproduction or transformation of these deeper continuities in which our personhood inheres.

The way Deary imagines this process is as dialogical but interior. The decision-making process is a meeting in which different aspects of us come into dialogue – we talk to ourselves about ourselves (and our circumstances) and through these internal conversations we reach decisions:

The nearest I can picture it is like being a host, in most of its senses, from genteel (host of a party) to spooky (host to a possessing spirit). In these moments when we are hosts to the decision-making process, we are holding open a space for notions, routines and agents to meet, encounter and network, to deliberate – a get-together of a group who somehow manage to accomplish a common task. As host, or even more accurately, as the venue, you merely provide, you are, the material conditions where this teamwork happens.

On this view automaticity isn’t a challenge to reflexivity but rather is a condition for it. Our deliberative faculty emerges out of this inner space in which inclinations, concerns, routines and ideas meet. Often it doesn’t – there’s much more to our inner worlds then the deliberation which sometimes emerges out of them.

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