Review: Aspiration by Agnes Callard

I haven’t done a book review in a looooong time. Years. (I do consider my year-long project of reading and commenting on every chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology to be some kind of review, but NONE OF YOU ARE READING THOSE AND I AM TOTALLY NOT MIFFED BY THIS AT ALL.)

This book deserves me to come out of book review hibernation. Not necessarily because I believe it to be perfect, or even because I fully understand and processed all the philosophy Agnes Callard is grappling with, but because it is supremely timely for a country and a world grappling with how to fully eradicate the toxic, gnarled, entangled rhizome that is white supremacy.

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Dr. Agnes Callard is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, having earned her PhD from UC Berkeley. In Aspiration, Callard examines the human phenomenon of aspiration, what she defines as the rational and intentional pursuit of new values.

Aspiration is rational, purposive value-acquisition.


Aspiration is what we have and engage in when we realize we want to be a different kind of person, when we decide we want to value something in a way we currently do not. In defining values, Callard uses relatively mundane examples such as “enjoys classical music”, but I couldn’t help but think of aspiration primarily in terms of the energy so many in America are currently employing to be, to become, anti-racist. The stakes are much higher for this form of value, but both the classical music appreciation example and the anti-racism application are, at their core, ethical.

Aspiration is about eudaimonia, about the flourishing of the human. To aspire is to have already come to see the world differently, to realize that what we used to think of as “good” is not sufficient, that there are other, higher, or better goods that we now feel we should adopt, or that we should work to adopt and should eventually to embody as part of our very selves.

This lays bare the paradox of aspiration. When aspiring, we seem to already value something new (certainly enough to know it’s valuable), but realize we do not yet value it enough. We value it and yet need to work to value it. Part of the process of aspiration is in acquiring wider and deeper knowledge about the value — how and why it is valuable (more reasons to fully root it in our consciousness and being) and how to let it take up space in more of our being than it had before. We move forward with a hope and some form of certainty that who we become on the other side, the self who has acquired the value, will look back on our aspiring selves and confer goodness upon her effort and will be acting in a fuller, deeper knowledge of why the new value is valuable.

As such, what value-acquisition is, at least in part, is a process of learning about the world through the lens of the aspirational value. Aspiration as an activity is an intent to see the world in a new way. It changes our ethical norms and our general idea about what is actually good, and what it means for us to be good in our own individuality.

An agent resolves her intrinsic conflicts by aspiring. Aspiration is the diachronic process by which an agent effects change on her own ethical point of view. Aspirants aim to direct their own ethical attention in such a way as to more fully appreciate one value or set of values and to become immune or insensitive to those values that intrinsically conflict with the first set. An aspirant is someone who works to improve her desires, her feelings, her ethical evaluations, and, more generally, her own capacity for responding to reasons.


And yes, this means that the aspirant is working to change herself.

She comes into contact with, or aims at, the value not by realizing it but by learning it. In such a case, one’s value-directed activity is simply identical with a self-directed activity. This learning constitutes a change in who she is, which is to say, a change in what she values.


To change our values is to change who we are. It is to engage with the world differently, to choose different actions in different circumstance than we normally would, to treat people and activities differently, to think about the world and what’s needed in a new way.

Callard outlines several characteristics of aspiration: uncertainty (we don’t fully know what we’re striving for, nor what it will take to fully embody this new value), commitment (when we learn what it takes to acquire a new value, to truly aspire we commit to doing the work), and sacrifice (value opportunity cost?):

In order to value something, we must engage with it in a way that takes time, effort, and practice. Given our infinite life spans and limited resources, we cannot devote ourselves to valuing all the things we see as valuable.


The unfortunate reality is that we can’t embody or attain all values. This is part of what makes other humans so wonderful and enriching! We get to appreciate other values through their possession and living of them. Further, acquiring a new value usually requires the relinquishing of an old value. For example, to become anti-racist we have to release our old value of white supremacy. Through the beginning recognition stage of aspiration, we may for the firs time realize what outworn (or even harmful) values exist in us. Aspiration can be as unsettling and uncomfortable and difficult as it can be thrilling and freeing and beautiful.

Aspiration is the act of making a localized change (“I see and recognize that anti-racism is good and something I should be”) into a full-person, systemic, holistic change (“I am now anti-racist and committed to doing the work to continue to be anti-racist”). Callard published Aspiration in 2018 and I wonder what examples Callard would have used had she written it in 2020, a time of such profound ethical and systemic upheaval in America. But perhaps it’s best that the examples she uses are a little less “loaded,” less tied to a specific place and time. Reading it in 2020, and right before I dove into Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, I deeply appreciated the philosophical depth and clarity Callard brought to the necessary activity of changing ourselves to fit an ethics we recognize and desire as more meaningful and true than the ethic and person we currently have, are, and embody.

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