“interanimating ensembles of potentialities”

John Lysaker, our guest Lyceum lecturer yesteray, was terrific, energetic, funny, self-effacing, and fundamentally right, though rhetorically just a bit too Heideggerian for my taste :

We are interanimating ensembles of potentialities for being that neither reduce to causal relations among material states nor revolve around egological centers of attention and action.

But when he spoke the language of James and Dewey it all came clear. Our “selves” are relational, and tailored to the varieties of people we encounter day-to-day. We are bundles of habits, powerful but largely inexplicit and unchosen. We each possess distinct but overlapping fields of awareness, we combine a capacity for laser-like focal attention and low-level distraction, and we’re at our best when we integrate the many facets of our lives in deference to desired futures.

For instance: I was riveted by John’s talk, but simultaneously, distractedly, naggingly aware that a gorgeous Spring afternoon was unfolding just beyond the lecture room windows. The self that loves a good philosophical conversation was in tension with the self that wants to roam. What else is new?

But I overcame the tension by anticipating our post-lecture reception, and my desire to have something meaningful and informed to say there to John about his talk.

And it was fun talking to John about  selfhood in general and our respective lives in particular, over beers and fried chicken. We overlapped briefly in grad school, years ago,  and thus had not only our own but many other selves to catch up on. One of them, now on staff in our college of liberal arts and in attendance yesterday, was his student and my student worker back when I was night manager of the student center at Vandy.

So, coming to terms with selfhood just means acknowledging one’s place among many others in a constellation of people, places, events, memories, perceptions, and possibilities. Acknowledging, appreciating, narrating, savoring

One of our students at the reception popped a series of disarming Big Questions at John and me, at table, including: “What do you like most about your life?” Kind of a stumper question, but I just like being in the constellation at all, when (like us all, and unlike all those merely-possible persons who might have been) I just as easily can imagine not ever having existed at all. We’re the lucky ones because, as John’s friend Heidegger would put it, we get to Be. That’s really not so hard to come to terms with, though it’s too easy to forget.


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