The virtue of “still deciding”

In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.

The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.

If virtues were habits, we would all already have virtue; and the more settled we were in the habitual behaviours of our cultures, taking their meaning and value for granted, the more virtuous we would be. The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz says, in a well-known image, that human beings are animals suspended in webs of signification that we ourselves spin. “Spinning” in that metaphor spans all the ritual processes by which we habituate ourselves to the values and meanings that constitute our cultures.

But Geertz’s point is not that there is a certain point before which we are effectively pre-cultural, proto-human, and after which we are definitively acculturated, decisively human. Geertz’s point is that human beings can be human only in becoming human. This mild paradox holds because human being is not merely something given to us, or achieved by us, as an accomplished fact: a bundle of instincts, say, or of hardened customs. On the contrary, being human means leading a life in and through which a distinctive way of being human comes into being. We become human, that is to say, somehow or other. While the particular “how” of our becoming includes instincts (among other things), these are fashioned and refashioned by the defining work of culture, which differentiates us as a species into quite diverse ways of being.

Joaquín Torres García (1874 – 1949)

Ubicado en Museu Coleção Berardo (Lisboa, Portugal)

Yet, culture is not a fait accompli for us—a set of settled habits, say—any more than are our natural instincts. The variety of virtues human beings have identified are, importantly, cultural ideals; they are not simply given by dint of conformity to the cultures that fashion us, however. Confucius famously denigrated the “village worthy,” who adheres unimaginatively to the habits of their community, as the “thief of virtue.” Culture equips and enables us to discriminate a field of possible virtues, and orientates us to their pursuit. The pursuing, though, requires a creative, uniquely personal contribution, without which nothing virtuous will be achieved.

This, then, is why virtue ought not be identified with habit: that necessary, creative, and uniquely personal contribution to the cultivation of virtue always involves an element of dishabituation, as well as habituation, in order that the person may achieve a style in action, and ultimately in life, that is not culturally conformist, but instead manifests their distinctive excellence. Consider, conversely, our more usual status as cultured creatures: whenever the lure or demand of virtue comes before us, we are already long since habituated in ways that, likelier than not, miss the mark. So the pursuit of virtue requires practice in unsettling established practice. We will not recognize our characteristic errors otherwise. Moreover, we will not begin to know how to cultivate countervailing habits to those we already have. If I always seem to hit the target too high, I should start practicing a habit of drawing my aim lower. But if virtue is my aim, the goal cannot be simply to rehearse one mindless habit until it replaces another, however outwardly successful the replacement appears. Rather, by playing habits upon one another, I hope to create a sort of dynamic equilibrium, a still center of energetic balance, as it were.

That is the hexis about which Aristotle spoke. If I hold myself there, where the tug and pull of distorting habit and distracting happenstance are quelled, I may manifest an excellence in action that is deeply, deliberately my own. And, depending on my metaphysics, the analysis may go even deeper, to suggest that, indeed, I am manifesting a kind of flow with some crucial feature or features of reality.

So, we might also describe the possession of virtue as having poise or composure. And when I suggest that the still deciding student is exercising, or at least practicing to exercise, a virtue, I mean that, too. It turns out there is a double meaning at play. On one hand, still deciding indicates the readiness to take time as a resource for, rather than a constraint upon, good decision-making; on the other, still deciding suggests the pacific calm of a good decision-maker. Under pressure to decide, to have decided, to appear to have been decisive, it takes a hale heart to refrain and maintain oneself as a still center, still deciding, prey neither to sheepish indecisiveness nor to shameless dogmatism.

It’s in light of such description that “still deciding” is, I think, if a small virtue nonetheless one that may flourish into a species of intellectual courage. Advertisers, bureaucrats, party operatives—not to mention more insidious figures like surveillance capitalists and foreign intelligence services—would have us be less than careful participants in the determination of what we consume, the career paths we pursue, our exercise of citizenship. Pressed on many sides to be already decided, or if not decided then decided for, it takes courage to declare oneself still deciding.


Andrew Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He co-edited the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (Springer, 2009) and blogs from time to time at https://aioz.wordpress.com/. He is currently in rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Great Gatsby, playing Nick Carraway.

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