Being open to being surprised

One claim I made about self-knowledge a couple of posts ago needs to be brought out. This is that we know ourselves, in part, when we know our dispositions. The occasion for this reflection is an upcoming workshop that Ian Prinsloo and I are putting on at the Banff Centre in the middle of June. The subject is surprise, and the genre is to be a philosophical drama. We are investigating what it means to be open to being surprised.

In this post, I want to raise and answer two questions. Firstly, what is an ethical disposition (exclude other sorts of dispositions)? And, secondly, what kind of ethical disposition would be the kind that is open to being surprised?

Ethical dispositions, Bernard Williams claims in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, are ‘dispositions to want certain things, to react in certain ways to other people and their actions.’In The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle speaks of dispositions in terms of tendencies or pronenesses. He distinguishes between tendencies and capacities. ‘”Would if…’ differs from “could”; “regularly does…” when… differs from “can.”‘ In other words, there is an important difference between John’s capacity to count (he can count to 10) and John’s tendency to nitpick (something he regularly does when he is in the presence of Jane). Being capable is not at all like being prone to.

Combining Williams’s and Ryle’s points, we can claim that a certain kind of ethical disposition is a certain way (or ways) of regularly responding to events of the kind P. Someone with a courageous disposition is someone who tends to respond in a courageous way when he is presented with a dangerous or threatening situation. Someone with a welcoming disposition tends to respond welcomingly or invitingly once his guests have arrived. Someone with a cheerful disposition is prone to react cheerily when something unexpected occurs. In none of these cases would it be true to say that he ‘just so happens to’ respond in this way rather than in some other; it is rather the case that, over time and through experience, he has gotten accustomed to acting courageously, being welcoming, or reacting cheerily with the result that his character has been so formed.

With the last example about cheerfulness, I am beginning to approach my second question: what kind of ethical disposition would be the kind that is open to being surprised? It is important to underscore what Ryle also points out. Whereas some dispositions track a certain set response (e.g., courageous man–courageous response, ruminant cow–tending to ruminate), other dispositions track a range of responses. A lawyer’s disposition–to borrow one of Ryle’s examples–does not track some regularly undertaken activity calling ‘lawyering.’ Instead, he performs research, files lawsuits, appears in court, is involved in negotiations, attends meetings, etc. Arguably, the ethical disposition to being open to surprise is closer to the lawyer example than it is to the ruminating cow example.

In view of the above consideration, I want to claim that the ethical disposition called ‘openness to being surprised’ just is the set of responses typically associated with perplexity, fascination, and cheerful readiness

Consider cheerful readiness first. Suppose that one has been surprised. This is a sense of lightly being prepared or alert in the presence of what is occurring. It is like composure, only with a touch of joy or humor. When, some years ago, a man in Brooklyn tried to start a fight with me, I told him a joke and we started laughing. Then, he had no interest in fighting me. Later, he tried to pick a fight with the next guy.

Now consider a different situation. Something surprising has happened, and someone feels perplexed. I would define a perplexing question as a question that is (i) necessary yet (ii) seemingly impossible to answer. In plain speech, one might say, ‘I have to X but I cannot do X.’ Thus, the one so perplexed feels disoriented.

And a third: something surprising has occurred, and one is deeply fascinating with what is going on. I would define a fascinating question as a question that, (i) holding one in suspense, is (ii) thought to be answerable but is (iii), as of yet, unanswered. One might be ‘deeply fascinated’ by P and for this to be the case his attention must be held (contrast this with curiosity, which tends to wander), the question is thought to be answerable, yet he cannot as of yet provide such an answer. Thus, the one so fascinated feels transfixed (fascination is close to love or longing but not quite).

Of course, a perplexing question could ‘pass beyond itself’ into despair. A fascinating question could ‘pass beyond itself’ into awe or appreciation. Additionally, a perplexing question–provided it is reformulated–could become a fascinating question. And a fascinating question that turns out to be unanswerable could become a perplexing question.

What remains to be considered is what kind of training would be necessary in order for one to be able to cultivate an ‘openness to being surprised.’ The short answer: philosophy, martial arts, aikido.