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  • Ciaran Cummins

The present conditional

Who, in society, gets the opportunity to reflect, and why?

I am thinking about these questions a lot as of late, since they keep cropping up in the book I am writing. The book explores what the space for reflection is in our lives today. By ‘reflection’ I mean something deliberately broad, for several reasons. Partly, it is because the book is based on interviews with people who facilitate reflection in all manner of places: among visitors to galleries, pubs, and cafes; students in schools; people in prison; between colleagues at work; and much else.

I also mean something broad by ‘reflection’ because these interviewees facilitate specifically philosophical discussions in these environments (you can see examples on this site and in the links above) and philosophy covers all manner of topics. Likewise, I mean something broad by ‘reflection’ because, as my interviews bring out, philosophical discussions can be continuous with the other kinds of conversation we engage in among friends at the pub, among co-workers, and so on.

For all these reasons, I have found it simpler to just tell people I’m writing about ‘reflection’, broadly construed. That said, I do not deny that our opportunities for reflection can be more or less rich, more or less, at times, philosophical. These variations in the conversations (and solitary introspection) we get to have come through in my book’s interviews and wider research. Hence, I keep butting up against the questions I put at the start: who gets opportunities to reflect, and why?

Frameworks of reflection

I first started interviewing these facilitators of ‘public philosophy’ (i.e., philosophical discussion outside of universities) in 2017. Back then, I had no intention to write a book, I just wanted to speak to these people out of a personal interest. I was curious about what they had to say about philosophy itself. I had studied the subject, still adored it, but had grown tired of the notion that it was something only done in academia. Nonetheless, I was still focused on what these people were doing as it relates to philosophy: what could their explorations further afield tell us about the practice of professional philosophy? What does this mean for how it is taught and researched?

The more I spoke to these facilitators, however, the more I came to see that what they were doing casts a light on the place of reflection in our lives more generally. And now, with each chapter I write, my efforts to answer the central question of the book – what is the space of reflection in our lives today? – see me turning to many traditions of, and innovations in, collective and personal reflection and discussion beyond those that come under the banner of ‘philosophy’.

As such, I increasingly think about reflection in a thick sense of the term, with it encompassing and overlapping with the many ways people converse, criticise, sympathise, argue, listen to, explore, and debate with one another, with ideas, and with the world around them, across different domains of life in different times and places. Philosophy, as my interviewees bring out, intertwines in intriguing ways with all these parts of our reflective lives.

A benefit of taking this broad view of more-or-less philosophical reflection is it allows me to pick out connections, themes, and patterns in how we reflect. One recurring theme is the ways in which having access to space for reflection depends on our conditions, from the material to the psychological, from the cultural to the social. These conditions can reflect inequalities that exist more widely in society, for example, in relation to work. In interviewing people who facilitate philosophical discussions in workplaces, usually with work as the theme, it becomes clear that some employers and forms of labour are more open to or conducive to this. Some are better at allowing people to step back and consider the assumptions in how they are working (or why they are doing what they do in the first place, for that matter).

In contrast, conditions elsewhere for reflection can be more uniform. One example comes from looking at people supporting others to engage in (philosophical) reflection through the news and media they consume. It becomes apparent here that many of us have the same affordances. Considerations of accessibility apply of course, but for many there is still a degree of shared opportunity to reflect on what is going on in the world via podcasts, news articles, YouTube videos and so on that is considerably different from how opportunities arise in work for different people, for example. Despite this, given how much scorn is poured on social media or how much distrust exists towards many news outlets, few would probably argue that this comparatively level playing field is the best it could be for supporting us to reflect on the issues of the day.

If our opportunities to reflect can vary, and are less than perfect even when they are similar, do we know for any or all domains of life, what the ideal conditions for reflection are? People tend to approach this question by focusing on specific examples. They might think of monastic traditions which have created buildings and routines for ritualised contemplation. They might think of libraries, tests, and classrooms in education. Meeting agendas, work plans, and staff away days, in certain kinds of work. Even the conventions tied to specific social spaces: we assume, probably without thinking about it most of the time, that people will have a certain kind of chat, with certain kinds of people, for certain reasons, in a café, or at a kitchen table, or in a pub or a shop queue.

We might contest the details about what framework for reflection is best for a given religious, educational, work, or social setting, but we recognise these frameworks all the same. Elsewhere, how we should engage in discussion and reflection can be more contested, such as the media as I mentioned but also in politics. What we less often focus on though is what conditions for reflection cut across these domains: what is needed in any part of life to meaningfully reflect with others, including when we need to get down to questioning the basic philosophical assumptions we are making all the time as we go about our lives?

Give us some time to think

Earlier this year I read After Work by Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek, and it provides an example of something that does cut across our reflective lives. The book examines the past and present of the economics and politics of domestic life and concludes with a set of principles to guide what they argue should come next here. One principle is ‘temporal sovereignty,’ i.e., having greater freedom over how we spend our time. One reason they argue for this is that at present “Under capitalism, there is little deliberative space available for asking what we should do.” In short, most of us must give up a considerable part our time to work, and to what is required outside of work in domestic life which supports us to continue to turn up at our jobs.

The authors hark back to an earlier contention from John Maynard Keynes that, freed from economic burden, humanity would be left with a “permanent problem” of working out “how to use [our] freedom […] to live wisely and agreeably and well.” What Hester and Srnicek importantly emphasise is Keynes’ further condition here. It is not enough to just bring about this economic change, as you would still need a change in what society values as worth pursuing in the first place (i.e., not primarily, if at all, the accumulation of wealth and for its own sake).

This kind of reflection on what is valued, they argue, requires the creation of “deliberative structures […] that allow us to negotiate and determine collective projects” (what they dub ‘institutions of freedom’), not simply at the level of detailed policy, but more broadly so that we can transform the “social norms in which [we] are bound”. From norms to detailed policy, all must be “subject to contestation in a future society” which will “demand sustained democratic engagement with others.”

In advancing this wide-reaching proposal, and through focusing on the relationship between temporal sovereignty and deliberation in general, Hester and Srnicek give an example of how to squarely consider a condition for reflection that cuts across various parts of our lives. Their focus is on how these institutions of freedom would support reflection on work and domesticity, but it is clear that these could support reflection on norms and policies that direct other parts of our lives too.

What could be?

How much time we have available to reflect, and how exactly we can use it for reflection, is shaped by a range of things, including and beyond those considered in After Work’s discussion of temporal sovereignty. We might consider working hours, obligations of care, our health, our finances, cultural, religious, and national holidays. Moreover, these relate to one another, sometimes through direct contact - consider the blurring of domestic and job time patterns that has resulted from the expansion of hybrid work.

Taken together, these factors can also form something over above themselves. They form the personal and collective sense we carry around about how much time we have available to think, both literally, but also culturally insofar as we think society can engage, at one moment or another, in the kind of revaluation of our norms and values that Hester, Srnicek, and Keynes, all pointed to.

Among those I have interviewed, a common argument they encounter is that people have neither the time nor willingness to engage in the kinds of philosophical discussions they are organising. Some of them have the data and experience to simply disprove this, but in some cases the charge holds more weight. But even where there is some truth to this, the extent to which it reflects some fact about humanity is an open question because people’s time and will are related. Given greater sovereignty over how they can use their time, you might find out people’s willingness to do something changes.

In grammar, a present conditional is a statement that expresses what would be the case if something were true, despite it not actually being true (for this reason, they are sometimes called ‘unreal’ conditionals). For instance, the statement “if I could fly, I would circle the Earth.” Hester and Srnicek’s vision strays into this unreality, but I do not think that is a criticism, as there is a lot to be gained by imagining how we’d reflect if the conditions were different. In doing this kind of imagining, we start to get a sense of what cross-cutting conditions would need to be in place to realise what we are imagining. Time plays a part, and I can speculate how other factors might also shape our opportunities to reflect, but must we only speculate? The experiments in collective reflection that my book’s interviewees detail give insight into these conditions and illuminate a present (and sometimes past) that is very much real.

I hope, in future blogs and in my book, to surface and share more of these conditions, and to show just how malleable the space of reflection is.

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