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What we talk about when we talk about being disoriented

Disorientations—major life experiences that make it difficult for individuals to know how to go on—are deeply familiar, in part because they are so common. It is rare to have never experienced some form of disorientation in one’s own life, perhaps in response to grief, illness, or other significant events. What could we notice if we reflected on our everyday conversations about being disoriented?

We will notice different things about disorientations depending on, among other things, who we talk to about them, what kinds of relationships we have with these people, and when we have these conversations. The information we get from these conversations won’t conclusively determine what counts as a disorientation, nor will it tell us how disorientations affect all people. Even so, reflecting on what conversations about disorientation are like may point to interesting and important questions about disorientation that could be taken up in future philosophical and psychological research.

Consider two questions that might arise in our reflections. First, where can conversations about disorientations go? That is, what can conversations about disorientation lead us to talk about? And second, what can conversations about disorientations do? In particular, what effects can such conversations have on the people in them?

Conversations about disorientations may go in any number of directions, but, in my experience, they rarely go nowhere. For a person to whom disorientations signal danger, such conversations might tend to lead to discussions of how best to avoid or overcome them. Philosophers from Plato to the pragmatists and beyond have described disorientations as occupying an important place in human lives, but many have seen periods of not knowing how to go on as chiefly debilitating and threatening to an individual’s agency. As such, discussions of, for example, how disorienting it is to doubt one’s beliefs have led to discussions of beliefs that cannot be doubted, and discussions of the disorientations of ambivalence have led to discussions of how indecisiveness can be resolved.  In these and other contexts, conversations about disorientation are often the preface to articulating strategies for reorientation.

Where else might conversations about disorientations go?

Reflecting on such conversations can point to the need for more attention to disorientations in conceptual and empirical research

After describing a period of disorientation in their own life, a person might open up about how disorientations have shaped their identity or their understanding of the conditions within which they live. A friend is diagnosed with cancer; he says I’m no longer the same person. A coworker’s spouse dies suddenly; she says we can’t take anything for granted. We don’t only talk about our own disorientations. A neighbor loses his home in foreclosure, an acquaintance has a miscarriage; we talk about how we would have reacted and how we perceive their capacity to cope. Where might these conversations be going? They may not point towards reorientation, but instead raise questions about character, responsibility, and how to relate to others who are disoriented. In other words, everyday conversations about disorientation may in some cases become conversations about the moral significance of these experiences in our lives as agents.

We might see conversations about disorientations as typically having the function of allowing someone who has been disoriented to express something she already knows about herself and her experience—she gets something off her chest, and her conversation partner is a sounding board. As such, perhaps we think the main thing that conversations about disorientation do is allow for information to be shared, and facilitate some kind of (hopefully supportive) response.

What else might conversations about disorientations do?

For instance, how could these conversations alter an individual’s experience of disorientation itself? Some philosophers have considered how having the opportunity to express feelings to a sympathetic interpreter might make a difference to whether or how a person is able to have those feelings (see the work of Sue Campbell, Naomi Scheman, and Elizabeth Spelman). From this perspective, conversations about disorientation might do more than simply allow a person to express things about an experience she has already had and understood — they might shape whether or how a person experiences and understands her disorientations. Were these conversations not to happen, she could be prevented from having and understanding her experience of disorientation in the same way.

Furthermore, how could conversations about disorientation shape the way interlocutors relate to, respond to, or trust each other? If I tell you about my own disorientation in a way that resonates with your own experience, or with an experience you agree would be disorienting, how might our relationship be affected? Conversely, if I describe a trivial experience of mine as being on a par with your own much more strenuous examples of disorientation, how might our relationship change? Conversations about being disoriented might be, like other everyday occasions of relating to others, important contexts of moral action, where we can participate more or less responsibly, and where others can hold us responsible.

Reflecting on such conversations can point to the need for more attention to disorientations in conceptual and empirical research. What is the role of conversations about being disoriented in moral development? What are the responsibilities of interlocutors in these conversations? Though these conversations are only a starting point, they can spur examinations of the complicated power of disorientations in moral lives.

Featured image credit: Night time scene. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. […] the OUP Blog  comes this short piece by Ami Harbin, “What we talk about when we talk about being […]

  2. Tanmoy Bhattacharya

    One issue that emerges in the context of what these conversations can do, is the role of the other. Is she just a sounding board, there to help you understand your experience of disorientation or (under a different context) clarify your ideas? If so, then there is an ethical issue, though I don’t think it is a case of just having a ready made sounding board. For example, a simulated “sympathetic” robot would then do the job. But will it? My feeling is that it won’t. I think that my feeling that my close other “feels” for the topic under discussion in the same way as I do, that is, her belief in the issue, is significant for this to work. This can be perhaps tested for situations where this belief ascription fails. If I find a partner who is either a mere listener (even if an interested one) or an uninterested listener (a colleague), the “co-production/ co-creation” of an understanding would simply not happen – I have experienced both these situations and can vouch for them. Thus a sympathetic belief ascription in the other is essential for an enriched coproduction of an idea or experience of disorientation, as here.

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