McGill Queen University Press
Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)
This book is a contribution to phenomenological anthropology and to contemporary philosophy more broadly. Above all, it is the unique instance of a philosophical work that immediately contributes to knowledge for life without burdening the reader with technical vocabulary and complex argumentation. Avoiding a scholarly approach, it is not a theoretical treatise that analyzes the notion of a life-defining moment conceptually. Proceeding through the phenomenological method, Gabor Csepregi explores the first-person experience of moments or changes that often are definitive for the course of one’s life and personal development. To this end, as the author states in the Introduction, the work aims to further the philosophy of the human person (5). Written in a lively and accessible style, Csepregi’s book employs illuminating examples from literature, biography, and memoir. It also contains much thoughtful engagement with the work of other continental philosophers of the human person, most notably Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Eugène Minkowski to name a few.
The notion of a “life-defining moment” is the phenomenon most pregnant with ambiguity in the book’s premise. However, as Csepregi clarifies in the Introduction, this is not a concept whose occurrence can be identified with precision or marked out in the existential terms of an instantaneous “augenblick,” as characterized by historical philosophers like Heidegger and Kierkegaard. Csepregi understands the notion of “moment” in a quasi-Hegelian sense, as an often prolonged, but nonetheless definitive period or process of change in one’s life. Csepregi remarks that as an example, his college years stand out to him as a life-defining moment (9). Thus, a moment that is life-defining can be understood as an extended period of personal growth or change in perspective, where one is an ostensibly different person before and after. Entrance into spiritual or aesthetic transcendence may also be involved. Generalizing, Csepregi writes: “By moment, I mean a certain duration that, thanks to its deeper importance and transforming effect, stands out with regard to the past and to the future in our personal becoming and may even transport us into a timeless dimension” (10).
But what does it mean to talk of such moments as “life-defining”? In Csepregi’s account, life-defining moments are those in which possibilities sharply manifest themselves to one. Life-defining moments occasion a unique manner of temporal disclosure, such that in these moments we are lucidly able to perceive the relation of our own selves to the disjunctions in our life-courses. Life-defining moments often involve an encounter with the foreign, inviting the human subject to enter different ways of thinking and being. Phenomenologically decisive about these moments, the author writes, is that they reveal the primacy of sharp turns in development as inherent to human life in its highest realization. As such, they involve possibilities inherent in every person (7). Csepregi writes: “One of the implicit contentions I make in this book can be stated briefly: there is, in every human life, a possibility of transformation and of renewal” (Ibid.). Also decisive is that these moments are of a kind that reveal human life to transcend the fatalism posed by the external forces that often shape one’s fate. In other words, a life-defining is moment is one each of us has the potential to undergo in our role as agents of freedom. This is a phenomenon encountered in first-person experience, particularly when such moments present to us our own potential to shape the outcome of our lives. Csepregi writes “In this sense, we may become aware, under the pivotal impact of these experiences, of an invitation to shape our destinies” (Ibid.). A life-defining moment, then, is one in which a person distinctly perceives that they have standing before them an important and transformative change, a change they can undergo if they make the choice to do so.
Csepregi proceeds in the main body of the text by focusing on the first-person experience embodied in six unique types of life-defining moments. As he emphasizes in the Introduction, his interest is to highlight moments that occur in the positive sphere of life. He deliberately omits among his paradigm cases the bleaker sorts of transformative experiences that might come to mind, such as receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease. More broadly, this reflects his wish to emphasize life-defining moments that manifest sheer possibility, modification of one’s own destiny, and new horizons of fulfillment. He comments “I wanted to single out those experiences that we find not only enriching but also invigorating on all levels of our existence, experiences that open up the future for us and offer occasions for steering our lives into a new direction” (6). On this score, the six types of life-defining moment Csepregi dissects are, respectively, making a moral decision; “breaking away” from one mode of life in order to enter another; being inspired by a model person in an educational context; immigrating to a foreign country; the experience of transport found in hearing beautiful music; and witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other. In what follows I will briefly summarize four of Csepregi’s six types of life-defining moments.
The opening passages of the first chapter, entitled “The Logic of Exception,” invite the reader to consider situations of life that involve finding oneself at a crossroads, where one knows a certain and decisive choice must be made that will exclude its alternative (13-15). In such instances, a unique temporal mode of disclosure opens up for one. One is able to envision one’s past, present, and most importantly, future self, in reference to each decision that stands to be made (15). One has a decision to make. But what is it that causes a decision to become a life-defining moment? Many day-to-day choices do not involve making a “decision” in this deeper sense. Csepregi clarifies that a “decision” involves encountering a moment of life in which one genuinely cannot rely on a pregiven framework to determine which course to take. “We…make a decision when we can no longer rely on a habit, a code of conduct, a custom, or a law that clearly and unambiguously tells us what we should do. In these cases, we find ourselves outside the realm of personal or institutional rules” (16). Csepregi cites Hermann Lübbe here, to highlight that the logic of decision is the “logic of exception” (Ibid.). In other words, decisions in the robust, moral, and individually-realized sense are really instances of taking an exception to the social and habitual codes with which one is ingrained. Of significance here is the linguistic manifestation of the phenomenology involved in decisions. As the author highlights, expressions such as “I make up my mind, je me decide, Ich entscheide mich” reveal that making decisions entails a way of aligning one to oneself, of evaluating one’s own responsibility in the context of free choice (17). In this way, by committing to a decision, one reinforces one’s freedom, by consciously choosing one course of action whilst knowing that other possibilities will become closed.
This phenomenology of making decisions also entails steering through uncertainty. As Csepregi emphasizes, the difficulty of deciding one course of action over another is a fraught enterprise (21), often leaving one more inclined to shrink from making a choice at all. Decisions can be decisive moments in one’s life precisely because one can be unprepared to navigate the uncertainty of outcomes (24); making a decision entails making a genuine break with life as one has known it. As a result, not every person will make decisions when the right time comes. Many persons will cower in indecision, or else choose not to decide at all. Csepregi suggests that contemporary society in fact suffers from a dearth of passionate commitment to decisions, where the commonplace approach is constantly to “keep one’s options open” or otherwise to attempt to hold onto conflicting, irreconcilable possibilities (23). In other words, Csepregi comments, many people suffer from a kind of “miserliness” of decisions in their unwillingness to commit to definite life-decisions for themselves. And this disposition can have the result of a lack of personal development, by virtue of one having eschewed freely-chosen realizations of one’s self. “When a person does not learn to make a distinction of value between various possible views of the world – but rather considers them equivalent, and thus fails to express a firm attachment to any of them – the ability to make a lasting commitment in favor of a particular life path and purpose becomes atrophied” (24). Today, we know this factor has import for the education of children, as young people benefit from learning how to make independent decisions. Personal development can suffer if one’s decision-making is done for one ahead of time, or when decisions are overly curated in safe spaces and secure environments (25).
The second chapter, on the subject of “breaking away” from one way of life and adopting another, continues in the vein of the first’s chapter’s focus on decision-making. Of emphasis in the second chapter is the first-person experience of, as Csepregi describes it, “taking leave from a form of existence, rooted in a specific social and cultural condition, and adopting a new form of existence” (37). There is “a break in the temporal unfolding” (Ibid.) of one’s life, such that one’s course of life is fundamentally different before and after the break. One’s way of being and acting may have transformed, or one may have entered an altogether different world, into which one gradually adapts. For instance, religious conversion appears to comprise such an avenue. Conversion involves a “discernible change in convictions and attitudes which deeply affects the person’s life orientation in the world” (44). In its religious guise, conversion may entail an act of surrender to powers greater than oneself, such that one submits to reorientation from guidance beyond oneself (47). Similarly, conversions not be religious or spiritual; they can occur through “radical change in the principles and values guiding decisions and actions and affecting the meaning of human relations, of professional achievements, or of personal interests” (45-46.) Examples include the turn in allegiance sometimes shown by political leaders and soldiers in times of distress, as well as philosophical conversions (46-47). In sum, crucial in the phenomenon of breaking away is a “caesura,” a fresh start, a realignment of the principles by which one guide’s one’s life, and which in turn define one’s destiny (46, 63). Here Csepregi cites Eugène Minkowski to highlight the distinction of destiny and fate. Whereas fate comprises forces to which one is inevitably subject, destiny lay in “human becoming intimately tied to personal decisions” (41). Csepregi rounds out the chapter by raising the question: what prompts one to complete an act of breaking away? (51) In general, he suggests that breaking away often is occasioned by one’s realization of the adequacy of one’s living conditions, such as when a young person leaves their place of birth in order to achieve aspirations only achievable elsewhere. Csepregi summarizes that breaking away is indeed a phenomenon seemingly built into the human condition, where it can be triggered when necessary. Citing Kierkegaard, Csepregi highlights “a fundamental anthropological truth about the temporality of human existence,” namely, that breaking away from a stifling world can often be the only means one has for recovering one’s own possibilities” (52). Or to put it simply, human beings are existentially constituted to experience disclosures that reveal a way out, a way to save one’s future possibilities, in times when life becomes unbearable.
The third chapter, entitled “Moments of Real Learning,” explores the phenomenology bound up with inspirational, model personalities that strongly shape the course of a person’s life and development. These individuals are not necessarily what we often call “role models” so much as they are those personalities we encounter in our development who prompt us to change our worldview or otherwise inspire us to change ourselves. Most paradigmatic in Csepregi’s reckoning here are teachers and other mentors, although the concept of models is not limited to these. Decisive about such model individuals is that “we may come to realize what these persons added to our existence: they made us more passionate, more skillful, and more cultured. They are men and women who strongly affect the way we think, act, feel, and relate to our fellow human beings” (67). These individuals are those who have inspired us to “think and act in their manner of thinking and acting” (73). As in Chapter Two, this chapter articulates a moment in human experience that ostensibly expresses the potency for great personal change and development. As Csepregi observes, models are not merely people we like, admire, or emulate, but persons who inspire an entire adaptation of our being (68, 70). We re-orient our goals in light of the model’s achievements and values. Moreover, such models are not chosen because of characteristics we appraise in them. Rather, Csepregi remarks, we are drawn to them through a kind of seduction, through an inevitable intuition that the model is someone whose example we should follow (Ibid.). The values they invite us to adopt are attractive to us, though we may not yet know how to embody them (79). Realizing the value of the model for our life occurs for us as a kind of disclosure; it represents a distinct way in which select human beings are given to us. Csepregi finishes this discussion by highlighting the importance of models in educational settings. In one light, models help us to understand and work toward ideals (85). Models can lead us to appreciate intellectual and scientific rigor. In a deeper regard, “There is also a fundamental human impulse for self-realization, which can hardly be satisfied in the absence of the guidance and inspiration of models” (86). The educational development of young people shows that exposure to excellent models rather than mediocre or morally questionable individuals makes all the difference.
Chapter Four highlights a different flavor of life-defining moment than those in the first three: the experience of being a foreigner in a country not one’s own, and of adapting oneself and one’s worldview to this new place. Csepregi does not mean here the experience of being a tourist or short-term visitor (89). He means the process of relocating to a new country or culture and becoming absorbed into foreign ways of thinking, speaking, and perceiving, such that one’s very way of being alters. The paradigmatic instance of this type of moment is the life-change experienced by an immigrant, for instance, Europeans who relocated to America during the economic boom of the early 20th century, or refugees who flee their home country during times of war or oppression. Cspregi comments that this life-defining moment has informed his own experience; Hungarian by birth, he came to America with his family as a young man. In Csepregi’s estimation, citing Eugen Fink, the experience of the foreign poses an encounter with other human beings across an initially unbridgeable gap. Encountering individuals in a foreign culture involves experiences of another that are not one’s own. Lacking is a community of shared experience (90). Noteworthy, then, about adapting to a foreign place is the deep extent to which it reveals to one the complex structures underlying human community and interaction. As Csepregi comments, “In order to actively feel and understand and, after an extended acquaintance, integrate the foreign, we have to enter into a more personal communication with individuals and their worlds, to find a common ground of interest in deeds and not merely in words” (91).
A few words about the remaining chapters of this book. The fifth chapter discusses the life-defining moment that occurs through appreciation of beautiful music, particularly Western classical music. Although the initial premise of this chapter is attractive, in its execution I found myself wanting the chapter to focus a bit less on technical aspects of music, and more on the specific phenomenology of how hearing music can be life-defining. The author is clearly a musician himself as well as an least intermediate scholar of music theory. Although I am knowledgeable about both the history of Western classical music and the technical vernacular of music, I was often at a loss to follow Csepregi’s account in his discussions that have a more technical register. I believe some of this burden causes the phenomenological analysis to suffer. The chapter probably succeeds better simply as a phenomenological account of music appreciation. Perhaps more crucially, Csepregi neglects to discuss other kinds of music than classical, such as tribal music and popular music. Insofar as his book aims to describe possibilities latent in every person, it may have been more apposite to give attention to the more common types of music appreciated by people in today’s world. Focusing just on Western classical music seems to preclude the life-defining music appreciation experienced by those outside of academia and the fine arts.
Finally, the sixth chapter explores the life-defining moment of witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other. While philosophically rich and quite persuasive in its premise and execution, I found that this chapter seems to overlap with the scope and phenomenological accounting of the first two chapters. I did not find the book’s aim to be advanced significantly by the inclusion of this chapter.
This book is a fine contribution to philosophical anthropology and will be accessible for readers of many persuasions, in both philosophy and other fields. Educators and university administrators interested in the phenomenology of education may especially benefit from study of this work. The book should invite readers to reconsider the question of what sorts of events do ultimately change the course and outcome of our lives. Is one’s life ultimately impacted by one or more instantaneous moments that occur unnoticed or in the blink of an eye? Or are the fundamental shifts that guide our lives more prolonged, more reflective, and more predicated on private decision-making and appropriation of one’s own possibilities? Gabor Csepregi’s book invites us to reflect on the latter.