Rumination and Moral Time: Forms of Thinking in Critical Times

Amanda Anderson, Brown University

The assumption of this paper is that any sufficiently rich consideration of the moral life and vulnerability will have to consider complex experiences within time and across key passages of a life.  This means that we need an account of the moral life that includes not only punctual moments of deliberation or action of the sort that are used to define the categorical imperative in Kant or reflective equilibrium in Rawls, but also other processes that take place in less discrete and obvious ways.  Focused moments of moral decision, moral clarification, and moral epiphany matter deeply, but so do processes that take place over time, including forms of moral rumination, processes of grief and healing, and dawning realizations within the unfolding of consequences.  It is these long, slow processes, and their interaction with more punctual forms of understanding and decision, especially within the formal limits of the novel, that will interest me here.  I will argue that work in cognitive science, almost entirely punctual in nature, cannot capture these complex forms of experience in the way that literature does, but I will also show how literary form and literary conventions can themselves distort, reduce, or limit the experience of thinking, which is, to follow Hannah Arendt in “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” a fundamentally “resultless” enterprise (426).  As she puts it, “The need to think can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts which I had yesterday will be satisfying this need today only to the extent that I can think them anew.”