Attunement and Living Well

I am interested in developing a concept that I think will be particularly useful in thinking about philosophy as a way of life. I call the concept “attunement,” with apologies to Heidegger for commandeering his terminology although not his concept.

The idea is that we, as well as the situations in which we find ourselves, are always in flux. To act well we must track those changes. After all, every action we take is intended to change the world in some way and those changes will in turn affect us. However, the changes we must track are not limited to observable changes that occur in our environment or that can be immediately accessed via self-reflection. Our actions can succeed only if we can track shifts in capacities, tendencies, and potentialities, those of ourselves as well as the persons and things with which we interact. We can anticipate how our actions will change ourselves and reality only if we know what entities can do. Those capacities, of course, are also constantly changing, responding to connections and relationships being forged and broken.

“Attunement” refers to the activity of aligning our own shifting dispositions and capacities to the capacities of our social world and physical surroundings, tracking possibilities and tendencies as they gather, shift, and fade away due to the flux of our relations with them. Attunement discloses variations in the potentiality of things and includes the task of adjusting beliefs, motivations, governing norms, etc. in response to these variations.

Attunement requires both experimentation and watchful waiting for variation, seeking “handholds” and “footholds” that pave the way for successful action. However, logic and science are helpful but ultimately not sufficient for successful action. Capacities, dispositions, and tendencies are not easily observable. Past experience may sometimes give us access to them, but many capacities are latent and must be unlocked by forging new connections. And logical possibilities are too general to be helpful in most circumstances.

I think this capacity for attunement is fundamental to leading a good life. However, it isn’t obvious that we have a concept of reason or rationality that clarifies the process of identifying and unlocking capacities and dispositions. Attunement is related to the idea of phronesis—the capacity to assess a situation and act in accordance with virtue. But this is usually understood in a way that is too static to capture what I mean, since the idea of a virtue is not fixed and itself must be governed by the demands of attunement.

This is the central challenge for understanding philosophy as a way of life. If philosophy has nothing to say about attunement, its practical value is limited.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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