- In Vivo: A Phenomenology of Life-Defining Moments by Gabor Csepregi
Csepregi's book is about decisive moments, in which new, unforeseen possibilities bring our lives and actions into [End Page 606] sharper focus. These moments stand out from the normal flow of everyday life, and, the author argues, "the art of living consists in seizing them before they fade away forever."
Of course, to seize these moments one must first recognize them, and that is where this book comes in by offering phenomenological studies of six life-defining moments in order to learn how to live in and through them. Csepregi offers an appealing combination of academic depth with actual wisdom. He gives loving descriptions of concrete experience in accessible language—doing phenomenology without indulging in phenomenological jargon.
The book's opening chapters highlight the moment of decision. Csepregi draws from a wide range of figures—philosophers, novelists, and musicians—but none dominates the discussion. One significant influence is Kierkegaard—albeit a distinctly existentialist Kierkegaard. This influence is evident in chapter 1, which examines the "the logic of exception" in those moments of decision when we find ourselves at a crossroads, "without any external support" from advice, tradition, or approved moral code, in "complete isolation," having "solely and simply ourselves." These decisions are not "purely arbitrary," but Csepregi nevertheless insists that we face them by ourselves, with no guidelines to lead us and no guardrails to protect us.
Decision entails breaking with what is safe and comfortable. It requires courage because I could fail. Csepregi describes this exhilarating experience in chapter 2, arguing that in the act of decision I become "artisan of my destiny" rather than being constrained by my fate.
Csepregi celebrates this discontinuity of the new, the foreign, the unanticipated. In chapter 6 he describes the moment of ethical action this way, prioritizing exceptional and unexpected acts of love, mercy, or self-sacrifice. Moments like this "make life worthwhile," since they show both life and our humanity in a new light of goodness. These moments are "experienced in the pure present," as a "discrete miracle" that arises spontaneously, without consideration or calculation, training or education, preparation or practice, habit or virtue. The ethical act is, to borrow Kierkegaard's phrase, a qualitative leap.
Exceptional moments like these deserve philosophical attention, but if ethical action (and indeed, the art of living) means seizing these moments of discontinuity, surely it also requires continuity. Yet Csepregi insists that exceptional ethical action does not become a "deep-rooted habit"; instead, "an ethical action is ultimately unpredictable and always requires spontaneous creation and re-creation." If these moments are to be genuinely transformative, though, they need the sustaining power of virtues and practices, without which they will not make a lasting impact.
Granted Csepregi is not offering a comprehensive account of the ethical life; rather, he is highlighting the disruptive moment. Nevertheless, discontinuity needs the ballast of continuity. Csepregi provides some of this equilibrium in the middle chapters of the book. Chapter 3 shows how models (teachers, mentors, and even fictional characters) exert a [End Page 607] transformative influence on us. Models also inform our decisions—a point that qualifies Csepregi's earlier descriptions of making decisions in isolation with no external support. When faced with a difficult situation, we consider what our models would do. Likewise, chapter 4 strikes a more careful balance in describing the encounter with a foreign culture. Csepregi argues that a truly transformative experience requires a balance between the familiar and the foreign, learning and unlearning, attachment and detachment.
The descriptions in this book are rich and thoughtful, but a fuller account of life-defining moments would show more fully the relation between continuity and discontinuity, the ordinary and the exceptional. Csepregi does occasionally acknowledge this; a person whose life is only spontaneity would also need "routine, habitual, and even tedious practices." More often, though, the ordinary comes off looking rather dismal, as when Csepregi writes of "the thin comfort of imagined security," the "drab routine...