Hanne De Jaegher

Note: this text* was written and then (the next day) read out loud at a small gathering of neuroscientists, philosophers, linguists, artists, and psychologists. We spent two intense days thinking about spontaneity and mind-wandering at a wonderful meeting organized by Dr. Kalina Christoff and Dr. Caitlin Mills:
From Villain to Virtuoso: The Role of Spontaneous Thought in Science and Society
22–24 July 2018
UBC, Vancouver

My participation, my presentation here, is spontaneous. In the sense that I wrote this text yesterday. But of course, I was also invited, and so I was asked to think about this (so in that sense, it wasn’t so spontaneous). Spontaneity is a new topic for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about my current work in a new way. To take a new angle, a new perspective on this work.

My current work, that is a book I’m writing, called Loving and Knowing. In this book, I strip bare what loving and knowing are, and find, by doing that, that they are, in the ground, in essence, the same. This is a whole theory, and I can speak about it more, but for now, I’d like to run with the idea – or the act, rather – of stripping bare a particular aspect of experience. I want to see, here, if by doing that I can arrive at some fruitful thoughts about spontaneity.

Traveling is a stripping bare. I love the particular newness of being that traveling brings. If I have my things packed well and am confident that I have everything I need, and not too much, and if I can think that if there’s something I didn’t bring I can either do without or obtain it while traveling, then I can kind of begin again.

I’ve never experienced this so clearly, I have never been so aware of this, as on this occasion. I travel a lot: living in two countries, in two cities, in a sense I am always traveling. But I am then traveling between two homes: one is home where my flat is, my things, and my work, the other is home because that’s where my partner is, where my family is.

But somehow traveling this time has put me more in touch with what traveling is. With what it allows us see – to get to know – about experience.

Maybe this is because I’m traveling for several weeks, seven, and I really only wanted to bring a small suitcase this time. And I managed it, for the first time! So, this traveling is a material stripping bare.

But I think traveling is also a stripping bare of experience. One that allows you, gives you the opportunity, to get closer to the bones of experience.

To the bare bones and the experience of spontaneity, for instance.

What is spontaneity?

When traveling alone like this, I feel it gives me a chance to begin again.

It’s like every arriving somewhere – and most strongly so in a hotel or in a rented flat where things are just practical, not connected with familiar meanings for me – I feel like I can begin afresh. And this promises that I can be better. I can make a small new beginning.

I can be detached from the things that don’t matter so much. This kind of traveling comes with a purity I am trying to better understand. And I’m trying to understand what it means about being, about being human. About being a human now. Stripped bare, a little. Because of course, this here is “stripped bare” in very good, even luxurious circumstances, where we are so very well taken care of.

It must be so different to be stripped bare as a refugee, for instance, or as a prisoner of war… But I wonder if something about it, even a tiny thread of it, is perhaps similar. I hope I never have to find that out for myself, but I feel we live in times where this isn’t so certain. But perhaps all times have felt like that to those living them.

Spinoza can be read in a way that helps deal with these questions. According to Spinoza, “God is Nature,” and everything happens according to the laws of Nature. Everything is as it is supposed to be. Spinoza himself did not have an easy life. He was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community for his ideas, and yet, he seems to have believed that everything is in its place.

This is a puzzling thought, because how to deal with things that you wish were different? Like when someone you love dies before you? Is that also meant to be? In some sense, I think even there, the only thing we can do is radically accept it. Because I think that is what Spinoza invites us to do: accept that it is part of how things are, according to Nature. Sub specie aeternitatis – in the light of eternity.

That is, of course, for certain things life throws at us, very difficult. But accepting it truly changes how you can deal with it. The change that comes with radical acceptance happens at a level of being that we more feel than can speak about. Here, we are touching on the ineffable. And it is hard to foresee how you will change when you accept things, before having done it. And that is part of what makes it scary to radically accept something. You will be changed. That much, but only that much, is clear.

I think often, lately, of this idea (or perhaps it is simply a fact) that we are changed by what we do, by what we know, and by what we love. In cognitive science and philosophy of mind – my fields – the traditional, computational, functionalist view has nothing to say about how or even that we change through knowing, through acting.

Within the new loving and knowing framework I’m developing, that is one of the things I want to say: in knowing and in loving, we are changed. We always change. That is scary, and perhaps we don’t want to know this (the cognitive sciences definitely don’t seem to want to know this). We prefer, often, to act like this is not true (and thereby, in effect, we change less, we become less flexible). Maybe this is also to protect ourselves from it?

On the other hand, this constant changing we do in relation to what we know is also in tension with Spinoza’s idea that everything is as it is supposed to be. Because does this then mean there is no change, in his view? This can’t be true. In the time, space, and experience of a human life, there is change. Living is changing. We have no choice in that. That’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it?

To go deeper into this paradox, we can call on philosopher Hans Jonas. He characterises living as needful freedom. Living beings are material, yet the particular material which they are made of at a particular moment in time, constantly changes. Matter they are made of, yet form is what they maintain. Matter and energy pass through us, and we make this happen, it is our basic activity to do this, yet at the same time, what we maintain is organization.

Organic form, thus, transcends matter. Living being, while dependent on matter, transcends matter, out of its needs as living being. This is needful freedom. A living being is both needful and free.

On the basis of this, Jonas gives us something interesting about spontaneity. He says, “[this] transcendence of life […] is not merely a reaching outward, i. e., a function of the spontaneity of life, but equally an exposure to affections impinging upon it from out of this horizon. [The] affectivity of all living things complements their spontaneity; and while [this affectivity] seems to indicate primarily the passive aspect of organic existence, it yet provides, again in a subtle balance of freedom and necessity, the very means by which the organism carries on its vital commerce with the environment i. e., with the conditions of its continued existence. Only by being sensitive can life be active, only by being exposed can it be autonomous.”

Jonas, thus, sees spontaneity as basic to life, and only living things have spontaneity. Spontaneity, moreover, seems to be on the balancing cord, on the knife edge, between life’s need and life’s freedom, life’s receptivity and life’s transcendence.

I wonder, then, if we can better understand what spontaneity is if we go to the basic experience of life?

With regard to the question of what the conditions are for spontaneity,** let me say this. With Jonas, and with Spinoza, I would like to propose as a starting point for thinking about spontaneity that it is something we can have and perhaps also know (only?) if we allow ourselves to strip bare life and experience a little, if we get closer to the bones of life and experience. And when we can do so without being afraid, either because circumstances are good, or because – when they aren’t – we are ready to accept things, to see them “in the light of eternity.” Spontaneity, it seems, requires a kind of very basic trust. Anything that disrupts that trust, will stiffen us up, and spontaneity evaporates. If there is only need, or if there is only freedom, there can be no spontaneity. This is another way again of saying that life and spontaneity are basic to each other.

I’d like to leave you with the question: What are the limits of spontaneity? Does it require not only life, but also a reasonably good life?

(Note for discussion: Think of Jean Améry, who writes in his At the Mind’s Limits of how difficult, even perhaps radically impossible, this is in extreme circumstances. (Améry survived Auschwitz.) Could it be that what really takes spontaneity away is the destruction of a very basic trust, life’s basic trust? And isn’t this trust, for humans, essentially connected to others? One thing Améry says about what makes torture lose one’s trust in the world, is the fact that, when tortured, you can expect no help. He suggests it is basic to human life that we can expect help. Only in situations of torture, or when confronted with system(ic) brutality, do we lose the possibility, and the trust, that help will come. And therefore, spontaneity, while basic to life, requires trust, and a social world.)

*To quote it (APA style, please check other styles as needed):
De Jaegher, H. (2018, July 16). Spontaneity [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.hannedejaegher.net

** A question proposed for this session by the workshop organizers.


Améry, J. (2009). At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

van Buuren, M. (2016). Spinoza. Vijf Wegen Naar de Vrijheid. Amsterdam: Ambo | Anthos.

Jonas, H. (2016). Organism and Freedom. An Essay in Philosophical Biology. (Appendix zu Bd. I,1 KGA). In D. Böhler, M. Bongardt, H. Burckhart, & W. C. Zimmerli (Eds.), Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hans Jonas. Freiburg i.Br.: Rombach.

Spinoza, B. (2017). Ethica. M. van Buuren (Transl.). Amsterdam: Ambo | Anthos.

Stauffer, J. (2015). Ethical Loneliness. The Injustice of Not Being Heard. New York: Columbia University Press.