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Kieran Setiya on Projects and Processes

Kieran Setiya is a Professor of Philosophy and author of several books on how to live a good life. He looks for the practical, positive application of philosophical ideas in our daily lives.

I recently re-listened to a podcast interview with Kieran and became particularly interested by his explanation of two ways of looking at purpose, time and progress, namely by dividing up the things we do into two categories: projects and processes.

Setiya refers to teleology in his discussion. Britannica tells me that teleology comes from the Greek roots telos, 'end,' and logos, 'reason.'1 So teleology is all about how we look at the reasons behind our activities and end goals.

Context of the discussion

In the two-hour interview, Kieran Setiya focuses on the differences between being happy and living well. He argues, for example, that the process of grieving for a loved one or a relationship that has ended is crucial to living well, but has little overlap with happiness. Happiness, therefore, is secondary to living well.

At one point, Setiya explains that it is his mission is to examine:

...what the project of self-help might look like if it was inspired by the philosophical approach to ethics (20 minute mark)

Kieran and Sam argue that philosophy's initial focus of living a good life has become lost over the years, replaced by intricate language games and other more technical approaches to thought and reason.

All of this was interesting and worth listening to. But what I found most relevant to my blog and privacy journey, was Setiya's discussion of telic and atelic processes.

Projects and processes

Telic activities have a clear end goal that we work towards. Once we've reached the goal, the telic activity is finished. Setiya refers to telic activities as projects.

Our lives are full of projects that keep us busy. This sometimes leads to stress and feeling like we can't keep up. There is also a certain dissatisfaction once a project is completed, because there is not much more you can do with it.

Atelic activities are ongoing, basically until we die. We can think of atelic activities as always being in the present moment. To me, it's a bit like the idea of 'leveling up' in a video game. Setiya refers to atlelic activities as processes.

When I'm not working on this blog, I am a teacher. The idea of projects vs processes resonates with me immediately when I think of my profession. Each academic year is a repeating cycle where I teach different groups of individuals. Our most immediate aim is to get through the year and tick the boxes. This could be, for example, being fully prepared for an external exam, or attaining good enough grades to pass the year.

The academic year is a telic activity, a project. Every teacher knows the strange, empty feeling when a class finishes the year and moves on. Focusing on the telic aspects of teaching can give you a helpful drive and motivation, but leaves you with an ambivalent, unsatisfied feeling at the end of the academic year.

Being a teacher, however, is an atelic activity. It's never static, and I'm constantly reflecting on what worked and didn't work. It's meaningful far beyond finishing the academic year, and not tied to specific classes. I might instill a love for my subject in one or two students, or explore a new topic within the field myself with my groups.

Setiya uses the example of having a child and being a parent. Deciding to have a child is a project, a telic activity. It has a start, and and some point (I'm learning now!) a type of ending, when your child leaves the family home. But being a parent is ongoing and meaningful, because you can always improve and also reflect on your progress, your mistakes, and how you corrected them. You are still a parent when you children leave home; it's your role and responsibilities that change.

The Privacy Dad project

I'm coming up for post #100 soon—this is #95! Coincidentally, I'm also coming up to the point in recounting my privacy journey where I decided to write this blog.

These milestones stimulate reflection. Should I stop describing my own journey at the point where I began writing the blog and call it a day? How and when does a blog project end?

The Privacy Dad blog is a telic activity, a project. It is meaningful to write and publish articles about privacy and to engage with reader responses. Sometimes people I look up to and respect refer to my blog on social media. It's hard to describe that feeling, having started as a consumer of the content around privacy.

But projects come to an end at some point. I'm not sure when that will be for this blog, but I am sure that this is a project.

Writing this blog is one component of my own privacy journey, which began before I started writing and will probably continue for the rest of my life. My personal privacy journey is the atelic activity, the resilient, meaningful process. The Privacy Dad blog is a constituent of that process, motivated by the call from people like Seth for Privacy and Nathan from The New Oil and Henry from Techlore to actively contribute to the conversation, rather than remain passive. But ending this blog, for whatever reason, would in no way mean an end to the process of my own learning about digital privacy.

Final thoughts

I realise this is an unusual post. I'm not reviewing a privacy tool, or describing one of the steps in my own journey. However, when I first heard the interview with Kieran in 2022, I remember being struck by this idea of looking at the things we do in our lives as either projects or processes. It not only gives me a clear framework for this blog and my own privacy journey; it is an idea that can be applied to all aspects of life, and help take the pressure off of failing or succeeding at specific projects, and encourage enjoyment of growth and learning instead.


Philosophy and the Good Life: A Conversation with Kieran Setiya Sam Harris Making Sense, episode 295, 9 September 2022

Kieran Setiya's website

Atleic vs Telic

Deleting my Facebook Account—my first post, 22 October 2022.

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  1. Britannica

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