What I’m going to do today is offer you some concepts and ideas that come out of Western traditions of contemplation and philosophy that I think may aid us in navigating the times ahead. So I’ll say a little bit about practice in general, and then I want to talk about a few texts—namely, Plato’s Phaedo and Pierre Hadot’s reading of philosophy as spiritual exercise. I haven’t developed all of these ideas as much as I’d like to, but I’m hoping we can have a little discussion afterwards and maybe unfold these themes a bit further. I’ll also post a list of the texts I’m using if anyone wants to follow up on them later.
I’m workshopping ideas from my dissertation and a forthcoming book. It’s called Askēsis and Perception: Philosophy as a Way of Life.
The title is a nod to the philosopher Pierre Hadot, who famously advocated for an image of philosophy as a way of life. For Hadot, philosophical insight emerges in the context of the spiritual exercises he collected under the term askēsis.
Examples of askēsis include meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, contemplative prayer, physical training, athletics, aesthetics, and visionary experience. These are activities that generate moral sensitivity, epistemological access, and ontological change.
It was Hadot’s emphasis on spiritual exercise that led him to affirm Henri Bergson’s definition of philosophy as a transformation of perception. But in what does this transformation consist? What is the relation between askēsis and perception? We all know practices work, but how do they work?
What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where directed attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness in the direction of some philosophical vision of the world.
Today I want to use some resources from transcendental idealism and aesthetics, which I conceive as spiritual exercises, to show that askēsis acts upon the structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy.
The idea is that propositional thinking doesn’t hold a monopoly on intelligence, understanding, interpretation, etc. Nonpropositional activities — contemplative practice and aesthetics, in this case — can yield propositional insights, and propositional activities can yield nonpropositional change.
Practice delivers insight up and down the chain of sensation and understanding.
This was a really wide-ranging interview on Pierre Hadot, philosophy as contemplative practice, Peter Sloterdijk, martial arts, Dionysian versus Apollonian practices, fasting, Slavoj Zizek, and more. Also, we had a whole conversation towards the end about metamodernism, speculative realism, conjuring and invoking, the after of postmodernism, what grounds perception and epistemology, linguistic idealism, and related topics. You can listen below.
Hadot’s historical work includes treatments of pre-Socratic philosophy, Platonism and Aristotelianism, the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Middle Ages, and the modern era. I have selected only a handful of examples from these periods in order to give the reader a sense for the varieties of ascetic practice present within each tradition, and to show how these practices tend to transform from one period to another, often adopting a new set of metaphysical commitments in so doing. Where relevant I draw on other philosophers and historians to add detail to Hadot’s account of askēsis and its instantiations.