What Is Askēsis?

IMG_8746For those of you interested in transformative exercise, psychotechnologies, ecologies of practice, and so on, here’s a short thread on askēsis, a word I think you’ll find useful.

Askēsis is exercise or training aimed at a transformation or overcoming of the self by the self — examples include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience.

Askēsis is a practice of self-discipline, and includes training the body, athletic exercise, training the senses, and communing with the divine. Terms like ascetic and ascetism are also linked to notions of self-discipline but carry a greater emphasis on abstinence and austerity.

The etymology suggests connections to asketikos, “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious,” which is connected to the “skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade,” as well as askein “to exercise, train” with reference “to fashion material, embellish or refine material.”

Thomas Merton offers this, “It [ascetisim] comes from the Greek askein: to adorn, to prepare by labor, to make someone adept by exercises. . . . It was applied to physical culture, moral culture, and finally religious training. It means, in short, training — spiritual training.”

Along these lines, many ascetic practices have been concerned with the development of the inner and outer senses, in other words, with the development of perceptual ability, seen both as the introspective quality of attention to oneself and as the refinement of the body’s senses.

Askēsis, then, may often involve renunciation of some kind, and in that sense it does point to a kind of rejection, but this act should be understood as a productive rejection. In other words, something new is acquired through the deployment of renunciation.

You can find further references, discussion, and examples in longer form here.

Talk on Kant and Hadot – Philosophy as Spiritual Exercise

The philosopher Pierre Hadot 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 contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience.

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? More specifically, what is the relation between askēsis and perception? We all know practices work, but how do they work?

Using resources from phenomenology and transcendental philosophy, I will show that askēsis acts upon what phenomenologists call the intentional structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy. What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness. Philosophy, then, is the art of folding the manifold. Continue reading

Perceptual Learning as Intuition-Making

I’ll be speaking at the ( æthos ) Salon Series: Intuition as Sensemaking event on November 4. The description of my talk is below. Check out the invite link if you’re in the Bay Area and are interested in attending.

Scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives have long sought to understand the connection between rationality and intuition. In many cases, this relation has been expressed through a bifurcation of discursive, conceptual, and propositional faculties and emotional, sensory, and impressionistic ones. The former have often been associated with cognition, intelligence, and creativity, while the latter have historically taken a back seat, forced into the world of illusions, errors, and bodies. Recently, however, new fields of research have challenged this binary, suggesting that the bright line between these capacities should be rethought. Cognitive scientists and psychologists working on perceptual learning represent a leading edge of this discussion. In this talk, I will explore the basic premise of perceptual learning—namely, that embodied sensory systems are flexible, trainable, and intelligent—to reexamine the relationship between rationality and intuition. While people readily accept that humans can acquire new knowledge, concepts, and languages to influence how they generate interpretations and make inferences about their environments, I will suggest that the body’s physiology is likewise capable of learning, and that intuition has its own form of intelligence that can be developed in the direction of increasingly subtle, spontaneous, and creative engagements with the world. To this end, I will use examples from contemplative practice, art and aesthetics, and athletics to express the premise of perceptual learning. On this view, perceptual learning is a mode of intuition-making, an integral component of larger sense-making efforts that include rationality and intuition alike.

Folding the Manifold: Philosophy as the Practice of Perception

I’m heading down to the Esalen Institute next week to give this talk . . .

The philosopher Pierre Hadot famously advocated for an image of philosophy as a way of life. For Hadot, philosophical insight emerges in the context of spiritual exercises he collected under the term askēsis. Examples of askēsis include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience. 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? More specifically, what is the relation between askēsis and perception? Using resources from phenomenology and transcendental philosophy, I will show that askēsis acts upon what phenomenologists call the intentional structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy. What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness. Philosophy, then, is the art of folding the manifold.

Reason and Spiritual Exercises

I’m back to reading John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom to shore up some claims I make in the dissertation, following Pierre Hadot, about the role of practice in philosophy. Cooper’s book is a great secondary resource for ancient philosophy—thorough, readable, organized—but I think he’s just wrong about a claim he makes about philosophy. Namely, that the “essential core” of philosophy is a style of logical, reasoned argument by which one lives life (17).

Conversely, Hadot sees the “core” of philosophy as rooted in an “existential choice” that involves commitment to a set of spiritual exercises that serve as the preconditions (or even the deliverers of) the arguments and reasons Cooper sees as essential to philosophy. Hadot’s view isn’t anti-intellectual, far from it. Reason has an important role to play in his account of philosophy, but philosophy is not limited to reason alone; it also involves askēsis, exercises or practices we could call religious, contemplative, aesthetic, or somatic.

Cooper is pessimistic about religious and spiritual practices, drawing a strong division between them and the reasoned advance of philosophy. Here’s Cooper, “A philosophical way of life is . . . in fundamental ways quite a different thing from any religious way of life” (17). If one assumes that “religious” life is circumscribed by a doctrinal submission to texts, then Cooper is right. But if philosophy and religion are viewed as practices, or as experimental and evolving modes of relating to and bringing forth the world, then his criticism faces problems, especially when we consider that doctrinal submission isn’t a problem unique to religious texts.

Cooper says, “You must understand everything for yourself” (18). Fair enough, but the idea that personal understanding is impossible within the spiritual or religious encounter enabled by practice is unwarranted by the evidence of experience itself. Cooper’s account also raises important questions about the structure of reason. One example he gives is the Stoic instruction to live in accordance with Nature, which in turn will lead to virtue and happiness. The question is this, Is Nature understandable in reason’s terms alone?

Or is reason not a particular structure, a shape of thought, that conditions the objects of its inquiry into its own image? This is the point Kant desperately wants us to understand—reason constructs an image of the world that it can process by means of its resources. There is here an implicit circularity in the belief of reason as the only arbiter of knowledge, of this knowledge as a way to the truth, and of truth as delimited by what reason can count as knowledge. Reason does not process or apprehend the whole of Nature as it is in itself.

The way out of the circle, I’m suggesting, is to see that there are many more ways of getting in touch with the real than this image of reason implies, and that those ways are paved by modes of relating structured by and related to the world we see seek to know. We should think of philosophy as including all these modes (aesthetic, somatic, spiritual, religious, visionary, discursive, conceptual, moral, etc.), as each an important part of the “core” of what philosophy as a way of life really means.