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.

Modes of Askēsis

I’m posting a literature review I just finished called “Modes of Askēsis.” As you can guess from the title, the essay is a survey of what I took to be some of the most illuminating examples of askēsis (exercise) I’ve been able to track down over the past year or so. I’ve shared many of these examples on Twitter and elsewhere in bits and pieces, but I’ve finally had a chance to string them all together in one place.

The essay really is mostly a survey—it’s table setting for my dissertation—but I thought it might be helpful to post here as a resource for other folks who are interested in these ideas. At 11,000 words, the essay is too long to drop in as a blogpost, but if you’re interested in reading about askēsis in philosophy, contemplative practice, religion (Christian monastic practice, mainly), art, and poetry, then I think you’ll get something out of the piece. I’m also happy to receive comments and feedback. You can write me at adam(at) with any thoughts or ideas you have.

The download link is below. Feel free to share far and wide.

After the Clouds Pass By

“Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

A few thoughts on this Aeon article:

I don’t agree with everything the article says, or, at least I don’t buy that the examples listed are *necessary* consequences of meditation (e.g., “After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings”—this is circumstantial).

At the same time, there’s something to think about here. The author mentions, as I quoted above, that mindfulness led her to feel “estranged from myself and my life.” I can relate to this sense, but not because of meditation per se, but because I grew up dealing with depression.

Depression, funnily enough, offers for free some insights that are fairly close to the “observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind” capacities described as the goal of mindfulness practice—though you get this ability through the lowered affect that comes with depression.

My point is, depression can give you a kind of metacognitive distance from your own thoughts and feelings, but of course not in the way one would *like* to gain such distance. This to me means that there are, shall we say, metacognitive affects, feelings, and aesthetics.

And this has me thinking about the article—we don’t want from mindfulness simply the ability to be distant from our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is just mild depersonalization and dissociation. We want also to *cultivate* a certain mode of being, not mere distance.

And I think this starts to happen by itself following the initial instructions to, for example, follow the breath, visualize your thoughts as clouds passing in an open sky, etc. I’ve noted many times that after following these instructions things start to happen, things emerge.

Sometimes what emerges is something like joy or peace or sublimity, but just as often what emerges is a range of moods I can’t quite put my finger on—subtle hues of temperament that are probably always there, I’m just to busy being myself to notice them.

In any case, it’s these moods—and certainly they’re not always positive ones, but leave that aside for a moment—which seem to engender a different attitude, one that I’d call something like moral virtue, or at least the awareness that moral virtue is an important thing to pursue.

So, it’s not just about “observing thoughts and feelings” it’s about what happens after following these instructions for a while, there’s a kind of fullness that emerges in that space which is quite different from the observational capacities I found (accidentally) in depression.

The feeling of fullness is I think linked to the idea that meditation is in an important sense about aiming at something like virtue. Now, the article also takes a swipe at meditation apps like @Headspace, and I get it: commodification, appropriation, marketization, etc. Not cool.

At the same time, these perspectives don’t do all that much for me. The @Headspace app, for example, is constantly encouraging me to think about meditation as something I do *for other people* not just myself, and I think this again links to something like morality and virtue.

My point is that there are risks and uncritical, inflated claims associated with meditation, but treating it as just this distanced, observational practice doesn’t go far enough. Meditation is linked for me indissolubly with a moral vector and with community. And this changes everything.

Perception in 4 Dimensions

This will be a bit of a throw-away post as I really should be working on other things right now, but I had to jot down some notes while these ideas are still fresh. I’ve been thinking of ways to integrate the different accounts of perception I’ve been studying as of late, and the phrase “perception in 4 dimensions” dropped into my head.

I think a good term for a perspective is as important as the content of the perspective itself, and perceiving in 4D has been wringing in my head since last night. On the face of it, there’s nothing exciting about perceiving in 4D. It’s what you’d expect from a creature such as ourselves, orienteering around the world along three spatial axes and an additional temporal one.

But I’ve been thinking about the phrase in a different way.

I think proper 4D orienteering must include something like Bergson’s intuition about duration. The idea in this context would be that living beings don’t just move through time and space but in some sense accumulate or become organized through their successive actions and endeavors. Time is a cumulative repetition captured in the ongoing transformations of the organism through its lifespan and across the contexts it finds itself in. It’s not an abstract ideal or an empty space.

I haven’t thought this through too deeply, but duration in this sense is an integrative fact that unites cognition, perception, and embodiment. Duration also connects the organism’s engagement with its environment, both in the sense of the ongoing work required to get a world to show up (through the energetic resources required to keep it going), and in the sense that the lifeform outsources its cognitive and perceptual needs to artifacts (built and natural) in that ecology.

Consider also the case of perceptual learning, a view that suggests an intimate link between practices, behaviors, and the organization of the sensory modalities of the perceptual system. If something like genuine perceptual learning is true—i.e., that learning constitutes changes that are actually perceptual, rather than changes merely indicative of shifting after-the-fact inferences about the sensory system’s deliverences—then a concept like duration can again provide a helpful integrating function.

So, the quick and dirty rub is that perception in 4 dimensions isn’t simply the observation that lifeforms operate along four axes of possible action (a Newtonian view of organisms if ever there was one), but that any real account of perception acknowledges that duration is an integrative function wherein enaction, extended cognition, feeling, and perceptual learning all come together in and as the transformation of the lifeform.

Folding the Manifold

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 2.43.25 PMI think often about these passages in Kant and how they describe the details of something like phenomenological intentionality. Along these lines, I think of skilled intentionality as a practice of conformation, of training the manifold of perception and intuition to bend in certain ways on purpose.

The Side View’s thesis is based on something like this idea: Practices of conformation, in Kant’s sense of “objects conforming to cognition,” are ways of bending and folding the manifold in certain ways.

I also noted recently that we might define a concept as a fold in perception. Taking up a concept as a part of experience is to shape the manifold of intuition in such a way so as to realize new details, emphasizes, and meanings for action.

But the concept is just one way of reorganizing the manifold. Practices of all kinds are nondiscursive (nonlinguistic) means of shaping perception. They also “fold” experience in different ways and allow new subtleties to show up.

If you can see the links between Kant’s manifold of intuition, and its potential of being shaped through practice, you can start to look at spiritual, religious, and contemplative exercises in a new light, one that might interest even the ardent atheists among you.

This shaping of the manifold is what unites the different disciplines The Side View draws from. The emphasis on practice also lets us view a variety of disciplines from a different angle. This includes the sciences, the humanities, the arts, as well as the contemplative, spiritual, and religious traditions, and their various philosophical commitments.

When we link these disciplines through the idea of practice—rather than in an effort to forcibly compare, contrast, conjoin, or reduce one tradition to another—a number of unhelpful divisions can be resolved, such as those between the religious and the secular the scientific and the philosophical, and the theoretical and the practical, especially in terms of their existential value for transforming perception and action.

In this sense, the practices, habits, and rituals explored through TSV are treated as ways of conjuring up novel syntheses of perception in experience that yield new meanings, details, and possibilities for action in the practitioner. I explore these ideas in more detail in my introduction to the first issue of The Side View Journal, which you can find here.

Consider downloading a copy for $5. All proceeds are put towards supporting TSV!