Logos, Epistrophē, and Paraskeuē

IMG_1192The notion that askēsis is as much additive as privative is central to Foucault’s larger discussion of the term. Readers will recognize a connection with Hadot when Foucault writes, “This is a work of the self on the self, an elaboration of the self by the self, a progressive transformation of the self by the self for which one takes responsibility in a long labor of ascesis (askēsis).”[1] Foucault also speaks of askēsis as “converting to oneself” through abstinence, meditations on death, trials of endurance, and self-examination, and as a question that asks, “What working practice is entailed by conversion to the self?”[2]

Edward McGushin has written a very helpful book in this area titled simply Foucault’s Askēsis. This text makes clear that Foucault’s later work on the theme of care of the self is essential to his understanding of ascetic practices. McGushin writes, “Care of the self is therefor an askēsis, an exercise through which one becomes a subject.”[3] In addition to positioning care as a practice of the self, McGushin also emphasizes how askēsis results in an addition to the subject. One sees here the link between theory, or discursive knowledge, and the effect it has on the formation of the person. “Knowledge of things, of the world, is a spiritual practice insofar as it transforms the self,” is McGushin’s way of putting it, as he recounts how listening, reading, writing, and speaking are also modes of ascetic practice. Mēlētē, or solitary, meditative exercise, in this case, is another example McGushin gives, which again points to the recursivity inherent to ascetic practice. McGushin writes, “In a meditation the subject is transformed, put to the test, and is, in a sense, at the mercy of the thoughts she thinks.”[4]

As with Hadot’s understanding, Foucault marks a link between philosophy, or “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth,”[5] and spirituality, or “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.”[6] Here Foucault lists purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, “conversions of looking,” and “modifications of existence” as specifically spiritual exercises.[7] His discussion of askēsis emerges within this confluence of philosophy and spirituality.

A specific example that Foucault takes up in his text is the practice of epistrophē, which he variously describes a reversion, a recollection, a turning away from appearances, or an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance.[8] As I noted earlier, the structure of an ascetic practice can be similar across schools that hold wildly different metaphysical commitments—in, for example, the different ways the meaning of the self’s relation to itself is rendered in Aristotelian, Plotinian, Kantian, and Christian monastic contexts—whilst still operating with a more or less isomorphic understanding of how to execute a practice.

Epistrophē is one of these practices. As Foucault notes, the notion of “turning away” from the world of appearances is present in Platonic and Hellenistic-Roman versions of epistrophē, while the meaning of such a turn is quite different in each philosophical context. The Platonic epistrophē involved a practice of recollecting one’s “ontological homeland” (of truth, essence, Being, and so on), while the Hellenistic-Roman epistrophē had a much more immanent character, advocating not for a turning toward another, truer world outside of this one, but for a freedom achieved through turning away from appearances in the here and now.[9]

Certainly, the emphasis on purification, renunciation, and epistrophē calls to mind ascetism’s privative side, but even here Foucault is clear that this meaning does not account for the complex scope of ascetic practice. He writes, Askēsis is related here to the “self-transfiguration that is the happiness one takes in oneself.” This, says Foucault, was “the objective of askēsis.”[11]

The sense I take from these passages is that askēsis 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. Foucault continues, “In two words, ancient ascesis does not reduce: it equips, it provides.”[12] What does it provide? Foucault answers, it provides paraskeuē (in Greek) or instructio (in Latin). Foucault describes paraskeuē as “both an open and an oriented preparation of the individual for the events of life.”[13] It is in the nature of askēsis to deliver and install new capacities as one withdraws from old habits and behaviors.

Foucault continues, “In the ascesis, the paraskeuē involves preparing the individual for the future, for a future of unforeseen events whose general nature may be familiar to us, but which we cannot know whether and when they will occur.”[14] The image of the athlete returns in this context. The athlete, suggests Foucault, is the one who practices a certain kind of askēsis, to acquire paraskeuē, which can also imply an internalization of a certain logos, “or a rationality that states the truth and prescribes what we must do at the same time.”[15]

These logoi—the sense here is that we internalize many of them—are important for Foucault, “They are inductive schemas of action, which, in their inductive value and effectiveness are such that when present in the head, thoughts, heart, and even body of someone who possesses them, that person will then act as if spontaneously.”[16] Askēsis is in this sense not a practice opposed to understanding, but is in fact a practice that through its execution delivers understanding. One learns through ascetic practice. Foucault continues, “So, these material elements of rational logos [e.g., written instructions or examples] are effectively inscribed in the subject as matrices of action. This is paraskeuē. And the aim of the askēsis necessary to the athlete of life is to obtain this.”[17] Askēsis, then, is productive of such matrices of action, matrices that just are the body’s reorganization into new modes of being, into new modes of perception, which amounts to the same thing. Perception and being are integrally related through askēsis, a theme I also see pronounced in the work of Peter Sloterdijk.

[1] Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 16.

[2] See ibid., pp. 321, 417, 311.

[3] McGushin, Foucault’s Askēsis, 125.

[4] Ibid., 127.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 209–11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 319.

[11] Ibid., 320.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 321.

[15] Ibid., 323.

[16] Ibid., 323.

[17] Ibid., 324.

Speaking at Villanova

On February 22 at the Young Scholars Colloquia: Spirituality in Philosophy and Theology. It’ll be my usual banter, this time with a bigger focus on aesthetics. Abstract below.

The French philosopher and historian Pierre Hadot dedicated his career to rendering an image of philosophy as a way of life. This way of life, Hadot often underscored, was anchored to a set of spiritual exercises (askēsis) that were neither merely preparations for nor complements to philosophical theory. Instead, the practices were themselves the vehicles by which philosophical illumination could be achieved. But in what do these practices consist? And to what extent can one treat philosophical practice as a whole as a spiritual exercise? I will draw on two sources to show how we can think of philosophy as itself a spiritual practice. In the first example, I will position transcendental idealism as a mode of spiritual or contemplative inquiry. In the second, I will recount Gabriel Trop’s wide-ranging study on aesthetics as a way of life—as an askēsis concerned with the forming and unforming of the individual’s inner and outer sensibilities—to explore the role of art in philosophical transformation. To conclude, I will suggest that askēsis, as a specifically spiritual set of exercises, is the central fact of philosophical development. Philosophy is in this sense a way of transforming the person such that new modes of perception and understanding become possible.

The Primacy of Practice in the Modern World

IMG_1182The definition Hadot gives of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, in addition to the links between Greek philosophy, Christian monastic practice, and aesthetics I’ve just highlighted, makes it clear that askēsis is not bounded by the categories of philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion. In fact, askēsis is in many ways an avenue by which one might unite them, their many possible differences notwithstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that debates over the role of askēsis in philosophical practice emerge in both philosophy and religion. I’m thinking here specifically of John Cottingham’s account of the philosophy of religion, and the important, if not defining, role that askēsis plays within it.[1] Continue reading

Against Depressive Realism

IMG_1166I’ve heard a few times over the years people associate metacognitive observation (of thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.) with a kind of despair, depression, or alienation, as though this were a good thing, as though the metacognitive insights we associate with philosophy are uniquely delivered by depressed or alienated affect, and that in turn alienation has some unique purchase on developing freedom and autonomy. To be sure, when you’re feeling depressed and alienated one of the unexpected side effects is a kind of metacognitive ability to self-monitor, but it’s not a sustainable way of being in the long run, and it feels more like depersonalization than a healthy developmental attribute. I’m speaking from experience. Continue reading

Peter Sloterdijk: Athletics and Anthropotechnics

IMG_1158I’ll leave aside for the moment the larger conversation one could develop around Hadot, Foucault, and Sloterdijk, because doing justice to such a dialogue would require a whole new project unto itself. Instead, I’ll just mark simply—and inadequately—that the nexus of this conversation, in many ways precipitated first by Foucault’s picking up in his later works of a few central themes found in Hadot,[1] and then carried forward by Sloterdijk’s discussion of both his predecessors, centers around askēsis and its meaning. Each figure draws us back to practice in his own way. Continue reading