Who or What is the Self?

15851875284_d0737a84a9_o[Image: Bruce Riley]

In my first comprehensive exam, I gave an overview of Hadot’s claim that ancient philosophy was conceived as a way life, as an existential path characterized by spiritual exercises rather than a set of merely theoretical or academic positions. I noted that for Hadot the concerns of theory and intellectual discourse are integrated within the spiritual exercises of philosophy—in other words, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions for living a philosophical life—and that philosophical practice from Hadot’s perspective must also include the arenas of practice, aesthetics, values, and action. On Hadot’s reading, the philosophical exercises that unite these domains are those of a self developing a relation to itself through contemplation, meditation, and self-examination; by dialectical engagements with one’s self, one’s interlocutors, and one’s mentors; and with a political and social commitment to participating in one’s community or city, as typified by Socrates’s relation to his city, Athens.

I noted further that the practices of philosophy do not exist for the sake of psychological healing or integration alone, although they may afford both, and that these practices are generative of new access conditions in the self’s relation to itself and to being in general, conditions that in turn make doing philosophy possible. The philosophical imperative in this sense involves both care of the self (epimeleia heautou) and knowledge of the self (gnōthi seauton), to borrow again from Foucault’s work. In the context of Hadot’s conception of philosophy, I then argued that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, or epistemology, but practice, and specifically the practice of a self relating to itself. Philosophy on this view is a practice of learning to attend to oneself; it is a way of learning to look at one’s own sensing. Philosophy is about looking at sensing, or, better, philosophy is about understanding the processes and conditions by which sense is made in one’s life.

As an exercise of attention, philosophy shares important features with other forms of exercise, such as the physical exercises engaged in by athletes as they transform their bodies in the gymnasium, or the meditative exercises of contemplatives as they practice in their enclaves. The broader term I introduced for such modes of training was askēsis, a term that can be applied to philosophers, athletes, and contemplatives alike. Recall that askēsis is an intentional practice whereby the self gets to work on itself through diet, meditation, study, dialogue, physical training, therapy, and so on. The goal of askēsis is to create transformations, mutations, or conversions in perception, especially in one’s in-the-moment experience of various phenomena.

While askēsis can refer to a large number of transformative practices, Hadot emphasized that across the schools of Platonism, Neopythagoreanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism, and beyond into medieval, modern, and contemporary schools of philosophy, the central mode of askēsis was one of a self developing a relation to itself, an askēsis expressed in numerous ways, including as a kind of self-duplication, as a suspension between sensation and representation, as a temporal distance from immediate experience, as a death of the self, as an illumination in the field of sense, as a dialectics of the self with itself and others, as a training in concentration and attention, as a rejection of unexamined authority, and as a mode of self-making in the direction of the good and the true.

In these discussions, I accepted at face value the notion of the self. In other words, while I explored how the self can engage in acts of self-care, self-examination, and self-making, I let the self show up in these passages as something simply given, at least insofar as its genesis and ontology are concerned. In my second comp exam, then, I will take up in its metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic forms the question, What is the self? As in the last exam, where I tried to give an integrative sense for Hadot’s approach to philosophy rather than a complete exegesis of his texts, I will not offer here a linear or exhaustive reconstruction of conceptions of the self. Instead, I aim more modestly to bring into view the fact that the self is itself a problem or a question that cannot be taken as something simply given.

It is important to note in this context that philosophers, scientists, and contemplatives do not agree on what a self is or if a self even exists, and thus while a complete taxonomy of self and no-self conceptions is beyond the scope of this chapter,[1] I will take up the question specifically in relation to Hadot’s conception of philosophy as a spiritual practice. Asking the question of the self—the perennial inquiry that asks, who or what am I?—is itself a philosophical and spiritual practice. In this sense, if philosophy is a way of life and a spiritual practice, and if the eminent spiritual exercise practiced across different philosophical schools of training is an askēsis of the self—a splitting of the self to itself, a self setting to work on itself in a community of practice—then it is worth considering, if not demanded, that the question of the self be taken up in the context of Hadot’s approach to the philosophical life.

There are many questions that orbit the central inquiry of who or what is the self. For instance, is the self a necessary condition for experiences of thinking, feeling, and perceiving? Is the self fully caught up in these experiences or does it stand apart from them? Does it alternate between more than one of these poles? Is the self an unchanging substance or is it a variable activity or process? Are the processes of experience identical to the subject of those experiences? Is the self just a concept, a necessary but illusory fiction? Or is the self equivalent to the body, simply a first-person way of talking about physiology? And if it is not just the body, what else is it and what does this something else mean for scientific and naturalistic worldviews? The point of this chapter is not to treat each of these questions separately but to practice approaching them from different points of view, as shades of possibility revealed or created through different practices of inquiry.

To get at these questions and the practices that might answer them, I return again to the basic approach to philosophical practice laid out by Hadot, namely, that the key exercise, the primary askēsis, is to engage in a mode of self-examination that is presupposed by any and every attempt to navigate into, through, and beyond the question, who or what is the self? My approach is to treat the question itself as a practice and to treat the answer to the question—whatever that answer turns out to be—as a result of that practice. In this sense, Hadot’s practices of the self bare a strong resemblance to what Evan Thompson, borrowing from Buddhist traditions in Indian philosophy, calls “I-making” (ahamkāra), that is to say, at minimum, the self is enacted by a variety of sense-making and self-specifying processes that must be deployed and maintained within different environments across time.

One can also find a similar approach to these questions in the work of Peter Sloterdijk, who offered what he called a side view of the history of art, science, and philosophy. Sloterdijk’s is an approach that foregrounds the practices that create artists, scientists, and philosophers in the first place. The side view of philosophy does not describe philosophical knowledge, systems, concepts, disputes, or figures as ready-made objects of investigation. Instead, it traces the history of practices and techniques that enabled those who engage in philosophy to perform their work. In this way, the Greek aphorism I discussed earlier, “know thyself” (gnōthi seauton), which is inscribed onto the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is joined in Sloterdijk’s work with an equally forceful injunction, drawn from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The line reads simply, “You must change your life.” In taking up the side view, Sloterdijk resembles the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. Philosophy, says Socrates, is not so much about knowing this or that as it is about being this or that way (29d–e).

This task of questioning, given to Socrates by the Oracle at Delphi, is what drives those around Socrates to examine truth and knowledge from within their own souls, as an askēsis of self-examination. Sloterdijk’s side view charts this history of askēsis, in a way re-framing the question, What is philosophy? by asking instead, Who is the philosopher? This move re-centers questions of knowledge to questions of the person, where knowledge becomes a question of shaping the individual. Here is Sloterdijk on history as a history of training practices:

Just as the history of science usually presumes that the scientists who do their disciplines already exist, the history of art has assumed since time immemorial that artists are the natural protagonists of the business that produces works of art, and that these players have always existed as well. What would happen if we rotated the conceptual stage ninety degrees in both cases? What would happen if we observed artists in their efforts to become artists in the first place? We could then see every phenomenon on this field more or less from a side view and, alongside the familiar history of art as a history of completed works, we could obtain a history of the training that made it possible to do art and the ascetism that shaped artists.

Sloterdijk’s emphasis on practice is similar to Hadot’s sense of philosophy as a way of life, and it forms the basic method of this essay. The more important question then is, what are the moves and practices, if any, that are general to all practices of self-making? These are a few of the themes I’ll be exploring in this essay. I’ll no doubt post the results of this inquiry here when the time comes.

[1] Such an undertaking has been attempted in, for example, Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self, Richard Sorabji’s Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death, Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self, Dan Zahavi’s Subjectivity and Selfhood, and Mark Sidertis’s, Evan Thompson’s, and Dan Zahavi’s Self, No Self?, which includes not only Western perspectives but Indian ones as well.

The Side View Essay Series

TSV Essays 4-1Above you’ll find a list of contributors to our first set of essays for The Side View (see here for more info on the project). A downloadable pdf is available here.

Please feel free to share these links and flyers with your networks.

After the initial launch in September, we’ll be publishing new work on a rolling basis, so if you or someone you know has an idea for an essay, please contact me at adam@thesideview.co and we can discuss the details.

For more updates follow @KnowledgEcology and @TheSideViewCo on Twitter.


The Side View

TSV 1-1

Work continues apace on the podcast, essay, and book series I’m working on launching this fall. I’ve been documenting progress on The Side View on Twitter @KnowledgEcology and @TheSideViewCo.

We have essays and podcasts lined up on Dōgen, Jaspers, and Nietzsche; applied complexity science in aesthetics and architecture; Vipassana, self inquiry, and embodiment; phenomenology, contemplative practice, and ethics; affordances, cognition, and behavior; psychedelics and philosophy of mind; and more.

If these topics or the description above sound interesting to you, consider submitting an idea for the site by writing me at adam (at) thesideview.co and we can discuss and explore the details.

Feel free to download and share a pdf of the above flyer here.

The Side View

The Side View is about the knowledge and intuition we use to navigate the world. It’s about how we come to be skillful perceivers and doers, people who know, in the moment, the right details to attend to and the right responsive action to take. In this sense, The Side View is about how the mind meets the world. But it’s also about how the mind, when properly trained, modifies the possibilities of the world it comes to perceive.

Consider the variety of ways the world can appear to different people. The details we notice and find important vary based on our skills, beliefs, and expectations. We participate in making the world available to perception. So what, then, does the world of the expert look like? How, for example, does the architect see space? How does the artist see color and shape? How does the meditator see inner states? How does the athlete see movement?

These and more are the questions The Side View explores. The central idea is that perception of whatever kind is never given without effort. Perception on this view is rather a hard-won achievement, a result of diligent exercise aimed towards a goal; it is itself a kind of practice, a work of attention trained up through effort and repetition. From this perspective, the expert lives in a different world of possibility, operating with a level of detail and discernment gained only through years of training.

Take the architect as an example. What do they see when they look at space? What guides their decisions as they design and transform our built world? The architect sees with an eye for design that the rest of us do not have, with a capacity for understanding how we might shape the environment and how the environment might shape us. The same can be said of the painter, the contemplative, the psychologist, the carpenter, and the athlete—all have heightened levels of perceptual ability, unique capacities for sense-making cultivated through practice, experience, and learning.

To explore these ideas, The Side View draws from anthropology, philosophy, science, meditation, athletics, art, and more to discover how people understand, and then transform, their worlds. It connects these disciplines through the idea of practice, emphasizing the skills that lead people to become masters of their art in the first place. The ancient Greeks used the word askēsis, meaning exercise or training, to describe this process of personal and collective transformation. The Side View uses this concept to explore the experience and training required to produce great thinkers, creators, and doers in any craft.


Practice Sessions

tumblr_nz5hwuNuto1r9943oo1_1280I’m just about ready to wrap up work on one phase of my dissertation project, and as I get ready to move on to the next section of the manuscript, I thought now would be a good time to collect some of the pieces I’ve put together over the past several months and put them all in one place. Below are links to a few of my recent essays, articles, and presentations that cover everything from Pierre Hadot and Peter Sloterdijk to extended cognition and media ecology and more.

“The Side View: Hadot and Sloterdijk on the Practice of Philosophy.” Published in Cosmos and History, Vol 13, No. 1Article available here.

“Media Ecology, Practice, and Philosophy.” Audio presentation available here.

“Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Cognition.” Article published in Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol 17, No. 2. Article available here (or as a pdf download here).

“Philosophical Inquiry as Spiritual Exercise.” Audio presentation available here.

“Pierre Hadot on Philosophy as a Way of Life.” Paper available online here (or as a pdf download here).

New Article Out in Explorations in Media Ecology

The March 2018 issue of Explorations in Media Ecology is now available online here. You can view the abstract for my article “Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Cognition” here, but unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall. You can email me at arobbert84@gmail.com if you’re interested in reading the full essay but don’t have access to a university or library computer. The description is below.

In this article, I take a media ecology perspective on philosophy. This approach supports the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s claim that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics or epistemology but rather practice (askēsis). Sloterdijk’s practice-centred view of philosophy is shared by Pierre Hadot and Michael McGhee, both of whom give askēsis a central role in philosophy. I draw on the work of these philosophers to show that philosophy is best conceived as an act of extended cognition performed amidst different media ecologies. To make this point, I start not with humans and our practices, but with spiders and theirs. When philosophy is seen as an instance of extended cognition, I argue, one can draw parallels between our practices and those of non-human species, who like us build artefacts to deepen their perception and understanding of their environments. To this end, I explore the settings that enable philosophical training. Philosophy on this view is facilitated by an ecology of affordance spaces – academies, libraries, monasteries and more – whose design helps the philosopher perform certain manoeuvres in thought, manoeuvres that make apparent the conditions required for the Bios Theoretikos (the life of contemplation).