As part of The Side View launch last week, I gave a presentation on the philosophical background that informs the overall vision of the site.
At the start of the talk, I also read a short introduction about The Side View’s mission, which you can read here. My notes for the rest of the talk are below.
If you’re interested in participating in The Side View in some way, please be in touch through our contact page here.
Askēsis: Philosophy as a Way of Life (Pierre Hadot)
Askēsis (Training or Practice)
Askēsis for our purposes refers to any intentional practice that produces a transformation in the person. This includes practices of diet, sleep, meditation, physical training, study, or therapy, and so on. When it comes to philosophy in particular, though, Hadot identifies a particular kind of practice as central to achieving philosophical insight. We can call this practice an askēsis of the “I”—of the self developing a relation to itself.
In simple terms, this askēsis of the “I” means becoming aware that you are a self—or at least that you very much seem to be a self moving through the world, with a present, a past, and a future, one full of worries and doubts and expectations and desires. Askēsis is in this sense a turning of attention onto itself. It is an attention to oneself as a self, a sensing that one senses, a looking at or attending to sensing.
For Hadot, philosophy is then a kind of spiritual exercise, and askēsis is a kind of practice analogous to athletic training.
Underlying this conviction [that people can modify, transform, and realize themselves] is the parallelism between physical and spiritual exercises: just as, by dint of repeated physical exercises, athletes give new form and strength to their bodies, so the philosopher develops his strength of soul, modifies his inner climate, transforms his vision of the world, and, finally, his entire being. The analogy seems all the more self-evident in that the gymnasium, the place where physical exercises were practiced, was the same place where philosophy lessons were given; in other words, it was also the place for training in spiritual gymnastics. (102)
Philosophy as Existential Choice of Life
Philosophy for Hadot is an existential choice in our mode of living. It’s a choice of life but also a way of making a life. In this sense, philosophy is a kind of a self-making that issues from our choice of practice. This is why Hadot argues that philosophical discourse must be understood from the perspective of the way of life of which it is both the expression and the means.
Whatever else we might say about theory and practice, Hadot argues, philosophy is first and foremost a question of self-transformation, and much of this transformation is rooted in changes in our perception, in how we learn to see the world. There’s a particular image of knowledge that’s embedded in this vision of philosophy, and it’s one that sees knowledge as deeply implicated in our action and perception as we move through and encounter the world. Knowledge, on this view, is only knowledge insofar as it changes how we act and perceive.
Philosophy as Transformation in Perception
Hadot’s point is echoed by Edward McGushin, who writes, “One does not merely collect knowledge and store it away; rather, one makes knowledge—discourse, logos—active as one’s very mode of perception of the world, of others, and of oneself; it becomes one corporeal relation to things—the body itself becomes a philosophical corpus, a philosophical oeuvre.” In such a way, logos becomes a part of the person’s perception and capacity to act. The logos must become “ready to hand” in the very physical structure of the individual, becoming part of his or her tacit knowing and doing. It reorganizes the internal structure of one’s body, allowing new capacities for seeing and doing to emerge.
Habitus: Knowledge and Experience
This emphasis on philosophy as transformative practice, as the development of a habitus, or general bodily constitution, where knowledge is a mode of transformation, no doubt grounds Hadot’s appreciation for the French philosopher Henri Bergson, for whom philosophy is defined as “a transformation of perception.” The empirical details of this account, Hadot says, will no doubt change as the various special sciences advance their descriptions and explanations of human cognitive and sensory systems, but the central idea—that philosophy is a transformation of perception—will not, and thus this definition serves as a perennial vision of philosophy, where philosophy is a practice of transformation, conversion, or metamorphosis.
Phenomenology and Skilled Intentionality
“The ways in which livings beings make sense.”
“[Living beings] enact or bring forth significance in their intimate engagements with their environments.”
“Order is order, relative to somebody or some being who takes such a stance towards it. In the world of the living, order is indeed inseparable from the ways in which living beings make sense, so that they can be said to have a world.”
The cells tumble about until they hit upon an orientation that increases their exposure to sugar, at which point they swim forward, up-gradient, toward the zone of greatest sugar concentration. Sugar is significant to these organisms and more of it is better than less because of the way their metabolism chemically realizes their autonomous organization. The significance and valence of sugar are not intrinsic to the sugar molecules; they are relational features, tied to the bacteria as autonomous unities. Sugar has significance as food, but only in the milieu that the organism itself enacts through its autonomous dynamics.
Sense-making links together in perception our concepts about understanding, significance, motivation, emotional appraisal and response, and inferences about responsive action. On this view, embodiment, cognition, feeling, and movement all come together to enact or bring forth environments or worlds.
Sense-making is a kind of generalized or multispecies phenomenology, and what I’m saying is that the practices The Side View investigates are ones that fold back on our own sense-making capacities. This is the craft or skill of perception I read about at the start of the talk: The Side View is about investigating transformations in sense-making and the practices that cultivate specific kinds of it.
Okay, let’s move from this general account of sense-making back to human phenomenology.
Phenomenology, Givenness, and Intentionality
Here is how in general terms Zahavi describes phenomenology
Phenomenology pays attention to the givenness of the object, but it does not simply focus on the object exactly as it is given; it also focuses on the subjective side of consciousness, thereby illuminating our subjective accomplishments and the intentionality that is at play in order for the object to appear as it does . . . when we investigate appearing objects, we also disclose ourselves as datives of manifestation, as those to whom objects appear.
Phenomenologists do not use the word “intentionality” in its common sense definition of “doing something on purpose” but rather to center the aboutness or directedness of ordinary conscious experience. In other words, ordinary episodes of lived experience are always directed towards some object, thought, event, belief, or feeling. How these phenomena appear in the experience of the individual is described in terms of their “givenness” to consciousness.
Episodes of conscious experience are related to the ways acts of intentionality render phenomena in perception, and thus the skills of intentionality one possesses are best read as subjective accomplishments; they are efforts of perception that give phenomena to experience in different ways. Perception on this view is a kind of active participation with events rather than merely a passive reception of them.
For a phenomenologist like Zahavi, then, experiences of understanding a phenomena to be a certain way—to mean what it does to the individual having the experience—vary in accordance with the skills of perception the individual brings to the encounter. As Zahavi observes, “The same object can be given in a variety of modes.” This much is obvious.
The phenomenologist responds to this dynamic by investigating the gap between the intentional representations of a phenomenon as it is given to consciousness and the intrinsic properties of the phenomenon itself, reasoning that often times what we take to be differences attributed to the properties of objects are better understood as differences in intentional attitudes issuing from the subject. This is why Zahavi says, “The same object, with the exact same wordly properties, can present itself in a variety of manners.”
The move that executes this move in perception is referred to by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl as the epoché, which is a suspension of judgment or a kind of doubt about the givenness of our own perception.
Dan Zahavi describes epoché as an “abrupt suspension of a naive metaphysical attitude,” while Evan Thompson says it is “the flexible and trainable mental skill of being able to suspend one’s inattentive immersion in experience and to turn one’s attention to the manner in which something appears or is given to experience.” John Cogan calls it simply “the name for whatever method we use to free ourselves from the captivity of the unquestioned acceptance of the everyday world.”
Without executing something like an epoché, the world exists in the mode of a naïve realism; it exists as an unexamined and taken-for-granted state that elides any critical investigation into why the world shows up the way it does for you.
I think of epoché as a kind of askēsis, as a training in the suspension and examination of how we represent the phenomena we encounter in the world. But the epoché isn’t just about doubt or criticism, it’s also about opening out into new ways of seeing and understanding. When I say that attention is an art form and perception is a skill, I mean that intentionality is in some sense what’s being trained. Training gives us different kinds of skilled intentionality.
If the world as it is given to us is related to our sense-making capacities, and if the same phenomena can show up in multiple ways to multiple people, then it follows that how we get something to “show up” for us in experience is related to the skills of perception that we bring to bear on experience.
This was my point about the architect, the meditator, and the carpenter I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: Each one of these people has learned to perceive the world in a certain, they get it to “show up” in a meaningful way that’s related not only to the basic mode of intentionality that’s connected to the bringing to presence of objects as such, but also to modes of skilled or advanced intentionality that lets the expert practitioner see the world in a unique way.
Media Ecology and Practice Spaces
Affordances and Practice Spaces (askēsis)
Training in perception isn’t an isolated activity. It often happens in a community and it often requires a practice environment for its execution.
James Gibson’s theory of affordances is instructive here, as it suggests that what we perceive in the environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. On Gibson’s view, an environment is best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s physical and perceptual capacities.
For example, an environment may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, or standing. In built environments, we can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, and so on. These media ecologies are design spaces for the focusing of certain capacities, including philosophical capacities. Design, then, when done well, is about creating affordance environments that let us amplify or train up certain abilities; it’s about creating media ecologies that shape us in the direction of better practices.
Let me give you a famous example from the history of philosophy.
Peter Sloterdijk sees Plato’s Academy as a specific kind of affordance space, a space that affords a kind of epoché. That is to say, the architecture of the Academy affords something like an external or environmental epoché, a design space intended to produce philosophical effects in the person. Sloterdijk writes:
Plato was concerned to provide appropriate accommodation for persons in the precarious state of complete devotion to their thoughts. The original Academy was dedicated to nothing other than innovation in spatial creation. The academy is the architectural equivalent of what Husserl apostrophized as epoché—a building for shutting out the world and bracketing in concern, an asylum for the mysterious guests that we call ideas and theorems. In today’s parlance, we would call it a retreat or a hideaway.
The Academy is an affordance space, mostly backgrounded in action, but is often a precondition for certain kinds of thinking. The activity of mind in this way takes as its condition of possibility a whole ecology of material affordance spaces, sets of architectural epoché that complement and enable the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the material conditions of possibility required for contemplative practice. (This is a kind of extended cognition approach to philosophical practice.)
Elsewhere but in the same spirit, Sloterdijk appeals to a “spiritual form of spatial planning,” and to a secession from the “trivial continuum” of other spaces in the social order. Among the spaces of spiritual planning we could list hermitages, monasteries, libraries, concert halls, groves, cemeteries, and cathedrals. These environments are immersive technologies for the installation of higher—often cosmic—visions in the eyes of the practicing. While immersive, they also make a cut or a break with the daily world, offering reprieve and secession for the practitioner. “Secession,” writes Sloterdijk, “produces real spaces. It sets up borders behind which a genuinely different mode of being dictates its will. . . . Wherever secessionists dwell, the rules of actually existing surrealism apply.”
Askēsis (training or practice); philosophy as transformation in perception; sense-making; phenomenology, givenness, intentionality, epoché, media ecology and affordances.
The Side View Website
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.
This is where The Side View takes its name from.