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.


  1. thanks for making this publicly available, this part ” On this scene
    Hadot writes, “This exercise was, indissolubly, an askēsis of the body and of
    thought—a divestment of the passions in order to accede to the purity of
    intelligence.”” is the neo-platonic/theological bit that I find troubling as these are generally ways to try to eliminate the body rather than ways to extend it, to cultivate our umwelten.
    Some bit from Dan Smith on Deleuze &desire
    “Fourth, how does Deleuze conceptualize this movement of desire? Interestingly,
    Anti-Oedipus can be read as an explicit attempt to rework the fundamental theses of Kant’s
    Critique of Practical Reason. Kant presents the second critique as a theory of desire, and he defines desire, somewhat surprisingly, in causal terms: desire is “a faculty which by means of its representations is the cause of the actuality of the objects of those representations.” In its lower form, the products of desire are fantasies and superstitions; but in its higher form (the will), the products of desire are acts of freedom under the moral law—actions which are, however, irreducible to mechanistic causality. Deleuze takes up Kant’s model of desire, but modifies it in two fundamental ways. First, if desire is productive or causal, then its product is itself real (and not illusory or noumenal): the entire socio-political field, Deleuze argues, must be seen as the historically determined product of desire. Second, to maintain this claim, Deleuze formulates an entirely new theory of “Ideas.” In Kant, the postulates of practical reason are found in the transcendent Ideas of God, World, and the Soul, which are themselves derived from the types of judgment of relation (categorical, hypothethical, disjunctive). In response, Deleuze, in the first chapters of Anti-Oedipus , formulates a purely immanent theory of Ideas, in which desire is constituted by a set of constituting passive syntheses (connective, disjunctive, conjunctive).
    Deleuze calls this the method of “dramatization”: actions and propositions are interpreted as so many sets of symptoms that express or “dramatize” the mode of existence of the speaker. “What is the mode of existence of the person who utters a given proposition?” asks Nietzsche, “What mode of existence is needed in order to be able to utter it?”
    Rather than “judging” actions and thoughts by appealing to transcendent or universal values, one “evaluates” them by determining the mode of existence that serves as their principle. A pluralistic method of explanation by immanent modes of existence is in this way made to replace the recourse to transcendent values”


  2. This is interesting and useful as usual, Adam. I do have a quibble just thinking about the Christian monastic part of it: it seems to me you underplay the role of imagination, enactment and re-enactment in the list of things constituting practices of askesis, particularly Christian monastic; this is connected I think to the role of desire dmf emphasizes above, because the monk is focused positively on something, desire concretizes something in relation to the body. More specifically all the practices you list encourage the monk to reproduce in relation to the self an imitation of Christ in the mode of the apostles. Monastic practice is partly constituted in a practice of envisioning or imagining the self in imitation of others that have gone before. This does not of course deprive of interest what you have done here, the continuities you point to are interesting, but as you extend your work if you are drawing on monastic practice you might be interested in the practices of visualization and enactment described in the piece by by Isabelle Cochelin “When the Monks were the Book: The Bible and Monasticism [6th-11th centuries]” in Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly, _The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages_ (Columbia, 2011). You might also find useful the piece by Beverly Mayne Kienzle “Hildegard of Bingen’s teaching in her Expositiones evangeliorum and Ordo virtutum ” for very specific examples of what Hildegards nuns were encouraged to imagine, in _Medieval Monastic Education_ed George Ferzoco, Carolyn Muessig (Bloomsbury 2001). As other articles in that collection make clear, there was both a carrot and a stick approach to helping monks desire certain things: beatings and punishments were an important part of monastic training, especially for child oblates, but not just them. So many uses to which bodies may be put.


    • indeed the imagination aspect is central and part of why I think we need to be thinking/talking in terms of invention/fashioning here rather than in terms of discovery, this isn’t actually about stripping away (of polishing the mirror/lens if you will) but about substitution/sublimation.
      some interesting work on this in the contemporary scene:

      Click to access ethosprooof1.pdf


    • This is really helpful, Claire. Thanks for pointing me to all these sources. I have things I want to flesh out in each section, and that’s especially true of the Christian monasticism piece. It’s my first go around with that territory. I’ll definitely check out these sources and circle back with more details on the next draft.


  3. “The schematism is not a case of reflective judgement, it is a dimension of determining judgement. I will do the story of reflective judgement on request.
    The a posteriori is what is in space and in time. It’s the plate, the wheel, the sun. A rule of production is solely a determination of space or of time conforming to the concept. Take another case. You make yourself a concept of a lion; you can define it by genus and specific difference. You can define it in this way: big animal, mammal, with a mane, growling. You make a concept. You can also make yourself lion images: a small lion, a big lion, a desert lion, a mountain lion; you have your lion images. What would the schema of a lion be? I would say in this case, not in all cases, that the concept is the determination of the species, or its the determination by genus and specific differences. The image in experience is all the individuals of this species, the schema of the lion is something which is neither the examples of a lion… [end of tape] … there are spatio-temporal rhythms, spatio-temporal attitudes [allures]. We speak both of an animal’s territory and an animal’s domain, with its paths, with the traces that it leaves in its domain, with the times that it uses a particular path, all that is a spatio-temporal dynamism that you will not draw from the concept. I am not going to draw from the concept of a lion the way it inhabits space and time. From one tooth you can draw something of a mode of living: this is a carnivore. But really the spatio-temporal dynamism of an animal, that is really – I can’t say its rule of production – but it’s something productive, it’s the way in which it produces a spatio-temporal domain in experience in conformity with its own concept. The lion is Kantian, all the animals are Kantian. What is the schema of the spider? The schema of the spider is its web, and its web is the way it occupies space and time. The proof is that the concept of the spider, I don’t know how, but you can take the concept of a spider; the concept of a spider will include all of its anatomical parts and even the physiological functions of the spider. Thus one will encounter that funny sort of organ with which the spider makes his web. But can you deduce from it what we can now call the spatio-temporal being, and the correspondence of the web with the concept of a spider, which is to say with the spider as organism. It’s very curious because it varies enormously according to the species of spider. There are cases of very extraordinary spiders which, when you mutilate one of their legs, which is nevertheless not used for fabrication, make abnormal webs in relation to their own species, they make a pathological web. What happened? As if a disturbance in space and time corresponded to the mutilation. I would say that the schema of an animal is its spatio-temporal dynamism. ”


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