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.

6 Comments

  1. “evolving modes of relating to and bringing forth the world”
    well that seems to rule out most of the major and minor world religions of theisms/deisms/animisms which are about meeting/maintaining some kind of preestablished obligations…
    i’d be interested in seeing a copy of that syracuse theology diss if you get a copy, thanks

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  2. Exactly right, Adam. (I’m just re-reading Cooper as I prepare to teach Hadot in my spiritual practices course.) I would say that rather being “just wrong,” he’s staking out a position that’s different from Hadot’s, even as it’s a pretty common one among philosophers. But I’m with you on the limitations of that position.

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    • Yours is of course the more diplomatic position, Adrian. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that Cooper has a more limited approach than a *wrong* one, but I still think his account fails, both on the historical specifics (as people like Daniel del Nido and Matthew Sharpe have shown) and on the normative specifics about what philosophy ought to be.

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