The philosopher Pierre Hadot famously advocated for an image of philosophy as a way of life. For Hadot, philosophical insight emerges in the context of the spiritual exercises he collected under the term askēsis. Examples of askēsis include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience.
It was Hadot’s emphasis on spiritual exercise that led him to affirm Henri Bergson’s definition of philosophy as a transformation of perception. But in what does this transformation consist? More specifically, what is the relation between askēsis and perception? We all know practices work, but how do they work?
Using resources from phenomenology and transcendental philosophy, I will show that askēsis acts upon what phenomenologists call the intentional structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy. What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness. Philosophy, then, is the art of folding the manifold.
Since the whole complement of human concerns are involved in philosophical practice, the phrase spiritual exercises is the only term wide enough to capture the full activity of philosophy. Hadot is worth quoting at length on this point:
The expression [spiritual exercises] is a bit disconcerting for the contemporary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual.” It is nevertheless necessary to use the term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use—“psychic,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul”—covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe. Since, in these exercises, it is thought which, as it were, takes itself as its own subject-matter, and seeks to modify itself, it would be possible for us to speak in terms of “thought exercises.” Yet the word “thought” does not indicate clearly enough that imagination and sensibility play a very important role in these exercises. For the same reason, we cannot be satisfied with “intellectual exercises,” although such intellectual factors as definition, division, ratiocination, reading, investigation, and rhetorical amplification play a large role in them. “Ethical exercises” is a rather tempting expression, since, as we shall see, the exercises in question contribute in a powerful way to the therapeutics of the passions, Yet, here again, this would be too limited a view of things . . . The word “spiritual” is quite apt to make us understand that these exercises are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual’s entire psychism.
“We can define philosophical discourse as a spiritual exercise—in other words, as a practice intended to carry out a radical change in our being,” where a spiritual exercise is defined most generally as any “voluntary, personal practices intended to cause a transformation of the self.”
Practice delivers insight.
Exercise or training aimed at a transformation or overcoming of the self by the self — examples include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience.
Askēsis is a practice of self-discipline (from the Greek ἄσκησις, “exercise” or “training”), and lists examples including training the body, athletic exercise, training the senses, and communing with the divine. Terms like ascetic and ascetism are also linked to notions of self-discipline but carry a greater emphasis on abstinence and austerity.
The etymology suggests connections to asketikos, defined as “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious,” which is connected to asketes, “monk, hermit,” and “skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade,” as well as askein “to exercise, train” (with specific reference to athletic competition), but also “to fashion material, embellish or refine material.”
Thomas Merton offers a helpful description of asceticism, which speaks to its broad applicably across domains. He writes, “It [ascetisim] comes from the Greek askein: to adorn, to prepare by labor, to make someone adept by exercises. . . . It was applied to physical culture, moral culture, and finally religious training. It means, in short, training—spiritual training.”
Along these lines, many ascetic practices have been concerned with the development of the inner and outer senses, in other words, with the development of perceptual ability, seen both as the introspective quality of attention to oneself and as the refinement of the body’s senses.
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.
Method – A Contemplative Attitude
My approach to transcendental philosophy and phenomenology.
Transcendental philosophy as contemplative practice – “Contemplation” in three senses: As an (1) “an act of looking at attentively,” (2) “to mark out a space for observation,” (3) “a meditative practice in which a person seeks to pass beyond intellectual reasoning or reflection to a direct experience of the divine or infinite.”
A little bit textual justification. Hadot writes, “The entire edifice of critical Kantian philosophy has meaning only from the perspective of wisdom, or rather from that of the sage.”
A hidden Idea of philosophy has long been present among men. Yet either they have not understood it, or else they have considered it a contribution to erudition. If we take the ancient Greek philosophers—such as Epicurus, Zeno, Socrates—we discover that the principle object of their science has been the destination of man, and the means to achieve it. They thus remained more faithful to the true Idea of the philosopher than has been the case in modern times, when we encounter the philosopher only as an artist of reason.
Here we see Kant passing from the limits of reason, to the beyond of something called wisdom, which we can link to a certain contemplative practice, or what we call transcendental philosophy.
This is how two of Kant’s translators, Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, describe Kant’s method of philosophy:
“This new science, which Kant calls ‘transcendental’ (A11/B25), does not deal directly with objects of empirical cognition, but investigates the conditions of possibility of our experience of them by examining the mental capacities that are required for us to have any cognition of objects at all.” (The so-called Copernican Revolution)
In essence, Guyer and Wood are saying that Kant’s insight was to move away from studying experience as it appears to us and towards experience as it is constructed by the faculties we bring to bear on it. We’re trying to get behind experience to its structures and sources, to the way experience is made to appear as such.
In other words, Kant was highlighting that the type of experience one is capable of having is related to the structures or capacities of the person having the experience. Kant’s philosophy is a contemplative approach to the workings of the mind and its structures. As Matthew T. Segall notes, “The works of the German idealists are better read as a series of meditative exercises to be practiced than they are a series of arguments to be memorized and codified.”
So I see here some links between askēsis, contemplation, and transcendental philosophy, but I also see this as a phenomenological project in the sense that what I’m doing today is pointing to structures, practices, and faculties that you can examine for yourself. And indeed, the value of what I’m saying isn’t really even secured by argument, but by this phenomenological mode of gesturing towards a set of philosophical maneuvers you can perform in your own life.
And so this attitude of foregrounding askēsis in a practical and phenomenological mode sets up what I think can serve as a general account of the relation between askēsis and perception, an account that has as one of its features the particularity of your own concrete situation. That said, I will give you what I think is a coherent argument for the relation between askēsis and perception, and it starts with a few of the resources we get from Kant’s transcendental philosophy.
Sensibility and Understanding
The Copernican Revolution: The revolution Kant wants to undertake involves a sort of field reversal — instead of assuming that our cognition conforms to the objects around us, Kant suggests that we explore what happens if we assume that the objects around us conform to the shape of our cognition.
Now, we don’t have time to explore every element of this reversal, so I just want to focus in on a few paragraphs in The Critique of Pure Reason where he argues there are two basic sources for our cognition — sensibility and understanding.
Our cognition arises from two fundamental sources in the mind, the first of which is the reception of representations (the receptivity of impressions), the second the faculty for cognizing an object by means of these representations (spontaneity of concepts); through the former an object is given to us, through the latter it is thought in relation to that representation (as a mere determination of the mind). Intuition and concepts therefore constitute the elements of all our cognition, so that neither concepts without intuition corresponding to them in some way nor intuition without concepts can yield a cognition. (A50/B74)
So we can see that for Kant sensibility and understanding come together in each moment of cognition, but as our two basic faculties they involve two different types of content: The understanding is conceptual, discursive, and involves thought. Sensibility involves intuitions, sense perception, and images.
Those of you familiar with this system will know that a concept is a general, universal representation expressed discursively—it’s a way of placing a thing into a category—while an intuition is immediate, object-dependent, and externally caused—It is roughly speaking a sense impression entering cognition from the outside, a way of being responsive to the particularity of your environment.
One further feature I want to highlight here is that both concepts and intuitions execute automatically; this is we could say a pre-conscious process, so that whatever it is that shows up for you in awareness has already been through this process of semantic organization. Kantians call this kind of cognition issuing a judgment, but this isn’t a judgment in the sense of making a conscious evaluation. It is instead the very act of bringing the objects of experience into your awareness as those objects, and this involves the act of synthesizing together the qualities, properties, and relations that we take to be essential to the objects we experience. The sum of these synthetic acts is what’s called the manifold.
The manifold, then, is all of the given intuitions synthesized in a specific scenario as coordinated with the understanding, or its taking of the manifold to be in a certain way. Perception, then, is a composition performed by the subject, and this performance, I’m suggesting, is precisely what’s true through ascetic practice.
So just to repeat, we’re talking about two sources of cognition—sensibility and understanding—that come together in each moment of perception and this coming together involves a judgment, which means something like taking a stance, automatically and pre-reflectively, about what is currently being rendered in your perception; it’s about fashioning mental representations of what’s being delivered to the understanding through sensibility. The key here is that at least some of this process involves spontaneity, which means that part of our perceiving is open to creative reconstruction, and this requires our active participation, and opens our perception to certain degrees of freedom.
I won’t delve too far into the details here, but some Kant scholars, like Henry Allison, argue that spontaneity occurs only on the side of the understanding, while others, like Thomas Land, believe that spontaneity exists both in the mode of sensibility and the understanding. I’m inclined to agree with Thomas Land, as it seems that even what we think of as physiological sense impressions are open to creative reconstruction, refashioning, and redirection (perceptual learning). It also makes sense of why ascetic practices, whether they or full nondiscursive, nonanalytic, nonverbal activities seem be able to deliver not just a reorientation of the senses, but also a reorientation of the understanding. And the reverse seems also to be true. So what’s going on here?
Phenomenology, Intentionality, Skilled Intentionality
This effort of investigating the structures that deliver experience to us is shared by phenomenologists like Dan Zahavi. Zahavi describes phenomenology in the following way:
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.
Zahavi’s quote is filled with technical terms that are worth unpacking. When, for instance, phenomenologists use the word “intentionality” they don’t mean it in the common way of “doing something on purpose,” but rather as a term to center on the aboutness or directedness of ordinary conscious experience.
In other words, intentionality is a word for noting that ordinary episodes of lived experience are always directed towards some object, thought, event, belief, or feeling. You can check this out in your own experience right now. Note that it’s always about flowers or books or records or love or justice or tomorrow or San Francisco. These episodes of aboutness pass by without any effort on your part; they are an automatic feature of the flow of conscious experience. Now, how these phenomena appear in the experience of the individual is described in terms of their “givenness” to consciousness. This is where TSV comes back in.
For phenomenologists like Zahavi, episodes of conscious experience are always 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 a merely passive reception of them. Experiences of understanding a phenomenon to be a certain way—to mean what it does to the individual having the experience—then vary in accordance with the skills of perception the individual brings to the encounter.
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 oftentimes what we take to be differences attributed to the properties of objects are better understood as differences in intentional attitudes issuing from the subject. As Zahavi says, “The same object, with the exact same worldly properties, can present itself in a variety of manners.”
If the world as it is given to us is related to our acts of intentionality—in other words, 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 it. This was my point about the architect, the meditator, and the carpenter mentioned at the beginning of this essay: Each of these people has learned to perceive the world in a certain manner; 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 let the expert practitioner see the world in a unique way.
The philosopher Alva Noë offers some important insights for understanding the nature of skilled perception. Noë to my mind argues convincingly that we shouldn’t think of perception as a step-wise sequence of events that moves from basic sensation (perception), to representation (conception), to reference (words). Instead, Noë argues, when we look at our sensing we find that sensation, representation, and reference tend to emerge in perception already entangled in each moment of experience. Another way of saying this is that for Noë perception and understanding arrive together in awareness. He puts it this way, “Perceptual experience can enable us to be aware of things only given the coinvolvement of understanding.”
What, then, accounts for these differences in presentation? And how does these differences relate to practice?
Askēsis and Perception
Practice delivers insight (reprise).
1. Sensible intuitions can form spontaneous judgments on their own, without the understanding’s propositional and conceptual structure.
2. Sensible spontaneity opens the door to novel forms of empirical construction in perception.
3. Nonpropositional exercises that act in the mode of sensible intuition are still open to the faculty of the understanding and can be made available on those terms.
4. Propositional claims about a state of affairs don’t hold a monopoly on intelligence, understanding, interpretation, etc. Nonpropositional activities can yield propositional insights, and propositional activities can yield nonpropositional change.
Physical forms of askēsis — Jiu-Jitsu, yoga, trials of physical endurance.
One of these ascetic practices, or rather a group of them, was concerned with defending against the logizmoi (or “afflicting thoughts”) of the demons who sought to turn people away from God. Part of Evagrian askēsis, then, is combat, rooted in demonology. Given continues,
The purpose of demonological knowledge in Evagrian monasticism is combat: to build a repertoire of gestures and maneuvers, which is just as important to the monastic art as knowledge of the hierarchy of demons. Evagrian knowledge is tactical. To that end, Evagrius gives indications not only of things, but also and primarily of ways, modes of encounter, learned maneuvers, tactics of opposition. He gives ascetic choreographic indications.
The examples one finds here include fasting, and more precisely, prayers and scriptures read to ensure that the fast is a success; these are words spoken to stave off the threat of gluttony, the desire to break the fast and fulfill the body’s urges. Given writes, “Even the very act of reciting scripture moves the monk interiorly, bringing him to a posture incompatible with gluttony.” This is how theoria comports with praktikē, or rather becomes a mode of praktikē: The discursive knowledge (activated in prayer or scripture) becomes the means by which the body re-directs itself towards its practical aim. Theoria is its own askēsis.
I paraphrase Laird’s instructions: He says to find a stable posture, breathe deeply from the abdomen, exhale longer than you inhale, recite to yourself a prayer word, place your attention on the breath, let the breath, the prayer word, and your attention grow together, and when you get distracted, relocate your attention to the breath and the prayer word. Repeat. Laird is an important contributor to this discussion both because of the specificity of his instruction, and because of his active influence on ascetic practice today. “Those who discover the wisdom of the breath,” Laird says, “find it a great refuge that grounds the mental calm that contemplative practice cultivates.” This kind of meditative practice is askēsis in one of its contemplative and religious modes.