The Primacy of Practice in the Modern World

IMG_1182The definition Hadot gives of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, in addition to the links between Greek philosophy, Christian monastic practice, and aesthetics I’ve just highlighted, makes it clear that askēsis is not bounded by the categories of philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion. In fact, askēsis is in many ways an avenue by which one might unite them, their many possible differences notwithstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that debates over the role of askēsis in philosophical practice emerge in both philosophy and religion. I’m thinking here specifically of John Cottingham’s account of the philosophy of religion, and the important, if not defining, role that askēsis plays within it.[1]

As Cottingham notes, “To be religious is not just to espouse certain doctrines; it is to follow a certain way of life and to take up certain commitments. It is in part a project of formation, of forming or reforming the self, a process of askēsis (training) or of mathēsis (learning).”[2] Cottingham’s definition of the religious life mirrors quite closely Hadot’s account of the philosophical one. In both cases, the path set forth is not limited to mere discursivity or doctrinal memorization; it is in fact a way of life that extends into the practices and habits of the whole person. The spiritual life is above all about the priority of practice. “It suggests not just the theoretical acquisition of knowledge,” writes Cottingham, “but a structured programme supported by rules and practices.”[3]

As a way of life, Cottingham’s philosophy of religion aims for the long view. In his own words, “The ‘conversion’ at which spiritual practices have traditionally been aimed is not conceived of as something that can be completed on a particular day, or even over a single season, but is thought of as a lifelong process.”[4] Cottingham lists among these practices activities like prayer, fasting, and meditation, all engaged in with “the goal of achieving a vision of reality that would lead to self-understanding and self-transformation.”[5] As with many other instances of askēsis I’ve described, the practices Cottingham concerns himself with include acts of privation (e.g., fasting), but ultimately go beyond them. As I said earlier, askēsis is as much an additive enterprise as it is a subtractive one. “The central notion of askēsis, found for example in Epictetus,” Cottingham writes, “implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living.’”[6]

This “practical programme of training” is precisely what Cottingham finds missing from the modern curriculum of philosophy. Foucault makes a similar point when he diagnosis a certain “Cartesian moment” in the history of philosophy wherein the transformations of the self underwritten by askēsis are replaced by the simpler and more universal requirements of the twin acquisition of knowledge and evidence.[7] Foucault’s argument is that there is a point in modern philosophy, marked by Descartes, where acquiring knowledge without the need of a corresponding transformation of the self comes to prominence.

Hadot for his part is skeptical that Foucault’s reading in this area really captures the essence of Descartes’s philosophy and method—Descartes’s major work is after all titled Meditations, which Hadot I think correctly reads as an explicit reference to the type of practice of self-transformation that askēsis implies—and yet there is a sense where, if not by name, the “Cartesian moment” does mark a more general shift away from practices of transformation and towards the reduction of philosophy to something like propositional knowledge and argumentation, learned and memorized without requiring a change in the subject.

Hadot cites the emergence of Christianity and the European university system as two reasons for the shift away from practice in philosophy,[8] but Cottingham has an additional angle worth considering here. While Descartes’s meditations should be read as a series of spiritual exercises, as an askēsis of self-transformation, he in the end advocates for a different way forward, specifically, for the use of new scientific methods to shortcut the need for practice in the transformation of the person.

Cottingham poses Descartes’s question, a reality Descartes believes will be made possible by a future science, this way, “[Instead of emphasizing practice] why not simply modify the course of the nervous impulses, so that the damaging inclinations that lead us off the path of virtue are rechanneled toward more healthy and more worthy objects?”[9] Descartes on Cottingham’s telling is advocating for hacking the biological system to achieve what before was attained only through practice, discipline, and dedication aimed in the direction of some moral, aesthetic, and veridical good. But, as Cottingham continues, “Such induced changes have no inherent moral significance: their value hinges merely on their instrumentality toward some desired end.”[10]

Philosophy cannot be reduced to such instrumental ends; it is not compatible with Cartesian biohacking. Askēsis, and the transformation it enables, is embedded in the practice of practice itself. There is no shortcutting the repetition, endurance, and commitment needed of the life of practice. The deliverances afforded by askēsis have no shortcuts; they can only be achieved in training. As Cottingham states,

However, sincere and well-intentioned Descartes’s own vision may have been of what the new science could achieve in the ethical sphere, what he has in fact unleashed is a seductive fantasy of a swift and easy “fix” for the good life the idea that we have the power to get to where we want by any technological means available.[11]

Life hacks have their role in the world, but shortcutting philosophical practice isn’t one of them. In many ways, askēsis is the opposite of the shortcut to practice promised by Cartesian fixes. It is a transfiguration of the self achieved only through walking the path set by practice, and this will remain true today, tomorrow, and long into the future. If humans ever leave this planet, there will be ascetics training in the darkness of space.

[1] Cottingham, Philosophy of Religion.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 149.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Foucault, Hermeneutics of the Subject, 14–17.

[8] Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy.

[9] Cottingham, “Philosophy and Self-Improvement,” 161.

[10] Ibid., 162.

[11] Ibid., 163.


  1. there really is no other to instrumentalization when it comes to practices and there is no formal/in-principle line between ‘hacks’ and other forms of instrumentalization (see for example Derrida on bricolage vs engineering) so two questions arise can folks who make these kinds of claims own that they are being prescriptive rather than descriptive (there is nothing for example that being “religious” really is, ‘it’ is what we do or not nothing more or less) and that their really making moralizing rhetorical moves of the kind one associates with honorifics and the like?


    • Certainly you concede there is a difference between taking shortcuts in the workplace (absent all tradition, lineage, moral vector, etc.) and established practices done (perhaps at the expense of) economic productivity?


      • cool, terms like tradition/lineage/etc often give the false/reified appearance of a kind of coherence and or quality (as in good/wholesome/tested/etc) rather than being a kind of shorthand for a lot of different bits and pieces of practices but even if we could routinize practices (more machinic if you will) the differing contexts/uses would make the effects different, it makes sense in terms of texts or the like to object to taking something out of context but one shouldn’t stretch such speech-acts too far, in certain theo-logical hermeneutics one finds that they posit a kind of Geist that insures coherence/fidelity for groups across time and space but for the rest of us we are left to imitate and improvise (cut&paste) as we can…


  2. sorry for the fragments doing this in between other things “philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion” don’t exist in the world (nor economics, science, etc) so can’t literally be separated or bridged, the objects we use/grasp/perceive/assemble/etc (Descartes with/in his discipline was assembling objects for his particular purposes as we all do, consciously and otherwise, objects tooled for purposes is another way of talking about instruments, we be homo-faber) aren’t inherently Art or Religious or whatever (we can’t discover these things about them) we make them such via our uses/practices (practices being what we do when we do things that require practice, for our purposes things more like language acquisition then walking upright, things that require something broadly dialogical even if we are only dialoguing with ourselves), think of a painting of an Orthodox saint in a church, a monk’s cell,an art gallery, an interior decorating shop, on an auction block, or in a political trolling meme….


  3. ps if you look for example at monastics who take vows of poverty this doesn’t actually put them outside of economic/political realms of concern (and perhaps responsibility), Foucault knew there were no such exits (nor an above or below) and so his later focus was on possibilities of the little bits of freedom/control individuals might make in the gaps and cracks of our environs, not unlike the early hackers in yer area who were bricolaging for their local uses. For me the concern is that people oversell practices by promising more than they can deliver and failing to consider the differences of uses/contexts, needing more environmental awareness if you will.


  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your work here, first off.

    Can’t help agreeing with dmf. There is always a tendency to try to bound and unify any particular system of concepts, spiritual systems included. But the world is very unstable just because it’s an unbounded system. Cracks appear all over the place, nowhere more than in the practice of the “art of living”. The vagueness of that term says something. One of the biggest cracks, as you say, appeared with the “Cartesian moment”. Spiritual practice systems have struggled to incorporate the results of the practice of science ever since. Another crack appeared with a “Marxian moment”and that too has had to be incorporated, simply because to live life in the last century one inevitably lived the results of “Marxist practice” in all its permutations. Now perhaps the biggest crack has appeared with the climate crisis and now spiritual systems must contend with the practice of ecologists, environmentalists and systems scientists. So it goes. Spiritual systems must incorporate more of life but never can incorporate all of it, unless one is wedded to some sort of reification of contemplative or meditative experience. As dmf says:

    “ … in certain theo-logical hermeneutics one finds that they posit a kind of Geist that insures coherence/fidelity for groups across time and space but for the rest of us we are left to imitate and improvise (cut&paste) as we can…”

    My question to dmf is: How would you describe the practice of “cut and paste”? Are we not always moving towards some sort of unified pattern, spiritual or otherwise by the very demands of cutting and pasting? Doesn’t cut and paste end in collage. It might be an open-ended activity but you can drop a frame right into it at any point, shift it about and produce coherence, as every visual artist knows. You never want to give way to the longing for closure? One of the biggest cracks, after all, is between individuals who are biologically bounded and subject to death, the end of all cutting and pasting for sure. Don’t know the answer myself. I just go on cutting and pasting. But to what end?


    • There is an ambiguous amount of bricolage / improvisation in any tradition, but not to the extent that no distinctions can be made. The reification charge is only a worry if we hold to an unrealistic standard of purity in defining what’s included in a practice or tradition. I don’t think that’s such a worry here — we should instead think of improvisation as an adaptive feature of a healthy tradition.


      • distinction can be made but we should pay attention to the particulars at hand (traditions for example are only figures of speech and not really available for such comparisons) the other issue is that we really seem to struggle with giving phenomenology a value of ‘it’s’ own, what strikes one as beautiful or not, funny or not, sacred or profane, are experiences that matter deeply (as do the questions of how do we respond the such experiences, cultivate them or let them go, etc) to our lives but shouldn’t be confused such that we than mistakenly posit the existence of beautiful objects, funny objects, or sacred objects, these are matters of something like taste and not physics (meta or otherwise).


    • “Are we not always moving towards some sort of unified pattern, spiritual or otherwise by the very demands of cutting and pasting?” not at all, there is no in-principle answer to the question of when is a work of art done (or what are the intentions/motivations of the author) and absolutely no necessary (beyond the contingent limits of who is currently engaged) limit of how such assemblages can be used/framed/recontextualized. Also no necessity to any particular end or another hell in the doing things are bound to swerve this way and that.


  5. Everything is open ended, of course, but even in saying that you are imposing a frame of sorts, some sort of negative limitation on the possibility of comprehension, for example.

    “… the contingent limits of who is currently engaged” is the necessary limit no?

    As every artist knows the work ends up getting framed, which just is the definition of a work as opposed to making. The frame is the in-principle answer to the question of when is an art work done. I think you are setting up a sort of mock absolute – openness – and opposing it to the “contingent limits of who is currently engaged”. There is no need. Openness includes the act of framing or contingent limitation.

    I worry about this “openness” question because I can detect a sort of slight of hand in the present preoccupation with systems theory and complexity. To say something is complex is also to say something about a limit (to the comprehensible), because statements are exactly the expression of a non complex or rule based language system. Which is another way of saying that we speak as subjects of a transcendental structure facing bounded objects, even if the structure or frame is itself given from a state of unboundeness.

    Which is why systems theory and complexity, while being good science, also figure as ideological tropes in a war between philosophical stances and ultimately, political and economic interests hell bent of parcelling out the world in new configurations of the haves and the have-nots.

    Anyway we probably agree on 99.9%!


  6. You might like this . Just found it in Pickering’s book “The Mangle of Practice”

    “Desire only exists when assembled or machined. You cannot grasp or conceive of a desire outside a determinate assemblage, on a plane which is not pre-existent but which must itself be constructed…. In retrospect every assemblage expresses and creates a desire by constructing the plane which makes it possible and, by making it possible, brings it about…[Desire] is constructivist, not at all spontaneist. [Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues]

    Liked by 1 person

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