Askēsis & Perception: Villanova Talk Audio + Notes

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I’m workshopping ideas from my dissertation and a forthcoming book. It’s called Askēsis and Perception: Philosophy as a Way of Life.

The title is a nod to the philosopher Pierre Hadot, who 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 meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, contemplative prayer, physical training, athletics, aesthetics, and visionary experience. These are activities that generate moral sensitivity, epistemological access, and ontological change.

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? What is the relation between askēsis and perception? We all know practices work, but how do they work?

What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where directed attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness in the direction of some philosophical vision of the world.

Today I want to use some resources from transcendental idealism and aesthetics, which I conceive as spiritual exercises, to show that askēsis acts upon the structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy.

The idea is that propositional thinking doesn’t hold a monopoly on intelligence, understanding, interpretation, etc. Nonpropositional activities — contemplative practice and aesthetics, in this case — can yield propositional insights, and propositional activities can yield nonpropositional change.

Practice delivers insight up and down the chain of sensation and understanding.

Askēsis as a Spiritual Exercise

Now, Hadot says Askēsis is best understood as a kind of spiritual exercise, and I want to dwell on this point for a moment because askēsis is the kind of activity that complicates the boundaries between philosophy, religion, and life in the world as a whole. Here’s how Michael Chase describes it,

These exercises, involving not just intellect or reason, but all of a human being’s faculties, including emotion and imagination, had the same goal as all ancient philosophy: reducing human suffering and increasing happiness, by teaching people to detach themselves from their particular, egocentric, individualistic viewpoints and become aware of their belonging, as integral component parts, to the Whole constituted by the entire cosmos.

So, these ancient philosophical exercises were less about producing systematic theoretical constructs than they were about the practical aim of transforming the being and perception of the philosopher, and this is what I care about.

If there is then one general definition of askēsis that I can offer to the reader here at the outset, it is this, askēsis is a spiritual exercise that results in a transformation of perception through the cultivation of a certain mode of being.

Hadot writes,

“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.”

And 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 says, these exercise involve more than the “psychic,” the “moral,” the “ethical,” the “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul” but the whole “psychism.”

Askēsis

Askēsis is a spiritual exercise aimed at a transformation or an overcoming of the self by the self. I want to bring this word into closer focus for a moment.

It is a practice of self-discipline (from the Greek σκησις, “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,” but also a “skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade,” as well as askein “to exercise, train” (with specific reference to athletic competition) and “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.

Askēsis and the “I”

If philosophy is a practice of transformation in perception, then askēsis is the action that underwrites the ontological reconfiguration undergone by the person who practices, a reconfiguration that presupposes an epistemological break or suspension that creates the possibility for understanding the conditions of one’s own thinking, feeling, and perceiving.

Askēsis refers to a wide range of activities, but when it comes to philosophy in particular, Hadot identifies a particular kind of practice as central to achieving philosophical insight. One can call this practice an askēsis of the “I” — or of the self developing a relation to itself.

This relation, likely at the root of the famous dictum “know thyself,” Hadot says, “constitutes the foundation of every spiritual exercise.”

Hadot adds the following to his claim,

All these schools [Platonism, Neopythagoreanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism] called for a kind of self-duplication in which the “I” refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the objects of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to be detached from them.

Hadot continues by stating that these “spiritual exercises almost always correspond to the movement by which the ‘I’ concentrates itself upon itself and discovers that it is not what it had thought. It ceases to be conflated with the objects to which it had become attached.”

This is on my view very much the central approach of transcendental idealism — it’s a kind of directed attention to the conditions of possibility of one’s own experience. I want to look at transcendental idealism as an askēsis of the “I.”

A Contemplative Transcendental Attitude

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.” Here’s Kant himself:

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.

In this mode of philosophy, 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.

Here I want you to think of transcendental idealism as a contemplative practice. I mean “contemplation” in three specific 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.”

I see here some links between askēsis, contemplation, and transcendental idealism, 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 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.

Another definition of askēsis emerges here: If the type of experience one is capable of having is related to the structures or capacities of the person having the experience, then it opens the question of how to act on the structures of our own perception.

Askēsis names these practices of folding and unfolding perception, and we could talk about any number of ascetic exercises, but I’ll just close by talking briefly about a specifically aesthetic form of askēsis.

Art as Transformation of Perception

The work I’m drawing from here is Gabriel Trop’s, who instead of thinking about philosophy as a way life, has a text called Poetry as a Way of Life: Aesthetics and Askēsis in the German 18th Century. This is very much a vision of aesthetics akin to Hadot’s vision of philosophy as transformative practice.

Trop positions art as a way of life, as an askēsis “that continually modifies, often imperceptibly, the manifold patterns of being — whether they are perceptual, behavioral, or affective of the person who undertakes it.”

Art and aesthetics for Trop exist in a dual sense, both in the mode of existing art objects created and released into the world, and in the sense that the artistic act is about refiguring the perception of the artist, and the viewer of the work of art as a beholder of the aesthetic vision.

So, just to look at a famous example, the beholding of the vision of beauty described in Plato’s Symposium is a kind of aesthetic askēsis, which also transfigures the self in unique ways. We are captured and undone by the vision.

This kind of askēsis figures strongly in Trop’s work.

The work of aesthetics is thus understood as an active effort of training perception. As Trop notes, “The aesthetic subject, in the act of giving form and plasticity to the world, simultaneously molds its own perceptual capacities.”

Trop refers to this molding as a form of perceptual and cognitive askēsis; it’s a kind of training or preparation that begins first as an act of mimesis, whereby the artist attempts to mimic or bring forward some aspect of the world, but ultimately drives at self-transformation, at becoming the type of being for whom that aspect of the world is present. The same applies to the art viewer. We undergo a transformation when we truly enter into the artist’s vision.

Art is in this sense a means of transforming the physiognomy of seeing, and as with askēsis in general, aesthetic askēsis involves work, aimed this time at a craft:

Trop: “To practice art as a vocation, as a craft requiring a set of skills and a certain technē, necessarily presupposes exercises that generate a specific way of being in the world.”

I like to say that perception is itself a skill, that attention is an art form, and that the medium of philosophy is sensibility and understanding.

Poetry is in this sense a power that affects our ways of seeing-in-the-world. Trop repeats again his central thesis to drive this point home, “Aesthetic askēsis modifies the very structures of perception and cognition of the self.”

Poetry is one way of achieving this transformation. It’s a subtle point, and I take Trop to mean poetry more in the general sense of poiesis, from the Greek meaning “creation” or “production,” than in a limited, literary sense (though the two are entwined). Trop continues, writing on the poet Novalis,

For Novalis, the form-generating activity of the human being [that which I take to be a kind of poiesis] does not merely create things, objects in the world, but rather, new worlds in which objects themselves find their home. . . . for poetry is not a thing (Ding), but a world in which things appear.

Poetry is in this sense more an invocation than a representation.

Hadot expresses a similar sentiment when he writes, “the philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it.” One could say the same of art, music, poetry, science, or religion.

Askēsis is in this sense the effort to coordinate the manifold of perception (I’m using Kant’s language here) in order to achieve a certain understanding of things, or at the very least to reinforce oneself against the tide of unexamined opinion, derived either from one’s own psychology or from the surrounding society.

Conclusion

The idea is that propositional thinking doesn’t hold a monopoly on intelligence, understanding, interpretation, etc. Nonpropositional activities — contemplative practice and aesthetics, in this case — can yield propositional insights, and propositional activities can yield nonpropositional change.

Practice delivers insight up and down the chain of sensation and understanding. This is the basis of the relation between askēsis and perception.

2 Comments

  1. Novalis: “…if you are unable to transform thoughts into external things, then transform external things into thoughts. If you are unable to make a thought into something independent, something separate from yourself—and therefore also something alien (fremd)—that is, into an externally occurring soul, then proceed in the opposite manner with external things—and transform them (verwandelt sie) into thoughts. Both operations are idealistic. Whosoever has both completely in his power, is the Magical Idealist.”

    Like

  2. hope you got some good feedback from the theo crowd, hard to beat Gary when it comes to making clear the current limits of AI and the kinds of work ahead to help bridge the human/machine gap for a lay audience:

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