Askēsis and Care of the Soul

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In the lectures published as Plato and Europe, Jon Patočka (1907–1977) asks a series of questions: What does the soul mean? What is its significance? and What does it mean to care for it? These questions Patočka says are central to the heritage of Europe’s spiritual identity. To answer them, he will appeal to readings of Greek myth, Plato, Democritus, and Aristotle, but more fundamentally these questions are approached in the mode of phenomenology, principally stemming from a unique reading of Husserl, and to an extent Heidegger. I won’t recount Patočka’s historical exegesis here, as my concern is with the phenomenological account he gives, and with how this understanding relates to the role of askēsis, or spiritual exercise, in the formation of perception. To this end, I will summarize Patočka’s phenomenology, paying attention to the role care of the soul plays within it, before making my own connections with askēsis.

Patočka’s phenomenology starts with an interpretation of Husserl’s Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology, and specifically with phenomenological reduction, or conversion, as he puts it, that is, the conversion of things into phenomena, into the appearances we encounter in perception. That things are, says Patočka, is only one aspect of a situation wherein things also show themselves. What does this mean? It means that to be a thing means also to be a thing that manifests or shows itself in experience. Patočka wants to thematize this capacity for showing, appearing, or manifesting (he uses all three terms) as an intrinsic aspect of things in themselves. Things are, and through their being they show themselves. On Patočka’s own admission­ this is an obvious and uninteresting insight, but it leads to the later questions, What is the relation between a thing and its appearance? Where does appearing occur? What is the place in which appearances become manifest?

We’ll get to what all of this has to do with care of the soul in a moment, but already we can see the arc of Patočka’s reasoning unfold. He is not asking questions about existing things per se, nor about how things appear to us, but about the nature of appearing itself. We accept, for example, that when a phenomenon appears to us—a flower, a cloud, an apple—that it does so cast from a certain perspective, which illuminates specific aspects of the thing in question. Perception is given in terms of sides, surfaces, depths, fronts, backs, light, shadow, angle, and so on, and yet we are also aware that there is an absence present in our experience. We can’t see it directly, but we know that the book in front of us has an occluded underside, that part of the tree we admire faces away from us, that the coffee cup cannot be viewed from all sides at once. Is this a deep insight? No. Patočka even calls it a “large triviality” (19), one we all more or less understand.

We may not put the insight into words, but we tacitly assume something like it is the case as we navigate space and time. Patočka moves us through this description of “absolute banalities” because it is here he says that “within them is the hidden secret of appearing [objevorání]” (21). Part of this secret, Patočka says, is the additional factor of memory. It’s not just that as we move about different phenomena come to show themselves to us, but that those previous moments of appearing are still with us, not as veridical representations of prior moments but as continuous elements influencing the structure of appearing as such. There is, then, for Patočka, a unity of the thing showing itself (its many aspects appearing under different lights) and a continuity of appearance now and appearance then. This is all present within the nature of showing, and this is Patočka’s main point: Experience has a structure within which manifestation happens, and this structure has dual aspects of unity and continuity. “In the end,” Patočka says, “it seems that manifesting forms a solid interconnected system” (23).

Patočka thus moves from phenomena (or appearances), to their presence and occlusion, to memory, to the structure of appearing, which includes these aspects of unity and continuity. We can call Patočka’s phenomenology a transcendental one insofar as he, like Husserl, rejects the idea that this structured, interconnected system is found within experience and is instead located prior to experience. Experience, in the last account, is experience of this structure of appearing, of things manifesting or showing themselves to us. This process is not something we do—something “in” us—it is rather what “we” operate within. The ground of our reflection about experience has this curved shape built into it: The nature of appearing occurs within the structure of how things come to appear at all. Patočka is not talking about things appearing for me or things appearing for you, but about appearing in itself (24), which necessarily conditions our own reflections about it.

The philosophical project Patočka has set out is now coming more fully into view. This isn’t a science of objects (as we might find in physics) nor a commitment to subjective inquiry but rather, as we’ve just seen, a mode of attention aimed at the nature of appearing itself. It is upon this ground—the ground of how things manifest at all within experience—where Patočka will make his link back to care of the soul. He puts it this way, “Care of the soul is fundamentally care that follows from the proximity of man to manifesting, to the phenomenon as such, to the manifesting world in its whole, that occurs within man, with man” (27). It is our proximity to the manifesting world, to the way things are given to us in experience, that makes appearing possible. Readers of phenomenology will recognize the language Patočka deploys here. The phenomena that populate our experience are coincident with our judgments and beliefs about things. Our recognition of things and events is a premise we enter into about our experience.

If we’re following Patočka’s line of thought, we are in effect attending to appearing.

My own thesis is this: Askēsis, which means spiritual exercise, works on the structure of appearing. It is a way of influencing the structure of presence and its mode of givenness through practices of attention (meditation, contemplation, prayer, art) and transformation (physical training, fasting, dialectics) to which askēsis broadly refers. Askēsis acts on appearing, is the most general way of expressing this thought. We can also read “care of the soul” broadly as a mode of askēsis, as a therapeutic regime, but also as an epistemological commitment. Patočka means care of the soul in both senses. When he says we are “beings to whom reality manifests itself” (32), I read this in the tripartite sense of an epistemological situation, an ontological reality, and a therapeutic (or moral) responsibility. In this way, Patočka wants to articulate a philosophy that is also truly metaphysical (33). In other words, he is making claims about the relation between phenomena and existence by showing that existence consists not only in things but also in the structure of appearing that lets things show themselves. “The world is not only the world that is, but also the world that shows itself” is how he phrases it (31).

In his closing moves, he makes the final comment that the human plays the double role of being one being among the beings of the world (and therefore similarly at the whim of the world’s contingency) and the being through which the world’s manner of appearing is disclosed. This is the truth of our situation, says Patočka, and awareness of our dual role places us in a state of distress. “Truth is damnation” (35) are his dour words. However, this truth, this existential distress, is not without able response. The program of training initiated in Greek philosophy is for Patočka the path of navigating the truth of things. (We do not need to limit ourselves to the Greeks. I only phrase it this way because Patočka sets up his lectures in dialogue with Greek philosophy.) He says, “This program presupposes a fundamental transformation within man” (36). This transformative program is at once the phenomenological project Patočka describes and the care of the soul that prepares the person for being the subject to whom things appear. What does care of the soul mean? It is for Patočka this attention to and concern with our proximity to appearing; it’s a sense of responsibility for being the location of the disclosure of being.

I said above my thesis is that askēsis (which includes care for the soul) acts on the structure of appearing, influencing its vividness and hidden detail, and I’ll close by saying that it does this work because it also forms the subject for whom appearing appears. I’ll put it another way. If as Patočka says phenomenology is “the teaching of the structure of manifesting as such” (38) then askēsis is the occult labor that makes this ground explicit and allows it to be taken up as the medium of the transformative program that is the philosophical way of life, the care of the soul that Patočka sees the Greek tradition as rooted in. To be more specific, askēsis takes advantage of the unity and continuity of our experience by leveraging repetition against memory and by crafting presence against absence (and vice versa), to afford a re-direction of the avenues by which future moments of appearing arrive in experience. The hidden secret of appearing is that experience lies on the far side of this repetitive preparation, a preparation we can call askēsis or care of the soul, and which makes seeing itself a practice, a practice or craft of attention.

Experience is an achievement of practice.

I’ll have to flesh out in greater detail at a later time these links with askēsis, but that’s the basic sketch of the relation between spiritual exercise and the nature of appearing, using some of Patočka’s vocabulary to help make the activity more explicit.

16 Comments

  1. hey adam, “it seems” is doing a lot of work there,
    along those lines this ” what “we” operate within. The ground of our reflection about experience has this curved shape built into it”
    calls for a lot of explication literally speaking what does this (largely spatial) grammar actually refer to? Is there some soul space/dimension beyond the physical world that critters operate within and if so how do we get to the physics which structure it?

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    • The point is simply that in speaking about the nature of appearing we’re not stepping outside of that nature and describing it from afar. It’s still a description from within it, limited by it, trying to account for it without pretending it’s not acting on the account. The spatial metaphor is an attempt to bring that limitation into the foreground. As for the last part, I’m friendlier to formal and final causes than you are, so I bet we’d hit the rocks pretty quick on “physical world.”

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      • but that sounds like an epistemological limit and not a mode of access/knowing which seems to be what yer gesturing towards (was certainly Patocka’s
        post-heideggerian task), so we jettison enacting and social-constructionisms and we replace them with ______?

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      • I don’t think we jettison them. We acknowledge these modes of appearing as a part of existence (“The world is not only the world that is, but also the world that shows itself” ) and take on the (epistemological, moral, ontological) responsibility of our proximity to them and the effects they have. Preparation for this responsibility is largely what I take “care of the soul” to mean in Patočka’s sense.

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      • yes this “but also the world that shows itself” is the part that exceeds such modes/limits and is what makes Potocka amenable to waxing theological, this isn’t negation on his part but affirmation, not unlike Michael @ synth-zero who thinks of nihilism/deconstruction as a way of shedding the scales on our eyes to allow us to see Wholes and the like.

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  2. Thanks for this piece, Adam. I’m glad you’ve got me thinking about Patočka. Czech phenomenology is underrated, and Patočka had a remarkable life. I noticed that this book just came out last month, Thinking Faith After Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy. Looks like it would fit well with some of the many lines you’re thinking along lately. The intro chapter is online (with a nice summary of where Derrida and Patočka agree).

    Click to access 64072.pdf

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    • Thanks, Sam! I’ll be sure to check out this book. Patočka came out of nowhere for me just recently, so it’ll be interesting to start getting into the secondary literature.

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    • Patocka’s negative-platonism is a kind of project(ion) of faith and I think his care of the soul was a kind of revelatory process (reminiscent M-Ponty on Flesh and didn’t Ricoeur pick up his work?) as I thought Adam was outlining here tho given his comments here I may have missed the point.

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      • I think that’s what I did, but it’s entirely possible I’m just getting it all wrong!

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      • heh, so it goes when trying do more then repeat what’s come before,, I thought it was what you were doing too but then you said “is an attempt to bring that limitation into the foreground” but that’s something (well no thing really as its just a limit) else then this kind of revelation mode.

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      • That sounds right to me: “negative Platonism” as faith; care of the soul as revelatory process. I think Adam’s outline is totally on point, and your summary of the point is as clear as a bell. I’m not contesting anything. I first came across Patočka studying the phenomenology of religion (and the so-called theological and post-secular turns), especially his ideas of sacrifice, the sacred, and responsibility, which are very close to people like Marion and Derrida. I find his integration of Platonism and Christianity fascinating. He seems to think care of the soul came into its own only through Christianity, hence his thinking about the necessity (!) of sacrifice. Making things weirder, it seems like Christianity only came into its own through the encounter with Platonism, so Christianity starts looking like a philosophy more than a religion. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s controversial food for thought, and the political implications are big too.

        Patočka’s writing on care of the soul is a political statement as much as a philosophical one, and the status of Europe (a Christian-Platonic hybrid?) looms large. His ideas couldn’t be more timely! So, as usual, Adam is getting my thoughts moving, shaking the dust off my mind. I’m left wondering about Marion’s saturated phenomena, Derrida’s ethics/politics of alterity, and the old question from Tertullian, What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? These are a few of my favorite things.

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      • yes I think you, Adam’s post and my summation are aligned in what Potacka was gesturing towards I just don’t think he gives us much to go on (in part for reasons Derrida points out about metaphysics of presence), if I was working along the broad outline of Adam’s project I would go about fleshing out the all too human limits of knowing (and ethics) much like Caputo does in his work (after Foucault on a hermeneutics of not-knowing and Derrida of the To Come) along the lines of:

        Click to access 29-Davidson-Spiritual-Exercises-2ma2y6s.pdf


        but that doesn’t give us Grounds to stand on.

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      • Great piece! I like the idea of making Greek sound strange. That fits nicely with the Hadot-style interpretation of Jazz improv in the other piece.

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      • glad you like it, as you might imagine this sort of proto-typal (vs arche-typal) approach suits my pragmatist bent, we can’t help but to assemble new object-relations/gestalts and as long as we own them as inventions and resist preaching them as Revelations I’m all in.
        Haven’t had a chance to watch this yet but seems to be of that moment(um):

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    • just to add to the mix:
      ” While experimental demonstration relies on transforming the ‘method of difference’ into a ‘suspense drama’ – it is the difference between this and that possible observation which makes the difference – the problem for philosophy is the selective aspect both of what we perceive as a matter of fact, and the way in which we describe it.Adequacy is a trap for philosophy as soon as it concerns matters of fact in the terms that we usually characterize it. If the philosopher startswith apparently simple situations such as ‘I see here a grey stone’, she starts from something already shaped by perceptive and linguistic interpretation.The point, however, is not to start from an experience devoid of interpretation. Whitehead famously remarked that if you wish to locate an experience devoid of interpretation, you may as well ask a stone to record its autobiography (1978: 15). …If Whitehead can be characterized as a constructivist philosopher, itis because by ‘disclosing’ he does not mean gaining access to some concrete truth hidden by our specialized abstractions. If no experience is devoid of interpretation, then what is prohibited from the start is that we should retain some nostalgic memory of what we previously believed we genuinely knew about nature, and entertain the possibility of a more authentic experience.Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is not about trying to recover concrete experience against its falsification by abstract interpretation. He recognized his indebtedness to Bergson, and also to William James and John Dewey,but he stated that one of his preoccupations ‘has been to rescue their typeof thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it’ (1978: XII).For Whitehead, we cannot think without abstractions, but this does not mean that we are irretrievably separated from that which we try to address. Abstractions, for Whitehead, are not ‘abstract forms’ that determine what we feel, perceive and think, nor are they ‘abstracted from’ something more concrete, and, finally, they are not generalizations. Whitehead was a mathematician, and no mathematician would endorse such definitions. But most of them would endorse Whitehead’s idea that abstractions act as ‘lures’,luring attention toward ‘something that matters’, vectorizing concrete experience.”
      https://www.academia.edu/29705613/Process_and_Reality_A_Constructivist_Reading_of

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