The 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.
I’ve heard a few times over the years people associate metacognitive observation (of thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.) with a kind of despair, depression, or alienation, as though this were a good thing, as though the metacognitive insights we associate with philosophy are uniquely delivered by depressed or alienated affect, and that in turn alienation has some unique purchase on developing freedom and autonomy. To be sure, when you’re feeling depressed and alienated one of the unexpected side effects is a kind of metacognitive ability to self-monitor, but it’s not a sustainable way of being in the long run, and it feels more like depersonalization than a healthy developmental attribute. I’m speaking from experience.
I’ll leave aside for the moment the larger conversation one could develop around Hadot, Foucault, and Sloterdijk, because doing justice to such a dialogue would require a whole new project unto itself. Instead, I’ll just mark simply—and inadequately—that the nexus of this conversation, in many ways precipitated first by Foucault’s picking up in his later works of a few central themes found in Hadot, and then carried forward by Sloterdijk’s discussion of both his predecessors, centers around askēsis and its meaning. Each figure draws us back to practice in his own way.
My talk for the ( æthos ) Salon Series: Intuition as Sensemaking event held on November 4. It’s about linking perceptual learning to intuition and in so doing starting to frame an account of the genesis of intuitive abilities, or, as I’m framing it, a process we could call intuition-making. Full notes below.
For those of you interested in transformative exercise, psychotechnologies, ecologies of practice, and so on, here’s a short thread on askēsis, a word I think you’ll find useful.
Askēsis is 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, and includes 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, “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious,” which is connected to the “skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade,” as well as askein “to exercise, train” with reference “to fashion material, embellish or refine material.”
Thomas Merton offers this, “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.
Askēsis, then, 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.
You can find further references, discussion, and examples in longer form here.