The notion that askēsis is as much additive as privative is central to Foucault’s larger discussion of the term. Readers will recognize a connection with Hadot when Foucault writes, “This is a work of the self on the self, an elaboration of the self by the self, a progressive transformation of the self by the self for which one takes responsibility in a long labor of ascesis (askēsis).” Foucault also speaks of askēsis as “converting to oneself” through abstinence, meditations on death, trials of endurance, and self-examination, and as a question that asks, “What working practice is entailed by conversion to the self?”
On February 22 at the Young Scholars Colloquia: Spirituality in Philosophy and Theology. It’ll be my usual banter, this time with a bigger focus on aesthetics. Abstract below.
The French philosopher and historian Pierre Hadot dedicated his career to rendering an image of philosophy as a way of life. This way of life, Hadot often underscored, was anchored to a set of spiritual exercises (askēsis) that were neither merely preparations for nor complements to philosophical theory. Instead, the practices were themselves the vehicles by which philosophical illumination could be achieved. But in what do these practices consist? And to what extent can one treat philosophical practice as a whole as a spiritual exercise? I will draw on two sources to show how we can think of philosophy as itself a spiritual practice. In the first example, I will position transcendental idealism as a mode of spiritual or contemplative inquiry. In the second, I will recount Gabriel Trop’s wide-ranging study on aesthetics as a way of life—as an askēsis concerned with the forming and unforming of the individual’s inner and outer sensibilities—to explore the role of art in philosophical transformation. To conclude, I will suggest that askēsis, as a specifically spiritual set of exercises, is the central fact of philosophical development. Philosophy is in this sense a way of transforming the person such that new modes of perception and understanding become possible.
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.