I noted earlier that Platonic askēsis, as seen in the beholding of the vision of beauty described in the Symposium, is a kind of aesthetic askēsis, which is also capable of transfiguring the self in unique ways. This kind of askēsis figures strongly in the work of Gabriel Trop. 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.
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?”
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’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.
I’ve been writing recently about epoché as an exercise (or askēsis) of perception. I take epoché in this context to mean something like bracketing or suspending one’s immersion in perception so that one can evaluate the construction of experience from a different angle.
Pierre Hadot describes something like an epoché when he writes about interrupting or intervening in the automatic functioning of what he calls our “inner logos.” Our perception of things, Hadot says, is conditioned by our regular habits and acquaintances with the world around us.
This conditioning has a way of sedimenting itself into our experience. The inner logos is an interface between our habituated knowledge of the world, on the one hand, and the way this knowledge grows implicit within our perception, on the other.
The ever-present reality is that the inner logos is always becoming automatic. And this in many cases is as it should be—the inner logos is a system of embodied knowledge-habits that guide our navigation through the world.
It lets us abstract expectations and qualities across events so that we don’t have to discover everything anew every time we walk out the door. However, at the same time, and for the same reason, the inner logos periodically requires intervention, interruption, and surprise.
Epoché is something like this kind of interruption. It’s a skill of perception that takes many forms. In other words, there isn’t one kind of epoché but a variety of modes of practice that suspend, interrupt, and defamiliarize sensation. The act creates a space for novelty.
Novelty in turn allows for a reconfiguration of the inner logos, of the internal system of associations and expectations that render available our understanding of the world, and even of the very way in which a world shows up for us in experience at all.
In the works of people like Edmund Husserl, epoché is a phenomenological move that takes place within the purview of some person. But as Peter Sloterdijk observes, there are also material forms of epoché, architectural affordances that provide something like an extended epoché.
This is the thought I had while in a float tank yesterday: It’s something like a material epoché, a way of bracketing out, to the extent possible, the inflowing rush of external sensory stimulation. It makes space for a reorientation of the inner logos.
The float tank is based around the idea of limiting sensory stimuli, including by reducing the sense of an inside / outside boundary (the floater rests in a tank of salt water maintained at body temperature, reducing the difference between the outside atmosphere and the body).
This is, strictly speaking, a kind of environmental scaffolding for practicing epoché. In such an environment, it grows easier to achieve, at least temporarily, the kind of reordering of the inner logos that Hadot describes as essential to the spiritual exercises of philosophy.
I don’t think a float tank is a replacement for regular contemplative practice, which must realize itself in the real world of everyday interactions, but it is for me a healthy antidote to the overstimulated world I find myself in most days. I recommend giving it a try sometime.