Logos, Epistrophē, and Paraskeuē

IMG_1192The 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).”[1] 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?”[2]

Edward McGushin has written a very helpful book in this area titled simply Foucault’s Askēsis. This text makes clear that Foucault’s later work on the theme of care of the self is essential to his understanding of ascetic practices. McGushin writes, “Care of the self is therefor an askēsis, an exercise through which one becomes a subject.”[3] In addition to positioning care as a practice of the self, McGushin also emphasizes how askēsis results in an addition to the subject. One sees here the link between theory, or discursive knowledge, and the effect it has on the formation of the person. “Knowledge of things, of the world, is a spiritual practice insofar as it transforms the self,” is McGushin’s way of putting it, as he recounts how listening, reading, writing, and speaking are also modes of ascetic practice. Mēlētē, or solitary, meditative exercise, in this case, is another example McGushin gives, which again points to the recursivity inherent to ascetic practice. McGushin writes, “In a meditation the subject is transformed, put to the test, and is, in a sense, at the mercy of the thoughts she thinks.”[4]

As with Hadot’s understanding, Foucault marks a link between philosophy, or “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth,”[5] and spirituality, or “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.”[6] Here Foucault lists purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, “conversions of looking,” and “modifications of existence” as specifically spiritual exercises.[7] His discussion of askēsis emerges within this confluence of philosophy and spirituality.

A specific example that Foucault takes up in his text is the practice of epistrophē, which he variously describes a reversion, a recollection, a turning away from appearances, or an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance.[8] As I noted earlier, the structure of an ascetic practice can be similar across schools that hold wildly different metaphysical commitments—in, for example, the different ways the meaning of the self’s relation to itself is rendered in Aristotelian, Plotinian, Kantian, and Christian monastic contexts—whilst still operating with a more or less isomorphic understanding of how to execute a practice.

Epistrophē is one of these practices. As Foucault notes, the notion of “turning away” from the world of appearances is present in Platonic and Hellenistic-Roman versions of epistrophē, while the meaning of such a turn is quite different in each philosophical context. The Platonic epistrophē involved a practice of recollecting one’s “ontological homeland” (of truth, essence, Being, and so on), while the Hellenistic-Roman epistrophē had a much more immanent character, advocating not for a turning toward another, truer world outside of this one, but for a freedom achieved through turning away from appearances in the here and now.[9]

Certainly, the emphasis on purification, renunciation, and epistrophē calls to mind ascetism’s privative side, but even here Foucault is clear that this meaning does not account for the complex scope of ascetic practice. He writes, Askēsis is related here to the “self-transfiguration that is the happiness one takes in oneself.” This, says Foucault, was “the objective of askēsis.”[11]

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. Foucault continues, “In two words, ancient ascesis does not reduce: it equips, it provides.”[12] What does it provide? Foucault answers, it provides paraskeuē (in Greek) or instructio (in Latin). Foucault describes paraskeuē as “both an open and an oriented preparation of the individual for the events of life.”[13] It is in the nature of askēsis to deliver and install new capacities as one withdraws from old habits and behaviors.

Foucault continues, “In the ascesis, the paraskeuē involves preparing the individual for the future, for a future of unforeseen events whose general nature may be familiar to us, but which we cannot know whether and when they will occur.”[14] The image of the athlete returns in this context. The athlete, suggests Foucault, is the one who practices a certain kind of askēsis, to acquire paraskeuē, which can also imply an internalization of a certain logos, “or a rationality that states the truth and prescribes what we must do at the same time.”[15]

These logoi—the sense here is that we internalize many of them—are important for Foucault, “They are inductive schemas of action, which, in their inductive value and effectiveness are such that when present in the head, thoughts, heart, and even body of someone who possesses them, that person will then act as if spontaneously.”[16] Askēsis is in this sense not a practice opposed to understanding, but is in fact a practice that through its execution delivers understanding. One learns through ascetic practice. Foucault continues, “So, these material elements of rational logos [e.g., written instructions or examples] are effectively inscribed in the subject as matrices of action. This is paraskeuē. And the aim of the askēsis necessary to the athlete of life is to obtain this.”[17] Askēsis, then, is productive of such matrices of action, matrices that just are the body’s reorganization into new modes of being, into new modes of perception, which amounts to the same thing. Perception and being are integrally related through askēsis, a theme I also see pronounced in the work of Peter Sloterdijk.

[1] Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 16.

[2] See ibid., pp. 321, 417, 311.

[3] McGushin, Foucault’s Askēsis, 125.

[4] Ibid., 127.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 209–11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 319.

[11] Ibid., 320.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 321.

[15] Ibid., 323.

[16] Ibid., 323.

[17] Ibid., 324.

The Primacy of Practice in the Modern World

IMG_1182The 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.[1] Continue reading

Peter Sloterdijk: Athletics and Anthropotechnics

IMG_1158I’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,[1] 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. Continue reading

Float Tanks and Epoché

Dzjro-zVsAAJ0jUI’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.

Aesthetics and Athletics

IMG_8968I write sometimes about philosophy as a way of life, as an exercise (askēsis) of conversion or transformation. But one could also write a parallel story of art as a way of life, as an aesthetic askēsis likewise oriented around a re-constellation of sensing, feeling, and thinking.

Gabriel Trop writes this way about art as a way of life, and of poetry in particular. Trop’s idea is that art begins as a kind of mimesis, an imitation of the world, but ultimately drives at askēsis, a reconfiguration of the artist and the viewer of the work of art.

The art work is a material presence in the world, an attractor that interacts with and transforms the ordering of perceptual experience—art is a means of transforming the physiognomy of seeing; it is a way of re-patterning habitual modes of experience.

Aesthetic askēsis, the work of making art, is thus different from other modes of askēsis, like the critical self-examinations of philosophy or the practice routines of athletics and physical development, which are aimed at maintenance, improvement, and optimization.

The figure of the athlete shares in common many characteristics with the figure of the artist—they are both engaged in acts of askēsis—but they also exhibit important differences. The athlete has a special relationship to the program—to the set and predictable ordering of a routine, executed again and again with a ritual intensity that favors the mad person capable of unending repetition.

The artist, on the other hand, certainly partakes of the athletic sensibility in their upswing and development—as the artist builds strength in a craft—but the end result and aim is something quite different from that of general athletics.

The athlete operates within the structure of a pre-existing game. The artist creates new ones. Art is in this way a kind of anti-program; it is not a planned routine in the same way that athletic preparation is. Art delivers the unseen or the unforeseeable; it creates novelty.

Aesthetic askēsis aims at states of absorption without purpose, though as with every kind of askēsis, the work of art—both the artwork and the work required to produce it—links exercise and perception. Aesthetic work is an act of transforming perception and being.

These figures, the artist and the athlete, may cohere in the same person. The artist may be an athlete of preparation and the athlete may derive creativity through artistic inspiration—the great ones always do—but they are nevertheless distinct, if mutually enhancing, activities.