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.
I 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.
As part of The Side View launch last week, I gave a presentation on the philosophical background that informs the overall vision of the site.
At the start of the talk, I also read a short introduction about The Side View’s mission, which you can read here. My notes for the rest of the talk are below.
If you’re interested in participating in The Side View in some way, please be in touch through our contact page here.
[Image: Andreas Nicolas Fischer]
In an earlier essay, I gave an overview of Hadot’s claim that ancient philosophy was conceived as a way life, as an existential path characterized by spiritual exercises rather than a set of merely theoretical or academic positions. I noted that for Hadot the concerns of theory and intellectual discourse are integrated within the spiritual exercises of philosophy—in other words, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions for living a philosophical life—and that philosophical practice from Hadot’s perspective must also include the arenas of practice, aesthetics, values, and action. On Hadot’s reading, the philosophical exercises that unite these domains are those of a self developing a relation to itself through contemplation, meditation, and self-examination; by dialectical engagements with one’s self, one’s interlocutors, and one’s mentors; and with a political and social commitment to participating in one’s community or city, as typified by Socrates’s relation to his city, Athens.