I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment.
In my dissertation summary, I linked the works of Evan Thompson, Pierre Hadot, Peter Sloterdijk, and Michel Foucault in terms of each philosopher’s emphasis on what we could call skills of perception and action, each suggesting a view of philosophy as practice. In Pierre Hadot’s work What is Ancient Philosophy?, for example, we find a view of the history of philosophy as a history of practices of self-transformation and self-overcoming (up to and including considerations of just who the “self” is that is overcome).
Despite the implications of his title, Hadot sees the emphasis on practice as also prevalent in modern philosophical figures, including Descartes, Kant, and Montaigne. In principle, we could take a practice view of any tradition of philosophical thought, as many of Hadot’s commentators have done. This is largely the same approach that Peter Sloterdijk takes. In The Art of Philosophy, Sloterdijk introduces us to his method of reading the history of art and science (and philosophy, as the work will show):
Just as the history of science usually presumes that the scientists who do their disciplines already exist, the history of art has assumed since time immemorial that artists are the natural protagonists of the business that produces works of art, and that these players have always existed as well. What would happen if we rotated the conceptual stage ninety degrees in both cases? What if we observed artists in their efforts to become artists in the first place? We could then see every phenomenon on this field more or less from a side view and, alongside the familiar history of art as a history of completed works, we could obtain a history of the training that made it possible to do art and the asceticism that shaped artists. (9)
As with art, so with science and philosophy. This shift away from the completed works of the disciplines and towards the practices that produced the people who made those works is similar to the shift Foucault enacts in his later philosophy. Writing of Foucault’s approach, Arnold Davidson notes that Foucault’s work in his lectures at the Collège de France offer “the working out of a philosophically new point of access to the history of ancient, and especially Hellenistic, philosophy.” It’s pretty clear that Foucault’s “philosophically new point of access” probably comes in no small part from his encounter with Hadot’s work, but nevertheless the emphasis on practices of subject formation can be found throughout Foucault’s whole career.
Now consider Evan Thompson. In two recent talks on 4E cognition (here and here; the second link requires leaving an email address for access), Thompson takes up many of the same themes. For instance, he notes in his abstract to the first talk that the practice of mindfulness meditation “should not be conceptualized as inner mental observation instantiated in the brain, but rather as a mode of skillful cognition for situated action.” In the second video, Thompson notes how skilled meditators have a discipline that enables sensitization to subtle shifts in attention and awareness, a skill shared by artists, who, in Thompson’s terms, also possess a certain discipline of attention, a discipline we could call a practice of perception. On my view, the philosopher, in Hadot’s sense, is someone who, like the meditator, the scientist, and the artist, is engaged in the transformation of the field of perception as it emerges in the first-person experience. My dissertation is largely focused on articulating the details of this image.
It’s been just over a year since I posted anything new here, but that’s not for lack of study or engagement on my part. Work—both intellectual and vocational—continues apace. Readers may be interested to know that I’ve started pursuit of a PhD here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below I’m sharing a short description of my plans for the dissertation. Things may change a bit here and there as I complete various sections of the dissertation, but I expect to follow pretty closely the below summary. I’m not sure what will become of Knowledge Ecology at this point. I may start afresh with a new blog. I may continue blogging here. I might abandon the Internet all together. Who knows.
The thing about blogging—both positive and negative—is that it puts on offer a continuous stream of output, an ongoing account of one’s thinking and development. This has the double effect of providing greater context for one’s writing but also makes it difficult, at least psychologically for me, to separate oneself from earlier work in the way that writing books or articles naturally provides. The Internet tends toward a pathological amount of continuity and interconnectivity that I think many of us writing in this medium would be wise to rail against. In any case, enjoy the PhD ruminations.