Practices of Perception

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.