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.

New Article Out in Explorations in Media Ecology

The March 2018 issue of Explorations in Media Ecology is now available online here. You can view the abstract for my article “Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Cognition” here, but unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall. You can email me at arobbert84@gmail.com if you’re interested in reading the full essay but don’t have access to a university or library computer. The description is below.

In this article, I take a media ecology perspective on philosophy. This approach supports the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s claim that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics or epistemology but rather practice (askēsis). Sloterdijk’s practice-centred view of philosophy is shared by Pierre Hadot and Michael McGhee, both of whom give askēsis a central role in philosophy. I draw on the work of these philosophers to show that philosophy is best conceived as an act of extended cognition performed amidst different media ecologies. To make this point, I start not with humans and our practices, but with spiders and theirs. When philosophy is seen as an instance of extended cognition, I argue, one can draw parallels between our practices and those of non-human species, who like us build artefacts to deepen their perception and understanding of their environments. To this end, I explore the settings that enable philosophical training. Philosophy on this view is facilitated by an ecology of affordance spaces – academies, libraries, monasteries and more – whose design helps the philosopher perform certain manoeuvres in thought, manoeuvres that make apparent the conditions required for the Bios Theoretikos (the life of contemplation).

Philosophical Inquiry as Spiritual Exercise Audio + Notes

Here’s the audio and the notes for my part of yesterday’s panel on philosophical inquiry as spiritual exercise (also available as a pdf here). All in all, I’d say it was a great session with lots of good discussion, my demeanor in the below photo notwithstanding. Many of these themes are central to my first comprehensive exam, and my dissertation research in general, so there’ll be more to come along these lines in the next few months.


Pierre Hadot on Philosophy as a Way of Life

– Pierre Hadot (1922–2010) was a French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy, especially of Plato and Aristotle and Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism. He was a professor at the Collège de France in Paris where he also wrote and taught on Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and others. I’m drawing from two of his translated works, What is Ancient Philosophy? and the collection of essays found in Philosophy as a Way of Life. The central question in both these texts is largely the same. 

– What does it mean that philosophy is a way of life? For Hadot the answer is simple. Philosophy, when done right, involves our whole being. It means paying attention to our theoretical and intellectual beliefs, but it also means attending to our values, feelings, and practices. It requires that we pay attention to ourselves and develop a concern for those around us, for the other people in our lives and communities. It’s a whole form of life.

– Philosophy for Hadot is an existential choice in our mode of living. It’s a choice of life but also a way of making a life. In this sense, philosophy is a kind of a self-making that issues from our choice of practice. This is why Hadot argues that philosophical discourse must be understood from the perspective of the way of life of which it is both the expression and the means. Both the expression and the means, both theory and practice conjoined: This is the key to entering Hadot’s reading of philosophy, and perhaps to entering the philosophical life for one’s own self. Continue reading

The Philosopher’s Training Regime

Periodically, I come across an essay reporting that experts are not especially good when compared to lay people at overcoming the cognitive biases they should be adept at perceiving and transforming—for example, psychologists aren’t better at identifying their own complexes, ethicists don’t make more ethical choices, philosophers of mind don’t better understand their own habits, behavior, and intentions, and so on. The latest in this series of essays comes from Scientific American here. It’s just one example of the type of reporting I’m talking about (though if you take a quick trip down this rabbit hole you’ll find many more essays and studies just like it).

The Scientific American article asks the question, is self-knowledge overrated? The point being that the so-called Socratic principle of questioning and examining oneself—through philosophy, meditation, psychology, etc.—doesn’t seem, at least in the context of the academics being studied, to have the outcomes that it advertises as having (think for instance of the amount of identity-driven in-group signalling and bias we see within certain academic groups). Hence the question, is self-knowledge, in the end, overrated? A good question, but let’s hold off on giving an answer for a moment. Continue reading