Who or What is the Self?

15851875284_d0737a84a9_o[Image: Bruce Riley]

In my first comprehensive exam, 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.

I noted further that the practices of philosophy do not exist for the sake of psychological healing or integration alone, although they may afford both, and that these practices are generative of new access conditions in the self’s relation to itself and to being in general, conditions that in turn make doing philosophy possible. The philosophical imperative in this sense involves both care of the self (epimeleia heautou) and knowledge of the self (gnōthi seauton), to borrow again from Foucault’s work. In the context of Hadot’s conception of philosophy, I then argued that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, or epistemology, but practice, and specifically the practice of a self relating to itself. Philosophy on this view is a practice of learning to attend to oneself; it is a way of learning to look at one’s own sensing. Philosophy is about looking at sensing, or, better, philosophy is about understanding the processes and conditions by which sense is made in one’s life.

As an exercise of attention, philosophy shares important features with other forms of exercise, such as the physical exercises engaged in by athletes as they transform their bodies in the gymnasium, or the meditative exercises of contemplatives as they practice in their enclaves. The broader term I introduced for such modes of training was askēsis, a term that can be applied to philosophers, athletes, and contemplatives alike. Recall that askēsis is an intentional practice whereby the self gets to work on itself through diet, meditation, study, dialogue, physical training, therapy, and so on. The goal of askēsis is to create transformations, mutations, or conversions in perception, especially in one’s in-the-moment experience of various phenomena.

While askēsis can refer to a large number of transformative practices, Hadot emphasized that across the schools of Platonism, Neopythagoreanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism, and beyond into medieval, modern, and contemporary schools of philosophy, the central mode of askēsis was one of a self developing a relation to itself, an askēsis expressed in numerous ways, including as a kind of self-duplication, as a suspension between sensation and representation, as a temporal distance from immediate experience, as a death of the self, as an illumination in the field of sense, as a dialectics of the self with itself and others, as a training in concentration and attention, as a rejection of unexamined authority, and as a mode of self-making in the direction of the good and the true.

In these discussions, I accepted at face value the notion of the self. In other words, while I explored how the self can engage in acts of self-care, self-examination, and self-making, I let the self show up in these passages as something simply given, at least insofar as its genesis and ontology are concerned. In my second comp exam, then, I will take up in its metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic forms the question, What is the self? As in the last exam, where I tried to give an integrative sense for Hadot’s approach to philosophy rather than a complete exegesis of his texts, I will not offer here a linear or exhaustive reconstruction of conceptions of the self. Instead, I aim more modestly to bring into view the fact that the self is itself a problem or a question that cannot be taken as something simply given.

It is important to note in this context that philosophers, scientists, and contemplatives do not agree on what a self is or if a self even exists, and thus while a complete taxonomy of self and no-self conceptions is beyond the scope of this chapter,[1] I will take up the question specifically in relation to Hadot’s conception of philosophy as a spiritual practice. Asking the question of the self—the perennial inquiry that asks, who or what am I?—is itself a philosophical and spiritual practice. In this sense, if philosophy is a way of life and a spiritual practice, and if the eminent spiritual exercise practiced across different philosophical schools of training is an askēsis of the self—a splitting of the self to itself, a self setting to work on itself in a community of practice—then it is worth considering, if not demanded, that the question of the self be taken up in the context of Hadot’s approach to the philosophical life.

There are many questions that orbit the central inquiry of who or what is the self. For instance, is the self a necessary condition for experiences of thinking, feeling, and perceiving? Is the self fully caught up in these experiences or does it stand apart from them? Does it alternate between more than one of these poles? Is the self an unchanging substance or is it a variable activity or process? Are the processes of experience identical to the subject of those experiences? Is the self just a concept, a necessary but illusory fiction? Or is the self equivalent to the body, simply a first-person way of talking about physiology? And if it is not just the body, what else is it and what does this something else mean for scientific and naturalistic worldviews? The point of this chapter is not to treat each of these questions separately but to practice approaching them from different points of view, as shades of possibility revealed or created through different practices of inquiry.

To get at these questions and the practices that might answer them, I return again to the basic approach to philosophical practice laid out by Hadot, namely, that the key exercise, the primary askēsis, is to engage in a mode of self-examination that is presupposed by any and every attempt to navigate into, through, and beyond the question, who or what is the self? My approach is to treat the question itself as a practice and to treat the answer to the question—whatever that answer turns out to be—as a result of that practice. In this sense, Hadot’s practices of the self bare a strong resemblance to what Evan Thompson, borrowing from Buddhist traditions in Indian philosophy, calls “I-making” (ahamkāra), that is to say, at minimum, the self is enacted by a variety of sense-making and self-specifying processes that must be deployed and maintained within different environments across time.

One can also find a similar approach to these questions in the work of Peter Sloterdijk, who offered what he called a side view of the history of art, science, and philosophy. Sloterdijk’s is an approach that foregrounds the practices that create artists, scientists, and philosophers in the first place. The side view of philosophy does not describe philosophical knowledge, systems, concepts, disputes, or figures as ready-made objects of investigation. Instead, it traces the history of practices and techniques that enabled those who engage in philosophy to perform their work. In this way, the Greek aphorism I discussed earlier, “know thyself” (gnōthi seauton), which is inscribed onto the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is joined in Sloterdijk’s work with an equally forceful injunction, drawn from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The line reads simply, “You must change your life.” In taking up the side view, Sloterdijk resembles the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. Philosophy, says Socrates, is not so much about knowing this or that as it is about being this or that way (29d–e).

This task of questioning, given to Socrates by the Oracle at Delphi, is what drives those around Socrates to examine truth and knowledge from within their own souls, as an askēsis of self-examination. Sloterdijk’s side view charts this history of askēsis, in a way re-framing the question, What is philosophy? by asking instead, Who is the philosopher? This move re-centers questions of knowledge to questions of the person, where knowledge becomes a question of shaping the individual. Here is Sloterdijk on history as a history of training practices:

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 would happen 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 ascetism that shaped artists.

Sloterdijk’s emphasis on practice is similar to Hadot’s sense of philosophy as a way of life, and it forms the basic method of this essay. The more important question then is, what are the moves and practices, if any, that are general to all practices of self-making? These are a few of the themes I’ll be exploring in this essay. I’ll no doubt post the results of this inquiry here when the time comes.

[1] Such an undertaking has been attempted in, for example, Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self, Richard Sorabji’s Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death, Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self, Dan Zahavi’s Subjectivity and Selfhood, and Mark Sidertis’s, Evan Thompson’s, and Dan Zahavi’s Self, No Self?, which includes not only Western perspectives but Indian ones as well.

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).

On Pierre Hadot – A Draft Much too Long for a Blog Post


Pierre Hadot (1922–2010) was a French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy, especially of Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism. He was a professor at the Collège de France in Paris where he also wrote and taught on a number of philosophers, including Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, to name a few. In this essay, I draw from several of his translated works, including What is Ancient Philosophy? the collection of essays found in Philosophy as a Way of Life, his work Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, and his text on Marcus Aurelius, The Inner Citadel. The essay serves as an overview and introduction to the thought of Pierre Hadot. However, what follows is not a reconstruction of any particular school of philosophy. Nor does the essay offer a linear reconstruction of the history of these philosophies.

Instead, in this essay I recreate the sense of what Hadot found so crucial to philosophy. Namely, the idea that philosophy is a way of life, a set of practices spiritual in nature. Philosophy for Hadot is a means of integrating questions of ethics, knowledge, being, and aesthetics into the actions and choices of the person. All of these concerns, Hadot often underscores, are developed for the sake of creating an ability to care for ourselves and one another, for developing a more comprehensive understanding of human beings and the world, and for maintaining a political obligation to a community. The assumption I make is that Hadot not only writes about the history of ancient philosophy, but also gives his readers his own approach to philosophical practice through the historical account he offers. Continue reading

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