A talk I gave recently at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA.
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.
I’ve just received word that the online journal Cosmos and History will soon publish an article I completed on the work of Pierre Hadot and Peter Sloterdijk. Readers of this blog are no doubt already familiar with C&H, but if you haven’t visited their site before you’ll find a substantial and worth-while back catalogue of articles available for free. I’m told my essay will appear online in March. The article gives a fuller voice to a few ideas I’ve been ruminating on (see for example here and here). I’ll be sure to post the link to the full essay when it’s published. For now, I’m including below my abstract for the paper.
THE SIDE VIEW:
HADOT AND SLOTERDIJK ON THE PRACTICE OF PHILOSOPHY
This essay describes Peter Sloterdijk’s “side view” of philosophy. That is, it describes the self-disciplines that make philosophical activity possible. Along similar lines, the paper draws on the work of Pierre Hadot, who also reads philosophy as an askēsis or exercise of self-transformation. Bringing together the work of Sloterdijk and Hadot, the essay reframes the question, What is Philosophy? by asking, Who is the philosopher? To this end, the essays synthesizes the work of Hadot and Sloterdijk, describing first the philosopher’s exercises of self-transformation, then their relation to the city and the community at a large, and finally their connection to the practice zones, enclaves, and microclimates, to use Sloterdijk’s terms, that enable the philosopher to perform certain maneuvers in thought. The paper concludes with an assessment of Sloterdijk’s global view of human practice—which he calls “the planet of the practicing”—to suggest that a planetary perspective should hold a privileged view for future philosophical inquiries. Who are the philosophers? They are the practitioners of planet Earth, the ascetic planet.
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):