The definition Hadot gives of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, in addition to the links between Greek philosophy, Christian monastic practice, and aesthetics I’ve just highlighted, makes it clear that askēsis is not bounded by the categories of philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion. In fact, askēsis is in many ways an avenue by which one might unite them, their many possible differences notwithstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that debates over the role of askēsis in philosophical practice emerge in both philosophy and religion. I’m thinking here specifically of John Cottingham’s account of the philosophy of religion, and the important, if not defining, role that askēsis plays within it.
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.
Below are a few thoughts on Fichte’s advance over Kant’s critical philosophy. I’m finding that there’s much in Fichte’s work that forms something of a historical starting point for my own work on concepts as capacities. There are substantial differences, too. For example, Fichte’s strong separation of the causal order of nature and the normative order of human freedom strikes me as implausible, and it would be hard to imagine a philosopher arguing the point with as much force today (though the exact way to think of this partition—or to not think it at all—continues to give everyone a headache).
That said, as I read them, the primary difference between Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophies lies in their differing starting points, in what a grounding for transcendental philosophy requires. If Kant was correct to say that experience has an a priori structure that conditions all possibilities of experience, he was wrong to suggest that this a priori structure—including the forms of intuition, the categories of the understanding, the ideas of reason, and the transcendental ego itself—could be taken as simply given. That is, in much the same way that Kant’s critical philosophy leads one to reject the mere givenness of empirical experience, this same rejection should be applied to the mere givenness of the a priori concepts and categories of the transcendental itself.