Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  13 Jan 20  by   Adam Robbert  on  Medium
The Primacy of Practice in the Modern World

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.[1]

As Cottingham notes, “To be religious is not just to espouse certain doctrines; it is to follow a certain way of life and to take up certain commitments. It is in part a project of formation, of forming or reforming the self, a process of askēsis (training) or of mathēsis (learning).”[2] Cottingham’s definition of the religious life mirrors quite closely Hadot’s account of the philosophical one. In both cases, the path set forth is not limited to mere discursivity or doctrinal memorization; it is in fact a way of life that extends into the practices and habits of the whole person. The spiritual life is above all about the priority of practice. “It suggests not just the theoretical acquisition of knowledge,” writes Cottingham, “but a structured programme supported by rules and practices.”[3]

As a way of life, Cottingham’s philosophy of religion aims for the long view. In his own words, “The ‘conversion’ at which spiritual practices have traditionally been aimed is not conceived of as something that can be completed on a particular day, or even over a single season, but is thought of as a lifelong process.”[4] Cottingham lists among these practices activities like prayer, fasting, and meditation, all engaged in with “the goal of achieving a vision of reality that would lead to self-understanding and self-transformation.”[5] As with many other instances of askēsis I’ve described, the practices Cottingham concerns himself with include acts of privation (e.g., fasting), but ultimately go beyond them. As I said earlier, askēsis is as much an additive enterprise as it is a subtractive one. “The central notion of askēsis, found for example in Epictetus,” Cottingham writes, “implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living.’”[6]

This “practical programme of training” is precisely what Cottingham finds missing from the modern curriculum of philosophy. Foucault makes a similar point when he diagnosis a certain “Cartesian moment” in the history of philosophy wherein the transformations of the self underwritten by askēsis are replaced by the simpler and more universal requirements of the twin acquisition of knowledge and evidence.[7] Foucault’s argument is that there is a point in modern philosophy, marked by Descartes, where acquiring knowledge without the need of a corresponding transformation of the self comes to prominence.

Hadot for his part is skeptical that Foucault’s reading in this area really captures the essence of Descartes’s philosophy and method — Descartes’s major work is after all titled Meditations, which Hadot I think correctly reads as an explicit reference to the type of practice of self-transformation that askēsis implies — and yet there is a sense where, if not by name, the “Cartesian moment” does mark a more general shift away from practices of transformation and towards the reduction of philosophy to something like propositional knowledge and argumentation, learned and memorized without requiring a change in the subject.

Hadot cites the emergence of Christianity and the European university system as two reasons for the shift away from practice in philosophy,[8] but Cottingham has an additional angle worth considering here. While Descartes’s meditations should be read as a series of spiritual exercises, as an askēsis of self-transformation, he in the end advocates for a different way forward, specifically, for the use of new scientific methods to shortcut the need for practice in the transformation of the person.

Cottingham poses Descartes’s question, a reality Descartes believes will be made possible by a future science, this way, “[Instead of emphasizing practice] why not simply modify the course of the nervous impulses, so that the damaging inclinations that lead us off the path of virtue are rechanneled toward more healthy and more worthy objects?”[9] Descartes on Cottingham’s telling is advocating for hacking the biological system to achieve what before was attained only through practice, discipline, and dedication aimed in the direction of some moral, aesthetic, and veridical good. But, as Cottingham continues, “Such induced changes have no inherent moral significance: their value hinges merely on their instrumentality toward some desired end.”[10]

Philosophy cannot be reduced to such instrumental ends; it is not compatible with Cartesian biohacking. Askēsis, and the transformation it enables, is embedded in the practice of practice itself. There is no shortcutting the repetition, endurance, and commitment needed of the life of practice. The deliverances afforded by askēsis have no shortcuts; they can only be achieved in training. As Cottingham states,

However, sincere and well-intentioned Descartes’s own vision may have been of what the new science could achieve in the ethical sphere, what he has in fact unleashed is a seductive fantasy of a swift and easy “fix” for the good life the idea that we have the power to get to where we want by any technological means available.[11]

Life hacks have their role in the world, but shortcutting philosophical practice isn’t one of them. In many ways, askēsis is the opposite of the shortcut to practice promised by Cartesian fixes. It is a transfiguration of the self achieved only through walking the path set by practice, and this will remain true today, tomorrow, and long into the future. If humans ever leave this planet, there will be ascetics training in the darkness of space.

[1] Cottingham, Philosophy of Religion.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 149.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Foucault, Hermeneutics of the Subject, 14–17.

[8] Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy.

[9] Cottingham, “Philosophy and Self-Improvement,” 161.

[10] Ibid., 162.

[11] Ibid., 163.

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