Philosophy and Practice

Saturday January 26, 2008


The other day I was at the university attending a seminar on practical philosophy. The seminar was being led with considerable verve and gusto by Italian philosopher Franco Volpi, who was talking about practical philosophy, drawing on Foucault’s book , a book I haven’t yet had the chance to read.

The main thesis in the talk was that there has been a tendency in the Western philosophical tradition to conflate what Foucault call the “care of the self” – the various practices that make up much of Hellenistic philosophy, for example Stoicism – with knowledge of the self – the Socratic imperative. As a result philosophy has become impoverished. Something that was always meant to bring about a good form of life becomes merely a means of airy speculation about the world. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on Stoic practices:

Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment, daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions, hupomnemata, and so on. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.

This kind of practice goes far beyond self-knowledge, simply because knowledge is not, whatever some philosophers may think, the be-all and end-all of human life. To live philosophically – at least for the Stoics – it is not just a matter of knowing oneself, but also of finding for oneself a mode of conduct, a way of being in the world, an ethos that leads to a happy and virtuous state of being.

All of which will be familiar to those schooled in the Buddhist traditions, where traditions of practice are extremely vibrant, and where it is generally understood that theoretical knowledge is not enough. But it struck me as I sat there in the seminar room, that once we had identified the problem, we were talking about the wrong kinds of things. We were batting around theoretical speculations on the way in which contemporary philosophy reduces practice to theory; and thus we were replicating the very problem that we had identified.

Nobody in the seminar suggested that we redress the balance by exploring how we could train our attention to the fleeting, momentary sensations; nobody proposed that we should, to better understand the matter at stake, work out a programme of practices of reflection, journal writing and confession. Nobody suggested we should train ourselves, as good Stoics, in hardship by sleeping on the floor and not in our soft feather beds. And, to the extent that we were not doing these things, but only talking about them, then at least by the standards we were setting for ourselves in the discussion, we were not doing philosophy at all.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to explore the real practical implications of these different philosophical approaches elsewhere. The happiness course that I am teaching in the Botanical Gardens – which I like to imagine as a kind of Epicurean haven just outside the city walls of Birmingham – continues to be immensely enjoyable, and it satisfies this practical criterion for philosophy much more fully. In the previous week we have been putting into practice some Epicurean principles, and from the feedback this afternoon, it seems that Epicurean practices really do cheer you up. In the second half of the session today, we moved onto Stoicism – a very different kettle of philosophical pilchards – so I look forward to hearing next Friday how everybody gets on with the Stoic disciplines I have set for them to try out in the week…

# · Alan

Will, a book you might be interested in on this topic is Marya Schechtman’s The Constitution of Selves. To quote from the publisher’s book description: “An amnesia victim asking ‘Who am I?’ means something different from a confused adolescent asking the same question. Marya Schechtman takes issue with analytic philosophy’s emphasis on the first sort of question to the exclusion of the second.”

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