Dec 18, 2016

Philosophy As A Way Of Life - Who Else Besides Hadot?

One of the areas I work in as a professional philosopher is Stoic philosophy. Up to this point, I've admittedly published relatively little in traditional academic formats about Stoicism, but I regularly write, speak, and produce content about Stoicism in more popular and public settings.  Currently, I also edit an important forum for modern interpretations, discussion, and application of Stoic philosophy, Stoicism Today.  Though I'm not an orthodox Stoic, but rather an avowed eclectic, I draw upon and apply Stoic insights, practices, and techniques, not only in my own life, but also with clients in my philosophical counseling practice.

As a result, I move in quite a few circles that consist of other people who are interested in Stoicism.  That's actually something I'm very happy and grateful about - that I get to engage in conversations, not just with fellow academics, but with all sorts of people about philosophy.  Sometimes this takes place at an introductory level, but often the people I get into discussions with have developed an admirably extensive grasp of Stoic literature and doctrine.  The people drawn to Stoicism very often are interested in applying it - it putting it to work, and thereby also putting it to the test.  That is because, to use the phrase the Pierre Hadot so famously popularized, Stoicism is the sort of theory or doctrine that we can call "philosophy as a way of life."

I get asked about Hadot - and about this conception of "philosophy as a way of life" - a lot.  And I have to admit that, at times, I can be a bit brusque or dismissive in my replies, particularly when the assumption seems to be that this realization (that philosophy is meant to be lived and practiced) is something radically new, that until Hadot (or even better, Foucault) came along to reveal this feature of ancient philosophy to us, we late modern philosophers were all in the dark about this.  So here, I'd like to provide a reply at length to an interlocutor who was asking me about that topic - "philosophy as a way of life".

The Question And The Answer 

One short discussion I got into recently took place as a comment stream on one of my YouTube videos At this point, I've got over 1,000 of those, so rather than try to track that conversation down and provide it here verbatim, I'm simply going to reconstruct its main lines from my memory.

The person commenting on one of my various videos on Stoicism brought up Hadot, mentioning his work, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and asking me what I thought about it.  I replied that Hadot was certainly worth reading, but that this notion that philosophy - and philosophies - were intended quite often not just to be an abstract theory, but to be lived out, to be learned through their application, experimentally, you might say, was definitely not a new idea on the scene.

I added that what allowed for it to appear to be so was more the professionalization of academic philosophy in late modern times than anything intrinsic to the nature of philosophy.  That's a claim  that is worth exploring and defending at greater length - but I'm going to forgo that at the present. You see, I also made another point - and that's where the conversation moved - namely that if we read around in, and acquire a decent grounding in the history of philosophy, or even in a good portion of 20th century philosophy, Hadot becomes something quite different.  He's not a lone voice crying in a wilderness, but rather just one within a massive chorus of voices.

That's rather a metaphorical way to articulate matters, and I didn't express it like that in the conversation!  Instead, I wrote that there were many great philosophers and historians of philosophy who, without using the admittedly excellent formula -"philosophy as a way of life" - espoused precisely such a point of view on the nature of philosophy.

As a sidenote, this was precisely one of the issues that came up for discussion at multiple points in the 1930s debates about the possibility, nature, legitimacy, and historical existence of "Christian philosophy" - the topic of my 2011 book, Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France.  Was philosophy something that could or should be primarily theoretical, so that lived experience, applications, existential commitments, concrete existence and the like remain entirely extrinsic to it?  Certainly some of the key interlocutors within those debates - including Maurice Blondel, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Antonin Sertillanges - answered No to that question, and highlighted the unavoidable interconnection of the practical, the lived, the experiential with the theoretical in any genuinely living philosophy.

My interlocutor quite understandably asked me who else in modern or late modern philosophy viewed philosophy as a "way of life" in something similar to what Hadot emphasized.  That's not an easy question to answer for two reasons. The first is that there are just too many philosophers fitting the bill that one could name to easily rattle them off - at least for me, in writing quickly between tasks in a YouTube comment thread!  That's what I've decided to do here.

The second reason is that there's more than one way to construe "philosophy as a way of life".  Quite a few of the people I run across who bring up Hadot don't seem to have actually read his work, but rather are relying on glosses of it - at times coming through Foucault's own reference to Hadot's insights.  And that's fine - I'm not complaining - but it does make me a bit leery of saying that such-and-such a philosopher has precisely the same conception of "philosophy as a way of life" as that which Hadot identifies.  Put in other terms, and admittedly a bit facetiously, just because we're talking about philosophy as practical, as lived, as experientially and existentially committed to, doesn't mean that we ought to get all loosey-goosey about matters.  Philosophy as a way of life does still have to be philosophy, and in certain respects exceeds a purely theoretical type of philosophy in its rigor.

The French Context of Hadot's Work

I mentioned a few of the thinkers involved in the 1930s French debates about Christian philosophy as philosophers who certainly saw a continuity between concrete life and philosophy.  That's in part because, although working and making solid contributions within the field of academic philosophy, they never mistook that as an adequate substitute for philosophy per se. Philosophy was not just a literature one could find contained in books or journals, let alone the summarization or outlining of "doctrines".  Nor was philosophy - or a philosophy - a system of interconnected ideas.  Philosophy is an activity as well - and just as much - and it is not an activity of pure theoria, best (or perhaps only) done by leaving behind any concrete commitments, any practical concerns or insights, any of one's own contingent experiences.

No, for so many of the philosophers still worth reading - there's many who aren't - from late 19th and early 20th century France, philosophy was something they articulated in terms quite similar to those Hadot would later use.  Choosing to engage in ascesis, acquiring insight through practice, reflection upon experience - these are theorized about and thematized within works readily available, but unfortunately, all too often no longer read by certain philosophers of those times.  Hadot himself was completely aware of this.  Near the end of What is Ancient Philosophy he notes: "from the Middle Ages…to the Christian existentialism of Gabriel Marcel, the philosophical way of life was so long identified with the Christian way of life".

His mention of existentialism evokes one of the movements whose members we can definitively say espoused "philosophy as a way of life".  Even setting aside the Danish, Russian, German, and language representatives of that loose movement, what French-language "existentialist" thinkers can we point out in Hadot's times as working out, articulating, and espousing something like "philosophy as a way of life"?
  • Gabriel Marcel 
  • Jean-Paul Sartre 
  • Simone de Beauvoir
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  • Albert Camus (yes, I know, he denies being an "existentialist")
  • Lev Shestov (yes, Russian, but writing in France, and in French)
  • Jean Wahl
  • Nicolas Berdiaev (also a Russian emigre)
  • Simone Weil
Although they're sometimes called "existentialist Thomists", I'd say that both Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain are more Thomist at bottom than Existentialist in any strict sense - though this is something I do need to think about quite a bit more - but they too arguably come close to "philosophy as a way of life".  If I were to point to several other French Thomist thinkers of that era who strike me as similarly focused on those sorts of concerns, I would single out Antonin Sertillanges, Aime Forest, Joseph Marechal, and Henri de Lubac.  I'd also single out the historian of philosophy, Henri Gouhier.

There are two other figures who aren't particularly well known today, but whose works, thought, and engagement revitalized French philosophy in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  The one better known today is Henri Bergson.  The one less well known is Maurice Blondel, the author of Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice.

If you want to read a systematic "philosophy as a way of life" developed explicitly for modern times, antedating Hadot's own by nearly a century, well, you'll want to read Blondel.  Both Blondel and Bergson engaged in rigorous philosophical work, independently developing and deploying methods similar to those later called "phenomenology", but both were also equally attentive to the demands of the practical dimension, stressing that it could not be reduced to a mere afterthought, but had to be made front-and-center within contemporary philosophy worthy of that name.

So to bring this to a first conclusion, Hadot himself did not arise out of an intellectual vacuum.  He recounts that he wavered, when deciding the topic of his thesis, between writing upon Rilke and Heidegger (with Jean Wahl as his director) or upon the neoplatonist Marius Victorinus.  He participated in conferences that brought him into contact with Marcel, Berdiaev, and Camus.  He read these thinkers and Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Gilson, and Maritain.  So, when he stakes out his claims that philosophy is different than discourse about philosophy, and that particular philosophical schools actually practiced their philosophy, viewing that as integral to the understanding of their philosophical approaches or systems - that is, when he advances his thesis about "philosophy as a way of life" - he has already been confronted with countless examples of it.  He certainly advances the discussion, and adds his own innovative and interesting interpretation.  But he doesn't say something that, in at least a portion of his French milieu, is radically new.

Widening The Philosophical Net

You see already how many answers - in the form of references to particular thinkers - can be culled out from just the last century, and just the French context that Hadot would emerge from.  Who else might one bring up in relation to "philosophy as a way of life"?  There are even more thinkers, once we widen out net, that one could mention, so what I have to write here is of necessity rather selective.

To begin with - and I've already mentioned this above - there's that whole disparate bunch that we call the "existentialists".  I've already mentioned some of the more or less "native" French ones (Camus, of course, had that Algerian background), and the "imported" (or more accurately, refugee)  Parisian Russian philosophers.  But, there's also the rest of the existentialists as well.  For any existentialist thinker, who views philosophy as valuable, it is going to be regarded as something like a "way of life".  Philosophy is something that we do live out, experience, reflect upon, assimilate, and so forth.  So, who would count in that respect?  Well, certainly Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky - the grandfathers of the movement.  Who else?  Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jose Ortega y Gassett, at a minimum. If you also read the correspondence of Rainer Maria Rilke, and couple it with some of his poetry, I'd say you're also dealing with something similar as well.

In the times of Hadot's own formation - and keep in mind that Hadot was a Catholic, and at one time intended a priestly vocation - Thomist philosophy was a bit more of a "mixed bag" than it is even still today.  The rigid - really sterile, boring, and even stultifying - manualism of many (you almost don't even want to call them) Neo-Scholastic thinkers of the 19th and early 20th-century Catholic philosophers is part and parcel of what Hadot was reacting against.  You might call it the deliberate reduction of philosophy to what could be condensed out of it into "doctrines" and "systems" - something that even the word "theoretical" is too good for!

But what about Thomist philosophy more generally?  Was any of it - besides French thinkers we've already mentioned, like Maritain, Sertillanges, and Marechal one could also add de Finance into the mix as well) - even remotely connected with what Hadot would later call "philosophy as a way of life"?  Well, there is certainly the entire Lublin school of which Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) is doubtless the most famous representative.  But, there's a wide range of reintepreters of Aquinas, going down to the present, who recognize that philosophy is not just a discipline one studies on the way to another discipline - theology - or to engaging in pastoral work.

Speaking of Thomists - at least of reluctant and eventual converts to some interpretations of Thomism - I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Alasdair MacIntyre.  If you want to find perhaps the exponent of "philosophy as a way of life" who doesn't invoke that particular formula, but who provides the most coherent and thought-though basis for actually doing it, it would be the author of After Virtue, Whose Jusice. . . . and most recently . .. .  His arguments and historical interpretations are rather complex -mas they have to be, in order to to even close to right - so I won't try to summarize them here.  But, if you want a real voice for "philosophy as a way of life, you want to read him.

Who else should we add to the mix?  What other philosophers think that doing justice to the heritage, the discipline, and the promises of philosophy require some sort of committed life - and not that of the typical analytic or continental philosophy student or professor?  Since there are so many people one might mention, I'll confine myself to mentioning just a few who stressed the practical import of philosophy.  Foremost among them, in the 20th century, in my view, would be Hannah Arendt.  But I'd also include - and this shows you how idiosyncratic my own background and take is - thinkers like Iris Murdoch, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Paul Ricoeur, and Charles Taylor.  I'd also add in there - and this requires a good bit more discussion that I'll provide here (I'll do this over in the Half Hour Hegel blog) - that G.W.F. Hegel himself not only understood, but also articulated, something akin to "philosophy as a way of life".

I'll say, to bring this to a close - and to bring this full circle - that much of the very interesting work that is being done within the contemporary community, studying and reinterpreting classical Stoic philosophy, seems to me very invested in putting that conception of "philosophy as a way of life" into practice.  This holds whether they've read Hadot (or even summaries of his work) or not - and the "not" is the case more often than the affirmative.  What that points to is quite simply this - Hadot formulated a particularly apt expression for something at the very core of what remains vital about philosophy.