Giving an honest self-inventory; or, how to be post-ironic

The literary scholar Christy Wampole has called ours an “ironic age” in which “directness has become unbearable to us,” and in “How to Live Without Irony,” her New York Times Stone essay that appeared in this Sunday’s Review, she provides some clues for how we could live in a post-ironic manner.  These clues include

saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

Saying these things in print is only a start, however, and the genre of the essay–whether personal or academic–ends just as the art of self-transformation begins. As Pierre Hadot argues in his interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden,

the true problem was not to write, but to live in the woods, to be capable of supporting such an experience, as difficult in its ascetic aspect–life in the woods–as in its contemplative aspect and, one could say, mystical aspect–this plunging into the heart of nature. In other words, the philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it; and this literary work cannot totally express what Thoreau has lived…

In the email I sent to Wampole, I touched upon the need for “honest self-inventory,” an account the Pythagoreans ask us to give daily in the Golden Verse. In my philosophy practice, I try to set out (what I take to be) the four necessary conditions for self-inventory in and through dialogue. I insist that, during any philosophical conversation, a conversation partner

(1) prepare himself to have a philosophical conversation,

(2) speak with me outside of clock time and in the time of eternity,

(3) engage with me only in plain speech, and

(4) that he say “I don’t know” when he really doesn’t know the answer to a proper, well-formulated question.

Under these conditions, we can get on with the business of making an honest self-inventory of our lives.

But this is not all. What must be remarked upon further, as is alluded to in Hadot’s words about Walden, is the act of self-knowing, which is not rational assent solely but a spiritual exercise.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened upon an excellent passage from Ilsetraut Hadot’s essay, “The Spiritual Guide,” an essay included in a book called Classical Antiquity. Ilsetraut Hadot, like her late husband Pierre Hadot, claims that knowing is a resonant, resonating habitus and that the role of the philosopher is to be that of a spiritual guide and friend. She writes that in the ancient philosophical schools

the widening of knowledge occurs very gradually, and the fundamental dogmas have to be memorized [p.452] again and again after, or simultaneously with, every advance in knowledge. For what is desired is not knowledge, but rather knowledge as habitus, the transformation of the individual through knowledge. The heterodox Stoic Ariston, who, in the statement cited here, agrees with all ancient philosophers except the Skeptics, states: “Philosophy is divided into knowledge and state of mind. For one who has learned and understood what he should do and avoid is not a wise man until his mind is metamorphosed into the shape of that which he has learned.” (Ariston in Seneca, Epistulae Morales 94.48)

First of all, the elements of knowledge must be appropriated, which is a purely intellectual process. Then, knowledge must be impressed upon the mind in such a way that it is always at hand and that it cannot be limited or lost on account of any external circumstances—in other words, in such a way that it becomes one with the individual and a constituent part of the person’s being. This second stage can be attained only through practice and habituation with the incorporation of one’s emotional components. Let us take as an example the dogma ‘Death is not an evil,’ which was professed by all the ancient schools of philosophy. The philosopher-spiritual guide knows that it is not sufficient to know this and to be familiar with and to have grasped intellectually the philosophical proofs that are the foundation for this statement; one must be convinced to such a degree that one’s whole inner nature is penetrated by it.

Knowing itself just is knowing oneself, just is coming to know oneself through the difficult work of transforming one’s whole nature. If you wish to be post-ironic, then far more will be required of you than reading an article: more than retweeting it, more than studying it, more than writing about it, more than teaching a course on it, more than publishing a book on it. All of this may be an invitation to philosophical life but it may also be a distraction: a labor of ignorance, error, and habit.

On Hadot’s ‘third way’ of doing philosophy

I read an essay by Pierre Hadot’s main translator Michael Chase about philosophy as a way of life (PWL). In “Observations on Pierre Hadot’s Conception of Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Chase proposes that PWL could be a ‘third way’ of doing philosophy that is neither analytic nor Continental. In my experience (which chimes, I would wager, with that of others who are equally disenchanted with professional philosophy), analytic philosophy is logically rigorous but also too narrowly focused. In contradistinction, Continental philosophy has tended to be more prescient and wide-ranging yet also muddled, baroque, bombastic.

Interestingly and quite apart from their stylistic differences, both analytic and Continental philosophy would–notwithstanding such important exceptions as Bernard Williams, Bergson, and Nietzsche–both instantiate the Theoretical Vision of philosophy. Hadot’s general orientation, which I hereby interpret in the light of my own thinking, gives us the lineaments of a Practical Vision of philosophical life.

1. Philosophy is not theoretical discourse but a way of being. Philosophical discourse, accordingly, appears only when necessary and is always put in the service of leading a certain kind of life.

2. This way of being is realized through and only through ongoing spiritual exercises: exercises meant to form and transform one’s perception of, and being within, the world.

3. The philosophical inquirer sets off on the path of self-transformation. His ultimate aim is to lead a radiant life.

‘What was most essential for us could not be expressed’

In this remarkable excerpt from the opening pages of The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, translated by Marc Djaballah, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009, 5-7, Pierre Hadot speaks about the boyhood mystical experiences that led him, many years later, to embrace philosophical inquiry.

“What was most essential for us,” Hadot says, “could not be expressed” (my italics). The ineffable has always presented philosophy with a challenge. On the one hand, philosophy wants to say what there is, yet this wanting to say what there is runs the risk of hubris: the temptation of reducing the unsayable or the otherwise to a linguistic regimen that distinguishes items and pins them down. On the other hand, philosophy’s standing wordlessly, humbly before the ineffable can, in due course, amount either to dumbness (blankly staring) or to horror (falling eternally within the abyss).

Perhaps a path still remains for philosophy to tread: the path of neither ‘effing’ the ineffable nor wordlessly ignoring it, a path, instead, that seeks to cradle the mystical experience by making it more explicit. Philosophy would thereby provide a conceptual shelter for what is most alive about what is most human.


Jeannie Carlier: Were you a pious child yourself?

Pierre Hadot: Yes, I had a faith that was completely naive but, I must say, without enthusiasm. For example, the day of my first Communion my grandfather said, “This is the happiest day of your life,” and I wasn’t happy at all that he had told me that, because I did not feel special. When, at the age of twelve, I went to Rome on a pilgrimage with my two brothers and the pope appeared on the sedia gesatoria [portable throne], my brother Henri began to scream, “Long live the pope!” and I was completely surprised by his enthusiasm. I thought it was interesting but that he did not need to put himself into such a state.

Things changed at the time of my adolescence. Indeed, for a long time I have had the impression of having been in the world only from the time of my adolescence. I will always regret having thrown away–out of Christian humility–the first notes written that were like the echo of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then. I do remember their framework. One happened on rue Ruinart, on the path I took home to my parents’ house every day from the Petit Seminaire. Night had fallen. The stars were shining in the immense sky. At this time one could still see them.

Another took place in a room of our house. In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world. In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I? Why am I here? What is this world I am in? I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there. At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This world was present to me, immensely present. Much later I would discover that this awareness of belonging to the Whole was what Romain Rolland called the “oceanic sentiment.”

I believe that I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one means this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world. At that time I did not know how to formulate what I felt, but I experienced the need to write, and I remember very clearly that the first text I wrote was a sort of monologue in which Adam discovers his body and the world around him. From this moment on I have had the sentiment of being apart from others, for it did not seem possible that my friends or even my parents could imagine things of the kind. It was only much later that I realized that many people have analogous experiences, but do not speak of them.

I began to perceive the world in a new way. The sky, the clouds, the stars, the “evenings of the world,” as I would say to myself, fascinated me. With my back on the window ledge, I looked toward the sky at night with the impression of being plunged into the starry immensity. This experience dominated my entire life. I experienced it many times again–several times, for example, in front of Lac Majeur at Ascona; or at the sight of the chain of the Alps from the bank of Lake Geneva at Lausanne or from Salvan, in Valais. This experience has been the discovery for me of something overwhelming and fascinating that was absolutely not connected to Christian faith. Thus it played an important role in my inner development. Moreover, it considerably influenced my conception of philosophy. I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.

Since then, I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life–which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world–and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.” I did not dare tell anyone what I had experienced: I felt for the first time that there are things that cannot be said. I also remembered that when the priests spoke about God or about death, crushing or terrifying realities, they recited ready-made phrases that appeared conventional and contrived to me. What was most essential for us could not be expressed.