Discourse about philosophy / Philosophical discourse

When I was first introduced to Hadot’s work, it was really an introduction to the final essay of his book called Philosophy as a Way of Life – the title of the essay shares the title of the book. Even more specifically, I was introduced to a central dichotomy focused on by Hadot in the essay: discourse about philosophy, versus philosophy as a way of life, as evident in the following observation by Hadot (1995:269): “In general, historians of philosophy pay little attention to the fact that ancient philosophy was, first and foremost, a way of life. They consider philosophy as, above all, philosophical discourse”. It is very interesting that Hadot singles out what I have called a central ‘shaper of discourse’, encountered in Chapter 3 of this study – namely Christianity – as instrumental in the process whereby philosophy (to speak generally) gradually lost the quality of being a way of life and instead became seen as philosophical discourse or discourse about philosophy – I will use these terms interchangeably. Here is Hadot (Ibid) on the “origins of this prejudice” towards philosophy as discourse about philosophy rather than philosophy as a way of life:

I believe it is linked to the evolution of philosophy itself in the Middle Ages and in modern times. Christianity played a considerable role in this phenomenon. From its very beginnings – that is, from the second century AD on – Christianity had presented itself as a philosophy: the Christian way of life.

The phrase, “had presented itself”, is conspicuous: the character of philosophy as a way of life (as I will show in coming sub-sections) is hardly comparable to the institutionalised modus operandi and accompanying dogmas that partly characterise the Christian church. Hadot (1995:270) explains further:

The Middle Ages was to inherit the conception of monastic life as Christian philosophy, that is, as a Christian way of life. … At the same time, however, the medieval universities witnessed the elimination of the confusion which had existed in primitive Christianity between theology, founded on the rule of faith, and traditional philosophy, founded on reason. Philosophy was now no longer the supreme science, but the ‘servant of theology;’ it supplied the latter with the conceptual, logical, physical, and metaphysical materials it needed. The Faculty of Arts became no more than a preparation for the Faculty of Theology.

The idea I am most focused on here is that prior to Christianity, philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman eras was a way of life – the character of this manifestation of philosophy, and the implications thereof in the context of the ecological crisis as I have described this context in this study, will be explored in following sub-sections. Christianity arose (See Chapter 3) and, in Hadot’s view, presented itself as a way of life – one could say that it borrowed from Romans and Hellenes the characteristic of being a way of life, despite the huge difference between the older notion of philosophy as a way of life versus the Christian way of life – the latter fundamentally requires faith in a ‘Supreme Being’ for redemption and salvation, while the former is entirely different in its purview (much more on the former below). As suggested by Hadot (see above quote), Medieval universities gradually became compartmentalised (a process well beyond the scope of this study), and because Christianity, (a dominant shaper of discourse for centuries – see Chapter 3) had ‘presented itself as a philosophy’ (Hadot’s words), the association between philosophy and Christianity stuck – hence the often-encountered notion of philosophy being the handmaid of theology, which aptly encapsulates the notion of philosophy as philosophical discourse. Hadot (1995:270) points out further developments with the university to explain philosophy’s character as discourse about philosophy: the “Middle Ages saw a radical change in the content of philosophy as compared to antiquity. Moreover, from the medieval period on, theology and philosophy were taught in those universities which had been creations of the medieval church”. Commenting further on this institutionalised philosophy, Hadot (Ibid) explains the following:

One of the characteristics of the university is that it is made up of professors who train professors, or professionals training professionals. Education was thus no longer directed toward people who were to be educated with a view to becoming fully developed human beings, but to specialists, in order that they might learn how to train other specialists. This is the danger of ‘Scholasticism,’ that philosophical tendency which began to be sketched at the end of antiquity, developed in the Middle Ages, and whose presence is still recognizable in philosophy today.

This scholasticised ‘philosophical tendency’ is, according to Hadot, a tendency to engage in discourse about philosophy rather than to manifest philosophy as a way of life, where the latter (to comment on it briefly here) facilitates a process of becoming a “fully developed human being” (Ibid). Hadot (Ibid) points out that the “scholastic university, dominated by theology, would continue to function up to the end of the eighteenth century”, and thereafter, “a new philosophy made its appearance within the university, in the persons of Wolff, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. From now on, with a few rare exceptions like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, philosophy would be indissolubly linked to the university” (Hadot 1995:271). This indissoluble link to the university, according to Hadot (Ibid), comes at the exclusion of the manifestation of philosophy as a way of life:

In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life or form of life – unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy. Nowadays, philosophy’s element and vital milieu is the state educational institution; this has always been, and may still be, a danger for its independence. … [M]odern philosophy is first and foremost a discourse developed in the classroom, and then consigned to books. It is a text which requires exegesis.

The notion of ‘philosophy without independence’ further contextualises the character of philosophical discourse, or discourse about philosophy, adding to the general character of philosophical discourse as glimpsed in this sub-section: something largely defined by its historical ties originally to the Church and later the “state educational institution”, and something associated with exegesis. This is the kind of philosophy that cannot disrupt what Badiou referred to as the established model of humanity, or humanity as it has been historically constituted, further characterising it as institutionalised. In philosophical discourse, one focuses on a given ‘philosophy’ – for examples, the philosophy of Wittgenstein or Kant – and explores parts of it systematically, evaluates arguments, and so on, but thereafter tends to go about her life as a functional member of her particular society – which is to say going about life in ACID, because ACID is the epitome of the Promethean project which has, via globalisation, come to dominate the globe after having unfolded with increasing momentum for 2000 years. I suggest that in this format, philosophy is proverbially part of ‘the ecological problem’ in that it occupies a position as another cog in the ubiquitous machine of ACID, for example, as a means to an end of earning a living, where the philosopher finds herself perpetuating ecologically-destructive system components by default. I am not blaming philosophers for such a state of affairs, but merely pointing out the systemic reality into which we are born (as depicted in Chapters 3 and 4).

Note that I am not pursuing in this sub-section the notion that philosophical discourse, or discourse about philosophy, is inherently aligned with the Promethean attitude. What I am pointing out, however, is that the change from philosophy as a way of life (in the Hellenistic and Roman periods) towards the increasingly institutionalised ‘philosophical discourse’ (or discourse about philosophy) occurred during the same epochs in human history during which the ‘ideological ingredients’ (see Chapters 3 and 4) propelling ecologically-disastrous human activities (see Chapter 2) started to become dominant as the foundation was laid for what would become ACID. I showed in Chapter 3 that the global expansion and ultimate rule of the dominion-imperative began properly with Christianity[1], and that other Promethean attitudes became dominant via the later developments of Promethean Science, Technology, and Capitalism. The relegation of philosophy as a way of life (which I will soon argue is Orphic in ‘attitude’) to an almost purely theoretical and academic activity, therefore occurred alongside the expansion of dominant Promethean ‘shapers of discourse’ – i.e. philosophy became less and less a way of life (more on this throughout the rest of this chapter), while lived experience was increasingly shaped by the dominion-imperative (which is not a philosophical concept, but instead a product of, initially, Christian dogma – again, see Chapter 3). This is hardly surprising: I have argued extensively already in this study that the Promethean attitude, defined partly by competition, dominion, and expansion is manifest at the expense of that over which the Promethean attitude takes it upon itself to preside; and furthermore, that perpetuation mechanisms (see Chapter 4) continue the dominance and spread of the Promethean attitude at the expense of ‘alternatives’ to it. The character of philosophy as a way of life, as I will show below, is Orphic, and as such is inherently susceptible to Promethean dominance. In other words, the dominance of Promethean attitudes marginalises or even negates that which inherently does not share Promethean qualities – one could say that that which is inherently competitive (i.e. the Promethean) devours that which is inherently cooperative (i.e. the Orphic) – and as I will show during the rest of my focus on Hadot’s exposition, philosophy as a way of life has considerably Orphic characteristics. If my train of thought is correct, then the result is of course that philosophy as a way of life (in being aligned with the Orphic attitude) was negated by the Promethean attitude via the misdemeanours of the Christian church – and this train of thought has already been shown to be have some support because I have already offered Hadot’s stance that in general in the modern educational institution, philosophy is “no longer a way of life”. But just because philosophy as a way of life is ‘dead’ in the modern educational institution, it does not necessarily mean it has been wiped from the slate of human memory – indeed, Hadot has preserved it in his work, and I now turn to it in an attempt to encourage people to re-approach philosophy as a way of life for its relevance to the ecological crisis in particular.

At this stage of my exploration of Hadot’s ideas, I do not wish to conduct the normative activity of asking whether or not philosophy should be a way of life or be more discursively focused. Instead, I wish to focus on the extent to which philosophy as a way of life is aligned with the Orphic as depicted in this study – my initial research into this topic suggests (as I have already stated) that philosophy as a way of life is indeed aligned with the Orphic attitude. If I can show Hadot’s exploration of philosophy as a way of life to resonate with the Orphic attitude, then it may be possible to argue that this ‘manifestation’ of philosophy can indeed play a therapeutic role in the specific context of the ecological crisis, a crisis that has emerged under the captaincy of the Promethean attitude. Individuals may then be left to consider for themselves the implications of my investigation and argument, and conduct their own normative activity.

[1] Though there was a precursor to the Promethean attitude with the Greek interest in Mechanics, but this was by no means a large-scale phenomenon, whereas the imposition of Christianity onto the world (and along with it the imposition of the dominion-imperative) was the start of the large-scale spread of the Promethean attitude. See Chapter 3.