The Sage and the Wold: Habitual perception and Philosophical perception

In The Sage and the World, Hadot (1995:253-254) makes reference to two methods of perceiving the world, the first of which I here consider, namely habitual perception. Habitual perception is, in my reading of the concept, similar to the concepts of humanity as it has been historically constituted as well as the established model of reality already discussed in sub-section Hadot (1995:254) quotes Bergson to convey the character of habitual perception:

Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.

To repeat, this is one manner of perception where human beings retain knowledge which may contribute to our action upon things, and Hadot (Ibid) refers to it as “utilitarian perception”, which resonates with Horkheimer’s instrumental and subjective reason (raised in Chapter 3, sub-section 3.3), as well as Marcuse’s operational thinking (Chapter 4, sub-section 4.4). Hadot also says (Ibid) of this habitual perception of the world that it “hides from us the world qua world”, and that this is “the state of unconsciousness in which man normally lives”. Operational thinking, instrumental Reason, and subjective Reason have in this study been shown to be paradigmatic features of the established model of humanity and humanity as it has been historically constituted, which I have also shown to be Promethean. Therefore, in the same way that the established model of humanity and humanity as it has been historically constituted are Promethean (as I argued in, so too is the concept of habitual perception. It may be objected that, should the Orphic approach supplant the Promethean at any time, it would in turn become the basis for ‘habitual perception’. This would ignore the fact, however, that ‘habitual’ would necessarily mean something completely different in an Orphic context, because the latter amounts to a way of life that precisely does not ‘put on blinkers’ and does not look ‘straight ahead’, but is marked by constant circumspection because of its awareness of ecological interconnected-ness.

Hadot (Ibid) again quotes Bergson to contrast habitual perception to a different kind of perception: “When [people] look at a thing, they see it for itself, and no longer for them. They no longer perceive merely for the sake of action: they perceive for the sake of perceiving; that is, for no reason, for the pure pleasure of it…”. Perception of a thing “for itself” is here a description of an Orphic quality – this kind of perception brings to the forefront the inherent value of a thing. This kind of perception resonates with Horkheimer’s notion of objective reason, as well as what Vetlesen referred to as deictic discourse – I touched on both concepts in Chapter 3, sub-section 3.3. On the other hand, perception of an object “for them” (i.e. for people) prioritises its instrumental value, generally a Promethean form of perception. It is at this stage of Hadot’s exploration of these concepts – habitual perception; perception of the world for itself versus for people – where he begins to suggest what the role of philosophy is, a role with immediate consequences for human actions propelling the ecological crisis: “Philosophy, for its part, deepens and transforms habitual perception, forcing us to become aware of the very fact that we are perceiving the world, and that the world is that which we perceive” (1995:253). The rest of the Bergson quote (Ibid) indeed offers support for Hadot’s view: “Might not the role of philosophy be to bring us to a more complete perception of reality, by means of a kind of displacement of our attention?” The displacement Bergson mentions is a displacement from habitual perception, from perception of the world ‘for ourselves’, to perception of the world ‘for itself’. Here Hadot (1995:254) sums up his reading of the role of philosophy in light of some of these concepts:

The ‘displacement of attention’ of which Bergson speaks… is in fact a conversion: a radical rupture with regard to the state of unconsciousness in which man normally lives. The utilitarian perception we have of the world, in everyday life, in fact hides from us the world qua world. Aesthetic and philosophical perceptions of the world are only possible by means of a complete transformation of our relationship to the world: we have to perceive it for itself, and no longer for ourselves.

Again, this dichotomy between perception of the world ‘for itself’ versus perception of the world ‘for ourselves’ is a different way of saying perception of something for its inherent value versus perception of something for its instrumental value, which again is to say aspects of Orphic perception versus aspects of Promethean perception. I have shown in this study that Promethean attitudes have historically dominated the world and culminated in ACID (Chapter 3); that this has propelled the construction of now-ubiquitous Promethean industries (Chapter 2), which have in turn directly caused the ecological crisis (Chapter 1). But now I have also just shown that, as an outcome of Hadot’s analysis, the role of philosophy is intertwined with the transformation of perception, a transformation of perception away from habitual perception towards cosmic consciousness, from a Promethean state towards an Orphic state. This transformation is obviously relevant to the context of the ecological crisis: the crisis has arisen from direct human actions and industries propelled by Promethean attitudes and endeavours, at the exclusion and suppression of Orphic attitudes, actions and endeavours. Orphic endeavours come from a place of valuing ‘objects’, the world, and nature ‘for themselves’, which certainly entails a different kind of human action (indeed, interaction, and very often a contemplative inaction) in the world. Philosophy according to Hadot, as I have started to show, entails a conversion from the one type of perception (perceiving the world ‘for ourselves’/instrumentally valuing ‘objects’/habitual perception) to the other (perceiving the world ‘for itself’/inherently valuing ‘objects’). Importantly, the Roman and Hellenistic philosophers were engaged in a way of life where this kind of perception was constantly being sought – as I have already shown in sub-sections and, this quest for the transformation from one state to the other partly constituted the quest for wisdom. I think it is safe to say, then, that wisdom in the context of philosophy as a way of life is sure to be absent when the utilitarianism of habitual perception is the exclusive focus of a human being; ACID is utilitarianism and instrumentalism writ large, and accordingly (to put two and two together here) lacks the quality of wisdom as denoted in the context of philosophy as a way of life. On the other hand, a person engaged in observation of nature, of themselves, of their interactions, and so on, is actively disrupting the ‘Business-as-usual’ of habitual utilitarian perception, is actively breaking the Promethean cycle of perception ‘for ourselves’, and instead treads cautiously in an environment endowed with inherent value. Motivated by the ‘for-itself’, the Orphic initiate minimises the impact of the ‘for-ourselves’ attitude to the world and exists so that the world ‘for-itself’ is allowed to manifest unimpeded by the utilitarian-instrumentalist Promethean paradigm so definitive for ACID.