Theoria and Philosophy as a Way of Life

Texts without practices are empty, practices without texts are blind.

Pierre Hadot is famous for his polemics against modern academics. He borrowed a pithy phrase from Henry David Thoreau for the title of his paper “There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, But not Philosophers.” Quite a mood. In the paper, Hadot describes these professors as living lives of “pure conformity,” and elsewhere suggests that our academic institutions are “a danger to [philosophy’s] independence.” So central was this attitude to Hadot’s work that his student, Michael Chase, felt compelled to remark on his teacher’s views on the modern university in his memoriam to Hadot’s passing. Chase writes: “Destined from the outset to be a kind of factory in which professional philosophers trained students to become professional philosophers in their turn, these new institutions led to a progressive confusion of two aspects that were, according to Hadot, carefully distinguished in Antiquity: doing philosophy and producing discourse about philosophy.”

The sense we receive from Hadot, then, is of a progressive historical movement away from philosophy and philosophers, and towards talk about philosophy from professors.

There is an appealing romance to this view: Conformist professors in the grips of institutional ideology are cranking out incomprehensible, jargon-filled commentary, sucking the air out of every room into which they speak. I’ve seen the truth of Hadot’s criticism first-hand many times, and I’ve spoken with many smart and interesting people who feel a preternatural deadening creep over them when they, as curious outsiders, try to engage with the more arcane features of academic culture (or even with its more accessible and public-facing aspects, for that matter). At the same time, there is a noteworthy contradiction in Hadot’s criticism. After all, a quick glance at his biography shows his connection to the Sorbonne, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and the Collège de France. In other words, Hadot studied at and held professorships or director-level positions at some of France’s finest educational institutions. Moreover, his primary route into ancient philosophy was through philology and translation. This is a man at the center of the machine he decries.

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?

To be sure, Hadot’s interest in the history of language did not exhaust his sense of what philosophy is at its core, and I’ll make the case in this essay that Hadot’s intellectual erudition is not at odds with his criticisms of the modern academy. But as a point of fact, it was in part the limitations imposed by these methods that led him to re-invoke the importance of philosophy as a way of life, that is, of philosophy practiced as a whole way of being in the world, in a set of concrete historical conditions. And yet, this training has clearly served Hadot well. We should therefore ask, what is the relation between the need for an intellectual training program—as manifest in the university system, but perhaps also beyond it—and those aspects of philosophy as a way of life that Hadot found so lacking in the institutions of today. One way to approach this question is from the perspective of philosophical exercise, or askēsis, a discussion I picked up with Gregory Sadler a few weeks ago. These exercises are many, too many to track in this short essay, but reviewing a few of them will help shed light on the current situation in academic philosophy. Among these exercises Hadot lists several that are well-suited for university settings. These include research, investigation, reading, and listening. Many other practices, such as fasting, physical training, liturgy, meditations on death, therapy, contemplative practice, and mystical experience, are less common, and yet are equally central to philosophy.

Beyond these individual exercises, we could also point to collective rites and ceremonies, like those associated with pilgrimage—the Greek theoria—and those connected with contemplation (contemplatio). Now, properly understood, the practices of reading, writing, speaking, and listening are themselves species of contemplation insofar as each one should be pursued in the mode of careful, sustained attention, but I want to suggest that there are good reasons for separating out these practices from the other activities I’m about to describe. As Jacob Sherman notes, both theoria and contemplatio are undertaken within certain contexts—in sanctuaries, monasteries, retreats, and the like. These are exercises carried out within communities of practice, as whole forms of life. Andrea Nightingale is excellent on understanding theoria in this context. Theoria was a civic pilgrimage an individual would undergo to partake in a religious festival. The term religion is a bit of an anachronism in this context, but its use conveys the sense that these rituals shouldn’t be thought of in secular terms. As Nightingale says, “The viewer entered into a ‘ritualized visuality’ in which secular modes of viewing were screened out by religious rules and practices.”

This person, this theoros, is transformed by their journey and returns home to share the benefit of the theoric event with others.

There is also, on Nightingale’s account, a specifically philosophical kind of theoria. The philosophical theoros partakes in theoric events that generate beauty, wonder, insight, and transformation. A metamorphosis happens through theoria that is central to the pursuit of wisdom. It’s easy to see a link here between the general idea of theoric pilgrimage, and its more specific instantiations in, say, the rituals at Eleusis. And, Nightingale doesn’t go there in her text, but there’s another connection one could draw with the use of entheogenic substances, like kykeon. (We don’t have to oversell the role of such substances in these rites to accept they likely played a role in some of them.) I am also accepting a certain interpretation of the Platonic tradition, namely, that Plato’s unwritten doctrines were an important part of the formation of the philosopher (see here for more on the so-called Tübingen School of Platonic thought). We could extend this same interpretation to philosophy in general: Philosophical texts and commentaries, like the Platonic dialogues themselves, are important features of philosophical practice, but they do not exhaust philosophy as such. “The philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it,” to borrow Hadot’s words.

All of this is to say that theoric events, pilgrimages, and other kinds of individual and collective askēsis are central to the roots of the philosophical life, roots that take us quite a ways from the plastic chairs and mauve interiors of the modern university classroom. But that doesn’t mean we can get away from careful, rational study, from learning the history of these traditions, or from engaging in critical inquiry with the accounts given by our peers and teachers. Challenging appeals to authority or tradition is good, but it’s also good to remember that in healthy cases traditions are records of empirically tractable practices that you can explore on your own. Your thought often begins where these traditions have ventured so far. For my part, then, I would say that we move away from discourses about philosophy and back towards the activity of doing philosophy when we re-integrate the individual and community practices of the philosophical life along with the intellectual activities of reading, writing, researching, or speaking (‘‘giving accounts”). We should search for those vital centers where both sets of practices are alive in their empirical and exploratory dimensions, and are united by shared examination, inquiry, and discussion.

To contort a famous phrase, we could say, texts without practices are empty, practices without texts are blind.