The Practice of Irony in Pierre Hadot

Pierre Hadot is well-known for his idea that philosophy is not a merely professional endeavor or simply a system of ideas but is a way of living, a practice for which one must engage in “exercise” or “training” (askēsis). That point is evident throughout Hadot’s writings, but it is especially emphasized in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Philosophy isn’t just about talking and thinking; it’s a way of being in the world. It’s not just a vocational choice; it’s an existential choice. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about one’s entire self. Hellenistic philosophy provides the bulk of Hadot’s examples of this kind of philosophy, and the figure of Socrates plays a prominent role for Hadot. Of course, an important part of the Socratic way of life is Socratic irony. Reading over notes from Adam Robbert’s recent panel presentation on this topic, it struck me: Hadot’s presentation of philosophy as a way of life includes a profound sense of irony: “Ye gods! Here we have the well-known irony of Hadot” (cf. Plato’s Republic, 337a).  

Socratic irony is characterized by the feigned ignorance (eironeia) with which Socrates would ask questions that lead people into and through dialogue. In terms of the vertical metaphor of Plato’s cave, irony is how Socrates descends back into the cave to talk to the masses. Adam mentions Hadot’s term “redescension” for this activity. It could appear condescending too, presumably.

Is Hadot feigning ignorance about something? Yes. He’s pretending that he thinks of philosophy as a way of life that involves a lot of exercise, when in fact he knows that philosophy is a profession that involves lots of speaking, thinking, and writing. In his own way of life, he was a professor (even a chair), so it’s ironic when he writes an essay bearing the title, “There are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but Not Philosophers.” He wrote that essay as a professor at the Collège de France. I should be clear that I’m not making any evaluative claims about whether this use of irony is good or bad for whatever reason. I’m only saying that there is irony at work in his valorization of lifeway philosophy in distinction to philosophy professors/professionals.

As with Socrates, Hadot’s intention is therapeutic and pedagogical. Hadot is descending to the level of the masses, trying to help people and lead them into dialogue with the philosophical tradition by promising that it’s not as heady as it seems. Philosophy is a full-bodied engagement with life, existence, practices, exercises; it’s not just about heady activities like talking and thinking. Then, once you start engaging in all of the wonderful praxis and askēsis, you realize that philosophy is basically a profession (for professors). It’s about professing a school of thought, and it primarily revolves around relatively heady activities.

Hadot accounts for philosophers like Cynics who did not have a system or school of thought to profess, but Cynics get comparatively little attention compared to Socratic/Platonic and Stoic schools, thus giving lie to Hadot’s declared preference for non-professional philosophers. You can think of it this way: Hadot wrote a book about the emperor Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, but never devoted a book to the homeless Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope. Why? What’s the point? A psychological explanation would say that it is just a matter of Hadot’s personal preference. However, it is also possible that Hadot is trying to gesture toward something about the professional-vs-lifeway distinction that he appears to endorse. Maybe the opposition is drawn mainly for instructive reasons. It’s not personal, it’s protreptic.

When Hadot describes the training that goes into philosophy, he mentions a lot of examples of ethical restraint, like self-control, moderation of desires/appetites, and dietary practices like Pythagorean vegetarianism. A good example of physically demanding practice comes from Cynic exercise, “which advocated enduring hunger, cold, and insults, as well as eliminating all luxury, comfort, and artifices of civilization […]” (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 190). Hadot’s overall tendency is to focus on the training of the mind and not the body, and training is done for the sake of some ethical end (e.g., self-control, equanimity, arete).

If philosophy is about my whole life, my whole self, my being, it turns out to be a pretty heady engagement with the relationship of the self to itself. Adam brings together some helpful quotations with this sentence: Philosophy is “about achieving what he calls a ‘mutation of vision’ (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 231) or a ‘conversion of attention’ (Plotinus, 6), the insight being that perception—or how we sense, feel, and understand the world—is itself a kind of practice.”

The practice of philosophy is about vision, attention, perception. While perception and attention are not exclusively heady, four of the so-called “five senses” are located in the head. Cynics focused their attention on somatic feelings of cold and hunger, but most philosophers are attending to more transcendent things, like virtue. After all, Hadot calls them “spiritual exercises” not “physical exercises” (or psychophysical, psychosomatic, existential, embodied, etc.).

This whole thing is a classic bait and switch. Hadot promises us a full-bodied philosophy of exercise and practice, and all the while he is secretly aware that philosophy is only an exercise in an analogical sense. These are not exercises of the body. They are habituated mental activities that are treated like exercise. It’s an analogy. Again, citing Adam’s quotations of Hadot: “The notion of philosophical exercises has its roots in the ideal of athleticism and in the habitual practice of physical culture typical of the gymnasia. Just as the athlete gave new strength and form to his body by means of repeated bodily exercises, so the philosopher developed his strength of soul by means of philosophical exercises, and transformed himself” (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 189). I would emphasize the “as” in that last sentence.

Hadot even more clearly tips his analogical hand in the following:

[J]ust as, by dint of repeated physical exercises, athletes give new form and strength to their bodies, so the philosopher develops his strength of soul, modifies his inner climate, transforms his vision of the world, and, finally, his entire being. The analogy seems all the more self-evident in that the gymnasium, the place where physical exercises were practiced, was the same place where philosophy lessons were given; in other words, it was also the place for training in spiritual gymnastics. (102)

The philosopher trains as or like an athlete, but it’s an athleticism of the mind, soul, spirit, not an athleticism of the body or of elemental transformation. If Hadot had looked into alchemy, farming, yoga, and shamanism, he might have found more embodied approaches to philosophy. Maybe he doesn’t think those things count as philosophy. When Hadot indicates preference for Socratic dialogue over Cynicism, is it merely a coincidence of personal preference, or is it because the public masturbation practiced by Diogenes isn’t philosophical enough compared to dialogue? Or is it because of Hadot’s protreptic irony?

Hadot’s emphasis on practice and exercise sounds like an affirmation of the living body breathing in the great outdoors, far beyond the pale of academia and professional scholarship. He is redescending, ironically pretending that philosophy has anything to do with going to the gym, when in fact it has everything to do with the usual heady activities prized by philosophy professors: saying and thinking (legein and noein). If this were not the case, Hadot would have no reason to keep the canon so pure. He would let in Diogenes more, not to mention the practices of wisdom in Indigenous lifeways, Yoga, Zen, herbalism, and last but not least, athleticism.

Why does Hadot always say that philosophy is like athleticism, but he never says athleticism is like philosophy? It’s interesting to say that philosophy is like the art of motorcycle maintenance, but far more thoughtful and truthful to add that the art of motorcycle maintenance is like philosophy, or more radically, that it is philosophy.

Hadot’s irony is enticing. Without it, his emphasis on exercise doesn’t really make much sense. If he sincerely cared about actual training or exercise, he would have bothered to give attention to hypnosis and Mesmerism, cartography and aeronautics, mass media and globalization, not to mention sports and actual athletics. For an account of philosophy at work throughout that more diverse scope of exercise, Peter Sloterdijk is by far the more relevant philosopher. (I’ve always been confused at the narrow scope of Hadot’s 2004 book on the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis, which doesn’t engage eco/feminist philosophy save a single mention of Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Fox Keller. Sloterdijk’s extensive description of prenatal psychology, placenta, mother-child bonding in Bubbles is a radical contrast to Hadot’s almost complete failure to engage with feminist perspectives). Hadot appears to have an extremely narrow understanding of the canon of the philosophical tradition, an understanding that could not be more aligned with the average conceptions of many twentieth-century philosophy professors. Ultimately, Hadot’s redescent into exercise is a way of getting people excited about doing philosophy, which is indeed about reading, writing, and thinking in a way that transforms one from an amateur into a professional/professor—someone capable of heading up a school, like Plato at the Academy or Zeno’s Stoa.

It all starts with Hadot saying philosophy is a way of life, not just a way of reading books; so, you take up and read about the exercises, paths, and practices that make up this way. Then when all the reading is done, you realize that the way of life you’ve been walking is in fact a way of reading, a way of saying and thinking. At that point, you’re not disappointed. You’ve done so much reading that you now understand how important it is to read, and you appreciate the happiness (eudaimonia) that it brings. Tolle lege.

On another level, you might consider to what extent the practice of irony is done not only for the sake of enticing people to study philosophy and get out of the cave. Perhaps it is also done for the sake of saying something that can’t quite be said directly, something about the weird nature of practice. In practicing the transformation of the self, one is never completely identical with oneself. You’re always you, of course, yet you’re constantly replacing yourself with new actions, habits, and character traits, like the ship of Theseus. That’s why care of the self can never resolve into “self-care.” The self is the subject and the object of careful practice, and the subject and object never totally coincide. Being who you’re becoming, becoming what you are, you’re always faking it while you’re making it. The professionalization of philosophy is a big fake, an inauthentic intellectualization that nullifies philosophy as a way of life. Nonetheless, that counterfeit status does not only nullify philosophy as a way of life; it is the very condition for authentic practice. Only counterfeit currency is accepted. Making it requires faking it.

Hadot uses irony to lead us into exercises of loving wisdom, exercises which are themselves ironic. Hadot’s practice of irony reveals the irony of practice.

15 thoughts on “The Practice of Irony in Pierre Hadot

  1. These are good points, Sam. As long as we’re in the medium of a book, though, I’m not sure we can resolve any of these issues. Just a few points while my thoughts are fresh (a bit meandering, but thus is life):

    1. It’s true that Sloterdijk draws from a greater variety of practices and disciplines than Hadot does, but we’re still with Sloterdijk in a text reading *about* practices, not doing them. And maybe I’ve missed something—it would be good to find this out—but Sloterdijk doesn’t himself seem like a paragon of physical fitness or ability (at least not at a level that would interest me), his bike riding around town notwithstanding. (This, it seems, is also true of Hadot, which is why I find Barbara Montero singularly interesting on these topics; she actually was a professional athletic performer and also a philosopher.) So, for me, I have to engage with a text in terms of what it can reliably provide, and in that sense piling on more references or practices or disciplines doesn’t get us any further away from the criticism you’re leveling at Hadot here. (And this is neither here nor there, but just a matter of personal preference, I find Hadot way more readable than Sloterdijk, who is, let’s be honest, just a bad writer and an awkward stylist.)

    Consider: Have you ever read a book *about* martial arts or yoga or soccer? It’s mostly a waste of time if one actually wants to get good at any of those things. My second comp is on contemporary debates in philosophy of mind and embodied cognition, where I’ll hopefully come up with something good to say about how far the analogy between philosophical training and athletic training really holds. Speaking as someone who actually does spend quite a bit of time physically training and philosophizing, though, I tend to think that both are much closer to one another than what you’re suggesting above, but let’s find out! My point for now would just be that all practices are embodied practices. We don’t even have to say “embodied” because it’s all just body; the only difference is which parts of what bodies. Even the senses you’re saying above are “located in the head” aren’t actually from a physiological standpoint located in the head; none of them can do anything useful without, at minimum, the interoceptive and proprioceptive senses that locate our bodies in space. Biological sciences will tell you this, but even short moments of self-observation will show you the same thing.

    2. Hadot in What is Ancient Philosophy? (circa p. 181) does spend some time comparing philosophy, pre-philosophical practice, shamanism, and yoga. While he admits there’s some resemblance between how, for example, a philosopher tries to achieve something like a distance from him or herself and in that sense has something like a shamanic capacity to ferry between worlds, he’s pretty critical of the idea that shamans and philosophers have anything more than a superficial resemblance. We’re doing a disservice to both shamans and philosophers by pretending their practices and technologies are the same. Hadot is more convinced that, if anything, philosophy is closer to yoga. Lots more to talk about here, but he does go into it.

    3. In his book on Marcus Aurelius, Hadot spends quite a bit of time talking about reading and writing as a practice, especially in terms of reading the repetitive nature of Aurelius’s writing as a kind of exercise in deliberate repetition (another point where the athletic comparison is more literal than ironic or analogical). Certainly Hadot’s own works don’t really fit into that mold and instead, as you say, read like regular old academic texts. (This is probably also why the Cynics get less attention. They’re working in non-textual mediums and so fall outside of what philosophers and historians are typically trained to capture.) Again, though, I’m not sure what we can expect out of the text. We could all do as Aurelius did and start our own daily journals as a kind of writing practice, but I’d be perfectly happy if no one ever published those as they probably wouldn’t make for very good reading. Maybe the demands of publishing and the medium of the text itself are constraints on the types of practices you’d like to see more engagement with.

    A final question I have, I wonder if Hadot himself thinks he’s being ironic? He reads like he’s being sincere, and the double layer of irony seems to be a layer imparted by you the reader in this case, no?

    1. All good comments and questions. Thanks, Adam. I’m going to practice one of my philosophical exercises (wine tasting), and I’ll divine a response. More to follow.

    2. yeah I too thought that the sense of irony here was in the reading and not in the text but it does raise for me a wider question (one I have for all the CIIS folks) which is what has all this waxing philosophical allowed you to do (other than waxing philosophical in different mediums ) that you couldn’t do before, what are the affordances being assembled?

      1. I read what I’m pulling from Hadot as a set of phenomenological insights and practices. The texts just help me attach words and phrases to different aspects and possibilities of and within experience.

      2. cool, that’s what I think needs spelling out, M-Ponty shows me that I can experience my hand as an object or as subject (but not both) and how I may find myself positioned in relation to a painting, Heidegger tells us how we come to relate to objects via an enabling background and that moods matter but not much about how to attend to these (let alone what might be made of them), and so on.

      3. Okay, so in this context what I’m trying to spell out with Hadot (and what I take from Sloterdijk) is that all these moves you’re spelling out presuppose a few more fundamental abilities (like the sense of having an “I” that senses its hands as subject or object for instance). I like the idea in sports of precursors to movement. I think of these basic exercises as calisthenics for, say, the more advanced phenomenological moves/insights of M-P and Heidegger. I don’t see philosophy being taught in this way too much.

      4. yes good, no it’s not (easier to teach this stuff in applied fields like industrial design or architecture) and would be a welcome change, maybe we could get past doings like people saying things (in general) like phenomenology overcomes the subject-object gap or when they come to some bit of Deleuze on film and experience rather than just taking advantage of his author-ity to write new things take his propositions/assertions as experiments, does this bit of film actually produce the effects/affects in the viewer, and so on, ever onward.

      5. I can’t speak for CIIS folks at all (I got my PhD there, but I was an intellectual outlier for most of that institute), but if I was trying to sum up what I can do now that I couldn’t do before, I’d probably talk about “negative capability” (Keats). I’m more able to pay attention in complicated or ambiguous situations, to engage with events that I don’t have a good idea of how to engage. There’s also the Aristotelian point (or Nussbaum’s capabilities approach). Philosophy makes me happy in a very fulfilling way. Eudaimonia.

      6. How? I’m not sure. I guess through reading/writing a lot of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and deconstruction. I don’t consider process thought part of my practice. Learning from philosophy reminds me of trying to play a song in concert band, “George Washington Bridge” (William Schuman). It opens up with a lot of dissonance, like a C and D triad stacked on top of each other. I couldn’t NOT play in tune. I would try to play a C but would inadvertently slide up, pushing toward a D. It took a lot of practice to nail the C without trying to get it to sound “right,” and it had to be practiced with the whole band (coduction is everything!), since it was the band that made the dissonance. I got a little better over time, learning to find beauty in the dissonance. I guess that’s kinda how the philosophical tradition has contributed to my negative capability. Practicing reading (books or sheet music) has made it a little easier to tune in to stuff that sounds out of tune, to read without grasping onto explanation or understanding: welcoming the other (Levinas, Derrida), coming into the nearness of distance (Heidegger), and passing over in silence whatever can’t be spoken (Wittgenstein). Also, I’m open to the possibility that reading philosophy hasn’t contributed anything to my negative capability. Maybe it’s been my musical practice (guitar these days, piano and trumpet when I was younger), or maybe it’s been my teaching experience, or being in loving relationships. Maybe the wisdom practiced by philosophers is like the Dao: it does nothing, but leaves nothing undone.

    3. I’ll start with your final question first, Adam. Hadot’s irony is at work in his texts. Writing a philosophy book about how philosophy is more than writing, presenting ancient systems of ideas to show how philosophy is a way of life and not a system of ideas…that’s pretty straightforward irony. It’s not subtle. For someone who knows as much about Socratic irony as Hadot, I can’t imagine that he was unaware of his own irony. Irony is how redescension works. Hadot’s irony is sincere. He and Socrates aren’t trying to pull a fast one on us. They’re trying to teach, and irony has a protreptic function.

      So, to your first point: I should emphasize that I’m not leveling any “criticism” at Hadot. I’m praising his masterful performance of the saying and thinking of Socratic lifeways. My point isn’t that Hadot is merely talking about practice instead of actually practicing. In fact, I think that his writing is his actual practice. He is practicing by writing about practice, and what he is practicing/writing is ironic: segregating professionalization and practice (that’s the redescent) while also reintegrating them (if we assent/ascend). Between Hadot and Sloterdijk, it’s the latter who would agree with your hypothesis that athletic and philosophical training are very similar (“it’s all just body,” as you say). It’s Hadot (with his body/soul analogy) who keeps athleticism and philosophy at a distance. I don’t really know enough French to talk about Hadot’s readability and style, but I can safely say that Sloterdijk is a good stylist in the German tradition. Baroque and bombastic.

      On the second point, I appreciate Hadot’s distinction between shamans, yogis, and philosophers. He’s maintaining the distinctions of professional philosophy. Sure, philosophy looks closer to another literate tradition (yoga) than to the oral lifeways of shamans, but why can’t Hadot say what comparative/global philosophers say, that yoga is philosophy (or vice versa)? It also looks like Hadot focuses too much on the journeying aspect of shamanism. There’s a lot more to traditional healing practices, including overlaps with yoga. The fact that Hadot doesn’t bother to get into it is profoundly authentic, because that shows how much he has allegiance to the authorized/professionalized boundaries of philosophy. Sloterdijk, in contrast, is more kynical about those boundaries, hence his time with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I’m not saying either is better.

      On the third point, if Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius shows a more literal athleticism of philosophy, it’s strange that Hadot doesn’t discuss athleticism at all in that book. I like your phrase “exercise in deliberate repetition.” For Stoics, the universe itself is an exercise in repetition (eternal return), weighed out according to the universal logos. So is the cosmos an athlete too. If we’re doing a disservice to shamans and philosophers by making them seem to closely identified, aren’t we doing the same thing by defining all exercise in deliberate repetition as athleticism? I was on varsity debate in high school…and I can assure you that nobody confused me with an athlete. There’s a reason Hadot keeps up his body/soul wall and always speaks analogically regarding athleticism. Again, Sloterdijk would be fine with saying that philosophy is athletic, and not just an athleticism of the soul in contrast to the body. It’s all just body. So, I agree with Sloterdijk on certain points where I also agree with you, in contrast to Hadot.

      “Maybe the demands of publishing and the medium of the text itself are constraints on the types of practices you’d like to see more engagement with.” Sloterdijk engages with those types of practices well, and I also think Jason Wirth’s work is exemplary for its global engagement with philosophical practice (western, eastern, indigenous). I wouldn’t want Hadot to have engaged anything differently than he did. I disagree with him on points. Nonetheless, I’m impressed with the Socratic integrity of Hadot’s writing and his preservation of philosophy as a professional practice.

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