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In his renowned collection Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot suggests that the original aspect of philosophy as a method by which one exercises oneself to achieve a new way of living and seeing the world fails with the rise of modernity. In that period, philosophy becomes increasingly theoretical, tending toward a system. However, Hadot himself glimpses at the dawn of modernity some instances of the original aspect of philosophy still very much present, and in his wake, Michel Foucault warns that between the late 16th and early 17th centuries the philosophical question of the reform of the mind attests to a still very close link between asceticism and access to truth.

This book aims to develop just such an idea by thoroughly analyzing the most representative works of the reform of the mind in the early modern period: Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620), René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637), and Baruch Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (1677). From this analysis it will emerge that these modern works fully deserve to be counted among the tradition of philosophy as way of life. On closer inspection, the inquiries about method elaborated in these works are fully understandable only when read in the light of a broader and more complex philosophical need: to establish the spiritual conditions for accessing truth and aspiring to full self-realization.

Abstract

This chapter develops a textual and contextual analysis of the fragment L974/S771 from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. From the contextual standpoint, the fragment appears linked to the second of the Écrits des curés de Paris, or rather, to the Réponse that Pascal wrote in 1658 in reply to the Réfutation des calomnies, in which the Jesuits accused the curés of threatening the peace of the Church with their polemic quest for truth. From the textual standpoint, Pascal uses biblical verses and the ipsissima verba of Jesus to argue how peace is at the service of truth, this being the ultimate end of believers.

In: The Philosophers and the Bible

Abstract

In the Discourse on the Method Descartes calls us to free ourselves from subjection to external and internal preceptors, to become true subjects of knowledge and of action. The Discourse is sustained by an underlying conviction: we can and, to some extent, should, change. The intricate composition of appetitive, rational, sensory, and intellectual powers, which makes up every real human being, does not constitute a fixed but a dynamic structure. By practicing adequate discipline, we can acquire new habits, emending our previous ones. Towards this goal we are guided by rules, those from method and those from morality. However, the condition of possibility to change one’s own judgements and have different attitudes towards one’s appetites is found in the fact that there is something in us that transcends our sensory limits. This self-transcendency is discovered in the provisional moral code, where we experience the properly metaphysical dimension of our freedom. Such an experience is further substantiated by the ontological independence of the mind from the body, appearing with the cogito, and is finally founded upon the existence of God, which warrants our effective knowledge of the world.

In: Spiritual Exercises and Early Modern Philosophy

Abstract

In his volume of 1620, Bacon does not propose the Novum organum as a stand-alone work but places it within the complex of the Instauratio magna. This new instrument should be understood as a stage, albeit central, within the whole of Baconian philosophy, having the goal of restoring the lost relationship between mind and things. It is therefore necessary to cure the mind from the idols it is obsessed with, that spontaneously lead it to self-referentiality. And there is the need to furnish the mind with every aid available, so that it will cease imposing itself upon reality and will become effectively capable of receiving and transforming it. We are in need of a new logic, simultaneously consisting of a distinctive vision of the self and of the world. We have to find a way for the mind to be transformed by nature itself, to recognize how it depends upon and is a part of nature. Indeed, the governance of nature is not ever carried out without self-mastery. This is why Bacon puts into play a series of practices suitable to progressively engage with the needed transformation: attention, writing, and interpretation. Thus, Baconian induction consists of an apprenticeship wherein the mind learns to open itself to truth, liberating itself from its self-referential obsessions.

In: Spiritual Exercises and Early Modern Philosophy

Abstract

The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect is a philosophy that begins after having a particular experience, which becomes a matter of reflection. And it is a philosophy that continues to develop and enrich itself after having had other experiences awakened by reflection, becoming in turn the subject of further, deeper, and more articulate reflection. In such a way, experience becomes spiritual experiment, through the exercise of meditation and attention, focusing on one’s own perceptions; an exercise that Spinoza gives from a first-person perspective, offering a practical and exemplary model for the reader’s progress. Spinoza’s theory of method consists in a strategy of liberating several aspects of the mind. Foremost is the emendation of the intellect, understood as its liberation from obstacles that impede its exercise: false, fictitious, or doubtful ideas. Thereafter comes the improvement of the intellect, understood as the liberation of its maximal capacities. This will be progressively gained in the measure that true knowledge grows, to reach its perfection in the knowledge of the most perfect being. In order to increase our knowledge, through the orderly deduction of unknown ideas from known ones, it is indispensable to adequately understand the nature of the intellect, meaning, to provide a definition for it.

In: Spiritual Exercises and Early Modern Philosophy

Abstract

Following Hadot and Foucault, philosophy seems to arise from a question that drives personal self-examination: Can I change? This equally embraces the epistemic question of the necessary conditions to access true knowledge; the practical question of the rules of life that must be assumed to effectively appropriate this knowledge; and the soteriological question of the highest expectations for said process of self-transformation. From these three issues, it is possible to do an interwoven reading of the early modern works analyzed in the previous chapters of the book, to compare their different positions. From this reading, we might say that it is time to stop understanding the analyzed early modern works just as specific theories dedicated to scientific method, and instead read them in a considerably more complex way, as “philosophical investigations,” in the Hadotian sense, i.e., as projects of self-reformation. For this reason, each of the three theories of self-reformation developed by these works becomes hardly comprehendible if the essentially practical aspect grounding them is not considered.

In: Spiritual Exercises and Early Modern Philosophy

Abstract

The work begins with Hadot’s thesis that Philosophy did not originally emerge as a theoretical construct, but rather as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. Then an attempt is made to understand what role Hadot attributes to early modern philosophy in the tradition of what he calls spiritual exercises or philosophy as a way of life. From this analysis it becomes clear that Hadot’s position matured over time: from an initial strongly “discontinuist,” toward a more “continuist” paradigm, in which authors such as Montaigne, Descartes, or Spinoza are no strangers to the tradition of spiritual exercises. Also analyzed is the coeval position of Foucault, who sees in modernity a moment of rupture in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life. He nevertheless identifies in certain moments, such as the Cartesian Meditations and the Spinozian Reform of the intellect, the permanence of a close relationship between the philosophy of knowledge and the subject’s “spiritual” transformation of his or her own being.

In: Spiritual Exercises and Early Modern Philosophy