The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice
by Peter Sloterdijk
Reviewed by John David Ebert
The new Sloterdijk translation, put out by Columbia University Press and originally published in German in 2010, is something of an appendix to his monumental recent book You Must Change Your Life! (due out in English next year). It is, as usual with Sloterdijk, a brilliant piece of philosophical / historical analysis: in this case, a cultural history of the so-called contemplative thinker.
The book’s English translation is somewhat misleading, however, sounding like a banal pop psychology title, when in fact the book is nothing of the kind. Its original title in German was Suspended Animation in Thought, which distills much more exactly the book’s primary theme, a cultural analysis of the archetype of the thinker since Socrates and Plato as the one who is “dead to the world.”
Sloterdijk begins by borrowing some of the terminology of Husserl, especially the term that Husserl adapted from the tradition of Greek skepsis, epoche, or the bracketing of the so-called “natural attitude.” The thinker is precisely one who is made fit for epoche, or bracketing — that is, setting aside the natural attitude of lived experience — or taking a position on specific affairs in the world in favor of creating a purely contemplative and theoretical vision of the world. This is, of course, precisely the attitude that Heidegger inverted by insisting that the theoretical attitude is not primary but rather our careful and concerned dealings with existence in a real and concrete way.
But Sloterdijk sees the origins of the thinker who is dead to the world, i.e. who is capable of setting Life aside so that he may think about it — the thinker is always one who is mentally Elsewhere — with the disintegration of the polis in fourth century Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato. In 387 BC Plato set aside his own heterotopia for thinkers in the creation of his Academy as a space located on the fringes of the city specifically set aside as a utopic colony for thinkers who created themselves by shunning society, and indeed, Life itself, in order to build a career out of thinking about it. Plato’s eventual contempt for politics was a side effect of growing up during the period of the wars between Athens and Sparta which had the effect of ravaging those city states in a fratricidal conflict. From henceforth, the thinker was the man of pure contemplation who did not deign to bother with worldly affairs, especially of the political kind, and who exchanged membership in a polis with the larger membership in a purely theoretical polisphere, the brotherhood of those inclined to theoretical contemplation.
Indeed, Sloterdijk has hit on one of the basic structural features of the great philosophers of the Axial Age that extends from about the year 1000 BC throughout the subsequent millenium: with the disintegration of cities into incessant warfare all over the globe, a new species of thinker emerged during this period, a thinker who was concerned not with following the religions or philosophical orthodoxies of the city state, but rather with thought systems of self-salvation in which the individual was given the tools to save himself by entering the Eternal City of the True World. Hence, Lao Tzu’s contempt for the city in China runs in parallel with the Buddha’s in India, who also turns his back on the city; while in Greece, Pythagoras and Plato establish separate colonies, or zoological exospheres, for contemplative spirits. (Indeed, this generation of thinkers was foreshadowed by the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first character in literature to leave the city behind in search of a larger communion with the cosmos, on the one hand, and with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who left Thebes behind to build the world’s first utopian city, on the other).
The thinker, as we have come to know him throughout the metaphysical age that unfolded from Plato to Husserl, was shaped largely on this basic archetype as the man who, though an apparent loser in the arenas of life, was yet a victor in the realm of the mind. Socrates was the first to set the pattern of turning an apparent loss into a victory precisely by affirming his defeat and claiming on his deathbed that he owed a cock to Asclepius, implying that the god of healing had finally, through death, healed him of the sickness of life.
But it was in the beginnings of the disintegration of the metaphysical age during the nineteenth century, according to Sloterdijk, that this archetype of the thinker dead to the world, locked into a kind of state of suspended animation, was assassinated. (Sloterdijk illuminates the metaphysical age here as anchored in, and made possible by, the invention of the thinker as we know him during the Axial Age of circa 1000 BC, thus clearly showing [as Braudel said of Europe vis a vis Asia] that the metaphysical age was merely a chronotopic peninsula of the Axial Age).
The assassination of the thinker as subject of suspended animation was accomplished by blows from ten assassins, according to Sloterdjik, beginning with Karl Marx, who was the first to redefine the thinker as someone involved in the political and revolutionary project of moving history forward by helping to dissolve capitalism. The thinker is not at all dead to the world, but one who is always, in some way, involved in the ongoing revolution. Nietzsche, next in line, in announcing the death of the metaphysical True World, showed that there was no longer a True World for the thinker to escape to, and that he was much better off anchored in the world inside his own skin. Heidegger, of course, in overturning Husserl’s thinker fit for epoche, helped to dissolve and dismantle this transcendental subject. Other assassins, including feminism, science and even cognitive science, followed.
Thus, the three thousand year old archetype of the thinker as one who is dead to the world, is now itself dead. The thinker is today seen as one who is both active and involved in the world through various political and sociological projects that have debased and undermined the building of transcendent castles in the air.
Sloterdijk doesn’t tell us much about the consequences of this death of the subject of suspended animation, but the implication from the text is that it accounts for the decline of philosophy in the twentieth century and its lack of ability to remain relevant to the civilizational project as a whole. In losing his theoretical distance, the thinker is now always biased in some way, and so suspect nowadays of ulterior motivations. He can no longer be trusted as a bearer of pure truths from a glittering realm of Platonic Essences brought down by him and given birth in the physical world.
Sloterdijk’s book is scarcely one hundred pages in length, but he packs more insight into it than most thinkers who write scores of such books. It is beautifully written, lucid, and an absolute gem. It is also a good place to start if you have never read any of Sloterdijk’s other magnificent texts.