The Art of Philosophy Peter Sloterdijk Translated from the German by Karen Margolis
If I found the main title of this short book rather vague, the subtitle "Wisdom as a Practice" is positively misleading. Neither title bears more than the slightest similarity to its German original. The introductory chapter entitled "Theory as a Form of the Life of Practice" goes some way to clearing up the arising misunderstandings but omits to mention that the concept of "wisdom" is nowhere dealt with in this book. The word "practice", on the other hand, (which in this case is a translation of the German Übung) occurs repeatedly, especially in this introduction, but is never adequately defined. A standard and neutral meaning might be "that which practitioners professionally engage in", be this medicine, law, politics, or whatever. Sloterdijk occasionally uses the word in this sense but he is more concerned with those meanings that are connected to training, exercise, sporting prowess and numerous forms of self-directed therapy. A third sense of the word is that of "praxis", which can briefly be defined as the integral totality of everyday behaviour (practice) along with a theoretical understanding that informs this behaviour. The author, to my disappointment, steers clear of this sense of the word. The burden of the bulk of this book - its three main chapters - is twofold. The first thesis argues that philosophy historically appears on the scene when the striving towards a peaceful, democratic and egalitarian rule of law has failed. Sloterdijk sums this up succinctly in the words: "Minerva's owl thus began its flight over the scenery of an extinguished democracy" (p.47). Philosophy, Sloterdijk tells us, is a compensatory activity, a second chance for a politically marginalised, and therefore, otherworldly intelligentsia to influence their fellow citizens by means of what the ancient Greeks called "bios theoretikos" - a life of theory. The second thesis, which arises out of the first, is that this life of theory entails the renunciation of everyday life, with all its various passions, sensibilities and ambitions so that the ideal state for a philosopher is that of a "living dead". The concerns of everyday living and the feelings thereby engendered are entanglements that hinder the seeker of enlightenment from attaining the insights that (s)he aspires to. It is this ideal condition, zombie-like as it must appear, that has held sway in Western thought from the time of Socrates self-orchestrated death, through the chastity of medieval scholasticism up to 19th Century phenomenology. The largest part of Sloterdijk's book, the first three chapters, is devoted to expanding upon these two positions and in giving historical examples by way of illustration; three erudite chapters that make rather heavy-going and that are perhaps largely of interest to philosophy nerds ;). The final short chapter deals with the refutations of this ideal that have been repeatedly ventilated from the time of young Karl Marx and continuing to this day. This is where the action really is! Starting with the Young Hegelians there have been numerous challenges to the view that theory (and therefore learning) ought to take place in a value-free, emotional vacuum. In the short space of ten breath-taking pages the author mentions the same number of revolutionary thinkers who have broken ranks with two-and-a-half thousand years of traditional epistemology (=theory of knowledge) and who have sought to situate philosophical thought firmly within the full gamut of the human context. It's a pity that this final chapter is so perfunctory that its lasting impression is almost one of name-dropping. And it is here that I would really have liked to have been treated to a more comprehensive treatment of praxis, considerably more substantial, that is, than the one I presented in the opening of this review.
Peter Sloterdijik is a prolific and original contemporary philosopher in the best Western tradition. His writings deserve careful reading, though some of them are quite demanding and require background knowledge. Thus, to fully benefit from this 107 pages short book one should first read his 500 pages book You Must Change your Life!. At the center of The Art of Philosophy is the seeking of a detached "angelic" view of the world with the help of a fitting way of life, as central to Plato and most of pre-modern Western philosophy, in contrast to an "embedded" view of the mind as bound by the body, emotions and one's habitus in time-space. The latter puts strict limits on human ability to arrive at absolutely true theories, and the very concept of such theories; while the first, though recognizing the limits of most human beings, regard some approximation of theories uncontaminated by human limits as achievable by persons who distance themselves from the world in one way or another. The author might have done well to include at least some discourse on relevant Asian philosophies, and take into account other treatments, such as by Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere (1986). Consideration of differences between social theories, which are clearly very influenced by emotions and contexts, and abstract physical theories, such as quantum theory, which also depend on propensities of the human mind but are much less biased by personality features and habitus, might have added a lot to the book. But, instead of going into substance, I would like to apply the book briefly to the context of public policy making on two levels: intelligence analysts and political leaders. Intelligence analysts are very susceptible to influence by institutional cultures, personal values and hierarchical pressures. Therefore, efforts to include in their work "distance-creating" practices, such as time for solitary thinking and exposure to different cultures and life experiences, are mandatory. It seems that this is seldom done. Even more pressing is the need to get political leaders out from current pressure overloads, which cannot but spoil their decisions. Retreats, Sabbaticals, remonstrating pluralistic advisors - these illustrate doable recommendations. But, first, they must be made aware of their dependence on biased theories, however "pragmatic" they see themselves, so as to open their minds to integrate at least some "contemplation" and abstract thinking into "action". This is all the more urgently needed for coping with unprecedented dangers and opportunities increasingly facing humanity. I recommend this book for careful reading with such or other applications in mind. Professor Yehezkel Dror The Hebrew University of Jerusalem