Peter Sloterdijk on Practice

“All the signs now indicate that the ancient great practicing powers in East Asia, that is, China and India (following the Japanese model), have completed the transformation to globally oriented forms of training. They have launched a new, aggressive achievement regime that will soon probably outdo anything accomplished by the jaded Europeans.”—Peter SloterdijkPeter Sloterdijk, The Art of Philosophy

In the following excerpt from the introduction to The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice, Peter Sloterdijk describes the importance of the idea of “practice” in his work:

One other preliminary remark seems necessary. Since everything that follows can only be properly understood and correctly classified if we are serious about the term “practice” in all its implications (including as exercise or training), I have to make a comment in advance about this category of human practice. It has been neglected by theoretical modernism, if not wantonly pushed aside and scorned. In my recent book You Must Change Your Life! On Anthropotechnology, which has attracted a surge of constructive commentary since its publication, I attempted to restore the high status of practice. This is long overdue, given its importance in the ethos of advanced civilizations, and has been denied so far because of systematic gaps in the vocabulary of modern philosophy and blind spots in the field of view of the dominant sociological theories of action. In You Must Change Your Life! I show in some detail how the traditional approach to classifying human action, that is, the familiar distinction between the vita activa and vita contemplativa that initially related only to monks, was linked with the effect of making the dimension of practice as such invisible, if not actually inconceivable. As soon as we accept the ingrained difference between “active” and “contemplative” as if it were an exclusive and total alternative, we lose sight of a substantial complex of human behavior that is neither merely active nor merely contemplative. I call this the life of practice.

By nature, this is a mixed domain: it seems contemplative without relinquishing characteristics of activity and active without losing the contemplative perspective. Practice, or exercise, is the oldest form of self-referential training with the most momentous consequences. Its results do not influence external circumstances or objects, as in the labor or production process; they develop the practicing person himself and get him “into shape” as the subject-that-can. The result of practicing is shown in the current “condition,” that is, in the practicing person’s state of capability. Depending on the context, this is defined as constitution, virtue, virtuosity, competence, excellence, or fitness. The subject, seen as the protagonist of his training sequence, secures and potentiates his skills by putting himself through his typical exercises. Exercises at the same level of difficulty should be evaluated as maintenance exercises, while increasingly difficult ones should be regarded as developmental exercises. Classical askesis, as Greek athletes defined their training (providing the early Christian monks who called themselves “athletes of Christ” with a pattern that persisted through the ages), was always hybrid. The moment we force exercising into distinguishing between theory and practice or the active and contemplative life, we lose sight of its intrinsic value. The same applies to the distinctions in action theory introduced by contemporary authors, for example, in comparing communicative and instrumental action or even work and interaction. This structuring of the practical field also makes the dimension of the practicing life invisible.

My book tries to give an impression of the extent, weight, and variety of forms of the life of practice. I quote Nietzsche’s evocative remark that, seen from the universe, the planet earth of the metaphysical age must appear almost like the “ascetic star.” On this star, the struggle of the discontented nation of the ascetic priests against their inner nature is “one of the most widespread and enduring facts there are.” The time has come to cast off life-stultifying asceticism and acquire once again the positive arts of affirmation that have been obsolete for too long.

Nietzsche’s intervention had a largely paradoxical effect. Modern social philosophers, critical theorists, and ubiquitous social psychologists understand as little as ever about all the work of the earth’s inhabitants “on themselves,” their asceticism, their training, and their efforts to get into shape (whether the trend is positive or negative), because they are still blinkered in relation to this phenomenon. The life of practice fares no better in Hannah Arendt’s widely read book Vita Activa. It is not mentioned: a curious result for an investigation that promises to explain “the human condition.” The citizens of modern life have long since known better; they are not influenced by the acquired blindness of theoreticians. They have opened the sluiceways to officially ignored training practices, and the ascetic improvements that Nietzsche postulated under various names—continuing education, training, fitness, sport, dietetics, self-design, therapy, meditation—have become the dominant modus vivendi in the positive achievement subcultures of the West. Moreover, all the signs now indicate that the ancient great practicing powers in East Asia, that is, China and India (following the Japanese model), have completed the transformation to globally oriented forms of training. They have launched a new, aggressive achievement regime that will soon probably outdo anything accomplished by the jaded Europeans.

In focusing on the practicing aspect of human existence, I am taking account of a fact that is apparently trivial but whose effects are unpredictably far-reaching: the fact that everything people do and can do is achieved more or less well and done better or worse. Adepts and players are constantly involved in a spontaneous better-or-worse ranking of their skills and actions. I define these kinds of distinctions as an expression of the vertical tension inherent in human existence. The technical definition of practice I have posited opens up a first approach to the phenomenon of involuntary verticality. In every performance of practicing, an action is carried out in such a way that its present execution co-conditions its later execution. We could say that all life is acrobatics, although we perceive only the smallest part of our vital expressions as what they really are: the results of practice and elements of a modus vivendi that happens on the high wire of improbability.

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