Loser Romanticism

Peter Sloterdijk, The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as a Practice

Columbia University Press, 120pp, £13.95, ISBN 9780231158718

reviewed by David Winters

Philosophy, as Pierre Hadot once put it, is perhaps less a body of knowledge than a ‘way of life.’ If this is so, it follows that philosophers shouldn’t be overly idealistic about their ideas. Such ideas are embedded not only in broad social contexts, but in philosophers’ own self-understandings; in their acts of self-fashioning. And to the extent that this existential dimension remains largely repressed or unthematised, the discipline stands in a state of reflexive deficit. In this respect, what we require is a materialist theory of philosophy: a robust redescription of contemplation as, first and foremost, an embodied practice.

For Peter Sloterdijk, such practices properly belong to the sphere of ‘anthropotechnics.’ In his bestselling book You Must Change Your Life (Polity, 2012), Sloterdijk defines this terrain as ‘the tableau of human “work on oneself”… a region that can be referred to with such categories as education, etiquette, custom, habit formation, training and exercise.’ The Art of Philosophy brings precisely this perspective to bear on the stances and attitudes that underwrite science, scholarship, and what we unthinkingly call ‘the life of the mind.’ Seen in this light, such a life looks newly unusual:

‘If the theoretical attitude is to be a matter of practice, then the cardinal exercise would be a withdrawal exercise. It would be an exercise in not-taking-up-a-position, an attempt at the art of suspending participation in life in the midst of life.’

The life of the mind is a way of life that withdraws from life. This is the central thesis of Sloterdijk’s striking book, whose title in German is the more apposite Scheintod im Denken — ‘Suspended Animation in Thought.’ Sloterdijk starts with Plato’s account of Socrates, for whom philosophical thought took the form of ‘a trance or obsessive daydream.’ In short, Socrates was sometimes literally ‘lost in thought,’ gripped by a kind of ‘artificial autism’—an ascetic secession from social life into the realm of ideas. To think, for Socrates, was to be dead to the world. Accordingly, Sloterdijk relocates the root of ‘the ancient European culture of rationality’ in ‘the idea that the thinking person is a kind of dead person on holiday.’

This statement’s irreverence is instructive. By his own admission, Sloterdijk is intentionally ‘hyperbolic,’ and hardly a slave to scholarly standards. Like several of his shorter texts, The Art of Philosophy started life as a lecture: a form in which intellectual substance isn’t straightforwardly separable from rhetorical strategy. It’s unclear whether Sloterdijk’s writing could itself be called ‘philosophy,’ but perhaps this accounts for its polemical power. His style circumvents any single disciplinary discourse. Instead, it comes from a place where such canons can be creatively combined, ironised, or iconoclastically attacked.

In consequence, Sloterdijk quite often brings a bracing anti-academicism to his arguments. The Art of Philosophy is no exception. Taking up an old idea of Nietzsche’s, the book portrays the founding of Plato’s Academy as a retreat from a failing Athenian political culture: ‘a reaction to the collapse of the polis.’ On this reading, philosophical or theoretical life — the bios theoretikós — arose in response to the death throes of democracy. Since then, academe has always been about ‘shutting out the world,’ for better or worse. And as for the ‘love of wisdom,’ says Sloterdijk, ‘it was the first and purest form of loser romanticism, reinterpreting a defeat as a victory on another field.’

Later, this rubric of ‘loser romanticism,’ itself reminiscent of Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment, inspires an incisive foray into the psychology of theory. For Sloterdijk, the people most prone to take flight into theory are those ‘who seem lost in the world.’ But by looking closely at this loss, this ‘low-level alienation,’ we can cast theory’s unworldly ideals under suspicion. So, Sloterdijk calls for a critical genealogy of the ‘theorist’ as a character type:

‘What if the much-lauded theoretical virtues really derive from secret weaknesses? What if they’re based on a questionable compensation for stubborn defects, or even on the morbid inability to face the facts of life without embellishment and evasion? Does homo theoreticus really come from such a good background as he has assured us from his earliest days? Or is he actually a bastard trying to impress us with fake titles?’

Surely some of us will see ourselves—and laugh at ourselves—in what Sloterdijk calls his ‘portrait of the theoretician as a young man.’ Nonetheless, theoretical life needn’t always be damaged life. As Sloterdijk explains, ‘a definitive exposure of theory as “nothing but” compensation for something better … cannot succeed.’ Crucially then, his approach isn’t crudely reductive. Far from being a one-sided critique, the book becomes ever more flexibly essayistic, mapping the philosophical mindset in all its ambiguous ‘happiness and misery.’

The Art of Philosophy ends in the present era, in which ‘epistemological modernism’ has demystified many of the ‘exalted fictions of disinterested reason.’ From Marx to Sartre to Bourdieu, modernity has at least partly recoupled cognition to concrete customs, promising a ‘liquidation of the ancient European subject of theory.’ But for all this, traces of ‘suspended animation’ still survive, as do ‘distant glimpses’ of Socrates’ sacred absences of mind. And so they should, resolves Sloterdijk. Philosophy can’t be conclusively purged of its ascetic inheritance. But perhaps we can conceive of a world in which philosophy’s past is repurposed; put in pursuit of a way of life that is ‘neither merely active nor merely contemplative’ — wisdom as a new kind of practice.