Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Mental yoga"

As a teacher of philosophy with elementary and middle-school students, I often encounter old tropes in surprisingly new garb. The Cartesian dream argument is inexhaustibly re-discoverable, it seems. Nor do I think this needs to be headed off at the pass. I doubt there is any pedagogical approach with which I disagree more than the smug and breezy yawn that "there is no point in reinventing the wheel." In my experience, no wheel is ever exactly like any other.

And then, sometimes a really striking new formulation is hit upon, something that, yes, may seem familiar, but also seems not to have been said in just this way before. Recently I had a conversation with two fifth graders, one of whom mentioned that he also did "a lot of yoga." This led to a compare-and-contrast exchange in which we thought about how yoga and philosophy (which after all are twin disciplines traditionally) are related.

This had never really occurred to me in just this way. Contemporary yoga, at least in the West -- I'm thinking here of modern asana practice, which has a complicated history traceable at least as much to late nineteenth century European exercise regimes as to ancient hatha poses* -- is different from all other sorts of physical effort in one crucial respect. When I am struggling to lift or carry a heavy load, I am aiming to move it from point A to point B. My work is directed beyond itself to an end: stack the hay bales, build the bridge across the river, or perhaps even just build up muscle tone and mass. But in yoga one experiences something different; one reach and stretch does not aim beyond the effort itself. Even "effort" is not quite the right word. One stands rooted on the solid earth; one reaches forward or arches one's back; one finds the very edge of what one can do with ease, then with effort; and then, one extends just a bit further, but one isn't reaching towards anything else, any object; the point is simply to experience this reaching itself, to feel it, inhabit it fully; one breathes through it, embodying it... and then one relaxes.

Similarly: in every other field of intellectual work, one is aiming to find an answer. What are the prime factors of this number? How might the genetics for this trait look? How could we structure society to balance these opposing liberties? But when we find ourselves doing philosophy, we discover something else. The aim is not to solve the problem. It is, rather, to inhabit one's ignorance. One stands rooted in the experience of knowing, and one stretches forward and finds the very limit of what knowing is. Not the place where, contingently, the facts we can innumerate some to an end; but the place where the idea of knowing reaches a limit that is inherent in it. One finds the edge of one's noetic reach -- and then one leans in, inhabiting this effort, breathing in and through it ...

This is counter-intuitive and could surely be critiqued; I'll try to spell out some nuance in a further post. But the fundamental parallel seems strikingly apt, and it has fruitful ramifications, some of which I'll also write about further. To be sure, as I've put it here, it's already quite a bit more elaborate and polished than the conversation as it unfolded. Really it was better (and more succinctly) expressed by the other student, a girl who listened to the parallel being elaborated and then summed it up in a single phrase. "Yoga is physical philosophy," she said; "and philosophy is mental yoga."

*This is documented in Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice.


  1. Nice post. You might enjoy:


  2. Thanks for that link. You are right -- there's a sort of loose parallel between the connection I'm trying to articulate here, and the way in which you spell out how philosophy is "a means for acting upon action." I very much like how you follow this up with: "Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity." I've never bought into the claim that philosophy has its origins in a denigration of bodily experience -- though it certainly has had moments and phases of such denigration.