Philosophy as a Way of Life

By Arden Cadallo-Dent

In philosophy, there exist two different yet connected philosophical methods. The first is the Delphic ‘know thyself’ method and has some ambiguous origins. This method is heavily theoretical and relies on written work and isolated introspection.[1] The second method is the Socratic approach and, as the name suggests, refers to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who focused on ‘care of the self’, or philosophy as a way of life, which he developed through meditation (‘spiritual exercise’) and self-training.[2] The Delphic and Socratic method are often seen as the inverse of each other, however, as I will argue, a hybrid of the two principles together is most effective in the pursuit of knowledge and a philosophical lifestyle. To demonstrate this, the origin of each method will be uncovered by consulting the writings of Pierre Hadot and Albert Camus. A deeper look into how one philosophises both theoretically and practically will then be outlined, which will ultimately lead to a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each method, and demonstrate why a combination of the two methods is the most effective way to pursue philosophy as a way of life.

French philosophers Pierre Hadot and Albert Camus both concluded that, whilst there are two main philosophical methods, the practical method precedes the theoretical. However, there is a point of contention between the two philosophers about the timeframe of the practical and theoretical emergence, as well as the distinction between ascesis (Greek = ‘áskēsis’) and Asceticism.[3] The primary focus here is between the origin of the methods. Hadot believed that the Socratic method began during the ancient philosophical period and started with Plato, who was a pupil of Socrates.[4] Following philosophy as a way of life has three distinct stages in what Hadot calls the ‘deformation of ascesis’, which is the rise of theoretical philosophy.[5] The first stage is marked by Imperial Rome, which is where the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle became synthesised. During this time the words of the philosopher became abstracted from their actions and, although the emphasis remained on philosophy as practice, it was linked to how a student interpreted these writings and not how to live.[6] To Hadot, the search of truth was conflated with the search of meaning in texts, and students believed that the truth was hidden in the ‘true’ textual meaning.[7] The second stage of deformation began in second century AD and reflected the ascendency of Christianity. Throughout this era there was the Greek and Christian way of life, though, the Christian way of living lacked a conceptual framework which the Greek possessed. Greek philosophy became overshadowed by Christianity and was transformed in order to justify the “uniquely Christian way of life”.[8] The final stage of the deformation of ascesis occurred in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods of European history and ran parallel to philosophical independence from Christianity, and the renunciation of philosophy as practice to philosophy as theory.[9] Unlike Hadot, Camus sees the Platonic philosophy as the first stage of the deformation of ascesis. For Camus, then, ascesis began not during Platonic philosophy, but during Athenian tragedy and then shifted from ascesis in tragedy to ascesis in philosophy.[10] Moreover, Hadot rejected the notion of a philosophical period of ‘decadence’ proceeding Plato, whereas Camus not only believed in this post-Platonic ‘decadence’ but further that it acted as a catalyst between ascesis and Asketcism.[11]

Regardless of method, the purpose of philosophy is the quest for knowledge, particularly self-knowledge and ‘truth’. Nonetheless, the process of searching for knowledge and the knowledge attained is very different in the two methods.[12]  Terminology most associated with the theoretical method includes reading, writing, observing, singular and introspection.[13] To ‘know thyself’ is to know whether one exists and searches for truth in the doctrine, and this type of philosophical method is epitomised by French philosopher Rene Descartes.[14] Philosophy as theory, then, can be seen as knowledge of epistemological existence. Contrarily, the Socratic approach to philosophy is reflected in phrases such as ‘the art of living’, ‘philosophy as a way of life’, ‘spiritual exercise’ and meditation, and is represented in how Socrates lived and died—by asking himself and others questions to instil doubt.[15] Another way to understand practical philosophy is as phenomenological knowledge of the self, or how we exist.

An additional difference between the two methods is where the search for truth and knowledge ends. In the Delphic method, more specifically Descartes’ meditations, the quest for truth is often undertaken only once, in order to come to the ultimate conclusion. Conversely, practical philosophy is a continuous process of reflection and application until one can longer philosophise. Furthermore, the way in which people pursue practical philosophy is subjective, as it is marked by their socio-historical position, whereas theoretical philosophy is more ‘objective’, in the sense that it is a matter of whether or not something is one way or the other. The Delphic method also promotes solitary thinking, however the Socratic method favours philosophical community, which allows for different opinions and ensures that individuals are not in an echo chamber. However, this claim can be refuted if we observe the positives and negatives of both methods.

Whilst there are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both the practical and theoretical methods, it is easier to note the disadvantages in the latter method. Of course, that is not to say that it is without benefits. For one, written work is more adept to stand the test of time, especially if written in an engaging way.[16] Would we have known how Socrates lived and died if it was not for Plato’s dialogues? Would the myth of Socrates exist without the writing? In the same vein, it must be asked, would we have known about Socrates actions at all if he had not focused on care of the self? Written philosophy is also widely accessible and allows people, especially woman philosophers and other groups marginalised from the philosophical community, the opportunity to create an identity for themselves within the public realm.[17] Personal writings used to better understand the self can also be reviewed by peers and allow the receiver to develop a response which can be refined, deliberate and intimate. Contrast this with hastily made, premature half-thoughts which are often said during face-to-face interactions.[18] This peer input is also beneficial in allowing a better understanding of ourselves by gauging how we are perceived by others. As Richard Shusterman writes, “healthier and more reliable self-knowledge can be gleaned… by learning about ourselves through the testimony of others”.[19] Furthermore, written work allows us to objectify ourselves in a way we could not through pure introspection.[20] When engulfed in introspection, we have only a partial representation of ourselves, making us susceptible to our own prejudices.[21] Too much time spent in introspective thought is likely to be detrimental to our psychology, as the pursuit of self-knowledge is often mixed with self-criticism and can be a “recipe for depression and frustration”.[22] Yet, when thoughts are put onto paper, we posit our subjective selves (“I”) towards the representation of ourselves (“me”). Furthermore, that which is true in thought can be determined as false once expressed in written form.[23]

Clearly there are a number of positives and negatives to philosophy as written discourse, and although philosophy as a way of life has been overtaken by written discourse, philosophy must also be seen as more than literature.[24] Our words rely heavily on our actions. It is difficult to take someone’s philosophical positioning seriously if they contradict what they say with what they do.[25] Therefore, I argue that theoretical and practical methods of philosophy must be used in unison with one another. To provide an example, when one takes the Learners test in Queensland, they need only pass a theoretical exam. This allows the person to start learning to drive. They cannot, however, drive alone until they have at least 100 hours of driving practice and pass the practical test. Unlike a driving test, there is no way to gauge how well one turns philosophical theory into practice, but it is clear that the theoretical knowledge provides only a basis for how one actually conducts themselves.

If the study of philosophy became practical rather than theoretical, what would it look like? How would tutors grade students on their practical application of philosophy? Without the theoretical framework and literary works written throughout time, how would one know if they were pursuing philosophy as a way of life? If philosophy had not transitioned from the Socratic to the Delphic, would there have been a concept of philosophy as way of life and theoretical philosophy? Would Socrates have just been a man acting how he thought he should? How should we act? The benefit of written philosophy is that it allows readers to explore the different ways in which to live and cultivate their own philosophy as a way of life. However, the ultimate purpose of philosophy is to create a better understanding of ourselves which is reflected in our actions.

Arden is in their final year of their BA with an extended major in Philosophy and a minor in Gender Studies. Besides philosophy, Arden is interested in psychology and music, which they hope to study in the near future.


[1] Thomas Flynn, “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot,” Philosophy & Social Criticism, 31, nos. 5-6, (2005): 309; Richard Shusterman, “Philosophy as a way of life: As textual and more than textual practice,” in Philosophy as a way of life: Ancients and moderns: Essays in honour of Pierre Hadot, eds. Michael Chase, Stephen R. L. Clark, Michael McGhee(West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 43.

[2] Flynn, “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot,” 609; Matthew Lamb, “Philosophy as a way of life: Albert Camus and Pierre Hadot,” Sophia, 50, no. 4 (2011): 564.

[3] Lamb, “Philosophy as a way of life,” 564.

[4] Ibid., 564.

[5] Ibid., 565.

[6] Ibid., 565.

[7] Ibid., 565.

[8] Ibid., 567.

[9] Ibid., 568-569.

[10] Ibid., 571.

[11] Ibid., 571.

[12] Flynn, “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot,” 610.

[13] Ibid., 609.

[14] Flynn, “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot,” 610; Lamb, “Philosophy as a way of life: Albert Camus and Pierre Hadot,” 569.

[15] Flynn, “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot,” 609-610.

[16] Shusterman, “Philosophy as a way of life: As textual and more than textual practice,” 46.

[17] Ibid., 52.

[18] Ibid., 47-48.

[19] Ibid., 53.

[20] Ibid., 44.

[21] Ibid., 49 and 53.

[22] Ibid., 44.

[23] Ibid., 44-45.

[24] Ibid., 54.

[25] Ibid., 54.

Works Cited

Flynn, T. “Philosophy as a way of life: Foucault and Hadot.”  In Philosophy & Social Criticism, 31, nos. 5-6 (2005): 609-622.

Lamb, M. “Philosophy as a way of life: Albert Camus and Pierre Hadot.” In Sophia, 50, (2011): 561-576. 

Shusterman, R. “Philosophy as a way of life: As textual and more than textual practice.” In Michael Chase, Stephen R. L. Clark, Michael McGhee (Eds.) Philosophy as a way of life: Ancients and moderns: Essays in honour of Pierre Hadot. West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell (2013).

Featured image by Internet Archive Book Images via flickr


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