Dissertation, University of Warwick (2018)

Matthew Dennis
Delft University of Technology
This thesis offers an original theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments based on the Francophone interpretation of the Hellenistic conception of self-cultivation. Recently Harry Frankfurt, Bernard Williams, and Susan Wolf have argued that practical philosophers must direct more attention to how our passionate attachments radically affect our resolution to the question of ‘how one should live’. By neglecting this topic, these thinkers argue, we overlook some of the strongest and most distinctively human motivations that guide our practical lives, ones that have a powerful effect on our capacity to flourish. Not only should philosophers explain how our moral obligations and prudential concerns guide our conduct, they should also explain how and why we are guided by deep-seated passionate attachments, considerations that Frankfurt, Williams, and Wolf argue provide the conditions for leading a life with a sense of meaning and purpose. Despite viewing passionate attachments as being vitally important, Frankfurt, Williams, and Wolf offer separate accounts of either why we cannot actively cultivate them, or why we cannot form a philosophical theory of doing so. If there is a way in which we can cultivate our passionate attachments, then these thinkers argue that we must look outside philosophy: to the contingency of personal preference, to self-help instruction manuals, to guidance from religious traditions, or in extremis to clinical psychology. My study aims to show that this attitude is overly pessimistic. Not only do we have reason to view passionate attachments as susceptible to growth, change, and improvement, but we should view these entities as amenable to self-cultivation. Only by understanding this process can we construct a theory of cultivating our passionate attachments. Focusing on Pierre Hadot’s and Michel Foucault’s respective accounts of Hellenistic self-cultivation, provides vital conceptual tools to formulate a theory of cultivating our passionate attachments. First, their accounts of Hellenistic self-cultivation offer the conceptual resources for a philosophical theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments. Second, the exercises of self-cultivation they focus on allow us to outline a practical method though which we can cultivate our passionate character. This takes the exercises of self-cultivation beyond their historical use, as well as beyond their role in the respective projects of these Francophone thinkers. Doing this brings out a significantly new dimension to the role of the passionate attachments in the flourishing life: not only are they valuable in the way Frankfurt, Williams, and Wolf suggest, but we can offer theoretical and practical accounts how we can cultivate them based on the Hellenistic conception of self-directed character change.
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