Civilizational Dynamics and Practices of Self

Collins (1)Steven Collins


Distinguished Visiting Professor

Faculty Workshop


1:30 to 4:15 pm

Fall Semester 2016


There have been innumerable attempts to define the words culture and civilization, none of them satisfactory. The approach to be taken in this workshop will be a common-sense one, rather than definitional: there are clearly significant differences, in many ways between, say, Amazonian rain-forest tribes, pre-conquest Australian Aborigines, and hunter-gatherer societies on the one hand, and on the other the Great Traditions of, say, the Ancient and Medieval European Worlds, India and China. The markers of civilization are at least three: (i) the existence of a class-divided society, tribute-givers and tribute-takers (with traders and merchants a varyingly significant third); (ii) the existence of different, sometimes co-operating and sometimes conflicting forms of power, each with its own elite: military, political, economic, ideological; and (iii) the existence of explicitly defined and recognized institutions whose function is to articulate and memorialize ‘tradition’ (thus all civilizations have historical consciousness), within which individuals can devote themselves to a personal realization of truth or artistry.

One example of this theme (it is hoped there will be others) will be the study of traditions of askēsis, drawing on the work of Pierre Hadot and the later works of Michel Foucault: practices, whether ‘philosophical’ or ‘religious’ which lead to a transformation of subjectivity. Any form of human acculturation involves practices of the self, passed on in culturally-specific ways from parents to children; and there are many form of vocational training (military, technological, crafts and skills, literacy, etc.) which involve what the French call personal formation; but there are also Regimens of Truth, where the askēsis is meant to produce a subjective epistemological and ontological transformation. This is the pinnacle of wisdom, a virtue which can span a wide range of accomplishments, across a wide range of people and social classes, although they are normally elite. Likewise there are many forms and levels of oral-literate intellectual and aesthetic attempts to render and narrate the world. What are the enabling and constraining conditions in which Art, Literature, Truth and Practices of the Self are produced and circulated?

Askēsis is a wider concept than asceticism, but many of the forms of life which seek this kind of wisdom and subjectivity have been ascetic and/or monastic. Why have some societies (not all) privileged a way of life which would, if generalized, make the continuation of human society impossible? In what ways has gender been involved in the theory and practice of asceticism (which are often different)? More generally, what are the social conditions and values of the explicit attempt to think society and the world, to articulate it in ideological and aesthetic modes, to entextualize it? The workshop will explicitly attend to the continuities and differences between pre-modern and modern forms of civilization in these regards.

Contributions to, and attendance at the workshop by faculty in any discipline and area are invited. The specific expertise of Steven Collins is Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia, but the discussions will be explicitly comparative, involving, inter alia, Early and Medieval European Christianity, Hinduism, and Hellenistic and Imperial Roman philosophy. Anyone interested in knowing more about the workshop is invited to contact either Steve Collins at or Juliane Schober at