"LUNGTREE VI" - Cover photo by Maja Bjelica

Respiratory Philosophy

A new book on the philosophy of breathing entitled Atmospheres of Breathing is now out, with a chapter by Life of Breath Principle Investigator Havi Carel. The above image “LUNGTREE VI” by photographer Maja Bjelica is featured on the cover. One of the book’s editors, Petri Berndtson, writes…

What is respiratory philosophy? I introduced this notion of “respiratory philosophy” in my text “The Inspiration and the Expiration of Being” (Thinking in Dialogue with Humanities, Zeta Books, 2010). Now eight years later a new anthology titled Atmospheres of Breathing (edited by Lenart Škof and myself, SUNY Press, 2018) brings this notion of respiratory philosophy back into philosophical and academic discourse. This brand new book has just come out in April (2018). Respiratory philosophy is a philosophy which thinks about, examines and experiences all phenomena and all philosophical questions and of life in general, within the atmospheres of breathing. This means that in respiratory philosophy a person always looks at the world in collaboration with the breath. One always thinks with the breath or according to the breath. Respiratory philosophy, thus, tries to never forget breathing as it explores the world in a philosophical manner. It is based on the respiratory difference in thinking. This respiratory difference means that there is a difference of thinking between the thinking that forgets the breath and the thinking that remembers and cultivates the breath. It is a difference between being aware of breathing and being unaware of breathing, and a difference between breathful thinking and breathless thinking. Each and everyone of us is faced with this question of the respiratory difference in our thinking with a perpetual choice between unconscious breathing and conscious breathing each and every moment of our life with each and every breath we take. Whatever we do, say, think and are faced with, it can be thought and encountered within the atmosphere of cultivation of breathing as well as within the atmosphere of forgetting of breathing. This constant choice between the two makes a big difference in thinking and in life. Whatever we choose it is important to become aware of that always already all our thinking and action takes place within the atmosphere of breathing whether we are conscious or not conscious of it.

If one wonders how to begin this process of cultivation of breathing in a philosophical manner in one’s thinking – that is, how to find the path of the respiratory philosophy – I would suggest that Atmospheres of Breathing works as an inspiring guide toward this kind of respiratory path, as in this book the authors open and explore so many different dimensionalities, possibilities and vocabularies of breathing. The book has seventeen chapters written by seventeen different thinkers of the breath. These authors include, for example, David Kleinberg-Levin, David Abram, Silvia Benso, Drew Leder and Life of Breath Project’s Havi Carel. To have a taste of these various vocabularies of breathing in this anthology it is great to take a look at the Index of the book to which Lenart and myself gave a lot of attention. Our idea was to create an inspiring list of key words of breath that themselves already like a conceptual map – that if one ruminates them with care, would take one into a new wonder-full state of being in which one can begin to ponder the mysteries and potentialities of breath. This Index contains over 700 key words. Some of the key breathful notions in this Index that give the reader a glimpse of what kind of respiratory themes the book deals with are, for example, the notions of “breath awareness”, “breath of Buddha”, “breath of God”, “breath of love”,  “breathing-in-the-world”, “breathtaking”, “breathwork”, “cosmic breath”, “cultures of breathing”, “deepening of breathing”, “diaphragmatic breathing”, “divine breath”, “ethics of breath”, “freedom to breathe”, “gift of breath”, “great breather”, “Holy Breath”, “inspiration and expiration of Being”, “master of breath”, “planetary lungs”, “spiritual breath” and “time to breathe”.

Two large groups of notions of the book that are to be found from this Index are the notions of the “respiratory” and “aerial”. I have already mentioned “respiratory philosophy” and “respiratory difference”. The idea is that if it is true as our book strongly suggests that all matters and questions of life could be rethought and re-experienced within the atmospheres of breathing then all of these matters and questions could be transformed into respiratory matters and respiratory questions. In this Index we have listed in addition to “respiratory philosophy” and “respiratory difference”, for example, such respiratory notions as “respiratory artist”, “respiratory body”, “respiratory disease”, “respiratory erotics”, “respiratory openness”, “respiratory ontology”, “respiratory revision”, “respiratory signature” and “respiratory world”. In this kind of way almost anything can be mutated into a respiratory phenomenon if one just adds the notion of “respiratory” in front of it. After this kind of respiratory mutation of the phenomenon the spellbinding task of the respiratory philosophy begins as one needs then to figure out what could it mean when, for example, being an artist and the phenomenon of breathing are intertwined as takes place in the case of the notion of “respiratory artist”. In this task of figuring out what does each new respiratory creation mean in the world of art the respiratory philosopher is guided by the actual artists who themselves create in collaboration with the breath and who themselves are inspired in their art by breathing. In our book such respiratory artists are, for example, Lin Hwai-Min (the founder of Taiwanese dance company The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre), Tanaka Min (Japanese Butoh dancer), Zeami (Japanese playwright and actor), poet Mark Strand, Antonin Artaud and Richard Wagner who called music the breath of language. With the help of these respiratory artists one could begin to investigate what kind of aesthetics would be the respiratory aesthetics as the aesthetics of breathing. In Atmospheres of Breathing Rolf Elberfeld, Kevin Hart, Jones Irwin and John Durham Peters interrogate each in their own ways the possibilities, dimensionalities and atmospheres of respiratory aesthetics.   

“LUNGTREE VI” – Cover photo by Maja Bjelica

Breathing is essentially intertwined with the phenomenon of air and thus another essential notion of the book’s Index as I already mentioned is the notion of “aerial”. This notion of “aerial” was made important originally Gaston Bachelard in his book Air and Dreams (1943) which deals with elemental poetics of air. In this book Bachelard studies a special breed of poets called the poets of the air or the aerial poets who are inspired by the element of air and who change the whole world and themselves into aerial phenomena in their so called aerial poetry. In this book Bachelard speaks, for example, of “aerial travel”, “aerial imagination”, “aerial freedom”, “aerial personality”, “aerial ethics”, “aerial life” and “aerial world”. Similarly to the idea that the notion of respiratory can be attached to almost any phenomenon or matter in order to make it a respiratory phenomenon or a respiratory matter the same can be said of the notion of “aerial” and this is exactly what was Bachelard’s project in Air and Dreams. In our book’s Index it could be said that we follow this Bachelardian idea as one can find here new aerial creations such as “aerial emptiness”, “aerial openness” and “aerial philosopher”. In connection to this Bachelardian aerial thinking I want to also mention that now in April was also published a new anthology on philosophy of hospitality titled Borders and Debordering: Topologies, Praxes, Hospitableness (ed. by Lenart Škof et al., 2018) and this anthology includes my Bachelardian inspired article on aerial and respiratory hospitality.

In addition to the different kinds of aesthetics of breathing already mentioned (the Chinese and Japanese arts of breathing written by Elberfeld, poetry of breathing written by Hart, and theater of breathing written by Irwin) our book also explores the hermeneutic phenomenology of breathing (written by Kleinberg-Levin), ontology of breathing (written by myself), ethics of breathing (written by Škof), pre-Socratic thinking of breathing in the Greek name aer and pneuma (written by Benso), Buddhist mindfulness and breathing (written by Tamara Ditrich), Yoga philosophy of breathing as pranayama (written by James Morley), Chinese philosophy of breathing as chi (written by Jana S. Rošker), Japanese medical philosophy of the wind as ki (written by Tadashi Ogawa), media of breathing (written by Peters), politics of breathing (written by Marijn Nieuwenhuis), medical philosophy of breathing (written by Leder), phenomenology of breathlessness (written by Carel), feminism of breathing (written by Magdalena Górska) and environmental philosophy of breathing (written by Abram). With such a large variety of topics the readers will begin to get a grasp of the future possibilities of respiratory philosophy. And this is just a beginning what this new branch of philosophy can be and how it can think.

The Introduction chapter of Atmospheres of Breathing can be downloaded for free by clicking the hyperlink (via sunypress.edu). Havi Carel’s chapter will be available Open Access soon…

Petri Berndtson

Petri Berndtson was a full-time lecturer in philosophy at Lahti University of Applied Sciences in Finland, and has been a guest lecturer at Trondheim Academy of Fine Art in Norway. He has invented a method called Philosophical Breathwork, which is a philosophico-experiential way of working with breathing.

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