Thursday, April 23, 2020

Everyday Aesthetics: quote by Kierkegaard

Consider the following quote, which I found in Adorno's Aesthetics (302):    "To transform the leap of life into a gait, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian - that only the knight of faith can do - and that is the only miracle." Soren Kierkegaard.  Fear and Trembling.  tr. Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge U. Press, 2006) 34.  When I read Kierkegaard as a graduate student I wondered what if anything I could do with him.  I was then, and still am, an atheist, and Kierkegaard's message seems entirely for the religious-minded, and even more so for the Christian.  And yet even atheistic existentialists were inspired by him. 

A question that has often exercised me is something like "what is the highest calling for everyday aesthetics?"  I think that the Kierkegaard quote speaks to this, and it is psychologically helpful for me that I find it in a work by Adorno, who, although like Kierkegaard, influenced strongly by Hegel, is no ally to orthodox religious thinking.  I also find interesting the idea of "the only miracle" since I take this to mean that no miracle produced by any religious hero goes beyond this.  This is as metaphysical as it gets.  Also, one would think (might well think, falsely) that the everyday aesthetician would be committed to what Kierkegaard believed to be the lowest kind of life, the sensuous.  But then it turns out the the highest form of life, the life of "the knight of faith," is a matter of bringing the extraordinary down to the ordinary, to "express the sublime in the pedestrian."  I think that everyday aesthetics can serve many purposes, but the most important of these is to find a new home for religious sentiments, a home for atheists and agnostics during a time of crisis.  

So this connects with another question which is how does one find meaning in life during the time of the Covid epidemic.  For those who still believe in God the path may well be similar, but I will only address it for the non-believer.  To put it simply, to find meaning one must every day find meaning in what is experienced every day.  This takes on a special potency in a time in which the significant moments of our days are associated with the daily walks, working in the garden, cooking at home, and so on.  The daily walk is of particular interest here.  I have been reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  Solnit treats walking as a kind of secular meditation, as, one could say, did Thoreau.  Kierkegaard's point, for me, is to try to experience what I see, hear, and smell as I walk (the last requires taking my mask off for a bit when no one is around) in such a way as to experience the extraordinary, the sublime, in the ordinary, in the, literally, pedestrian.   

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

From My Unpublished Book: Essences in Aesthetics and Philosophy 2


1.  Essences and Imagination.

Plato thought that the Forms were apprehended only by reason and that we need to escape the world of sensation to enter the world of essence. Essences belong to an invisible world very different from the visible world. This is partially true, although it is hard to tease that part out while sticking to anti-dualism, as we here wish. Essences belong to our world and they are perceived in the world (the world as we experience it), but they are invisible (i.e., non-evident) usually. They are not invisible in being something else than what is seen. Rather, they are something normally not seen in the seen.

Essences can be seen in things as giving rise to a kind of aura:  when we see something in its essentiality it emerges from everyday being as with intense aesthetic quality, as participating in Beauty (as Plato would put it).

So essences are not objects of a special faculty called “reason” (unless, of course, “reason” were redefined to mean something more like the kind of activity and perception I will be describing here…  something I would favor.) Essences, rather, are objects of a process that might be best described as the activity of a kind of imagination. We are not talking about any sort of imagination, not about, for example, creating images in the mind from adding elements not previously seen together, such as horns to horses, but the capacity to “see as.” In particular, this is a “seeing something as” in which we see something as what it essentially is. (As we shall see, this often takes the form of metaphorical seeing: seeing something as it essentially is by way of seeing it as something it is not.) And this process inevitably is involved with searching out of essence through dialogue and dialectic. Change of perception comes with change of language.

Plato almost saw this. For example, when he spoke of “recollection” he stressed that something perceptual in the world stimulates mental perception of the Forms, and elsewhere that this is a matter of attending to the meanings of words in dialogue. These two things do in fact work together except that essences are revealed in experiential being.

Moreover, essences are models tied to words. Before, I said they are between concept and Form, but it is more accurate to say they are between perception, concept and Form. Hence Plato’s specific denial of the body and sensual experience is overcome, rejected. Essences are not just in a private mind:  they emerge in a shared world through philosophical dialogue and through other dialogue-like engagements.

Essences are models, or model-like (in that the perceived thing becomes a model, a paradigm), and they are real and true to the extent that they work. And they are manifested both in enhanced creative activity and in the experience of aura. So, as indicated above, they are and are not seen. In effect, to see something in essentiality is to truly see it. Essences are only not seen in the sense of being unavailable outside the activity of philosophical or other similar dialectic of the spirit (as in the arts).

Thus, the world of essences is, unlike the world of Forms, just an aspect of our dynamic phenomenological space that emergences from out interaction with the environment as living beings trying to solve problems and live life. It can be seen as a special realm since one can seem as if in a special transcendent realm when perceiving the world in terms of essences  

The word “imagination” may not always be helpful here. It is not as though there were a separate faculty of the mind called “imagination.” Rather, essences are perceived with the same faculties that we use to perceive things in more practical contexts. But essences emerge in a special kind of perception.

Plato, again, is oddly right that entering this state of being is like entering another realm, especially insofar as these things are as if unchanging. And it is also as if we were eternal and unchanging, as if we were perceiving all of these with eternal unchanging souls. Soul emerges as essences emerge:  they emerge in tandem. But whereas Plato saw this as escaping the world of the senses, of perception, the current view is that in essences perception is intensified, as words, through dialectic, interact with things seen. In a sense it could be said, perhaps Vico saw this, that essences are created by the imagination:  again, this just means that we, as fully embodied beings, interact with the world in such a way that aura and essentiality emerge together.

Perhaps all of this is what Plato was pointing towards when he spoke of a method that was hypothetical, the hypotheses being the Forms. Essences are hypotheses taken as first principles, and tested. But unlike Plato, the proof is in the effectiveness of this emergence, in what is generated.

It could be argued that Plato even saw this too when he spoke of the proof of grasping of the Form of the Good being in terms of the creative products that emerge.

2.      The Essence of Art and Dialectics.

The essence of art is emergent upon art works, the institutions of the artworld, and the various debates surrounding the question "what is the essence of art?" and related questions. Traditionally, we think of these debates as philosophical. Yet there are also dialectical developments within other modes of what Hegel called Spirit, for example within art and within religion. Within art, there are debates that are not verbal. The essence of art is emergent mostly upon debates, both verbal and nonverbal, within the world or worlds of art, just as the essence of religion is emergent upon such debates (call them dialectics) within the world or worlds of religion. A nonverbal debate may be exemplified by Picasso responding to a painting by Matisse with a painting of his own that indirectly expresses a different conception of the essence of art. However, the essence of art is also, in part, emergent upon a dialectics not limited to art itself: first, upon the dialectic within the philosophy of art, and second, upon a dialectical interaction between the philosophy, art criticism, and art practice, and finally upon dialectics between classes, nations, political philosophy and economics. There is a layering of dialectic, although this is also interactional.

Much of the value of art comes from the way its form and content resonates with moments in these other dialectics.

There are canonical definitions, canonical works, and canonical debates (with competing positions accepted as at least viable or living) at any particular time in history…place too. The search for essences takes place within the background of these.

3.      Philosophy of Art not Parasitic.

Although it is sometimes tempting to think otherwise, philosophy of art is not parasitic upon art practice. It is not merely a reflection on art practice or on the use of concepts within the world(s) of art. Nor should we judge it merely in terms of whether it meets the needs of artists, although it might well meet some of those needs. Neither is it parasitic on criticism:  it is not simply meta-criticism. Thinking about criticism is useful for philosophers in the same way thinking about philosophy is useful for critics. Spirit manifests itself in these different ways. That is, the spirit of the age and culture can be found in philosophy, religion, art and science of a particular place and time. Of course in the history of the philosophy of art certain critics have attained the status of philosophers of art insofar as they participate in or contribute to philosophical debates.

Philosophy of art is dynamically interactive and symbiotically related to both art practice and art criticism. The claim that it is meta-criticism is a false modesty hiding an improper inferiority complex. Sometimes philosophy of art is portrayed meanly from the standpoint of a hostile critic or from that of the currently dominant "core" of philosophy. These characterizations need to be countered by all who care about philosophy and about art.

Philosophy of art is primarily philosophy. It is concerned with meeting the needs of the philosophical side of our culture (i.e. by way of answering the central or burning questions of philosophy, which themselves are grounded on the burning questions of the culture and of current humanity).  Thus philosophy of art (allied with its close associate, aesthetics) it is in competition and dialectical tension with the so-called or current "core" areas of philosophy, for example metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. As we shall see, philosophy of art/aesthetics poses some significant challenges to these core areas.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Taking a Walk with Bob: Stecker's Approach to Everyday Aesthetics


These comments were  originally intended to be given at the American Society for Aesthetics Pacific Division meeting in Berkeley that was to meet last week but was cancelled due to the current pandemic.  I rewrote them somewhat after seeing Bob's intended reply.   All references are to Intersections of Value:  Art, Nature and the Everyday by Robert Stecker, Oxford University Press, 2019.



I went for a walk with Bob yesterday.  He is such a sensitive observer not only of art but also of nature and the world of human artifacts.  Both of us are pluralists about these things.  So there wasn’t much to disagree about, although I did have one or two worries and some thoughts off in my own direction.  First, we walked through the U.C. Botanical gardens, which, although not a pristine natural ecology, certainly offers a lot of occasions for nature appreciation.  Bob explained how there is no one appropriate way to appreciate nature.  There are many models for nature appreciation, and each can be useful under some circumstances.   We looked at a potted cactus in the museum store and we were able to appreciate it even when it was taken out of its natural context.  We looked at the meadow there as if it were a landscape painting, and that was enjoyable in its own way.   However, our fiends Allen (Carlson) and Glen (Parsons) were horrified.  They insisted that we look at nature with a lot of scientific knowledge as background.  Bob and I agreed that, although scientific background can be helpful, it is not necessary.  In short, knowing the chemical composition of a flower doesn’t normally enhance our appreciation of it.  We also agreed that it can sometimes be aesthetically enhancing to look at something in the natural environment using one’s imagination.   
  
From there, we moved on to downtown Berkeley, and we turned our attention to artifacts.  Bob took special interest in a frying pan that someone had used to make a satellite dish.  Some would argue that there is something aesthetically wrong with this, since being a satellite dish is not the proper function of a frying pan.  Bob took a somewhat different position.  He said that some artifacts are aesthetically indifferent, having no aesthetic value, negative or positive, and that this might be an example.  (143)  But I was not sure how you can say that anything is totally without aesthetic value.  In fact I thought that the frying pan satellite dish looked cool.  Isn’t “looking cool,” sometimes at least, an aesthetic attribute?   Bob himself alluded to the possibility that the satellite dish looked “functionally interesting.”  But isn’t “interesting” often an aesthetic predicate?  People use it all the time in artworld contexts.  As with nature, this might be an example of appropriate use of imagination.

Bob replied that even though I might find this artifact to be aesthetically indifferent, I must find some artifacts to be aesthetically indifferent, neither aesthetically good nor aesthetically bad.  I thought about this for a while.  I agreed that at any particular moment I might find something aesthetically indifferent, but that at another time I might not, and this would be true for just about any artifact.  Of course this would introduce an element of subjectivity into everyday aesthetics, but only on this matter of aesthetic indifference.  I also thought one can't say that one prefers a simple cast iron frying pan to other types (as Bob has done) and also say that one finds it aesthetically indifferent.  That would be a contradiction.    

Fortunately, Bob did not think everything that violated its proper function was aesthetically indifferent.   For example, he directed my attention to a church which had been re-purposed as a home.  He noted that although the church once had its proper function as a church, it no longer does.   Bob thought neither the building’s proper function nor its current capacity function is uniquely relevant to aesthetic appreciation.  He further thought that full appreciation of the church-as-house requires recognition both of its history and of its current function.  (143)  I found this idea, which reminded me of his pluralist approach to appreciation of nature, appealing  I thought, however, that the idea of “full appreciation” needed the following clarification, viz. that a fuller appreciation is one which draws on more than one model of appreciation, and this is true both in nature and in artifact appreciation.    

But I was disappointed when Bob returned to the claim that some objects are aesthetically indifferent.  Arguing against Carlson and Parsons’ theory that functional beauty is a matter of something’s look fitting its function, Bob insisted that, generally speaking, can openers do this but are aesthetically indifferent.  I wondered whether this was true.  I was reminded of Beatrice Wood’s defense of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in which she said that plumbing is one of the great aesthetic achievements of America.  How do you respond to people who say that ordinary urinals, and can openers, are beautiful precisely because their look fits their function?  Le Corbusier and Sullivan tended to say things like this too.  In fact, this seems to have been the meaning of the functionalist movement in architecture.  Even an ordinary can opener can be aesthetically interesting if looked at from this perspective.  Sure, today, unless we are hard-core functionalists, we do not often find things beautiful just because they fit their function well.  But this is a matter of taste, and taste swings with changes in fashion.  

Also it is a matter of how one defines "fitting its function."  I wondered whether functionalism has ever been just about whether things look fit for their function in a narrow sense.  It seems to have been more a matter of a pared-down style that takes certain functional features to, in Nelson Goodman’s sense, exemplify in certain ways. 

Bob said, no no no, none of this Beatrice Wood talk, if you want to see a really attractive can opener you have to come with me into this Williams-Sonoma store.   Turns out that Bob has a real taste for this sort of stuff.   He thinks that design features of the sort you see in such a store, ones that have what he calls “formal aesthetic interest,” are necessary for ordinary artifacts to have aesthetic value.  (146)  I kind of doubt that, as we shall see.

Let’s consider whether, as Bob claims, it is the different design features of such utensils that makes them aesthetically compelling, i.e. variable colors and unexpected shapes, features that, as Bob puts it, “please the eye and engage the mind in forcing it to wonder whether they serve some purpose or are just decorative.”  (146) This does happen sometimes.  But what struck me on this occasion was Bob’s stylistic preference.  He reminded me of postmodern architects and designers.  As opposed to the advocates of functionalism, these figures, prominent in the 1980s, called on us to bring back decoration, without disregarding function entirely.   
Now I confess that I’ve purchased one or two things in stores like this.  But I kind of feel sleezy about it.   Maybe it’s the remains of a youthful Marxism, but isn’t there something a bit wrong about putting a lot of value on such commodities?  Or does my discomfort come from a different source?  Could the problem be more one of excess, of gilding the lily, of a kind of upscale kitsch?  

With these thoughts in mind, we turned to an aisle devoted to decorated plates.  We agreed that attractive designs can enhance the usefulness of these items. (146)  More generally (as Stephen Davies put it) something is functionally beautiful if it has aesthetic properties that contribute positively to satisfying its main function.  Bob elaborated this in relation to some plates on display.  He saw them as not only having shapes that make them better for consuming food but also as having a beautiful visual pattern that would enhance the experience of a meal.   He argued that although such patterns do not make the plates function better as plates, they serve as a secondary aesthetic function that also contributes to functional beauty.  (147)

Although I understood the distinction, I had a problem with separating the different aspects of this in my own experience.  How could the functional beauty aspect be separated from the aesthetic beauty aspect?   Bob says that “the aesthetic features do not strictly have to enhance the primary function of an artifact to contribute to its functional value” (148), which seems to be true.  But what I find more interesting is when he says that, although “the aesthetic function and the food-containing function of plates are distinguishable … they are wrapped together in expectations, even norms perhaps, about the role dinnerware should play in having certain types of meals.”  (148)  What this “wrapped together” means to me is that the distinction of functions is somewhat artificial.  Moreover, it is precisely when functional and aesthetic beauty are easily distinguished that you have a piece which lacks unity and appropriate seriousness.  This may have been the problem with postmodernism, and why the style had such a short life-span.  The decorative elements seemed to be added on gratuitously.  

When Bob says, “a design property contributes to functional aesthetic value if it enhances an aesthetic experience in which the artifact plays a central role when performing it primary function or functions.” (148) it is hard to disagree.   But he also sums up his position in this way: “I claimed that ordinary artifacts have aesthetic value only when they have formally interesting designs”  (150)  That seems wrong to me since it implies a kind of dualism (function vs. aesthetically interesting design) and a rejection of the holism he elsewhere accepts.  Also, sometimes ordinary objects look visually interesting and have aesthetic value but not for formal or design reasons, for example a front yard that expresses the owner’s personality. 

Because of the joy he took in fancy cutlery I directed Bob to Chez Panisse, my favorite restaurant in Berkeley.  He thought that in evaluating artifacts we need to think of their role in an overall way of approaching life.  It struck me that this was in line with his holism.  First, he focused on the experience as a whole, and now on life style as a whole. He talked about experience as embedded in a larger appreciative enterprise, i.e. “the identification and evaluation of the way of life in which the artifacts, their use, and the experiences they generate is understood and evaluated.” (153) And he observed that one does this in appreciating art as well.  Bob is also sensitive to the interplay of different kinds of value cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic, and to how these values “interact or conflict in each way of life.” (154)

But the ethical dimension might pose a problem for the Chez Panisse experience.   As Bob put it, a life in “which eating exquisite food in an exquisite environment is highly valued, but there is complete indifference to the poor and hungry” would be a bad life. (157)  Yet, although I thought this was probably true, I wondered how it should play out in practice.  Would we be ethically allowed to appreciate an experience at Chez Panisse while not thinking about the suffering of the homeless?  Could we enjoy the experience as long as we tried to do something to help them later? Or does engagement with exquisite aesthetic experience in itself show complete indifference to suffering?  
  
After our walk and when I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole issue surrounding the can opener.   Bob uses the example to counter Carlson and Parsons’ theory that something is functionally beautiful if its form fits its functions.  Their theory is quite technical.  Based on Kendall Walton's concept of categories, they argue that an object looks fit when, viewed under a functional category, it is perceived to have no contra-standard features and has, to a high degree, variable features indicative of functionality.  In response, Bob writes, writes, if I may quote at length, “First, regarding the purported aesthetic property of looking fit, the fact is that many artifacts are aesthetically indifferent even though they are well designed to fulfill their function or functions on whichever conception of function that is relevant to appreciation.  Further, the artifact’s ability to fulfill its function may be quite visible without this making the artifact aesthetically valuable.  That is, it may have design features that give it variable features that are indicative of functionality without making that object aesthetically valuable in any way.  The basic metal can and bottle cap opener tends to open cans and remove bottle caps quite efficiently.  Because its design is well known, simple visual inspection may reveal its aptness to fulfill these functions.  But this is not sufficient to make it aesthetically interesting or valuable.  The can opener looks fit in the sense defined above" [i.e. “occurs when an object, viewed under a functional concept, has only standard features"] (144-5).  "Hence looking fit per se is not an aesthetic property, at least not one that has any implications for aesthetic value." (145)

What exactly is meant by “looks fit for its function?”  The phrase is quite uncommon.  When I Googled it, the only users were Carlson, Parsons, and following them, myself and Bob.  “Looking fit” is much more common.  It registers about half a million hits on Google, most of which have to do with the physical fitness.  Although it might make sense to simply stipulate what it means based on Parsons and Carlson I am more interested in what it might mean torn away from that narrow context, as when we might ask someone about a bar in a former church, do you think this building looks like it fits its current function?  What is a natural way to talk about fitting form and function?  

I tend to think that the ordinary houses I see on my walk to work look like they fit their function if they look good to live in.  But, as with the plates Bob and I were looking at, it seems difficult to separate this issue in my mind from whether or not they look good, period.  That is, if I were looking for a house to buy or rent I would also want it to look good, to be aesthetically attractive.  It seems obvious that if something is designed well then it looks good. 
What does it mean to say that something looks like it fits its function?  Are we simply saying it looks like it will do its job?  Are we simply predicting whether it will do its job?   But wouldn’t that be true of most of the houses I see on my walk, the only exception being the one recently gutted by a fire (although, to be sure, a walk in gutted districts of a major city, might find houses that look fit for their function much rarer).

So, is functionality just a minimum condition for attractiveness in houses?   Or is something different happening when we say that something looks good to live in, which is what I take us to mean when we say a house is functionally beautiful.  Are we making a prediction about how well the house will fit its function, such a prediction seeming to have little aesthetic about it?  But, again, it is really hard to separate functionality from aesthetics when it comes to houses once we get beyond the minimal interpretation of what “functionality” means.  Shouldn’t we distinguish here between thin and thick  functionality, only the later having to do with functional beauty?  Again, what does it mean to say that a can opener looks like it will actually open cans?  Isn’t this just a prediction of functionality (a thin one) based on looking at something?  Is it really a characterization of something’s look?   I think not.  Prediction of functionality is very different from functional beauty, and functional beauty is ultimately not separable from beauty as such.

Here is another way to look at it.  Even between two can-openers we can be asked to choose which is more attractive.  Similarly, between any two houses one can decide which one looks nicer.  Looking nice seems at first to have nothing to do with functionality.  But what about “looks nice to live in”?  If a house looks nice to live in then most would agree that it looks fit to fulfill its function.  The function of a house is to BE nice to live in.  (Admittedly that might not have anything to do with looking nice: for example it might be nice to live in this house because the people are nice.) You might say “that house looks nice but I couldn’t picture living in it,” but normally “looks nice” is short for looks nice to live in.  And to say that a house looks nice but you couldn’t picture living in it sounds odd. 

So I cannot agree with Bob that there are well-designed artifacts that are aesthetically indifferent.  (Maybe there is a scale here, and ordinary can openers as well as battery rechargers are relatively indifferent.  But isn’t this a problem with our civilization, one that such design reformers as William Morris and the Bauhaus, as well as the functionalists generally, rightly tried to oppose?)  An important function of most artifacts is to look good:  a good knife should not only cut well but look good.  Looking good is one of the functions of kitchen utensils in general.  Functionality in the thick/rich sense cannot be separated from aesthetics.  Although we might be able to predict by inspecting it that a can opener will be able to open a can adequately, this has nothing to do with aesthetics.  But if we look at a can opener and say that it looks like a nice can opener then we are referring to an aesthetic quality, albeit a low level one.  “Nice,” as I have argued elsewhere, is like “pretty” in this regard:  one of the neglected low-level aesthetic qualities.  Nor does it have to be a fancy Williams-Sonoma product to have such qualities.  

Bob denies that the ordinary can opener can be aesthetic because such things are not aesthetically valuable.  And yet they may have aesthetic properties.  For example, the can opener can still be nice-looking.   Similarly, I wouldn’t say that a nice looking house is necessarily aesthetically valuable, if by “aesthetically valuable” you mean something we might find in the architectural guidebooks.  Standards for “aesthetically valuable” are a lot higher than standards for “looks nice,” “pretty,” “looks good,” or “charming.”  Something can have aesthetic value in the sense of having aesthetic properties without being aesthetically valuable in the sense of having high level aesthetic values.  Such things, however,  would not be aesthetically indifferent.  

However, I like resolving what Carlson and Parsons called the problem of indeterminacy (how to determine the right function for evaluation) in Bob’s way more than in their way.  That is, it is not a matter of eliminating all functions but one, the proper function, but a matter of considering all functions.  Looking at the Plaza Major one should consider both the original and the current function in order to get a better, richer, appreciation of it.  This goes along not only with pluralism but with the idea of combining different perspectives…a matter already discussed with respect to appreciation of nature.   

Bob says “to make an adequate overall judgment one must weigh up all these considerations.” (149)  I would go a bit further: one must not only weigh considerations but synthesize approaches.  Bob considers the Zaha Hadid designed museum at Michigan State.  Here, it is clear that he is concerned with the fact that some functions do not work well together, for he says that “an evaluation of the overall aesthetic effectiveness of the museum should consider this defect [that it would work better in its own space] and weigh it against the building’s virtues.”  I am just not surely that weighing here is as important as synthesis, but I am not sure this is a point of real disagreement between us.

On an issue of great concern to everyday aestheticians, whether we should treat the ordinary as ordinary,  Bob answers very sensibly:  “this is a problem if only one way of seeing the chair is required for aesthetic appreciation” and he replies “this is not even true for art or for nature, much less for everyday artifacts.” (151)  Again, on this, Bob and I both take a pluralist approach and we both think that synthesis of more than one approach is best.  One can take a relatively disinterested approach and one can look at it in terms of intentions and context (taking these two stances alternatively for example).   Bob wisely wants to “leave room for standing back and looking at an artifact in a more detached manner” (151) but also recognizes that this is just one way of looking at it.  He also thinks that in this regard there is no big difference between aesthetic appreciation of art and of artifact, although, of course, there are many differences between the two, some of which he describes.  I think that this is a great way of resolving a continuing debate in everyday aesthetics.   Overall, there is no radical break between artifact and art-oriented aesthetic appreciation. 













Monday, February 10, 2020

From my unpublished book: Essences in Philosophy and Aesthetics


1.       Essences exist.

Essences exist, but they are not eternal and unchanging.  The surprising claim made here is that essences change historically.  Since they change they seem very much unlike Plato’s Forms, and yet, like the Forms, they are the realities revealed in the deep thinking associated with the “what is X?” question.
Essences are the main objects of philosophical understanding.  They are also accessed through mythical and artistic investigation.  They seem to be eternal and unchanging because they are as if eternal and unchanging.  They are emergent historically and ontologically from, and upon, the natural world.  They are often emergent upon non-natural created worlds as well.  Those non-natural worlds are themselves emergent upon the natural world.  Essences, as I will argue, are not concepts, natural kinds, types, Forms or Universals.  But they are what Plato was trying to get at when he described Forms (but failed because he turned them into gods).  They are immanent, not transcendent.   
Throughout my discussion of essences my paradigm will be the essence of art.  The phrase "the essence of art" (as also the phrase "the essence of religion" and other such phrases) refers to something that can be described, albeit in different ways, and with different effects.   It refers to something that cannot be described literally.  Nor can it be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, although such definitions are often useful as a way of articulating an understanding of that essence.   It does refer to something that can be described by way of certain seemingly necessary and sufficient conditions, and by certain metaphors and myths.  
Essences themselves are metaphor-like.  They are tensional, interactional, and capable of multiple interpretation in much the way metaphors are.   Just as there is a dimension of nature that corresponds to literally true statements there is an aspect of reality that corresponds to true metaphors.  Good and powerful definitions of essences are true metaphors.
The metaphoric-like nature of essences points to the idea that reality in its most significant aspect is a function of a dialectic of the fictional and the nonfictional, the unreal and the real, the unconcealed and the concealed.  

2.       Deep.

Essences are the objects of investigations that are deep.  Deep investigations are inexhaustible and comprehensive.  They go beneath mere surface appearance, and they are critical of accepted foundations.  They originate new fictional worlds, which are also, and at the same time, ways the world is.  
Deep investigations take into account the entire range of human experience:  not just the cognitive dimension, but also the sensuous, the emotional, and the imaginative.   Deep investigation, then, is phenomenologically deep.

3.       "Essence."

The word "essence" here, does not refer to natural phenomena, as in the essence of water.  The search for essences, as understood here, is a search for something that exists within the lived worlds of conscious and reflective beings.   Such entities could not exist without us. 
Water may have an "essence" under a completely different sense of that term than that used here.  Its essence would simply be a matter of what science is trying to define when it defines water.  One cannot model an essentialist investigation of human things, such as art and religion, on an essentialist investigation of purely physical things.  This is so, first, because human things are generally organic wholes, or participate in organic wholes, and second because human things are always constituted, in part, by consciousness.

4.       Culturally Emergent.

Essences are culturally emergent entities, and thus are like such other culturally emergent entities as minds, institutions, concepts, meanings, persons, and cultures themselves.  Essences are also biologically emergent through evolution.  Cultural emergence is emergent upon biological emergence.   Art, for example, may have been biologically emergent in our species 100,000 years ago.  The essence of art continues to emerge, but now it is culturally emergent.  The cultural emergence of art is on top of its biological emergence.
Essences emerge, and continue to emerge:  they emerge both ontologically and historically.   They emerge upon a substratum which itself is emergent in many ways.  For example, the essence of art is emergent in part on artists and their activities, and these, in turn, are culturally emergent. 
Essences are emergent upon, and therefore are aspects of, organic wholes.  Moreover the parts of organic wholes upon which essences are emergent also have aspects that are emergent upon the whole, and therefore upon the whole's emergent essence.  Emergence is therefore interactional.  Even the material world-as-experienced is emergent in this way.  For example, the experienced properties of a patch of paint pigment on a painting are emergent upon the contextual situation of the pigment within a larger whole (the painting) and upon the context of that painting within even larger wholes (e.g. the life of the artist, the historical movement, etc.).  Pigment also has emergent properties with respect to the history of its use and associations.

5.       Range of Essences.

We can speak of the essence of a person, an institution, a painting, or a concept, although the main concern of philosophers is over essences of things referred to by abstract general terms, such as "art" and "man."  When does a word refer to an essence?  When it refers to a culturally contested concept, that is, a concept the nature of which we argue over.  In other words, a word refers to an essence we argue over its definition, and this argument expresses differing overall world-views.
This is one place where essences depart from what Plato called Forms.  Plato considered largeness itself to be a Form.  Insofar as there is no culturally important debate over the nature of largeness, Largeness is not an essence in my sense of the word.  However, if there were to be a debate over largeness, as there is over life or art, then it would be an essence.

6.       Instantiation Upon Particulars.

Although culturally emergent entities can have physical properties, they are unlike physical objects in that they instantiate, and are embodied in, other particulars.  For example, a work of art instantiates the essence of art and is embodied in a physical object.  The cultural world is emergent upon the natural world.  An emergent entity is one that is embodied in that upon which it is emergent.  Thus, the cultural world is also embodied in the natural world.
Particulars become essences when they exemplify that essence.   This is perhaps a shocking claim.   We tend to think of particulars as radically different from essences.  But when a particular fully exemplifies beauty, for example, in the sense that it is a living exemplar, then it is the essence of beauty actualized and expressed.

7.       Metaphysical Emergence.

Essences arise from metaphysical emergence.  This is an extension of cultural emergence.  Just as works of art are emergent upon persons, communities, and their interactions, so too essences are emergent upon all of these at a higher level.  The essence of art, for example, is emergent upon persons, works of art, communities, and the art-relevant interactions between these as they relate to definitional debates.
Metaphysical emergence is not to be confused with metaphysical transcendence, the concept of which it replaces.  The idea of metaphysical emergence is that entities previously thought to be metaphysically transcendent are actually immanent within the world of experience.  However they are still ontologically distinct from those things upon which they are emergent.
The idea of foundationalism is here reversed.  The metaphysical does not form the foundation of the structured edifice of knowledge or of being.  Rather it is the crown of various events of emergence.  However, since metaphysical entities (essences) are organically related to the entities upon which they are emergent, they can also be seen as "within" these too.  The cultural world is itself made up of emergent entities directly, and upon the natural world indirectly.  However, there is no one-to-one emergence on physical objects.  For example, a sculpture is not one-to-one emergent upon a sculpture-shaped physical object.  Artworks are emergent upon, and embodied in, the materials of the art object and their relations to artists and public, all of which are culturally emergent entities.
8.       Essences, Concepts and Forms
As I said earlier, essences are neither concepts nor Forms.  But it is helpful to understand them as in some respects very like each.  For example, philosophers often see themselves as analyzing concepts.  But on one common interpretation of concepts this would mean that they are analyzing something in their minds, or at least something shared by many minds in a culture.   This is not what analyzing concepts really is since if it were it would be the same kind of work that lexicographers do.  Or maybe it would be that plus what psychoanalysts do.  But if you have an analysis of the essence of art, for example, you analyze art itself.  At the same time, in analyzing art itself you are analyzing some phenomena arranged and shaped under the word “art” and this is very much like what we mean by analyzing the concept of art.  This is why such analysis is inevitably historically situated.  To analysis the essence of art is to participate in the ongoing dialectic of that essence.  To create art seriously is also to do that.


Mark Johnson's The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought: and the neglect of beauty

There is little I disagree with in Mark Johnson.  I have been reading his The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought:  The Bodily Roots of Philosophy, Science, Morality, and Art  (2018).  Johnson is every bit as much a Deweyan as I am.  That makes the little areas in which we might disagree interesting (to me).  What I think generally (our one point of disagreement) is that, with all his emphasis on meaning, Johnson neglects, or misses out on, the importance of beauty.  So he says, "Qualities are what we live for - the fresh, soft, translucent greens of leaves in early spring contrasted with the hardened, fatigued, dessicated greens in early fall..."   (227)  "This is the stuff of our lives." (227) There is something wrong here.  It is not the qualities we live for but rather the ways in which these qualities can be experienced as enhanced in a pleasurable way, or, to put it another way, experienced as objects of beauty or sublimity.   

Something is telling about Johnson's focus on contrast.  Contrast between qualities is interesting, and one may think about the contrast between two qualities of leaves in different seasons.  But this is not the "stuff of our lives."  The stuff of our lives is the quality of the leaves we experience now (say, in the Spring) and it is only really stuff of our lives, only really important for us, if it is experienced as beautiful.   After giving a  poem by William Stafford, Johnson writes (by way of summarizing the point of the poem), "The air, the water, the memories---all cool and refreshing.  And while it lasts, there you are, too, present, just present, taking it in, feeling the morning and the world and peace.  And that is the meaning of it all."  (227)  Well, you might think that a particular intense aesthetic experience is the meaning of it all, but again it is not the qualities alone by themselves.  The qualities have a quality:  and it is that quality, commonly called beauty, that gives life meaning.   

Johnson may be right that this is essentially Dewey.  As he puts it "Dewey's claim about the primordial qualitativeness of our lives would seem almost trivial, were it not for that fact that it is hard to think of a philosophy that does justice to this insight" i.e. that qualities are the "stuff of meaningful experience."  (227)  Johnson stresses the idea of the prevasive unifying quality in Dewey.  He refers to this as "Dewey's big idea." And there is reason to think it is! 

But notice this passage from Johnson, which refers to our ability to immediately recognize a Picasso in a museum: "there is a pervasive unifying quality of this particular work you are now engaging....[a]nd the meaning of that particular work is realized, as a horizon of possibilities for meaning, in and through its qualitative unity"  (231).  Johnson then quotes from Dewey.  But what I wish to stress here, and I will give the quote from Dewey to show this, is that the quote agrees with me and not with Johnson.  The quote does not support the position that Johnson is trying to support...i.e. that it is all about meaning.  

Here is the quote from Dewey:  "The total overwhelming impression comes first, perhaps in a seizure by a sudden glory of the landscape, or by the effect upon us of entrance into a cathedral when dim light, incense, stained glass and majestic proportions fuse in one indistinguishable whole.  We say with truth that a painting strikes us.  There is an impact that precedes all definite recognition of what it is about."  (Dewey, 1987, 150)  (Johnson, 231).  The point is that this impact precedes meaning, precedes "what it is about."  Focus on the term "sudden glory."  The pervasive unifying quality is precisely the profound beauty or perhaps sublimity of the object. (Or at least it is completely bound up with that beauty.) 

So it is missing something to say that, for Dewey, "art reveals, through immediate presentation of qualities unified in a comprehensive whole, the meaning and significance of some aspect of the world." (232)  This is true but it is not meaning alone that  makes experience meaningful.  Beauty, "the glory of it," is what counts, and without that, art, and any aesthetic experience, would be almost pointless, and certainly incomplete.  

Another quote from Dewey, also quoted by Johnson regarding the qualitative unity is: "There is no name to be given it.  As it enlivens and animates, it is the spirit of the world of art."  (Dewey, 1987, 193)   The animation, the making it so that we feel the work as something highly real:  this is what we mean when we say that it has an aesthetic aura (the term I prefer somewhat to "beauty"). 

Finally, at the end of his chapter on "Dewey's Big Idea for Aesthetics," Johnson makes clear what his problem is, that he thinks aesthetic theory fetishizes "the aesthetic." It is quite possible that he would think that this is what I am doing here.  (240)  But his path is perhaps more dangerous:  he has reduced the aesthetic to the meaningful.   He is worried that the aesthetic road will separate art from life "as if ordinary living was not an aesthetic undertaking" ---and I agree that this would be bad.  

He has an additional worry.  He says, "It is perfectly acceptable to speak, as Dewey sometimes does, of 'aesthetic experience' when we are trying to observe that certain experiences are marked out as meaningful unities....But what is not acceptable is to treat 'the aesthetic' as  some quality or feature that descends ....upon a certain select set of experiences."  (240)  I get the worry.  But it is equally not acceptable to reduce the aesthetic to merely meaningful unities...unless, of course, the word "meaningful" packs within it the idea of aesthetic experience.  The quality of  the aesthetic does not "descend":  it is those experiences in their (usually highly pleasurable) intensity. 

But Johnson's final paragraph begins with a sentence with which I fully agree:  "Dewey's entire philosophical orientation is founded on his insight that all experience, perception, understanding, imagining, thinking, valuing, and acting begins and ends in the aesthetic dimensions of human experience."  (241)  And I will end on that positive note.      

Friday, November 15, 2019

Gyorgy Lukacs "The Ideology of Modernism" and everyday aesthetics

This work, first published in 1962, is often anthologized in books about continental aesthetics.  I will be working from the version in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism:  An Anthology.  ed. Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen.  This piece could just be seen as a rant against the modernist novel, particularly Joyce, Beckett, Musil, Faulkner, and Kafka.  It might seem simply a matter of taste:  Lukács preferring "realist writers" such as Mann to these others.  But of course there are deeper issues of competing ideologies here.  And then there are issues of competing Marxist ideologies too! Lukács' Marxism is very different from that of Marcuse and Adorno.  As I do not label myself a Marxist I see no need to determine who among the Marxist aestheticians are truly Marxist.  What really interests me about Lukács is relevance to my leitmotif of everyday aesthetics. 

The issue of everyday aesthetics for Marxists is pretty straightforward.  In capitalist conditions everyday life is alienated.  This alienation is based, of course, on exploitation both in the workplace and via manipulation of needs through advertising and marketing.  Everyday life, especially for the working class, is aesthetically deprived.  In an ideal, communist, society everyone would produce in a non-alienated way according to "laws of beauty" as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts.  


For Lukács the issue of the everyday comes up in two contexts, first in reference to life in a capitalist society and second in relation to Freud's notion of the psychopathology of everyday life.  Although he is mainly interested in criticizing a certain type of novel he is also interested in the main problems of Marxism, i.e. in how to explain the world in materialist terms and how to promote socialist revolution, and he situates his critique within that other interest.  


So the modernist text is based, he argues, on an ideology that stresses a static notion of human nature over a dynamic one.  It does not allow for a portrayal of human development in conditions of a dialectic between the subjective self and objective conditions.  In particular, Modernism (the name I will use here for the ideology of modernist literature) argues, implicitly, that humans have an unchanging human nature, and this human nature is that which is described as thrownness or being "thrown-into-being" by Heidegger.  It is the experience of being ontologically alone:  our essential and existential solitariness.  Of course the view is not only that one is alone in relation to others but also that one is abandoned by God (since there is no God).   (I would note that although I often enjoy modernist literature and find Heidegger intriguing, I join Lukács in rejecting this view of human nature.)


This view is also combined with a view of the nature of possibility.  For the Modernist, possibility is only abstract:  it is never concrete.  But the realist novelist (and also Lukács) wishes to stress the need for both abstract possibility and concrete possibility.  Concrete possibility is based on the historical conditions of our being.  Abstract possibility seems infinite, concrete possibility much more limited.  So, for the Realist (we will use this term here as referring to the theory that competes with the Modernist:  interestingly, the Realist does not have to be a Marxist), man and human culture are both historically situated.  The realist novel then stresses not subjective time alone (unlike the Modernist) but a dialectic of subjective and objective time.  Similarly the Realist stresses a dialectic of the subjective and the objective in general.  We should avoid the mistake, a form of vulgar Marxism, that would reduce the subjective to the objective.  Retaining subjectivity allows for the possibility of human choice:  Lukács is no determinist.  


One of the problems Lukács finds with Modernism is that it offers as a solution to alienation a retreat into psychopathology.  Psychopathology is no solution to the problems posed by capitalist society.  For a Modernist like Musil, if you do not "run with the pack," i.e. join in the capitalist rat race, your only alternative is becoming a neurotic.  Modernism, Lukács thinks, naturally leads to naturalism, i.e. a literary style that stresses sordid details of everyday life.  As Alfred Kerr put it, "what is poetic in everyday life?  Neurotic aberration, escape from life's dreary routing." And, as Lukács observes, this implies "the poetic necessity of the pathological [deriving] from the prosaic quality of life under capitalism."  Lukács sees a continuity between this older naturalism and contemporary modernism: "Kerr's description suggests that in naturalism the interest in psychopathology sprang from an esthetic need, it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism."  (227)  Lukács sees this as evolving from "merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality" into a "moral protest of capitalism."  (227)  


The second point of contact with the everyday comes up a couple paragraphs later.  There, Lukács turns to Freud, whose psychoanalysis he sees as an obvious expression of this obsession with the pathological.  He sees Modernism and psychoanalysis as essentially the same.  And Freud's starting point was 'everyday life.'  Freud explains slips of the tongue, daydreams (and dreams as well) in terms of psychopathology.  Lukács thinks rather that one should see mental abnormality as a "deviation from a norm."  


So, on his view, "this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem.  It is an ideological problem, deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man." (228)  Lukács contrasts Modernism to Realism which is based on Aristotle's idea of man as a political animal, and which produces a new typology of humans "for each new phase in the evolution of society."  The value of Realism is that it sees contradictions both within society and within the individual in terms of dialectic.  In the realist literature of Shakespeare, Balzac, and Stendhal "the average man is simply a dimmer reflection of the contradictions always existing in man and society."  (228)  And this is made impossible if you believe man is thrown into Being. 


In talking about traditional realists Lukács is not necessarily talking about the kind of novel he would like to see today or the kind of ideology he most favors. (Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself part of the wave of the future is going to hold up much older writers as his ideal?  Wouldn't those writers, from a Marxist perspective, reflect Bourgeois ideology of their own time?)  Indeed he sees these writers as producing an "abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially average" and he believes that this "leads in modernism to a fascination with morbid eccentricity" which becomes "the necessary complement of the average." Further, this polarity "is held to exhaust human potentiality," which of course he would reject.  What is puzzling is how a realism he favors can lead into the modernism he does not.  


Another issue is one of competing approaches to sensuous details.  Although, in discussing naturalism, Lukács tends to focus on the ugly details of daily life under capitalism (especially for the worker), the naturalist can also be concerned about the aesthetics of everyday life in a positive way.   Tom Huhn quotes from Zola's Nana in connection with this issue:  "The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps shed a soft glow over the pink hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knick-knacks.  At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china..." and so forth.  Huhn, Tom (2000), "A Modern Critique of Modernism: Lukács, Greenberg, and Ideology." Constellations, 7: 178-196.  

Huhn suggests that for Lukács what is absent is cohesion, whicyh  is compensated by a "surfeit of stimulation...a smorgasbord of sensation"   (Huhn's essay is excellent on Lukács's Hegelianism:  I cannot do justice to that here.)  Huhn interprets Lukács as seeing naturalism in terms of mere sensation as opposed to rich experience.  But it seems to me that there is something redemptive in a positive everyday aesthetic as found in this naturalist description.

At the end of his essay Lukács says of Kafka (as paradigmatic modernist) that "He has emptied everyday life of meaning by using the allegorical method; he has allowed detail to be annihilated by his transcendental nothingness" and this "prevents him from investing observed detail with typical significance."  In short, Kafka cannot "achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art" since his aim is to raise the individual detail to the level of abstraction.  (234)


What are the implications of this for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Consider Modernism and Realism as competing approaches to that aesthetics (and not just towards the aesthetic valuation of novels that portray life).  Much of what Lukács says is true and yet one cannot follow him in outright condemning Modernist approaches to the everyday.  Modernism does seem to shed light on experience by focusing even more on the details of the everyday (only thinking in terms of the "typical" can blind us to the sensuousness of the particular).  If, as Huhn suggests, Lukács would reject the passage from Zola, it is because he would reject an approach to everyday life that is sometimes light, sometimes legitimately concerned with sensuous surfaces.  


Ultimately Lukács distinction between abstract and concrete possibility hides something more fundamental. Lukács is, finally, a moralist and a moralist requires that the concrete possibility be understood in a moralist way, and thus label any other approach to concrete possibility as "abstract."  There is a sense in Lukács that a novel cannot be good unless it in some way promotes a socialist revolution, and this seems severely limiting to the novel.  Similarly, he would no doubt require that we approach everyday life in a moralistic way as well.  I cannot join him there.




Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The god and its relation to Heidegger's theory of art

I have posted before on The Origin of the Work of Art here and here.  So this can be taken as an addendum.  I am mainly interested in this quote:  "We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings.  That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary.  Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling.  At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny." (197 in Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen  Continental Aesthetics:  An Antology, 2001)  So it seems, for what it is worth, that Heidegger is on my side in the debate between the what I have called those who stress the ordinariness of the ordinary and those who do not.  But I do not want to appeal to authority here.  I just find Heidegger useful.

A key issue is the role of "the god."  Here is my admittedly crude take on this.  For the world/earth dynamic to work a god must be projected.  The god provides a center for the holy precinct.  But the god does not have to be an ancient Greek god.  The god is whatever makes Being shine.  I hypothesize that the god in the Van Gogh shoes example is the peasant woman, although a case could be made for the shoes as belonging to a peasant woman.   "The god" on this account is very much like what Kant calls an "aesthetic idea."  The shoes in Van Gogh's painting are an aesthetic idea.  The god also plays a similar role to Nietzsche's description of Dionysus on stage in ancient Greek tragedy. 

Something like this can happen in everyday life.  In everyday life sometimes a thing makes the surrounding world uncanny.  If that happens, the thing is "the god." 

This happens in thinking too. A concept that symbolizes everything and seems to focus one's ideas:  that can be the god for a thinker. 

Of course this analysis is not inconsistent with atheism.  "God" can be replaced by some other term and does not imply literal belief.  If you are somewhat successful in finding "the god" you make the world shine again in the same way that the surroundings of the temple when it is set up takes on Being.  When Heidegger says we have not been listening to Being.

Note how also Heidegger and Danto are opposed.  Danto's Artworld is cut off from the world.  The main disadvantage of that is that there is no earth/world dynamic.  There is no wonder that beauty is lost since beauty arises along with Truth and Being in the earth/world dynamic.  I side with Heidegger on this one.