Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Plato Books II of The Republic On Censorship

Books II and III of the Republic are notoriously difficult to teach.  It seems like it is mainly Plato complaining about Homer and Hesiod, coupled with some very strict views on censorship in the ideal State.  Socrates does not seem very attractive in these sections.  The issue in Book II is the education of the guardians, an inquiry that is supposed to shed light on the larger question of how "justice and injustice grow up in States," which can be roughly translated into a concern for how to make a state (such as Athens) more just.  So the question is whether educational reform that specifically involves greater censorship can make a people or a society more just.  As an American and a political liberal I am not keen on censorship and I am particularly not sympathetic to Plato on this issue.  Of course Plato does make a couple sensible (or at least defensible) points about selection of literature for children.  When dealing with fictional literature he insists that we should not carelessly allow children to "hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons."  This is at least a point that can be defended in a contemporary context.  An interesting recent case is that of Tomi Ungerer, whose children's books were widely censored in the 1970s largely because, as an illustrator, he had another body of work that was pornographic.  Although his children's books contained no pornography they often depicted a scary aspect of life.  For instance, in one, robbers are shown with a blood-red ax and frightened children in one corner.  In an article I wrote many years ago (“Aesthetics and Children’s Picture Books,” Journal of Aesthetic Education  36:4 (2002): 43-54) I defended a more liberal approach to children's illustrated books than is commonly advocated.  So I would disagree with Plato to some extent.  But, at the same time, it is hard to argue against the idea that parents and teachers should select children's books partly in order to teach moral lessons.   Still, that is not the same issue, as one can chose works to teach moral lessons that others would reject for moral reasons.  I would probably select Ungerer's books because they encourage children to deal with their fears and to think for themselves.  Others may not value these books because they value these character traits less than I do. 

More shocking, Plato moves on to attack the great classics of his time, in particular Homer and Hesiod. He attacks them for telling lies.  It turns out that a lie is a story about God, a god or a hero that makes either out to be somewhat less than perfect.  So, proper theology trumps good story-telling.  In effect the premise that a god is, by definition, perfect determines the rest of Socrates' argument.  So Uranus cannot do to Cronos what he did in Hesiod's tales, and so too Cronos to Uranus.  If the story must be told, it can only be told to a select few, and even these must sacrifice a huge and unprocurable pig before doing so.  The principle is that a child or even a young men should never be able to use a story from mythology to justify an action like chastising his own father.  Also, stories about the gods quarreling cannot be repeated, since you do not want to encourage quarreling among citizens (and, again, the gods are perfect, so Homer must lie about their quarrels).  To say that the stories have allegorical meaning is not helpful, Socrates argues, since young persons are not good at judging whether or not something is allegorical or how it should be interpreted if it is.  Socrates goes so far as to claim that since the gods are good they cannot be the cause of anything evil, and so any poetic statement that implies that gods (or God) dispenses evil things as well as good things must be wrong.  He even argues from this that God could not be the author of all things, but only of those things that are good.  Nor can God be seen as being the author of the misery of those whom he punishes.  Rather, we should see those who have been punished by God as benefiting from that.  Really, I find all of this insufferable.  To add to this, the gods cannot be represented as changing their shapes or appearing as mortals.  If you are perfect you cannot change since any change would be for the worse.  More interesting, the gods cannot even deceive us into thinking that they appear in human form, since "no one is willingly deceived in that which  is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters."  If God deceived us about the highest reality then this would be harmful to us, wicked, and therefore impossible for God.  This would be a "true lie" since it would entail "ignorance in the soul" of the person deceived.  A true lie is far worse than a mere "lie in words" which itself is a mere imitation of the true lie.  The notion of a "true lie" is interesting with respect to Plato's metaphysics, since elsewhere he does not allow for negative Forms (for example in Parmenides) but now he seems to be talking about the Form of the lie.

The upshot of all of this is that God is "perfectly simple and true both in word and deed;  he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision" and if Homer or anyone portrays God or the gods as doing any of these things then they should be censored.  I suppose one could admire Plato's desire to clean up theology by making it more logical, and then tying this to making the State more rational and thus better for the citizens.  But none of this appears to be enough of an argument for censorship at the level Plato recommends. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Some Student Definitions of Beauty

I have long thought that there is much of value in even the beginner's attempt to answer one of the great philosophical definitions.  Remember that Plato would often begin his dialogues not with a definition offered by Socrates but one offered by someone who is philosophically naive.  True, such definitions are always shot down -  but they do provide Socrates with a starting off point.  I am more positive about student definitions, seeing them as perhaps glimpsing part of the truth.   I usually have my students try to define beauty on the first day of class, and I usually find some food for thought in their definitions.  Here are some examples.  How these may actually stimulate thought or capture part of the truth about beauty is not always clear to me, but many at least rise to the level "interesting, although I do not know why."

Student A says that beauty is "what makes you learn something new about yourself.  In enlightens and inspires you to achieve the seemingly impossible."  Although this is not really a definition but rather a possible feature or characteristic of beauty it is interesting that A believes beauty involves both learning about oneself and motivation for great personal achievement.  B defines beauty as "finding comfort, lust, and a sense of what life is all about in a specific person, place, or thing."  So beauty for B is an activity, not just an attribute, and one that has meaning content, which is "what life is all about."  C says that it is "something that catches your attention and possibly mesmerizes you with its appearance or what it consists of.  [It] can either be an object, a person, a thought, or concept."  I have long thought that beauty has a component which goes beyond merely catching one's attention to something like being "mesmerizing."  D thinks beauty is "any positive emotion or feeling that benefits humanity on a large or small scale and leads to personal growth and love."  The idea of connecting beauty not only with the good but with the good of humanity is relatively unique, but interesting.  That its perception leads to "personal growth" is similar to what we find in Plato's Phaedrus.  E  says "beauty is something that is pleasing to a person's tastes or senses - sight, smell, sound.  It can involve things that are familiar or comforting to that particular person, e.g. "that girl looks like my mom; she's so beautiful"  The first part of this definition is common, although we do not often say that a smell (or a taste) is beautiful.  The second part is obviously true although the explication leads us to think that it might mean that beauty ties in to something very intimate and already experienced, like the beauty of one's mom....that it has a built in memory component (often associated with nostalgia)...a kind of recollection as Plato would put it.  F says it is "one's perception of an ideal object, moment, sound, action, or art."  Beauty as defined in terms of an ideal perceived is common.  It is interesting that most of the classic definitions of beauty show up in a college classroom on the first day of class.  Oftentimes the definitions are highly subject-oriented, seeing beauty in terms of subjective experience.  For example G's "a word used to describe a moment or feeling when you appreciate or enjoy an experience or moment."  Others have both an objective and subjective dimension, for example H's "An object or experience that provides positive emotions and makes you appreciate the object or situation."  Students often associate beauty with happiness as in I's "Beauty is a perception from a person's point of view that makes them happy or feels good."  Definitions that feature pleasure are not as common as one would think, although we have J's "Beauty is specific sight, smell, or experience that makes you feel pleasure or type of positive emotion."  Other internal feelings associated with beauty are joy and contentment, as in K's "an outside stimuli that creates a feeling of joy or contentment." L mentions "makes you feel in awe."  Again, pleasure is often combined or modified in a way that makes it more personal as in M's "Beauty is anything that pleases any single one of your senses in a good or happy way." 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Plato's Apology from an Aesthetic Point of View

When read straight Plato's Apology is an ethical work and has nothing to do with aesthetics.  So to read it from an aesthetic point of view is to read it against the grain.  If you are a student coming across this post in an effort to understand Plato's great work, be forewarned: what I am about to say may be considered at best an example of creative interpretation, at worst, a distortion.  My question is, how can the practice of Socrates as described in the Apology be illuminated from the perspective of aesthetics of everyday life and how the aesthetics of everyday life can be illuminated by this text.

Let us begin with theology.  In earlier posts I have advocated something I have called aesthetic atheism.  Let's say, as a kind of hypothesis, that Plato's Socrates (that is, the Socrates that is portrayed in the Apology....whether or not this Socrates is consistent with the real Socrates, no one will ever know...I'll just use "Socrates" for short from now on) was nearly an aesthetic atheist and that his philosophy can be helpfully or interestingly interpreted in this way.  On the face of it, of course, Socrates claims to believe in God and even in the traditional gods worshiped in Athens.  He does so in opposition to those who are attacking him, charging him with atheism.  Meletus, the accuser with whom he engages in dialogue during the trial, definitely believes that he is an atheist.  Note however that Meletus believes that Socrates is an atheist of the sort that Anaxagoras might have been, i.e. someone who believes that science can better explain things like the sun. Anaxagoras believed the sun to be a large molten metal body and not the god Apollo with his chariot.  For this, Anaxagoras was charged with atheism.  (He was notably the most famous philosopher prior to Socrates to be charged with atheism in Athens.) Socrates claims that he has no interest in such matters.  He was more appropriately charged with introducing new gods (this was one of the formal charges, specifically "not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things" 24c) and that Meletus is contradicting himself when he says that he, Socrates, is an atheist and that he introduces new gods.  The point of course is that the new gods Socrates introduces really come down to his personal daemon, an internal spirit or voice which tells him when he is doing something wrong.  Socrates seems to identify this spirit with the oracle at Delphi which had said that Socrates was the wisest of all men and, which saying, Socrates interpreted to mean that he had an obligation to act as a gadfly constantly questioning men concerning their claims to wisdom or knowledge and showing them that they are not actually wise.  The oracle is supposed to represent Apollo, although Socrates simply refers to it as "the god."  One gets the feeling that Socrates, despite his protestations, only believes (at most!) in one god who is represented both by this oracle and by his personal daemon (a kind of inner voice that seems to manifest the will of that god.)  This of course does not make him an atheist.  However, note that Socrates has no trouble with the notion that he is introducing new "spiritual things" and, of course, a religious atheist of the sort I have called "aesthetic atheist" can feel comfortable with "spiritual things" without believing in any actual spirits.  It is ironic, and perhaps a bit disingenuous, that Socrates refutes Meletus with the sentence "if I believe in spiritual things I must inevitably believe in spirits." (27c) After all, one can believe in spiritual feelings, experiences, places and times without believing in spirits, and I suspect that that was the case with Socrates.  Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Meletus was as complete an idiot as he is portrayed:  Socrates was quite likely some sort of atheist.  His new god was no traditional religious god, and really no god at all.  But again, this unorthodox reading is easily refuted by the text...Socrates literally says he believes in, unless we take him to be outright lying, he is no atheist.  Still it is easy to see him as one.  Generations of students have interpreted the daemon as a form of personal conscience, even though this is a contrary to the text --- it is a easy and useful move to make.  And what, practically speaking, is living "in service to the god" for Socrates other than engaging in a certain practice, i.e. a life of questioning? 

One still might ask where aesthetics comes in here.  Note what happens as Socrates engages in his daily task of questioning.  The young men who follow him about (his audience) "take pleasure in hearing people questioned" (23c) and they often imitate him in questioning others, thus leading to the second charge against him of "corrupting the youth" although this charge is also based, presumably, on his teaching them to believe in new gods.  So the practice Socrates engages in and which is the source of all the trouble is one of shared pleasure.  Pleasure is downplayed in the Apology.  It is not the goal of the activity, but its presence cannot be denied.  Moreover, it is at the causal root of the problem at hand.  Pleasure, on my view, is core to aesthetics:  it is not an absolutely necessary condition for aesthetic experience, nor is it sufficient (as there are non-aesthetic pleasures), but the pleasures gained by Socrates' audience are similar to those gained by the audience of Greek comic plays.   So I find myself with the unconventional hypothesis that Socrates can be (usefully) seen as an atheist, but not of the modern exclusively science-centered sort, i.e. of the sort promoted by Richard Dawkins, but rather one that is also at the same time deeply religious.  I say this because he is replacing the gods with an inner daemon that, practically speaking, represents a way of life that is, at its core, aesthetic insofar as it involves performances, audiences, and pleasure.  (If you do not believe that Socrates is deeply opposed to traditional religion ready his Euthyphro.)

It can be immediately replied that the view I am expressing here would mae the practice of philosophy (which Socrates may have originated, or at least developed from earlier philosophers) a form of art, which, many would argue, is patently false, especially those who would see it as a handmaiden of science.  Socrates, however, would block the handmaiden of science move.  Further, in Book X of the Republic Socrates makes clear that what we consider arts are not arts at all and that a true art would be something that contributed to the good of society, for example what Solon accomplished through the Athenian constitution, so that, ironically, Socratic philosophy would probably be seen by him as an art although not of course in the sense of "fine art." Whether it involves aesthetic experience is, however, the point at issue here.

One way to see Socratic philosophy as an art is to recognize two points:  first, that it involves a form of education in which the object is to make the interlocutor (and perhaps the audience) more excellent or virtuous, and second, it is clearly not, for Socrates, a form of knowledge (and hence not a science or even a craft).  The Socratic artist is in fact much more like the inspired imitative artist discussed in the Ion than like a good craftsman.  So perhaps Socrates did believe that Socratic philosophical practice was an art in something closer to the sense of "fine art," and this is why he was so determined to destroy his competition in the same field, i.e. Greek Tragedy and Comedy.  There is no denying that Socrates believed that it was not only of the "greatest importance that our young men be as good as possible" (24e) but that the conventional ways of doing this based on imparting words of wisdom to the young (by the sophists, usually for a fee, or by the politicians through speeches, or by poets through their productions) was deeply wrong. 

Socrates aims to transform everyday life.  The "examined life," which is the only life worth living, is dialogical intercourse with other mean and women, intercourse that improves us by showing us that what we think to be wisdom (common sense and science-like knowledge) is not wisdom at all.  Wisdom, in fact, is whatever comes gradually (whatever happens) in a successful dialogical process.  

This might not apply well to the analogy of the horses.  One could argue that in his dialogue with Meletus Socrates is promoting the idea that men should be improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve men just as horses are improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve horses.  The problem is that Socrates consistently refutes the sophists' claim to be these experts, and denies having this expertise himself.   There are no experts in improving men in the way that there are of improving horses.  Improving men cannot be a science or a craft.  It can only be a poesis, i.e. an art based on inspiration.  The two competitors in this domain are Greek theater and Socratic dialogue.  Greek theater is not a practice of everyday life:  what is distinct about it is that it separates itself from everyday life.  Socratic dialogue however it something practiced every day by Socrates and his followers as a way of life.  It is not the presenting of a fictional world but an achievement of beauty (as described in the Symposium and the Phaedrus).  And so it is deeply aesthetic.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Can the aesthetics of art be reconciled with the aesthetics of nature? Yes, says Schelling!

What I am saying about Schelling and aesthetics I probably learned from Andrew Bowie, whose book Schelling and Modern European Philosophy I read earlier this summer.  This is a continuation of my last post on Schelling.

When Schelling says "For that wherein there is no Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding;  the Unknowing cannot be known" I take him to be saying that there is a continuity between the knower (humankind) and the known (nature) and a natural fit between the cognition-like structures of nature and human cognition itself.  (This fits quite well, by the way, with Alva Noe's theory of human consciousness as discussed in his book Out of Our Heads, Hill and Wang, 2009.)  So when Schelling speaks of finding science in Nature I suppose he means that we find structures in nature (laws, systems, etc.) which accord well with science and even act in a science-like way (experimentation, for example, happening in "lower" species.)  The distinction, for Schelling, is that in nature the conception is not distinct from the act.  This is why nature strives after regular shapes and geometric forms: "the sublimest arithmetic and geometry are innate in the stars, and unconsciously displayed by them in their motions."  (277)  Thus Schelling is willing to grant, unlike Descartes and many others since, that "living cognition appears in animals" even though they are "without reflection" i.e. do not think like humans.  Thus Schelling can speak of "the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soul-like tones."  (277)  This would be a shocking claim to contemporary aestheticians of music (Jerrold Levinson denies that bird-song could be music, for example), and yet are we not unfair to birds to deny them musical intoxication or soul-like tones?  Others would call this anthropomorphism, but it is more likely that the sin is in the other direction, that scientists are too unwilling to attribute human-like emotions to "lower" animals. (It is noteworthy that there are now behavioral scientists who at last are questioning the assumption that animals are so unhuman-like, that they are incapable of anything like perception, feeling, cognition, emotion, bonding, social order, and so forth.)  Schelling, of course, still believes animals only have "single flashes of knowledge," whereas Man has "the full sun."

So it is this "formative science" (really, the unconscious orderings of nature itself) found both in nature and in art that Schelling believes connects idea and form, as also body and soul.  We have a dualism, but one in which the two factors are dynamically intertwined, much as in Spinoza. (Bowie correctly points out many points of divergence from Spinoza as well.) 

The next sentence, however, could have been written by Plato or Augustine (or even Hegel), and needs some explaining if we are not to reduce Schelling to the position of mere Platonism:  "Before everything stands an eternal idea, formed in the Infinite Understanding" followed by "but by what means does this idea pass into actuality and embodiment?"  The answer is "only through the creative science that is...necessarily connected with the Infinite Understanding."  If however, we set aside a traditional religious interpretation of this and read it against its Platonist meaning we can see it simply as an affirmation of a deep interconnection between the striving and self-organizing ordered and developmental processes of nature (literally striving in the case of organic nature) and the similar processes found in the creative activity of the artist.

Then how is the artist to excel?  "If that artist be called happy and praiseworthy before all to whom the gods have granted this creative spirit, then that work of art will appear excellent which shows to us, as an outline, this unadulterated energy of creation and activity of Nature." (278) What aesthetician today would connect the activity of art with the activity of nature, i.e. the creative process of the artist with that of both nature and everyday life?  Art and artist are excellent that show the creative activity and energy of nature (humankind included, of course.)

How is this art created?  In great art, conscious and unconscious activity are combined (Schelling was one of originators of the idea of the unconscious later developed by Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and so on).  "it is of the perfect unity and mutual interpenetration of the two that the highest in Art is born."  (178)  Works that lack this "seal of unconscious science" are lifeless.  By combining the two, art can give both clear understanding and "unfathomable reality," and with the second the work of art can resemble the work of nature.  This might be a path for reconciliation of the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art (following the path, for example of Emerson and Thoreau.)



Friedrich Wilhlm Joseph von Schelling on Art, 1807: Critic of 20th Century Art

"Plastic Art [painting and sculpture] ...stands as a uniting link between the soul and Nature, and can be apprehended only in the living center of both."  (275)  It does so by expressing spiritual thoughts.  This initial thought from "On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature" (found in What is Art? ed. Alexander Sesonske, New York, Oxford U. Press, 1965) indicates a break from Schelling's master, Kant, in that there is no deep division between the soul and nature.  (The translation is by Eliot Cabot and may be found here in part as well.  Google provides it for "free."  This edition is The German Classics:  Masterpieces of German Literature translated into English, Vol. 5.) He believes this relation is found in other arts too, for example poetry.  Both nature and art are productive forces and this is what unifies the arts.  Moreover, the original source of plastic art is nature.  So, for Shelling, as opposed to, for example,  contemporary writers like Dom Lopes, there is a coherence to the whole structure of art, and this is found in the relation between nature and art (made up of the various arts).

Further, when people say that art imitates nature, we need to consider which sense of "nature" is being used.  One sense is that: "Nature is nothing more than the lifeless aggregate of an indeterminable crowd of objects, or the space in which....[the proponent of this theory] imagines things placed."  Another person might see it vaguely as the soil of his nourishment.  But "to the inspired speaker alone [Nature is] the holy, ever creative original energy of the world, which generates and busily evolves all things out of itself." That's Schelling's position, and it seems generally right.   Of course, as atheists, we need not take the claims for this ground to be literally "holy" or even see a literal "creative original energy" acting in the world, although the latter correlates roughly with the idea of evolution (as long as evolution is conceived of in a way that allows for some directive elements....admittedly not a strictly Darwinian notion of evolution).  If art imitating nature means this Schelling believes it is highly significant.  

Schelling thinks it makes no sense to imitate a nature that is without life.  He rejects the notion of Nature as a "dumb," "life-less" image and the imitation of this in artistic materials.  Some philosophers of his time believed that, in imitating nature, only the beautiful and the prefect should be represented.  But this leaves open the question of how the imitator distinguishes the beautiful perfect parts from the others, the ones that should not be imitated.  Since it is actually easier to imitate the ugly it is tempting for the imitator not to be concerned with this.  

Schelling also argues against the notion of imitation of abstract form.  In this, we might regard him as a critic of Clive Bell's and Roger Fry's formalism before their time.  He says that regarding "in things not their principle, but the empty abstract form" we will find that the result will not say anything to our souls or hearts. (276)  But the perfection of a thing is "the creative life in it, its power to exist." So those who believe nature is dead cannot create beauty and truth through artistic imitation.  (Bell and Fry, of course, rejected the very idea of imitation.  But their formalism is not acceptable to Schelling.)

Schelling admired Winckleman for restoring the role of soul in art, raising it into the "realm of spiritual freedom":  "he taught that the production of ideal Nature, of Nature elevated above the Actual, together with the expression of spiritual conception, is the highest aim of Art."  However, people continued to see Nature itself as lifeless.  We can see that this move of Schelling's allies him with the American transcendentalists in the aesthetics of nature (not surprising since they were inspired by Coleridge, who was inspired by Schelling.)  Schelling prefers the idea of ideal forms of nature being animated by "positive insight into their nature." (276)  Seeing nature as lifeless led to replacing nature with "the sublime works of Antiquity" whose outward forms could be imitated in the classroom, but without their spirit.  They are only animated when we bring to them "the spiritual eye to penetrate through the veil and feel the stirring energy within." (276)  This seems like good advice to artists.  Another position taught "the secret of the soul, but not that of the body" missing the "vital mean" between these two extremes.  So, for Winckleman, on one side there was "beauty in idea" flowing from the soul, and on the other was "beauty of forms."  What connects the two?  "Or by what power is the soul created together with the body, at once and as if with one breath?"  (277)  How can forms be produced from the idea?  

At this point Schelling introduces a bit of metaphysics, the idea of Limit (the material and determined world) and Unlimited (the realm of freedom).  From this comes his criticism of Bell/Fry formalism.  (This is important since everyone believes that this formalism is destroyed by contextualism.  But if there is an alternative formalism which also destroys Bell/Fry formalism, then isn't there a possible competitor to contemporary contextualism....not saying it is false so much as incomplete?)  This is worth quoting at length:

Art after Winckleman went to a retrograde method since it strove "from the form to come to the essence."  "But not thus is the Unlimited reached; it is not attainable by mere enhancement of the Limited.  Hence, such works as have had their beginning in form, with all elaborateness on that side [consider much contemporary abstract art!] show, in token of their origin, an incurable want at the very point where we expect the consummate, the essential, the final.  The miracle by which the Limited should be raised to the Unlimited, the human become divine, is wanting; the magic circle is drawn...."  (277)   

Don't read "Unlimited" as God.  Read is rather as the moment of Freedom where the human becomes god-like.  This, for the aesthetic atheist (see my earlier posts on this), does all the work religion needs to do without the excessive metaphysics and authority-based dogmatic belief.   For this to work as a philosophy of life, the divine-like, the holy, the Unlimited, and freedom itself, can be a fiction, can be "ideal" in Kant's sense of not being real, but still absolutely necessary.   

Schelling puts the issue of the relation of the artist and nature in a compelling way.  He asks "How can we, as it were, spiritually melt this apparently rigid form [Nature as quiet and serious beauty], so that the pure energy of things may flow together with the force of our spirit and both become one united mold?"  Isn't that a good question for the artist?  Again, attacking the formalists before their time, he writes, "We must transcend Form, in order to gain it again as intelligible, living, and truly felt."  He continues:  "Consider the most beautiful forms;  what remains behind after you have abstracted from them the creative principle within?  Nothing but mere unessential qualities, such as extension and the relations of space."  Further, he asks,  "Does the fact that one portion of matter exists near another, and distinct from it, contribute anything to its inner essence? or does not not rather contribute nothing?"  Hans Hoffman, the abstract expressionist painter would deny that it contributes nothing.  Fine, but the question is worth asking.

I will end today with this passage, which I take to be profound, although difficult.  Take this not only as a criticism of formalism but even of surrealism and dadaism, i.e. a criticism of 20th century art or better, the philosophy behind a lot of it, a philosophy that denies essences but only because it sees them as eternal and unchanging, failing to recognize essences that are historically relative

"It is no mere contiguous existence, but the manner of it, that makes form;  and this can be determined only by a positive force, and subordinates the manifoldness of the parts to the unity of one idea - from the force that works in the crystal to the force which, comparable to a gentle magnetic current, gives to the particles of matter in the human form that position and arrangement among themselves, through which the idea, the essential unity and beauty, can become visible." (277)  

Is this to exclude a scientific world view?  Not at all:  "Not active principle, but as spirit and effective science, must the essence appear to us in the form, in order that we may truly apprehend it.  For all unity must be spiritual in nature and origin; and what is the aim of all investigation of Nature but to find science therein?  For that wherein there is not Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding; the Unknowing cannot be known..."  (277)


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fichte and Schelling

These thoughts are prompted by thinking about Andrew Bowie  Schelling and Modern European Philosophy:  An Introduction (Routledge, 1993), particularly Chapter 1 and by an article on Fichte by Dan Breazele (cited below.)  When told that someone is an idealist the natural response is to think that such a person is unrealistic.  In fact there are surprising affinities between the kinds of realism we find in pragmatist thought (of, for example, John Dewey) and the idealism of Fichte and Schelling.  In my last post I discussed Schelling, but let's move back in time to Fichte, who came philosophically right after Kant.  In my view Fichte was right in opposing Kant's dualism:  the idea of a world of things-in-themselves is untenable.  It makes more sense to dissolve the distinction between consciousness and world, or rather, recognize that the world is the object of consciousness and is within consciousness in that sense.  Moreover, Fichte recognized that Kant's own philosophy posited a common ground to his dualistic world:  the transcendental unity of apperception, the "I think" that must be able to accompany all representations.  Whenever I experience something I am at least vaguely aware that there is an I that is doing so: it is the I, my embodied self, that is the active center of my world.   The world is the world we are conscious of, and this includes all of the stuff in the category of "things we can imagine that we are not directly conscious of."  There is nothing inconsistent between this, by the way, and a hearty belief in the methods and conclusions of science.  The "external world" is a  fiction, but it is a useful one. This is also the case for the "internal world."  However, as an overall metaphysical position, monism is preferable to dualism (no embarrassing gaps, not unprovable entities).  Nor do we want to opt for the mechanistic reductionist version of materialism which is the most popular form of monism.  Fichte and Schelling were to be admired for trying to find a role for freedom in a monistic world.  Freedom, as understood by Kant, was an irruption of a thing-in-itself, the soul, into the world of experienced things, one that poses inescapable problems.  There is no real evidence for such a thing as an immaterial soul, for example.  More sensible is to find freedom in the world as we experience it.  How do we experience freedom?  We experience it through a sense of creative flow.  We also experience it through the absence of that experience, i.e. through the blockage of creative flow.  When one feels that one's activity is unlimited, that one has unlimited potential, this is freedom.  (It is possible, however, that one can have a sense of freedom and not be free, as for instance as the effect of a drug.  Feelings are not guarantees of truth.)  For Fichte the essence of the I was spontaneous creative activity unhindered by external forces.  What we today mean by "the I" is certainly a lot more than that, but we feel most ourselves when we have this sense of spontaneous creative and unhindered activity -  so perhaps this is Fichte's point.  This feeling is pretty much the equivalent to the feeling of happiness.  When it is associated with the senses, it is aesthetic.  

Fichte also has a requirement for intersubjectivity.  The I requires recognition of other selves to be conscious of itself.  This goes along with my last post on the goal of the artist who wishes to achieve greatness.  Self-consciousness is a matter of creating one's own self in the context of intersubjectivity in which one follows the Socratic quest of self-examination.  The grasping and articulation of essences is the experience of freedom.

One thing I cannot agree with in Fichte is the notion of pure thing-hood as utter necessity.  First, the experience of freedom is also an experience of necessity, of free necessity as opposed to constrained necessity.  Second, things are participants in our world, having their own meaning-content for us.  When we experience  things as full of potential or as having a certain aura (as being aesthetic) this is also an experience of freedom.  (See
Breazeale, Dan, "Johann Gottlieb Fichte", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

As an atheist, I find it necessary to do some translation when reading the idealists.  When the idealist talks about the Absolute this is usually a thinly disguised notion of God.  The idealists consider The Absolute the ground of existence.  Some, for example F. H. Jacobi, saw it as a ground that cannot be articulated.  A possible translation of this idea into terms that make sense to an atheist is that when we achieve the experience of freedom we sense oneness with the matter at hand, and in a way that cannot be articulated except through metaphor.

In Breazeale's article on Fichte he writes, that for Fichte: 

"the systematic unity of the Critical philosophy—specifically, the unity of theoretical and practical reason, of the First and Second Critiques—was insufficiently evident in Kant's own presentation of his philosophy and that the most promising way to display the unity in question would be to provide both theoretical and practical philosophy with a common foundation. The first task for philosophy, Fichte therefore concluded, is to discover a single, self-evident starting point or first principle from which one could then somehow “derive” both theoretical and practical philosophy, which is to say, our experience of ourselves as finite cognizers and as finite agents. Not only would such a strategy guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself, but, more importantly, it would also display what Kant hinted at but never demonstrated: viz., the underlying unity of reason itself." (op. cit.)

This seems right to me, but my question to Fichte is:  why limit the need to combining theoretical and practical philosophy (only the first two of Kant's three great critiques)?  Isn't it necessary to derive theoretical, practical and critical judgment (aesthetic) together:  only this would "guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself" and also, I suspect, the "underlying unit of reason itself."  But this would involve experiencing ourselves not just as finite cognizers and agents but as both finite and infinite:  finite, since conditioned by our lives, and infinite insofar as we are able to use our creative imaginations to transcend our lives, inasmuch as we are able to experience creative flow and engage with the world in this way. 

Breazeale also says that Fichte believed that what Kant called “intellectual intuition,” "though certainly justified as a denial of the possibility of any non-sensory awareness of external objects, is nevertheless difficult to reconcile with certain other Kantian doctrines regarding the I's immediate presence to itself both as a (theoretically) cognizing subject (the doctrine of the transcendental apperception) and as a (practically) striving moral agent (the doctrine of the categorical imperative)."  Yes, there can be no intellectual intuition as non-sensory awareness of external objects, but there can be as awareness of essences that are as much constructed as revealed, that awareness being fundamentally tied to the body, i.e. to ourselves as sensing beings, a being that is not only cognizing and practically striving but also self-expressing through making and through active perception. 

I also like Fichte's view, also described by Berazeale, that we need to assume freedom as the starting point of our system of thinking, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of skepticism concerning this freedom.  (Of course, I understand freedom not in the Kantian way as acting according the the laws of practical reason, but as experiencing creative flow.  This can also happen in the realm of practical reason however.  It is not limited to art and aesthetic experience.  I am thinking specifically right now of the life of Grace Lee Boggs  Chinese-American philosopher recently featured on the PBS series P.O.V.  "American Revolutionary:  The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" June 30, 2014.  Boggs is a Socratic hero in that she uses (she is 99 years old!) the power of philosophical dialogue to challenge assumptions as she engages in a lifelong revolutionary struggle.)  

It is a shame that Fichte said nothing original about art or aesthetics since this has led to neglect of his metaphysical position by aestheticians and philosophers of art.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What good is defining art to an artist? An open letter to artists who want to be great.

Most artists (and I am including in this all practitioners of the arts, e.g. painting, music, video art, installations, whatever) find the philosophy of art frustrating...partly because philosophers love to wallow in abstractions but also partly because they quickly discover that philosophers of art are more interested in saying something related to the main problems of philosophy than in trying to help artists.  Actually I am not too sympathetic with artists on this point.  It would be like philosophers being unhappy with painters because when they try to paint a philosopher they do not tell philosophers anything important about what it is to be a philosopher.  However I do have something to say to artists about defining art which might be helpful to them anyway.  Bear in mind, this is just my own view and may not be shared by any other philosophers.  

Most artists will find the various definitions of art offered by philosophers and critics unsatisfying.  However some will find at least one of these definitions to be at least somewhat close to his or her own definition of art.  My point about defining art is basically this. It is a process that, despite the frustrations she might encounter when reading philosophy of art, is immensely valuable to the artist.  Why?  Because getting to know them, their advantages and disadvantages, can help the artist construct her own working definition of art.  Why is this important?  Well, as Socrates once said "the unexamined life is not worth living."  By looking at the various dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates is usually the key character, the idea is that if you profess something (being a rhetor, a general, a politician, a friend, or an artist) then examining your own life is a matter of trying to understand what that thing is and what it takes to be a good example of that thing.  Artists need to examine their own lives not just in the sense that they should examine who they are as individuals, but also, in the sense that they should try to figure out what an artist is, or who they are as an artist, or what "being an artist" should mean to them.  Bear in mind that the first answer to this question is always going to be naive, shallow and relatively uninteresting.  The point of the the Socratic dialogue is to show us that we need to test our definitions, discard the first rough attempts, and move on to ones that are more powerful, recognizing that we may (actually, will!) never get to a final one that is fully satisfactory.  Unlike Plato, I do not believe that there is any eternal and unchanging answer to questions of this sort.  (It is not entirely clear that Plato believed this either...but the orthodox view of Plato is that he believed final definitions were available at the end of inquiry.)  Rather, it is important for each artist and each generation of artists to define art for herself and for themselves.  

An example I often use is Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.  These are architects who came up with their own definition of architecture in the late 20th century.  They claimed that a work of architecture is a decorated shed.  Now, explaining their definition of architecture would require going into what they really meant by these two terms and how this was illuminated by their architectural practice and by the movement called postmodern architecture of which they were a part.  The important point is that they realized that they had to come up with their own view of the essence of architecture, something that could be stated quickly in definitional form, in order to sum up the direction they were taking and the future they saw for themselves and for like-minded architects/designers.  They took seriously the Socratic idea that the unexamined life is not worth living.  They examined who they were.  Moreover, the definition they came up with was immensely powerful.  It summed up and also added momentum to a major movement in architecture.  One could say, following a pragmatist conception of truth, that their definition was true relative to that moment in history.  Of course there were many who disagreed, and in particular the deconstructivist architects who followed them made their own definitions of architecture (a strangely convoluted process since deconstructionists did not believe in essences or definitions...but so what!  they still defined, and they still contributed to the changing essences of our culture).  Part of defining something well is defining it in opposition to someone else's definition of the same thing.   

When I have students from the arts in my Philosophy of Art class I encourage them to look at several of the great definitions of art in the past and to understand them as what Morris Weitz called "honorific definitions."  They are not to be seen as science-like definitions:  they are not much like the definition of "water" or the definition of "triangle."  They are definitions that attempt to reveal, solidify and focus the essence of something that changes over time and that changes as the result of changes in the surrounding culture and as a result of debates and conflicts between cultural sub-groups, including, notably, generational sub-groups.  To define art is to define art for your group and your generation for your time.  So defining art cannot just be a personal thing.  It has to do, and is closely related to, even larger definitional searches and even larger philosophical questions that are really as important to artists as to philosophers:  questions like "what is the meaning of life?"  "what is man?"  "what is truth?" and even "what is real?"   It also has to do with more politically and socially concrete definitional projects such as "what is it to be a Chicano" or "an American." To answer the question "what is art?" is to give at least a partial answer to these other even bigger questions.  Socrates and Plato saw this.  Moreover, these larger questions are questions that are of deep interest not just to you as an artist but to everyone else you know, even though not everyone takes a philosophical approach to these questions.  

So, here is the big question:  how do I become a better artist, or even, dare I say it, a great artist.  I cannot base my answer on any empirical evidence.  It is just based on what makes sense to me.  In order to become a great artist one needs to ask the "what is art?" question in somewhat like the level of depth I have been suggesting here.  You have to be asking the question with the view to the other big questions that it necessarily involves.  That gives you (provides the foundation for) the 1% inspiration part of being "great," and the rest is the proverbial 99% sweat and just plain persistence/commitment needed to do well in any task.  Greatness for an artist happens when you reveal/solidify, with mastery, the emerging essence of art as it relates to at least some of the fundamental questions of human existence.  That's my hunch.  And that is why I believe that asking the "what is art?" question in connection with the other even bigger questions is the most important question an artist can ask.  This is not to say that the answer needs to be as articulate as that offered by Venturi and Brown in relation to their answer to the question "what is architecture."  But you need to find some immensely powerful metaphor like theirs.  Coming up with your own definition is coming up with your solution to life's problems as manifested in your art form and your art practices.  

The biggest cop-out (and, I think, the path to the opposite to greatness) is to say "everyone has their own definition of art" and leave it at that.  It is a deeply sad intellectual move since it cuts out all debate, all confrontation, all striving, and even, ironically, all self-examination.  It is something Nietzsche's "last man" would say (and then he would blink -- see Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  It is interesting that most people who say this do not yet have a definition of art of their own.  They say it in order to avoid defining art, which is to say, in order to avoid the challenge of greatness.  Finally, defining art can be something that happens in our art.  When a great artist puts something forward and implicitly says "this, if anything, is art" he or she takes a stand about art itself (and maybe about life, meaning and humanity):  this is the solution to the some of the biggest problems of my time up till now.  This is my hat in the ring.  Duchamp did this with Fountain.  Rembrandt did it equally with The Night Watch.  Joyce did it with Ulysses.  Bourgeois did it with Spider. But other artists do it too in somewhat smaller ways:  you do not have to be the greatest of the great to achieve greatness.