Monday, October 8, 2018

Plato and Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations ....family resemblance pages, 30-40).


Plato and Wittgenstein on Generality, Essence, Conceptualization, and the Methods of Philosophy.
 
From Anand Vaidya (my colleague at SJSU who is teaching a course on Wittgenstein this semester).  Prompt for a discussion of Plato and Wittgenstein.  
 
"The point of this symposium is to put an end to the classical view of positioning Plato and Wittgenstein as two Book Ends for Western Philosophy who did not share a lot in common with respect to the goal, method, and substance of philosophy. 

In this discussion Dr. Leddy and Dr. Vaidya will discuss various passages from both authors concerning the nature of language, logic, forms, concepts, and methods with an eye toward bringing forward a new kind of harmony between the two."
 
When I first read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, particularly the material on family resemblances, I thought that here we have a final refutation of Plato.  But over the years I have come to believe that Plato and Wittgenstein are closer than that.  Here are some initial thoughts along those lines.  These thoughts will involve a somewhat unorthodox reading of Plato.
 
Perhaps the central problem with Plato is how to deal with the theory of Forms.  If Plato had been someone like Aristotle he would have set forth a series of pronouncements about the Forms in his first-person voice.  But this is not what happened at all.  Here are the factors that pose problems for the Forms:  (1)  Plato wrote in dialogue format.  Although Socrates is often the lead speaker it is not entirely clear even that Socrates' views are Plato's own.  (2)  Many of the early dialogues and some of the later ones are aporetic. Plato does not provide us with any one answer that the end of the dialogue.  (3)  The Parmenides seems to raise problems with the Forms than cannot be answered.  Parmenides ends the first part of dialogue by arguing that the Forms must exist otherwise dialectic would not make sense.  But this hardly refutes the third largeness problem or the problem of how we can know the Forms while not having the eternal Form of Knowledge itself.  (4)  Sometimes Plato treats the Forms as hypotheses:  which shows that he is not sure of their existence himself.  (5)  The Seventh Letter, if authentic, shows that Plato believes that his doctrine has never been expressed.  This nothing in his dialogues gives us doctrine.  The end path of dialectic is ineffable.  This is also suggested by the Symposium where Beauty itself does not get a definition.  Nor is the Good every defined in the Republic:  we just get an analogue to the Good.  (6)  Plato's attitude towards metaphor, analogue and myth is deeply ambiguous.  On the one hand these would seem to be at the furthest remove from the Forms.  They would be if they were merely imitative.  But they can also be understood as providing various alternative access points to the Forms.  Could the Forms also be constituted by them?  This is not suggested by Plato himself but perhaps by Kant when he discusses what he calls "aesthetical ideas" in section 49 of the Critique of Judgement
 
An obvious similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein would be in that (1) Wittgenstein also has mini-dialogues (2)  these are similarly aporetic (Wittgenstein seems more interested in getting the fly out of the fly bottle than in trying to actually define key philosophical concepts).  (3)  The injunction to silence at the end of the Tractatus may be similar to Plato's talk of ineffability in the 7th Letter and elsewhere.  Of course neither Wittgenstein nor Plato were able to stop talking. 
 
Wittgenstein seems to be interested more in concepts than forms.  However, analytic philosophy can mainly used the notion of "concept" as a replacement for "Form" with the idea that in analyzing a concept one is trying to figure out something that goes beyond merely giving the dictionary definition of that thing,.  Some philosophers hold to the idea that analysis of concepts involves trying to get at the essence of that thing, for example the essence of art.  One of Wittgenstein's followers, Morris Weitz, held that the attempt to define the essence of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions will ultimately fail since "art" is not that kind of concept.   Yet Weitz also argued that art theory is important because of the debates we have over the nature or essence of art.  Definitions of art should be seen as honorific definitions in which we set forth some property as essential to art, one that we think should be especially attended to.  Thus, for Weitz, Clive Bell's definition of art as significant form really should be taken as an honorific definition that calls on us to pay attention to significant form in art.  Although some philosophers have read Weitz as calling for a definition of art that treats it as a cluster concepts, where there are many conditions none of which are necessary or sufficient, others have felt that he is simply calling on us to continue doing what philosophers have done in the past, defining art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but recognizing that these are really honorific definitions offered as if they were "real" definitions of the sort that we get legitimately for such things as "triangle" and "water." 

Could Plato and Wittgenstein be synthesized?  This could be done partly through a modification (or another reading) of Plato, pulling him back from hypostatizing the Forms, and by modifications (or another reading) of Wittgenstein, allowing for a realist interpretation of how the human/language/world relation actually, in general, works.  Instead of seeing the Socratic quest (the quest of philosophy exemplified by questions that begin "What is...?" and continue through contested theories about the subject under consideration) in terms of a resolution that involves cluster concepts the quest is understood as seeking for ongoing resolutions in terms of honorific definitions in which the essence is increasingly revealed in all of its complexity, each definition replacing the previous ones in a dialectical and not merely cumulative fashion.    


Wittgenstein thought that philosophy neither deduces nor explains anything.  One would think at first that Plato was the opposite.  Yet, again, Plato does not provide final accounts, except on a couple occasions (for instance with Justice in the Republic), and although the talks about deduction, it does not really play a significant role in his thinking.  Sure, he makes inferences, but his method is not deductive in the manner of Descartes.  One might say that Wittgenstein is anti-theoretical.  But Plato is too, in a way.  He provides us with many theories.  Towards the end of his career he seemed more interested in methodology than in theory itself:  more interested in the method of division than in any theory that method might generate.  Wittgenstein says “The work of the philosopher consists in marshalling reminders for a particular purpose” (PI 127).  Couldn't be said that the doctrine of recollection in Plato reminds us that knowledge is just a matter of marshalling reminders.  I am not talking here of the mythologized versions of that theory but of the version we find in the Symposium as described by Diotima in her discussion of the "lesser mysteries."  Wittgenstein held that philosophy was a kind of therapy, and Plato held that philosophy is mainly a matter of improving the soul.  Wittgenstein stresses multiple methods:  so too did Plato.  Could Plato too be said to want to show the fly out of the fly bottle?   

Wittgenstein stresses language games.  But what of the language-games of philosophy itself.  Witttgenstein invented some new language-games in philosophy.  Plato used a number of different language-games in philosophy.  The idea of language-games does not replace philosophy.
 
Again, on the face of it, one might want to say that Wittgenstein rejected definition, and replaced definition as a project with finding interweaving similarities, family resemblances.  But one might also say that Plato and Nietzsche were both interested in the role of language and analysis in the pursuit of the best life and that this involves, ultimately, a kind of therapy.  
 
One other thought.  Wittgenstein places a lot of emphasis on the concept of "seeing as."  Seeing as can be seen as a kind of imaginative seeing.  Wittgenstein in his usual manner goes over many meanings and uses for "seeing as" and yet it is quite plausible that imagination plays an important role as providing the glue that holds together the different uses of a concept.  

Rowe provides an excellent overview of the similarities between the lives of Socrates and Wittgenstein (notably not talking about Plato in this regard).  Plato is often seen as opposed to the arts, but there is a poetical aspect to Plato's thinking, for example in his use of dialogue and mythology as well as in his use of metaphor and analogous thinking.  Wittgenstein also seemed somewhat like a poet, as Rowe observes.  Perhaps aesthetic and conceptual problems are closer together than we often think.  Rowe quote Wittgenstein: : 'Scientific questions may interest me, but they never really grip me. Only conceptual & aesthetic questions have that effect on me. At bottom it leaves me cold whether scientific problems are solved; but not those other questions."  CV 91.  M. W. Rowe  "Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates,"  Philosophy, Vol. 82, No. 319 (Jan., 2007), pp. 45-85.

It is noteworthy that Catherine Rowett argues for just this position with regards to the Meno: that it shows that to grasp a concept is to be able to apply it and we do not need to name some single common feature. "What we usually do is appeal to normal practice"   Plato, Wittgenstein and the Definition of Games. in Luigi Perissinotto and Begoñia Ramón Cámara (ed) Wittgenstein and Plato,Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Find it: here


 
 
 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Kant'[s Analytic of the Beautiful: the first moment #1-3

Kant believes that the world as we experience it is full of what he calls "representations."  Thus when I look at a work of architecture I have a representation of it in my mind.  The representation in what I see, not the thing as it is in itself.  Now when I judge something as being beautiful or ugly, i.e. make a judgement of taste, something different happens than when I make a scientific judgment.  I actually refer that representation to my feelings of pleasure or pain and judge accordingly:  if it gives me pleasure I judge it as beautiful, and if it gives me pain, as ugly.  So a judgment of taste is not objective but subjective.  However this is merely a preliminary point and we will soon discover that Kant does not mean the same thing by "subjective" as we might.  Here the emphasis is not not applying concepts of the understanding:  not trying to analyze or classify.  It is one thing to judge a building cognitively and another to judge it in terms of taste.  Kant says that in taste we refer the representation to our "feeling of life, under the name of the feeling of pleasure of pain"  and that the representation is being compared to "the whole faculty of representations, of which the mind is conscious in the feeling of its state."  This seems to mean that in finding a building beautiful we are also conscious of the state of mind we are in, i.e. in terms of imagination and understanding.  Later, he will observe that this state of mind involves the free play of these faculties.  

We next learn that the satisfaction is disinterested.  That is, we are not to think of whether or not the object meets some personal need of ours.  This idea expands Hume's notion that a good judge lacks prejudice.  In Kant's case we cannot appreciate something as beautiful if it is in some way an object of desire, for example of sexual desire, or even of consumerist desire.  "Interested" appreciation is going to be appreciation that cares about whether the object exists.  For example one might care about whether the object can be mine or be used by me.   Or one might care about the moral implications of the object in terms of social structure.  Take a palace.  Some people will judge the palace form an interested perspective.  For example, they might judge it as being immoral insofar as it rests on the exploitation of the lower classes.  Rousseau would say that it represents the vanity of the great.  Kant approves of Rousseau's moral stance.  But when it comes to appreciation of the palace one ought to be disinterested in its contemplation.  Set aside issues of morality.  The question is simply whether the mere representation of the palace in my mind (i.e. the image of it before me) gives me pleasure.  Also, unlike the Iroquois sachem visiting Paris (Kant shows no appreciation of the sophistication of Iroquois culture here), one finds more aesthetic interest in other things than the restaurants.  The restaurants provide sensual satisfaction and the actual existence of the food is important to us (we would be unhappy if the steak turned out to be a mere illusion).  With matters of taste however the question is not how I can use the object but what I make out of it in my contemplation of it.  

 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Medieval Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

I find it particularly difficult to teach a section on Medieval Aesthetics in the Introduction to Aesthetics course.  I have used the online encyclopedia of philosophy article by Michael R. Spicher, which is helpful.  He begins with the influence of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, which is appropriate.  I would only add that Plato's Symposium was particularly important, especially by way of its influence on Plotinus.  I also like Spicher's division between three topics in medieval aesthetics:  proportion, light and color and symbolism.  Proportion is particularly relevant to architecture.  I would add Pythagoras to the original list of influential philosophers since Medieval aesthetics is so strongly influenced by such concepts as harmony, symmetry and proportion. In teaching the material I decided to start with Diotima's description of the higher mysteries, i.e. the ladder of love.  This fits in well with a description of Chartres cathedral.  I was able to use a video from Kahn Academy which shows the stained glass windows of Chartres quite well.  The only thing I disagree with there is that the writers say that the effect of the windows has nothing to do with aesthetics and only with divine symbolism.  I would think that divine symbolism is one style of aesthetics and, generally, I object to using the term "aesthetic" only to refer to superficial attractiveness.  The section on "Light and Color" in Spicher's article particularly relates to Chartres, although one might also have to explain the Neoplatonic theory of emanation.  One thing that we see in medieval aesthetics that we do not see in Plato and Aristotle is stress played on both color and radiance.  Plato brings in light when dealing with the allegory of the Sun, but doesn't seem concerned with color.  I see the Medieval interest in color as an anti-dualist moment or aspect of Medieval thought:  they are asking that we pay attention to beauty in sensuously rich experience in a way that Plato would not.  This also relates to the Medieval ideas of radiance and clarity.  Plato does speak of beauty as a vast sea, but he does not see that beauty in terms of any special notion of radiance.  It is not that the Medievals believe that God is Light, as Spicher implies, but that God is symbolized in a deep way by light especially insofar as it seems to emanate from the things themselves.  Plotinus provides a transition from Plato to the Medievals:  Spicher quotes him "The simple beauty of a color is derived from a form that dominates the obscurity of matter and from the presence of an incorporeal light that is reason and idea."  (1.6)  I love the quote from Hugh of Saint Victor, also found in Spicher: "With regard to the color of things....sight itself demonstrates how much Beauty it adds to nature, when this last is adorned by many different colors."  Spicher puts it in an interesting way:  "There is a sense in which color causes beauty, since everything has color.  Hence, more radiant colors will cause the object to be more radiant and, therefore, more beautiful."  Of course this could be taken too literally.  Spicher takes Symbolism to be a third elemental, although I find it hard to separate this from the issue of radiance.  If the world is a divine work of art then it will be radiant.  In my own thinking, even in a world without God, there is radiance of the world, and this could lead to seeing art as pointing out and enhancing this radiance, the radiance of everyday life.  This could be related to the Christian view of hermeneutics.  If beauty is a reflection of God's beauty and if, as Aquinas held, all knowledge about God begins inn the material realm through the senses (this is how Spicher puts it) then one way to see beauty is radiance that comes from things seen being full of meaning.  Nothing I am saying, of course, is fully consistent with Medieval aesthetics:  it could not be, since I am coming from an atheist standpoint.  

To continue, I find particularly valuable the notion of radiance.  Spicher quotes Gilson "Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful:  it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."  Spicher writes:  "Radiance signifies the luminosity that emanates from a beautiful object, which initiatlly seizes the attention of the beholder."  For Aquinas "All form, through which things have being, is a certain participation in the divine clarity [or light].  And...particulars are beautiful because of their own nature - that is, because of their form."  

Bottom line for me:  the Medievals made one important contribution to aesthetics, i.e. the notion of beauty as radiance that is full of meaning.  I have spoken of this as "aura" in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Plato's Seventh Letter: how ineffable nous trumps mere knowledge

Most of the people who reject the Seventh Letter see it as somehow inconsistent with the rest of Plato's philosophy.  I am not one of those who reject the Seventh Letter.  Plato was constantly experimenting, and so there are going to be differences between each presentation of his main ideas.  Moreover, it hardly makes sense to speak of inconsistency in Plato since, unlike Aristotle, almost all of his writings are dialogues.  Although Socrates often seems to represent Plato's own point of view, it is by no means clear when he does.  Moreover I suspect that many rejections of the philosophical parts of the Seventh Letter are more due to its violating certain intellectualist/rationalist prejudices on the part of philosophers doing the interpreting.  I find the Seventh Letter to be consistent with my interpretation of the rest of Plato's writings, at least as far as one can talk about consistency here.

I am using the L.A. Post translation here, found in The Collected Dialogues edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns.  The passage begins with the striking claim that Plato has not composed any work in regard to his doctrines, and that he won't even do so in the future.  (341d)  The reason for this is that there is no way to put it into words, unlike other studies:  "Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and from close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining."  (341d)  Plato began this discussion by talking about acquaintance with doctrines or subjects, but this seems more like acquaintance with a realm of philosophical truth or maybe even a sort of intuitive oneness with the subject matter.  We tend to associate philosophical doctrines necessarily with something written.  But this is something that happens to the soul, and it is ineffable. 

In the next paragraph we learn that this "acquaintance" (hardly the right sort of word for this, it seems) is of "the nature of things."  Plato then says, "I do not...think the attempt to tell mankind of these matters a good thing, except in the case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance." (342e)  The term "little" seems misplaced here given that he had just said that there would be a long period of instruction.  Interestingly and perhaps with some degree of self-contradiction Plato then goes on to "speak on the subject at greater length" in order to make it clearer.  What he is going to give here is "a true doctrine, which I have often stated before, that stands in the way of the man who would dare to write even the least thing on such matters, and which it seems I am now called upon to repeat."  So, the point is that the doctrine that follows is preliminary to that which is ineffable and philosophically deep.  What follows is not exactly the same as what he said previously, but it is pretty similar, even though he does not use the term "Forms."   By "preliminary" I do not mean that there is another set of doctrines that can be explicitly stated.  I only mean that Plato believes that this "conversational" method gives you the self-sustaining kindled blaze...which is the whole point.

Plato starts off with three classes of objects "through which knowledge about [the nature of things] must come."  He says that "the knowledge itself is a fourth," which is to say that it is a fourth class of things, these in the mind, to consider here.  The fifth thing to consider is the "actual object of knowledge which is the true reality."  

To go into more detail, the first is the name, the second is the description or definition, and the third is the image.  The role of each is interesting to study in detail and this study will reveal some surprises.  For one thing it is quite surprising that Plato incorporates the image (eidolon) into his first three classes as something positive.  I think this is necessary for Plato.  When he attacks the eidolon he only does so when it is mistaken for the real thing.  It is always taken as a necessary starting point.  In the Symposium one must begin with appreciation of the body of a particular young man, for example. Later we will learn that the role of definition is not quite what we would expect either.  

The example Plato uses to explain his theory is a circle.  So, in this case, the name is "circle."  The definition is "the thing which has everywhere equal distances between its extremities and its center." And the third thing is the class of objects drawn or turned on a lathe.  Many would think that the word and the definition would be sufficient for knowledge.  But here we have the difference between mere knowledge and wisdom, or at least whatever wisdom is attainable by the philosopher.  Wisdom is going beyond definition and knowledge.

It is not surprising that Plato makes a distinction between the true circle and the mere image of a circle in the world of appearances.  For example if the drawn circle is erased this does "not affect the real circle to which these other circles are all related, because it is different from them."  A little surprising, however, is the further discussion of the fourth, which is now described as three things:  knowledge, understanding (nous) and correct opinion, for Plato elsewhere distinguishes between these, and here he seems not to care about that distinction, at least between knowledge and true opinion.  

The point he wants to make here is that these epistemic concepts, taken together, are found not in sounds or shapes but in minds, and that the real circle is not found in minds.  In any case he sees understanding as the closest "in affinity and likeness" to the fifth entity, the real circle.  This, too, might be surprising to some who might give this to knowledge (episteme).   But if knowledge is justified true belief then the justification and the belief must be stated in words.  Plato, at this time in his life allows understanding (which is not in words) to trump mere knowledge.

He goes on to extend this point to all of the other Forms (or, better, all things that can be said to have essences), for example shapes, surfaces, good, beautiful, just, bodies (artificial and natural), the elements (fire, water, etc.), every animal, qualities, and states.  To get a complete understanding of the fifth one must "get hold of the first four."  This is striking since one must get hold not only of the name and the definition but also of the image and, presumably, both knowledge and right opinion.  The term "get hold of" is not really explained, but seems to mean "gain a firm grasp of these things and their relations."

He then says "Furthermore these four [names, descriptions, bodily forms, concepts] do as much to illustrate the particular quality of any object as they do to illustrate the essential reality because of the inadequacy of the language."  The point is that the four illustrate particular qualities, and this may be confused with their philosophical purpose, i.e. to illuminate the essence.  This is the reason why he next says that no intelligent man will put into language what his reason has contemplated, i.e. not in written symbols, since writings cannot be changed.  (343a)  This is similar, as many have observed, to the Phaedrus attack on writing as opposed to knowledge based on personal conversation.

To help explain the meaning of what he has said here Plato notes that circles in the world of appearance, i.e. ones that are drawn in dirt or turned on a lathe, are the opposite of the fifth entity, the real circle.  The reason is that they would touch a straight line at several points, and this would mean that they would contain within them their opposite, i.e. straightness.  He then observes that names are not stable since you could call what we now call round straight and vice versa.  More interesting is that he applies this point to description (i.e. the definition) as well, since the definition is made up of words too, i.e. of "nouns and verbal expressions."  So, in general, the four are inaccurate.  (Note that he includes knowledge in this group, although perhaps not understanding!}

So there are two things, the essential reality and the particular quality, and "when the mind is in quest of knowledge not of the particular but of the essential, each of the four confronts the mind with the unsought particular, whether in verbal or in bodily form."  (343c)  So the four by themselves are not sufficient and can actually deceive us, focusing on the particular rather than on the essential.  The further problem is that "each of the four makes the reality that is expressed in words or illustrated in objects liable to easy refutation by the evidence of the senses."  And this leaves us prey to confusion and uncertainty.

Bad training leads us to accept the phenomenal presentations, including both definitions and knowledge as justified true belief, and not to look for real essences.  Those, like the Sophists, who are able to "handle the four with dexterity" can easily make a fool of the individual who tries to provide answers about the fifth entity.  The problem is not the mind of the speaker but the character of the four, which is "naturally defective."  

So how are we to proceed?  There is a method:  it is consideration of the four in turn "moving up and down from one another."  I take this to be central.  All four need to be considered in sequence:  it is not enough to move from word to definition, but one must also move then to the image, and then to knowledge.  And then one must also work one's way back down again.  We must recognize that whatever is in language is changeable.

I think that there is an implicit reference here to Heraclitus' saying that the path up and the path down are one and the same.  Plato often talks of two paths, one leading to the Forms and one leading away from the Forms.  To say that the path up and the path down are the same is to say, I believe, that wisdom is a process and a cycle in which one mounts to the Forms but also descends from them back to the world of appearances.  

As Plato observes, even this procedure "barely begets knowledge of a naturally flawless object in a naturally flawless man."  Most people are "defective" in that they have no interest in essences:  they are not philosophers.  

Plato goes further when he says "most people's minds with regard to intelligence and to what are called morals" are defective.  So  what is needed to engage in this search for essences is "natural intelligence and a good memory" - but also an "inborn affinity with the subject."  That is, one needs to have a passionate attachment to searching for essences, to philosophy, and also, which is the same thing, passionate attachment for self-improvement, achievement of arete. 

By natural affinity Plato may mean not simply a philosophical but a moral affinity, for he says "all who have no natural attitude for and affinity with justice and all other other noble ideals, though in the study of other matters they may be both intelligent and retentive" will fail to grasp the entity.  Also those who are naturally just and otherwise virtuous may have no intellectual ability and will also fail.  So "the study of virtue and vice must be accompanied by an inquiry into what is false and true of existence in general and must be carried on by constant practice throughout a long period..."  (344b)  This will involve comparing names, definitions and "visual and other sense perceptions."  And one must do this in "benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer..."  Only then will the "flash of understanding" blaze up, and the mind will be "flooded with light."  

All of this it seems to me is consistent both with the Republic discussion of the cave, line and sun, and with the ladder of love as presented by Diotima in the Symposium.  When one grasps the Good itself one does not grasp a definition.  Rather one is able to see the good in things.  When one grasps the Beautiful itself one does not grasp a definition but one is able to see the beautiful in things.  Words, definitions, images, and even knowledge itself (justified true belief) are just stepping stones to the flash of insight.  

Is this true?  Actually I think so, although I couldn't prove it.  Also, unlike Plato, I do not think that the real thing, the fifth, is eternal and unchanging.  Or at least it is not so except as ideal empty of content.  I only am sad that Plato used the circle as his main example  I think this confuses things since it makes it appear as though grasping a Form is much like knowing the definition of circle.  This, of course, is not his intention.  

Note on Secondary Sources.  W.K.C. Guthrie provides a useful discussion of this material in A History of Greek Philosophy: V  The later Plato and the Academy.  Cambridge U. Press, 1978.  







Thursday, August 23, 2018

Socrates Apology and Aesthetics

Plato's Apology has been taught thousands of times, maybe hundreds of thousands, over the last two thousand three hundred years.  I have probably taught it at least twenty times.  How ought it to be taught.  I am currently teaching a seminar on Plato and thought I would start off on the first day of class with this chestnut.  So I listed on the board, with the help of my class, the key concepts and topics that are addressed or at least brought up in this dialogue, some that are only implicitly addressed, and some that are left out.  Here is a list of concepts:  death, god, piety, gods of the city, atheism, Socrates' daimon, courage, intellectual courage, justice, wisdom, truth, persuasion, argument, virtue, soul, corruption, education, what makes life worth living. Socratic examination, harm cannot be done to a good man, Socrates' unique duty to the god Apollo, democracy

So, my working thesis is that in order to understand any one of these concepts one must understand its relation to all of the others.   The ideas for a, to use Quine's term, "web of belief."  One good way to enter Socrates' web of belief (here "Socrates" means the character in the Apology) is to stand back a bit from the text and consider how the various key concepts inter-relate.  For example, the unexamined life is not worth living.  So only the examined life is worth living.  The examined life is one that involves Socratic examination.  Socratic examination entails asking questions of people in particular fields and showing them that they are not really wise in matters of great importance to them.  This examination will improve their souls.  Socrates goes about constantly trying to improve people's souls.  An improved soul cannot be harmed:  it is hardened from harm.  An improved soul has courage.  Courage comes at least in part from a certain form of wisdom.  Wisdom is knowing that human wisdom is worthless and that one does not always know what one thinks one knows.  Craftsmen do in fact know their craft.  But they are unwise in that they do not know anything about politics even though they think they do.  Believing that death is the worst thing that can happen to us is typical of the uncourageous person.  Socrates does not believe this because he recognizes the limits of human wisdom with regards to death.  Either death is a dreamless sleep or it is a trip to Hades where one could engage in conversation with other shades.  Neither option seems particularly bad.  Of course there may be other possibilities:  for example burning forever in hell.  But, for a contemporary atheist the argument has cogency:  death is like the dreamless sleep in that in both one experiences nothing.  The atheist believes that one experiences nothing in death because in death one no longer exists (except as an unconscious body).  So the atheist would agree that there is no reason to fear death (unless one fears losing the time to do things one would have had if one had lived longer).  Of course one can fear the painful experiences of the death bed...but that is another matter. 

Is there a center to the web.   Perhaps the daimon is.  In a way, this is not a concept since it is uniquely belonging to Socrates.  One of my students asked whether there is point here for all of us, given that Socrates' situation is unique.  There are two places where Socrates seems to generalize his position:  first, it is not that the unexamined life is not worth living just for Socrates.  It is for everyone.  Second, that man is wise who, like Socrates, realizes that human wisdom is worthless. By the way, since the wisdom of the carpenter in carpentry is not worthless, the claim seems rather to be that any claim to know that goes beyond practical expertise is worthless.  But this does pose a problem for the carpenter as well since if the carpenter is unable to define good carpentry (as would typically happen if he engaged in examination of his life with Socrates) then he would fail to understand his innermost essence.   How does Socratic discourse help us improve in virtue when it inevitably leads to a failure in trying to understand our innermost essence?  The daimon interestingly always gives negative knowledge:  tells Socrates not to go there, not to do this, and so forth.  So perhaps the daimon is the impulse he has to destroy false theories.  Yet the daimon does tell us a truth, as when it does not intervene.  Socrates at the end of the dialogue thinks that because his daimon did not intervene he could be assured that he had taken the right course of action.  The failures of the dialogues are also successes in that bad theories are cleared away:  the path is cleared away for the soul's self-actualization in virtue.

So was Socrates an atheist?  Quite the opposite.  However, the religious belief he introduces is one in which deities play little important role.  The real thing is the process of examination itself, the process that purifies the soul. 

I often worry about the relationship between my main philosophical interest, aesthetics, and other aspects of philosophy.  I have spent lot of time thinking about intimate relations between aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics.  But often in my career I have neglected the relationship with ethics.  But ethics has to do with the good life, and the good life has to do with happiness, and it is inconceivable that a life could be a happy one that was not filled with a wide variety of rich aesthetic experiences.  Socrates implies that the good life is an examined life, and following from this is a sort of wisdom (a very modest sort), and following from this is courage and justice (which, for Socrates, is closely related to the search for truth....he admonishes his jury only to think of truth)   Does Socrates really neglect aesthetics or does he simply hide it.

On one level Socrates is anti-aesthetics in that he attacks the decorative style of delivery in the court-room.  He is going to speak plainly.  And yet there is such a thing as spare aesthetics.  Socrates favors a spare aesthetic in the courtroom.  Perhaps he could also be said to favor a spare aesthetic in life.  From other things we know that he did not shun the pleasures of life but in fact insisted that they were even better for him than for the gourmand.  If we can speak of religion in terms of aesthetics Socrates also favors a spare aesthetics here as well.  The vast realm of mythology is set aside (this is why he is so threatening to Athenian civil society) and in its place is the job of examining people in order to help them to improve their souls.  Improving their souls will involve taking their main interest away from making money, and since the main benefit of money is luxury, this means taking them away from a luxurious aesthetic.





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Do rocks think and feel?

I am intrigued by the new loosely associated school or trend in philosophy called speculative realism.  I am currently reading The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).  Shaviro is basically a Whiteheadian, and so his position is somewhat different from the other speculative realists I have read.  I will be pretty up front about my initial position at least.  Earlier I had posted on the speculative realism of Graham Harman, particularly as found in his book The Quadruple Object.   I think, as I argued there, that most of the useful claims made by the speculative realists can be better made within the context of the philosophy of John Dewey.  Dewey's philosophy also avoids some of their excesses.  I am sympathetic to the anti-anthropocentrism of the speculative realists.  We have to get beyond the idea that humans are the center of everything.  At the same time, I think they tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  They are too eager to caste away everything about Kant for example.  Shaviro also advocates panpsychism.   Most of what he says about this makes sense to me:  for example, that animals and even plants can have consciousness or perhaps just intentionality.   I also agree that for thoughts and minds to exist it must be the case that all of nature has a mental aspect to it.  However I cannot agree that rocks think or that there is something that it is like to be a rock.  I also think that the speculative realists just neglect the fundamental fact that we cannot get out of our own consciousness.  Everything we experience is experienced by us, i.e. by humans.  This includes all of the thoughts had by speculative realists.  So I continue to agree with the phenomenologists, and with Dewey, that we philosophers must begin with experience, and specifically with our own experience.  I agree that values are out there in the world but only in the sense of being out there in the world of experience, in the world as experienced.  There may be values in the world as experienced by a virus:  I have no trouble with that.   But there is no reason to posit values in a world without experience or in a world inhabited entirely by non-living things.  Speculative realists like Shaviro are driven to their extreme panpsychist position because they think that the only other alternatives are anthropocentrism or eliminative materialism.  These are not the only alternatives.   Of course the non-mental physical world has the potential for the kind of complexity that leads to life and experience.  The world of thoughts and ideas is emergent upon the world of purely physical things.  There are probably even elements of the non-living world that are precursors to thought and experience, although we have no knowledge of that as this point.  

One thing that attracts me to Shaviro and keeps me coming back to him despite my disapproval of his more extravagant claims is that he, like Whitehead, places a very strong emphasis on aesthetics.  He talks about aesthetics in terms of allure (54).  When something has allure it addresses me and attracts my attention from beyond.  It is, following Whitehead, a "proposition" in the sense of a tale "that perhaps might be told about particular actualities" (Whitehead, PR 256) which proposes a potentiality to the viewer, one that is anchored in an actuality.  We do not encounter things just as packets of qualities.  Rather they offer a "promise of happiness" which is to say, the potential of beauty,  

I am happy with all of this except that unlike Shaviro I think that the object presents itself to me as a proposition partly because of its nature for me.  That is, this is how it is constituted in my experience.  Beauty arises out of the interaction of me with the object.  Others will not find that particular object as alluring precisely because their consciousness is not similarly prepared.  What doesn't work for me is Shaviro's tendency to anthropomorphize the object of allure, as when he speaks of qualities of the thing as "bait that the thing holds out to me." (55) I have no problem, however, with thinking of the thing as a being which acts as though it were a seducer, and it is as if it were providing bait.

When Shaviro goes on to say some other things in relation to an analysis of poem by Shelley that was performed by Whitehead, he really sounds like Dewey.  Here are some of the Deweyan like pronouncements:  "it is actually 'things' themselves - rather than their representations in the form of ideas or impressions - that flow through the mind.  Shelley's insistence on a universe of actually existing things goes against the subjectivism and sensationalism of the rest of the poem, and of British empiricism more generally....to the extent that the poem envisions a 'universe of things,' it suggests that we perceive and respond to objects themselves...We do not just analyze them in terms of universals by adding up and associating atomistic 'ideas.'  ....we do not just passively receive a series of bare, isolated sensa;  rather, we actually do encounter Mount Blanc, with its surrounding glaciers and woods and waterfalls...  Mount Blank allures us as it 'gleams on high'"  From a Deweyan perspective this is all good an to the point.

But Shaviro goes on and says that Mont Blanc manifests a Power that 'dwells apart in its tranquility'...[and] this Power is also an actor in a vast web of interconnections:  a force of metamorphosis that rolls...through all things, exceeding 'the limits of the dead and living world..."  (59)  And this seems a bit much.  There is no question that we could experience Mt. Blanc as like this....but going beyond that to posit a Power is just speculation, and frankly has a whiff of residual Deism.   I have argued in other posts that aesthetic atheism does a better job with this, for, although it does deny God,  it does not deny these experiences or their meaningfulness for those who have them.  The primacy of aesthetics is partly a matter of such sublime experiences originally associated with religion and later incorporated into Transcendentalism, are still there.   Religion becomes subsumed under aesthetics, but a much broadened notion of aesthetics.  

Whitehead refers to the "brooding presence of the whole" of nature.  (60)  This anthropomorphizes what Dewey better referred to as the sense of an infinite background (see Art as Experience.)

Shaviro also says "every entity in the world has its own point of view, just as I do, and that each of them somehow feels the other entities with which it comes into contact, much as I do." (61) This includes stones, although Shaviro and Whitehead before him do not attribute consciousness to stones.  This seems a contradiction since feelings and points of view entail consciousness, or else Shaviro is using "consciousness" in a very different way.  "I attribute feelings to stones precisely in order to get away from the pernicious dualism that would insist that human beings alone (or at most, human beings together with some animals) have feelings, while everything else does not."  (61)  But this is not necessary, and is a false dichotomy.   One can attribute points of view and feelings and "what it is like to be...." to all living things, for sure, but need not go on to attribute all of this to stones.  

Again, I am happy with "stone as experienced" being treated as having feelings since they are constituted as part of our world as living beings, and our world as living beings extend beyond us.  The psychological truth that panpsychism and romanticism trades on is this experience of nature as animated.  I suspect that the romantics were right that this way of perceiving nature is more healthy, more conducive to happiness.  It would also be more conducive to preservation of the environment.  As Yuriko Saito has observed, the early Japanese garden theorists recognized this in their treatment of stones in a garden.  Shintoism, of course, takes the animation of stones to be literally true.  I take it to be more appropriately metaphorically true.

A great thing about everyday aesthetics is that in attending to aesthetic objects that are not deliberately constructed as art works we can see that even here there is benefit to seeing objects as having "aura" in my terminology.   Karen Barad is observed by Shaviro as holding that it takes radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively dead matter can be.  In a way, I think that is right.  In a way, it is important to overcome the distinction between animate and inanimate, that is within the realm of everyday aesthetic experience.  Everyday aesthetics and closely associated aesthetics of nature can reanimate the everyday and the natural.  But to believe literally that inanimate things have agency is just to bring back an early form of Deism and a kind of magical thinking that can help us little.

When Shaviro and the speculative realists attack what they call correlationism, they are attacking something that contemporary Deweyan pragmatists like myself would also attack in many instances.  For example Shaviro associates the attack on correlationism with Whitehead's attack on "bifurcation":  "Modern Western thought, from Descartes through Locke and on to Hume, partitioned the world between primary and secondary qualities, or between objectively extended objects on the one hand and merely subjective 'psychic additions'...on the other."  Dewey would agree with this, and agree that this was a mistake.  But the speculative realists also hold that the world is not "beholden to our ways of shaping an processing it..."  (55)  This is problematic in a complicated way.  The world as we experience it is in fact beholden to our ways of shaping and processing it in two closely related ways:  first, most of the experienced world is literally beholden to it in that we are constantly shaping and reshaping that would physically to meet our needs:   putting paint on a canvas is one example of such reshaping;  second, and related to the first point, we are constantly categorizing the world, thinking about it, talking about it, and seeing it from our perspective:  much of this is preliminary to the literal reshaping of it mentioned above.  One important aspect of this reconstituting of the world is the way in which we can bring to it our capacity to see aspects of the world as symbols and therefor as animated.  This animation of the world we experience brings it closer to us:  de-alienates it, one might say.  Much of everyday aesthetic experience is a matter of bringing out the potential for animation.

The "world in itself - the world as it exists apart from us" (66) doesn't make sense.  Such a world a priori cannot be experienced or even thought about.  One would have to imagine oneself out of existence, which is basically impossible.  Moreover, to talk about such a thing is to go back to the dualistic vision of Kant, the side of Kant that the Deweyan pragmatist rejects. 

However Shaviro is onto something when he says "we habitually grasp the world in terms of our preimposed concepts.  We need to break this habit in order to get at the strangeness of things in the world...."  (56)  This is what  I have referred to as finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.   I agree that preimposed concepts can be a problem if we want to reanimate experience.  Looking at the world without preimposed concepts and getting at the strangeness of things is a matter of taking the aesthetic attitude.

"If philosophy begins in wonder - and ends in wonder....then its aim should be not to deduce and impose cognitive norms, or concepts of understanding, but rather to make us more fully aware of how reality escapes and upsets these norms."  (67)  I agree with this, except that I take a more Nietzschean line with this.  Nietzsche in his essay on truth "On Truth and Falsehood in the Extramoral Sense" recognized the problem of imposing concepts of understanding on the world:  for him, this is the columbarium of ideas, of dead metaphors, which he later associated with the Alexandrian.  However Nietzsche also recognized that the intuitive man may introduce living metaphors.  These constitute reality in a way that escapes and upsets norms.

Shaviro thinks we must go beyond Kant here, and we must speculate.  Speculation means thinking about the world of things-in-themselves.  I prefer a more Hegelian/Husserlian/Deweyan approach and just reject the world of things in themselves.  Hence I would still reject speculation.  Shaviro says "Pace Kant, we must think outside of our own thought, and we must positively conceive the existence of things outside our own conceptions of them."  But Kant has another strategy which Shaviro neglects:  the genius artist thinks aesthetic ideas.  Aesthetic ideas are not speculative:  rather they are things taken as symbols of the transcendent realm.  Thinking aesthetic ideas is in a sense thinking outside of our own thought in that aesthetic ideas are not traditional conceptions.  They are original creative ideas.  They animate things.  The things thus animated achieve aura.  

It is my view that when this happens essence emerge.  This is not the path of seeing the real as "inarticulable inarticulate mush" (67) but rather as seeing that which is most heightened in its quality of being real as also being ineffable.  The aesthetic idea is ineffable in that it cannot be described in literal language.  

"Philosophers have only described the correlationist circle, in various ways:  the point, however, is to step outside of it.  The aim of speculative realism...is to break free of the circle....attain [the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz] without reverting...to any sort of precritical ...metaphysical 'dogmatism."  Although I do not accept the critique of correlationism I find exciting the notion of reviving something of the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz.  For Meillassoux this means "to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not" whereas I would say it is a matter of getting out of ourselves in the conventional way to find our deeper selves which is what achieved by the genius through aesthetic ideas and through opening ourselves up to aura in things and to the emergence of essences.



    









Tuesday, July 3, 2018

What is beauty?

This is what one might call a little thought about a big topic.  What is beauty?  What happens when we experience something as beautiful?  One theory is that we perceive the qualities of that thing as they are.  I don't think so.  As I see it, in beauty we experience the qualities of the thing enhanced, intensified, more alive, shimmering with Being.  Although I am an atheist I cannot accept that beauty is to be seen as just a property of an object.  Nor is it just seeing a thing under imagination.  Imagination can help us to see something as beautiful, but it is not guarantee of beauty.  In my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, I called the aesthetic quality "aura."  Things with beauty have aura.   It is not enough to say that they have what Sonia Sedivy calls "perceptual presence"  unless, by presence, we mean that they present themselves as more alive etc.  When we perceive something as beautiful it is as if there was a divine realm.  Beauty is heaven, or what it comes down to, for a non-believer.  I have been reading Beauty and the End of Art:  Wittgenstein, Plurality and Perception by Sonia Sedivy.  (2016)  Sedivy thinks that the puzzle of beauty may be resolved through theory of perception, especially perceptual realism.  She says beauty (and art) requires a theory of perception that shows "how perception is a mode of immediate engagement with the individuals and properties of our world that is informed and secured by our understanding" (5)   Much here is open to question.  Such a theory, with its emphasis on understanding of properties, and therefore of correct classification, fails to capture the way in which beauty seems to bring its object beyond classification.  "Secured" implies the attempt to overcome insecurity.  The individuals and properties are here lacking in life.  Sedivy speaks of a Richter abstract painting:  "whose beauty is the fully determinate layering and smearing of color that can only be pointed out demonstratively but not describes."  (5)  But what if it cannot be pointed out demonstratively even though it can be experienced, and what if it is not fully determinate but rather fully indeterminate?  Sedivy wants to retain the role of beauty "with no transcendental backing."  (8)  On the one hand, as an atheist, I am no fan of the transcendental.  And yet aren't we throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.    Are there interpretations of "transcendental" that might still be consistent with atheism?  It could be understood as a certain phenomenological intensity.  Sedivy defines beauty in this way:  "beauty is the value of the perceptible presence of the world."  I have a problem with "value" which only indicates that the object seems or is good to us in some way.  But the value of perceptible presence is that what is perceived has aura.