Friday, January 11, 2019

Kant and Everyday Aesthetics

Kant seems at first not to be a friend of everyday aesthetics.  It might seem that the distinction between everyday aesthetics and fine art aesthetics divides neatly according to Kant’s distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful.  However Kant’s concept of disinterestedness is such that anything can be an object of aesthetic delight.  So this could include the everyday as well as the unusual.  The examples may be a bit deceiving.  For example, Kant insists that canary wine can only be agreeable, and roses can only be beautiful.  But this doesn’t really work.  Canary wine can be beautiful if perceived disinterestedly.  Food can be beautiful if perceived without hunger.   Likewise, roses can be perceived in an interested fashion, for example as a way to curry favor with a lover.  

But what good is disinterestedness?  Everyday aestheticians have often been particularly unhappy with this concept.  It seems sometimes that there are two modes of everyday aesthetics.  There is the everyday aesthetics of the ordinary and the everyday aesthetics of the extraordinary.  I have argued in the past that there is a continuum between these two branches and that they are not necessarily at odds.  But I have also argued that once one attends to something aesthetically one raises it above the humdrum.

Still, there are pleasures that just do not rise to the level of the aesthetic.  These might well fall into the realm of the merely agreeable.

Aesthetic perception, I have argued, involves perception of something as having an aura.  This requires what Kant called imagination.

One central issue here is how we ought to live our everyday lives.  I am inspired in this by the work of Buddhist philosophers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh.  We should attend to the surrounding environment in a focused way, and this gives rise to aura.  Aura arises spontaneously, usually because of ever so slight novelty.  It is not that with mindfulness everything has the same level of aura.  

I have been reading Michel Chaouli  Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment  (Harvard, 2917) .  I agree with Chaouli that aesthetic perception is poetic.   Disinterestedness brackets out normal everyday concerns and focuses us on the appearance of the thing.  It frees us up in a way.  Focuses us on the now, not the past or the future.  

Chaouli has a somewhat different approach to Duchamp than Danto or Dickie.  (13)  For him Fountain  can actually be understood from a Kantian perspective.  Here we have to dis-associate the beautiful from the merely pretty.  The urinal is a thing of everyday life. 

What Danto and Dickie failed to see (in my view) is that Duchamp was engaged in deconstructing the distinction between the artworld and the everyday.  "the difference between aesthetic and nonaesthetic pleasure that Kant is working to reveal does not lie in the content of the feeling, nor in the object that evokes each, nor again in its intensity, duration, or relation to other feelings...[aesthetic pleasure] describes the relation that the subject establishes between and object and the feeling of pleasure..."  This, of course, can be had towards the everyday.  

One important issue for everyday aesthetics is whether there is judgment in the everyday and not just what Kant called gratification.  When we quarrel we quarrel over things that we judge.  Let's say that I pronounce a cup of coffee good, and my wife agrees.  This is sufficient judgment and sufficient community for us to talk about the pleasure as aesthetic.

The key to knowing whether something is aesthetic in the sense of the beautiful is putting it on a pedestal.  So in what way do we put things of everyday life on a pedestal.  Of course we submit things to judgment everyday:  for example, the neatness of my room, the cleanliness of the kitchen, the tastiness of the dinner, whether or not this sentence is well-formed.  But we also have private experiences:  the odd thing in the neighborhood that gives me a moment of delight.  Do I put that on a pedestal?

I can use the ideas of Susanne Langer here.  The thing appears to exist in a virtual world.  Whenever the real world becomes the virtual world, or whenever a virtual world is created we have something that goes beyond the humdrum.  Maybe the word “extraordinary” is not best:  but whenever something a bit special happens then we have the aesthetic.  Through mindfulness a lot that would ordinarily seem to be humdrum becomes something a bit more special.  One can think of how important taste is in everyday life:  taste in home décor for example.  Let’s not think too much about “rightful claim upon the assent of all men” and just think of what happens when anyone enters our house.  Who has good taste is my friend.    

We need to also think about the closeness of the aesthetics of nature to the aesthetics of everyday life.  In previous writings I have stressed the relation of the aesthetics of everyday life to art.  But what about nature?  In a way you could say that the world of the everyday is the natural world as it is, normally, for humans.  Our houses, our clothes, our roads, etc. are all part of our natural lives.  We speak of this as culture, and yet it is equally nature, as much as the hive is for the bees.  When the tree I look at on my walk has a certain aura, has aesthetic presence, this is the tree as natural thing as well as cultural artifact:  how can the two be separated.

Kant suggests a way of life.  Again, I am drawing from Chaouli.  He quotes from Kant "If a man who has enough taste to make judgments about products of beautiful art with the greatest correctness and refinement, gladly leaves the room in which are to be found those beauties....and turns to the beautiful in nature, in order as it were to find here an ecstasy for his spirit in a line of thought that he can never fully develop, then we would consider this choice of his with high respect and presuppose in him a beautiful soul."  (#42)  For nature, read everyday life.  But then this would be a kind of human ideal.  This is much like that kind of experience described by Emerson and Thoreau.  There is also a moral dimension here:  a "beautiful soul."   Chaouli observes that this does not involve, for Kant, isolation from human society.  Note that the experience Kant describes is the same one gets from apprehending an "aesthetic idea":  a line of thought he cannot fully develop.   It is interesting that it is a man of taste who turns to nature.   In my view, it is the phenomena of nature that here serve as aesthetic ideas, i.e. as symbols.  They therefore appear in a virtual space, to evoke Langer again.

I think that when things emerge into aura this is their essential nature.  And yet this is not cognitive, at least not in a science like way.  It is poetic.

In a review of Chaouli's book (for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76:2 2018) Samuel Stoner writes "for Chaouli believes Kant "familiarizes us with the idea of aesthetic experience, that familiarity with this idea prepares us to experience the world aesthetically, that this experience allows us to live poetically, and that living poetically can make us happy."  (246)  This makes clear how Chaouli's interpretation of Kant can push Kant in a useful direction for everyday aesthetics.  As Saito has often observed, the importance of everyday aesthetics includes an ethical dimension.  And as Aristotle has taught, happiness the our human goal.  Kant, on this account, encourage seeing the world in the way an artist (of genius) would.  Stoner also correctly observes that Kant would stop short of this since he associates happiness with the agreeable and not with contemplation of beauty.  But is an overall narrow view of the English word "happiness":  surely Kant would accept an expansive notion of happiness that incorporates the notion of fulfilling ourselves as humans.   As Stoner says "Chaouli uses happiness in an un-Kantian way..."  (246)  "opens up the possibility of a life that is happy because it is meaning filled and therefore meaningful" (248, referring to Cahouli 234)   This leads to a kind of existential fulfillment.   

Chaouli believes that the freedom of taste is "freedom to make anything into an object of pleasure for ourselves"   This, of course, opens Kant up to everyday aesthetics, as is his claim that aesthetic experiences is essentially creative, poetic activity.  "I feel aesthetic pleasure thanks to my poetic imagination." (11)   One way that Chaouli helps us appropriate Kant to everyday aesthetics is that he explains the idea of poetic imagination with respect to Kant's notion of aesthetic ideas.  Although "aesthetic ideas" is a concept mainly devised to discuss the artistic genius, it can also be used to describe a certain way of seeing things in the world.  If one sees things as aesthetic ideas then one sees them as symbols that have indeterminate meaning, one sees them poetically.   The line of thinking that I have pursued in everyday aesthetics has been in this direction.



Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Positive irrationalism: the irrational at the base of the rational.

Aesthetics in its inner nature fundamentally challenges assumptions found in philosophy: e.g. foundationalism, dogmatic commitment to clear and distinct ideas, acceptance of various dualisms, and the view that philosophical methods must be modeled after those of science.   Aesthetics is a tensional moment within the organic whole of philosophy.  If philosophy is to regain harmony it must extrude aesthetics, destroy it, or transform it  -- or else aesthetics must transform philosophy.

Aesthetics challenges conventional notions of rationality, reality, truth, and ethics.   This is sometimes not apparent because much of contemporary aesthetic theory is actually a philosophical defense against the spirit of aesthetics, an aspect of the ancient battle between philosophy and the arts once referred to by Plato. Usually aesthetics is seen as at the periphery of philosophy.  This is largely because of its close association with the arts as well as with sensuous properties which have been traditionally associated by philosophers with the frivolous and superficial.  On this view it is thought that the core subdisciplines of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics/political philosophy, and logic, with philosophy of mind and philosophy of language running in second place, or perhaps moving to first place.  Aesthetics is indeed a kind of step-child of philosophy.

The deepest challenge that both art and, potentially, the philosophy of art, poses for philosophy all of one piece, machine-like, logical in the manner of propositional logic.  All (or almost all) philosophers are rationalists in the end.  Certainly I am.  But there are different approaches to rationalism.  One approach, much maligned traditionally, is that there is an irrational element at the heart of rationality itself.  This irrational element is most easily found in the creative process whether that be in art, business, science or philosophy itself.   Creativity requires violating boundaries, overcoming categories, seeing things in radically new ways.  The inceptive moment in the creative process is fundamentally irrational.  Knowledge is impossible without this moment since knowledge is based on creative thinking every bit as much as on careful collection of evidence.  Plato was fascinated with this element and occasionally played with it, as for example in his Ion, his Phaedrus, and his Symposium, although he usually rejected it in the end.  For him, the irrational element is understood as the madness of love, or at least one kind of madness of love.  It can also be found, more subtly, in his doctrine of recollection. 

None of this is to claim that the irrational cannot lead to suffering. The negative capacity of the irrational is proved every day. And yet there is a positive irrational.  And the positive irrational is importantly valuable.  It is possible (plausible?) that embracing the positive irrational (for example in such a way as to affirm rationalism in the end) is necessary to solve our problems today. 

That is, only through a synthesis of the irrational and the rational where the end result is ultimately rational can we really work in such a way as to handle the repressed emotions that can wreck havoc in our lives.  Freud, despite all of his failings, recognized the fundamental importance of the positive irrational.   

Logicist/scientistic understanding of rationalism ultimately ends in failure because the possibility of creative thinking is lost.
One strategy that is useful in aesthetics can help in understanding the role of the positive irrational.  In the aesthetics of nature it is commonly thought that the appropriate way to appreciate nature is either through an art-like approach or by way of scientific understanding.  Some philosophers are beginning to recognize that a pluralist approach is best, particularly if it is fully integrated.  I and others have proposed the ideal of John Muir who synthesized not only the arts-based and scientific approaches but also a transcendental or religious based approach.  As an atheist, I reject a literal existent God, and yet the idea of God has sometimes been used to express something quite real: the positive irrational element in complete fulfilled experience, in this case, of nature.  Nietzsche saw this in his notion of the Apollonian Dionysian duality and particularly in his idea of the Dionysian.

It is an interesting fact that the term "irrationalism" does not appear as a heading in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or even in the index in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, the two main encyclopedias I use, and yet it is present as an entry both in the Encyclopedia Britannica here  and in the New World Encyclopedia.  The Encyclopedia Britannica says it was a 19th and early twentieth century movement that "stressed the dimensions of instinct, feeling, and will as over and against reason."  How about a 21st century movement that stresses this dimension as forming a necessary basis for reason?  It is not irrationalism against rationalism, but a positive irrationalism within rationalism at its best.  That essay turns to the early Greek philosopher as often having a "strain" of irrationalism.  This would be true of Heraclitus but also even for Plato as mentioned above.  The Sophists, the Skeptics and the Cynics all also had strains of irrationalism.  The term is often associated with faith and intuition. Other names connected with irrationalism include Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the existentialists.  The essay associates it with literary romanticism.   The anonymous writer talks about irrationalism as coming after the Age of Reason and as being in some way associated with Darwin and Freud (neither one of whom would have thought of himself as irrationalist, and both of whom might be said to have suppressed the irrationalist side of their thinking).   If experience is based on biology and the unconscious then it is not based ultimately on reason:  reason itself is not based ultimately on reason.  The sentence  "Pragmatism, existentialism, and vitalism (or “life philosophy”) all arose as expressions of this expanded view of human life and thought" implies that there is a strain of irrationalism in all of these:  and I think there is.  My own irrationalism is in the mode of pragmatism with a strong emphasis on positive irrationalism which must, to be used successfully, be brought up into the larger rationalist project.  As the author observes, Peirce and James arguing that ideas need to be assessed on practical rather than strictly logical grounds, has an irrationalist side.    I hope to have more to say about irrationalism and its relationship to aesthetics in the coming months.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodman's implicit definition of art

In his famous essay "When is Art?"  (in Ways of Worldmaking originally) Nelson Goodman says he has not defined art, but in a way, he has.  We find first that art is a form of symbolization, and that this symbolization may be representational, expressive or through exemplification. Of course this does not distinguish art from a rock sample in a Natural History museum.  However we are also informed that something is art if and when it is functioning as art.  At first, this just seems a circular definition.  But Goodman adds that we know it is functioning as art if it has at least some of what he calls the symptoms of the aesthetic.  By "symptoms of the aesthetic" he appears to mean "symptoms of art" since he does not talk about these in relation to non-art aesthetic phenomena.  He doesn't specify any of these symptoms as either necessary or sufficient for art.  

The symptoms, as he lists them, are syntactical density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification, and complex reference. (Note that he does not think that the stone in the Natural History is art even though it does exemplify: so exemplification by itself is not sufficient for art status.)  You can go to the essay itself for his explication of each of these symptoms.  The important point about all of them for our purposes is that they involve what he calls "nontransparency."  That is, in attending to these features we do not look through them to the thing referenced but rather we focus on the symbol itself.  Even though the stone in the natural history museum exemplifies it does not do so in a nontransparent way.

So one could say that, for Goodman, something is art if it functions as art, and it functions as art when it works as a nontransparent symbol.  Goodman himself does not say this, perhaps because he is worried that in doing so he would be redefining the concept of art.  However, as Weitz observed, that's pretty much what each of the classical theories of art does anyway.  

Another feature of Goodman's approach is that he is clearly opposed to Danto and Dickie, although his argument against the Purist program is remarkably similar to Danto's in that both think the purist art (like the all-black paintings by Ad Reinhardt) is fine:  it is only their claim that their work does not refer to anything outside that is the problem.  For Danto they refer to everything else in the style matrix, and thus, really, to all previous art, whereas for Goodman, they refer to all the other objects that have the same property, for example an all-red canvas refers to all other things that have the property of redness, for example roses.

I have already discussed the relation between these philosophers here.  In my previous post, however, I did not sufficiently stress the importance of Conceptual Art, and in particular Claes Oldenburg's "Placid Civic Monument" (1967).  (Each great philosopher of art has his/her preferred works of art:  in Goodman's case it is this particular conceptual piece, and this is largely because it operates as a counterexample to the opposing theories just as Warhol's "Brillo Box" operated as a counterexample for Danto.)  In this work, Oldenburg hired grave diggers to dig a hole behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then had them fill it up again.  The work was the event.  Whereas Danto and Dickie require that a work of art be an object or, in Dickie's case, an artifact, Goodman does not require this.  But, contra Dickie, Goodman stresses that the artist calling something a work of art is neither necessary nor sufficient for arthood.  So, Oldenburg's work might be problematic for Danto and Dickie but not for Goodman. 

Danto would probably handle this by saying that someone with sufficient art historical knowledge can see Oldenburg's work as art.  Dickie would probably handle it simply by saying that artifactuality is conferred on the event and not on any specific object and that Oldenburg is the representative here of the artworld.  All three would agree that it is art, but for different reasons.  The work is art for Goodman because it functions as art for a time:  it symbolizes, and it does so through exemplification of certain properties, although Goodman does not say which ones these are.  

We can say, however, that "Placid Civic Monument" exemplifies the property of monumentality (although this might be problematic for Goodman, as I will note later).  It is worth noting that the work was deliberately placed in view of an Egyptian obelisk, "Cleopatra's Needle," also in Central Park. The obelisk reaches upwards whereas, in a mirroring way, the hole reaches downwards.  Also the obelisk is about eternity whereas the hole is notably temporary.  In brief we can say that what makes it art for Goodman is a nontransparency that causes us to focus on properties that are exemplified (like Bell, in a way, although the number of types of properties to be exemplified are increased from lines, forms and colored shapes to include such things as size and texture) whereas Danto and Dickie call on us to focus on what is not exhibited, in Danto's case on what we see through the atmosphere of artistic theory and, in Dickie's case, on the status gained through the actions of Oldenburg as a representative of the artworld.  It is interesting that although all three theories would designate this work as art, each calls on us to focus on quite different features:  and each has different implications for how one ought to appreciate avant garde art.  Also, whereas Danto and Dickie both think that "once art, always art," Goodman holds that something can lose art status when it no longer functions as art.  Yet this is not entirely correct since Danto thinks that Warhol's "Brillo Box" is no longer art if it leaves the gallery and the artworld entirely and returns to the warehouse where it is indistinguishable from industrial brillo cartons:  then it just reenters the world of non-art. 

By the way, isn't there something strange about a nontransparency that calls on us to note relations to things considered extrinsic to the work of art?

To understand the five symptoms of the aesthetic in Goodman one does best just to focus on relative repleteness (which also, I think, explicates what is meant by "exemplification" or at least exemplification that is artistic).  That is, one should focus on the difference between appreciating a Hokusai single-line drawing of a mountain and a stockmarket chart:  in the first on focuses on "every feature of shape, line, thickness...counts..."  whereas in the second only height counts.  So, when the rock is moved to a pedestal in an art museum and treated as art the treatment involves a requirement on viewers to focus on every feature of every physical quality.   

What Goodman seems to neglect, however, is other things that can be exemplified.   For example, monumentality is exemplified, as I have argued, in Oldenburg's work, but this is not a physical quality (i.e. not of the same sort as color and texture).  Goodman may well say that in this case we are symbolizing through expressiveness, but Oldenburg was exemplifying monumentality more than expressing it if expression has to do with an emotion expressed. 



Thursday, November 15, 2018

The necessary aesthetic dimension of epistemology: Plato's Theaetetus

Theaetetus is an aporetic dialogue.  There is no final answer given to the question "What is knowledge?"  Although it seems that knowledge must be justified belief plus an account, none of the accounts of account pass muster.   People generally assume that the answer is to be found either in (1) the notion of apprehension of the Forms as suggested in the Republic and other dialogues, or (2) the process of division in terms of species and genera described in later dialogues such as the Sophist, Philebus and Statesman, or (3) some sort of causal explanation as suggested in the Phaedo.   I want to suggest that there is internal evidence within the Theaetetus for another solution.  

However let's begin outside the Theaetetus with what we might think is required for a knowledge that is deep.  Deep knowledge in our culture is often referred to as wisdom.  We will distinguish here between having wisdom in general and having wisdom in something.  We will deal with wisdom in general later.  To have wisdom in something it is not sufficient just to be able to name all of the parts or even to give a definition of a thing of that sort.  Deep knowledge requires being able to make predictions in that domain and being able to solve problems.  Deep knowledge of car mechanics would require that we know about the parts and how they function in relation to each other.  An even deeper knowledge of car mechanics would require knowledge of how cars respond to surrounding conditions, for example driver handling, road conditions and weather.  Deep knowledge requires knowing something as an organic whole AND knowing how this thing functions in larger wholes to which it belongs.   If we are trying to understand a car it is not sufficient just to know the definition of "car" and whether this car meets this definition. Nor is it sufficient to know this plus knowing all of the car's parts or even knowing all of the cars parts and their functional relations with each other.  

Deep knowledge that is wisdom also requires contextualizing ones knowledge within the wider domain of culture and life itself.  I person could have deep knowledge of torture on one level, i.e. in knowing the techniques, how to get confessions, etc., but fail to recognize the ultimate inability to synthesize this practice into the operations of a good society.  So even an expert in torture would fail to have wisdom in the wider sense.  

All of this I think, so far, is implicit in Plato.  Another problem however is one that he raises and never adequately addresses.  It is the problem of knowing particulars, for example knowing a particular person, say the person Theaetetus.  (I am thinking of 208d-210b)  To really know a person, let us hypothesize, is to know his or her essence.  But Plato never talks about essences of particulars.  This is a deep problem for Plato nonetheless.  The philosopher-king, as described in the Republic, should be able to apply the knowledge he has gained from leaving the cave and perceiving the Forms to the world.  But this requires being able to see, for example, the Good, in particulars.  

The problem is that in order to really see the Good as it is present in the particular one must not only know the Good but also know the particular, and to know the particular is to know that which makes it unique, what distinguishes it from every other particular.  The philosopher-king will not be able to do his job unless he is able to to do this.  Similarly, following the Phaedrus, the rhetorician needs to be able to know his or particular audience in order to fit argument to audience.   It helps to break possible audiences into types.  But, as we are finding today with medicine, an individual-based approach has its own advantages.  Moreover, the relationship between the Lover and the Beloved, or between the wise Teacher and his Student, is one that requires awareness of the particular.  Socrates himself in the Theaetetus recognizes this as part of the role of the philosophical midwife:  to deal with the particular idea that the subject gives birth to, and to match the particular student with his most appropriate teacher.   

This is where aesthetics comes in, although in a way that, at first seems not to much involve the arts.  (Later I will point out that it does very much involve them.)  Two points need to be made.  First, Plato seems on first sight to be the great anti-aesthetic philosopher.  For example in the Republic he attacks lovers of sights and sounds.  He consistently attacks most of the arts, for example in book X of the Republic.  And yet aesthetics does play an important role in Plato, mainly by way of his erotics.  In Diotima's theory of love as set forth in the Symposium Diotima requires that the philosopher begin with love of a particular body.  This is followed by love a particular soul.  Now it may be true that all of this is forgotten when one gets to beauty itself.  But also remember that the process of moving up the ladder, as also reiterated in the Phaedrus through the allegory of the wings, requires both the Lover and the Beloved.  They stimulate each other through appreciation of the beauty of the Beloved and the reflection of that in the Lover.  They also stimulate each other through their shared discourses about virtue, i.e. about the excellences of things   Plato's system just does not work without appreciation of beauty in particulars.  Even when the Lover perceives the vast sea of beauty he perceives this, presumably, as a sea of particular things that are beautiful.   

The Theatetus starts off with questioning whether knowledge is perception.  The term translated by "perception" is "aisthesis" from which we get the term aesthetics.   This path to knowledge is ultimately rejected.  But one has to wonder whether Plato is fully behind this rejection.  Some of the arguments are just too quick.  Perhaps he believes that perception does play an essential role in knowledge even though it can never be the whole story.  

Moreover, when Plato describes, in the famous interlude, the philosopher as someone who, like Thales, just does not know where he is going, one thinks that this is precisely not the sort of person one would want for a philosopher-king.  How could Plato be serious about the philosopher as described by Socrates in the interlude?  This "philosopher" is incapable of handling himself in court or in the political realm.  This would not be a person to make the pilot of the ship of state.  There must be some irony here.

So, cutting to the quick, Platonic interpretation aside, here is my take on deep knowledge that can be called wisdom.  Such knowledge is justified truth belief where the justification requires not only definition, classification, predictability, taking into account functional relations between parts, taking into account relations between the object known and surrounding context, but also knowledge of the essences of particulars, a kind of knowledge which is essentially aesthetic.  

Earlier I suggested that the arts do not play a role in this.  But in fact they do.  Who are the experts in aesthetic cognition (a term first developed by the originator of aesthetics, Baumgarten)?  They are the artists.  Sophocles, a great artist, focuses not only on Oedipus as representing man but also as a particular person.  Ironically, this works best for us in the audience because we too are particular humans as well as being human.  Paying attention to the particular requires paying attention to sensual characteristics, i.e. the particular nature of Oedipus who does particular things that can be seen and recounted, for example putting out his eyes.   Art engages us in the universal in the particular, and this distinguishes art from philosophy and science.  

Wisdom goes beyond philosophy and science to gives us also knowledge of the universal in the particular.  It has, therefore, a deeply practical or pragmatic dimension.  Again, the philosopher- king will only be of use if he is able to perceive the Good as manifested in the particular thing and this requires knowing the particular thing.   In short, wisdom requires synthesis of Art and Science, neither, by itself, being sufficient.

All of this is inspired by something said by Socrates as the end of the dialogue at 208d to 209d.  Notice that we return here to a point at the very beginning of the dialogue which, in fact. did refer briefly to a visual art, and, in fact, refers first to music and then to visual art: "If you and I had each had a lyre, and Theodorus had told us that they were both similarly tuned, should we have taken his word for it straightaway?  Or should we have tried to find out if he was speaking with any expert knowledge of music?"  (144e  Levett and Burnyeat).  If then we are interested in faces being alike, for example Theaetetus and Socrates, we should go to someone with knowledge of drawing.  And Theodorus is no artist, he is a Geometer.  (145a)  One would think that, on some accounts of Plato, Theodorus, being a Geometer, would be given some priority over the artist, for the Geometer has a better understanding of circles than a drawer of circles.   But this is not the case.  Somehow, the imitator of the bed who draws the bed, the very person who is degraded in the Republic, at last gains some respect here. 

So, now at the end of the end of the dialogue we have a paradox As Socrates puts it, "if you get hold of the difference that distinguishes a thing from everything else, then, so some people say, you will have got an account of it."  Yet "so long as it is some common feature that you grasp, your account will be about all those things which have this in common."  (208d)  This poses, I believe, a deep problem with the theory that knowledge is true belief plus an account in terms the Forms.   An account of the difference that marks out the uniqueness of an individual like Theaetetus should be something that is ineffable:  it must not be in language since language always deals with the common.  Or, alternatively, it can be in language, but language understood as being so flexible that the meaning of a word can be different in every case in which it is used. (I think this is the better option.)

Socrates' problem with this account of account is "how...did it come about that you were the object of my judgment and nobody else?"  (209b1)  Even when we mention the very visual characteristics that Theaetetus shared with Socrates, snub nose and prominent eyes, we have not distinguished him from everyone else because we have not distinguished him from Socrates.  So Socrates asks Theaetetus, "Shall I even then be judging you any more than myself or anyone who is like that?"   (209c1)  

Then Socrates says ""It will Theaetetus who is judged in my mind until this snub-nosedness of yours has left imprinted and established in me a record that is different in some way from the other snub-nosednesses I have seen...."  (209c4)  "and this will remind me, if I meet you tomorrow, and make me judge correctly about you," i.e. that you are indeed Theaetetus.  (209c6)   Isn't it interesting that this sort of talk takes us back to the discussions of the wax and aviary analogies which were brought up in relation to the issue of memory which was itself brought up in response to the defense of the perception theory of knowledge, that perception includes not only immediate perception but also remembered perceptions?  The aesthetic theory of knowledge had been rejected, but now it comes back when talking about an account, and most importantly when talking about the last and therefore most viable account of account found at the end of the dialogue.  

Yet Socrates draws out the argument in a different direction, saying,  "then correct judgment must be concerned with differentness of what it is about," which leads to the idea that in correct judgment we already have an idea of how a thing differs from other things and so we do not need an addition of an account in terms of knowledge of differences.  And if adding an account means getting to know the differences, not merely judging them correctly, then we are absurdly defining knowledge in terms of knowledge.  And that is the end of the dialogue.

But what I have concluded is that there is an essential aesthetic component to knowledge, an aesthetic component which also contains an erotic component, and thus is essentially connected both to the love of beauty and to loving relations between humans.  That is, I do not think Plato's whole story about knowledge can be told (a story which I find pretty close to being correct) unless the erotic and the epistemological dialogues are synthesized. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art in a nutshell

But how does all of this sum up, students often ask.  Here goes an attempt.  (Whatever I will say here will probably seem like an oversimplification or distortion to someone.)   For Heidegger the essence of art (great art is all he is interested in) is that it reveals truth.  But truth is not scientific or science-like in this case:  it is Being coming into unconcealment. But what is "Being"?  It is the inner meaning of things.  It is what we are no longer good at listening to.  It can be seen as the inner essence of things, if we understand essence in a much more dynamic and historically embedded way than allowed by Plato and Aristotle.  Heidegger is an atheist, but the most religious atheist I know.  In this regard he is somewhat like a Zen Buddhist who tries to get us to attend to things without presuppositions.  

In order to understand what art is we need to understand that it exists and thrives in an dynamic relation between artist, art object, and art (as in, the artworld) itself.  Heidegger's approach to understanding art, as with everything else, is both phenomenological and existential.  The phenomenological part is that he attempts to understand the essence (or, rather, the origin, the dynamic emerging) of something by way of a certain kind of observation and consequent description (phenomenological description.)  By doing this he interestingly arrives at a similar place to where John Dewey arrives at in his theory of art.  Both philosophers believe that one should start with experience, and both understand experience as something that is rich and deep, not as a mere collection of data. To understand art, we have to start with our experience of art, but also with the experience of the artist, since it is the artist who experiences the creative process and gives rise to the product which we then experience.

So Heidegger looks at the question "what is art?" and asks whether this can't be understood in a simple way, that each art work is a thing, and art is the collection of all of these things.  But this does not capture the dynamic nature of art.  He then considers what a thing is.  This is where his philosophical discussion of art gets deep.  There is a traditional notion of a thing which understands things as if they were pieces of equipment, for example a hammer or a shoe.  A traditional view of things is that they are just examples of form applied to matter.  But if you just attend to the thingly nature of a thing this idea begins to dissolve.  That is, if you look at Chartres cathedral and really see that it is made out of stone you also see that this stone is not mere stone:  it itself vibrates with meaning.  You become more aware, in the case of art, of the medium.  But even afterwards, when looking at stones in nature, you become more aware of the way in which the stones themselves can vibrate with meaning.  Back to the work.  You notice the stonely nature of a work of architecture made out of stone.  

So there is a view of art which says that it is just a physical thing with an added symbolic dimension, the symbolic dimension being the real meaning of the work.  Collingwood seems to have had a view like that.  You could say that Danto held this view itself.  So it is a prominent view even today.  Heidegger rejects it not because he thinks that the work is all the material thing or that he thinks it all the meaning symbolized:  rather he seeks to deconstruct or dissolve the very notion of thing as matter shaped by form, i.e. where the two are radically distinct.  

So he uses the example of Van Gogh's painting of shoes to show that the thingly nature of a thing is not at all just the material side of a thing.  In describing Van Gogh's painting Heidegger seems at first to be engaging in a sort of wool-gathering, as though he were imagining a particularly tough life of a peasant woman who may have worn these shoes.  What he is actually doing is recognizing (much as Schopenhauer does when talking about the capacities of the artistic genius when observation a physical thing) that the artist is able to see deeply, in an existentialist sense, into the piece of equipment he is depicting, i.e. the shoes.  By the artist looking closely at the equipment he sees it in the context of its world, the world of the peasant woman who uses them.  And by us looking closely that a painting of this we too can see this world.   

Heidegger does not mention this, but we also see ourselves into this world, as we share certain fundamental existential realities with the peasant woman:  we are all beings heading to our deaths, and this is part of the way we experience the world.  You cannot see a painting of worn shoes except by thinking of them as things worn hard by a person who exists in her own phenomenological space. The point is that the shoes do not symbolize something other than themselves.  Rather this is their inner being, i.e. as present in the world of the peasant woman, i.e. as a window to that world.  Nor does the painting symbolize something other than itself:  it is in seeing the thingly nature of the painting that we see Being, that Being comes into unconcealment.  

So what is the relevant of all of this to us in the 21st. century?  We are surrounded by things but we do not notice the thingly nature of these things, nor do we notice the equipmental nature of equipment, i.e. what Heidegger calls reliability.  We are surrounded by things that have for us, usually, a kind of boring usualness.  Life, as a result, seems meaningless.  We the purchase more things to fill in the gap.  All we get is formed matter, matter that itself is inanimate and which has its meaning only by having form imposed on it.  Primitive peoples perhaps do not experience the world in this way, but we postmoderns are alienated from things, as we are from people.  For we also treat people as things; not as things ought to be treated, but as mere things.  Just as a work of art is not a physical object with a meaning appended so too a person is not a physical body with a soul appended.  This view of artworks and persons distorts both the physical side and the spiritual side.  Again, these two sides need to be dissolved together.

When Being shines forth in a thing then its Thingly nature shines forth, and this means that what Heidegger calls "reliability" shines forth.  The funny thing about this word "reliability" is that it means something quite different from what you would think it means:  the reliability that shines forth is the essentiality of the thing, or better the Being in it coming to unconcealment.  This is why it shimmers, it shimmers with Being.  Art then gives life meaning by bringing us back to the point where we can see that the equipmental natura of equipment, the thingly nature of a thing, and the workly nature of a work, are essentially the same.  You cannot reduce the work to the thing when the thing is taken as a mere thing, but then if you see the thing as something that manifests a world while at the same time doing through through its materials, through its medium, then Being comes forth.

So that's the theory in a nutshell.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Plato and Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations 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.