Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Descartes the anti-aesthetic philosopher

"the theory of aesthetics put forward by a philosopher...is a test of the capacity of the system he puts forth to grasp the nature of experience itself.  There is no test that so surely reveals the one-sidedness of a philosophy as its treatment of art and esthetic experience."  John Dewey in "The Challenge to Philosophy" in Art as Experience.

There is no more overrated philosopher in the history of philosophy than Descartes.  I would even venture that  philosophy after Descartes has mainly been a history of attempts to recover from his mistakes.  (I hardly ever say anything really negative about a philosopher and always look for the good in him or her.  In Descartes, I look and look and find nothing.)  Perhaps the best indicator of the misery of his thought is his anti-aesthetic tendency.  Descartes is an anti-aesthetic thinker in a much deeper way than Plato, who, even though he outlawed imitative art from the ideal republic, at least called on others to defend such art, in particular Homer, whom he loved.  Even Plato's Symposium, which gives us a theory of beauty, begins the ladder of love with the physical beauty of a boy.  Descartes will have none of that.  He goes out of his way not only to attack the senses as sources of knowledge but to attack the imagination.  As a result he gives us many absurd theories which are, frankly, embarrassing to teach, as they often are in Introduction to Philosophy classes.  Descartes' anti-aesthetic stance is important since I suspect that this is the basis of the overall neglect (and disparagement) of aesthetics and aesthetic experience within philosophy itself.  If Descartes is the originator of modern philosophy he is also the originator of all that is mistaken in modern philosophy with regard to aesthetics. The only thing I admire in Descartes is his boldness and the relentless nature of his arguments.  The thing that puzzles me the most is the way in which he was able to inspire later, and far greater, philosophers, such as Vico, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey.  Of course, much of that inspiration was by way of reacting against him.  Many philosophers have pointed out the deep problems with Cartesian dualism and with the representational theory of the mind.  Few have looked at the way in which he attempted to erase anything aesthetic from human existence.  You might say that he simply does not talk about aesthetics, although he did write his first book on music.  But he does not talk about aesthetics for a reason, the reason being that sensuous and imaginative experience is of so little value to him.

Take as one example, his analysis of a piece of wax.  He wants to argue that corporeal things, which the senses examine, are less distinctly known than the "I" which he had just argued is essentially a thinking being.  He takes a piece of wax, more specifically a honeycomb, and observes that it has a "scent of flowers," a "honey flavor," a certain color, shape, is cold and hard, and gives a certain sound when hit.  Then he erases, or at least changes, all of these phenomena by bringing it close to a fire.  Since he believes that the same wax remains he concludes that what was "distinctly grasped" in the wax was none of these aspects.  He then suggests that the wax never was any of the things mentioned, but "a body" that "manifested itself to me" in these ways, i.e. "something extended, flexible and mutable."  Moreover, we do not even understand its nature as such through the imagination since the wax could be changed in ways I could not even imagine, or at least my imagination could not cover all of the possible ways it could be changed.  And so I perceive the wax "with my mind alone."  

But what do I perceive with my mind alone?  Only the concept of infinitely extendable substance.  Why this thing should be identical with the original piece of bees' wax is unclear to me.  Descartes insists, paradoxically, that the piece of wax that is perceived by the mind "is the same piece of wax that I see, touch, and imagine" although he gives us no reason for believing this.  Nor does he even give us a reason to believe that the infinitely extendable substance I "perceive" is really the piece of wax as the object of perception instead of simply an object of abstract thought.   His conclusion that "perception of the wax is neither a seeing nor a touching, nor an imagining" is false on all three counts, since perception of the wax is all three.  Moreover, it is not even clear what this mind is which, according to him, actually does perceive the wax.  Presumably it is whatever does the calculation in determining the non-sensuous characteristics of the wax.  (He completely ignores the fact that he has to manipulate the wax as sensuously perceived in order to get at these characteristics.)    

Anyone who begins with "Now I shall close my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall disregard my senses, I shall even efface from my mind all of the images of corporeal things..." as Descartes begins his third meditation (Lafleur tr. pg. 91) eliminates the possibility of aesthetic experience (with the exception of the experience of beauty in mathematical formulae.)

Descartes, of course, used images and metaphors in his philosophical and scientific work.    (See, Bellis, Delphine review of Claus Zittel, "Theatrum philosophicum. Descartes und die Rolle √§sthetischer Formen in der Wissenschaft" in Early Science & Medicine 16, no. 3 (May 2011): 263-265.) of which his famous dreams and his evil demon are examples.  

To be fair, he also had an influential philosophy of music which is described in this way in a recent article:

"Descartes's writings on music are representative of a large body of contemporary theoretical works; they assume an essential relationship between music and mathematics, and proceed to test the limits of that relationship, basically functioning as large-scale mathematical proofs. He first articulated his musical theory in the Compendium Musicae and later developed it in his correspondence with Marin Mersenne. Both the letters and the Compendium, after establishing a mathematical basis for music, posit a material link between music and the passions." 
Vlock, Deborah M. "Sterne, Descartes, and the music in Tristram Shandy." Studies In English Literature (Rice) 38, no. 3 (Summer98 1998): 517-537.   Apparently his approach to music was to reduce music to mathematics:  not too surprising, given his general anti-aesthetic propensity (which as I mentioned above, only allows for mathematical beauty.) 


A sympathetic account of Descartes' aesthetics of music can be found at Larry M. Jorgensen "Descartes on Music: Between the Ancients and the Aestheticians" British Journal of Aesthetics (2012) 52 (4): 407-424

Monday, October 27, 2014

Dewey's "An Experience" and Bell's "Significant Form"

One way to think about Dewey's aesthetics is as a response to the formalism of Clive Bell.  Bell expects us to experience art in an immediate way, without any thought about context of production or about consequences.  Dewey could almost be seen as the opposite of Bell, much like a contemporary contextualist.  Ironically, however, some of the Dewey's favorite artists are Bell's too:  for example Dewey speaks with great admiration of Cezanne.  I am sure that Bell and Dewey would also be in agreement about Matisse.  Dewey also attacks certain artworks for their overemphasis on realism or their illustrative nature in much the way Bell would.  But then Dewey is, as mentioned, against Bell's isolationism.  Dewey's phenomenology is also much more complex and interesting than Bell's.  Bell asks us to look for a special aesthetic emotion brought on by significant form.  He also characterizes this emotion as ecstatic:  it seems to exist someplace between the beautiful and the sublime.  Dewey sees aesthetics in terms of "an experience" in which the experience has a unity brought by a pervasive quality, and is also complete.  For Dewey, "an experience" involves a flow of events in which the present carries the past and projects into the future.  Pauses in music, for example, are not dead spots but actually carry meaning from past experience in this way.  Each part of the organic whole participates in the whole.  Moreover, there are also continuities with that which surrounds the whole, in this case the work of art.  For both Dewey and Bell there is something religious in aesthetic experience.  However, for Bell, it is to be found in the "significant" part of significant form:  the lines and colors are arranged in mysterious ways to give us the special aesthetic emotion, which somehow refers to an underlying reality that is like Kant's noumenal realm:  God, etc..  By contrast, for Dewey, the religious-like experience comes from the ways in which the work of art can relate to a larger whole that is not outside of our world: "A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole which is the universe in which we live." From this we get "exquisite intelligibility and esthetic intensity" which, in turn, explains "the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception."  This, then, introduces us to "a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences."  (Which is it:  beyond or just deeper?)  It is this idea which I have tried to capture in my notion of "aura" in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  Dewey thinks the psychological explanation for this is that it is a deepening and clarification of "that sense of an enveloping undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience" -- the whole then felt as "an expansion of ourselves."  His then says that "any intense realization of its [the vast world beyond ourselves] presence with and in us brings a peculiarly satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves.."  

There is also a strange parallel between what I have just been discussing and Dewey's exploration of media in "The Common Substance of the Arts."  There, he sees the individual arts as purified modes of experience:  we no longer see, hear, feel, taste...etc. but simply, see, for example in painting that  "the medium becomes color alone."  And yet at the same time the color carries the other qualities.  This is then seen like the experience of a pictorial representation which, although flat, can "depict the wide and diversified universe of animate and inanimate things" in a way that seems magical or miraculous.  So this is another case of the art object referring beyond itself in a religious-like way. 

 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey on the Aesthetics of Nature

Dewey in Art as Experience does not have much to say about the aesthetics of nature.  But he has an interesting passage on "the absorption of the aesthetic into nature" when he discusses the experience of W. H. Hudson, the Argentine/British author and naturalist to the effect that one is only properly alive when one is experiencing nature.  Dewey also associates aesthetic experience of nature with acute mystical experience (also using a quote from Hudson.)  The hoary aspect of the tree made it "more intensely alive" for Hudson.  Emerson is also quoted as having a similar experience in nature.  This is in the chapter "The Live Creature and 'Ethereal Things'."  A striking quote is "There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meaning and values" that would normally be considered spiritual.  He then observes that the art of architecture similarly absorbs sensuous form. He also mentions on page 209 in "The Common Substance of the Arts" that a painting of a tree can make it "more poignant than before."  And on pg. 97 he observes that a linear outline can help us recognize the general species of a tree.  In another passage that may be taken as related to the aesthetics of nature, in "The Common Substance of the Arts," Dewey observes that we are always aware of "something that lies beyond" and, again, associates this with mysticism:  the experience of the tree is as a "part of a larger whole."  The "sense of the including whole"  is characteristic of ordinary experience as well, even of a tree.  Dewey also has a discussion of nature in his chapter "The Natural History of Form."  There he stresses continuities between man and nature, the antithesis of nature not being art but "stereotyped convention."  (pg. 158)  Here, he notably says that art using natural materials proves that "nature" is not limited to what philosopher normally call nature, but includes also the complex of our interactions with what they call "nature."  

Arnold Berleant "Engaging Dewey - The Legacy of Dewey's Aesthetics." 2009 has addressed Dewey's view's relevance to the aesthetics of nature.  "The aesthetic experience of natural events may indeed exemplify an experience, moving over a course to consummation. But much appreciation of nature focuses on momentary events and specific details: the sight of a full moon suspended in a black sky and casting its ethereal light over the earth’s surface or the discovery in the spring of the delicate blossom of an anemone hidden amid the dead debris on the forest floor." He adds that such things do not exemplify the "fulfilled course of an experience" in Dewey's sense.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nietzsche for Artists

The Birth of Tragedy begins with the famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, an idea that has intrigued me since I first heard about it in high school.  But what does it really mean, and what are its practical implications for artists?  I will assume here that readers of this post have at least read the first two or three chapters of Nietzsche's book at least once in their lifetimes.  So this will not be a standard commentary.  I want to just focus on the image Nietzsche gives of the transition to great art, which he sees as synthesizing these two tendencies.  So, as you will remember, the Apollonian is associated with dreams, calmness, light, the sun, healing, and the invention of the Olympian gods by the Greeks in order to deal with the wisdom of Silenus, i.e. that life is suffering, and then you die.  Remember also, that Nietzsche does not intend to privilege either the Apollonian or the Dionysian, although one could also argue that the former is derived from an earlier view of Greek art represented by Hegel in his idea of the Classical.  The difference however is that for Hegel the Classical art of Greece full combines form and content, especially in the figure of the human body, where both the form and content (i.e. the Greek gods) are concrete (as opposed to the Symbolic mode of art), and Nietzsche is portraying the Apollonian as a specific response to human suffering, as a form of Schopenhauerian escape art.  For Nietzsche, also, the Apollonian is associated with the Platonic Forms as well as with (although he hides it in the first edition of the book) Christianity (or at least the kind of Christianity that was the norm in Germany of his time...a kind of bourgeois, sentimental Christianity....not the kind that is given to mystical experience.)  I use the word "associate" loosely here, however, since Nietzsche does not identify the Apollonian with the Christian (even though he finds a painting of Christ transfigured by Raphael as a symbol of the Apollonian vision of life, where the world of suffering is redeeming by an upper world of illusion, the transfiguration of Chirst, or in Nietzsche's version, the Olympian world) for the simple reason that the Apollonian Greek says "yes" to life in a rather vigorous way (and contrary to the "no" of Christianity, with its rejection of the body and "sin"). 

Now the Dionysian, which is also associated with a rather nice package of seemingly disparate elements, in this case, Dionysus being the god of wine and theater, but also a god whose followers  practice orgiastic rites and who seek redemption from suffering through a symbolic rebirth.  This god is like the Christian God in another way than is Apollo, i.e. in its emphasis both on rebirth and on the possibility of ecstasy.  Yet, unlike the Christian God, again, it recognizes an aspect of itself that not only says "yes" to life, but also says yes to the sublimated "witches brew" of sexuality, i.e. of pain begetting pleasure, and pleasure experienced as so intense as to be pain-like.  True, this tendency, found in the non-Greek (read Hegelian "Symbolic" level of art and religion) Dionysian is tamed by Apollo, using his "Gorgon's head." The Dionysian is transformed....but the "witch's brew" is still sort of there.  In any case, this sort of thing would be suitable for the stake from the standpoint of, let's say, the Spanish Inquisition.

Now that the preliminaries have been set up, let's think about what it means to combine these two art deities, or rather physiological (perhaps we should say, psychological) tendencies.  Nietzsche tells a story of a man who is part of a (Greek) Dionysian orgy in which he has lost his own sense of self, has become one with the multitude of others present, and also one with nature too, although in such a way as to live in another world of illusion, one in which leopards and lions are tame friends, and springs become flowing streams of milk and honey.  

The Dionysian calls on us to recognize our "Maker," which Nietzsche refers to as the "primordial one," and by other terms as well.  The "primordial one" is like Schopenhauer's "Will" in that it underlies human experience and is nothing like Kant's God, although also residing in a noumenal realm.  For Nietzsche, it is a God-like entity (more like the one God, but depressed) who is pained by his own creation, by his separation of self from self, by his creation of a world of illusion, which can only be redeemed through the activity of man, by the creation, first, of human dream-worlds (particularly the dream-worlds of the Greeks, which Nietzsche imagines to be particularly vivid) and secondly by the dream-world of Apollonian art, an art that makes our lives worth living, as Nietzsche puts it (although what really makes our life worth living is tragic art, the combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, to be explained latter).  Interestingly, this is a kind of reversal of Plato, who saw redemption only in entering a world of reality which is the world of Forms.  Nietzsche would reply that redemption is to be found elsewhere: in the first place, in the world of illusion, the dream world, the Apollonian art world. (He does however treat the world of the Forms as though it just were a variation of the world of Olympian gods).  Now, this is not a bad thing, which may seem surprising to us.  Illusions can be good for us, Nietzsche thinks.  But it does have one problem in that it can  give rise to something very much like kitsch.  Kitsch gives us a world in which nothing bad can happen...a Thomas Kinkade world.  Although Apollonian art is much better than Kinkade's art, the sentimentality of it is rather similar, hence the prevalence of religious themes in both.  Thus, a synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian will be particularly difficult.

Here comes the advice for artists!  (coming soon, anyway)  The Apollonian gives us escape (much like the visual arts for Schopenhauer) but the Dionysian gives us something else, gives us the dissolution of the veil of maya, and hence of illusion.  Why?  Because the Dionysian is not just beautiful, it is sublime.  It captures the idea that Burke first developed of the sublime as combining terror and astonishment on the one hand and a special form of pleasure he called "delight."  The terror we feel in truly confronting the truth of Silenus, viz. that life is suffering and that it is best that one die soon, is now overcome in the Dionysian, not by an illusion of Olympian calm looking down over us (or of a loving Jesus) but by disintegration of the self in which a tremendous joy arises in response to the violation of the principle of sufficient reason (i.e. the principle that everything has an explanation...that the world makes sense, e.g. from a scientific perspective).  So, we picture the Dionysian reveler who now imagines his god before him in a dream image, as though on stage in a Greek drama (and didn't each protagonist of tragic plays, like Oedipus, really represent the death and redemption of Dionysus, thus achieving catharsis for us, the audience, to use Aristotle's idea?).  The combination of the two tendencies is not just a combination:  it is that a specific kind of dream-world is produced, one in which the ecstatic experience of oneness with the primordial one is made possible.  Great art is not simply beautiful art, art that satisfies the Apollonian urge, nor is it sublime art alone, but rather it is art that creates a dream-world that also satisfies a need for redemption from suffering...it is art as religion, or perhaps even religion as art.  It is art that is both beautiful and sublime.  That's Nietzsche's idea anyway.    So, the artist must ask herself not simply whether she is expressing herself or even being creative or even whether she has created a world, but whether she has created a world of illusion, in which the illusion itself is a symbol of the dissolving of the world of illusion we live in, i.e. the world as seen through the eyes of the Apollonian, or worse, the Christian or the "last man" as conceived by Nietzsche.

It is not just that the Apollonian is insufficient for true artistic greatness.  So too is the Dionysian.  We can see this by way of talking about the difference between the Buddhist and Socratic approaches to wisdom  The Buddhist approach to wisdom, as discussed in my previous post, involves rejection of words and discourse and thus of dialectic.  It is basically Dionysian.  Yet, as Dionysian, with its emphasis on fusion of self and other, with its stress on interconnectedness, and with the result being an experience of inchoate ecstasy, it also misses out on the rich possibilities of theater, drama, dialectic, all of which are opened up by the synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

So greatness for the artist involves finding a wormhole through a created world, a way to make a work of art, or its central part, into an illusion that destroys the primal illusion, an ecstatic oneness, a way to create a symbol that expresses the sublime by way of the creative imagination in its productive power, its power of creating what Kant called in his great paragraph 49 of the Critique of Judgment an alternative reality, a way of being both Socratic and Buddhistic (although Nietzsche, of course, maligned both).  Of course, that's all just a thought...not even a hypothesis. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mindfulness and Everyday Aesthetics

I had my Introduction to Philosophy students read Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness tr. Mobi Ho, Boston, Beacon Press, 1987.  I have long thought of Buddhism as having possible implications for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Nhat Hanh's book is largely a meditation on "The Foundation of Mindfulness" or the Satipatthana Sutta translated from the Pali by Nyanasatta.  (Please forgive not including the proper marks on these names.)  Arnold Berleant, an American aesthetician whom I will be commenting on at the upcoming American Society for Aesthetics national meeting in San Antonio, has provided us with a series of books outlining his "aesthetics of engagement."  His notion is that aesthetics should be understood as closely allied with the original meaning of "aesthesis":  that it involves all sense experience.  So one idea is that proper aesthetic experience involves paying close attention to experience, and in particular, sensuous experience.  This would ally Berleant with Buddhism. "Engagement" is like "mindfulness," although there are also some differences.  Berleant downplays the element of pleasure in aesthetic experience:  one can also have negative aesthetic experiences.  Buddhism (and I am only thinking here of how Buddhism is expressed in The Miracle of Mindfulness) is somewhat different.  That is, Buddhism seems to hold nothing to be ultimately negative.  One is even encouraged to meditate on the decay our bodies will undergo after death.  Another difference between the two is that "mindfulness," although it does get us to appreciate the things of everyday life in much the way everyday aesthetics does, does involve something similar to what Westerners have called "contemplation": and Berleant rejects the contemplative mode of experience as central to aesthetics.  For him, engagement entails bodily engagement but not detached engagement.  He associates contemplation with disinterestedness and "the aesthetic attitude," all three of which he rejects.  Still, Berleant, who is also an important aesthetician of nature, would surely approve of the following quote from Nhat Hanh:  "I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth.  In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.  People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle.  But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.  Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize:  a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child- our own two eyes.  All is a miracle."  (12)  Perhaps, however, the language of "mysterious" and "miracle" would be too religious for his taste.  I do not find any problem with the language as such.

Of course mindfulness can be said to go beyond aesthetics.   I often wonder where aesthetics leaves off and the practical (on the one hand) or the religious (on the other) begins.  In response to a complaint that a work life does not allow these woodsy rambles, Nhat Hanh says, "keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and read to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise -  this is mindfulness.  There is no reason why mindfulness should be different from focusing all one's attention on one's work, to be alert and to be using one's best judgment." (14)  Here there is no emphasis on the senses in the way we found in his country walk.  Paying attention to the work at hand may even involve not paying attention to aesthetic qualities.  So, for this and other reasons, I would not want to prematurely identify mindfulness with aesthetic engagement in Berleant's sense.  There is an affinity, but mindfulness has other dimensions.  Is a life devoted to an taking an aesthetic point of view (except in those cases where an ethical or a purely practical point of view is necessary) truly valid? (One thinks here of the question of Walter Pater's aestheticism).

A lot of the idea of mindfulness is based on methods of breathing.  Paying attention to your breathing may give us aesthetic pleasure, but the main purpose seems to be as a method for achieving certain goals.  One could argue, of course, that mindful breathing is itself an art and that, to be done rightly, it requires attending to certain aesthetic qualities.  Nhat Hanh writes:  "Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river..."  Moreover, the mastery of breathing is also art-like in that it involves control, much like the musician's control of an instrument and of the sounds it produces, and of course this is associated with the aesthetic quality of harmony, in this case "inner harmony."  Thus one can speak of a positive aesthetic dimension to the results of breathing mindfully:  "To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.  Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used." (20)  There may also be an aesthetic dimension to the "one-ness of body and mind," which is made possible by this disciplined breathing. (23)  

It is not seated meditation, however, that draws the everyday aesthetician to think about Buddhistic mindfulness but the extension of meditation to everyday life.  Nhat Hanh most famously refers to mindfulness in washing dishes:  "While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes."  (4)  This could be misinterpreted by a Western philosopher to mean that one should just concentrate on the truth of the proposition, "I am washing dishes," which, I think, would be quite wrong.  Rather, one should be conscious of one's every action in washing dishes while washing dishes.  Maybe one should be conscious of the dishes too (as they are part of the total experience).  Nhat Hanh also observes that if you are focusing on the cup of tea that you might have after this unpleasant task of washing dishes you are not fully focusing on the moment.  

Sometimes I do not know how far the affinities go between everyday aesthetics and Buddhistic mindfulness.  Nhat Hanh quotes a religious community as saying:  "one should not lose oneself in mind dispersion or in one's surrounding.  Learn to practice breathing in order to regain control of body and mind...."  (22)  Is there something wrong with aesthetic appreciation of one's surroundings?  Or is this just that the task at hand, i.e. meditation,  involves detachment from aesthetic experience of one's surroundings?  If the sole issue is self-control to achieve "concentration and wisdom" then is the aesthetic somehow lost in the process?  Or is it gained back at the end of the game?  

Sometimes, mindfulness methods seem directly relevant to aesthetic experience.  Nhat Hanh describes a day of mindfulness and says, "Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.  Live the actual moment. Only the actual moment is life."  This sounds like the pathway to aestheticism as well.  Slow drinking of the tea would allow one to concentrate on its aesthetic qualities, and also the aesthetic qualities of one's own actions.  The aesthetic demand is to notice the now...to live, as is also the demand of mindfulness.

One of the results of meditation is to "achieve inner peace and joy."  (35)  These can be seen as aesthetic qualities, although not of external objects but of one's own mind.  Finding "peace and joy in this very moment" seems to be a requirement for a certain kind of aesthetic life as well.  So, perhaps, the methods of mindfulness are not aesthetic in themselves but have an important aesthetic result.

One thing I have trouble with, not so much because of my commitment to aesthetics as because of my commitment to the sort of philosophy that goes back to Socrates, is the relatively negative attitude expressed towards thought, language and even conversation.  If the goal of mindfulness is to not think through a thought but to simply acknowledge one's thoughts and then let them go then thoughtful exploration of ideas, philosophical dialogue, and thoughtful philosophical writing, become impossible.  If the goal of conversation is not to concentrate on what is being said and on its implications but rather (as Nhat Hanh portrays it) on not being distracted from one's breathing by attending to the conversation, then it would be hard for a Socratic philosopher to see mindfulness as something that takes over much of one's life.  Time that could be spent in dialogue or in talking, thinking or writing would have to be sacrificed to time spent in not doing those things.  And this is always the dilemma for the Socrates-minded philosopher in thinking about mindfulness:  which sort of wisdom do we want the most, the sort that comes through what we would call mindful dialogue or the sort that comes through mindful breathing and sitting?  

However, the aesthetic payoff may be worth the price.  Nhat Hanh writes that, with mindfulness, "Drinking a cup of tea becomes a direct and wondrous experience in which the distinction between subject and object no longer exists."  (42)  One thinks of Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian which also results in ecstatic oneness. Yet,, Nhat Hanh contrasts the oneness with the cup of tea with "the illusory divisions of separate selves, created by concepts and language" and it is "concepts and language" that provides the path to the Socratic-style wisdom even in Nietzsche...there is no getting around it.  (42)  

Perhaps the ideal of philosophy would be to find a way to combine these two forms of wisdom.  

Nhat Hanh stresses the interdependence of all things, and one thinks of Hegel.  Certainly if one takes the path of contextualism in aesthetics (where the aesthetic object is only fully experienced when one understands its full context) one does think a lot of interdependence.  But he also says:  "This meditation is not a discursive reflection on a philosophy of interdependence.  It is a penetration of mind into mind itself, using one's concentrative power to reveal the real nature of the object itself."  (45)  Is there room for philosophy then?  Well, there might be, for Nhat Hanh sounds a lot like Edmund Husserl in his description of phenomenological method.  

In any case, the way Nhat Hanh plays this out can be of some value to the aesthetician.  Especially useful is his discussion of experiencing a table.  "The table's existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call 'the non-table world':  the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws....If you grasp the table's reality then you see that in the table itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the nontable world."



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Kant's Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment and a Prelude to Aesthetic Atheism

Students in my aesthetics classes usually balk at the idea that when we set up something as beautiful we demand that others see it as beautiful as well.  I usually try to explain this by softening the word or suggesting that Kant should not have said "demand" and that "expect" would have perhaps been better.  Also, Kant does insist that we can make a mistake in our judgments of beauty, so it is not as though he is setting up anyone as a dictator of taste.  One can say that if two parties disagree then one of them must not be sufficiently disinterested, or perhaps there is a failure of choice of object:  a focus on something that is more properly the object of the pleasant or agreeable than of beauty, for example a simple tone or color, or some other thing that does not have the look of design characteristic of that which has the form of purpose (without our thinking about its actual purpose.)  Or perhaps one just is thinking of the actual purpose without letting the mind go into a free play of the imagination and understanding requisite for the experience of beauty.  Still the question remains:  Why does Kant believe we have a "right to the necessary agreement of others" with respect to taste?  He addresses this issue in his "Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgement" where he finally seeks to address Hume's original problem as set forth in Hume's juxtaposition two species of common sense, one claiming that there is no disputing about taste, and another asserting that there is, since the lover of Ogilby clearly has no taste from the perspective of the good judge.  I do not intend to provide a commentary on Kant here and will avoid worrying about current interpretations by Guyer and others.  I am, rather, mainly interested in a puzzle:  why does Kant believe that appeal to the supersensible substratum actually solves the antinomy of taste?  The end result of his discussion, I believe, lends support to what I have called in previous posts "aesthetic atheism."

So Kant starts out in #56 talking about different commonplaces of taste.  One of these says that every one has his own taste.  He rejects this since he thinks that a judgment of taste does involve a demand that others agree.  The second is that there is no disputing about taste:  that is, no decision in taste can be based on a proof, although we are still able to have a "contention" about taste, i.e. a disagreement that is not resolvable by logical application of a concept.  However, the notion that there may be contention without proof seems to deny the idea that it is impossible to resolve such a debate, and hence the grounds of judgment must not just be "private validity." They are not "merely subjective."  The antinomy is that that the thesis, i.e. the judgment of taste is not based on concepts, is opposed by the antithesis, that the judgment of taste is based on concepts, for otherwise there would be no room for contention.  The resolution to this is fairly obvious, that two different senses of "concept" are being used, and that the reason why contention is possible is because the judgment of taste is based on indeterminate (or, as he puts it sometimes, undetermined or indeterminable) concepts.  Now in section #49 we had been introduced to something very much like indeterminate concepts, namely the aesthetic (or aesthetical) ideas.  So one would think that Kant would now refer to these as the basis in some way for the demand that others see the object as beautiful.  Instead, however, he refers to just once such concept, i.e. "the transcendental rational concept of the supersensible, which lies at the basis of ...sensible intuition..."  (Meredith tr., 207)  So what we are talking about, at least on first sight, is the idea of the world of things-in-themselves, a world that is beyond our senses. (We will see how this "at first sight" is partly wrong later.)  More specifically we are talking about the concept of such a world.  This world is also sometimes identified (whether by Kant himself, or just by some readers is not clear) with the noumenal realm, which contains God, immortality and the soul, and maybe also the essence of things (something like the Platonic Forms).  How this seemingly confused thing (although, perhaps, the noumenal realm does not come in here at all) can provide the basis for our demand that others see an object as beautiful is the question at issue.  The judgment of taste is not merely personal or private, it is not just "for me," because of an "enlarged reference."  But what is that?  It should be mentioned here that the indeterminate concept of the supersensible, which is supposed to do this job, is not only at the basis of the object but also of the judging subject. (Is this a reference to the transcendent soul, or is it rather a reference to the transcendental ego or the transcendental unity of apprehension...I suspect that one of the latter two is more at issue.)  We learn further that this "ground" is "of the subjective finality of nature for the power of judgment" which seems to be saying that the reason we can demand a judgment of beauty from others is that nature has a certain purposiveness of look, an idea already introduced in the Analytic of the Beautiful.  Another hint for explaining the demand of validity for everyone is in the phrase Kant uses: "because its determining ground lies, perhaps, in the concept of what may be regarded as the supersensible substrate of humanity."  The "perhaps" is noteworthy of an unusual caution.  But more important, the "substrate of humanity" indicates that we are not talking about something like a collection of things in the supersensible realm that stand behind the things of experience, as when a chair as the thing-in-itself is behind the chair as experienced.  Rather, we are mainly interested here in something shared by humans.  (Now why this must be in the supersensible realm, i.e. as transcendent, rather than simply being a transcendental principle like the a priori concept of causality, is not clear, at least to me.)  Kant himself seems to throw up his arms in despair of really explaining any of this at this point, when he says, "The subjective principle - that is to say, the indeterminate idea of the supersensible within us - can only be indicated as the unique key to the riddle of this faculty, itself concealed from us in its sources; and there is no means of making it any more intelligible."  (208-9)  However he does not give us, as he continues to give us hints.  For example, he hints that the strategy here, which he also uses in the Critique of Practical Reason, involves compelling us to "look beyond the horizon of the sensible, and to seek in the supersensible the point of union of all our faculties a priori" which, only then, brings "reason into harmony with itself."  (209)  So, something about the union of our faculties (for example, perhaps, when they are in harmony) is the basis for the legitimate demand that others see the object as beautiful.  Perhaps what is being said is something like this:  you have to see it as beautiful because, underneath it all, you are the same as me insofar as your faculties should respond to this thing in a unified way just as mine do.  

In the "Remark 1" that follows we get another hint to the solution in that Kant refers again to aesthetic ideas, which are "referred to an intuition, in accordance with a merely subjective principle of the harmony of the cognitive faculties (imagination and understanding)" (210)  Perhaps the reference to the supersensible in the Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment is entirely or at least mainly a reference to aesthetic ideas, or the faculty of producing and/or appreciation aesthetic ideas, as the ground of the validity of taste and of the concept of beauty (as opposed to the merely agreeable.)  As we already know, an aesthetic idea is "an intuition (of the imagination) for which an adequate concept can never be found." (210)  Unlike a rational idea the aesthetic idea is not transcendent.  Now, rational ideas "involve a concept (of the supersensible), for which the commensurate intuition can never be given."  Aesthetic ideas, however, involve no concept of the supersensible:  they are, rather, intuitions or products of imagination in which the supersensible is, rather, intimated.  

Further, by connecting the notion of aesthetic ideas to that of genius, which is the "faculty of aesthetic ideas," Kant argues that nature in the genius "gives the rule to art" in producing beauty, for, he says, "the beautiful must not be estimated according to concepts, but by the final mode in which the imagination is attuned so as to accord with the faculty of concepts generally..."  It follows from this that "rule and precept are incapable of serving as the requisite subjective standard for that aesthetic and unconditioned finality in fine art which has to make a warranted claim to being bound to please every one." (212)  The claim is based rather on the atunement of the imagination with faculty of concepts.  So the standard (the standard of taste?) is "sought in the element of mere nature in the Subject....the supersensible substrate of all the Subject's faculties...and consequently in that which forms the point of reference for the harmonious accord of all our faculties of cognition..."  He even further sates that the production of this accord is "the ultimate end set by the intelligible basis of our nature." (212)   

Remark 2 takes me to a place that I never expected, and shows that I had mainly misunderstood Kant previously.  He tells us that the three antinomies of pure reason all lead us to "abandon the otherwise very natural assumption which takes the objects of sense for thing-in-themselves, and to regard them, instead merely as phenomena, and to lay at their basis an intelligible substrate (something supersensible, the concept of which is only an idea and affords no proper knowledge.)"  That is, the supersensible has nothing to do with things-in-themselves (which are now abandoned?) and everything to do with the transcendental ground of our experience in the harmony of the cognitive faculties.  Again, the sensible, "instead of being regarded as inherently appurtenant to things-in-themselves, is treated as a mere phenomenon, and, as such, being made to rest upon something supersensible (the intelligible substrate of external and internal nature) as the thing-in-itself." (213)  That is, the things-in-themselves are replaced by the thing-in-itself, which is the supersensible.  This leads me to think, more and more, that the main strategy here is to replace the transcendent realm with the transcendental, which itself is the true supersensible.  The result, in Kant's thinking, is that the same supersensible that is "substrate of nature" is also "principle of the subjective finality of nature for our cognitive faculties" and also the principle of the "ends of freedom...and...freedom in the moral sphere" which ties the three critiques and the entire system together, rather too neatly.

But what leaves me completely puzzled, and also fascinated at the same time, is the relation between the supersensible (now seen more as the ground of a harmony of faculties perhaps also harmoniously responding to the phenomenal objects insofar as they has purposiveness of look) and the aesthetic ideas, which, as we know from #49, cause our thoughts to go on unendingly, acting as ineffable symbols.  If the supersensible just is the aesthetic ideas (or whatever is their ground) then the ground of taste is not just a matter of the kind of free play that gives us beauty but rather of the kind of super free play (of the imagination and the understanding, and, contra Kant, of the sensuous as well) that gives us the sublime, for example in the works of genius, i.e. in fine art.  The result of this pretty hypothetical thinking would be that the demand that others see something beautiful/sublime (as the two concepts seem to fuse at this point!) is based on something transcendental and a priori (like causality, and I think, contra Kant, God), basically the possibility to experience something as an aesthetic idea.  Since the supersensible is invisible, and yet is perceived in particular phenomena, i.e. through intuition, what we get is the idea that there is some nimbus of heightened significance, what I called in my book, aura, that makes objects aesthetic.  It is still hard to see however how I can demand that others join in my auratic perception.  I can only say here that since the assumption of the supersensible is transcendental like the assumption of causality then it is not empirical but part of the transcendental ground of experience, something even the atheist cannot avoid, a kind of necessary illusion.  So aesthetic contest is based on a necessary illusion but one that is fruitful because it gives rise to richer and deeper experience, as dialogue and dialectic do generally.  

Kant gives one final hint concerning the basis of universal validity of judgments of taste in #58:  "the judgment is not directed theoretically, nor, therefore, logically, either...to the perfection of the object, but only aesthetically to the harmonizing of its representation in the imagination with the essential principles of judgment generally in the Subject."  (216)   I will perhaps save for another time a discussion of the truly bizarre continuation of #58 in its discussion of "free formations of nature" and "crystalline figures" although I think that this is an intimation of a Darwinian materialist approach to life and an attempt to provide what Kant ironically and confusingly calls a form of "idealism" but which in fact is the basis for an aesthetic form of atheism.  Instead of having an "objective finality" on the part of nature (which would indicate a creator God) we have "subjective finality resting on the play of imagination in its freedom, where it is we who receive nature with favor, and not nature that does us a favor."  (220)  This seems to me a kind of secular humanism where the noumenal realm recedes and is replaced by the ideal of human freedom.  When we consider nature, what is important is "how we receive it." (220)  "That nature affords us an opportunity for perceiving the inner finality as arising from a supersensible basis is to be pronounced necessary and of universal validity, is a property of nature which cannot belong to it as its end, or rather, cannot be estimated by us to be such an end"  -- for, otherwise. the end would be founded on heteronomy rather than on our own autonomy.  Similarly the delight in aesthetic ideas in fine art "must not be made dependent upon the successful attainment of determinate ends" thus indicating that the ends should be ideal in the sense that fine art must derive its rules from aesthetic ideas, these created by the genius artist using his/her productive imagination in the constitution of a second world out of the material of our world (referring once again to the all-important #49).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Pleasant in Kant's Account of Beauty

This little discussion of the pleasant will be based on the Bernard translation of Kant's Critique of Judgment   What Bernard translates as "pleasant" Meredith translates as "agreeable."  As becomes evidence in #3, where Kant makes much of the distinction between two sense of "sensation" ("of one's state"), the pleasant is to be distinguished from the beautiful.  If everything that pleases were pleasant we would not be able to distinguish between the pleasures that arise out of  1. "impressions of sense which determine the inclination" 2. "fundamental propositions of reason which determine the will" and 3. "mere reflective forms of intuition which determine the judgment," (i.e. between the pleasant, the moral and the beautiful) and we could only estimate the value of things in terms of the gratification they promise, thus allowing no distinction between indiscretion and wickedness.  (This intrusion of a seemingly irrelevant moral distinction takes the breath away.  However, as we shall see, it is the main basis for the overall rigid nature of the distinction between the pleasant and beautiful for Kant.)  So one sense of "sensation" refers to a "determination of the feeling of pleasure or pain" (which is subjective), whereas the other refers to a sensation as "representation of a thing" (which is objective.)  Kant decides to call the former "feeling."  For example, the pleasantness of a green color of a meadow is a subjective sensation, whereas the greenness itself is objective.  If it is pleasant it is an object of desire, the desire directed to "objects of that kind." Such a feeling, Kant believes, presupposes the relation of the existence of the object to my state of mind (presumably my feeling-state), which is what is meant by saying that it not only pleases but gratifies.  I am not merely judging it or assenting to it (as I would be for beauty):  rather, my "inclination is aroused by it."  Indeed, when it is "most lively" there is no judgment of the object at all.  Evidence of this is that people who love enjoyment would "dispense with all judgment."  

Again, as we discover in paragraph #4, the beautiful (the beauty of a flower, for example) does not depend on a definite concept (as would be the case in morality or when talking about something that is good because it is useful) and yet it does "depend on the reflection upon an object" i.e. in relation to an indefinite concept. (Does Kant ever give us an example of such an indefinite concept?)  This distinguishes it from pleasures of mere sensation (i.e. the pleasant.)  Kant admits that the pleasant often seems the same as the good, especially for hedonists, but he quickly rejects that idea, for the pleasant only represents objects in relation to sense and not under "principles of reason" which are required to call them good.  This entire discussion of the distinction between the pleasant and the good seems a bit of a red herring since the point at issue in this book is the distinction between the pleasant and the beautiful (the moral good being discussed at length in the Critique of Practical Reason), but the strategy generally is to show that the pleasant shares some things with the good and some quite different things with the beautiful, and is distinguishable from both.  In any case, it does have an interesting result, which is that Kant says the following:  "Even in common speech men distinguish the pleasant from the good.  Of a dish which stimulates the taste by spices and other condiments we say unhesitatingly that it is pleasant, though it is at the same time admitted not to be good; for though it immediately delights the senses, yet mediately, i.e. considered by reason which looks to the after results, it displeases."  Presumably, the thought is that Indian food might be pleasant, but we know we shouldn't enjoy it, and it displeases us intellectually, because it is unhealthy, according at least to the view held by Prussians of that time.  Think of it as being like a lot of wine drunk at once:  pleasant at first but unpleasant in the consequences, and unpleasant to reason even in the beginning because of this.  

In another attack on hedonism, which Kant seems to (quite extravagantly) hold is believed by everyone (including himself?), he says "in respect of happiness, everyone believes himself entitled to describe the greatest sum of pleasantness of life... as a true, even as the highest, good.  However, reason is opposed to this." (101)  That is, reason is opposed to a belief everyone has.  (This isn't totally absurd, since an evil man may assume that he is entitled to the greatest sum of pleasantness, but he is not so, because of the evil he has done.)   Again, Kant holds that if the pleasant were no different from pleasure based on the good there would be no reason to concern ourselves with the means by which we gained pleasure.  The distinction Kant makes here is between pleasures that are "obtained passively by the bounty of nature" and ones "by our own activity and work."  (101)  A hedonist, of course, would reply that both kinds of pleasures are equally good, and that when one cannot gain the first (which is quite common) one can resort to the second:  or perhaps the second is of higher quality in which case one goes for the second first, but then accepts the first happily when available.  The only reason one should be concerned about the means of obtaining a pleasure is if the means are immoral, i.e. in causing harm to others.  (This would be the position of someone we might call a moral hedonist:  i.e. a hedonist who follows, e.g., the golden rule, and conditions his or her actions thereby.)  In another attack on the hedonist Kant says that "reason can never be persuaded that the existence of a man who merely lives for enjoyment...has a worth in itself" even if he increases the quantity and quality of the enjoyment of others and even shares their enjoyment with them through "sympathy." (This may involve an attack on Hume.)  

This whole notion of nature providing us with passive enjoyments is odd itself, since even enjoying a sunset "passively" usually requires the work that can provide oneself with the leisure and possibly the deck and glass of wine to fully do so.  Even odder is the idea that "only what he does, without reference to enjoyment, in full freedom and independently of what nature can procure for him passively, gives an absolute worth to his presence in the world as the existence of a person" as though it really makes sense to judge a person in terms of "absolute worth" or to do so in terms of what he does when he is not enjoying himself.  I know that the history of this is connected with Calvinism...but it just seems impossible to wrap one's mind around it now in the year 2014 even as an optional way of looking at things, and hence it makes the entire project of a radical separation between the pleasant and the beautiful, and even the distinction between three kinds of pleasure, pretty implausible.  At best we can say that some pleasures are prompted immediately by sensation, some mediated by reflection while using an indeterminate concept of some sort, and some by the thought that something is good, i.e. as useful or as morally good, for example the pleasure we take in admiring Martin Luther King's work for civil rights.  There is a distinction somewhere between the merely pleasant and the beautiful, but it is pretty subtle.  I wouldn't disagree, however, that happiness is far from an unconditioned good, as Kant puts it, for you would not think that the happiness of an evil person is an unconditioned good:  but happiness of a person who deserves to be happy is an unconditioned good, surely.

As I argued in my book, the distinction between these different kinds of pleasures is not a strong one:  the boundaries are soft.  The pleasant often does involve some reflection and some vague concepts, for example.  Kant insists that there is no disputing about taste with respect to the pleasant, but we do dispute about these things all the time:  we argue over how good Indian food is for example, or which Indian dish or restaurant is the best.  Kant says that "pleasantness concerns irrational animals also, but beauty only concerns men" which itself seems another pretty implausible idea, although it is understandable that if beauty requires at least an indistinct concept then the question remains whether other animals use anything like indistinct concepts (recent work with chimps, parrots, dogs, elephants, octopi, and porpoises, seems to so that they do.)  

Perhaps Kant's most compelling case for a real distinction between the pleasant and the beautiful is"  "As regards the interest of inclination in the case of the pleasant, everyone says that hunger is the best sauce, and everything that is eatable is relished by people with a healthy appetite, and thus satisfaction of this sort shows no choice directed by taste."  We are talking about food again, but as opposed to Indian food, where one can talk about subtle differences in spice, or wine, where one can talk about the subtle distinctions Sancho's cousins observe in Hume's essay (although Kant thinks that taste in Canary wine is just a matter of physical taste and hence the pleasant) we are now just talking about what happens when you have a healthy appetite:  then everything tastes good to you...and no judgment is really involved.  I don't think that is true either, although a healthy appetite can make what is tasty more tasty and what is less good somewhat better.  Even with a healthy appetite one can distinguish between finer and lesser cuisines.  It might just enhance one's eating experience without making everything pleasant relative.