Monday, September 17, 2018

Medieval Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

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

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

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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Thursday, August 23, 2018

Socrates Apology and Aesthetics

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

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

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

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

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

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





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Do rocks think and feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



    









Tuesday, July 3, 2018

What is beauty?

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Saito and Thick vs. Thin Appreciation

I have been thinking about Chapters 6 and 7 of Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  In chapter 6 "Consequences of Everyday Aesthetics" Saito stresses the ways in which "seemingly trivial and inconsequential aesthetic preference and taste have unexpected serious implications that determine the state of the world and the quality of life."  She calls this "the power of the aesthetic."  The aesthetic can guide our behavior, our decisions and our actions.  Although I disagree with little in this chapter, the mood of the first part can be kind of depressing.  One begins to feel that aesthetics is, overall, a bad thing, since it is associated so strongly with propaganda, advertising and various forms of manipulation.  Saito's overall position is consistent with also paying attention to the good results of aesthetics.  I also should note that I strongly approve of her alliance of everyday aesthetics with environmentalism.  However some individual passages make me nervous.  Doing philosophy is exploring this kind of nervousness.

For example, she argues that "The aesthetic norms governing [the] ideal [American] lawn are order, uniformity, neatness, and cleanliness, although the contemporary critics of this aesthetic ideal point out that the green lawn instead expresses monotony, conformity, lifelessness, and sterility."  (143)  I have no problem with criticizing the environmentally bad "ideal lawn."  But I do not see how the critics mentioned know what the green lawn really expresses....and in such detail.  Are we anthropomorphizing the green lawn here?  The green lawn, as a type, is not a person.  It does not, as a type, express anything.   Perhaps as a particular thing a green law expresses something. True, most people who have green lawns have similar ideas about it.   Perhaps they are the ones who are expressing, i.e. by way of the lawns they choose to have.  But do they really want to express these properties or endorse these values?  I doubt it.  So the claim seems to be that green lawns have or exemplify these properties regardless of the intentions of their owners.  This might be true but I would like to see some explanation of how.  It would be easier to simply say that, to an environmentalist, it seems as though the owners were trying to express these values.  But this solution would seem too subjective to environmentalists.  Couldn't we just do without this move and insist that we should change the looks of our lawns based on the bad environmental consequences?

This whole matter has to do with a debate I have  had earlier with Allen Carlson over thick vs. thin appreciation of a junkyard.   See my, “The Aesthetics of Junk and Roadside Clutter,” Contemporary Aesthetics.   http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/journal.php  6 (May 17, 2008).  I will return to this later.

In my seminar meeting on this chapter some discussion entered around the issue of the relationship between Saito's views and utilitarianism.  It is odd that Saito does not mention Bentham, Mill or any consequentialist, given that she is committed to talking about consequences, and also given that she is really interested in bringing ethics and aesthetics closer together.  I think that one of the reasons for this absence is that Kant looms so large in both ethics and aesthetics, whereas the utilitarians are not often mentioned in aesthetics articles, this despite the fact that qualitative differences in pleasure are central to Mill's thinking.  

Another thing that is nagging me takes off from a sentence on consumerism that goes:  "Contemporary persuaders consist of qualities such as new, fashionable, cool, cutting-edge, novel, state-of-the-art, and stylish."  (146)  The quote actually comes right after a quote from my book.  So I may be expressing here some doubts about my own previously expressed views.  I agree with Saito that obsession with these things can lead to bad consequences.  But I also don't want to abandon these everyday aesthetic concepts, or demote them to the realm of the negative. 

So here is my thought, or perhaps it is just a worry.  It seems to me that most of us participate in consumerism, although often with reservations.  I might buy something partly because it is stylish for example.  To that extent I might be buying into (literally) what the advertisers who use the "aesthetic persuaders" want.  But also I want this stylish item (say a nice pair of shoes), and I actually do think that they will look good on me.  Even though I happily join in with critics of consumerist society, I cannot fully do so since I am part of it, and not just part of it out of "no other choice."  I am part of it out of choices I make every day.  I choose, for example, to shop at Whole Earth rather than Safeway.  I choose to buy Ritual coffee over Seattle's Best, and I am not going to be seriously put off if I hear this described as fashionable.  I am particularly susceptible to the persuader "cool."  Most people I know want to be cool, or at least not to be "uncool." 


Even if I were to join a commune in the woods I would still need to buy certain products, and my choice of this lifestyle might well itself be the result of coming to see this lifestyle as stylish, although in a non-standard way. 

What worries me are quotes like the one that says that the staggering volume of stuff created to satisfy consumer appetite is "fueled primarily by aesthetic desire rather than genuine need..."  Can we really distinguish (in anything but a vague way) the domain of aesthetic desire from that of genuine need?   Isn't what is considered "genuine need" highly relativized?   

To be more aesthetic than ethical or more ethical than aesthetic?  This is a great dilemma which needs to be seriously addressed.  For instance I know only a couple of environmentally-minded people who refuse to fly because of global warming:  I am not one of them.  I do it....I consume that product largely because I really enjoy travel.  How much of this is a real need?  Well, if we reduced ourselves to "real needs" (as defined say by the minimum needed to keep us alive) then perhaps all aesthetic properties and experiences would be expendable.  The truth is, I live in a world in which most ethnically minded people think it is worth the environmental cost to indulge their aesthetic desire to fly to places like New York. I can respect the environmental purist who refuses to do this just as I can respect the vegan who refuses ever to harm an animal for his/her daily nourishment.  But it seems to me reasonable to act differently, perhaps while making some modifications to my habits, or hoping that these (e.g. the fact that I do not commute to work) balance out the more ethically problematic stuff.  I just do not want to give up the aesthetic portion of my life to be ethically correct.  Although I know that people who work for contractors for Apple in China sometimes commit suicide because of poor working conditions.  But I still buy an IPhone.  I do not change my IPhone every year....but I still have one.   So too with my car.  It is 1999 vintage, which is sort of virtuous, but on the other hand it is not an electric car, and so it still contributes more to global warming than a electric car would, which in turn contributes more than just walking would.

Also sometimes in Saito's book things are described in a way that makes them seem bad; but maybe they are, in a way, good.  For example, she discusses how "today's economy is referred to as 'experience economy'" and how businesses are expected to go beyond selling goods and services to selling an experience.  For example, when buying an Apple product you are also buying the experience of an Apple Store.  (147)  It is even seen as problematic that someone who goes to a place called "The Rainforest CafĂ©" has all five senses engaged.  But isn't this exactly what Dewey was calling for in his Art as Experience and what Arnold Berleant is still calling for in his writings, and what Saito herself calls for from time to time?  Is the problem here that the experience is being packaged by a company and is not created by self and friends in a DIY manner?   

Actually I really hate some total experiences some corporate stores and malls provide for me, but that just might be closely associated with my own snobbery: my intellectual caste taste-group has rejected these things, and so do I.  Saito mentions how a bookstore found that the aroma and taste of coffee go well with selling books. (148)  Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  Over the years I have spent many a charming hour in now-fast-disappearing coffeehouse/bookstores.  This is a product (sometimes the coffee, sometimes the books) I willingly buy.  Should I feel guilty about this?  Does this make me hopelessly non-environmentalist? 

Terry Eagleton takes a strong position on this:  Saito quotes him as saying that there is aestheticization that saturates the entire culture of late capitalism "with its fetishism of style and surface, its culture of hedonism and technique, its reifying of the signifier and displacement of discursive meaning with random intensities."  (148)  Well, that is the culture we live in, and I agree that sometimes we really need to escape all of this.   But we (that is most of the intellectual caste I belong to) still live deeply immersed in this world most of the time.  Have we sunk into something like the realm of sin?  Or are we just choosing our own pleasures within this world of hedonism (e.g. choosing to consume MSNBC and not FOX news)? 

Saito quotes Berleant as complaining about "the ubiquity of canned music in public spaces" as a particularly "flagrant aesthetic-moral intrusion....psychologically manipulating moods to promote vulnerability."  Sure, I hate canned music too, but isn't this a matter of poor targeting that may actually be rectified in the near future?  How would Berleant feel if instead of the awful stuff he has to listen to now he would get his own bit of well-recorded Bach to listen to as he picks through shirts at Macy's, knowing full well that the trucker next to him is listening to Country Western?  We used to complain about boom-boxes in the 70s.  But, guess what, they (almost) all disappeared, replaced by ear buds.  To see a boom-box now is to almost have an experience of nostalgia.

Saito says "While it is possible to adopt a distanced and disinterested attitude toward [negative aesthetic qualities such as hideous, offensive, malodorus], as in seeing the junkyard for its interesting combination of colors and texture....it is crucial that these negative qualities be experienced as negative in the context of the world-making project."  (214) The problem I have with this is that it assumes a realist stance with respect to negative qualities, as though an omniscient God would be able to see minus signs next to all of the bad things with all of their bad qualities.  And yet aren't negative qualities, as with all experienced qualities, a function of interaction between perceiver and perceived?   Dewey would say so.  Can sense be really made of really experiencing negative qualities as negative?   In the 1960s the neighborhood in San Francisco called the Fillmore was considered blighted, and all urban design experts agreed that it would be better for all, including the residents, that it be torn down.  They were realists about urban blight, but they were wrong.  (I wouldn't say that they were wrong in a realist sense but rather that they were wrong in being realists rather than pragmatists in the first place, and that their wrongness led to bad consequences.)  What they saw as a pit of moral decay others saw as a vibrant African American community.  Today, we consider the destruction of the Fillmore to have been a major aesthetic and moral mistake.  Doesn't it make more sense to just say that we and our taste cohort think it a good idea to eliminate what we perceive to be negatively aesthetic phenomena?  And shouldn't we set aside our self-assured realism and take into account how others would feel about our actions of urban improvement? After all, urban designers really should have followed the golden rule when it came to the mostly black folk who lived in that neighborhood. 

Saito asks, in a rhetorically fashion, "How else are we going to detect something is amiss or wrong with the artifacts with which we interact, our environment, or social engagement?"  (214)  I think that the question is far from having been  answered., and far from having an obvious answer.  I do not think we can assume that finding negative qualities is like finding coins on a beach.  They are not "really there" in the same way that those coins are.  What we have to do is engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree.  To be fair, Saito herself does this to great effect in chapter "The Aesthetics of Wind Farms" which I think has the sense of ethical complexity and nuance that seems lacking when she discusses the thick context vs. thin context issue in Chapter 6.

It is in Chapter 6 that she happily quotes Berleant who complains about the "bland anonymity of suburban housing tracts...sitcoms....pulp novels" and so forth.  But this just, again, sounds like urban elite taste.   Much of the history of recent aesthetic theory has been involved with giving recognition to these things, which are generally called the popular arts.  I recently saw a photograph of the tacky houses of Daly City which made them come alive as objects of wonder.  Whether or not something is aesthetically negative depends on situation and context.

Saito says that "So, the legitimacy of my environmentally informed aesthetic response to green lawns and laundry-hanging, one could argue, is context dependent, and we have much to gain from recognizing the value of aesthetic experience unencumbered b the life values associated with the object."  (203)  I agree, except I would ask "life values associated by whom with the object"?  She goes on "The important point ...is that we cannot make an indiscriminate case for or against one kind of aesthetic appreciation of everyday objects with out values or disvalues.  A further consideration is needed to determine the appropriateness of a certain kind of judgment in a particular context." (203)  I fully endorse this approach.





  















Friday, May 4, 2018

The Aesthetics of Washing Dishes

I have been reading Yuriko Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  She has a great chapter there on the aesthetics of laundry.  I can relate more to the aesthetics of doing dishes.  So here is my current thinking about this.  My question is:  to what extent is the proper attitude to doing dishes mindfulness?  I want to do a kind of phenomenology of dishwashing.

I go back and forth on mindfulness.  What happens when I try to be mindful (as I do) when cleaning the kitchen.  I am aware of the ugliness of the dirty dishes and do not try to take a Ziff like aesthetic attitude towards them.  I get to work washing.  So my awareness of the dirty dishes is one that has a certain directionality.  As you have taught, it is action oriented.  If I was just mindful of my dirty dishes as dirty dishes I think this would not lead me to action.  But the directionality is towards the positive.  Negative aesthetics is only important if is directed to positive outcomes.  (probably an overgeneralization...but it seems apt here.)  I am also mindful of the process of my action, i.e. of cleaning and neatening.  It would be wrong of me (and less conducive to happiness) just to focus on getting the job done and over with.  I do not want my thoughts of the future (end of this process) to make the task itself less present.  That's the good way to interpret "be in the now."  But I also do not want to be totally in the now, for then I would miss out on the dynamic of the relation between the original situation, the process, and the goal.  Ideally I am aware both of the mess going away and of the orderliness coming in.  (Be in the now does not mean erase past and future.)  The end of the process is what Dewey would call a culmination.  I have had a low level example of "an experience."  The culmination however has no point if does not carry with it the process that led up to it.  Actually, the end moment, as I survey the neatened kitchen, although satisfying, is not actually more intense on the pleasure scale then any of the other moments, for example then the "now let's get to it and get this done" low level enthusiasm at the beginning, or the "let's focus on the natural rhythms of neatening" that gives pleasure to the medium moments. 

Another factor of this is that mindfulness can either be aesthetic or non-aesthetic.  Aesthetic mindfulness is attentive to aesthetic properties.  These emerge between objectivity and subjectivity.  But some may be believe that aesthetic properties are not real, for example because the subject him or herself is not real.  In that case it might be wrong or considered distracting or part of Monkey mind to attend to aesthetic properties:  in mindfulness you erase the thus and thus erase the aesthetic since the aesthetic always requires the self.  This kind of mindfulness is anti-aesthetic.  it might involve being aware of the oily feel of the plate but not of the unpleasantness of the oily feel of the plate.  My thought here is that the mindfulness I want to achieve is not Buddhist mindfulness if Buddhist mindfulness is the non-aesthetic sort I have just described.