Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Kant Critique of Judgment #23 transition from estimating the beautiful to estimating the sublime

One has to think through the strangeness of Kant's concept of the sublime.  #23 is particularly strange.   The overall structure of #23 is (1) similarities of the beautiful and sublime, (2) differences between the two, for example the beautiful having to do with form and limitation, the sublime with limitlessness and also totality, the beautiful with representation of quality, the sublime with quantity (3) another difference being beauty associated with furtherance of life compatible with charms and playful imagination, wheras the sublime is associated with a momentary check of feelings of life followed by a more powerful discharge, and so not playful or compatible with charms, (4) the most important difference, that beauty seems pre-adapted to our power of judgment whereas the sublime seems ill adapted to the faculty of imagination and presentation, (5) the object of nature is not sublime since the sublime cannot be contained in sensuous form, (6) nature on the analogy of art vs. nature as chaotic and wild which excites the ideas of the sublime, (7) inducing a feeling in our selves of a finality quite independent of nature.   

The strangeness is that #23 could be read as, if not atheistic, at least humanist in a way that would be shocking to traditional Christian thought.  Offhand, one would think that talk of the sublime would lead to thoughts of God.  Clearly, for Kant, thoughts of beauty lead to thoughts of God.  But, at least in #23, not the sublime.  (There are other chapters which seem to go in the other direction.  But here we focus just on #23.)  It just seems strange to any reader today that the sublime would not include objects of nature.  "Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime." (Creed translation)  And what is required to make it sublime?  Kant says "Its [the ocean's] aspect is horrible, and one must have stored one's mind in advance with a rich stock of ideas, if such an intuition is to raise it to the pitch of a feeling which is itself sublime."  The feeling is sublime, Kant tells us, because the mind here abandons sensibility and employs "itself upon ideas involving higher finality" which hear seems to refer to "ideas of reason" as mentioned in a previous sentence.   Perhaps what is suggested is that the ocean becomes sublime if we ramp up the feeling with associated ideas that direct us to God, immortality and the soul i.e. ideas of reason.

But then in the next paragraph we learn that natural beauty is associated with a finality in which nature is regarded on the analogy to art (i.e. with God as the artist) and "profound inquiries as to the possibility of such a form."  This is CONTRASTED to the sublime where we move from principles to chaos and wildness and irregular disorder and desolation "provided it gives signs of magnitude and power" (concession to God?).  So this makes the sublime (since not really indicating God in the way that the beautiful does), and giving "no indication of anything final in nature itself" i.e. God-like, makes it "less important and rich in consequences than" beauty. 

But it isn't treated as less important, since we now find that it finds something final "only in the possible employment of our intuitions of it in inducing a feeling in our own selves of a finality quite independent of nature."  That is, it shows us as having our own purposes independent of nature, AND OF ITS AUTHOR.  "For the beautiful in nature we must seek a ground external to ourselves [i.e. God], but for the sublime one merely in ourselves..."  This idea "entirely separates the ideas of the sublime from that of a finality of nature..." which is to say that the sublime has to do with us.  This is a humanist doctrine.  

It should not be forgotten that the analogy to art is emphasized by way of the idea that the principle of the laws of nature "is not to be found within the range of our entire faculty of understanding" and that nature is is not just some "aimless mechanism: but should be regarded as large art so that the notion of nature as mere mechanism is "enlarged to the conception of nature as art" and that this, the beauty of nature, is what leads us to "profound inquiries."  

The concluding sentence is also a puzzle.  The ideas of the sublime are separated from the idea of a "finality of nature" i.e. in the mind of God and this because :it does not give a representation of any particular form in nature."  Rather it involves "no more than the development of a final employment by the imagination of its own representation" which is a pretty mysterious thing to say.  He seems to be saying that the sublime involves developing one's own imagination in representing itself?

Some other thoughts.
1.  The sublime seems to be working contrary to the beautiful, going in the opposite direction.
2.   Is there some connection between Kant's fascination with grotesque furniture and jungle scenes and his interest here in disorder and chaos?
3.  It is interesting that Kant associates the beautiful here with charms and play of imagination, but not the sublime, given that he is so negative about charms elsewhere. 
4.  Isn't it strange that the sublime with is associated with Ideas of Reason is also associated with chaos?  And then also associated not with God the designer but with our own internal capacities of imagination?  Isn't there some incoherence here?


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Roger Fry and everyday aesthetics?

Roger Fry's famous "An Essay in Aesthetics" has been so much read over the last nearly one hundred years that we seem to think we already know what is there.   That is, Fry is simply an advocate of Formalism.  Indeed, most people simply lump him in with Clive Bell.  I would like to suggest a different reading here, one that might shed some light on possibilities for the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics.  Fry begins with a strong distinction between actual life and imaginative life.  In the latter "the
whole consciousness may be focused upon the perceptive and the
emotional aspects of the experience."  This allows us "in the
imaginative life, a different set of values, and a different kind of
perception."   The movies represent the imaginative life in that the action-response is cut off:  "we see a runaway horse and cart, we do not have to think either of getting out of the way or heroically interposing ourselves."  As a result, we see more clearly "a number of quite interesting
but irrelevant things, which in real life could not struggle into our
consciousness, bent, as it would be, entirely upon the problem of our
appropriate reaction." 

Now it would seem that this would indicate detachment from everyday life, that, for example, this attitude (sometimes called the aesthetic attitude) is quite the opposite of the attitude of life.  But I would argue that everyday life has two aspects, and that one aspect is precisely the part that comes up when we take the aesthetic, as opposed to the practical, attitude.  Where I would disagree with Fry here is simply over the rigidity of the distinction.  There are gradations of attention between the totally practical and the aesthetic, and most of our lives is more in the grey area between these poles.  More accurately, we tend to shift along this continuum, back and forth.   I agree that we notice things on the movie screen that we might not notice if looking in daily life.  But then again, if in daily life, we shift a little to the aesthetic side, we might very well notice those things.

Fry's next example is particularly intriguing.   "A somewhat similar effect to that of the cinematograph can be obtained by watching a mirror in which a street scene is reflected. If we look at the street itself we are almost sure to adjust ourselves in some way to its actual existence. We recognize an acquaintance, and wonder why he looks so dejected this morning, or become interested in a new fashion in hats--the moment we do that the spell is broken, we are reacting to life itself in however slight a degree, but, in the mirror, it is easier to abstract ourselves completely, and look upon the changing scene as a whole."

Note how Fry rather inappropriately identifies "actual existence" with becoming "interested in a new fashion in hats," as though being aesthetically interested in hats has nothing to do with imaginative existence.  Actually "being interested" is a form of imaginative perception, and one that exists in the above-mentioned grey area.  It is not purely aesthetic, but then again, not purely practical either.  Even the wonder at the dejected air of an acquaintance does not fall totally outside the imaginative domain.  Wonder is something very different from mere practical activity.

Although I am not completely on board with Fry, I do think something of interest is happening here.  He goes on:  "It [seeing in a mirror] then, at once, takes on the visionary quality, and we become true spectators, not selecting what we will see, but seeing everything equally, and thereby we come to notice a number of appearances and relations of appearances, which would have escaped our vision before, owing to that perpetual economizing by selection of what impressions we will assimilate, which in life we perform by unconscious processes." I think something like that does in fact happen sometimes when looking in mirrors or when looking into the image at the back of a camera or through binoculars.

To go on:  "The frame of the mirror then, does, to some extent, turn the reflected scene from one that belongs to our actual life into one that belongs rather to the imaginative life. The frame of the mirror makes its surface into a very rudimentary work of art, since it helps us to attain to the artistic vision. For that is what, as you will already have guessed, I have been coming to all this time, namely that the work of art is intimately connected with the secondary imaginative life, which all men live to a greater or lesser extent."

The idea here that the surface of a mirror is made into "a very rudimentary work of art since it helps us to attain to the artistic vision" is very interesting.  Fry is posing that there is a "secondary imaginative life" and that art is connected with that.  Thus on his view there is a continuity between art and life.  After all, we "live to a greater or lesser extent" in this imaginative world.  Life is not just practical or "actual" life.   The aesthetics of everyday life begins to take on life when it approaches art, when everyday life is scene as framed, as partaking in "artistic vision."  This is what I have called "the extraordinary in the ordinary."

This leads to Fry's definition of art:  "Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action."  What is interesting about this definition is that it extends art beyond its normal bounds insofar as it is tied very closely to "imaginative life."  At the same time, it also seems clear that Fry is not extending art so far as to include all aspects of imaginative life:  it expresses it and stimulates it, but arguable is not it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Schopenhauer on Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

For me the most puzzling thing about Schopenhauer is his idea that the Platonic Ideas are the highest objectification of the underlying Will which is ultimately irrational.  Hard to see Platonic Ideas as irrational or as expressing something irrational.  Schopenhauer of course admitted that he did not intend by Platonic Ideas the same as Plato himself.  Things get more interesting when it becomes clear that Schopenhauer's "Platonic Ideas" are really a lot like Kant's "aesthetic ideas."  Let's back up and think about what Schopenhauer might mean by "Platonic Ideas."  Remarkably he says they are perceptual.  (Plato would never accept that!).  Keep in mind that the Platonic Ideas (I will only mean Schopenhauer's Platonic Ideas here, not Plato's) have the same name as concepts.  But concepts are rigid things that can be completely given in their definitions.  Platonic Ideas are organic wholes and can be realized or expressed in different ways.  Again, this makes them like Kant's "aesthetic ideas."  Its helpful to think about how these are supposed to work in architecture.   The essence of architecture involves expressing the Platonic Ideas of rigidity, light, and so forth.  This seems about right for a lot of architecture and certainly fits great modernist architects like Hahn, Le Corbusier and Ando.

My favorite quote on the Idea is that it "develops in him who has grasped it representations that are new as regards the concepts of the same name;  it is like a living organism, developing itself and endowed with generative force, which brings forth that which was not previously put into it."  (80 in Continental Aesthetics ed. Kearney and Rasmussen).  Schopenhauer, unlike Plato, makes a big distinction between ideas and concepts.  He writes "just because the Idea is and remains perceptive, the artist is not conscious in abstracto of the intention and aim of his work"  (80)   Plato and Kant both believed that the artist could not describe his/her intention and aim, although Kant is closer to Schopenhauer on this point.    For Schopenhauer, the artist is not able to do this since he works "from feeling and unconsciously, indeed instinctively" and again, "only the genius...is like the organic body that assimilates, transforms and produces."  This seems far from the idea that the genius is someone who accurately perceives the ideal and unchanging Forms.  Instead of being a rigid activity this is very much an activity of life. 

This leads me to be suggest that Schopenhauer can be an inspiration for everyday aesthetics in a very particular way.  The relationship between the genius and his materials is very like that of the everyday aesthete, i.e. someone who pays closest attention to everyday life and its essential nature.  This would explain Schopenhauer's approach to the works of the Dutch painters.  His rejection of allegory goes hand in hand with his downplaying of Concepts as opposed to the same-named Ideas.  Schopenhauer's attack on concepts  reminds us of Nietzsche's attack on the columbarium of ideas in his essay on Truth.  No surprise since N. was very much under the influence of S at that time.  "Only the genuine works that are drawn directly from nature and life remain eternally young and strong, like nature and life itself."  (80) 

"a great injustice is done to the eminent painters of the Dutch school, when their technical skill alone is esteemed, and in other respects they are looked down on with distain, because they generally depict objects from everyday life....We should ...bear in mind that the inward significance of an action is quite different from the outward... The inward significance is the depth of insight into the idea of mankind which it discloses, in that it brings to light sides of that Idea which rarely appear.  This it does by causing individualities, expressing themselves distinctly and decidedly, to unfold their peculiar characteristics, by means of appropriately arranged circumstances."  (78)  There is something other than what we normally think of as Platonic Ideas as play here.  First, we have the notion of "sides of an Idea which rarely appear."  Second, we value individualities expressing themselves and their peculiar characteristics, through an "unfolding."  Since aesthetic perception of Ideas is perceptual it is a matter of seeing the inward significance (for or in relation to Mankind) of individual things.  The Platonic ideas are brought down to earth not in an Aristotelian way but in a way strangely like Nietzsche.

There might be an interesting relation between Schopenhauer and Object-Oriented Ontology.  Of course Schopenhauer makes a radical distinction between humans and non-humans:  he does not accept a flat ontology as I do and as OOO does.  But he does believe in speculative realism (the underlying Will is real).  Unlike Kant's thing-in-itself Schopenhauer's underlying reality is pretty much the same as nature itself.  So I do not think he is guilty of what OOO theorists call co-relationism.  

It is still a puzzle to me why genius artist would somehow escape the irrational Will by focusing on its objectifications.

It would be easy enough to write off Schopenhauer with respect to everyday aesthetics.  His glorification of the genius and attack on the common man seems itself to be contrary to any concern for the everyday.  He writes of the genius as engaging in "constant search for new objects worthy of contemplation" (55) whereas the "common mortal...entirely filled and satisfied by the common present, is absorbed in it, and, finding everywhere his like, has that special ease and comfort in daily life which is denied to the man of genius."  This reminds me of the contrast between the aesthetician of everyday life who stresses the extraordinary and the one who stresses comfort in daily life.

Although it is also hard to take Schopenhauer seriously in his acceptance of the notion that the Ideas are eternal, bear in mind also an important modification of the notion that the Ideas are perceptual.  For he adds that the genius needs to supplement perception with imagination:  it extends "the horizon far beyond the reality of his personal experience, and enable[s] him to construct all the rest out of the little that has come into his own actual apperception" (55)  This allows him to "let almost all the possible scenes of life pass by within himself."  Imagination allows the genius to go beyond what he actually sees to what nature tried to form. 

Still, the pragmatist too gives credit to imagination.  Instead of speaking of the imagination as providing us with access to the perfect form, we speak of imagination of enhancing the object as experienced.  There is a perfection here too. 

And there are points at which the two positions seem closer.  The everyday aesthete does linger on the object of contemplation much like the Schopenhauerian genius.  "the ordinary man does not linger longer over the mere perception, does not fix his eye on an object for long, but, in everything that presents itself to him, quickly looks merely for the concept under which it is to be brought, just as the lazy man looks for a chair, which then no longer interests him."  (55)  It is this sort of quick easy classification that the everyday aesthete avoids.   "Whereas to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp that light his path, to the man of genius it is the sun the reveals the world."   (56)  The genius is considering "life itself." 

Another point of connection is in the notion of aesthetics as unified.  Whereas many aestheticians of everyday life see aesthetics as disunified I have argued for continuity.  Schopenhauer writes that since the Idea remains essentially the same in the work of art as in that which it represents "aesthetic pleasure is essentially one and the same, whether it be called forth by a work of art, or directly by the contemplation of nature and of life."  (59) 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Kant and Everyday Aesthetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, December 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodman's implicit definition of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, November 15, 2018

The necessary aesthetic dimension of epistemology: Plato's Theaetetus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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