Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Augustine on God and Aesthetic Atheism

Augustine has an interestingly ambiguous attitude towards aesthetics.  At one point he writes:  "But what do I love, when I love Thee? not beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracements of flesh. None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God." The Confessions of Saint Augustine  tr. E. B. Pusey (Edward Bouverie) 

From the perspective the aesthetic atheist, the list of things Augustine gives that he does not love when he loves God is precisely what he projects onto God and what he really, in a way, loves after all, except transformed now --- made extraordinary. The aesthetic life which focuses on such things as varied songs, wonderful food, and positive sexual encounters, provides the preliminary material for this transformation.  These sensuous things are just made internal and unchanging in the imagined transformation.   And this is what is meant by "God": when the ordinary things of aesthetic life become extraordinary..or at least that is a non-traditional way of reading Augustine that works for the aesthetic atheist.  

I ran across this passage recently while reading All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Free Press, 2011)  They give another translation:  "When I love [God], it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace, but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self."  (117, R. S. Pine-Coffin translation, 1961) )  Could it be that "inner self," here, really means what is experienced when we experience these things as having another dimension, as having aura?  Could it be that seeing the "inner domain" as something literal is a displacement of seeing the beautifies of voice, perfume, good, embrace and so forth in a way that treats them as if eternal?  Can one, in short, reincorporate the vision of Augustine via this rereading into something post-theological?

Dreyfus and Kelly speak of Augustine as trying unsuccessfully to synthesize the ladder of love in Plato and the vision of Jesus, but perhaps in a way that goes beyond Plato.  They write: "what Augustine loves and longs for is not something abstract and eternal, but something that has a delicious fragrance and that he wishes to eat."  (115)  Augustine, when he is converted to Christianity says to God "You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor.  I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you."  (115)  That is, as we said above, he interprets his experience of God in sensuous terms.  Dreyfus and Kelly see this as "the kind of sensuous experience of agape love that one would expect from an early Christian, an experience that takes seriously Jesus' incarnation and the importance of His bodily presence in one's salvation."  (115)  Given that, to aesthetic atheists, the notion of bodily presence of a man who once lived but no longer does (Jesus) does not make sense, although his imagined bodily presence does.  The sense that can be made must be that the intense religious experience described here is one based on an intensification and transformation of embodied aesthetic experience fictionalized into the imagined living-again body of Jesus.  This is a powerful aesthetic experience, one that gives meaning to the lives of many, and perhaps to be recommended over Plato's abstract non-embodied "Beauty itself" found at the top of the ladder of love.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A neglected major insight in aesthetics: Roger Seamon on the Conceptual Dimension of Art

I was recently asked by a friend to serve on a jury to decide the best published articles in aesthetics of the previous year.  I froze. Making these lists is not something I normally do and reading a large number of articles in diverse sub-fields of aesthetics does not seem like a pleasant task.  If I had complied I probably would have just sent in some names of articles by people I admire who are working in fields that currently interest me....hardly objective. Sometimes on the other hand I have a compulsive need to look again at articles written several years ago.  It seems like I understood better what was going on back in 2001 and benefit some from hindsight as well.  This retrospective sort of reading is interesting to me in a self-reflective way as well since my current take on these things is quite different, judging by the nature of the comments I wrote in the margins when I originally read the article. 

I just reread Roger Seamon's "The Conceptual Dimension in Art and the Modern Theory of Artistic Value"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:2 (2001) 139-151.  It only has about five citations in Google Scholar and yet it is a fine piece and an excellent answer to the dominant view of the time, Arthur Danto's theory of art.  It seemed then that the implication of Duchamp's readymades and the more current conceptual art movement was that the value of works of art lies in their meanings rather than in their perceptual effect. Seamon's response to conceptual art was, in my view, much more reasonable.  He wrote:  "Conceptual art... does not force us to rethink completely the nature of art.  It can, however, help us to become self-conscious about the presence of a conceptual dimension in traditional works of art" (139-140): he calls this a deflationary proposal.  He also observes that a similar "overreaction and subsequent normalization" occurred before in the history of art when mimetic art lost favor.  

Seamon's approach to the various competing theories in the history of aesthetics is particularly valuable.  He says that  "the mimetic, expressive, and formal theories of art were eventually transformed into...'dimension,' that is, different kinds of aesthetic value rather than competing essentialist conceptions of art."  The conceptual, on his view, does the same.  This leads to his view that there has therefore been "progress toward a consensus in the theory of art." Moreover, he firms up his claim by arguing convincingly that conceptual art cultivates a dimension of art that was already there in previous art, i.e. in allegory.  Her also argues that drawing conceptual implications (through the imagination) contributes to the value of a work of art.  Conceptual art involves this kind of imaginative thinking, although unlike traditional allegory, the implied meanings are often indeterminate.  Duchamp's shovel is a gesture which is "understood to be saying something by implication" this implication being relatively open.  Danto saw all art in terms of the conceptual dimension of art, but his idea of art as essentially metaphorical and metaphor as involving a filling in of a gap by the audience through imaginative inference applies, Seamon thinks, to the mimetic, expressive and formal dimensions of art as well.  So he concludes that "the conceptual must take its place with them in the modern theory of artistic value."  (145)  Seamon also observes that when a work is weak in one of these dimensions we often feel a need to fill in the missing dimension.  He finds that "interpreters normally attach a conceptual dimension to works that are themselves aesthetic, i.e., perceptual, and whose value has been independently established on that ground, thus filling in a missing band in the spectrum of artistic evaluation":  we should follow critics in recognizing the four dimensions of art.

The only thing I would disagree with is his apparent agreement with the view that perceptual features are completely irrelevant in conceptual art.  His "dimension" view should go against this. Binkley had argued that when you look at Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q.  you learn nothing of artistic consequence that you wouldn't get from the description.  Seamon observes that Tim Binkley was arguing against the validity of the entire aesthetic tradition and, although he does not accept this, agrees that conceptual art is "not grounded in appearances." (Binkley's article was "Piece Contra Aesthetics," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1977) 265-277.  I disagree that simply reading a description of one of Duchamp's readymades is sufficient to get it.  Duchamp made these things and displayed them for a reason!  The conceptual element is dominant, but the perceptual element is not absent!  I do not just want to read about Duchamp's thoughts about his readymades: that does not make him interesting as an artist.  Much more interesting is looking at images of the readymades in a book about them, or seeing them in a show.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

everyday awe

There has been a lot of interest recently among psychologists concerning the concept of awe.  So what is the response of the aesthetician?  One immediately thinks of the concept of the sublime, and it is certainly the case that things that are sublime cause us to experience awe.  However, the sublime, going back to Burke's understanding of it, incorporates not only awe, but also delight.  The dictionary defines "awe" as "overwhelming wonder, admiration, respect, or dread."  There doesn't seem to be a delight component required here, although wonder, admiration and respect might each of them have their own associated positive affects.  I can't imagine dread ever having a positive affect component.  But this may be because of my non-religious nature.  I find in dictionary.com that the "current sense of 'dread mixed with veneration' is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being."  Veneration can have a positive affect component, and any dread that a believer has towards God must be combined with some positive affect, love, for example -- otherwise why "believe in" or worship God?  If awe is defined however as simply a combination of fear and surprise then it could only be part of aesthetics in the way ugliness is.....unless of course the surprise aspect contains within it a delight aspect.  Also, psychologists have observed that when people describe experiences of awe they are usually positive.   
I got started on this because my friend Russell Quacchia told me to read article in the New York Times, "Why do we experience awe?"  by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, May 24, 2015 Sunday Review.  Piff and Keltner associate awe with goose bumps in the first paragraph, which is a bit puzzling to me since one can experience awe without goose bumps and probably (although I don't have a good example) even goose bumps without awe.  More important however is that they give an evolutionary account of the experience of awe: awe motivates people to do community building things. Their list of community-building things draws the attention of the aesthetician.  They include: "collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship."  All of these communal-type events have strong aesthetic components.  So perhaps awe is one of the important aesthetic phenomena.  (Again, this would situate it as somewhat broader than the sublime.)   Some might balk at this mixture of the aesthetic and the religious. However, in tribal societies the arts (music, dance, etc.) and ritual are not clearly distinguished.  So, the distinction may be relatively recent in human evolution.  I am not happy with making these boundaries more porous.  In earlier posts on aesthetic atheism I have argued for incorporation of religious experience under the aesthetic.  

Another aspect of this of interest to the aesthetician is that the psychologists associate awe with shifting focus from narrow self-interest to community well-being. Evolutionary aestheticians have often seen art as something that brings communities together, thus giving them an adaptive advantage.  Awe, and whatever gives rise to awe, might then be adaptive in this sense.

The actual psychological studies used to support this claim seem somewhat odd:  the authors have found that people who record experiencing awe when looking at blue gum eucalyptus trees are more likely to help a stranger pick up some dropped pens. Apparently there is a correlation between experiences of awe and helping strangers. It is not clear, however, how this is community-building since strangers are, by definition, not part of one's community, although helping a stranger is one way of bringing that person into one's community, at least in a tangential and short-lived way.  But it is not clear how this form of altruism (stranger altruism) could be adaptive. 

But all of this relates to the broader issue of the relation between aesthetics and ethics.  If everyday awe is closely associated with ethics (in its stranger altrusim form) then there is a stronger relation between the two then we have thought.  Well, eighteenth century philosophers, for instance Schiller, thought that sensitivity to beauty made one more moral.  So perhaps this is a continuation of that tradition.  

Piff and Keltner say that in one experiment "participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to" a designated stranger.  Maybe this can be generalized. In more common sense terms, experiences of awe might make one feel more expansive and less driven by satisfy immediate personal needs. 

The last part of Piff and Keltner's article is also of interest.  They suggest that our culture is awe-deprived in that we spend more time working and less time outdoors and with others.  We are missing the camping trips and the starry heavens of our youth.  Kant said that two things impressed him:  the moral law within and the starry heavens above.  Piff and Keltner are arguing that the two are deeply connected, that in experiencing awe while looking at the starry heavens we are more inclined to follow the moral law within.  Kant, of course, thought we should follow the moral law out of duty, not inclination....or at least, that this is more admirable.  Sure, but he also found a connection between beauty and morality in his Critique of Judgment.  

Piff and Keltner then extend their critique of our society to a decline in attendance at arts events.  This one is questionable since I have seen other statistics that indicate increases in museum attendance.  Much of this talk about decline in attendance may be associated more with the decline we are seeing in "high art" venues, for example classical music concerts, classical forms of dance, theater, etc. Popular art forms probably see no such decline.  But, as the authors observed, in the U.S. there has been a decline in funding for arts programs in the schools.  So, maybe all of this is an argument for more camping trips and more school arts funding, and I am all for that.

The authors conclude that "awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift ...over the last 50 years:  People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected with others."  It is hard to measure this, and one would have to be careful in defining the key terms.  It does somewhat fit a characterization I have seen of millennials, that they are autonomous, entitled, imaginative, self-absorbed, defensive, abrasive, myopic, unfocused and indifferent  (Managing the Millennials  by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, Craig Rusch. 2010 35-36.)  

In any case, the upshot of this, if true, is that aesthetics, including everyday aesthetics, may be a lot more important for our cultural survival then we seem to currently believe.  "To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind or water or the quotidian nobility of others...."   Promoting this might be an important goal for everyday aesthetics.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Is aesthetics necessary for art?

It is often argued that art is not necessarily aesthetic by way of using conceptual art as the counterexample to the aesthetic thesis. A typical argument is that Duchamp's readymades are art and yet Duchamp himself insisted that they have no aesthetic properties, therefore aesthetic properties are not necessary for art.  (One article I am thinking of here is by Christy Mag Uidhir and Cameron Buckner "Portrait of the Artist as an Aesthetic Expert." in Aesthetics and The Sciences of the Mind Oxford, 2014)  One way to address this is to argue that the readymades are not art. However, for the purposes of my comment, I'll assume that they are art.  So the point I want to make is that readymades are art and that one of the things that makes them art is their aesthetic nature.  Duchamp himself said that "Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided" at least according to Arthur Danto.  Does that prove the contrary point?  The role of "delectation" may qualify the quote somewhat: the danger may be in delectation, not in the aesthetic as such.  The term "delectation" comes from the 14th century for delight and enjoyment.  However, it seems to serve an ironic purpose, since "for your delight" would be more efficient than "for your delectation."  Delectation is something highfalutin. 

In any case, let us consider some alternative ways to approach a readymade aesthetically, ways that do not focus overmuch on delight or any fancy sort of savory implied by "delectation."  The key might be in the definition of "aesthetic experience."  Here's a definition from Levinson, quoted in Sherri Irvin's "Is Aesthetic Experience Possible."  It says "Aesthetic experience is experience involving aesthetic perception of some object, grounded in aesthetic attention to the object, and in which there is a positive hedonic, affective or evaluative response to the perception itself or the content of that perception."  (Aesthetics and the Sciences of the Mind, 37)   Aside from the problem that the term "aesthetic" is not actually defined here (maybe Levinson defines it elsewhere) the definition leaves open how to distinguish those positive hedonic, affective or evaluative responses to perceptions or their contents that are aesthetic from those that are not.  My definition of the aesthetic in terms of aura (as set forth in my book) requires that the aesthetic experience be one of heightened significance in which the object seems more alive or real.  Agreeing with Levinson, it should also be a positive hedonic, affective or evaluative response to perceptions or their contents.  So, on this account, we do not have to have delectation to responds aesthetically to Duchamp's readymades.  When such objects are appropriately perceived, i.e. in this case as art objects or at the very minimum as aesthetically interesting objects, they have aura.  They have a power of fascination, not just in terms of finding the concept fascinating, but in finding the object itself so.  They are placed in museums with the expectation that they can be perceived aesthetically. 

Danto could be said to have argued that something is art if it is seen as and experienced as art by someone having appropriate art historical knowledge.  (He never put his definition in this way, but this is a likely interpretation.)  He also thought it must have some aspect which can only be seen in terms of the "is" of representation, by which he really meant (I admit I am reading this into him) that the object must be perceived as having heightened reality. We cannot but see Fountain aesthetically on my view if we see it under the appropriate concept of art.  "This is Fountain" where the "is" is the "is" designated by Danto makes it not only art but also aesthetic.  Fountain has the aura of "seen, quite surprisingly, as art."  (Heightened significance can be achieved by the tension of something being on one level a paradigm under its prime concept and on another as an outlier or even excluded from the extension of the concept.) In presenting it to the world in the way he did Duchamp gives it this aura.  So how can it not be aesthetic?

I think we philosophers too often forget that readymades are presented for aesthetic consideration.  Consider the following point from Steven Goldsmith: "The formal principle behind the readymade is far from revolutionary and harkens back to Kant's notion of disinterestedness. Wrench a common object from its functional environment, eliminate its potential for practical use, set it upon a stand like objects traditionally devoted to aesthetic scrutiny, and the formal design previously obscured in the object is thrown into the forefront of consideration. Without the film of familiarity that hinders us from seeing beyond its' function, a urinal can become a highly polished, gleaming artwork that combines masculine piping with rounded feminine curves-not unlike the androgenous figures created by Henry Moore."  "The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,  42: 2 (1983): 197-208.  Goldsmith's actual thesis aside, the point I want to make is that in displaying the urinal as art Duchamp was setting his objects on the stand, not perhaps for aesthetic delectation, but to be experienced as with aura.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nature, Communication, Meaning and the Aesthetics: Dewey's Experience and Nature

There is a deep connection between meaning, communication and aesthetics.  One can see Dewey's chapter on "Nature, Communication and Meaning" in his book Experience and Nature, as suggesting what this can be.  (This discussion will be limited to the abridged version of this chapter to be found in Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy edited by John Stuhr.) The idea that meaning is a function of cooperative behavior as well as response to a thing as entering into behavior sets up the basis for all communication which is aesthetic in nature, including those forms of communication involved in the arts.  Further, there is a dimension of the everyday in Dewey's comment that "a directly enjoyed thing adds to itself meaning, and enjoyment is thereby idealized."  He goes on:  "Even the dumb pang of an ache achieves a significant existence which can be designated and descanted upon; it ceases to be merely oppressive and becomes important....because it becomes representative..."  This heightening of significance of the dumb pang takes it beyond the strictly ordinary into some other domain...not quite aesthetic, but getting there.  To understand the aesthetic we need to understand the vast range of human experience that is not aesthetic but provides the grounds or basis for aesthetic experience.

Any aesthetic relation to the surrounding environment or to a particular object will have the multivalent quality Dewey has described in terms of relation between object, person communicating and person communicated to.  Dewey describes it in this way:  "The meaning of signs ...always includes something common between persons and an object.  When we attribute meaning to the speaker as his intent, and also something, we take for granted another person who is to share in the execution of the intent, and also something, independent of the persons concerned, through which the intent is realized."  Meaning is a "community of partaking" between these three things.

Dewey goes on to discuss tools and the ways in which they can help us to project potential efficiencies.  Fire, for example, when it is used to cook is "an existence having meaning and potential essence."  This is especially true when fire is the result of actions used to generate it.  This is going to be the basis for any thought of the world as containing aesthetic objects and experiences. 

Dewey then refers to language as the tool of tools and in doing so refers back to the ways in which tools take on meaning in ceremony and institutional setting.  "The notoriously conventionalized and traditional character of primitive utensils and their attendant symbolizations demonstrates" that tools are used in this way.  For a stick to retain its meaning as a lever, "the relationship between it and its consequence" must be distinguished and retained, and this is effected through language.  Spears, urns, etc. may be "institutionalized as tools."   Further "communication is a condition of consciousness," which means that aesthetic experience, which is a form of consciousness, would be impossible without communication.  

The issue concerning aesthetics which Dewey raises for me in this writing is whether we can even speak of aesthetics separate from meaning.  It seems that aesthetic experience is not only experience where the sensuous and formal are prominent but also the contextual and meaningful.  It too has to be triadic.  The aesthetic insofar as it is related to art is also related to tools.  Artworks must be artifacts.  Tools have meaning.  They are items of everyday life with their own relatively primitive yet art-like in some ways aesthetic dimension.   This is what I have tried to described as "heightened significance" of the aesthetic.

Dewey argues that it follows that "every meaning is generic or universal" in the sense that it is "common between speaker, hearer and the things to which speech refers" and is also "a method of action, a way of using things as means to a shared consummation..."  In sum, "meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretations being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence" ... clearly a pragmatist notion of meaning.  Here he opposes the traditional Aristotelian notion of meaning and of generalization as arising out of comparison of particulars.  Rather, he sees generalization as spontaneously carried as far as it will go, as when a child uses a word as much as she can in new ways, and only then is it limited by conditions of use in a social context.  Thus meaning and generalization is like metaphor in being promiscuous in interpretation, at least at first.  

The picture I get out of Dewey is that of a first layer or level of meaning that provides a basis for our understanding of higher, more complex levels of meaning that can be called aesthetic.  So, for example, he speaks of a traffic policeman using his whistle, and that this action is more than just a stimulus of the moment, but is situated within a set of consequences in terms of coordinating movement and even in terms of fines and imprisonment if one fails to respond.  The essence of the whistle blow is "the rule, comprehensive and persisting, the standardized habit, of social interaction" for which the whistle is used.  This is not aesthetic, nor is it art.  But it does provide the basis for other actions and events which do have a distinctly aesthetic character.

It is not surprising then that when Dewey goes on to discuss fire he sees it phenomenologically as something "not merely physical" but entering "into human action and destiny."  At this moment there is an aesthetic dimension, but at the level of everyday aesthetics, not at the level of art aesthetics.  He writes that fire "enters experience; it is fascinating to watch swirling flames; it is important to avoid its dangers and to utilize its beneficial potencies."  The fascination aspect of this experience of fire is aesthetic.  He goes on: "the ultimate meaning, or essence, denominated fire, is the consequence of certain natural events within the scheme of human activities, in the experience of social intercourse, the hearth and domestic alter, shared comfort, working metals, rapid transit, and other such affairs."  Fire is deep and rich with meaning, for example as something that can have such aesthetic or quasi-aesthetic qualities as giving shared comfort along with personal or family based associations of the hearth and alter and more practical and business-related associations involving metals and transit.  This. of course, is distinguished from the scientific approach to fire which ignores such meanings in order to enhance control.

Dewey, however, is concerned about our current "sharp separation between meanings determined in terms of the causal relationship of things and meanings in terms of human association" where the latter are seen as unimportant or merely private.  At the same time, he gives credit to the sciences, and to mathematics in particular, for disconnecting themselves from "human situations and consequences" and freeing themselves from the moral and the aesthetic in order to achieve what they achieve.  Here, in the science/math perspective, the essence of something is entirely intellectual without any implications with regards to consummatory experience.  The problem is that in doing this it becomes instrumental by way of detaching itself from the things towards which it is instrumental, i.e. valuable experience.  

Of course science can be not only instrumental but also aesthetic itself, or as he puts it, an object of intrinsic delight.  This is true also for philosophy (although it is hard to see philosophy as instrumental.) To be frank, this is a personal thing as much as a general point:  Dewey obviously loves doing philosophy.  And, in fact, this is true for me too.  Doing philosophy, one might say, is part of my everyday aesthetic experience.  As Dewey rightly says,  "Few would philosophize if philosophical discourse did not have its own inhering fascination."  But, as he also observes, this is not the goal of philosophy or of science or math, which relates rather to the function of their subject matters.  

At this point in the chapter Dewey turns to art and religion.  (One senses that he turns away from math with some relief.)  This forms a culmination of his discussion of communication:  "Letters, poetry, song, the drama, fiction, history, biography, engaging in rites and ceremonies hallowed by time and rich with the sense of the countless multitudes that share them, are also modes of discourse that, detached from immediate instrumental consequences...are ends for most persons."  Discourse becomes both instrumental and final here.  Further, as Matthew Arnold held, poetry (standing for art in general) is a criticism of life insofar as it "fixes those standards of enjoyment and appreciation with which other things are compared" and sets us on a path of action both for individual and community.  The "staple objects of enjoyment," including not only the arts but also recreation, amusement and ceremony, do the most to "determine the current direction of ideas and endeavors in the community" by which life is judged.   

So, in the end, communication in its highest form is both instrumental and final, giving us both a world of meaning and one in which there are objects valuable to the individual and the community. This second form, the final purpose of communication, is ultimately aesthetic:  it is "a sharing whereby meanings are enhanced, deepened and solidified in the sense of communion" -- and the resultant objects are "worthy of awe, admiration, and loyal appreciation" as they are means to making life "rich and varied in meanings."  As ends they free man from isolation into a realm of shared meaning.  

Dewey concludes (after one of his typical blasts against the social conditions of our times):  "When the instrumental and final functions of communication live together in experience, there exists an intelligence which is the method and reward of the common life, and a society worthy to command affection, admiration and loyalty."  So, a chapter which addresses the nature of communication and meaning ends with a vision of an ideal society in which the arts, in the broadest possible sense of that term, are both means conducive to a great society and ends in themselves. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Aesthetics as a Core Sub-discipline of Philosophy, argued from Dewey’s “Experience and Philosophic Method”



This summary and discussion is based on the abridged selection of the first chapter John Dewey’s Experience and Nature, “Experience and Philosophical Method,” which is found in John Stuhr’s Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy.  The main thesis of my discussion is that if Dewey is right (and I think he is) then (1) aesthetics is a core subdiscipline of philosophy ranking up there with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics, and (2) the fact that aesthetics does not have this role is due to the various fallacies Dewey uncovers in the philosophic tradition prior to pragmatism.  This has implications not only for aesthetics but for our culture in general insofar as its assumptions are to a large extent those of traditional philosophy.  The irony of the essay, but not a negative one, is that it is a turn to a philosophic method modeled after the methods of science which proves the point.  Taking experience as the central concept, and primary experience as the starting point, both science and the value-related disciplines of ethics and aesthetics, penetrate reality.   



Many would question associating the terms “experience” and “naturalism” in what Dewey calls "naturalistic empiricism," experience being too unimportant in nature, and nature being complete apart from experience.  Some even hold that experience is a veil that shuts us off from nature, unless it can be transcended by something like reason or intuition.  An opposite school of thought sees nature as mechanistic.  On this view, seeing experience in naturalistic terms would be to deny ideal values associated with experience. 



One cannot argue against these positions, but perhaps we can change the way we see the meanings of these terms.  Nature and experience do work harmoniously together when experience is seen as the only method for knowing nature, and nature, so disclosed, “deepens, enriches and directs the further development of experience.”  (460)  (The philosophical theories Dewey opposes, going back to Descartes and his treatment of the piece of wax, denudes nature of richness, taking away all of the sensuous and associated qualities from the piece of wax.  Dewey seeks to return us to the primary experience of the wax.  He is deeply anti-Cartesian in this respect.)  In the natural sciences the union of nature and experience is seen as natural:  empirical method is required for genuine science.  Reason, calculation, and theory must terminate in experienced subject-matter which itself is the same for the scientist and the ordinary man, i.e. the same rocks, stars, and animals.  This indicates that experience is not just a thin layer of nature but penetrates deep into it, bringing things up from these depths. 



Some would argue that since experience comes late in evolution it has slight significance.  It is true that it occurs only in specialized conditions in highly organized creatures.  But, when it happens, it allows access to portions of nature.  For example, a geologist living now can tell us of things that happened millions of years ago.  He or she may determine that something we see now is a fossil through collation of observations and through comparison of data, translating “observed coexistences into non-observed inferred sequences.”  The geologist also predicts experiences and brings them about, producing in experiment what he or she has inferred.  (401)



So, experience is not only in nature but of nature.  Things interacting are experienced.  Some would say that a tiny part of nature cannot incorporate its vast reaches.  Well, to answer this, we just have to study experience.  And when we do, we find that science itself would not exist if experience did not penetrate nature.  In natural science we typically treat experience as a starting point, a method, and a goal, the goal being discovery of nature.  Also, with respect to the idealist objection that mechanism trashes our values and ideals, note that experience actually presents aesthetic and moral traits which then, we may suppose, reach down into nature as much as do mechanical structures.  The traits of such subject matters are as genuine as those of the sun and the electron (462) and “their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature” as those found by physics.



Dewey then tells us that Experience and Nature will seek to discover the “general features of experienced things and to interpret their significance.”  He calls the empirical method he is describing “denotative method.”   Non-empirical methods in philosophy fail “to use refined, secondary products” as pointing back to primary experience.  These methods exhibit three problems.  First, there is no verification.  Second, “the things of ordinary experience do not get enlargement and enrichment of meaning” in the way they do in science.  Third, the subject matter of philosophy is, in them, arbitrary and abstract in the sense of being without contact with ordinary experience.  Since the objects philosophers reach using these so-called “rational” methods are seen as supremely real, the question is raised why ordinary objects exist at all.  This does not happen in the natural sciences!  They don’t turn the subject-matter into a problem.  Rather “they become means of control, of enlarged use and enjoyment of ordinary things.” (Note the reference here to the enhancement of aesthetics of everyday life reached, somewhat surprisingly, by way of scientific method.)  If they generate new problems these are of the same sort and may be resolved by the same methods.



So we now have a test of philosophy’s value:  “Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful?”  (463). (We may infer that a philosophical theory in which aesthetic theory is on the periphery fails in this respect.)  In illustrating the meaning of empirical method we must recognize that the term “experience” means not only what men do, suffer, strive for, love, believe, and endure, but how they do all these things -- the processes of experiencing.  Within experience, there is no division between act and material or between subject and object.  “Life” and “history” are equally double-barreled, in James’s sense.  Life is only broken into external conditions and internal structures through reflection.  History, similarly, is both the deeds and the interpretation of those deeds.  Only empirical method of this sort can do justice to the integrity of “experience.”  It must get together again what has been torn apart. 



Why is the whole distinguished into subject and object?  The non-empirical method begins with subject and object as separate, and so wonders how an outer world can affect and inner mind, or how the mind can penetrate the world.  It makes the fact of knowledge unnatural.  It becomes either materialist or idealist.  (464)  The naturalistic empiricist, however, finds these distinctions only useful up to a point.  Holding the physical in temporary detachment from the psychological does lead to tools, technologies, and mechanisms which can better regulate our lives.    



The history of the physical sciences is that of the possession of tools for dealing with life and action.  But ignoring the connection with life makes the world seem indifferent to human interests.  It can then be a source of oppression.  When objects are isolated from that “through which they are reached and in which they function,” experience is reduced to experiencing as complete in itself or as experiencing only itself.  The conception of experience as “subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly as physical objects” is destructive to philosophy itself.



It is true that attitudes themselves independently of their objects may be the subject-matter of reflective experience:  they cannot be the subject-matter of primary experience.  When they are not abstracted we get truths like this: that the person who hates finds the object of hatred obnoxious and despicable.   That is, the object experienced is experienced as obnoxious.  (This can also be inter-subjective or even "objective" to a degree:  we might agree that Jones is obnoxious and both experience him as such.)  It is true also that philosophy takes us away, at least temporarily, from primary experience. 

Philosophers tend to identify objects of knowledge with ultimately real objects.  For example, Spinoza held that emotion is confused thought and, when not confused, becomes cognition.  “That esthetic and moral experience reveal traits of real things as truly as does intellectual experience, that poetry may have a metaphysical import as well as science – is rarely affirmed” without some unacceptable mystical connotation. (465)  Actually, reverie and desire are relevant to philosophy, as are possibilities present to imagination.  This includes magic, myth, politics, painting and the ethical issues surrounding incarceration.  The social and political life are as important in the philosophical construction of reality as chemistry.



Also, ignorance should be studied as much as wisdom.  In general, whatever is actual is possible, and the occurrence of an illusion is not itself an illusion.  Most significantly, experience includes more than what is currently known, and, whereas knowledge needs to include only the distinct and explicit, the vague and the obscure also exist.  There are reasons for liking the distinct and evident, but the dark, the potential and the possible are also there.  So we cannot assume that nature is all distinct or explicit as do those who divide it from experience.



So, the great vice of philosophy is “intellectualism,” i.e. the assumption that “all experiencing is a mode of knowing” and that all subject-matters may be reduced to the terms of science.  Intellectualism goes against the facts of experience.  Things are to be acted on and enjoyed even more than to be known.  Indeed, if you isolate as real only the aspects of things that are known then you exclude “the characters which make things lovable and contemptible, beautiful and ugly, adorable and awful.”  This is why the valuable in things is considered a problem in philosophy.



Actually, thought and knowledge are subordinate to these other things.  The problem is that when real objects are identified with the objects of knowledge then things related to feeling and willing are relegated to an isolated mind, and the self becomes an alien in the world.  This favoring of the cognitive over desire, action, and passion, is a case of the “principle of selective emphasis.” Yes, we need selective emphasis to think, but in ordinary life and in science we do this for a purpose and do not deny what is left out.  (467)  In philosophy, it is ignored that what is left out is as real as what is chosen.  Philosophy assumes, wrongly, that the qualities of poetry and friendship aren’t as clearly real as those of matter.  People naturally take what is most valuable to them to be the most real.  This is OK in everyday life, but philosophers tend to become rigid in focusing on what is dear to them as “real.”  Philosophical simplifications are due to choice in the sense of concern for the good.  Philosophers then transfer what they find good into “fixed traits of real Being.”  Ultimately we can explain these choices in social-economic terns since philosophers belong to a leisure class, and hence they convert what they find most interesting into reality. 



Traditional philosophies have gone astray because of their failure to connect their results with “the affairs of everyday primary experience.”  The three sources of fallacies mentioned are (1) complete separation of subject and object, (2) exaggeration “of features of known objects at the expense of the qualities of objects of enjoyment and trouble, friendship and human association, art and industry,” and (3) the isolation of results of selective emphasis.  Non-empirical philosophies are still of some value simply because they do not escape experience even when they want to, and insofar as philosophers have been reflective and are not given to indulging unchecked imagination in their theories. 
They have simply “failed to note the empirical needs that generate their problems” or “return the refined products back to the context of actual experience” where the “full content of meaning” is found, as well as the original impulse for inquiry.



Dewey nonetheless sees the chapters that follow in his book at drawing on the great philosophic systems as “guides back to the subject-matter of crude, everyday experience.”  When we look at primary experience we find it crammed with things that need analysis and control.  Its deficiency (commonsense philosophy is crude, conventional and prejudiced) gives rise to secondary or reflective experience.  The problem with most contemporary philosophy is rather that it borrows its conclusions from special analysis, especially the popular sciences of the day. Descartes and Spinoza, for example, drew their ideas from geometry.  And the problem with this is that, whereas in science “refined methods justify themselves by opening up new fields of subject matter for exploration” and modify theory and ways of inquiry based on new facts, in philosophy this leads to explaining away features of gross experience based on theory.  (I am reminded of Norman Malcolm whose Wittgensteinian behaviorism led him to deny the very existence of dreams.)  So philosophers when transferring into their theories refined conclusions borrowed from the sciences do so just to discredit old subject-matters and “to generate new and artificial problems” regarding the reality and nature of gross experience.  For example, the findings of physical science are used to make the reality of emotions, purposes and enjoyments in question.  



In sum:  “What empirical method exacts of philosophy is two things:  First, that refined methods and products be traced back to their origin in primary experience, in all its heterogeneity and fullness” acknowledging the problems out of which they arise and secondly, that things be “brought back to the things of ordinary experience” for verification.  Just as science gives us a result that is a “designation of a method to be followed and a prediction of what will be found when specified observations are set on foot,” so too should philosophy. 



Philosophy may also provide this special service of studying life-experience, experience which has been “overlaid and saturated with the products of reflection of past generations.” Thus philosophy, in this regard, is a “critique of prejudices.”  Yet these results of past reflection may, if referred back again to primary experience by way of further reflection, may become “organs of enrichment” rather than sources of distortion.  So empirical philosophy is a matter of divesting ourselves of “intellectual habits” or vestments of culture, looking at them, and perhaps putting them back on so as to achieve a “cultivated naiveté” by way of reflective thought. 



In conclusion, the “larger human value of philosophy” is to overcome the cloud cast over “the things of ordinary experience” i.e. the things of action, affection and social intercourse, by traditional non-empirical philosophies.  Thus these things do not get “the intelligent direction they so much need.”  It is serious that philosophers have denied “that common experience is capable of developing from within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will create inherent standards of judgment and value.”  Much of current cynicism and pessimism results from this.  Contrary to the false sophisticates, “life is or can be a fountain of cheer and happiness” and we must overcome the philosophical tendency to “obscure the potentialities of daily experience for joy and for self-regulation.”  In short: we should promote “a respect for concrete human experience and its potentialities.”




Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Dewey on Experience, Nature and the Aesthetic in "Experience and Philosophic Method."

In Experience and Nature Dewey writes "If experience actually presents esthetic and moral traits, then these traits may also be supposed to reach down into nature [as do traits observed by science] and to testify to something that belongs to nature as truly as does the mechanical structure attributed to it in physical science."  He further says, "The traits possessed by the subject-matters of experience are as genuine as the characteristics of sun and electron...when found, their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature as are the traits found by physical inquiry."   I suspect that this point is true, and if it is then the arts, which explore these traits in ways that the sciences cannot, have equal validity to the sciences. This would make aesthetics, which studies the arts and aesthetic experience generally, fundamental to philosophy.    

Dewey further writes "just as long as these attitudes [e.g. acts of thinking, desire, purposing, affection, reverie] are not distinguished and abstracted [from experience], they are incorporated into subject-matter.  It is a notorious fact that the one who hates finds the one hated an obnoxious and despicable character;  to the lover his adored one is full of intrinsically delightful and wonderful qualities."  (12)  So one wonders, what about this is moral and what is aesthetic value?  I find it increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.  The aesthetic dimension is to be found in the fact that the object is perceived and in the fact that it has an affective element, in particular in the case of "obnoxious" a negative feel, and in the case of "delightful" a positive one.  

Another quote which is to the point:  "That esthetic and moral experience reveal traits of real things as truly as does intellectual experience, that poetry may have a metaphysical import as well as science, is rarely affirmed, and when it is asserted, the asserted, the statement is likely to be meant in some mystical or esoteric sense rather than in a straightforward everyday sense."  (19)  and  "The features of objects reached by scientific or reflective experiencing are important, but so are all the phenomena of magic, myth, politics, painting, and penitentiaries."  (20)

What, for me, is of greatest value in the first chapter of Experience and Nature, is the way in which Dewey provides a pragmatist philosophical basis for placing aesthetics and aesthetic experience at the very center of philosophy.  He says that the empirical method requires that "refined methods and products be traced back to their origin in primary experience, in all its heterogeneity and fullness; so that the needs and problems of which they arise and which they have to satisfy be acknowledged."  Primary experience is just experience aesthetically, as opposed to mechanistically, encountered...encountered in a way in which heterogeneity and fullness are stressed.  His second point is that "the secondary methods and conclusions be brought back to the things of ordinary experience, in all their coarseness and crudity, for verification."  Dewey is calling on philosophers to ground their thinking in everyday life.  

I will conclude with a passage that parallels some of the thrust of interest in everyday aesthetics as it relates to these larger issues of philosophical method: "The most serious indictment to be brought against non-empirical philosophies is that they have cast a cloud over the things of ordinary experience.  They have not been content to rectify them.  They have discredited them at large." (38)  These things, the things of everyday life, need not rejection but "intelligent direction."  In his democratic manner he argues that "philosophies have denied that common experience is capable of developing from within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will creates inherent standards of judgment and value."  In particular he rails against some philosophers (in this case "transcendental philosophers"...here I would disagree with him since Emerson would count as such) have "probably done more than the professed sensualist and materialist to obscure the potentialities of daily experience for joy and for self-regulation."  It is creation of a "respect for concrete human experience and its potentialities" that has been his goal in this first chapter of his book.