Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pretty and Nice



Constance Garnett and her son David, 1890s

I appear to be the only person in philosophy writing on the pretty these days. My earlier take on it can be seen in Volume 10 on Contemporary Aesthetics, 2012, "Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of the Pretty" here and also in "Pretty" in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2nd Ed., ed. Michael Kelly (Oxford U. Press, 2014). From time to time however I see a comment or passage that sheds new light on the concept.  

Janet Malcolm in "Socks," The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2016, 43:11 4-6, writes fascinatingly about problems in translating Russian literature.  Part of this involves comparing translations of passages from Tolstoy.  The passage I am interested in is from Anna Karenina chapter 8 of book 3.  It refers to how a character, Dolly, had changed her approach to dressing up over the years.  The Garnett translation says that "in the old days she had dressed for her own sake to look pretty and be admired," and that later she found this unpleasant because she was losing her looks, but now "she did not dress for her own sake, not for the sake of her own beauty, but simply so that as the mother of those exquisite creatures she might not spoil the general effect" and thus she could be satisfied with herself in the mirror:  "she looked nice.  Not nice as she would have wished to look nice in the old days at a ball, but nice for the object she now had in view."  I find this a useful for discussing the different uses of such English words as "nice" and "pretty."  I assume that the distinction represents a similar conceptual distinction in Russian.   In both languages, and generally, one can be pretty or look nice in one sense and not in another.  The word "beauty" plays a role here too, but somewhat subordinated to the other two.  Malcolm also gives us the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which she finds inferior.  It uses "pretty" in the last sentences where Garnett used "nice."  Malcolm then observes that the Russian words are krasiyaya which means beautiful or pretty and khorosha which means good or fine. (I could not find either one of these words on any online Russian to English dictionaries...so I will take her word for it for now.)  She thinks that Garnett's "she looked nice" "conveys the sense of the passage as no other translator of Anna Karenina into English, and better than "she was pretty."  She even goes so far as to say that it is an inspired translation.  By that I take it she means that "nice" captures the meaning of khorosha here better than the standard English translations of good or fine.


Sometimes one dresses to enhance one's own beauty, but sometimes just to look nice in order to, as Garnett's translation puts it, not to spoil "the general effect."  Sometimes one can look nice in the sense that one looks right for the occasion or "looks good" for this context.   There is also a form of "pretty" that is relative in this way.  This relates to the English distinction not between the beautiful and the pretty but between the beautiful and that which looks nice or good.  


Appropriately a photograph of Garnett with her son David from the mid-1990s accompanies the article, and she looks good in precisely that sense!  


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Philosophy as Aesthetic

I just read Sarah A. Mattice's very nice Metaphor and Metaphilosophy:  Philosophy as Combat, Play, and Aesthetic Experience.  Lexington Books, 2014.   Mattice makes the good point that there are many ways to think about   philosophy based on different kinds of metaphor.  The original intuition goes back to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's groundbreaking work on metaphor in 1980, Metaphors We Live By.  For me, this is familiar territory since my dissertation of 1983 was largely on this topic. Mattice talks about philosophy as combat, as play and as aesthetic experience.  As a feminist, she is not happy with the combat metaphor:  defending one's position, marshaling one's forces, attacking the opponent, etc.  She is also somewhat critical of the play metaphor, although she considers different ways in which it may be effective.  She clearly favors the last of the three metaphors, philosophy as aesthetic.  I find the most value in that chapter and will discuss it briefly here.  One nice feature of the book is that it is an example of Comparative Philosophy.  It draws as much from Chinese sources as from Western ones.  One advantage of this approach may be to give added emphasis to aesthetics where it is no longer peripheral to philosophical studies. As Li Zehou notes, and Mattice quotes, "an aesthetic consciousness is the highest consciousness to be attained in human life" (84), a claim that might not be made by many Western aestheticians, although perhaps by such aesthetes as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater.  It is quite possible that Chinese philosophy provides a broader approach to aesthetics than we usually get in Western philosophy, for example in the notion, developed by David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames that, as Mattice puts it, early Chinese thought stresses what they call "aesthetic order"  which is "characterized by the 'emergence of a complex whole by virtue of the insistent particularity of constituent details.'"  She further observes, "systems of aesthetic order place a great deal of emphasis on relationships between constituent elements and sensitivity to change."  In aesthetic order, the different elements are not exchangeable.  (85)  

In seeing philosophical activity as aesthetic experience, Mattice does not just apply a Western theory such as that of Bullough or Dewey to philosophy, but rather enhances Western theory, supplementing it with aspects of Chinese aesthetic theory. Thus she begins with a Bullough-inspired theory of aesthetic distance but then brings in Chinese notions of aesthetic distance which emphasize such ideas as harmony, whereas Bullough's take on distance is more tensional. 

Of particular note is a similarly enhanced notion of creativity, where, influenced by Chinese aesthetics, she argues that "creativity is a special kind of imitation, where imitation is understood not as mimicry or copying, but rather as a participation with, a partaking of, or a drawing from reality.  When we imitate we begin from what is already present, from our lived experiences and our cultural heritage....then...we make it our own."  (98)  The idea of understanding creativity in terms of imitation is new.  At first it is counter-intuitive, but, from a Chinese perspective, it begins to make sense.  Drawing from Eliot Deutsch's Essays on the Nature of Art, she quotes that creativity is "precisely an intensification and exploration of one's involvement with some one or more aspects or dimensions of reality" and thus holds that creativity is "intense imitation and transformation of what is into a work of art" {Mattice 98).   

One result of this fusion of Western and Chinese is an idea of aesthetic experience in terms of "harmonious relationship between artist, work, and participant," which of course is also an idea important to John Dewey's pragmatist aesthetics, as Mattice is aware.  So, and drawing from Gadamer's idea of questions, she asserts that "the aesthetic experience metaphor, with regards to distance, shows us a vision of philosophical activity as requiring a certain effort of balance between the impersonal and the personal on behalf of the one asking the question and developing it and one engaging it."  (109)  So the idea is to see someone like Plato as an artist who is examining a certain question, for example what is justice?  

Mattice thinks the introduction of the idea of Distance allows superiority of the aesthetic to the play metaphor:  "Distance requires that those engaged with the work maintain a minimum of distance  they are neither overwhelmed by their own affairs nor subsumed into the work.  Distance as a condition is the establishment of space for self-reflexivity; as a continual return to the negotiation between the personal and the impersonal, distance requires us to pay careful attention to ourselves and to the question."(115-116).   So she sees the aesthetic metaphor as both responding to the challenges of the combat metaphor and incorporating aspects of the play metaphor without its disadvantages.  Dewey of course developed much of this with his idea that philosophical thinking is essentially aesthetic.  The idea, then, applied to philosophy, is that "each solution is provisional, and can always be returned to and revised" (116).  This seems a core notion that we must always keep in mind when thinking about philosophy.  

An important aspect of Mattice's feminist approach to philosophy as aesthetic is the stress she places on the notion of "care."  We have already seen this application in ethics, for example in the work of my SJSU colleague Rita Manning.  Here it is applied both to aesthetics and to philosophy itself.  As Mattice says, using the concept of love as caring here, "another important element of aesthetic oppositionality is loving consciousness, a kind of compassion directed at the others (and the works) with whom one is engaged. An attitude of loving consciousness is one that recognized the call of another to be appreciated and understood, and that situates her in a relational context...This loving attitude is directed to the other in and of herself, tries to let her speak for herself, and appreciates that she will always exceed my understanding and conception of her."  (119)

I am almost wholly in favor of Mattice's approach.  The only modification would in my view would be to argue for cycling between the three metaphors.  The combat metaphor does have its place and should not just be subsumed under the aesthetic metaphor.  Still, it is the aesthetic metaphor that has been neglected. Philosophy really is a lot closer to art than most philosophers prior to Mattice have been willing to argue.  

  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What can aesthetics, and philosophy generally, learn from Husserl's phenomenology?

It is difficult to answer this question just by looking at the works of Husserl himself, somewhat easier with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and even with Sartre.  But let's give it a shot.   You can learn from anyone.  Yet the main things we can learn from Husserl need to all be "under interpretation," and an interpretation that he and his orthodox followers would not accept.  For example, yes we should "get back to the things themselves," and this means phenomena, i.e. the things and events in our experienced world as we experience them.  Start with experience.  This is a good philosophical rule, although I would like to allow this to include the experience of reading/thinking: experience does not have to be outside the library. Start from experience: this is the same call that is made by the American pragmatists, and that is a plus.  

Further, we can agree that philosophy involves description of experience, and even, shocking for some, that the aim of philosophical inquiry is intuition of essences.  However, unlike Husserl, the essences intuited are not eternal and unchanging.  (I have much to say about such essences in other writings, but will at least suggest my position here).  Essences are not universals in the traditional sense:  indeed they are individuals of a sort.  They even have local color, i.e. when one intuits an essence, say the essence of art, there is an experience involved that is not purely mental, that has a sensuous aspect.  Essences are patterns in the field of experience, very specific patterns notable for their generative power and their, at least at some point in their careers, infectiousness.  

It follows that, contra Husserl, and indeed, most other philosophers, with the possible exception of Heidegger, I hold that the difference between philosophy and poetry is not very great.  For example it is not true that philosophy just deals with universals and poetry just with particulars.  Rather, the essences that are perceived and described both in philosophy and in poetry have two aspects: a particular aspect and a universal aspect.  Both philosophy and poetry attempt to achieve understanding through metaphors, except that in philosophy the metaphors are not always seen as such, and do not operate quite the way metaphors do in poetry.  (Often the metaphors can be identified as key concepts in the definition, concepts which are best not understood in a dictionary definition way.)  Intuition of essences is also not purely subjective, but neither is it purely objective:  the subjective/objective distinction collapses here, both in philosophy and in poetry. 

Essences are real as intentional objects of phenomenological or philosophical (the same thing) inquiry, but are constituted as they are intuited.  That is, the discovery of them is also a making.  The distinction between concept and reality to which the concept refers dissolves in the intuition and description of essences.  Thus, doing something, for example Duchamp buying and displaying a urinal, can be a revelation and a constitution of essence even without language involved (also in Duchamp's case language is involved....that is almost inescapable.) Essences are patterns in experienced that are to some extent actualized by their definition, and the elaboration of this definition is further actualization.  

Again, I agree with Husserl that a kind of bracketing is needed for phenomenological insight, but the result is more like what Kant saw as disinterested aesthetic experience, the essences being more like what Kant saw as aesthetic ideas.  Both Kant and Husserl said that we should not think about the existence of the thing, except Kant talks about this in relation to aesthetic experience, i.e. experience of beauty, and Husserl in relation to phenomenological description.  The point here is that they are really talking about the same thing.  Phenomenological bracketing is aesthetic in Kant's sense.  

The intuition of essences does not give us, contra Husserl, anything unconditionally or absolutely true or necessary  (it gives us, in Kant's language, aesthetic ideas, not ideas of reason), but it does give us something which is as if such.  It is important that this experience of "as if absolute" or "as if necessary" is not just a mistake.  It is what gives meaning to existence.  

Bracketing needs to be seen as a number of different kinds of operations, all of which can be useful, none of which absolutely necessary.  The brackets can be around various things in order to achieve various results.  Different kinds of bracketing sets the brackets at different places.  For example, you can look at the world as if it were all a dream, and this can be useful in trying to achieve intuition of essences, since a pattern may emerge that would not if one always operated under practical assumptions about distinction between illusion and reality.  You can bracket out the non-formal properties and only bracket in the formal ones, or you can bracket out formal ones and only bracket in the non-formal ones that have to do, for example, with social context.  Toggling between the two, or even cycling between these perspectives and others, can usually bring better, more realistic results than sticking just with one.  

Husserl's claim that philosophy advances no theories is only true on one level, i.e. that true philosophy is not going to result in something eternal and unchanging.  However, it is not true on another level: for the result of any description of any intuited essence is a theory. That's what philosophical theories really are. (I make no claims here about scientific or mathematical theories.)  As Morris Weitz taught us (his great largely unrecognized philosophical discovery), you have a theory of e.g. art if you have an honorific definition of art, but an honorific definition of art is not a theory of art in the sense of a definition in terms of unchanging necessary and sufficient conditions, and all attempts to define art in terms of that are really just theories of art in the honorific sense.  I would only add that such honorific definitions if powerful or sound are based on an intuition of the essence of art and a description of that intuition.  The openness of art as an open concept requires definition and re-definition...the very creative process of art requires it. This goes across the board for all philosophical concepts and all of the essences that philosophy attempts to describe.  

Husserl also worried, according to Robert Solomon, whose essay "What is Phenomenology?" (Phenomenology and Existentialism ed. Robert C. Solomon, Littlefield, 1980, I am mainly thinking about here) that theories "always assert more than their data" (4). and this has no place in philosophy.  It is true that honorific definitions always assert something more than the data by itself permits, for honorific definitions prescribe as well as describe:  they look to the future and not just to the present.  But then an intuition of an essence has little to do with data anyway.  Data can be collected, but the gestalt that is the essence intuited goes beyond the collected data.  It very superficial to think that one can just describe data and get anything that can be called knowledge.

Essences violate the distinction between the ideal and the real:  they are real in a sense and ideal in a sense:  they are quasi-ideal and quasi-real.  But the idea of trying to be "theory-free" in the way Husserl wanted has the advantage of not allowing ones previously learned or currently dominant theories, for example being a Marxist or an Analytic Philosopher, to prejudice the results of eidetic inquiry.  Solomon asserts that "presupposition-less" means that "any concept and any proposition can be reassessed at any point" but then that is just was philosophy is anyway and does not distinguish any one philosophical school from any other.  

Husserl attempts to find a middle path between dogmatic axiomatic systems of philosophy and relativist ones like those of Dilthey and Marx which claim that there is no philosophy outside of socio-political context.  This is wise but only as strategy not as the final story:  in the end there is no philosophy outside of context, and yet bracketing allows for the kind of close observation, observation under conditions, that, in turn, allows for successful intuition of essences, intuition that can be challenged, revised, and enhanced when the brackets are moved.  Relativism is true overall, but relativism is well set aside in the game of philosophy:  much credit needs to be given to the moment of intuition, the moment of creative philosophical thought (this kind of thought by the way is not limited by any means to philosophy as a professional discipline or even to philosophy as a practice going back in method to such heroes as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Confucius.)  

We can have our "demand for absolute truth" that Husserl wants, but only in the sense that we are talking about an experience of absoluteness or necessity that comes with intuition of essences, essences that are only as if absolute, necessary, eternal, etc.  Of course we then give up Husserl's naive assumption that we can have truths that will be taken as true in any intellectual environment.  The dream is not a waste however.  In trying to achieve the universal through our honorific definitions of the subjects of philosophical inquiry we bridge over boundaries and fuse horizons.  

I wholly support Husserl's attempt to avoid "philosophical theories in disguise."  Philosophy to be deep must be skeptical and radical. Solomon gives an enlightening example.  He writes that for Husserl "a description of consciousness is constantly endangered by the many metaphors and traditional philosophical theories that present an image of the mind as a mysterious container or stream...A philosophy that begins by taking these metaphors and theories seriously has, according to Husserl, based itself on presuppositions instead of pure description."  (4-5)  Rewriting this the way I want it:  a description of consciousness which involves insight into essences inevitably involves, when successful, an intuition of essence, which inevitably involves a metaphor.  The key is to recognizes that one metaphor is never enough and will never do forever.  It is also to remember that no metaphor is ever fully exhausted.  The best thing for philosophy to do is to take these metaphors as seriously as possible since they are the products of phenomenology, but not to take the tired, no-longer working metaphors as seriously as one once did.  Learning how to see something serious as un-serious is the bracketing move called satire or parody.   At the same time, one has to take one's powerful new metaphors seriously, at least for a time.  That is what phenomenological pure description is, contra Husserl, all about.

  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Existentialism and Everyday Aesthetics

I have been reading At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell (2016). At one point she defines what existentialists do.  Let's see how this can relate to everyday aesthetics (EA).  What I am going to suggest is that EA and existentialism, at least as described by Bakewell, are very close.  Although EA scholars often refer back to pragmatism, perhaps existentialism is also a source.  I know that in my own life, Sartre was a very early strong influence.  Dan Eugen Ratiu has recently been working on drawing connections with Gadamer and other phenomenologists.  Arnold Berleant has drawn from Merleau-Ponty, and I have recently written a post on Merleau-Ponty and everyday aesthetics.  Finally, many writers in EA reference Heidegger.  Turn now to Bakewell's definition.

1.  "Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence." (all of the points are on her page 34).  EA does too, except in relation to the aesthetic dimension of that existence, for example of a lunch had at a certain time and place. However, I do not think EA should be limited to human existence: there may be an aesthetic dimension to the existence of animals. Darwin said that the pea-hen experiences the peacock's feathers as beautiful. There is an aesthetic dimension to at least some other animals' individual concrete experience.  Existentialists make us too different from other animals:  but phenomenologically, we know human experience best, so the point is not that important.

2.  "They consider human existence different from the kind of being other things have.  Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free -"  As I mentioned above, other animals also choose, for example the pea-hen choosing her mate based on aesthetic features. We certainly have hypotheses about what is going on in the minds of particular animals, for example dogs, cats, elephants, and even octopi.  But sometimes, phenomenologically, we feel free, and that feeling seems authenticated by creative action, and often this is closely related to aesthetic experience and not just that aspect of experience related to choice.  To say this is true "every moment" is a bit much, however.

3.  "and therefore I am responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself."  Those aspects of experience which we label "feeling responsible" and "anxiety" are closely related both to positive and negative aesthetic experience.   If I feel generalized anxiety because I failed to make a phone call at the proper time and let some others down this colors my experience of the day, of my lunch, of my walk, of the trees I see on my walk.  It is part of the phenomenology of my life.  And if this can somehow be incorporated into a larger experience of harmony, or into poetry or tragic art, then it can have a positive aesthetic dimension too.

It is not part of EA to make claims about about I am actually responsible for: that's for ethics to determine.  And yet our lives are, as Dewey said, things of stories, and the stories are often couched in terms of responsibilities accepted and not.  The ethical dimension of life seems to be intertwined with the aesthetic.

4.  "On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors in my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown."  EA accepts all of that.

5.  "Despite the limitations, I always want more:  I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds."    Yes, and most of these projects have an aesthetic dimension.  For example, I have a project of caring for a dying relative, and this involves seeing her, conversing with her, touching her, all of which can count as what Dewey calls "an experience" and which in turn can have a pervasive quality:  that visit.  There are also life projects associated with self-definition, and these life projects color one's lived experience, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively.  Passion intensifies the experience.  For example, I can passionately define myself as a poet and many or most of my activities and experiences are related in some way to this self-definition.

6.  "Human existence is thus ambiguous:  at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating."  Yes, and this ambiguous quality can be negatively aesthetic when perceived as boxed in, and positively aesthetic when perceived in the latter way. It is also possible and common, as suggested above, for the two to mix, for the boxed in experience to make the transcendent experience possible, for example. 

7  "An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition, but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself."  It is amazing that such descriptions also often (usually?) describe everyday aesthetic phenomena.  Note for example, Bakewell's own phenomenological description of a cup of coffee on pg. 41...I will just quote the first line, although the entire quotation can be seen as exactly the same as a description in EA!  "this cup of coffee is a rich aroma, at once earthy and perfumed,;  it is the lazy movement of a curlicue of steam rising from its surface.  As I life it to my lips, it is a placidly shifting liquid...  It is an approaching warmth, then an intense dark flavour on my tongue..." 

The only problem with Bakewell's phenomenology is that she says "everything else to do with the bean-growing and the chemistry is hearsay...irrelevant to the phenomenologist."  No, that's a major mistake.  If I experience the coffee against the background of knowledge about how the beans grew, the chemistry, where the coffee is from, and so forth, this is another feature of the experience, and can add to the intensity of the aesthetic delight. Husserl's epoche is an interesting and sometimes helpful strategy, but brackets need to be seen as no more than that:  you can bracket the scientific knowledge out, or bracket it in, and to do both successively is to enhance the experience even more.   

It is also noteworthy that the description is almost identical to that of EA it nowhere mentions judgment, taste, or pleasure.  These are also aspects of the experience of coffee.  

8  "By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives."   But if describing experience well is describing EA phenomenologically then isn't a life devoted to EA a life that is more authentic?  Well that depends on the relation between EA and ethics!


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Scruton on poetry, truth, Heidegger and everyday aesthetics

Roger Scruton's "Poetry and Truth," in The Philosophy of Poetry (Oxford, 2015) ed. John Gibson (149-161) is one of the more interesting discussions of the topic, especially given that Scruton begins with a discussion of Heidegger's concept of poetry as "the founding of truth" which Scruton takes to be true! Scruton rightly takes "truth" to refer here not to evaluation of sentences in terms of truth value, so loved by Frege and friends, but in the sense of revelation, or as Heidegger would put it, unconcealment.  Poetry, according to Heidegger, is a bringing forth which is also a bestowing.  Scruton says that Heidegger is "attempting to gives a secular version of [a religious idea of revelation].  And by attributing the process of revelation to poetry - in other words, to a human product, in which meaning is both created by human beings and also 'bestowed' by them  he can be understood as advocating revelation without God."  (150)   In relation to my posts on aesthetic atheism, I like Scruton's idea, taken from Wagner's essay "Religion and Art," that "religions have all misunderstood their mission, wishing to propose as true stories what are in fact myths...that cannot be spelled out in literal language."  (150) and that "the meanings of the myths must be grasped through art, which shows us the concealed deep truth of our conditions, in dramatized and symbolic form."  He also mentions (as a more bleak view) Nietzsche's similar idea that we need art "so that we will not perish of the truth" i.e. that God is dead.  

For Scruton, "the heart of poetry is the poetic use of language" i.e. as distinct from everyday and scientific uses, a use that involves figures of speech that do not describe connections but make them in the mind of the reader.  He makes a strong distinction between the poetic and the prosaic use of language, the later being instrumental, having the property of aboutness, having an interest in truth as correspondence, and having substitutivity of equivalent terms. 

Scruton says that Keats in his "Ode to the Nightingale" "does not describe the bird and its song only:  he endows it with value. The nightingale shares in the beauty of its description, and is lifted out of the ordinary run of events, to appear as a small part of the meaning of the world."  I have argued elsewhere that Scruton originated the idea of the aesthetics of everyday life back in the 1970s, although, of course, the true grandfather of the movement was John Dewey.  Scruton has continued to make major contributions to the field, most notably in his book Beauty.  I have also argued that everyday aesthetics happens when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and that that often happens when everyday phenomena are seen with the eyes of the artist.  Scruton shows, through the Keats example, how poetry can make this happen.  As he puts it "poetry transfigures what it touches, so that it is revealed in another way" and the test is "truth" in something like Heidegger's sense.  Scruton understands the idea of poetry bestowing truth partly in this way: Eliot in Four Quartets "is looking for the sincere expression of a new experience, one that will remain true to its inner dynamic, and how what it is to live that experience in the self-awareness of a modern person.  He is looking for words that both capture the experience and lend themselves to sincere and committed use." (159)  Yet Eliot's idea may seem overly subjective. By contrast, Heidegger insists on an objective dimension in the grounding that poetry bestows. 

Scruton finds in Rilke's "Ninth Elegy" the source of Heidegger's thought, where the truth of the thing, e.g. the house, "is a truth bestowed in the experience." Further "Its measure is the depth with which these things can be taken into consciousness and made part of a life fully lived."  (160) So Scruton concludes that there is an inner truth to things, one bestowed by poetry, and that this inwardness is of our experience: "the fusing of a thing with its associations and life-significances in the poetic moment" (161) i.e. achievements that are "fruit of a life lived in full awareness."  

Over time, I have become a bigger and bigger fan of Scruton (don't like his politics):  he has the broad vision one might call wisdom and stands far above the usual in the realm of analytic aesthetics. Here is one final quote:   we question what is the meaning of a world that has come to this:  "The right answer is that answer that enables us to incorporate the things of this world into a fulfilled life.  For each individual object, each house, bridge, fountain, gate, or jug, there is such an answer.  And the poet is the one who provides it....His answer is true when it shows how just such a thing might be part of a fulfilled human life..."   

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Illogical nature of formal logic or the emperor has no clothes


Formal logic is based on modus ponens (A, if A then B, therefore B) in the sense that modus ponens is often considered the paradigmatic valid logical form.  However modus ponens begs the question, not just sometimes but always because of its form.  The whole idea of validity is to make a neat transition from A (the reason being offered) to B (the thing supported, i.e. the conclusion) by way of introducing an intervening premise, i.e. if A then B. However, you cannot support the move from A to B just by repeating it!  That is begging the question.  A typical strategy in argument analysis is to take a real world argument where someone offers A in support of B and then hypothesize an intervening non-stated premise to make it valid:  if A then B.  It is true that we give reasons in support of conclusions.  However, if others accept them it is not because of artificial question-begging intervening premises previously accepted, but because they believe A is sufficient reason for B. Modus Ponens is a sham, and it is the paradigm of argumentation in formal logic. So formal logic is a sham.  (Logicians might try to refute me by claiming that I have intervening premises.  I deny the intervening premises exist or are part or or needed for my own argument.)  

Of course one can have a notion of "valid" which simply means an argument in which the conclusion follows from the premises including all of the relevant evidence.  If B follows from A then the argument is valid.  No need to introduce "if A then B" to prove this or back it up!  It doesn't help. It is window-dressing. 

It may no longer make sense to speak of arguments that are valid and not sound.  How could A support the truth of B if A is not itself well supported or obviously true? 

Formal logic is useful in mathematics and computer science. However this has nothing to do with preserving truth.  The application of formal logic to issues in ethics, aesthetics and even science is pretty much nonsense.  

I do not claim that my argument against modus ponens is original. I seem to recall seeing something similar many years ago but cannot remember the source. 

De Sousa on two stances in philosophy

I have been reading The Philosophy of Poetry edited by John Gibson (Oxford, 2015).  Sometimes it is not the main point of an article that gets one thinking but something said almost as an aside. In "The Dense and the Transparent" Ronald de Sousa says that how reasonable it is to assume that philosophy must do things in language depends on one's stance on a "bifurcation in philosophy."  "On the one hand, the philosophical tradition has been associated with wisdom, and with the pursuit of insight into the nature of the human condition.  On the other hand, it has been associated with a method which puts argument at the centre of its pursuit of truth.  In this patter perspective, the central enterprise is the pursuit of truth, and philosophical truth is pretty much defined as what can be made, from raw material of experience, by reason and argument. We can't argue without language.  Philosophy remains essentially tied to language, at least in its 'analytic' incarnation."  (41)  Well, how much of this is true? Can't we have both, for example by eliminating certain features?   I would favor both wisdom and truth but not the view that philosophy is essentially tied to language if that means always or necessarily.  I get the feeling that de Sousa favors the analytic incarnation described but wishes to take the other version seriously.  I would reverse that myself, and in this I would be following Plato.  Sure, argument is at the center of philosophy, but argument only helps one move up "the line," get out of the cave, and up the ladder of love.  But this is only half the story of philosophy.  The point of philosophy for Plato, and I suppose for me in this instance, is in grasping the essences, and particularly in grasping Beauty itself which he also describes as the Good itself.  One uses arguments to refute hypotheses, but each of these refutations is just another step up the ladder.  Grasping Beauty or the Good itself is enlightenment:  this is a matter of having a method for grasping essence and for seeing the good or beauty in things, even in very particular things.  (Philosophical insight often involves argument as part of the process, often this argument taking the form of multiple arguments in back and forth debate, but then it can also come from repeated observation and description...an inductive form of philosophy.)  Grasping essences intuitively is not a matter of argument (or is only so to the extent that the articulation and actualization of the grasping takes the form of writing in which reasons are given).  Argument is only a preliminary or ancillary to moral and aesthetic taste, taste with respect to the good, i.e. that which is valuable, or the value-dimension of existence.  This is what Plato means, or should mean, when he says that truth and being emanate from the Good much like light and nourishment emanating from the sun.  To put this in a different way, the business of philosophy is to arrive at powerful metaphors of the sort that Morris Weitz in his discussion of the role of theory in aesthetics called honorific definitions, which themselves are ways of understanding, not "real definitions."  These live metaphors manifest the capacity, at that moment, to perceive things in their essential nature (as this evolves), but they are not, and this is the great mistake even of some Platonists, to be considered eternal and unchangingly correct definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  Unfortunately, Plato himself appears to have lost this insight when he came, in the Sophist, to see the path downwards in terms of mere categorization and sub-categorization.  He was seduced by his Pythagorean friends and lost sight of the pragmatism contained in the idea that only the user of a bridle (thus, not the god) knows its essential nature.  The great thing about the philosopher king/queen is that he/she, once she gets the hang of the world of the cave upon return, will be able to discern not the details of the shadows themselves, but their inner nature, the extent to which they participate in the good/beautiful. Since taste (the capacity to perceive beauty in particulars) is the dominant mode of the philosopher king/queen and taste has to do with particulars not universals (once the Good or Beauty itself is grasped, the Forms are only hypotheses which may be discarded or seen as merely heuristic ideals) the mature philosopher King-Queen is more like a poet than like an analytic philosopher, i.e. with regards to his/her approach to language and truth.  It is also ironic and interesting that whereas transparency may be a virtue in the upward path, it is density of language and experience that plays the predominant role in the downward path.  But de Sousa talks about clarity as though it were solely the domain of analytic philosophy with its high regard for the forms of formal logic and definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  There are other kinds of clarity:  the clarity of choosing exactly the right word for the context, for example, but then this is a clarity more evidence in poetry.  Also, formal logic is based on modus ponens which itself begs the question in a formal way since the whole idea of validity is to make a nice neat transition from A (the reason) to B (the thing supported) by way of introducing an intervening premise, if A then B, except that you cannot support the move from A to B just by repeating it!  We give reasons in support of conclusions and if others accept them it is not because of artificial question-begging intervening premises previously accept but because we just think A is sufficient reason for B.  But as de Sousa himself observes in the same article people are seldom convinced of anything by arguments, i.e. by being presented with a valid deductive argument for the touted conclusion (except in mathematics, I suppose.) --- nor should they be.  Arguments in this sense of the word "argument" are just window dressing, or at best, moves in the language game of back and forth argument, a much more complex and interesting human activity.