Thursday, August 11, 2016

Idealism vs. Realism, or why not give credit to both?

Here is my current thinking about idealism vs. realism.  I am in my home office looking at my computer, surrounded by my books. This room I am in, my body, my activity, etc....all of this is real. How do I know this:  I cannot absolutely, but it seems reasonable to deny every alternative hypothesis.  I am, as Dewey puts it, a live creature interacting with my environment.  The world I experience is a world that exists and to which I have access through my senses. Moreover, modern science is the best way to understand that world. 

So where is there room for idealism? There is room on two levels, these having to do with two different meanings of "idealism."   First, as soon as I represent this world, either in language or by some other means, I create a second world, i.e. a representation of the first world.  Much of my life is spent contemplating and making such representations.  These representations are all ways of seeing the world.   Moreover, although I have access to the world, I only focus on those aspects of the world that are of interest to me, that fit into certain categories, and so forth.  So, although what I see and otherwise experience is the world, what I look at and how I construct my own internal map of this world, is influenced by ideas.  One could say that I view the real world through various ideal worlds, where the second "world" refers to world maps.  To ignore the pervasiveness of all of the representations that mediate my relations with the real physical world is to ignore this fundamental truth, the real intuition of idealism.  Moreover, since I live in a physical world much of which is made up of artifacts which themselves are either representations or are the result of human non-representational thinking and activity, the meaning content of that aspect of the world is also subject to idealism.  

An interesting problem for strict realists (realism that excludes the intuition of idealism) is that I cannot say or think anything about the real world without using representations.  Even if I say that "this is a chair" I am using ideas such as "chair" and all of the complex grammatical idea associated with the formula "this is a" to do this.  And so my experience is two-sided:  there is the side that is real and physical, the chair in front of me, which I have access to by way of my senses, my brain, and my bodily behavior, and the chair as described, as thought of, as having meaning content (even if that meaning content is entirely expressed in physicalist terms and is the result of a physicalist philosophy!).  

A second aspect of idealism is belief in something like Plato's Forms. The point here is that there is a legitimate activity, a philosophy language game, that asks "what is the essence of X" and that gives us competing answers that can generate dialogue with some resolution.  On my view, essences are real but within the domain of representation and its interaction with the real physical world, especially with those aspects of the real physical world that are also implicated in human activity and interpretation.  As opposed to Plato's Forms, essences evolve historically.  I grant to Plato that they have an ideal as well as a real aspect, but this ideal aspect is always of the form of an unrealized and ultimately unrealizable goal:  the ideal aspect has no content of its own and simply marks the ideal of resolution of debates over essences.  I have written about this elsewhere in detail.  

Wikipedia says "In philosophyidealism is the group of philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial."  I am not an idealist in that sense, and yet there is a fundamentally mental aspect of the world in that there is not only the level of physical objects but also the level of multiple interpretations of those objects especially as evidenced in the language game of philosophy its search for truth, or, as I would put it, essences.  

Nor do I accept the idea that something mental or spiritual is the foundation of all things.  And yet, in a strange way, I am as much an idealist as a realist.  Paul Guyer and Rolf Peter Horstmann in their Stanford Encylopedia article on idealism make a point of distinguishing between idealism of this sort and epistemological idealism, which they describe in this way:   "involves a theory of the nature of our human knowledge; and various decidedly different theories are called by this name in view of one common feature, namely, the stress that they lay upon the ‘subjectivity’ of a larger or smaller portion of what pretends to be our knowledge of things."  Yet, atlough attracted to idealism, I would not say that knowledge is essentially subjective. There is, of course, a subjective aspect of all knowledge, and yet we can still speak of degrees of objectivity, and this is just based on the fact (assuming we are willing to accept it as fact) that there is a real world in which we live, and that that world is what it is independent of our thoughts about it, although of course our thoughtful representations, once made, also become an important part of that world.  Moreover, there is some truth to ontological idealism, both in terms of the existence of an emergent world of representation and interpretation and also the ideal but indescribable aspect of the world represented by the philosophy language game.  Essences are real beings, although not reducible to the realm of the sciences nor identifiable with eternal unchanging Forms.  To reject idealism of the traditional form that posits a separate metaphysical world is not the same as rejecting all ontological implications for the intuition of idealism.  My point:  interpretation and representation animate our world, and the world experienced through that animation is what is important to us, and the search for essences is one way to animate the world as was the search for gods previously.  Thus creating new mythologies, writing poetry, done in a way that is deep, and also respectful of the physical world in which we live and respectful of the way it grounds our experience (the pragmatist intuition of Dewey, I think) is the way to respond to our present crisis of spirit. Nietzsche, of course, saw this.  

Guyer and Horstmann say "An inclination toward idealism might even arise from considerations pertaining to the ontological status of aesthetic values (is beauty an objective attribute of objects?) or from the inability or the unwillingness to think of the constitution of social and cultural phenomena like society or religion in terms of physical theory." and this seems to describe my attitude or the reason why I would consider idealism as having equal status to realism as long as restrained to include only the world as represented through language and art.  Physical theory is not and can never be sufficient for explaining social and cultural phenomena since these all involve many levels of interpretation and are complex evolving entities that are, as Joseph Margolis would put it, emergent upon but not reducible to physical phenomena.   

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Rancière "Aesthetics and its Discontents"

I am no expert on Rancière but I am beginning to think that his work should be of interest to everyday aestheticians.  So here I will just make a couple comments on the Introduction to his book Aesthetics and its Discontents.  What I like about Rancière is that he has some valuable things to say about the relationship between art and the aesthetics of everyday life.  I also like the scope of this thinking:  he tries to relate it to such big figures as Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth, as well as to French contemporaries like Bourdieu.  His attempts to relate aesthetics to politics can also be fascinating.  This kind of scope is not typical of the English speaking aesthetics I grew up with, and so entering into the world of Rancière can be disconcerting, to say the least, but still worth it.  

Much of Rancière's concern is local to the French intellectual scene and thus not of much interest to someone living on the West coast of the U.S. like myself.  I have no intention to wade into those waters. Still, I have long been concerned with two questions in aesthetics, the question of the definition of art and the question of the nature of aesthetic experience including experiences outside of the domain of art.  Because of this, I am particularly interested in the intersection between these two questions and domains.  

Rancière speaks of an example brought up by Jean-Marie Schaeffer and taken from Stendhal's autobiographical work Vie de Henry Brulard.  The example is that of insignificant noises first noticed in childhood: ringing church bells and the noise of a water pump.  These Schaeffer compares to Shen Fu's talk of seeing mountains in a molehills as a small child.  So Schaeffer thinks this shows a cross cultural aesthetic attitude not directed to artworks.  I think Schaeffer is right about this: if we turn to the powerful aesthetic experiences of childhood we can overcome an overly art centered notion of aesthetics.  At the same time, Rancière makes a good point in reply, that Stendhal in this writing is blurring the distinction between art and life, and provides a new insight into what Rancière calls "sensory microevents."  Rancière then writes, "Far from demonstrating the independence of aesthetic attitudes with respect to artworks, Stendhal testifies to an aesthetic regime in which the distinction between those things that belong to art and those that belong to ordinary life are blurred."  (5)  I agree with this too.  Rancière then wants to reveal the new form, arising first at the end of the 18th century, "taken by the relation between the conscious productions of art and the involuntary forms of sensory experience in which their effects are manifest." (5) And he thinks this is what Kant, Shelling and Hegel were trying to do; Kant through his theory of genius and aesthetic ideas, Shelling through his talk of unity between conscious and unconscious processes, and Hegel through his story of the development of art to a Romantic form that recognizes such everyday life scenes as those portrayed in the genre paintings of the Dutch.  So we are talking here about a "new education of the senses informed by the insignificant noises and events of ordinary life" (6) a new education associated with the rise of republican sentiments during those years, ca. 1787.  This makes me realize that the rise of everyday aesthetics as a concern goes back to the origins of aesthetics itself.

Rancière observes that aesthetics has been accused of "confusion," i.e. of confusing boundaries between distinct categories, for example art and everyday life.  But his approach is to actually glory in this confusion.  I feel that I can ally with this since my own efforts in everyday aesthetics have sought to find a continuity and close relation between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, an effort that might be seen as a "confusion" by those who wish to keep these categories rigidly distinct.  

Rancière situates his discussion within a definition of art.  The definition is not entirely clear:  but here goes:  "For a statue or a painting to be adjudged art, two apparently contradictory conditions are required.  The work in question must be seen as a product of an art and not as a simple image that is to be judged solely in accordance with the legitimacy of its principle or its factual resemblance.  But it must also be seen as something that is more than just the product of an art, more than the rule-bound exercise of a savoir-faire."  (6)   He further asserts that the something else needed for something to be art is a story told, for example for a dance to be art it needs to tell a story. When we left the "mimetic regime" and entered into the "aesthetic regime" of art there came a new close relation between poesis and aesthesis, a "discordant relation" which he sees Kant, Adorno, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as thinking through.  

To conclude today's post, Rancière is of importance to everyday aestheticians because he shows how fundamental everyday aesthetics is to the constitution of art itself within the "aesthetic regime" i.e. after the invention of aesthetics as a discipline in the 18th century.  "'Aesthetics' is a word that expresses the singular knot that, posing a problem for thought, formed two centuries ago between the sublimities of art and the noise of a water pump..."  

Guest Post: City Paintings of Rosa Younessi by Hovsep Lalikian

While visiting the KALEID Gallery in San Jose, CA. I saw the works of art by Rosa Younessi, the featured artist for April, 2016 (her show was titled “Colors of Dreams”). Several of her oil paintings caught my attention, but “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” did so particularly well.  At first glance, they didn’t seem to have the real shape of what was painted. When I took a closer look, however, I could make out the shapes of buildings, as well as other parts of the city, such as the boats floating near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. These paintings showed London and San Francisco, but the paintings weren’t clear, as if there was heavy fog in the city.  Being able to see the cities in this state was interesting because I wouldn’t have thought that a foggy setting would be good for a work of art, but the artist portrayed the cities in such a way that it changed my mind. There were clearly layers of painting used to blur the lines between the buildings. These layers helped to blend the colors together to give the foggy appearance that the two works have.
I don’t believe that the artist was trying to say anything through these paintings, but wanted to share images of London and San Francisco. Having lived near San Francisco for most of my life, I have seen the morning fog that settles into the city. Seeing Younessi’s painting reminded me of how San Francisco looks during these times. Although I have never been to London, I have always heard of the fog and rain that are common in England, and can imagine what it’s like in “London Fog.”  Oil was a good choice for these works because oil paints can be blended together to give the foggy look the artist was aiming for.

These works provide a good aesthetic experience on multiple levels. They are able to catch the viewer’s eye at first glance, but upon closer inspection the viewer is able to see a detailed and intriguing painting. Even if somebody saw the painting but wasn’t paying close attention to it, they could still enjoy the pleasing combination of shapes and colors. Taking a closer look at the paintings, however, the viewer is able to see finer details. This includes not only the bigger items like the buildings in the paintings, but also smaller aspects, such as the streaks in “London Fog” that appear to connect the two halves of the painting. Although the paintings didn’t hold much value outside of their aesthetic qualities, and there were no deeper connections or emotions evoked, I do not consider this to take away from the quality of the work. A work of art does not need to have a deeper meaning to be a good work of art, although such meaning can help make a work better.

Although works of art can be strengthened by involving emotions that aren’t directly connected to the work, these emotions aren’t a requirement for a good work of art. Like Clive Bell (author of Art, 1914), I believe that significant form is the primary qualifier for works of art, and significant form is something that both “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” have. These two paintings provide an aesthetic experience that is memorable through the relations of lines and colors they have. If Younessi had tried to include emotions that draw on other experiences, the works would have been weakened. It would be difficult to include those emotions without feeling as if these are forced, while still maintaining the original idea behind the paintings.

Bell would likely agree that these paintings are good works of art because they both have significant form. The two works are based on the relations between the lines and colors. True, they both need the relation between the different aspects of the city’s landscape to be able to create a realistic feel. The colors, however, are the strength of the paintings. The colors are what create the foggy look the artist aimed for. These colors are able to blur the lines between each shape in the painting, but keep everything differentiated so that the viewer can see every detail.  Bell didn’t believe that we need to go into the artist’s thoughts when they were creating the works of art, because good art is able to aesthetically please us without the involvement of such emotions. Although some people may feel an emotional connection to these paintings, such as someone who grew up in either London or San Francisco, and long for the foggy days portrayed, many will enjoy the art for its aesthetic qualities, without looking into a deeper meaning.

Rosa Younessi’s “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” would be considered art by Clive Bell because they have significant form. More than that however, they are good works of art because of the aesthetic experience they provide. The paintings rely on lines to portray the scenery in the cities, but the colors pull the paintings together by creating the foggy image the artist wants. There are no real emotions or lessons to be learned from these paintings, but that doesn’t detract from their strength. The works are strong enough on their own and the aesthetic emotions that the viewer feels allows him or her to fully appreciate what the artist created. 

Comment from Thomas Leddy
Although Bell's formalism has been attacked many times since it was originally put forth in 1914 it is still often a powerful way to understand some contemporary art.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Are there inchoate poems existent prior to the writing of poems?

Andrew Cecil Bradley suggests that there are.  "Poetry for Poetry's Sake" in A Modern Book of Esthetics:  An Anthology  ed. Meldvin Rader, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1952.  This material is originally from Oxford Lectures on Poetry, The Macmillan Co., 1909.  Bradley believes that "The Fall of Man...offers opportunities of poetic effects wider in range and more penetrating in appeal [than a pin's head]."  He further says "And the fact is that such a subject, as it exists in the general imagination, has some esthetic value before the poet touches it.  It is, as you may choose to call it, an inchoate poem or the debris of a poem.  It is not an abstract idea or a bare isolated fact, but an assemblage of figures, scenes, actions, and events, which already appeal to emotional imagination, and it is already in some degree organized and formed."  (342)    He also says that a good poem on a pin's head "might revolutionize its subject so completely that we should say, 'The subject may be a pin's head, but the substance of the poem has very little to do with it."  (342)  

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Sensible Humean Approach to Taste

Summertime is when I can catch up some in reading the philosophy journals.  This can be tedious work since much philosophy, to be frank, is overly technical and picky.  The payoff is when an article one hardly expects anything from yields riches.  This was the case for me today reading Andy Hamilton's "Scruton's Philosophy of Culture:  Elitism, Populism, and Classic Art."  British Journal of Aesthetics 49:4 (2009) 389-404.  Roger Scruton (perhaps the leading living English-speaking aesthetician/philosopher of art today) prides himself in being an elitist, although he also thinks that the elite product has meaning insofar as it relates to the emotions and aspirations of all.  It may be easy for some to simply dismiss Scruton as an arch conservative, and he certainly does often seem to identify with upper-class values as such.  Yet, although politically a left-liberal, I have long felt a strong affinity for Scruton's work in aesthetics and his critique of kitsch.  Hamilton does a nice job of showing why Scruton has something to offer us on the concept of "elitism" and in his defense of what he calls "high culture." Hamilton rejects these two terms, but mainly because of associations he does not want to advocate. One has to be careful with the definition of elitism, and if you use it in a theory you have to be very clear about the sense in which it is used.  Hamilton defines elitism as "denial of populism...[in] the sense which rejects the possibility of better judgment in moral, aesthetic, and cultural matters."  His view is not to be confused, then, with elitism as defined by anti-egalitarianism.  In short, the elitism Hamilton defends (actually, in the end he just dumps the term "elitism" in favor of "meritocracy") is not the idea that there is a class of people, commonly an aristocracy, which counts as "the elite" and whose taste is to be regarded as superior.  He would not support elitism in that sense.  His defense of elitism is more in line with David Hume's idea (in "Of the Standard of Taste") that there are certain works of art that are of great value, a value which can be perceived by those who have taste in that domain, those people being the "good judges" which, Hamilton would say, is another way of referring to the cultural elite in a cultural meritocracy.

Hamilton calls these works "classics." I find this problematic since some of the most valuable works, especially important works of our own time, are not classics.  For one thing, they have not had the time to stand what Hume famously calls "the test of time." Hamilton would reply to this objection that "The concept of the classic is backward-looking in making essential reference to the test of time, but clearly one must allow that new works can belong to high culture: contemporary high culture is that which critical opinion predicts will become classic." (401)  However I think that even works that may never stand the test of time can still be of immense value, value that is recognized by people with the appropriate taste.  And yet that value is perhaps more in the innovative nature of the work than in refinement and thus does not meet the standard of what we ordinarily consider to be taste when that is associated with things called classics.  Think of really crude but wonderful examples of early blues music.  Such works only get to be called "classic" honorifically since they are at the beginnings of the great blues tradition.   Does Hamilton's notion of "classic" allow in the possibility of a greatly innovative, but raw at the edges, garage band?  Think of the Beatles.  Their earliest music was by no means classic.  If we think of classic Beatles we think of Abbey Road or The White Album.  However, the greatness of the Beatles also includes the raw energy of their early underground club work. My only problem with Hamilton then is that he (and perhaps also Hume) do not allow for that which is aesthetically great or valuable but also not really even connected to the test of time:  both of their views are a bit too backwards-looking.  OK one could argue that the early music of the Beatles can be brought into the domain of the classic retroactively because it leads too their truly classic rock productions.  But that somehow misses the point.  Hamilton fails to recognize that "classic" is invariably connected with a classical style, which, in Nietzschean terms, is fundamentally Apollonian, not Dionysian.  And to say that the good new stuff is predicted or predictable by the person of taste to pass the test of time in the future misses one very important historical fact:  widely recognized "persons of taste," for example very good art critics, have typically failed to properly appreciate great innovative works when they first came out and in their cruder more formative stages.  A sign of the limitation of the concept of "the classic" is when Hamilton writes "Classics are timeless and transcendental, appealing to all historical eras, because they capture what is essential about humanity."  (403) That is OK as a definition of "the classic" but I wouldn't want to hang a theory of taste or aesthetics or value on art on it since I think we can have taste in all sorts of matters that do not fit this definition at all.  

As mentioned above, Hamilton prefers the term "meritocracy" to "elitism" in being concerned with the "classic" rather than with "high culture."  ("High culture" like "elitism" has, as he adequately shows, too many awkward and anti-democratic associations.)  He also believes it is a more positive response to populism.  One of the main ideas of meritocracy is that those who have good taste can come from any part of society.  Meritocracy, on Hamilton's view, is not even inconsistent with a democratic approach since "even the novice's response has a status in critical discourse." (397) (Let me interject here the same problem:  Hamilton only gives the novice a role insofar as the novice debates with the good judge and comes to see in the process of debate that he or she was wrong.  Again, this does not give enough credit to the revolutionary nature of the thinking of some novices who, in debate with the good judge, overthrow the applecart, and in a good way.)  Hamilton correctly sees that Hume is not elitist in the sense of limiting taste to a certain class.  As I have argued elsewhere, for Hume, critical authority comes from practice and comparison that gives rise to delicacy of sentiment within the very area in which practice and comparison has occurred (this also requires good sense and lack of prejudice, as Hume observed).  What the area is is neutral:  it could be opera or hip-hop.  No social hierarchy of art forms is required by Hume's conception of taste.  For Hamilton, "Meritocracy denotes a system of social organization where appointments are made on the basis of ability rather than wealth, family connections, or class" (398) and he extends this to artistic appreciation.  So, for Hamilton, "meritocracy requires an open, non-exclusive body of authorities, and a nuanced notion of authority,.,  It agrees with elitism that some individuals are more penetrating judges of moral, cultural, and spiritual questions, and should have social influence; it denies that the resulting body of authorities is exclusive." (398)  To elaborate the last point, "even if, as elitism asserts, some people are more penetrating judges of cultural and moral questions than others, each individual must ultimately decide these questions for themselves." (398)  (Again, this "decide for yourself" element does not really take into account valuable revolutionary work)  He also rightly sees that, for Hume, the less experienced art viewers do not simply defer to the man of taste but debate with him, and by doing that, can eventually become good critics themselves.  Here, then, is my favorite quote from the article (the one that made me decide to write this post):

"It would be perverse for someone to say 'I just defer to critical opinion.  If I want to buy a painting by a contemporary artist, or recordings of Jamaican dub music, I'll ask an expert's opinion on which to go for.  I'm not interested in developing my own autonomous judgment.  This aesthetically heteronomous individual mistakes the beginning of the process of appreciation for its end. But the opposed extreme is also misguided.  'I never read the critics.  I just form my own judgment' - the claim of the aesthetic solipsist - and 'I never form my own judgment, I just read the critics' are equally perverse." (399)

Hamilton wishes to replace Scruton's concept of "high culture" with that of "the classic," which would include not only that which has stood the test of time and "which demands, and best awards, seriousness and intensity of intention" (400).  "Classic," unlike "high culture" includes all popular and functional genres as well as traditional high culture items, and it is not limited to any ethnic group either.  Classic, for Hamilton, means "excellent of its kind." This allows it also to include design classics such as the Braun alarm clock. (I also have a problem with associating aesthetics exclusively with classics in this sense:  it excludes those aspects of the aesthetics of everyday life which are not tied to works of classic design, for example the pleasure one gets in owning a watch that one recognizes is far from being a design classic, but rather has other redeeming qualities.)

Hamilton concludes his essay rather nicely:  "'Meritocracy' and 'classic' are far from ideal terms, but I believe that they are an improvement on 'elitism' and 'high culture'.  It is regrettable, therefore, that only an exclusive, self-perpetuating group of intellectuals will ever really understand the analysis of culture I have offered." (404)  It is!  

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The place of aesthetics in "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates"

This will be my 300th post!  It seems fitting that I devote this post to the unjustified low regard for aesthetics in the philosophical profession in the U.S.   I will do this by way of discussing the role of aesthetics in Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates by Robert Audi (principal author), a document that "Approved by the APA Board of Offers (Chair, Ruth Barcan Marcus), October 1981." and is posted on the American Philosophical Association site. (This is about as official a doctrine as we have concerning the established or, better, establishment view on the discipline of Philosophy.)  

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art are systematically repressed within the Philosophy world in the U.S.  "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates" is a key example.  Previously I have argued that aesthetics should be considered to be one of the core areas of Philosophy.  Please refer to it for an argument for my position based on the philosophy of John Dewey.  Although Wikipedia and many other sources list aesthetics as one of the traditional sub-categories of philosophy, it does not make the grade in "A Brief Guide."  There, under the main heading "Traditional Subfields of Philosophy" we find: Logic, Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and the History of Philosophy.  Aesthetics is left out.  Instead, it is demoted to the category listed later in the document, "Special Fields of Philosophy." This category does include important fields such as Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Science.  However the demotion is real, which can be seen by the fact that Aesthetics comes next after "Subfields of Ethics" and when it is mentioned, it is only parenthetically after the Philosophy of Art.  Here is the entry.

  • "Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life."
Notice that aesthetics (in parentheses) is given credit for being one of the oldest subfields and yet is not considered one of the "Traditional" subfields.  Old but not traditional?  Notice that Aesthetics is reduced to Philosophy of Art.  Philosophy of Art is a great subfield which does indeed concern itself with the nature of art and the other items mentioned.  Note how aesthetics is subordinated to the Philosophy of Art so that even though "major questions in aesthetics" is mentioned it turns out that these questions only have to do with "artistic creations."  Natural beauty,, one of the traditional subjects of aesthetics, is only mentioned as something considered in relation tot he central concern of artistic creations.  Thus the writers of "A Brief Guide" appear to believe that "aesthetics" is just another word for "Philosophy of Art." Although it is true that most aestheticians do Philosophy of Art, Aesthetics is a distinct field of inquiry that includes not only the arts but also aesthetic phenomena in nature, design, human behavior, and everyday life.  In short, Aesthetics has been demoted because of its narrow identification with Philosophy of Art.  This would be like identification of Ethics as a sub-discipline with medical ethics.  

Let's carry out a thought experiment using standard dictionary definitions.   How would the list sub-disciplines go if the sub- discipline of aesthetics were identified with the first meaning of "aesthetics" that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. "pertaining to perception by the senses"?  Wouldn't a discipline that deals with all that pertains to perception of the senses be up there with epistemology, logic and ethics?  Of course that is not the only way to define aesthetics, and as in every other philosophical term, the actual meaning of "aesthetics" is debated by philosophers.  But I think that on most meanings Aesthetics should not be demoted. Sometimes, for example, aesthetics is defined as a domain of values, where beauty for example is the predominant positive value, this making aesthetics like Ethics in which the predominant positive value is moral good. Surely, that would put Aesthetics up Ethics in the first rung of sub-disciplines.   

Continuing our dictionary experiment, even if aesthetics were identified with the second entry in the OED  "Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art" this would be much broader than "A Brief Guide"s limitation of Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art.  For the word "beautiful" is commonly a stand-in for a broad range of aesthetic properties, which include graceful, elegant, sublime, pretty, harmonious, ugly, and so forth.  Indeed, the vocabulary of aesthetic terms may well be as large as the vocabulary of ethical or epistemological terms.  This is because aesthetics deals with a vast range of human concern.  Just consider how many choices we make every day and that have an aesthetic dimension, including choices made while cleaning one's room, writing a paper, taking a walk, talking with a friend.  Is there any dimension of human experience that does not have an aesthetic aspect?  I have discussed this in detail in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.   

An important source of the confusion that entered into "A Brief Guide" has to do with narrowness and broadness of certain conceptions of aesthetics and art.  If aesthetics were simply limited to the study of the concept of beauty, and not considered to include all other aesthetic concepts, then it would be rightly considered very narrow and limited.  Philosophy of Art might be considered much broader since it includes not only aesthetic evaluation of the arts but also the cognitive power of art, the creative process, the role of art in society, ontological issues regarding the arts, ethical issues in the arts, and the relationship between artistic and religious experience, among others. One could say that Philosophy of Art is whatever philosophers have to say when they address the arts and whatever is said in the arts (for example in art theory) that looks like philosophy or is fundamentally related to philosophical traditions (for example Greenberg deriving his criticism from Kant.)   This makes Philosophy of Art is very broad field indeed. The true story is that Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics simply overlap.  Aesthetics is not simply one small concern within the wider domain of Philosophy of Art since it includes all of the uses of terms in relation to perception that are evaluative:  even "looks nice" is an aesthetic term, as I have argued.

Another feature that serves to downplay the importance of Philosophy of Art/Aesthetics as a live discipline is that aspects of that field are separated off into other subfields.  So, under "Other subfields" the Brief Guide mentions "Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film" whereas, in reality, the philosophers who publish in these areas mainly attend the same conferences and publish in the same journals as other aestheticians/philosophers of art.  

I should mention that "Brief Guide" mentions aesthetics in a couple other places.  For example under "Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits" it mentions philosophy of literature as of value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art as important in understanding the arts (although failing to recognize that philosophy of literature is just a subdiscipline under the philosophy of art.)  It also observes that "advanced courses in the philosophy of art (aesthetics) are designed partly for students in art, music, and other related fields." However, again, and as valuable as these courses are, this reduces Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art and marginalizes it in relation .   

The "Brief Guide" is not alone and represents a broader prejudice against aesthetics that can be found particularly in American Philosophy.  It might even be said that the denigration of Aesthetics goes back to attacks on the senses in Plato and Descartes and by Rationalist traditions in general. 

What should be done?  At the very least the "Brief Guide" should be rewritten to reinstate Aesthetics to its rightful place in Philosophy.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The newly expanded category of the aesthetic: further comments on Porter on ancient Greek aesthetics

Porter's book (see previous post) leads us to re-evaluate the discontinuities that have been traditionally placed between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, discontinuities that were not accepted by the materialist philosophers of ancient Greece.  It leads off in many different directions of which I will mention a few here.

First, although Aristotle is no special fan of the aesthetics of everyday life and, in fact, is listed by Porter in the idealist school of Plato and Socrates, he still makes statements, as does Plato, that can be useful for everyday aestheticians.  For example Aristotle says "the pleasure that comes from living the pleasure we get from the exercise of the soul; for that is true life" and that this is contemplation.  Moreover, for Aristotle aesthetic creatures are lovers of life:  "For in loving life they love thinking and knowing; they value life for no other reason than for the sake of perception, and above all for the sake of sight..."  [quotes taken from Porter 54-55.]  The privileging of sight is not in favor of everyday aesthetics, but the idea of pleasure that comes from living as an exercise of the soul contemplating the world fits in the with tradition that goes on to Pater and the aesthetes of the 19th century.  It is recognized by Aristotle at least in the realm of sight (and also hearing elsewhere) that contemplation is both sensual and intellectual at the same time.

More to the point, perhaps, is the alliance Porter finds with the materialism of Epicurean philosophy.  "the experience of beauty, qua the most pleasurable experience there is, will be an experience of intense perceptual awareness.  It is clear, immediate, sensuous, uniquely suited to our perceptual apparatus...; it has, in other words, all the attributes of a clear grasp of the sensible world...In fact, it just is the sensation we have whenever we have a clear grasp of the sensible world..." (55)  So, "for Epicurus our primary orientation towards the world is not only a pleasurable one, but also an aesthetic one....for Epicurus the experience of beauty and the purest form of experience (ataraxy) differ in no way at all because they are indistinguishably the same experience..." (56)  

In his section, "Aesthetic vocabularies and the languages of art" Porter points to ways in which Greek aesthetic terms (many of which we still use today) crossed many disciplinary boundaries, and thus could be applied not only to what we would call the arts but to other aspects of life.  This is part of the point of everyday aesthetics as well, as least as I have advocated it.  Porter observes that some contemporary writers have dismissed Greek aesthetics because they have not delimited art critical vocabulary from other domains:  but as Porter correctly observes, it is positive when the same terms appear in different domains.  (It might be suggested that it is a healthier culture that does not keep its vocabularies in silos).   Porter observes that even Plato allows aesthetic terms to cross boundaries, for example when he says that "harmonies are found in music and all the works of artists [demiourgoi]" i.e. painters, sculptors and all kinds of makers.  (58)  Thus the term "harmony" is not limited to what we would call the fine arts.  

Porter quotes Socrates in Plato's Menexenus in a way that gives us another clue not to a view that is Plato's own but rather to understanding further what it means to experience life as drenched in aesthetics. The passage is remarkably similar to one found in the Ion in which Ion recounts how he is taken out of himself by inspiration, i.e. taken into another world, when he recites Homer. The passage quoted in Porter (revised from the Ryan translation) goes as follows [I am leaving out Porter's insertion of Greek terms]:

"The speech writers do their praising so splendidly that they cast a spell over our souls, attributing to each individual man, with the most varied and beautiful verbal embellishments, both praise he merits and praise he does not....The result is, Menexenus, that I am put into an exalted frame of mind when I am praised by them [i.e. Socrates feels that he is being praised by the orators as the orators praise his city, Athens].  Each time, as I listen and fall under their spell, I become a different man - I'm convinced that I have become taller and nobler and better looking all of a sudden...The speakers words and the sound of his voice sink into my ears with so much resonance that it is only with difficulty that on the third or fourth day I recover myself and realize where I am"  (67)  

No doubt Socrates and Plato saw this as a dangerous illusion, and it can be.  Hitler cast a similar spell, for example.  But one can see the great orator as doing something more positive, as enchanting the polis so that can be seen as valuable.  This is perhaps something we have lost in our age of anti-politics.  Porter sees the passage as illustrating "how aesthetic qualities can permeate the very fabric of civic life, and not just one quarantined aspect of that life where we would normally look to find aesthetic experiences" so that "to be a subject (a politically constituted subject) is to be invested in a set of aesthetic values, and it is to reflect those values in the very core of one's self-image."  (Porter, 67)

One last quote:  "In place of an embarrassing dearth of aesthetic vocabulary, we run the risk of discovering an embarrassing overflow of evidence:  once we have eliminated the artificial boundaries between the aesthetic and the non- or extra-aesthetic, no text and no artifact will be immune to plundering for its indexical value in the newly expanded category of the aesthetic." (68)