Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Truth as Having Three Aspects

“Truth as having Three Aspects”

Tom Leddy, Annual Philosophy Conference, San Jose State, May 3, 2008

My own interest in truth as a concept (and not as a goal) comes by way of my interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, although much that I have to say about truth comes from my reading of some of my favorite philosophers, Plato, Nietzsche, James and Heidegger. But before I go into that I want to say one little thing about debates over the nature of truth.  One of the oddest things about such debates, and I imagine someone somewhere has already noted this (Rick [Tieszen] says it has been discussed in the philosophy of mathematics), is that whatever you are doing when you present a theory of truth you are claiming that your theory is true, and in claiming your theory is true, you must, to be consistent, be claiming that it meets the standards set by your theory of truth.  So this is a paradox of truth, that any theory of truth is going to be self-confirming if self-consistent.  For example, someone who believes in the pragmatist theory of truth is not going to think his or her theory of truth is true primarily according to the correspondence theory of truth.  Not only that, he/she will think it true according to the specific version of the pragmatist theory he/she is offering.  If not, then he/she is being inconsistent.  In short, your theory of truth is going to be judged true because it fits whatever theory of truth you are actually presenting.  You are going to assume your theory of truth in the very act of evaluating it.  On the face of it then, based on this paradox, the whole project of a theory of truth seems hopelessly circular.  It isn’t just circular in the relatively innocuous way in which some theories in aesthetics are circular.  These theories are circular because they include the word "art" in their definition of art.  One might always argue that such a circularity is merely apparent and that the second appearance of the term art is eliminable in some way.  But whenever you present a theory of truth you are presenting it as true and hence as meeting your theory of truth.  So unlike circularity in theories of art, theories of truth will always be circular.  To get a picture of what I am talking about imagine any theory of truth stated in sentence form with quote marks around it and followed by the two words “is true” and then consider replacing the word “true” in this second instance with the theory of truth itself, i.e. the supposed definition of truth, and you will see something very much like what happens when you get a circular definition of a term, a kind of endless regress.  I don’t know how to resolve this question, so like most people, I’ll just ignore it.

What interests me the most about truth is whether and to what extent the theories of truth that have been offered mainly to satisfy needs in other domains in philosophy actually apply or apply in the same way to the domain of aesthetics and philosophy of art.  On the face of it there would seem to be a problem since many of the phenomena that would be dismissed outside of the world of art as simply false or cognitively meaningless are taken quite seriously within the world of art.  Fictions and metaphors are two examples.  The faculty of imagination is taken very seriously in the world of art, perhaps more so then in the worlds of science, history and philosophy.  OK I know that there are lots of exceptions (for example philosophers use science fiction examples), but this does seem to me to be roughly right.  A tricky aspect of this is that aestheticians, who are often philosophers first and art lovers second, often stand for philosophy and not for art in this matter and often insist on giving a certain primacy to concepts of truth that are perhaps more important for science, history or philosophy then for the arts.  So the question I would like to ask is whether truth is different in the arts, or put differently, whether there is a sense of “truth” that is more appropriate to the arts.  Any answer to this question would have broader implications for a theory of truth.  That is, an excellent theory of truth should cover all sorts of truth including the sorts that are most appropriate for the arts.

The most immediate question related to this that comes to mind is whether works of art have cognitive value.  It has often been argued that they do not.  It is claimed that visual arts do not usually assert true sentences and that even when they do, as when a sentence appears on a canvas or is spoken in a performance piece, the truth of these sentences has nothing to do with the value of the work, and thus has nothing to do with art as art.  I think that knowledge is more holistic than that.  If art can give us some greater understanding of the world, and I think that it can do that sometimes, then it also allows truth to emerge.  So even when an artwork does not give us true propositions it still has something to do with truth.  Another way to look at this is that people are not just artists or scientists or philosophers but have a little of each in them, and that when their knowledge increases in one area this is not unconnected with advances of knowledge in other areas.  That is, if a culture is an organic whole the gaining of truth is not to be limited to activities within science or science, history and philosophy.  I would add that if it is questionable that art gives us truth then it is almost equally questionable whether philosophy does.  Whatever truths philosophy can give us are, by the very nature of philosophy, not verifiable in scientific terms:  if they were then they would be scientific, not philosophical truths.  This is also the case for history, the truths of which are not based on verifiable experiments.  It the term “truth” is to be broad enough to include the truths of philosophy and history as well as those of science there is no reason in principle why it could not also be extended to art, or even for that matter to religion.

Anyway, from thinking about truth and art in this way I have come to think of truth in a pluralist way.  Shortly I am going to give a definition of truth, but before I do this I should say something about what I take philosophical definitions to do.  I see philosophical definitions as primarily directed to concepts that are essentially contested, that is, concepts over which there is a philosophical debate about the definition.  The concepts of triangle and water are not essentially contested.  There are not any ongoing debates over the essential nature of these things.  There is no philosophy of triangles or of water.  Essentially contested concepts give rise to competing “philosophy ofs” that thing.  Democracy, love, art, good, knowledge and true are all concepts of this sort. Contra Plato, Aristotle and many contemporary realists, there are no eternally and unchangingly true definitions of these concepts.  An argument against this form of realist would take longer than we have, but briefly, all proofs for such entities fail.  Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to try to come up with a definition of such concepts and to engage in debates about those definitions.  Such definitions, their explication, and the debate that surrounds them help us to recalibrate our understanding of the world so as to better respond to changing conditions.  Philosophers tend to try to come up with a definitions of art, and such subconcepts of art as architecture, which are both uniquely right and eternally true.  However I prefer definitions like that of Robert Venturi for architecture.  Recognizing that every architect works with a definition of architecture in mind, and that every generation has its own definitions, Venturi consciously called his definition “our current definition.”  In a sense he was projecting a definition that he hoped would be true for his generation, and if not so, at least for his firm.  The definition of architecture that he provided was “shelter with symbols [or decoration] on it.”[1]  I will not now go into why this was such a powerful definition, or how it changed our everyday built world, although I will say that it formed one important basis for the entire style of postmodern architecture.  I am more interested in the characteristics of the definition as a definition.  These include that it was novel, not based on a dictionary meaning, and provided guidelines for how to produce good items of the type defined.  It had an evaluative dimension and a future-oriented one.  The power of this definition can be expressed in part by saying that it is true.  This would not be so, however, if the only theory of truth was the correspondence theory:  there is nothing which the phrase “architecture consists of shelter with symbols on it” that accurately matches something in reality.  Yet it does fit something; something more in the realm of potentiality than in that of actuality.  I think that most philosophical definitions are better seen as like Venturi’s definition than like definitions of triangle or water.  I would also suggest that art gives us truth in a similar way, that for example, Venturi’s actual architectural practice contained implicitly the truth of philosophically stated definition, and that the definition would be meaningless without the art practice context in which it occurred.

Truth is also an essentially contested concept perhaps every bit as much as democracy, art, and architecture.  Such concepts do not simply exhibit differences in people’s attitudes towards the subject matter in hand but also their general attitude towards life.  I suspect that different types of people are attracted to the correspondence, coherence, pragmatist and deflationary theories of truth.  If true, my own view of truth will probably only attract a certain type of person, only persons with theoretical commitments similar to mine.  My ideal however would be to provide a theory of truth, or more modestly a suggestion about how one ought to develop of theory of truth, which would work particularly well for our own time, for example in the way that Venturi’s theory of architecture worked for his own time.  But this is just to say that I hope my theory of truth meets my own standards of truth which, in turn, are, as I mentioned earlier, dependent on my theory of truth.   

My theory of truth (to use the simpler phrase) is pluralist.  My pluralism is of a special sort and should not be confused with relativism or with the idea that there are just distinct domains each with its own appropriate theory of truth.  As I see it, truth has three sides or aspects (I would consider candidates for a fourth or fifth side…I am not wedded to the number three).  These three sides are all in constant conflict with each other, each side receiving ascendency at different times in history in the process of reformulation to meet the needs of the place and time in which the theory is put forward.  My theory thus incorporates the essentially contested natured of the concept of truth, while at the same time being nothing more than just another offering in the contest over the nature of truth.  The conflict between these three sides is often fruitful, and I doubt that truth would be a lively or even a useful concept if this was not the case.  Nietzsche was the first, and perhaps the only philosopher, to define an essentially contested concept in terms of conflicting sides.  In The Birth of Tragedy he defined art in terms of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality.  Most definitions of concepts are in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions and I am not saying that Nietzsche’s definition of art could not be stated in this way.  But Nietzsche was unique in saying that the two key conditions of a concept are dynamically related to each other, that they can conflict, and that they can also be periodically reconciled.  He thought that the Apollonian and the Dionysian were reconciled in Greek tragedy and then again later in Wagnerian opera. Part of the reason why I think that viewing other essentially contested concepts in this way is that I believe Nietzsche’s approach was immensely useful in the domain of art.

So what are the three sides of truth?  The first has to do with one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth and that to which it is said to be truth.  This covers the correspondence theory of truth, which is often expressed in terms of the formula “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.  But my view of this aspect of truth goes a bit beyond the correspondence theory because it does not limit the candidate for truth to sentences.  No one doubts that it is often useful to speak of sentences as being true to the facts or of beliefs as corresponding to reality.  One could even state non-scientific, non-mathematical truths in terms of the traditional truth formula, i.e. “the sentence “Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality” is true if and only if Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality.”  However, as we shall see, this formula does not capture the other two aspects of truth.   As I said above, this aspect of truth is not limited to sentences.  It also includes any situation in which there is a good one-to-one fit or match between two things, for example when we say that we have “trued” the spokes on a bicycle.  This is the precision or accuracy aspect of truth.  When applied to representations such as sentences and pictures it entails that the true item must be an accurate copy of the original.  For example we can speak picture as being true to its subject in that it copies the subject well.  A portrait of someone can be spoken of as being true in this sense although often the truth of a portrait also reflects some other aspects of truth, as for example when it is not only accurate but also captures something of the sitter’s essence.  This would take it into the last aspect of truth.  But first, let us turn to the second aspect of truth.  

This second aspect might initially be thought to be associated with pragmatism.  But Peirce’s definition of truth in terms of  “concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief” would fit the first aspect of truth better.  Peirce was still working with a correspondence theory but he was at least heading in another direction by way of emphasizing process and future orientation.  I don’t like the phrase “pragmatist theory of truth” because it confuses Peirce’s and James’ theories.  The second aspect of truth is best expressed by James’ idea of truth which I see as a considerable advance of Peirce’s.  It is often not observed that James begins his discussion with the idea that truth is a matter of agreement.[2]  So he is not exactly disagreeing with the correspondence theory of truth, but he is taking the idea of agreement in a different direction.  In particular he rejects the idea that truth must be a matter of copying reality.  He also rejects the idea that truth is an inert, static relation. Rather, true ideas are ones that we can prove to be true, and their truth lies in the process of verification.  As he puts it, “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”  James understands this process as one of “agreeable leading” in which the ideas “remain in agreement.”  (In this he seems to have incorporated an aspect of the coherence theory of truth.)  For James, verification takes place in experience.  He also thought that one could not talk about truth without talking about the practical value of truth.  For example, when you are lost in the woods, thinking truly that there a house at the end of a path can be immensely important.  This would seem to some people to mean no more than that truths are useful.  But James believed that to say that something is useful because it is true means the same as to say it is true because it is useful.  Truth is a matter of experience, of going from one moment in experience to another that is more worthwhile.  A true thought is a leading that is worthwhile, a dipping into experience to make connections that are useful.  When we see the house at the end of the path the initial thought of the house is verified, made true.  This is what James meant when he said that truth is that which is good in the way of believing. 

James’ idea of truth seems consistent with the thought about truth that the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambatista Vico provided. Vico said that verum ipsum factum--"truth itself is constructed."  No one would deny that true sentences are constructed.  But the claim isn't that the bearer of truth is constructed.  Rather, truth itself is constructed.   I am not entirely happy with the construction metaphor.  It is not as though we take smaller elements, add them together, and get truth, a building-like entity.  But I do think there is some insight contained in the statement.  Truth wouldn't exist without the making activity of  intelligent beings.  This is also similar to Heidegger’s idea that truth is something that happens.  However, Heidegger’s idea enters more fully into the third aspect of truth. 

The third aspect of truth is the quality of heightened reality we experience when we believe we have captured the essence of something and the first two aspects have been or could be met.  It is exemplified in Venturi’s definition of architecture, but also in virtually any definition offered by a thinker in a philosophical contest over some essence or nature.  I think that Plato describes this aspect nicely, although in a tentative way, in his theory of truth as described in the section of The Republic traditionally called “the line.”  There, Plato describes the truth as something that comes from the sun, which in his story represents the Good, the very essence of the essences themselves.  In pursuit of the nature of the Good, which for Plato is the highest of the Forms, the true becomes manifest as a kind of light reveals the essences of things, what he considered to be the Forms.  As I my Socratic quest article, although I do not accept Plato’s Forms I do think that the Socratic search for essences is well worth the trouble and that trying to come up with definitions can be immensely fruitful, as in the case of Venturi’s definition.

This point may seem surprising to some, but I think that Plato and Heidegger totally agree on this point.  For Heidegger in his great essay The Origins of the Work of Art, Van Gogh’s painting lets truth emerge by revealing to us the equipmental nature of equipment, in this case a pair of shoes.  These shoes, it turns out, can only be understood existentially and phenomenologically in terms of the experience of the shoe-wearer in her interaction with her world and with the earth.  Heidegger’s idea that truth is unconcealment goes along with the notion that this aspect of truth is that in which the essential nature of a thing reveals itself in a vibrant and startling way. I would say that truth, when it happens deeply in this way, is emergent upon an activity, for example upon the activity of Van Gogh's painting, and then again, in a somewhat different way, upon the activity of Heidegger's interpretation of the painting, and then again, quite possibly in our interpretation of Heidegger.   Heidegger not only shows how art can be true but how a concept of truth limited to the accuracy aspect or even to the accuracy plus the pragmatic aspect would be incomplete.

Finally, I would argue that none of these aspects of truth are reducible to or replaceable by any of the others.  They are equally important sides to truth, what I call the sides of accuracy, usefulness, and radiance.  Moreover, only when truth has risen through these three stages that we get the final story about truth.  There is a ladder of truth just as there is a ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium, although unlike Plato I would not recommend discarding the first stage when we reach the last.  Accuracy could be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in radiance.  But so too, radiance (e.g. the experience of sudden insight) can only be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in accuracy.  Exclusive focus on one side of truth neglects its rich and full character and leads to difficulties, illusions and even sometimes to disaster.  For example if one were to just see truth in the last, Platonic/Heideggerian way without any attention to the accuracy or usefulness sides of truth then one might become immersed in harmful illusions as Plato and Heidegger themselves were when they pursued friendships with vicious dictators in the belief perhaps that good ends justify distasteful means.  To return to Nietzsche’s metaphor but in a different way I would say that truth combines and Apollonian and a Dionysian.  An overly mechanistic approach to truth that focuses on such concepts as accuracy, precision and correctly copying, fails in the same way that an overly Apollonian approach to art fails.  Truth also has a Dionysian side, a side that is entirely ignored when the truth about truth is summed up in a statement like “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.”  

Truth is a triune concept, all sides in constant, necessary, often fruitful, and often harmful conflict.  One side regards one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth (proposition, picture, etc.) and that to which it is said to be true. The second is best expressed by William James' idea that truth is that which is good in the way of believing.  The third is the quality of heightened reality we experience as when we believe we have captured the essence of something (e.g. conceptually or through art).  None of these is reducible to any of the others.

[1] Robert Venturi.  “Architecture as Decorated Shelter.”  Aesthetics:  A Reader in the Philosophy of the Arts.  2nd ed.  David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown eds.

[2]  William James.  “The Meaning of the word truth.”  Pragmatism:  The Classic Writings.  H. S. Thayer ed. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1982). 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some unorthodox comments about pragmatism

I have generally been positively inclined to pragmatism and have even called myself a pragmatist from time to time.  But there are some things that bother me, in no particular order (but based at first on reading Richard J. Bernstein's The Pragmatic Turn).  The general theme is:  what happened to insightful vision?  I am wondering whether attacks on such things as pictures, representations, and so forth, haven't gone too far.

According to James, Peirce says "The soul and meaning of thought...can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief..."  Well, of course, this depends on what you mean by "thought" and "belief."  In a fairly ordinary sense it seems to me I have all sorts of thoughts (ideas, notions, things that "enter my head," representations, images) that are not directed towards some endpoint of things held true.

OK.  So this leads me to the actual passage in Peirce:  "We may add that just as a piece of music may be written in parts, each part having its own air, so various systems of relationship of succession subsist together between the same sensations. These different systems are distinguished by having different motives, ideas, or functions. Thought is only one such system, for its sole motive, idea, and function is to produce belief, and whatever does not concern that purpose belongs to some other system of relations. The action of thinking may incidentally have other results; it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought. But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief. Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself."

The argument is circular.  If it is not leading to fixed belief then it is not thought even though it was previously called thought.  It belongs, as he puts it, to another system with "different motives, ideas and functions."  In particular it could have been something that was thought but was "perverted...to the purposes of pleasure" and which themselves, apparently, never "get finally settled."  So, on his view, it is only "thought" as he specially defines it if it is in the "gets finally settled" mode.  He isn't really talking about the other things we call thought.  Or if he is, he thinks they are "perverted" and he is saving the honorific (for him) term "thought" for the stuff that leads to fixed beliefs.  No reason is given for why using thought to produce pleasure rather than the fixation of belief is a perversion of anything.  Clearly in thinking about those who would be vexed by the thought that the matter of their concern might finally be settled he is thinking about the perennial questions of philosophy, although it might not so much vex those people as lead them to think "oh well, then this is a matter of science, not of philosophy." And yet Peirce may see this as being vexed in some way, or he might misunderstand the real source of their vexation which is, to be brief, that they don't buy into the idea that this arena is now the province of science (as for example when neuroscientists think they have wrapped up the nature of the mind, way too prematurely...)  What Peirce speaks of as the "debauchery of thought" is just a Dionysian approach to thought which is not to his scientistic taste.  I just do not see why "thought in action" has to be directed to "thought at rest."  So what is Peirce doing?  Like all philosophers he is arranging his own thoughts about abstract concepts and the way things go with respect to the humanities and the sciences in a way that pleases him, privileging one sort of activity over another.  This is just bully and bluster, and of course it leads some philosophers who take it seriously to downgrade aesthetic experience in the realm of thought and interpretation...all the greater pity.

"Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."  It depends on what you mean by "practical."  If "practical" is limited to what people commonly consider to be practical then there is a serious problem here.  If practical really just means "effects" and the effects may be not very practical at all in the eyes of many, for example the production of a great painting, then the claim is more plausible.  It is certainly a good idea to include within our conception of an object, particularly an abstract object of philosophical inquiry, for instance "art," our "conception of the effects" of art, for example, although normally we would distinguish between the effects we can conceive art as having and the effects that art actually has, and between that and the effects we think that art should have, i.e. our conception of its function.  But what about our conception of the relations between that object and a host of other things, for example the relations between art and knowledge or between art and religion.  Does it clarify things much to say that this is only understandable in terms of possible or conceivable or actual or proper effects?

After recently rereading Descartes Meditations and teaching it I found myself wondering what the point of Descartes really is.  Now, on reading Peirce again, who is so much opposed to Descartes, I find myself wondering about Peirce.  He writes "a  belief that the ultimate test of certainty is found in individual consciousness, rather than by relying on the testimony of sages" is a Cartesian assumption that is problematic.  Sure, but how about the idea that a feeling of certainty (which is attended by something like the phrase "aha...this must be this") is necessarily attached to a new idea (a personal vision) and that this is the basis (whether individual or cultural does not matter) for future creative work.  That's a possible way of translating Descartes into something more plausible, and it also shows a neglect by pragmatists of that aspect of thinking.  

Peirce writes:  "We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived from hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts" and "We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognition."  Sure, but how about this:  we have a power (not incorrigible) to intuit patterns in our experienced world which is not derived from hypothetical reasoning based on knowledge of facts, although such reasoning and such knowledge usually play important roles in crating that intuition. This intuition is a personal vision that collects and organizes the data, both facts and values, and projects into the future.  

He also says "we have no power of thinking without signs" and yet we do have the power to think, and thinking is usually a matter of getting some sign-less hunch, perhaps associated with a sign, into propositional form.  Peirce seems to be getting only one side of the creative process in thinking. 


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Joseph Margolis Reinventing Pragmatism

Joseph Margolis is one of my favorite philosophers.  He has certainly done a lot of important work in aesthetics.  This blog post however will be on his book Reinventing Pragmatism:  American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca:  Cornell, 2002) where he basically says little about aesthetics or art.  This is not a book I recommend for beginners.  It largely consists in a debate between Margolis and various contemporaries concerning the possible uses of pragmatism.  It is extremely dense.  I found myself trying to keep a tally of the things which Margolis seems to believe just to keep straight what he is saying apart from his various arguments against his fellow philosophers.

Naturalism is good.  
Naturalizing is not.  (I take it that naturalizing is a naturalism committed to Cartesian assumptions...see below).
Pragmatism is good but needs to be interpreted in a different way than Putnam's or Rorty's (i.e. by incorporating relativism and historicism)
Pragmatism can be associated with a good form of realism.
Historicism is good.
Cartesianism is bad. Descartes' "realism requires a radical disjunction between cognizing subjects and cognized world and pretends to reclaim an objective and neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from out inquiries, a world uncontaminated by the doubtful beliefs and appearances that occupy us in the process" (13)  He further explains Cartesian realism as "correspondentist in some criterially explicit regard, favors cognitive faculties reliably (even essentially) qualified to discern the actual features and structures of independent reality, is context-free and ahistorical, strongly separates human cognizers and cognized world, and is committed to one ideally valid description of the real world."  (38)  
Cognitive privilege is bad.
Constructivist realism is good.
Postmodernism is bad, particularly Rorty's version
Relativism can be coherently formulated, and as such is good.

Granted, Margolis has some style quirks that may be irritating to some: he often seems overconfident in his claims to have refuted opponents (something that seems somewhat inconsistent with his advocacy of relativism.) He plays a very aggressive game. Also, although he often complains that his opponents have no arguments for their positions, I often find Margolis's jumps from final premise to conclusion surprising, if not breathtaking. A few more intervening premises might have been helpful. Complaints aside, the overall scope and vision of Margolis is both impressive and convincing. And one gets a sense of some in reading this book of the battles within contemporary philosophy, battles that not only occur between such current thinkers as Rorty and Putnam, but also that extend back to such thinkers as Parmenides, Protagoras and Plato. As mentioned the bete noire of the book is Descartes, or more specifically Cartesianism (on Margolis's view, Kant was a Cartesian too). He sees most of his opponents as accepting some such position. His heroes on a grand scale are Hegel (or what he often refers to as post-Kantianism) and Dewey. Rorty is attacked for his advocacy of Postmodernism. He also has some critical things to say about such thinkers as Davidson, Brandom, Devitt, McDowell and Quine.

So what does Margolis believe? As we have seen, he likes to talk in terms of isms. But in each case you need to understand that the ism he advocates is understood in his own way. He clearly favors pragmatism (mainly of the Deweyan sort), historicism (here he usually refers to Hegel), flux (the idea that there are no necessities or demonstrable invariances), holism, relativism (of a moderate sort in the sense that it may serve a useful function in some sectors), naturalism (but not the naturalizing move of much analytic philosophy), constructivism, realism of the constructivist sort, and symbiosis of the subjective and objective. He rejects the idea that there is any "neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from our inquiries." (13) He also rejects necessities de re and de cogitatione and even the necessity of bivalent logic, although a "relativistic logci" could be compatible with the use of bivalence. He also has it in for extensionalist logic. As a strong follower of Dewey, he sees knowledge as a matter of the interaction of the live creature and its surrounding environment. In sum "there cannot be any uniquely correct catalogue of 'what there is' in the way of entities or essential attributes."

Why is it that Margolis holds such an outlier position in advocating a relativist and constructivist version of pragmatism vs. both Putnam and Rorty? It is because, as a philosopher of art as well, he does not limit himself to a small set of examples from the sciences in developing his overall philosophical perspective. For Margolis, judgments that would be seen as logically incompatible need not be judged as such: "interpretations of artworks ...that could not (bivalently) be jointly true of the same referent may, on a suitable many value logic, be jointly valid" although still logically "incongruent" in not being able to be incorporated into a single valid interpretation.

My only real objection to Margolis is that he fails to see the role that such things as essences, relativized and historicized, play in our actual experience.  There are essences even though they are, to use Margolis's own language, "provisional, perspectived, 'interested,' 'instrumental'...fluxive, constructed..."  (117)  These are objects of intuition closely tied to world as we experience it.  And they have what Aristotle referred to as potency or potentiality.  Essences are not just concepts but ways of seeing that are also ways of being.  They are attached to concepts.  They are also deeply aesthetic in nature:  they have aura.  Essences draw from the past and point to the future.  Moreover, essences are metaphorical in nature:  they involve a violation of conceptual order.  They are the objects of creative insight.  From the Spinozistic perspective, they are the spiritual aspect of the world, the other aspect of which is the material.  Essences are in a sense fictions, but fiction plays a real role in human experience.  The doctrine of flux is false if it means that there are no invariences, no necessities within experience.  I agree with Margolis that we cannot demonstrate modal invariences or necessities, but we can experience such things in a fictional way...and moreover, these experiences, and these things, are essential to what it is to be human.  There are invariences, necessities, a priori, the transcendental, if all of these are placed under quote marks:  a world of fiction that still plays a role in our lives.  The whole idea of pragmatism, that truth and meaning is best seen when looking at consequences, fits well with this.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jed Perl, Chardin and Everyday Aesthetics

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin [Public domain] Saying Grace, 1740, via Wikimedia Commons

At one time, roughly in the 1960s, aestheticians saw themselves as meta-critics.  This entailed that they read a lot of actual criticism, just to know what they were talking about.  The idea is not as popular today but I submit that aestheticians can learn a lot from critics and should read them more often and more seriously.  There was a time, also, when we treated some particularly philosophical art critics as honorary philosophers.  Selections from Clive Bell's Art still play an important role in aesthetics textbooks.  Why not some more contemporary critics too?

I have been reading Jed Perl's Magicians and Charlatans:  Essays on Art and Cutlure (New York:  Eakins Press Foundation, 2012), a book lent to me by an artist friend.  Firs, what a pleasure it is to read a real physical book that is so well put together:  so often today we read electronic versions, and miss out on a lot.  This book is pleasant to handle and has excellent color illustrations that fit in well with the overall reading experience.  (The illustrations generally are of better quality than the online versions I have seen. As with many readers today, I supplement my reading with checking out images of the works the author refers to, and it is especially helpful to read Perl along with looking at an image.)  I confess that this is the first time I have sat down and read an entire book by Perl.  (I have been put off in the past by his strange adulation of Balthus, who, despite Perl's best efforts, still seems to me a rather minor figure.)  However, in my estimation, he is a very good critic indeed.  It would be great for some philosophy graduate student to work through his many books and cull the  meaty stuff just to address the issue of the relation between philosophy of art and art criticism, perhaps even to bridge the gap.  Today I will just focus on his chapter "Ordinary Magic:  Chardin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" which was originally published in August of 2000.

I have often said that artists are the true experts in everyday aesthetics.  A question is what they actually contribute and what role this contribution can play in the aesthetic theories of philosophers.  I am very aware that in reading works like this one by Perl I am looking for something very specific: the possible contribution to aesthetics.  (Perl provides a lot else:  comments on how paintings are made, the life of the painter, the social context of the show being reviewed, and so forth.) I see Perl as acting as a medium between myself and the artist, where the artist is probably the one who is making the major contribution. I also will not make comments about what Perl has to say about the art as such but rather about how the art reveals a certain approach to everyday life.

The still life in general is an exploration of everyday life, and Chardin is surely one of the greatest still life painters.  My claim in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary and elsewhere has been that great art reveals to us something about the potentialities of everyday aesthetic experience.  How does Chardin do it?  Partly it is through animation of the object, treating it as if it were living, or even human.  Imaginative seeing is at the core of this kind of engagement with everyday life.  Perl describes it:  "Often placed with their handles facing us, these pitchers [by Chardin] move off into a dramatic engagement with other objects.  The handle, which is close to us, can have an eye-popping verisimilitude, a bulk and a glistening surface that is as action-packed as the muscular arm of an athlete." (181)  It achieves what I have called "aura." 

For me, the philosophically interesting material comes with the paragraph which begins:  "Ordinariness was, of course, one of Chardin's favorite themes.  Luckily for us, he always felt the need to give a little extra to the ordinary."  This is followed by:  "there is something in the temper of Chardin's realism, in his sense that close, almost scientific observation can yield magically revelatory experiences, that is in line with some of the most progressive thinking in Europe ....Those ultrasimplified still lifes ....in which a few humble objects are simultaneously set under a microscope and dissolved in a romantic atmosphere, present quotidian experience with something of the adoring lucidity that poets would bring to the study of folklore in the years to come."  (188)  He adds that Chardin was able to operate in a period before thinkers took too seriously the opposition between the rationalist and the Romantic.  I think sometimes that the disagreement between myself and functionalists like Carlson and Parsons (call them rationalists) is not so much a matter of my thinking that they got it wrong but of my thinking that they did not get enough...that aesthetic experience of the everyday can be both science-minded and romantic (imagination imbued) and that one need not choose between the two.  

Perl tells us that in Chardin, "Inanimate things are set under a spell. They are animated - they are enchanted - by the stroke of Chardin's painted brush."  What is fascinating about the great painter's approach to everyday life is that the exploration of the aesthetics of everyday life is in the painting, and that what happens in the painting is not just a recording of what is seen or even of that plus a subjective reaction but an actualization of a potential which is already there in the scene as experienced by the painter.  Of course there is a lot that happens in the construction of the painting that is not ordinarily there in everyday life experience:  As Perl puts it, "This is everyday life in eighteenth-century France, until you begin to imagine Chardin plotting the arrangement of his immortal toy theater -  then you realize that what we have here is some kind of Constructivist pinwheel of circles, more circles, and radiating angles"  [this referring to Saying Grace, pictured above.] (190) Fine, but this is a making that is itself a kind of seeing, from which we cannot detach the seeing that goes along with it.

Perl is also not unaware of the these paintings just escaping a descent into kitsch.  He writes,  "Strangely enough, Chardin's figures achieve ...totemic power despite the aura of sticky sentimentality or fussy conventional feeling that sometimes clings to his impressions of a mother supervising her daughters' prayers or a servant going about her daily rounds.  Some of the paintings may be bromides, but they are so beautifully hewn that the ordinariness becomes sphinxlike, quietly oracular."  (192)

Chardin gives us a truth, that everyday life, even of those who are not part of the privileged elite, can be rich with aesthetic meaning.  He brings out the aura of meaningfulness to be found in everyday objects by way of his imaginative vision, fully actualized in his painted products, but already nascent in the seeing that attends his creative process.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kitsch, Religion, and an Atheist Aesthetic by Phillip Elliot, Oct. 31, 2014.

[This is a guest blog by one of our graduate students at San Jose State, Phillip Elliot.]

The overall goal of this project will be to explore a question in regards to kitsch and religious art, namely “is religious art kitsch?”  I will begin by defining what ‘kitsch’ is. Once the definition is constructed I will pull examples from different religious institutions beginning with the small over- produced items such as prayer candles, tiny Buddha sculptures, and symbolic jewelry and end with larger objects such as mosques, churches, synagogues and temples (including the artwork within and the architecture throughout).I will then claim that religion is a lens for aesthetic experiences, which furthers artwork such as temples, paintings, and small mass-produced art works, and that all having the ability to become kitsch through this lens. I will be exploring this topic through a filter of what Tom Leddy has called “aesthetic atheism.”[1]

Kitsch is a term commonly used to describe cheap (often more in relation to the creator or typical purchaser of the work than the actual price tag) works of art. I will define kitsch as something far more. A descriptive definition of kitsch will also be normative. Kitsch is mass-produced art set to impress the viewer emotionally. Kitsch in itself is a valuable mode of art that communicates to a massive amount of people and should be regarded as acceptable for this reason.  Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell can be described as kitsch artists. That their art portrays an almost dream state while actively selling the viewer a way of life characterized by nostalgic feeling defines them as such. Monet painted beautiful settings of flowers and landscapes but is considered a great master painter while Rockwell is described by his detractors as a common kitsch illustrator. I argue that the mastery of Kinkade and Rockwell should not be cheapened by a name that has a negative connotation, that name being kitsch.
One of the main factors when discussing kitsch is the sentimentality of the art work. Kitsch is a term so loaded with meaning that at times it may be hard to untangle it from great works of art.  Great works of art may evoke a sentimental feeling, and this causes confusion when trying to pinpoint which sentimental feelings make artwork kitsch. If we see kitsch art as merely art that holds a nostalgic sentiment for the viewer of the object, we are not defining it fully. Defending kitsch as art falls outside the scope of this project. Defining the uses and the meaning of kitsch is a firm basis from which to start. Kitsch is described by Robert Solomon  as follows: “whatever the cause or the context, it is sentimentality of kitsch that makes kitsch, kitsch and sentimentality that makes kitsch morally suspect if not immoral” (Solomon 341).  Although Solomon  does not consider it immoral, it is easy to see from an atheist point of view how a cheap sentimental feeling evoked by an artwork can be so considered. For example, a painting of Jesus  holding hands with children  hung in a nursery school could be considered  indoctrination.  The derogatory form of kitsch is brought through such seemingly placid sentimental emotions
Now that I have established in what regard I am addressing kitsch, I will say why I think it not detrimental to say that an art object is kitsch. It is easy to point at a Kinkade or Rockwell and claim that that art is kitsch. For example, Rockwell often depicted  boy scouts. These paintings were manufactured and used as magazine covers for Boy’s Life, a monthly magazine for the Boy Scouts of America. This widespread use of images of wholesome-looking young people doing things like running with a dog through a small town sold the American way of life. Rockwell’s work is considered kitsch because of the nostalgic sense you feel when seeing his pictures. But, most would agree that even if these works are properly seen as kitsch they are still valuable as works of art.   The interesting question for an atheist is how does this differ from mass-produced paintings of Jesus Christ, or statuettes of Buddha? Do these produce the same valuable nostalgic sentiments that a Rockwell painting delivers?  Are they kitsch in the same sense.
The negative use of “kitsch” is what Solomon refers to when he says that “Kitsch and sentimentality provoke excessive or immature expressions of emotion.”  (Solomon 318)  He goes on: “It is true that kitsch is calculated to evoke our emotions, especially those emotions that are best expressed by the limp vocabulary that seems embarrassingly restricted to such adjectives as ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’ or that even more humiliating, drawn out downward intoned ‘Aaaah’ that seems inappropriate even in Stuckeys” (Solomon 342) [Stuckey’s is a mainly Eastern U.S. convenience store chain that sells novelty items along with food]. 

Aesthetic Atheism:
            Aesthetic Atheism is a relatively new view on atheism. Originally defined by Thomas Leddy, aesthetic atheism does not rely on lack of evidence in the belief that there is no God, although that is a major tenet of atheism: an aesthetic atheism is a positive function focusing on the possibility of self-transcendence without positing any gods. As  Leddy states in his blog Aesthetics Today, “Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God (based on the failure of proofs of God's existence and also based on the ways in which religious belief leads to various distortions, as Nietzsche saw) but at the same time affirms experiences of transcendence” (Leddy, Aesthetics Today 2013) That is to say that atheists can attain a feeling of the sublime or, dare I say, of the spiritual[2], without giving alms to the “spirit”. Whether through a Zen-like understanding of their surroundings, or by being moved to tears by a painting of Christ, an aesthetic atheist can be spiritual. It is not necessary to believe in religion to have a “spiritual” feeling or response to any object.  Nor is it required that objects that generate these feelings be religious art objects.  This leads us into what Kant called “aesthetic ideas.” Leddy also discusses this topic in a different blog post, stating: “The existence of experiences of pure beauty itself is training however for something higher, which is the development of what Kant calls aesthetic ideas…"Aesthetic ideas" are products of the imagination at even a higher level in which the artist genius creates his/her own world, a world which follows its own rules.”  (Leddy, 2014).  Perhaps religious art can give rise to aesthetic ideas in this sense.  This would be contrary to the intent of the artist, although it is also hard to say to what extent many religious artists of the past accepted religious orthodoxy.  Let us at least consider the possibility that the intent of the artist was not to infect the viewer with sentimental emotions but rather to present an idealized world.  If so, the audience that allows such great works to become kitsch (in the sense that it is treated as such) misses the best intentions of such artists. The intent of the artist may not be, for example, to infect the viewer with overtly sentimental emotions.  Although the Medieval artists’  world in which they created their work (one in which God’s existence is not questioned) may be lost today, and hence widely misinterpreted, such works of art can still become both kitsch (in the positive sense) and valuable in the eyes of nonreligious individuals.    

The Religious Lens:
            Those who believe in a higher power are ultimately using a lens to filter their perceptions of objects. For example, if a Christian sees a remarkable act such as a car flipping over and everyone inside escaping injury, he or she could happily exclaim “T’was a miracle, this was God’s work!”   However a non-believer can say, with the same certainty, that this act was one of chance and that the makers of the vehicle should be thanked for designing such a safe car.  When  individuals view the world they use their belief systems to categorize and associate the objects around them through their perception.  When viewing art, these lenses of belief are no different.  However, when viewing religious art, it seems simple to say that an atheist may have no emotional response to  its religious content.  Yet it is far too easy to accuse the atheist of this insensitivity.  The atheist may of course view religious art as something other than kitsch in the positive sense, for example a painting by Rembrandt of a biblical scene as high art. That is not to say that they cannot also see the most ornate religious artifacts as being kitsch and value them exactly as they might a Rockwell.
            Sentimentality of religious art is what makes certain pieces of art kitsch for an atheist. However this same maneuver can be followed by the religious. Those disposed to a certain faith can, and often will, view works of other faiths and religions as kitsch. For example an ardent Christian may view statuettes of Buddha in a friend’s home as eastern kitsch. The Buddhist, however, may view the small statues  as strong symbols of their faith rather than as a work of poorly made art  as examples of kitsch.  Similarly, their Christian friend’s crucifix, hanging over their dining room, may be seen by them as a cheaply made carving, in other words, kitschy in a negative sense, or in a positive way, as like a Rockwell.
            Since all experiences are viewed through some perceptual lens there can be different degrees of lensing that occur within most individuals  For example, if an individual has a weak belief in a higher power he or she might find religious art such as prayer candles found 
at a pharmacy as pretty tacky and kitschy, whereas Michelangelo’s painting of God touching man in the Sistine chapel might be extremely moving in that its religious content is. However, an atheist could consider that same painting as negative kitsch due to its sentimental value for Christians. 

Religious Art, is it Kitsch?          
Religious art ranges from monstrous architectural wonders to tacky jewelry and kitschy everyday fads; from cathedrals, temples, and mosques, to Star of David necklaces, small crucifixes, and Buddha statuettes. These objects and buildings can be viewed from the atheist perspective as nothing more than kitsch, yet there is  a resolution for the atheist’s dilemma to be found in viewing these symbolic objects as having meaning for someone else. Using the loose definition of kitsch discussed earlier, from the atheist perspective it would seem that all art that gives nostalgic, sentimental, or “warm and fuzzy” feelings would be considered kitsch.  Depending on the person of faith’s description of the previously mentioned works of art, from the atheist perspective, all could be considered kitsch. This statement implies that religious views themselves are the cause of these objects being kitsch, and it is also understandable for those who have religion to believe that there feelings towards the object allow for religious experience, but not kitsch.
Betty Spackman, a theist artist, discusses at great length the usefulness of religious kitsch (Christian) and its effect on the purchaser. She writes, “there are a lot of evangelicals involved in creating crafts that are meant as either ‘witnessing tools’ or personal devotional aids. Despite their (usually) amateur quality these handmade, homemade articles have a great deal of impact on people. Someone has invested time and energy, and so no matter what their quality they are imbued with a certain authenticity and value because they have a known ‘author.’” (Spackman 411) This “certain authenticity and value” can be viewed as what Solomon described earlier as kitsch deceiving our emotional reactions to art work. Christian kitsch Spackman believes is quite necessary and in fact deeply enriching for the Christian who purchases the object.  However, if we consider Solomon’s final description of kitsch in which “Kitsch is art (whether or not it is good art) that is deliberately designed to so move us, by presenting a well selected and perhaps much edited version of some particularly and predictably moving aspect of our shared experience, including, plausibly enough, innocent scenes of small children and our favorite pets playing and religious and other sacred icons.” (Solomon 345)  Spackman’s position is somewhat shaky. Kitsch may cheapen the effect of these religious articles, not for the purchaser, but for the non-believer.  It may become clear that kitsch and sentimentality manipulates our emotions, forcing the individual to have a cheesy, aaaah moment (Solomon 343). 
So, is religious art kitsch? Well surely, prayer candles may be viewed as kitsch but it is certainly a functioning tool for the Christian.  Similarly, the Star of David pendant strapped around one’s neck may be viewed as kitsch from an atheist perspective but for the individual who adorns their body with this jewelry it is more of a reminder to “hold faith.” So where does the separation of kitsch and functional tools of faith happen when viewing these art objects? The difference is the perspective of the viewer, as relativistic as this sounds: the religious art object is only kitsch when in relation to the viewer of the art object as something that gives a deeply sentimental emotion. Religious kitsch such as the “buddy Christ” statuettes, which is an almost comic-bookesque representation of Jesus Christ holding two thumbs up and an impressive wink, may be considered kitsch in the sense that it is mass produced and supposed to evoke some religious comedic relief to the viewer, whereas the Star of David pendant may be seen as kitsch by non-Jewish peoples. 

            In this essay I have defined kitsch as a type of art object that plays off of emotional sentiments. These sentiments are supposed to give the individual a sense of deeper meaning, comfort, emotional catharsis, and also a warm and fuzzy feeling. Given that most if not all religious art is meant to give the viewer some sort of spiritual emotion, it is safe to say that for the atheist all religious art can be considered kitsch. When an atheist views a statue of “Buddy Christ” the object is meant to be a humorous attempt at religious kitsch as opposed to a small figurine of Buddha which is meant as a sort of spiritual reminder.  The intended meanings are completely different.  However, that does not make the categorical claim that these are both works of kitsch any less true. On the flipside, it is almost too simple to state that atheists would consider all works of religious art as kitsch. As argued by Leddy, it is possible for an atheist to feel a spiritually moving emotion while viewing any art object, without belief in a spirit or higher being. That said, when a religious art object is viewed by an atheist and the atheist feels a deep emotional response to the work, it is possible that that particular art work is not kitsch but rather an art object that can move an atheist past the sentimental objective of the art object.  In short, the religious context of an art object does not necessarily categorize a work of art as kitsch; it is only when that object is viewed through the religious lens that it may become kitsch to some. For example, the Sistine Chapel has vast murals of religious art from one of the most impressive, talented, ingenious artists of all time. Rarely would we hear the utterance “this is kitsch” in the presence of such monumental religious art, although for some atheists the mere having a religious subject matter would make these great works of art kitsch if the intention of these paintings is to move an individual into a kitsch like emotional state, full of manipulative sentiments. Not all religious art is kitsch in the eyes of the atheist, and on the same token not all religious art is considered meaningful to the religious. 


ebay.uk. n.d. http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/BUDDY-CHRIST-DOGMA-STATUE-JAY-AND-SILENT-BOB-VIEW-ASKEW-KEVIN-SMITH-STATUETTE-/281134413569.
Heidicries.com. n.d. http://www.heidicries.com/ProductList.php?id=351.
Leddy, Tom. Aesthetics Today. march 2014. 26 march 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2014/03/kant-and-imagination-and-aesthetic.html.
—. Aesthetics Today. October 2013. 26 March 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2013/10/aesthetic-atheism.html.
Solomon, Robert. "Kitsch." Goldblatt, David and Lee Brown. Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts. Boston: Pearson, 2011. 342-345.
Spackman, Betty. "Reconsidering "Kitsch." Material Religion (2005): 405-416.
www.flickr.com. n.d. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenx5/3672823120/.



[1] Thomas Leddy, Aesthetics Today —. Aesthetics Today. October 2013. 26 March 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2013/10/aesthetic-atheism.html
[2] I use the word spiritual in sense that is non-religious. Spirituality as it is used here is referring to an extra empirical sensation, though it may be caused by sense experience. It is not being used, in any fashion alluding to extraterrestrial or supernatural levels of elation or faith.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Does it make sense to speak of after the beautiful?

I have been reading the very interesting new book by Robert B. Pippin, After the Beautiful:  Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism.  (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2014.)  The book attempts to show how Hegel's philosophy can be applied to modernist painting after his time, in particular the work of Manet and Cezanne.  It also has some things to say about Clark, Fried and both Hegel and Heidegger or art and truth.  The idea of "after the beautiful" is that the concept of beauty is no longer (or was no longer in the modernist period) of any great importance to art.  A possible summary of the position can be found in the following sentence:  "if we look at art and art history as a component of a collective attempt at social intelligibility - how we attempt to make ourselves intelligible and answerable to each other - and this is a uniquely sensible affective modality, the success and failures of such a project continue to be available to us in and indispensable way in visual and in other arts."  (240)  This seems right to me  -- are does not die after Hegel or Danto, for that matter, and yet what is not clear is how this pathway excludes the concept of beauty.  If beauty is taken as a marker for the value dimension of whatever comes to us in "sensible affective" modalities, then it is hard to see how it can be transcended.  I suspect that Pippin has simply identified beauty with various no longer viable or currently questionable concepts of beauty.  Yet concepts change, and to identify beauty entirely with Kant's or Hume's concept of beauty makes no more sense than to identify sensibility and the affects with their concepts of these things.  Pippin clearly sees "painterly meaning" as replacing such things as "beauty, pleasure, and taste."  (65)  Yet, if we are going to think in terms of meaning in relation to the aesthetic or the painterly, how can this exclude beauty, pleasure and taste?  Like Pippin I find both Manet and Cezanne to be powerful and moving.  Surely something here is being communicated.  But at the same time I mark them high on the scale of beauty, the possibility of aesthetic pleasure, and as objects of taste.  Of course, Hegel, Pippin's favorite author, does neglect beauty, mentioning it infrequently, and downplaying the beauties of nature.  But even he, as Pippin is aware, ends his lectures recognizing the, as Pippin quotes at the end of his book!, "indestructible bond of the Idea of beauty and truth" (144).  Pippin goes so far as to say that the "modernist equivalent to beauty as the 'promise of happiness' is this promise of meaning..."   (59) where success in this promise is related to what Manet's figures do when they "confront" the beholder.  But isn't the immense power of Manet's work a matter of just this, and isn't this also how beauty manifests itself here?  Let's not confuse surface beautiful effects and mere prettiness with beauty.  

Pippin's chapter 4  "Art and Truth:  Heidegger and Hegel" has perhaps the most importance for everyday aesthetics, although Pippin himself seems not to be aware of that.  Through Pippin's reading of Heidegger on the origin of the work of art, a reading which seems, for the most part, to be correct, one sees the glimmer of a possible alternative theory of beauty, one that can allow for a close relationship between art and everyday life in the way that great art reveals something about the everyday (although perhaps at the same time also concealing something).  Pippin writes:  "A painting is some kind of embodiment of the 'happening' of truth - basically, as we shall see, the happening or being at work of the 'world' or horizon of possible significance that constitutes a world in various dimensions of the art of an age."  (102)  Setting aside the somewhat irritating circularity of defining painting in terms of art, what is interesting here is the idea that painting can reveal something in the world that happens.  Heidegger speaks of this as the "Being of beings" coming "into the steadiness of its shining" which is the same thing as "the truth of beings setting itself to work."  Unlike Pippin, I take "shining" to be the new word for, or signifying a new manifestation of, beauty.  Pippin himself puts it this way:  "In the most general sense Heidegger is trying to reanimate the question of the relation between 'beauty' and 'truth,' but where the beautiful is not understood as a matter of the subject's experience....and where truth is disclosure...and not 'correctness.'"  (111)  I am fine with truth not being correctness, but what puzzles me is how beauty would not be a matter of subject's experience.  As I understand it, Pippin is defining "experience" in a highly subjective and isolated way, and not, for example, in an expansive Deweyan way, i.e. in terms of the interactions of the (necessarily socialized) live creature with its environment.  

The approach to beauty and the relationship to everyday life is made somewhat clearer when Pippin draws together the various comments Heidegger made about Cezanne along with Merleau-Ponty's more extensive discussions of that artist.  Here we stress that the "presence" of beings that is brought forth in Cezanne is something revealed in such a way as to have "vitality or vibrancy."  (116)  The stillness of Cezanne is "accompanied by an extraordinary vitality or vibrancy even a kind of vibration or pulsing of life in the objects..."   Pippin thinks that this is best illustrated by a comment from Greenberg (1971) in which he speaks of the paint vibrating and dilating rhythmically both in terms of  illusion of depth and flat pattern.  But this is typically Greenbergian in failing to recognize the way in which paintings constitute and reconstitute the world:  the vibration Heidegger and Merleau Ponty speak of is surely not just in the painting.  Pippin is not unaware of this and captures the thought when he says that for Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty "the meaning of this painterly effect, the 'vibration,' is some intimation of the object's actually coming into being, its "birth," as if composing itself....taking intelligible form.  He further quotes from Merleau-Ponty about the painter:  "The world no longer stands before him through representation; rather it is to the painter to whom things of the world give birth by a sort of concentration or coming-to-itself of the visible."  (119)  

OK, so the great painter reveals something about the world in getting beneath the surface, through capturing something symbolized by this talk of "giving birth." The painter then reveals the world to us somehow as lost, a pantheistic world in the Spinozistic sense.  In that world we were still able to listen to Being, and as Heidegger would put it, these great paintings preserve this possibility.  But this is not the ordinary way of seeing objects of everyday life, not ordinary in our Western world anyway.  Great painting, particularly of the sort exemplified by Cezanne, challenges the ordinariness of the ordinary.  It challenges us, for instance, not to see things as merely a matter of imposing form on matter. Vibrancy is just another word for beauty, although of the deep sort. 

It is a major mistake, by the way, for Pippin not to see the way in which the entire Origins essay is about the thing-being of things.  I think the problem is that Pippin is overly influenced by a certain reading of Being and Time and applying that to the origins essay.

Perhaps this is why he does not quite get the point when he says that by "event" of birthing  "They [Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty] mean to say that it is 'as if' everything of relevance to the bare intelligibility of the object, its simply and meaningfully being there at all, occupying space, confronting us in a kind of mute presence, can be somehow 'made visible' in the painting....powerfully present."  (121)  Intelligibility by itself is not enough! What is made powerfully present, rather, is the beauty in the strong Neoplatonistic sense of emanation and also the Spinozistic sense of the spiritual aspect of a world which is at the same time entirely material  (Spinoza superceding Plotinus here).  

Pippin then, not surprisingly, takes a somewhat different approach to Cezanne's later bather paintings (1894-1906) than I would.  For him these paintings "could be understood as expressing the ever more limited possibilities of answering [questions concerning the point of modern easel painting and the possibility of social relationships involving mutual intelligibility of action], or perhaps intimations of the suspicion that they cannot be answered or that they can be answered only at the level of the shareability of a rather brutish material meaning."  (129)  He thinks it not incorrect to say that in these paintings the earth (in Heidegger's sense) is winning over the word, and that the bathers are world-poor.  (But this accepts the whole earth/world dichotomy, which itself may be problematic, as a kind of acceptance of dualism.) 

I think that Cezanne here is trying to dig even deeper into the possibility of a Spinozistic way of viewing the world, and that this is what Heidegger was trying to get out of Van Gogh.  But then I also think that Pippin is engaged in a heroic struggle to fit his progressivist left-Hegelian politics in with his strong responses to painting, and this just can't be done here, even though it can be done to some extent when talking about Manet.  Cezanne seems to have gone beyond politics to our deeper existential situation as humans.