Monday, October 3, 2011

Kant on Genius

My comment here is going to be just based on the material in the textbook I am using, Goldblatt and Brown's Aesthetics, pp. 408-410. I'm sure whatever I'll say will be pretty limited, but given this material I would say that Kant has an interesting theory of genius insofar as, unlike many other aesthetic theories, it emphasizes the teacher/student relationship and stresses the idea that each of us is potentially a genius. A genius is going to be someone who is both capable of producing something original and is academically trained, i.e. trained in the skills necessary for the field. The talent needs to be trained to produce works that can be judged good. The product can't be original nonsense: it must be original but in the the sense of "original" we use when we expect a good philosophical paper to be original, i.e. to be a contribution to a tradition. In addition, the genius is someone who is in a student/teacher relationship in which "following" rather than "imitation" is the rule. The student does not imitate the teacher. Rather, the student follows the teacher by being inspired by the teacher's work, that is assuming that the student has similar abilities to the teacher's. (There are some areas in which we just don't have talent. However, it is quite possible on Kant's view that everyone is talented in some area. Since we all have the faculties of imagination and undertanding, we are all basically equal, thus capable of genius.) The good teacher then would be someone who gets the student to discover the genius within. When the student finds his or her own genius he or she using the imagination and the understanding in free play to create rules for his or her art. These rules basically constitute the style of the genius. In addition, they allow the genius to create of world of her own, as for example, when Van Gogh creates his own world in "Starry Night," one that follows his own rules.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kant's Sublime

"Vue de la montagne du Nant d'Arpenaz" in De Saussure 
"Voyages dans les Alpes..."
1779 à 1796 mentioned by Kant in the Critique of Judgment  #29 (Meredith trans., 115) More images and text on de Saussure
Does Kant's concept of the sublime have any relevance to us today?  It is really rather odd.  He thinks it is not the objects of nature or art that are sublime but rather the subject who experiences the sublime.  Our imagination tries to represent something absolutely great to us, but then fails, and this is painful.  In failing, however, it recognizes that there is something supersensible (transcendent) that causes it to engage in this effort, thus giving it pleasure in the thought of its own freedom.  The feeling of freedom I know, and I can also comprehend some of what Kant is saying when I take a hike in the Sierras.  However, I do not find myself thinking about myself or my incredible power in relation to nature when I experience something which seems sublime to me.  Whereas Kant really does believe in the noumenal or supersensible realm in which resides God and our own eternal soul (the source of our freedom) I cannot buy into this.  Simon Morley in his introduction to The Sublime (Documents of Contemporary Art, 2010) thinks that most contemporary artists interested in the sublime are interested in an immanent sublime.  That sounds intriguing, although isn't it an oxymoron?  The sublime by its nature seems to be transcendent.  My thought here is that when we experience the sublime we experience something as if it intimates a transcendent realm, as if there were a god, as if I had a soul which allowed me to act with total freedom.  These are all illusions -- yet needed to make life meaningful.  They give mythological meaning to an experience which is itself real.  Nietzsche uses the necessary illusion in a number of contexts.  He sees truth as a  necessary illusion in his “Truth and Lies” paper. The doctrine of eternal recurrence (found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) has been referred to as a necessary illusion. (See Nietzsche: disciple of Dionysus by Rose Pfeffer, 176)  In The Birth of Tragedy he even sees the phenomenal world as a necessary illusion.  Paul Rée, who influenced Nietzsche, saw moral consciousness and freedom as necessary illusions.  Religion itself can be seen as a necessary illusion.  It is arguable that Nietzsche saw his key religious figure, Dionysus, as a necessary illusion.  That humanity is something extra-special in the universe is a necessary illusion too, as is also the idea that we have free will. William James also thought we should act as if the free will were real...thus seemingly holding it to be a necessary illusion.  Vaihinger also develops Nietzsche's idea of necessary illusion in his book The Philosophy of As If.  Although Kant definitely did not believe in necessary illusions he did believe that we should act as if God exists, etc..  Pfeffer correctly points out that Nietzsche really gets the idea, contra Vaihinger, from Kant's Critique of Judgment.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Complicating Heidegger and Architecture

I am thinking about two articles in the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 69 no. 1, "Complicating Heidegger and the Truth of Architecture," by Travis T. Anderson, and "The 'Urban Photogenie' of Architainment" by Jennifer Burris.  The two articles go in very different directions but in interesting ways.  Anderson takes us through the development of Heidegger's ideas of architecture, beginning with Being and Time, going through "The Origins of the Work of Art" and ending with the period of Building, Dwelling, Thinking."  The architectural hero of the story is Frank Gehry, who, Anderson thinks, "demonstrates that architecture presents the truth and beauty of the elemental and natural as foundational to our being and our world." (78) Anderson had already spoken of Frank Lloyd Wright as fitting Heidegger's philosophy of architecture in that it reveals "the beauty and truth of brick, stone, concrete, wood, and glass" and also the beauty and truth of the landscape in which it is situated.  Gehry's buildings, he thinks, does something similar with respect to "the sheen of titanium, the plasticity of cement, the translucency of glass, the strength of steel, and the flexibility of chain-link."  He even thinks that Gehry goes further than Wright by awakening "our imagination to the organic, irregular, and fluctuating forms of nature as a living, evolving life-world" and also by complicating the relations between architecture and sculpture.  What draws me to contrast Anderson to Burris is when he says "unlike representational arts, works of architecture attune us to the truths and beauty of the elemental itself, completely undiluted by an image that would divert our attention from the matter out of which it is composed." (78)  Burris by contrast talks about the New American Urbanism, a movement that began in the 1990s and consisted of "film-set architecture modeled on the cinematic vision of pre-sprawl America"  using architectural facades using "unnecessary awnings and front porches meant to evoke the idealized topography of early twentieth-century small-town America." (96)  Celebration is a Disney-developed town in this tradition.  New American Urbanism seems like the opposite of Heideggerian architecture:  it is much more concerned with images that are precisely intended to divert our attention from the matter.  In a way, this is just the old debate between modernism and postmodernism, except in this case Gehry is associated with modernism (whereas he is usually associated with deconstructivism...but then deconstructivism is a kind of modernist response to postmodernism).  Burris ends her article with a discussion of three photographers who are responding to, or are inspired by, New American Urbanism, i.e. Peter Granser, Andreas Gefeller and Thomas Demand.  Although I agree with the critics of the New American Urbanism (that it is superficial and obsessed with commodity consumption) I also feel ambiguous towards it, and on two fronts.  First, I find myself enjoying the artificial Disneyland atmosphere of Santana Row, our own version of New Urbanist pastiche in San Jose.  Sometimes I tell myself that the artificial old-time small-town streets are almost as good as the real thing:  it is just nice to sit in front of a fake French cafe and watch people strolling by. (Sure this is false consciousness...but)  Second, I really like the New American Urbanist-influenced photography in which, as Burris says "The theatrical lighting and smooth lines recast this world as an eerily perfect stage set, primed for the projection of an individual's imagined story." (98)  Of course, the photography is commenting on our surface-oriented world (and thus it is not exactly promoting it):  but I cannot deny that it looks good, interesting, and right, much like the photography-based work of Palo Alto artist Kathryn Dunlevie. Also, returning to Wright and Gehry, isn't there something stage-set-like about their architecture too? 

How does this related to the aesthetics of everyday life?  First, architecture creates the everyday insofar as it makes the world in which we live our everyday lives:  or at least it makes some sites of that world (since not all buildings are architecture.).   Of course it doesn't create the everyday alone:  photography helps (as do many other things).   Second, the relationship between aesthetics of nature and aesthetics of the everyday is stressed by architecture:  we appreciate the stone in Wright's building as enhanced through transformation into something useful, hence everyday. Here, nature is appreciated, but so too the everyday.  Third, following Burris, the everyday transforms through history, for example in its relation to photography.  Burris writes "Beginning in the late 1960s, a strand of urban landscape photography seemed to translate [the] critical understanding of photography's indexicality [it is an objective imprint of the real] into the image's formal characteristics" (94) moving from street-level, humanist, social oriented photography of Cartier-Bresson to a "topographical approach" in which the urban landscape is deserted.  The new topographical photography was exemplified by Ed Ruscha, and in particular, his Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963).    In my forthcoming book (The Extraordinary in the Ordinary) I refer to Ruscha's work as exemplifying the transformation of the ordinariness of the ordinary into something extraordinary.  What I am thinking now is that this is a matter of a transformation of the constitution of the everyday and of everyday aesthetics over time:  Ruscha's move being one that gives us a new appreciation of the everyday different from that of Cartier-Bresson, but like that of (as Burris observes) Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas.  One might speak of an evolving field in which there are new competing positions, a new field of possibilities, for example the competing pulls (in my own consciousness) between the Heideggerian and the postmodernist photographers cited by Burris.  Earlier I had defended Cartier-Bresson against criticisms that he took us away from the aesthetics of everyday life:  but now I think that the aesthetics of everyday life moves on and that Cartier-Bresson, although a wonderful photographer, represents, as is inevitable, a stage, but not statically, but rather as a position in the evolving chessboard, still there, but now in opposition to the newer topographical photographers.  (I am not endorsing here Burris's typology or photography which seems simplistic if intended to cover the history of photography as a whole...but that's not relevant here.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Proper Function?

Daniel Libeskind, Royal Ontario Museum, Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition, Toronto, 2007,
Every once in a while I read one sentence in an article that causes me to question the entire theory being proposed.  So I am reading an article on "Fact and Function in Architectural Criticism" by Glenn Parsons (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69:1, 2011, 21-29.) and I read "the proper function of most pipe cleaners made and sold today is something else:  these are not smoking aids, but children's craft materials."  (27)  So this implies that if someone took a pipe cleaner and used it to clean a pipe, Parsons would say "you are not using it for its proper function."  This is just plain silly.  Another oddity in the sentence is the word "most."  Perhaps Parsons would allow that the proper function of some pipe cleaners is to clean pipes:  but how would you know which was which?  Does it really matter whether someone uses a pipe cleaner made for a crafts market to clean a pipe, or vice versa? This takes us back to Parsons' overall theory about proper function, which initially sounded pretty plausible.  "X has a proper function F if and only if Xs currently exist because ancestors of X were successful in meeting some need or want in the marketplace because they performed F, leading to the manufacture and distribution of Xs." (26) Parsons recognizes that that theory would seem to imply that the proper function of the pipe cleaner is to clean pipes! So he modifies his claim: "the effect might be the cause of the type's continued existence at times subsequent to" the time of its original existence.(27)  This is the modification that leads Parsons to think that the current usual use of pipe cleaners wipes out the original proper function, and that the proper function is "what explains existence in the recent past."  I think that this is a refutation of the original formulation and not a mere modification.  Either we pay attention to the ancestors or to current marketplace (unless he wants to say that the pipe cleaners can have two proper functions:  original and current...something Parsons hasn't tried). 

Another sentence that gets me going is in order to determine the proper function of an architectural work in Toronto called the Royal Ontario Museum, ROM one would have to examine its recent history and "identify those effects of the structure that explain the ongoing public support for its funding and maintenance."  (28) However, I would think that if you did this all you would find is what it is currently used to do by the people who financially support it.  It tells us nothing about what is proper or not.  Current financial function is not the same as proper function, as we saw above in the case of the pipe cleaners.  Imagine that the board of directors for the building were sitting around trying to determine the future uses of the building.  One of them suggests that it be changed into a church.  Another says "It's a museum.  Being a church would not fit its proper function!"  On Parsons' view, this would be out of line since after all it is the committee itself that decides what the proper function of the building is:  if they decide that its proper function is to be a church then it will be..

There is nothing wrong with changing a museum into a church and thereby giving it a new function.  The real question is whether there is any use for the word "proper" in all of this.  Would it always be wrong to use something in a way that goes against the financial reasons for its existence?  Somebody uses a car as a home.  Perhaps the person bought it to use as a home, not as a means of transportation.  But the car would not exist if the only market for its existence would be to be purchased as a home.  What's the car's proper function then?  Is it as a car or as a home?

What about people who use buildings for things not sanctioned by the financial supporters of buildings?  For example, a group might try to use a church that has been turned into a museum as a church again.  Does appealing to "proper function" help here?  What about disagreements between financial supporters: does the biggest financial supporter get to determine the proper function? 

Parsons began the article by asking whether the Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the ROM was actually serving its proper function.  His conclusion is that it is in fact serving its proper function since, presumably, it is doing precisely what its financial backers wanted it to do.  Many have argued that the proper function of a museum is to display artifacts and that it is too difficult to display artifacts in this addition.  Parsons' claim is that the proper function of museums has changed:  they are now a kind of public space, and that this building serves that function well.  In support of this he quotes from the museum's director, William Thorsell, who said that the museum is a new agora and that the ROM's primary function is as a "cosmopolitan community center."  I think that Thorsell's idea about the function of a museum is interesting and important, but I am less sure about giving him ultimate authority in determining the proper function of the building.  (To be fair to Parsons, he does not go so far as to give Thorsell ultimate authority:  he says, more weakly, that his vision "may have some grounding in reality."  Still, he does offer this as the best explanation for the proper function of the building.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Emerson "The Transcendentalist" Part II Valentine's Day

Emerson continues that "the whole of ethics" follows from his idealist philosophy, his basic ethics being that one should be "self-dependent" which is to say that "the deity of man is to be self-sustained" and "society is good when it does not violate me."  I find some clarification of this in the following sentence: "All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought...." which is to say that reality is the inner you, which is divine and in fact is God.  This seems to entail an extreme version of belief in free will: "You think me the child of my circumstances:  I make my circumstances."  I change things with my thoughts.  "Jesus [being an example of a genius in the Idealist sense] acted so, because he thought so."  But, he argues, where I come from is something transcendent, a Fact "which cannot be spoken, or defined, or even thought, but which exists."  This leads, again, to belief in miracles, which seems to be defined as "the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influex of light and power" i.e. inspiration, the "spiritual measure of the inspiration" being "the depth of the thought" and not who said it.  That is, we should not concern ourselves with whether it was said by some great religious leader. The ethical position seems to be that although one is not an antinomialist (someone who believes that existing laws do not apply to oneself) one is free to break any law for a higher reason, for example lie as Desdemonda did or pluck corn on the Sabbath if one is hungry.  In this respect, Emerson believes that the Buddhist and the Transcendentalist are one, both being "grand and daring in human thought."  And yet, Emerson insists, no one has really achieved this goal: no one has lived "a purely spiritual life" in the sense of leaning entirely on their own character, although he does see the "lower animals" as living unconsciously in this way.  The idea is somewhat like the Chinese (both Confucian and Daoist) idea of the dao:  if you follow the dao you will be provided for as if by magic. I like to interpret this in a more secular way as that if you achieve a high state of harmony within yourself, through intense work on some project for example, then your surrounding environment will naturally collaborate. Emerson's whole philosophy is almost summarized in the following sentence:  "Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow."  There is a kind of unconscious taking over that happens when you find your true self.

This is all just leading up to what I want to say about this essay which is that it does give us an approach to a specific sort of thing not usually discussed in aesthetics books, i.e. the aesthetic qualities of a person.  The key idea of this essay is the notion of the beautiful person generally, and of the transcendentalist as a specific type of beautiful person.  And what I find myself thinking as I read through this essay is who are the beautiful persons in my life, and how little we search for beautiful persons today or guide our lives by apprehension of personal beauty.  I find myself thinking of George Washington and all his admirable traits:  someone who was seen as a beautiful person in his own time.  We have lost the beautiful person as an ideal.  We don't even think of talking about the beautiful person.  Most people on reading this essay focus on how Emerson gets Kant wrong, and he certainly does.  He thinks that Kant believes that the important class of ideas that do not come by experience are "intuitions of the mind itself" as though he believed in intellectual intuitions, which he did not. 

There is another distraction in this essay, somelike the odd discussion of genius in Schopenhauer, where we are supposed to admire the transcendentalist who betakes himself of "a certain solitary and critical way of living" although nothing solid has come of it.  We are supposed to admire them for preferring to "ramble in the country and perish of ennui" and actually shirk work as they cry out for something worthwhile to do, and even writing an Illiad is not worthwhile enough! 

Enough with distractions.  We are back on track with "if they tell you their whole thought, they will own that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature; that there are persons whom in their hearts they deaily thank for existing....whose fame and spirit have penetrated their solitude - and for whose sake they wish to exist."(88)  What is interesting here is the very idea of basing the meaning of one's existence of the beautiful person.  "To behold the beauty of another character, which inspires a new interest in our own...these are degrees on the side of human happiness to which they have ascended."  There's a Valentine's day comment for you!  Emerson himself admits that this is an "extravagant demand...on human nature."  They see so many imperfections. 

Emerson offers a picture of this experience.  It is in the "quality of the moment."  The example is a character Xanthus who brings home one recollection from the wars, that Pericles smiled on hm. 

So Emerson emphasizes Beauty.  Referring again to the Transcendentalists, he says that they "are lovers and worshippers of Beauty" and indeed prefer Beauty to Truth and Goodness as the head of the three.  So morality is understood in terms of aesthetics.  People often think that Emerson was indifferent to the fate of African-Americans, but what he says here is that "justice which is now claimed for the for Beauty - is for a necessity to the soul of the agent, not of the beneficiary."  His idea is that justice should be grace.  The beautiful is the highest becasuse it escapes "the dowdiness of the good and the heartlessness of the true."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Emerson's "The Transcendentalist" Part 1

I am sorry if this departs a bit from aesthetics, but then maybe whatever I do I am essentially an aesthetician.  I am teaching Emerson to my American Philosophy class and I assigned "The Transcendentalist."  Idealism is not a popular philosophy in the 21st. century and yet this is what Emerson advocates here.  The opposition he proposes is between Materialists and Idealists.  My most natural tendency is to Materialism.  But let's see what Idealism, as Emerson conceives it, has to offer.  Materialism is founded on experience, Idealism on "consciousness." The first thinks "from the data of the sense," the second says "the senses are not final."  Emersons' best sentence is, "The materialist insists on fact, on history , on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture." (81)  Let's assume for now that the dichotomy is not false.  What then is to be said for the Idealist side. Don't we want to care about Thought, Will, inspiration, miracle, and the individual?  Well, these are big words and hard to define. It might be hard to figure out what "Thought" is if it is not "thought" as in what goes on in the brain.  The same would go for "Will" which must be conceived as something more than just another set of things happening in the brain (something like Kant's free will).  Emerson's mention of inspiration points to going beyond the senses:  intuition or perhaps discovery.  I have had the experience of inspiration, perhaps very minor ones on a daily basis.  So my interest is piqued.  If Materialism excludes inspiration then perhaps there is something wrong with Materialism.  Although I do not accept that there are miracles in the sense of things happening in the world that are beyond the laws of nature (see Hume for an excellent refutation of the very existence of such things) there are events that seem to overflow with meaning, that have mystery, and that give profound experience.  Can we call those miracles? Again, if sense-data excludes such things, and if we associate such things with the word "miracle" then there might be something to Idealism.  Some of what Emerson requires seems absurd:  for example that the Idealist requires of the Materialist "his grounds of assurance that things are as the sense represent them." No Materialist has ever held that things are as the senses represent them - in fact the first Materialist, Democritus, insisted that the senses delude us:  the real, he believed, consists in atoms and the void, neither of which we can sense.  What Emerson believes the Idealist has to offer are special facts "not affected by the illusions of sense" and "not liable to doubt" and superior to material facts and requiring "retirement from the senses."  Hoo-boy that's going to be a hard one to defend.  But then I come to the second paragraph where he says the the Idealist "does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the other end, each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him."  So Idealism is a way of looking at things -- the same things Materialists are looking at.  It is perhaps distracting for the Idealist to simply say "it is our own thoughts that we perceive" (82)  He seems to be saying more that the reality of what we perceive is its meaning-content.  This is an Idealism based on phenomenology, perhaps much like that of Edmund Husserl.  The third paragraph of the essay seems to me to be more distraction.  The Materialist is compelled to recognize that he is a "phantom walking and working amid phantoms" since even though he thinks his banking-house, for example, is solid, it really rests on a spinning earth on the edge of emptiness.  That sort of thing does not tempt me to Idealism.  After all, these are just scientific facts based on empirical evidence.  Emerson seems to himself to cinch the argument when he says "But ask [the Materialist banker] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on" strange foundations.  This move, based perhaps on Hume's skepticism, can also be replied in a Humean way:  namely, nature compels me to go on and overcome these skeptical doubts.  The fourth paragraph recovers the momentum however.  We find that the idealist "takes his departure from consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance" and that he uses as his measure the "rank which things themselves take in his consciousness; not at all the size or appearance."  It is not just the meaning that lies behind things that gives their ideal dimension but the meaning for the person perceiving them, and the meaning in terms of value ranking too.  And it is true that if we look at the world from the standpoint of our own consciousness, things are value-ranked by us, and this looms large in our experience of those things.  The next passage confuses this a bit though:  "Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.  Nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena."  That doesn't seem too helpful.  I feel like I am back on track when I read that the Idealist "does not respect labor, or the products of labor, namely property, otherwise than as a manifold symbol...[of] the laws of being."  It does seem worthwhile to look at property as a symbol, although to look at the labor that produces the property as a symbol is perhaps to deny the experience of the laborer (I think of Marx, a Materialist, here.)  All of this paragraph seems to be just a chance for Emerson to show he is against establishments in society, and that he really looks for something deeper, and also more personal for him, behind these manifestations, i.e. "he does not respect government, except as far as it reiterates the law of his mind."  However, this leads up to a fairly powerful sentence:  "His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them" everything being relative to this Unknown Centre.  My first response to this is that I can imagine someone seeing the world this way:  although it might take some practice!  The idea of course is similar to Plotinus, with the notion of flow from the One, and also to Vedanta philosophy with its notion that my innermost self, Atman, is Brahman.  I cannot accept that this is literally true, but I can accept that it might be valuable to see the world this way, or to pretend to see the world this way, or to experiment with this kind of consciousness.  Can I relate this to aesthetics?  Well, an aesthetician is going to look at the world a bit more phenomenologically, focusing on meaning and value in the things perceived, the ways they go beyond being mere sense data, and the ways that they relate to the consciousness within which they appear.  And also of course there is a certain faith in inspiration, in genius, in the possibilities of creativity.  So perhaps aestheticians should consider Idealism as, although not a viable option, at least a contemplative object. That's enough for today.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Emerson American Scholar Part II

I gave myself the assignment of talking about the duties of the scholar for my students in my American Philosophy class.  The central idea here is self-trust.  This idea makes a lot of sense to me.  I can see how I have a duty to be true to myself and also to trust my intuitions.  But to what extent do I want to follow the philosophical path Emerson sets out for me?  Emerson strangely puts this in terms of showing others "facts" amidst appearances.  I say this is strange since the idea of "facts" seems to imply something more science-like than Emerson really has in mind.  For example he contrasts the scholar's task with that of astronomers. Rather he has something more Platonic in mind, something like the story of the philosopher- king leaving the cave and returning to it again.  This is no doubt a description of his own experience as a scholar, his own search for and cataloging of "nebulous stars of the human mind."  That is, he sees himself, and the scholar more generally, as a kind of phenomenologist.  To do this kind of psychology/philosophy requires some sacrificing, some relinquishing of immediate fame, some ignorance of the popular, some disdain from others, some stammering in one's speech, and even some poverty and solitude.  Emerson even admits to self-accusation and frequent uncertainties.  Also, as one becomes more self-reliant and self-directed one ends up in hostile relation to society, especially to educated society.  The consolation, however, is in "exercising the highest functions of human nature."  Also somewhat surprisingly, all of this opposition to society is actually quite social, or at least directed to the public. The scholar as philosopher/intellectual "raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts."  He becomes the world's eye and heart.  By opposing educated society and trusting himself  he speaks for all.  He gives the pronouncements of Reason (which Emerson sees as a mysterious inner force of nature that speaks through the genius) on the "events of today."  This is a point, however, where Emerson comes off as quite a bit different than Plato since Plato would only allow commenting about that which is eternal. Whereas Plato encourages the philosopher to reject the beauties of everyday life in search of Beauty itself Emerson calls on the scholar to focus on the way that everyday things help us to transcend ordinary experience.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Emerson on The American Scholar Part I

As I read in the Mercury News that high schools are eliminating electives, which includes the arts and the sciences, in order to meet expectations of "no child left behind" I find myself thinking that in trying not to leave behind individual children in math and English scores we are actually eliminating the prime motive for learning these things:  the joys of culture itself, and so we are really going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We become what Emerson calls "monsters" because we learn without going into the spirit of the thing, without connecting.  We learn math without its connections with science, and English without its connections to English literature and the rest of literary culture.  So in thinking about the American Scholar (the American student), rather than believing, as Emerson did, that we need to overcome our dependence on Europe and our overly mechanical interests (which are perhaps still present in our self-destructive obsession with rote learning), I find that today we need to somehow find a way to recover a true interest in culture, or as Emerson would put it, true scholarship. So our current position might be another chapter in what Emerson called the biography of the American Scholar.

Emerson has a unique notion of the whole Man, or what is is to be a whole man. "Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all...the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor and embrace all the other laborers"...otherwise we are "walking monsters."  The alienation of oneself from the other human disciplines that we suffer today means that "the planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry.."  The tradesman is similarly "ridden by the routine of his craft" and "the scholar...tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking."  Although the connection may seem distant I cannot but help to see something in here related to aesthetics, not simply to the discipline of aesthetics, which all too often does seem to descend into the quality of the "mere thinker" but to the way that we experience our lives, whether richly and deeply (in terms of its overall organic relations to all aspects of society) or in a shallow way as simply having to do with the tools and goals at hand.  As we lose the Man within us (for example in no longer recognizing that the artist must also be a poet, a farmer, a judge and so forth) we lose any intensity in the aesthetics of our everyday lives.  This of course is something that Dewey would say.

In talking about the influence of nature on the scholar, Emerson writes "what is classification but the perceiving that [the objects classified] are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?"  I find it difficult to take seriously Emerson's concept of affinities between man and nature except as something metaphorical.  Of course part of his point is pure Kant, as when he says "The astronomer discovers the geometry, a pure abstraction of the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion."  Wow, isn't that magical.  As the same time, I think that we and the planets are both part of the universe:  we are closely related, and there must be something we share in common.  The problem is to tease out the metaphorical truth here.  When Emerson says that the beauty of nature "is the beauty of his own mind" (45) he seems to be going even further than Kant, who limits this kind of anthropocentrism to his concept of the sublime.   Heraclitus similarly implied that in searching out himself he understood the underlying logos.  Emerson thinks that in studying nature one searches out one's own self (by becoming Man?).  I do think that any deep search for the truth is one that finds the self within the subject matter and the subject matter within the self:  the subjective/objective distinction dissolves.  Perhaps this is the metaphorical meaning behind what appears to be scientific nonsense.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Emerson on Beauty

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson has a chapter on Beauty in his 1836 book Nature.  It begins with emphasis on the beauty of the world.  This in itself would distinguish it from many contemporary discussions of beauty.  He thinks that two things contribute to beauty:  the constitution of things in nature and the capacity of the human eye to shape what it sees.  As a result of these two factors we gain pleasure from what he calls "primary forms" which seem to be major form types in nature, i.e. sky, mountain, tree, and animal.  He is somewhat of a formalist here:  what gives us pleasure is "outline, color, motion, and grouping."  The perspective from which he sees nature is at least analogous to that of an artist. (Allen Carlson would probably accuse him of appreciating nature as though it were an art gallery.)  For example he refers to the eye as "the best of artists" in its shaping of nature.  The eye in conjunction with the laws of light produces something else important to the typical landscape artist:  perspective.  This is something more than mathematical perspective however:  it is something which "integrates every mass objects...into a well colored and shaded globe."  The globe is the imagined globe of perception within which we walk (see the sky as the top of the globe, the earth as the bottom, and the horizon as the diameter).  By referring to it as well-colored and shaded, he seems to be evaluating the globe as though it were a three-d painting.  (So he is at least not guilty of that aspect of what Carlson calls the landscape model of nature appreciation.) We also find that "where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose is round and symmetrical."  This, taken with the material that follows. implies that even a landscape that does not arouse emotion in us nonetheless has certain simple aesthetic qualities based on its existence within this perceptual globe.  Light, already mentioned in terms of its laws, is brought in once again:  "just as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters."  Again the perceptual globe of consciousness is seen as a work of art.  And, just as boring or ugly landscapes gain some aesthetic qualities from being in perspective, so too "there is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful" (as one can see sometimes at sunset!)  Indeed, "a sort of infinitude which it hath..makes all matter gay."  I suppose that this infinitude is the feeling one gets when looking at something in intense sunset or sunrise light, a feeling that it somehow transcends ordinary experience, somehow goes on forever. Contemporary philosophers often speak of the theory that everything in nature is beautiful.  Emerson subscribes to that idea.  As he puts it "Even the corpse has its own beauty."

Now at first Emerson spoke of a "general grace diffused over nature" by perspective and by intense light.  But he also finds that "individual forms are agreeable to the eye" and these include such things as pine-cones, wheat-ears, and eggs.  Some of my artist friends are fascinated with these things, for example Altoon Sultan with her photographs of things she finds on her walks in Vermont, and JoAnn Freda with he photos of the organic eggs from the Vegelution farm in East San Jose.  Judith Miller, another artist friend, is constantly incorporating images of things she picks up on her walks into her paintings.

The essay then looks into three aspects of Beauty.  The first is "the simple perception of natural forms is a delight."  This leads immediately into a comment about how when one is stuck at a job indoors nature can act as a restorative medicine.  I know exactly what he means since after several hours of working yesterday I just got tired of it and went out for a walk in my neighborhood and it was sooo delightful (especially in the Spring weather we were having these January days...sorry east-coasters!)  Now Emerson and I differ on one point since in this passage he seems to just want to contrast the "din and craft of the street" and "the sky and the woods" implying that only the later can restore.  But actually, going out for a walk in my neighborhood exposes me to both, and they really seem to restore together.  Sill, I am enough of a romantic to wish that I had a lovely walk in the woods that I could easily take after my work.  Living in the center of the 10th largest city in the U.S., such things are unfortunately pretty far away.  I do kind of like the line, "The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon," however. In relation to this,  I think of how dramatic it is when I get up out of the flats of San Jose onto Hwy 280 and am able to get a clear view of the clouds hanging over the coastal range:  it is often very moving.

Emerson notes that sometimes Nature satisfies just by its loveliness:  "I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.  How does nature deify us with a few and cheap elements!"  We become one with nature, we become enchanted by it, and we also become god-like (isn't this a bit extreme?...well maybe it means that we feel as if we were gods).  Here Emerson goes into this thing about how nature can provide me with riches as great as those of great empires.  He mentions different experiences matched to the special offerings of different great countries, for example mystic philosophy matched to Germany.  All of this seems to imply that nature is trying to say something, something that could not even be expressed fully by a great poet..  Emerson however tries it himself, waxing poetic in a rather nice way when he describes a winter experience when "the leafless tress become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background." He refers to all of this as a kind of "mute music." For more on Emerson on beauty see this post.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Where does Ethics Leave off and Aesthetics Begin?

I have long wondered about the boundary between ethics and aesthetics although I am not sure I have anything interesting to say about it.  There do seem to be two different types of person:  those who primarily see the world through the eyes of ethics and those who primarily see it through the eyes of aesthetics.  The second group seems to be much smaller.  I tend to find myself in the second group, but I do not know why and cannot really justify it.  If I look at my typical day I do not seem to have very many ethical choices to make, whereas my life seems filled with aesthetic phenomena.  Of course I am fortunate enough right now not to face any dire ethical dilemmas:  the situation can change fast!  In general I tend to see ethical dilemmas as things to get through so as to be free to pursue what is really important in life, aesthetic enrichment.  But others look at it another way:  the really important stuff for them may be living a more virtuous life...doing more moral things.

Marcia Eaton in an article called "Aesthetic Obligations" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66:1, 2008, 1-9) explores the territory between aesthetics and ethics.  One example of an in-between case is when I have a moral obligation to tell a good story about someone, as in when I write an obituary.  I agree that telling stories about others is an important phenomenon of everyday life, and here one finds both moral and aesthetic requirements.  Morally, I shouldn't tell stories about people that hurt them, and perhaps I should also tell stories about them that help them, especially if they are deserving, or if I have certain familial or friendship obligations to them.  Obviously if those stories have good plot lines, are appropriately humorous, are elegant, and so forth, then they will do better at helping people.  It is not clear to me that this is really an in between case though.  It just seems that there are two levels of evaluation:  telling an aesthetically good story may help out the mourners better and hence help one to fulfill one's moral obligation on the occasion, but producing a good story and fulfilling a moral obligation are different things. 

I suspect that a lot of choices the moralists see as moral choices can be seen as primarily aesthetics choices by aesthetes.  For example, currently there is a debate over whether to revise Huckleberry Finn to leave out certain offensive terms.  A moralist would talk about this issue in terms of rights, whether author's rights or the rights of oppressed minorities.  An aesthete would talk about it in terms of taste:  some aesthetes might see it as bad taste to revise the book, whereas others might see it as bad taste not to.  So how do you know whether an issue is one of taste or morality?