Monday, December 23, 2013

Denis Dutton and Mapping the Field of Everyday Aesthetics

Denis Dutton’s effort to give a naturalist definition of art provides some interesting material for our effort to understand everyday aesthetics, particularly those aspects that are very close in character to art.[1] Dutton gives a list of criteria for something to be art, none of, and no set of which, are necessary. He adds that if something meets none of the criteria it is not art, and if it meets all of them it must be art. It is also part of Dutton’s scheme that none of the criteria are sufficient for something to be art. Because of this, at the end of each discussion of a criterion he speaks of phenomena which are not art but which meet the criterion. This gives a nice list of properties of non-art phenomena that are worth paying attention to aesthetically.
It is useful for the purposes of developing a theory of everyday aesthetics to go through his discussion of each term in his list and observe each of his comments about non-art applications of these terms.  The reader should understand that, unlike Dutton, I do not intend to say anything here about the nature of art. Rather, I am using Dutton’s criteria of art as a way of mapping the field of everyday aesthetics. This may seem off if one feels that art aesthetics is radically different from everyday aesthetics, but less so if one believes that aesthetics is a general field of which art aesthetics, natural aesthetics and everyday aesthetics are parts, and that there is a continuity between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics in that many features of art depend on aspects of the world that would exist even without art.  In what follows, Dutton’s name for each property is in italics.
Here then is Dutton’s list of features of art connected with his comments about non-art applications of these features. (1) The art object is typically valued as a source of immediate pleasure, and this is also true for sports and play. (2) High skill is valued not only in art but in other areas, for example in sports. (3) Style is found not only in art but in most other human activities that are not merely reflexive. (4) Novelty and creativity are admired in plumbing and dentistry as well as in art. (5) Criticism is found wherever the activity is complex. (6) Realistic representation is found in scientific illustration (not mentioned by Dutton) as well as in art. (7) Religious rite, ceremonial pomp, political activity and advertizing all try to make something special by giving it a theatrical character. (8) Any activity with a creative element, including designing a company newsletter, may have expressive individuality. (9) Many non-art activities are saturated with emotion. (10) Like art, puzzles and many games give us intellectual challenge. (11) All organized activities have institutional and traditional backgrounds. Finally, (12) there is an imaginative experience dimension of much that is non-art, although Dutton agrees with Kant that art takes imagination to another level, away from practical concerns, logic and “rational understanding.” However, it could be argued that art is not the only thing that can do this. Everyday aesthetic experience also often takes imagination to a new level.
It seems, in short, that one could map the aesthetics of everyday life precisely in terms of the various criteria of art each of which, Dutton has observed, art shares with other aspects of life. There is another way that Dutton’s call for a naturalistic aesthetics of art can be helpful in the construction of an aesthetics of everyday life.  Drawing from the writings of various anthropologists and linguists, Dutton makes a list of “innate, universal features and capabilities of the human mind.”  Each one of the items in the list is something that one can take pleasure in.  When we do this we see that the list can be of primal human pleasures that can provide the basis of aesthetics. I will add the term “pleasure” to the items on this list:
  • pleasure in keeping track of how objects fall, bounce, or bend
  • pleasure in taking an interest in plants and animals in their species division
  • pleasure in making tools, in flaking things, in attaching objects to one another
  • pleasure in observing the operations of the minds of others
  • pleasure in imaginative mapping and spatial understanding
  • pleasure in body adornment
  • pleasure in manipulating numbers
  • pleasure in estimating probabilities
  • pleasure in reading facial expressions
  • pleasure in being able to throw objects precisely
  • pleasure in organized pitched sounds, rhythmically produced by the human voice or by instruments
  • pleasure in exchange of goods and favors
  • pleasure in a sense of justice
  • pleasure in the operations of logic
  • pleasure in learning and using language[2]
Not all of these are aesthetic pleasures if such pleasure must be sensuous.  For example pleasure in a sense of justice, in the operations of logic, in manipulating numbers, in estimating probabilities, and in exchange of goods and favors are not aesthetic in that sense.  However, it is hardly new to suggest that these things can have aesthetic properties, for example beauty.  To that extent they belong to the aesthetics of everyday life.  

[1]  Denis Dutton. “A Naturalist Definition of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism  64:3 (2006) 367-377.  Also see his The Art Instinct:  Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. (New York:  Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
[2]   Dutton, The Art Instinct, pp. 43-44.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I am interested in learning about aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Have any recommendations for a beginner?

There are a number of good introductory texts to aesthetics and the philosophy of art that could give you an overview.  What works best for you would depend on your background and interests.  More recent works have the advantage of covering more recent controversies.  However, sometimes the older ones are better written or contain material that is still of interest.  In addition to introductory texts I list several guidebooks and companions:  they are all pretty similar to each other.   The entries are usually well written.  However, like all encyclopedia articles, these can be a bit tepid compared to the kinds of articles that really change the nature of the field.  Those articles are typically found in anthologies often used as textbooks.  I include several of those anthologies here too.  The anthologies either cover the whole of the history of aesthetics/philosophy of art or roughly the last fifty years. If you want deep rich reading I recommend reading one of the former kind.  However if you are interested in hot topics in contemporary professional philosophy I recommend the latter.  These anthologies are either in analytic aesthetics, continental aesthetics, or both.  I also include some other anthologies that are typically used in introductory level aesthetics classes and which often cover a wider range of opinion, for example Asian as well as Western perspectives.  With many of these books you can save money by buying a used copy of an earlier edition or getting from the library.  I will revise this blog entry from time to time.  I will not be including many rare or obviously out-of-date introductory texts and anthologies:  the ones I will include are usually readily available through online bookstores.  For the sake of speed I have not given full bibliographical information, but you can easily use the information I give to find out more.

Steve Cahn ed.  Aesthetics:  A Comprehensive Anthology.  2007  An anthology that covers both historical figures and contemporary debates.  

Noel Carroll.  Philosophy of Art   1999   Well-written by one of the most important contemporary analytic aestheticians. 

Clive Cazeaux ed..  The Continental Aesthetics Reader.  Routledge.  2011.  Includes such figures as Kant, Sartre, Benjamin Lyotard, Kristeva, Bachelard, Marcuse, Barthes and Irigaray.

David Cooper ed.  A Companion to Aesthetics.  Blackwell.  1995    A mini-encyclopedia of aesthetics. 

Stephen Davies.  Philosophy of Art.  Wiley-Blackwell.  2006. An introductory overview by an important contemporary philosopher of art in the analytic tradition.  He has also more recently written a book on art and evolution. 

George Dickie ed.  Aesthetics:  An Anthology.  St. Martins Press. 1989.   This is an old one but covers both classic selections and leading articles of the late part of the 20th century. 

George Dickie.  Introduction to Aesthetics.  Oxford. 1997.   This text goes back to the 1970s.  I haven't read this most recent edition.  Dickie is quite famous in analytic aesthetics for his institutional theory of art.  Well written. 

Richard Eldridge.  An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art.  2003.  Eldridge's perspective combines pragmatism and romanticism (as strange as that may sound).  There are some deep thoughts here.

Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. ed.  Aesthetics.  Oxford U. Press, 1998.  A good anthology for teaching an aesthetics class.

Berys Gaut ed.  Routledge Companion to Aesthetics.   Routledge. 2013   This is a good way to learn about aesthetics and philosophy of art.  Ditto for the other companion books.

David Goldblatt and Lee Brown.  Aesthetics:  A Reader in the Philosophy of Art.  Pearson.  2010.  I use this anthology frequently in my Introduction to Aesthetics class.    

Theodore Gracyk.  Philosophy of Art:  An Introduction.  Polity.  2011.  I recently taught this one and made comments on it on this blog   Just search "Gracyk" in the search area on the right.

Richard Kierney ed.  Continental Aesthetics Reader.  Wiley Blackwell.  2001.  One of two such anthologies that focuses on the continental tradition, e.d. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty.

Matthiew Kieren.  Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Art.  Wiley Blackwell.  2005.  This is an anthology the sets up debating positions of analytic philosophers.  Good for advanced students.

Carolyn Korsmeyer.  Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.  Good anthology useful for introduction to aesthetics classes.

Cynthia Freeland.  But is it Art? An Introduction to Art Theory.  Oxford.  2002.  colorful and relatively light --- takes into account recent trends in art, well-illustrated.  This is a great book for the beginner who is also an artist.  I comment on it in this blog.

Peter Lamarque ed.  Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art:  The Analytic Tradition.  Wiley Blackwell.  2003.   This anthology covers the key articles and book chapters that have sparked debate in analytic aesthetics. 

Jerrold Levinson ed.  The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.  Oxford University Press.  2005.  This is similar to the other companions:  a short encyclopedia.  Very thorough.

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley ed.  Arguing About Art.  Routledge.  2007.  Sets up competing articles on various fun issues in aesthetics.  My Philosophy of Art class enjoyed discussing whether food is art, forgeries, horror, sentimental art, and so forth.

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley ed.  The Philosophy of Art:  Reading Ancient and Modern.  McGraw-Hill.  1994.   This is a a useful anthology of readings/selections.   

Roger Scruton.  Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press, 2011.  This introduction to aesthetics is by a leading British analytic thinker. 

Robert Stecker   Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art.  2010.   analytic, very precise and argumentative, clear, a bit dry, but Stecker is a major thinker.

Roger Warburton.  The Art Question.  Routledge.  2002.  This is a very short introduction to aesthetics: well done.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On the question "do tribal societies have our concept of art?"

Larry Shiner in his article "Western and Non-Western Concepts of Art" (in Arguing About Art:  Contemporary Philosophical Debates ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley,  New York: Routledge, 2002) argues for a greater attention to the history of the Western concept of art when considering whether small-scale traditional societies (henceforth I'll use the shorter term "tribal") could be said to have art in our (western) sense of the term.  The premise of the debate is a bit strange since the non-western is by no means equivalent to the tribal:  Chinese and Indian traditions of art, for example, are in many ways more similar to Western traditions than to tribal ones, and whether Islamic traditions fit more into one category than the other is open to question.  Moreover, there is no one Western idea of art, but rather the Western tradition is one of competing ideas, sometimes radically different ideas, concerning the nature of art.  Another peculiarity of the discussion is the assumption made by Shiner that tribal art is limited to ritual objects and thus the question is whether their ritual objects should be classified as art.  There are many tribally produced objects that were never intended to be used in rituals that nonetheless appear in Western art and anthropology museums.  Denis Dutton has famously argued in his "But they don't have our concept of art" (found also in Arguing About Art) that tribal cultures do have art if art is defined in the cluster concept way Dutton favors.  Dutton also thought that the claim that they do not have art in our sense is based on not looking at all the arts, for example religious and folk art, in our culture, and only looking at what is called "fine art."  Shiner sort of agrees, but, unlike Dutton, doesn't have any problem with people like anthropologist Susan Vogel insisting that the Baule villagers do not have "Art" in our sense, her reason being that the work is used in ritual contexts.

Going back to Shiner, his view is that Dutton fails to give sufficient weight to the historical development of the concept of art in the West. His main point is that since the 18th century we have had two concepts of art, the traditional one that takes "art" to refer to any craft, and includes what we consider the fine arts, e.g. dance and poetry, as crafts, and the modernist concept of Art as fine art, i.e. something that is autonomous, kept in museums or concert halls, is produced by this elevated personage called an "artist," and is perceived in a disinterested fashion.  Shiner is certainly right that "ars" originally referred to any skilled performance.  However, it is very doubtful that people prior to the 18th century always grouped all skilled performances under one category.  There was certainly a long-tradition, for example, of holding poets and poetry in special esteem.  Another story of the origins of the concept of fine art in the West could be that the category of poetry gradually came to be expanded when it was discovered that many of the things we valued in poets could also be valued in painters, sculptors, musicians, architects and dancers.  Indeed, the history of the rise of the concept of fine art could be written as a history in which each of these was successively brought into the fold of fine art, with further chapters covering photography, movies, and perhaps now  video games.  There is a sense, in reading Shiner, that there is something wrong with fine art and that we should dissolve the fine art/crafts distinction and in a sense go back to seeing art simply in terms of skilled making.  But I think this story (whether Shiner would ascribe to it is unclear) has two problems.  First, it may well be throwing the (genius artist) baby out with the bathwater.  An alternative theory could be that the concept of fine art was a marvelous discovery, a discovery that humans (artists) could do what previously was thought only God could do, that humans could really create.  This is Kant's idea of the fine artist, as someone, a genius, who could create his own world using his creative (he called it "productive") imagination, a world that could act as a symbol (he called it "aesthetic idea") which could body forth or at least intimate something spiritual (he called it "the supersensible realm.") (Like Shiner, some feminists have a problem with this, thinking that since Kant was probably just thinking of men as geniuses then the notion of genius itself was suspect, which is deeply problematic since it assumes that a woman cannot be a genius, a very unfeminist view, I would think.) This idea allowed that humans have the very creative powers which, as Ludwig Feuerbach in his great Essence of Christianity, put it, had been projected onto a non-existent God.  There is, of course, an alienation involved in the separation of craft from fine art, and this is something that William Morris, for instance, tried to overcome.  The project of re-enchanting the non-art world of everyday aesthetics is one that I have advocated, perhaps too indirectly, in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  But, oddly, Shiner's dichotomy actually encourages the alienation by suggesting that the traditional concept of art is itself denuded of spiritual energy (a mistake that is not made by Vogel, by the way).  So Shiner sets up a dichotomy of Art vs. craft, Artist vs. artisan, Aestehtic vs. utility or sensuality, where the right hand side of the dichotomy is something now to be valued over the left side, utility or sensuality being its defining characteristic.  The baby that is thrown out with the bathwater is the great value of the creation of the concept of "fine art" (i.e. the expansion of the notion of poetry that was already present in western civilization, poetry as something inspired, unlike shoe-making) as allowing a place for a spiritual dimension to experience in a world in which, as Nietzsche wisely put it, God is dead.  What Shiner refers to, almost mockingly, when talking about the fine art work, as "a composition complete in itself, arising out of the artist's free creativity, and aiming at no further end than aesthetic contemplation" fails to recognize the immense importance of the discovery:  the work of art is, yes, a function of the artist's free creativity in the sense that the artist is inspired and, in the moment of inspiration, feels free, and is able to create his or her own world, a world that reflects our own, but transforms and intensifies it, and yes, the end is aesthetic contemplation, but this contemplation is associated by many Western thinkers with many other ends, for example in Hegel with the end of the human spirit coming to its own self-understanding. 

To be fair, Shiner does say that in the Western system "all the nobler aspects of the artisan/artist were ascribed to the artist alone" which could mean that in a new order in which the distinction is deconstructed, such nobler qualities as creativity and genius could be attributed back to (and encouraged in) the crafts traditions, but then they could no longer be seen in terms of mere utility or the merely sensuous.  I would join Shiner in rejecting the narrow conception of "craft" as presented by R. J. Collingwood:  as many craftspersons themselves insist, and I once found as a slogan on a button, "craft is fine art too," which is to say that there are weavings and pots that are also works of genius and not merely useful or sensuously pleasing.  So my problem with Shiner is really just that he assumes that the older sense of "art" indicates that art for pre-modern and tribal peoples was and is just a matter of utility or "a work of human making" as opposed to natural product, as he puts it.  Returning then to tribal art, it is remarkable that Shiner makes a big deal of the idea that they cannot have our notion of art as fine art since we have special places such as art museums and concert halls which are segregated for this from the rest of life and they do not.  It is remarkable given that tribal and pre-modern societies commonly have sacred spots and times that are ritually separated and relatively autonomous as well.  What are temples, after all?  So it may be that the assumption I mentioned in the beginning that tribal art is tribal ritual art has some truth to it in the sense that tribal ritual art acts as a pretty good analogue to fine art in the Western tradition, whereas tribal artifacts that are not parts of ritual practices, fit into the notion of craft as mere useful making.  There are of course in-between objects, as discussed by Octavio Paz when he glorifies the folk art traditions of Mexico...but that is for a later discussion. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review of The Extraordinary in the Ordinary by Christopher Dowling

I would like to acknowledge Christopher Dowling's excellent review of my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary and make some comments on the issues he raises.  I particularly appreciate the way that Dowling focuses quickly on Chapter 4 in which I begin to develop my own view of aesthetic experience as experience with what I call "aura."  Dowling provides an extremely good explication of my concept of aura, making all of the appropriate connections.  It would be silly for me to summarize what he has done here:  the reader can see it by going to the review, or better, reading my book.  Dowling goes on to stress that my approach to aesthetics is eclectic, and that there are advantages and disadvantages to this.  My eclecticism involves drawing from several different traditions that many philosophers see as involved, rather, in a death struggle.  Thus I may speak of Dewey on one page, Heidegger on another, and Danto on a third, without privileging any of these competing traditions.  I mainly try to interpret the writings of great thinkers of the past and present them in a way that brings out their significance for my own projects.  This idea, as Dowling is aware, is inspired partly by Gadamer's theory of interpretation.  Partly this is the result of the particular kind of intellectual training I received, which was quite interdisciplinary as well as crossing many theoretical boundaries.  My philosophical heroes, people like Sandra Luft, Marx Wartfosky, Joseph Margolis and Richard Shusterman, have also been good at crossing such boundaries.  There should be more of this, in my view.  Dowling, I believe, is not unsympathetic himself.  Of course, there is a unifying perspective, which is Dewey's pragmatism (something I also share with Margolis and Shusterman ... and I think Wartofsky, my lead dissertation adviser, was a pragmatist of the same sort without quite realizing it.)  It is interesting to me that Dowling thinks my eclecticism is what leads me to a "fairly broad characterisation of aesthetic experience encompassing both 'low-level' or 'background' aesthetic experiences -- expressible via predicates such as "clean", "well-ordered", "good-looking", "pleasant" -- together with the more extra-ordinary, intense, and complex experiences -- often expressible via the same predicates as the first class but with the addition of terms such as "very", "strikingly", "remarkably" and so on."  His way of expressing my view is correct:  I had just never thought of this as coming out of my eclecticism.  He may be right.  Certainly the idea of continuity goes back to Dewey.  Dowling also recognizes that although my rhetoric is sometimes anti-analytic, this is all from a Deweyan perspective, one which has many real affinities with analytic philosophy....something which often emerges in the later writings of such important analytic philosophers as Danto, Wittgenstein, Goodman, and Korsmeyer.  My eclecticism seeks to enfold analytic aesthetics too, although, as Dowling observes, I seek to overcome the rigidity of certain distinctions that are dear to those who wish all of their philosophy to be "clear and distinct."  Dowling further correctly stresses the way in which I talk about the close dialectical relationship between the aesthetics of art (including popular art) and the aesthetics of everyday life.  He nicely summarizes:  "By emphasising the artistic creative process (often neglected in analytic aesthetics) Leddy identifies what he sees to be a continuity between art and everyday life according to which the transformation of everyday experience is itself part of the nature or art. This dialectical relationship is, he thinks, most prominent in the artist's studio or in the moments at which the artist draws inspiration from the world."  Dowling notes, however, a possible contradiction between my claim on pg. 261 that everyday aesthetics is not the sole domain of experts and pg. 121 where I say that artists are the true experts of everyday aesthetics.  I can only reply that artists, including painters, poets, dancers, and composers, pay attention to the aesthetic aspects of non-art things (as well as to the aesthetic aspects of other works of art) and bring these to our attention:  yet at the same time,  we non-artists (and we artists as audience members for other art) are all at least subconsciously aware of these same phenomena.  That is why what the artists do actually works:  it works because it relates to what we have already done in our lives, for example in paying attention to the exact taste of coffee in the morning cup, to choosing a color scheme, to gauging whether the house is "comfortable" or the trip "interesting."  Aesthetic properties are everywhere.

Dowling's criticisms of my book are subtle but interesting -- perhaps interesting because subtle. (He knows full well that my non-analytic approach may be irritating to some, and perhaps this reflects some irritation on his part.)  He says: "in the end his 'something new and valuable' is probably situated with the debates that might ensue from these proposals (see, e.g., 203), and the possibility for reflexivity that might arise from our encounter with his work."  Perhaps the point is that I haven't really come up with something that is directly new and original, or well-argued or "solid theory" but rather with some nice meat to chew on for future discussion in the field. I hope that is so.  


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Do Aesthetic Properties Supervene on Non-Aesthetic Properties?

Ted Gracyk, in his The Philosophy of Art Chapter 7 "Aesthetics," discusses the question of the nature of aesthetics with the assumption that aesthetic judgments are a matter of determining how aesthetic properties supervene on non-aesthetic properties.  He discusses problems with a couple types of supervenience theory, but never questions the very idea of supervenience.  To be fair, in the resources section of the chapter, he does mention two challenges to supervenience theory, one by Marcia Eaton and one by Ben Tilghman.  I could add my own objections which are in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary pp. 144-149.  But why is supervenience theory accepted without question in the body of the chapter?  The answer to this question can be seen in how the chapter is set up.  We begin with a shocking quote (not apparently shocking to Gracyk) from Alfred North Whitehead that "Nature is a dull affair."  We learn that what this means is that nature itself is colorless and in general has no secondary qualities.  This dualistic view of nature -- that the material world cannot be beautiful or have any other aesthetic property since such qualities are secondary and based on the mind -- is a basic assumption in the chapter.  Mind is one thing, body is another.  (I do not intend to imply that Gracyk is assuming the metaphysical theory of mind-body dualism in which the mind and body are distinct substances.  The form of dualism found here is what I would call "property dualism" or, better,  "functional dualism."  Although not metaphysically dualist, supervenience theory works in the same way as metaphysical dualism, and so is functionally dualist.) Pragmatism traditionally rejects dualism and, as a pragmatist, I knew we were off to a bad start with this quote.  Moreover, there is something almost immoral in the idea that nature is "a dull affair," as though environmentalism is a waste of time since all of the good qualities of nature are actually just in our separated-from-bodies minds (or are just properties of mental things), and as if humans somehow existed in another realm than nature and thus are not responsible for what happens to nature.  (I realize that this may not seem fair to Gracyk who is probably an environmentally sensitive guy.  The point is though that a functionally dualist view is assumed by supervenience theorists, and the same problems adhere to that as to metaphysical dualism.)  

Gracyk thinks it ironic that when we discover new scientific facts about a painting, facts that are hidden from direct observation, that we change our response to the sensory properties of the painting.  This would only seem ironic to someone who accepted the idea that nature is a "dull thing."  The woman in Raphael's painting "The Madonna of the Pinks" seems much more graceful after we discover that the painting is actually by Raphael and not by a student.  Is it a mistake to see the painting differently?  Neither Gracyk nor I think so, but for different reasons, as we shall see. 

Gracyk lists six types of judgment concerning paintings:  scientific, historical, sensory appearance, interpretive, aesthetic (woman is graceful), and economic.  He then launches into the supervenience view.  People define this differently but I am sticking with Gracyk here.  He understands supervenience as present if "the existence of a property of one type depends on the presence of some property, or arrangement of properties, of another type." (126)  In aesthetics, aesthetic properties are said to depend on the "presence of ordinary perceptible properties, such as colors, sounds, and textures."  Moreover, you cannot change the aesthetic properties without changing the non-aesthetic properties.  Later, he considers adding other sorts of non-aesthetic properties than sensuous properties to the supervenience base.  This of course would be needed to explain why it would be justified to see the woman in the Raphael painting as graceful when the sensory properties have not changed.  Gracyk observes that a painting will have multiple supervenience relationships, for example the sensory properties of the paint will supervene upon chemical properties as well.  So, in general, a family of properties depends on one or many others.  He observes that this metaphysical claim is distinct from the epistemological claim that in order to properly judge something as having a certain aesthetic property one must need to know about the supervenience base.  Epistemological supervenience is not always necessary, he argues.  For example, it is not required to know the chemical supervenience base for certain perceptual properties of paint to know that the paint has those properties.  Further, some interpretive judgments depend on properties of the supervenience base that we know and some do not.  We know that the painting is of Mary and Jesus and this is because of knowledge we have of provenance, i.e. of Christian traditions.  

So far, so good.  But why accept supervenience theory?  The only support Gracyk gives for the idea that aesthetic properties supervene on non-aesthetic properties is the note that if Raphael had given Mary bulky shoulders she would have been less beautiful.  This is an odd example, however, since "bulky" is an aesthetic property and already contains within it an aesthetic judgment.  Gracyk of course would reply that the supervenience base is the "shape of the continuous line that forms Mary's shoulder and neck" and not the bulkiness:  "bulkiness" is shorthand for a change of this shape that causes us to experience the aesthetic quality of bulkiness.  The other support Gracyk provides is that the painting would be less beautiful if it we added fluorescent colors.  This is certainly true.  However, is this truth enough to support the claim that aesthetic properties must supervene on a non-aesthetic base?  Note that, if the fluorescent paints were added, the painting as a whole would be experienced in a different way:  it would perhaps now have the property of "aesthetically damaged."  The fluorescent paints would be seen as damaging.   Could they be separated in our experience from their anti-aesthetic or aesthetically damaging nature?   Note that adding fluorescent paints does not always damage a painting.  So it is these paints in this context that gives us the experience of aesthetic damage.  What does this tell us about the need for talk about a supervenience base for aesthetic properties?  For my argument against the adequacy of such arguments for supervenience theory please see the above-mentioned pages in my book.  However, very briefly, the argument makes two separate points, first, that Hume was right that value statements cannot be based on factual statements (the "is-ought" problem), and second, and related to this, that anytime someone makes an aesthetic claim and backs it up, that claim must be based on another aesthetic claim using words in their aesthetic meaning. 

Gracyk now elaborates that supervenience theory does not identify aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties but simply says that "there cannot be differences in supervening properties unless there are differences in base properties" and that a particular base property is sufficient to generate a particular aesthetic property, although that aesthetic property (for example "beauty") could be based on other base properties (as in music).  So, on his view, no fixed set of base properties is necessary for any particular aesthetic property, and indeed base properties can interact unpredictably.  

Once supervenience theory is accepted based on a commitment to functional dualism we need only choose between two kinds of such theory.  So Gracyk proceeds to discuss these two kinds.  One, proffered by Nick Zangwill, says that the supervenience base for aesthetic properties must be sensory properties.  This is the "weak dependence" theory.  The second called "aesthetic empiricism," is represented by Gregory Currie.  It holds that aesthetic properties are restricted to sensory properties, and that other properties, for instance historical properties, cannot form part of the supervenience base.  This view would imply that a perfect copy of a Rembrandt would be as beautiful as the original.  Gracyk believes the second view is so popular that it is taken as common sense.  But actually it is not popular among philosophers and is easy to shoot down. It seems obvious that non-sensory art-historical properties do contribute to aesthetic properties.  Moreover (Gracyk argues), as Kendall Walton showed, even though piano music in general sounds percussive, you can still have a piano piece that sounds delicate because of its comparative delicacy...but this comparison requires going beyond the sensory qualities of the object itself.  Similarly imitators of certain work may seem trite or tired in relation to the original. 

More interesting is an issue with Zangwill's weak dependence theory:  it would seem to imply that scientific laws and mathematical proofs could not have aesthetic properties.  There is no sensory property of a mathematical proof that supports our saying it is beautiful.  It also implies that conceptual artworks have no aesthetic properties.   (I will question these ideas below.)

The case is difficult for science and math but one wonders how a scientist who gains his data from the world by way of the senses could, in appreciating the beauty of a law, detach himself completely from that fact.  Laws are manifested in perceptual phenomena and talk of such laws would be meaningless without such manifestation.  This goes for mathematics as well.  It is arguable that mathematics is just a special form of natural law, and so, if this is true, the argument above for a sensual base for the beauty of natural laws would also apply to mathematical laws.  Admittedly, the case for basing mathematical beauty ultimately on sensory experience is difficult to make, but it is worth trying.  Mathematicians do not live in a world separate from the world of experience:  they too are live creatures interacting with their environments.  Everything they do is based ultimately on that.

Gracyk gives the work of Yoko Ono as an example of conceptual art.  The question is whether a work such as Ono's "Earth Piece" in which we confront a piece of paper that has the following typed phrase on it "Earth Piece.  Listen to the sound of the earth turning.  Spring 1963" has aesthetic qualities.  Some would argue that it does not.  But, the truth is that Ono's work is apprehended in galleries or in artist's books through our senses.  All conceptual art is apprehended through our senses in some way or context.  The fact that the words are arranged in a certain way on the page is important.  The look of the page is important.   The typeface is important (as can be seen in the fact that she chose a different typeface when recreating the work later).  To claim that conceptual art has no aesthetic properties is absurd.   Gracyk would agree with that point.  He argues that Ono's work can have the aesthetic properties of being funny or elegant.  Still, I would insist that these properties are based on sensuous properties. 

Where I would disagree with the supervenience theorist, and even with the weak supervenience theorist, is that these sensory properties are themselves non-aesthetic.  On my view, if an experience is aesthetic, all of the properties within the experience are aesthetic.  Gracyk says that "Freshness, wittiness, and elegance are aesthetic properties.  Therefore there appear to be aesthetic properties that do not include sensory properties in their supervenience base."  This seems wrong in two ways.  First, freshness etc. do depend on perception and hence on sensation.  Second, there is a problem with the whole idea of there being "sensory properties" i.e. of there being properties that are non-aesthetic even in an aesthetic situation in which the thing being experienced is being experienced aesthetically.  To use Dewey's language, when a live creature interacts with its environment it does so by way of its senses.  But these senses do not, I suggest, provide a base of properties upon which something else is based r epistemologically.  At the same time, I will remain an agnostic concerning whether supervenience works solely on a metaphysical level.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Aesthetic Atheism and Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution

In a previous post I discussed a talk Terry Eagleton gave at Santa Clara University.  Since then I have read his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution (New Haven:  Yale, 2009).  This is the print version of the Terry Lecture Series at Yale.  I confess an experience of strangeness here since reviews and commentaries insist that Eagleton remains an atheist, and yet I could find little evidence for it in this book. (He seems to think one can believe in God without believing that God exists, if that makes any sense.)  For the most part, the book reads like a classic form of Christian apologetics mixed with a lot of ranting against such atheists as Dawkins and Hitchens, which Eagleton, oh-too-cleverly, calls "Ditchens."  Whereas some readers find Eagleton funny, I do not ...but then in humor, there is no accounting for taste.  This comment is not however intended to be a book review.  I am more interested in treating him as an inspiration for thoughts about aesthetic atheism. (See my other posts on this topic.) I am actually sympathetic to Eagleton on some counts. 

But, to begin with, is he really an atheist?  When he describes to us what orthodox Christians believe, he does so in his own voice and frankly it sounds like he himself is talking here.  For instance he says that God created us in his own image, that he himself is pure liberty, and is also the source for atheism as well as faith. (p. 17) Which would be true, if there were a God (i.e. the Christian God he describes)! but which otherwise begs all the philosophical questions.  The oddest experience I have reading Eagleton is how often he seems to know (seems to think he knows!) exactly what God is or is not.  This is strange for a so-called atheist.  So he says, for example, that the view of "God as Big Daddy" is a "naïve misconception."  But in what way could any conception of God be more naïve than any other if you are an atheist?  How can you have more or less naïve knowledge of an entity that does not exist?  (That the Catholic God is more complicated than can be summed up by "Big Daddy" goes without saying...but the sum-up seems not bad to me, as sum-ups go.) Then he claims that many liberals fail to see that the liberal doctrine of freedom and the liberal belief in progress derive in part from the Christian notions of free will and Providence.  It would be foolish to deny that current Western ideas derive in large part from earlier Christian civilization. Yet this begs all the questions.

Sometimes Eagleton reads as someone who simply believes that to be a good Christian is to be a good leftist:  for example "You shall know him [God] for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away." (18) I confess some sympathy for this vision of distributive justice, but do not see why it has to be connected with some sort of belief in God or Jesus.  Is anything more being said than that it would be satisfying to see some of the wealth of the rich transferred to the hungry?  Eagleton's Christianity seems to be based on the idea that it is equivalent to the notion that political love, the ethical basis of socialism, should be the ruling principle of our lives. (p. 32)  I can see how this might be a creed to live by.  But Eagleton goes on to complain that atheists fail to see that faith "is not primarily a belief that something or someone exists, but a commitment and allegiance - faith in something..."  Maybe it isn't primarily belief in existence, but faith in something that does not exist is meaningless.  

What is faith?  Eagleton speaks of faith in feminism, as an example.  Certainly feminism is an ideal and, arguably, ideals do not exist (i.e., we do not exist in a world in which feminist ideals have been fully actualized), although they may be exemplified, partially.  So perhaps his point is that one can have faith in God in the same way one can have faith in feminism, or rather that faith in feminism is just one of the ways to have faith in God.  But faith in God is based on the assumption not that there is some ideal possibility but rather in the idea that something actual (God) is the ground of ideal possibility.  That's a very different thing.   

Eagleton says, "Even after Auschwitz, there is nothing in [the atheist] view to be redeemed from" -- to which one can only reply first, that if anything has disproved the existence of God it has been Auschwitz (the problem of evil has never been answered in any way that is not just absurd), and second, that there is no point in talking about being redeemed from Auschwitz if there is no redeemer God.  Eagleton somehow thinks that liberal rationality takes away hope from those who suffer torment.  Liberal rationalism has not only never denied such hope but has often been defined as a commitment to the elimination of cruelty.  One cannot be a liberal without hoping.  (All of this sounds deliberately like Richard Rorty.) Although Eagleton may well be right that "only through a tragic process of loss, nothingness, and self-dispossession can humanity come into its own," this does not mean that institution of the kingdom of God is to be recommended, especially if the meaning of that kingdom is interpreted by mainstream believers. (A woman's right to choose would be out, for example.)

Eagleton says that, like God, we exist, or should exist, merely for the pleasure of it.  Setting aside the fact that even if there were a God we would have no reason to believe He exists in this way, there is something to the notion that we should exist merely for the pleasure of it.   Eagleton further writes, that  "It [ethics?] is a question of how to live most richly and enjoyably, relishing one's powers and capacities purely for their own sake.  This self-delighting energy ...stands in no need of justification" (13) This is the Epicurean approach to life, one that, contra Eagleton, has little to do with Christianity or with faith in general.  But this is at least a sentence I could agree with.

Atheists do not have a problem with the question "why is there anything at all?"   They just do not think that the answer to this question is even plausibly "God."  Eagleton seems to think that questions like "where do our notions of intelligibility or explanation come from?" obviously lead us to believe in God, and yet science does a pretty good job (and the best currently available) of answering those questions:  they come from evolutionary processes. (p. 11) Do we presuppose rationality in accounting for rationality?  Yes, that's the way it works.  There is no real paradox here:  what alternative does Eagleton suggest, irrationality as way to account for rationality?

Is it a matter of wonder that we understand so much of the universe with no evolutionary advantage, as Eagleton says it is?  Well, it is not clear yet what evolutionary advantage we get from different kinds of knowledge (although it is clear that we are, by far, the most successful medium-size to large animal on the planet, currently  -- and this is probably due to this thing we call "knowledge"), and we haven't worked out the causality of the development of human knowledge, but this is no reason to go to a failed hypothesis, an intelligent creator-being, to "explain" it. 

Eagleton, in sum, gives us a not-too-objectionable socialist/Epicurean philosophy combined with a kind of nostalgic recounting of religious myth and a bit of theological oddity, including his own idea that God and the world are to be included among non-instrumental things, things good-in-themselves. 

Fondness for religious stories is not inconsistent with aesthetic atheism.  As this Christmas season approaches, it is hard to ignore this fact.  So I find myself wondering why I find Eagleton so irritating --- it must be his smug sense of superiority and his hypocritical attitude towards atheism which he seems, at best, to half-accept.  I also have a problem with the idea that anything is "in-itself" in any way:  no man is an island, and no good is disconnected from other goods.  Not even God (if he existed). 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is there an Aesthetics of Philosophy?

Donald Phillip Verene says "yes."   More specifically, he argues that "philosophical discourse, as well as philosophy itself, depends upon an aesthetic that cannot be overcome by reason, that there is a philosophical imaginary that necessarily accompanies philosophical rationality. The concept, the idea, always has a shadow, a doppelganger through which the aesthetic haunts reason." (Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 89-103.)  I think Verene is right.  And isn't it interesting that his is the only paper I can come up with that deals with this topic?  Surely aesthetics is much broader than the aesthetics of art, nature, and everyday life.  Surely it covers what philosophers do too.  There must be a reason for the neglect:  and it goes back to the ancient debate between philosophy and poetry.  As Verene observes, the great philosophers have tended to downplay the imagination, especially with regards to the role it plays in philosophy itself.  Yet as much as Plato attacks the imitative arts, including ancient Greek tragedy, he also used images, such as "the allegory of the cave," in his own work.  Yet John Dewey argued that thinking has an ineluctable aesthetic element.  An example of good thinking is an example of what Dewey calls "an experience."  The conclusion of a thought process is a consummation.  Dewey observes in Art as Experience that we philosophers would not engage in the process of thinking if there were not aesthetic satisfactions in the process of thinking itself.  So too, we should not forget the pleasures of reading the great philosophers, or listening to them if they are still alive.  Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, the preferred products of philosophical debates, i.e. theories, which usually take the form of definitions, have a structure that is remarkably similar to that of creative metaphors. (I have gone so far as to say that they are metaphors, perhaps of a special secret sort.) When one makes a claim about the essence of X one usually wants to say that X is Y, and yet, usually, within traditional classificatory schemes, X is hardly ever literally Y.  Philosophical definitions are intended to shock a bit. Great definitions typically leave out as much as they include:  they are intended to highlight some things and neglect or even disrespect others.  That is why it is so easy to come up with counterexamples to philosophical definitions.   It was brilliant of Clive Bell to say that "art is significant form" and yet this definition was deliberately intended to exclude merely descriptive art such as Paddington Station, art that serves the purposes of everyday emotions, rather than generating the aesthetic emotion proper to art. It is not just that "art is significant form" is a metaphor or metaphor-like, but "significant form" itself is a rich and complex concept that needs to be teased out:  it, as used by Bell, has a metaphorical nature itself.

I agree with Verene that philosophy itself has a foundation in sense and sensibility, especially by way of imagination.  It is not the product of pure thought or rationality, despite the history of claims to the contrary.  I like it that Verene quotes Aristotle's famous saying in the Poetics, that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others and it is a sign of genius. For the right use of metaphor requires an eye for similarities in dissimilars."   Would that philosophers, including Aristotle, had taken this claim more seriously in the history of philosophy.  

Verene finds assistance for his project in the writings of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.  Here's a quote from Verene on Vico: "The wisdom of the poets is that of the first two ages, in which the world is formed by the power of imagination (fantasia). The first humans form their world through "imaginative
universals." These are the "poetic characters" of the fables. The first humans of the gentile nations think in metaphors, not in concepts or "intelligible universals" (universali intelligibili). Vico says that every metaphor is a fable in brief."  The assistance might be that Vico dimly saw what concepts, including universals, originate in metaphor, and that metaphors are not just sentences where A is seen as B but are entire stories in brief.  Moreover, they are ones that create worlds in the sense of creating entire ways of seeing things.  So on this view the business of philosophy is to study and construct these "stories in brief."  Histories and myths involve grasping particulars as universals.  Philosophy, then, shares a lot with literature.  Plato was simply a descendent of the mythologists and playwrights he sought to replace. 

Verene also observes that in an early writing Hegel advocated an aesthetic view of philosophy, saying that "the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. Those without aesthetic sense are our literal-minded philosophers
[unsere Buchstabenphilosophen] The philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy." (97)  (from the System-Program of 1796)  Verene argues that Hegel conceived of his Phenomenology as a "mythology of reason." with a gallery of philosophical images. Verene brings both Socrates and Collingwood to the cause of the aesthetics of philosophy when he says "Socrates says that the Muses also inspire the philosophical life (Phaedrus 259D). To attempt to say something original in philosophy we must, as R. G. Collingwood said, 'go to school with the poets in order to learn the use of language... .The principles on which the philosopher uses language are those of poetry..' Philosophy and poetry begin at the same point-with the metaphor" although, as Verene observes, the philosopher uses the metaphor to elaborate a conceptual structure.  As he also notes, Stephen Pepper first noted the importance of "root metaphors" in philosophical systems.  These ideas, I may add, were developed further in the writings of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  

Verene adds that "In educating students to think philosophically on their own we can attempt to make them aware of the importance of metaphor in this process." (100)  He also encourages us to pay attention to style and images in philosophical texts as well as argumentation.  Of course this was the strategy pursued by Derrida and the deconstructionists, although often with a certain sacrifice of clarity.  Following Collingwood's emphasis on the question Verene says that "To teach a philosophical text the instructor can direct the student first to look for the images that are there and then to look for the questions that are implicit in them, for in thinking philosophically the image is never left to speak for itself as it is in poetry." He argues that if we follow this policy,  "A great philosophical work can in this way become a treasure-house of ideas to give life to the mind rather than an arid desert of arguments to cross by aligning each one to the next." 

In closing, I would just like to say that my affinity to this line of thought was strongly influenced years ago by my adviser in Humanities, Sandra Luft, at San Francisco State University:  Luft used this very method in her classrooms, as she still does.  She is also a major Vico scholar.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

When an Art Teacher Says "Your Work is Similar to X."

According to Theodore Gracyk in The Philosophy of Art, the position called ontological contextualism says that "some aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of its time and creation" (Gracyk, 85).  This in itself is not a controversial view.   However it quickly becomes clear that ontological contextualists believe that all aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of the artwork's time of creation up to and ending abruptly at the point of completion of the artwork.  Thus Gracyk observes that ontological contextualists believe that some art historical contingincies are relevant to artwork identity and other ones (that are after the point of completion of the work) are not (86).  In regards to this, he observes, they say that Paul Cezanne's paintings were always proto-cubist.  This is a way of countering the claim of the constructivists (or, more properly, to keep the parallel, constructivist contextualists) that identity is not frozen at the time of creation and that artworks gain properties after creation, the development of Cubist painting giving new significance to Cezanne's work.  So do the paintings remain unchanged?  That is the question.  (Gracyk also has the odd view that "Constructivism is only plausible so long as we regard every artwork as an abstract structure that lacks determinate meaning."  Why would he believe that? I would think that constructivism is only plausible if it holds that artworks are actual things that have various properties including potentialities which may be actualized in various ways later, mainly in the experience of audience members, but also in the various manners of the work's presentation). 
An art student of mind has observed that, in looking that some examples by Cezanne, although they do occasionally have cube-like shapes they are not cubist in the sense of Picasso and Braque.  I actually think that it is hard to tell just by looking at paintings whether ontological contextualism or constructivism is true.  And maybe if that is so then it is just one of those philosophical debates that comes down to nothing but word choice.  Still, it does seem important.  Is context limited to the material leading up to the completion of the work or does it extend to things that happen after its completion?  I favor the second view. 

In addition the student raises an issue about teaching with respect to her recent work and responses to it.  These responses take the form, "Your piece is like X" by which is probably meant something like "your piece is essentially like X" or "your piece is very much like X."  These comments may be intended to get her to become more like X, to learn more from X, or even to react against X and become less similar to X.  In terms of what we were talking about earlier, X could be seen as already having the property "likeness to G [my student]" when it was created.  But that seems strange.  Yet if we are to say that Cezanne already had Cubist properties before Cubism, why not also say that X had Guerin properties before G?  .

G also suggested that comparisons of this sort are "inadequate to describe" her work.  I am not sure that this was your teacher's intention, but her point raises the interesting issue of whether pointing out similarities does not also occlude important differences.  G.'s work was being compared Milton Resnick.  But in looking at slides of her work and Resnick's it looks like G. is much more concerned with three-d texture and also with qualities of realism that can be achieved with texture, all of this related to a contemporary deep interest in environmentalism.
From one perspective it could be argued that Gs work, although superficially similar to X, is essentially different.  If so, then merely pointing out similarities does not help much.  A big question is:  what role do similarities play in teaching and understanding art, and what role should such practices play. 

Does anyone have some thoughts on this?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dewey's Dynamic Concept of "An Experience" as Developed in his Book Art as Experience

Dewey is one of the few philosophers who has provided a truly dynamic account of aesthetic experience (in Art as Experience).  Kant merely talks about aesthetic experience in terms of rather vague relations between the imagination and the understanding giving rise to the experience of beauty.  Hume speaks of the action of the critic as a rather mechanical ticking off of what is good and bad even in the minute particulars of a work of art.  Bell provides us with a little circle in which the good critic experiences the special aesthetic emotion in response to significant form which itself is defined as relations of lines and colors that give rise to the aesthetic emotion (which he sees as rapturous).  But Dewey talks about the experience of art in ways that we had not seen since Aristotle spoke of tragedy.  Although Dewey does not mention it, Aristotle's views on tragedy work as a nice starting point for understanding Dewey's view of aesthetic experience.  For Aristotle a good tragic work of art has a beginning, middle and end and also has magnitude, by which he means a proper length, i.e. one that can be encompassed by our minds, in particular our memory.  Aristotle defines tragedy in such a way as to emphasize plot over the other elements and to stress the catharsis of pity and fear in the audience.  Dewey, too, stresses that an experience has a natural starting and ending point.  Moreover, he sees our lives as a thing of histories, by which he means that we have many stories in our lives, each with its own plot.  He too stresses that his object (in this case aesthetic experience) in a consummation that is emotional in nature, much like Aristotle's catharsis.  So one could say that Dewey extends Aristotle's analysis of tragedy to aesthetic experience generally.  Dewey, moreover, has a similar starting point to that of Aristotle:  the live creature interacting with its environment.  I want to stress two other features of Dewey's approach to "an experience" that relate to its dynamic nature.  The first is the notion of the pervasive quality.  This is a hard one since it is very difficult to see whether Dewey is right that each example of "an experience" does indeed have a pervasive aesthetic quality, a "feel" all of its own.  On one level the pervasive quality can simply be seen as the feeling of rightness or perfection when the fulfillment occurs.  Yet, clearly he means by this not simply a pervasive quality or beauty or sublimity, he is not just talking about a general aesthetic quality, but rather a pervasive quality associated with emotion.  As he puts it, each integral experience has an emotional quality which evolves and develops throughout the experience.  Another way of putting this is his point that emotions themselves are not simple things, for example the simple experience of fear, but aspects of experience that evolve over time and in relation to specific objects.  Emotions, as he observed, are not just things in the mind, but are emergent from the interaction of live creatures.  The emotion of love has this quality:  it is not a thing of a moment or a specific feel, but rather something that (and here again we have a reference to theater) evolves on the stage of life in relation to specific others and even to shared objects and events.  The second point is that Dewey sees "an experience" as dynamic in that as the experience moves forward through its distinct phases it carries the past phases through the present and projects them into the future.  This is particularly evident for example in our experience of music.  But it can also be seen in our experience of works of visual art, for example in looking at Matisse's "Joie de Vivre" one moves from one figure to the next taking in each figure and its relation to the other figures in the scene.  So in sum "an experience" is complete and unified, it is separated from other experiences that are much less organized, having its own clear beginning and end, the end being a consummation rather than a mere cessation, the parts being distinct and yet almost paradoxically flowing from one to the next in a developmental stage, taking place as if it were a story or in some cases as a story, involving a developing "feel" or emotion, and pulling the past into it in such as way as to project forward to the culmination. Dewey's thinking is also deeply humanistic here in that aesthetic experience is not limited to art but rather expanded to life experiences in general including both life experiences that are everyday (for example, solving a problem, playing a game) and ones that are special and dramatic (for example, a fabulous meal, a storm that sums up all a storm can be, the breakup of a friendship.)  Moreover, these experiences are understood, as I said above, on the model of a form of art, Greek tragedy (and this is not, by the way, explicit) so that the dimension of conflict and suffering plays an equally important role.  Dewey stresses that "an experience" may involve suffering, but that this may be overcome in the final consummation (read, catharsis.)  What Dewey perhaps fails to do in discussing "an experience" is to more explicitly call for improvements in society that encourage richer living, i.e. more experiences that are integral, whether that be in the realm of the arts, the practical world, or in the intellectual world of philosophy and science.   That is, the notion of perceiving things as dynamic  this way is one that should be promoting as an educational goal.  Here is where, for example, our current view of critical thinking is lacking:  Dewey's logic insists that thinking is only real when it constitutes "an experience" and where the conclusion is not just the result of some mechanical connection of premises but may indeed come before the premises temporally.  In Dewey's view, thinking at its best is a dynamic activity in which an emotion or a "feel" evolves to a point of culmination.  It is not hard to show the profound rightness of Dewey's aesthetic theory for art, but perhaps more important to show it for critical thinking itself.  Dewey's thinking is related of course to everyday life not only in that he appreciates certain life phenomena as constituting aesthetic experiences but also as recognizing that these life experiences take the form of a drama, that, for example, we can speak of life situations as tragic or comic, as being moving, as beautiful or sublime.  Art is a kind of intensification of life, and life, therefore is a prelude to art.  Art and life are dynamically interrelated, enhancing each other as they go.  To paraphrase one of my student's comments:  having experiences is the way of life and integral experiences form an important part of living itself. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Aesthetic Atheism

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is an excellent starting point and stimulus for aesthetic atheism.   Rather than simply go for the Socratic/scientific perspective advocated by such traditional atheists as Richard Dawkins, Nietzsche takes the religious impulse quite seriously.  (See  "Affirmations After God:  Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins on Atheism," by J. Thomas Howe, Zygon, 47:1 (March 2012) for an interesting discussion). As Nietzsche would put it:  religion exists for man because not everything that happens is explainable to us by way of natural science.  There comes a moment when our "unshakable confidence" in the principle of sufficient reason and in the principium individuationis (which is the same thing, really) and of the Apollonian dream-world, suspends itself:  i.e. we can't find the explanation, at least not in terms of any principles of science.  I am not talking here about miracles but rather about stuff that we want to explain, like what is the meaning of life or the basis for morality, and why is there so much suffering ... and which science can tell us nothing about.  Human existence involves a great deal of suffering, and there must be some way to deal with this.  Traditional religion tells us that there is a God to look over us and that we have a soul that can go to some other realm, for example Heaven, when we die.  Nietzsche offers an alternative, but rather than attacking religion as illusion he argues that illusion is sometimes good for us.  The Greeks were aware that, as the Silenus figure put it, the best thing for man is never to have been born, and if born, to die soon, and yet they made life worthwhile by creating a world of illusion, the Apollonian world of the Olympian deities.  The Greeks created their religion to make it possible for them to live life.  (Nietzsche believed that this religion was better than the Christian one because it was not given to asceticism, which is just another word for denial of life.) And then the Greeks created another religion, the Dionysian religion, which involves, like Christianity, ritual, death, resurrection and redemption, but in a different key.  The Dionysian religion is another illusion, but it is an illusion that gives life meaning in a deeper way even than the Apollonian religion.  In this respect Nietzsche is the opposite of Plato.  Although, like Plato, he believes in the value of truth (what he teaches us as a philosopher is, after all, true in his eyes), he also, unlike Plato, sees the value of illusion, if addressed in the right way.  Plato asks us to leave the cave.  Nietzsche asks us to do that too, but then insists that this is not enough...and even that the Socratic quest holds within itself its own illusions (Apollonian illusions).  Leaving the cave is one part of the story.  The other part is diving deeper into the cave.  The Apollonian illusion seems to have taken us out of the cave but is in fact just another illusion:  when Plato's philosopher king thinks he has gotten out of the world into the world of reality he fails to see that he has gotten into another layer of illusion, the dreamworld of Apollo.  Recognizing this is one step.  But deeper than that is the overcoming of the veil of maya put up by the Apollonian illusion.  Once we do that, the even deeper illusion of oneness with the "primordial one" emerges.  Nietzsche could be read at this point in his intellectual career as holding that the "primordial one" is God, that God seeks to redeem himself through creation of a world of illusion.  This would be wrong.  Nietzsche, I believe, already is thinking that "God is dead."  And the "primordial one" is just another word for what he later calls "will to power."   It is a word for something deep within ourselves, a potential that we can actualize.  The primordial one which is the will to power which is the will to creative self-actualization on a grand scale (on the level of true greatness) is his answer to Schopenhauer's idea of the underlying irrational will.  But in contrast to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche's primordial one is the will as seeking power through creativity, through creation of great art, and through creation of oneself as a work of art.  So, the best manifestation of the will to power for Nietzsche is (and this comes out in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) the creation of oneself as a great work of art:  this is what is meant by "saying yes to life" and also what is meant by saying yes to eternal recurrence.  It is important that Nietzsche does not say that the veil of Maya is in fact shattered in the Dionysian experience.  Rather it is "as though the veil of Maya had been torn apart and there remained only shreds floating before the vision of mystical Oneness."  The Dionysian illusion of a vision of mystical Oneness is an even greater and more powerful illusion than the Apollonian, especially when combined with the Apollonian in the form of great art (which was in the form of tragic drama for the ancient Greeks and the tragic opera of Wagner, thought Nietzsche at that time).  So when Nietzsche says "Each of his [the Dionysian reveler's] gestures betokens enchantment; through him sounds a supernatural power, the same power which makes the animals speak and the earth render up milk and honey" he does not mean that the Dionysian dancer manifests something actually supernatural but rather that the world takes on an enchantment:  the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as if the animals could speak, etc.  The dream illusion of the Dionysian is in part the great aesthetic accomplishment of every great redemptive religion.  So, what happens to the individual here?  "He feels himself to be godlike and strides with the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has seen in his dreams."  The gods were created by man spontaneously (in dreams) to give life some sense, but the deeper level of illusion is the one in which one begins to see oneself as godlike, and not just as an artist, but as a work of art created by oneself.  So when Nietzsche says "The productive power of the whole universe is now manifest in his transport" he means the productive power of the will to power is now manifested in the ecstatic experience of the self-productive Dionysian artist.  The sublime aesthetic experience found not only in great art but in great religion, such as that of the ancient Greeks (and perhaps even that of Christianity, although Nietzsche himself would deny it), and also in the great self-creation of the "tragic man" is something based on the true value of a special kind of deep illusion.  Oddly, great religion is what great art strives to achieve except without the belief, without the conviction that religion speaks truth. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hegel's Aesthetics and Aesthetic Atheism

Hegel's lectures on aesthetics can provide useful stimulus and some intellectual support for aesthetic atheism.  What I will have to say about Hegel is not intended to be a contribution to Hegel scholarship, nor do I intend here to produce something that is consistent with an overall Hegelian position.  I just want to use him (and specifically "Chapter 1: The Range of Aesthetic Defined..." I will quote from Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, the Penguin edition, translated by Bosanquet, 1993) got inspiration.

Hegel is already in the right ball-park as far as aesthetic atheism is concerned insofar as he rejects traditional religious belief and replaces God with "the Absolute."  One does not have to go so far as to believe in the Absolute as some entity that evolves through history to find Hegel useful here.  The very idea that the physical world has a spiritual aspect manifested in art, religion, philosophy and science may be sufficient ("spiritual aspect" to be defined in a way that does not allow dualism or a separate spiritual realm or set of entities).  Aesthetic atheism, unlike physicalist atheism of the sort we find in Dawkins, finds deep value in these great manifestations of the human spirit, even including religion.  Like Hegel, the aesthetic atheist may find Rembrandt's The Night Watch thrilling because it manifests the spirit of the Dutch people and indeed Europe in general at a particular stage in history, as also Van Eyk's Ghent Altarpiece at another stage in history.  So when Hegel says "In the origination, as in the contemplation, of its creations we appear to escape wholly from the fetters of rule and regularity" (7) we can see the point as similar to Kant's comment about the creation of new rules by the genius artist, except in this case the emphasis is on the freedom of the artist's imagination, or the "freedom of the productive and plastic energy" of the art itself.  Hegel's reference to free art as expressing "cheerful vigorous reality" as opposed to mere abstract thought reminds me here of Nietzsche's comments on the healthy spirit.  And Hegel's "Not only has art at command the whole wealth of natural forms in the brilliant variety of their appearance, but also the creative imagination has power to expatiate inexhaustively beyond their [the natural forms'] limit in products of its own" allows that the arts flesh out meaning in the world of ideas, including those provided by science.  

In connection with this line of thinking, this passage is striking:

"Fine art is not real art till it is in this sense free [i.e. self-determined, as science is when it rises to the level of free search for the truth], and only achieves its highest task when it has taken its place in the same sphere with religion and philosophy, and has become simply a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.  It is in works of art that nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts; and fine art is frequently the the understanding of their wisdom and their religion."

The aesthetic atheist agrees, except that "the Divine Nature" is deleted or transformed into something more like "the deepest interests of humanity."  Note that the very idea of the Divine Nature is identified in this paragraph with the way in which nations have profound intuitions.  So we already have a way of putting this in atheistic or humanistic terms.  Nor need we accept some sort of Platonistic view of nations as clearly separate and distinct, but rather we may talk about various possible units larger than the individual:  civilizations, cultures, sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures, all of which can participate in the process of self-expression Hegel describes in which individual self-expression becomes an expression of that larger-than-individual unit (perhaps even progressively so, through a series of larger units reaching to the species and genus).  Nor need we go along with all of Hegel's absolutist talk of "highest," "only," "deepest" and "profoundest" to find inspiration in this idea that the spiritual aspect of Being is precisely in the world-as-we-experience-it, a physical world with a spiritual aspect.     

Except that of course, the aesthetic atheist story is one that reverses Hegel's hierarchy, and the aesthetic becomes prominent in this case.  So when Hegel says, "This is an attribute which art shares with religion and philosophy, only in this peculiar mode, that it represents even the highest ideas in sensuous forms, thereby bringing them nearer to the character of natural phenomena, to the sense, and to feeling" we take this to be the paradigm of the aesthetic and also of the religious, unlike Hegel.  And when Hegel says "The world, into whose depths thought penetrates, is a supra-sensuous world, which is thus, to begin with, erected as a beyond over against immediate consciousness...." this is precisely what Kant rightly thought as going beyond the limits of reason and into illusion.  At most, the suprasensuous realm can only be an abstract and empty idea that represents what Hegel then calls "the power which thus rescues itself from the here" of "actuality and finiteness of sense." There is nothing wrong with the rescue insofar as moving away from the sensuous and immediate is a necessary part of the dialectic of knowledge (going back and forth being required) but only with the thought that cognition cannot do this by escaping the sense world entirely:  it can only seem as if doing so, and can only be useful insofar as this is a useful fiction.   To have any real nature these ideas need to be fleshed out by imagination, which takes us back to sensuous immediacy.  Contra Hegel, then, there is no reason to believe in an "infinite freedom of the reason that comprehends."  (10)  Rather than "breaking through to the idea," which Hegel thinks is the purpose of fine art, the products of fine art (and also religion and philosophy) break through to what Kant called "the aesthetic ideas" of which the idea in Hegel's sense is only the abstract and empty marker, at best.  So when Hegel says,  "...we must...bear in mind...that art is not, either in content or in form, the supreme and absolute mode of bringing the mind's genuine interests into consciousness"  the aesthetic atheist replies: sure! and neither is anything else, least of all philosophy or religion.   

Friday, October 11, 2013

Nature Aesthetics and the Feeling of Happiness

As I walk on a path beside the Stanislaus River, passing by patches of bear clover, areas strewn with pine cones, earth of different colors, and arrangements of interestingly shaped granite rocks, a feeling of happiness rises up.  My friends and I find another path down to the river, leading to a spot that we hadn’t ever visited before.  Although the river itself has dangerous currents, this area has shallows in which one can wade.  My happiness increases as I take off my hiking boots, roll up my pants and slowly work my way through the water across stones and past miniature falls, facing the rushing river on the other side and the dramatic cliff that forms the far bank.  The happiness I describe is a response to the situation in hand, particularly the aesthetic features of the surrounding environment, but also to other aspects of the situation.  I am there with my wife and friends in harmonious friendship.  We are together and responding to nature, this specific nature, i.e. this place by a river that has rich personal meaning going back, in my case, more than fifty years.  For me, at least, any adequate theory of the aesthetics of the natural environment must be measured against this experience.  To be sure, there are many other ways that things can be experienced in nature as beautiful, or as having some other aesthetic quality (for example, grace, elegance, or magnificence), and many other kinds of things that can be experienced aesthetically, but if a theory cannot handle this experience or this type of experience then, in my view, it is a non-starter.  This is to me not only a high point in the aesthetic experience of nature but also a high point in life.  I write this essay in the hope (and expectation) that you will have a similar experience to which you can refer as you read it. 

Two leading theories of the natural environment are the engagement theory of Arnold Berleant and the scientific cognitivist theory first promoted by Allen Carlson and defended more recently by Glenn Parsons.  I will make some brief comments about both in what follows.  Begin with scientific cognitivism as presented by Parsons.  This view, which is intended to provide a basis for objectivity in aesthetic judgments of the natural environment, holds that knowledge of the natural sciences is necessary to ground appropriate appreciation.  Geology, biology and natural history can, on this view, correctly describe a natural object and show how aesthetic views inconsistent with science (for example Medieval religious views) are false.[1]  Yet scientific knowledge, although it can contribute to aesthetically positive experience, is neither necessary nor sufficient to have the appreciation of the natural environment I have experienced on the Stanislaus.  I myself have very little scientific knowledge of the river and cannot detect its presence in my appreciative experience.  (That I can name a couple plants and rocks as I did above hardly counts as scientific knowledge.)  Moreover, although my experience will of course be influenced (perhaps unconsciously) by whatever knowledge I have, this has little bearing on its value.  Also, scientific knowledge is not sufficient for aesthetic experience of nature:  one could imagine someone with a great deal of such knowledge having an experience of the river with no aesthetic component at all.

I am more sympathetic to Berleant’s view.  Berleant and I both begin with analysis of experience, i.e. with phenomenology, we both emphasize sensuous experience more than the scientific cognitivist, and we agree on the centrality of engagement (i.e. sensory immersion and “living in” as participants rather than mere observers).   The rest of this article will be devoted to noting differences between our positions.  To provide a context for my discussion I turn to a recent debate between Carlson and Berleant.  In a review of one of Berleant’s books Carlson argues that he fails to define aesthetic experience, that his theory is too subjective in that if fails to provide a basis for objective evaluation, and that it does not account for the distinction between difficult/serious and easy/superficial beauty.[2]  In a follow-up article, Berleant cogently replies that he does not accept the model of philosophy in which the goal is to provide a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (an essentialism he associates with Aristotle), that he does not accept the notion of a deep objective/subjective split (is objectivity really independent of subjectivity? …at the very least, they form a continuum), and that although scientific cognition of the natural environment can add to our appreciation, it is not necessary. [3]  Also, whereas Carlson distinguishes serious from superficial beauty on the basis of scientific knowledge, Berleant characterizes it as involving a “high degree of intensity, complexity, and perceptual engagement.”  He thinks the best we can have in terms of objectivity is a Humean good judge which renders not a universal or absolute judgment but one that is good enough.  Berleant’s reply to Carlson fits my own experience of the Stanislaus River.   So where do we differ? 

One point of disagreement is on disinterestedness.  Berleant first proposed the idea of engagement in opposition to the Kantian idea that aesthetics is characterized by disinterestedness.  Yet I cannot really tell, when looking into my river experience, whether it is a matter of engagement or a matter of disinterestedness.  Am I engaged?  I certainly am focused on the world around me.  I look at the river, I smell the forest air, I feel the cool of the water, and so forth.  Am I disinterested?  Traditionally, to be disinterested, one needs only be disconnected from practical matters.  Perhaps one component of my intense happiness is that I am “on vacation” in every sense of the word:  I am not worrying about work or (for the moment at least) about my relations with other people.  I do not intend to use this river for any other purpose than pleasure.  So it seems that I am engaged and disinterested, and even engaged because I am disinterested.

Also unlike Berleant, I do not see much room for Hume’s idea of connoisseurship here.  Hume believed that objectivity in taste could be tied to the determinations of a good judge:  the good judge is distinguished by having “delicacy of sentiment” which is the capacity to analyze the work into discrete elements and evaluate it by way of evaluating those elements.  To have delicacy of sentiment the good judge must have had practice in observing objects in the category under consideration (for example, landscape paintings) and in comparing these.  He or she must also have good sense and lack prejudice.  Hume’s idea of the good judge is an admirable, though much-debated, solution to the problem of taste in art.  Does it work as well in the appreciation of nature?  I am not so sure.  I cannot imagine my acceding to someone who came along, for example, and said that my experience on the Stanislaus was incorrect or of low value in comparison with another, even if that person has had a lot of practice in appreciating nature, and had the other virtues of a Humean good judge (although whether delicacy of sentiment is possible here is open to question when there is no traditional set of evaluative criteria).  This doesn’t mean that comparative judgments can never be made:  I might say that this spot on the river is more beautiful than another.  However, that judgment does not play a significant role in my experience.  Nor is it clear how practice and comparison or even delicacy of sentiment would improve my experience.  I am not here noticing fine distinctions in the way I would when appreciating the subtle taste of fine wine. 

It could be argued, however, that I do focus on particular aspects of the surrounding environment.  Perhaps this is a matter of discrimination.  I have a camera with me and I take pictures of features that particularly move me (they illustrate this essay).  Taking pictures is part of the experience:  a way of noticing.  Are my choices (where to point the camera) the result of practice and comparison or some fine discrimination that comes from that?  It’s hard to say.  Even if I did have increased discriminative capacity based on a long experience of aesthetically appreciating this river, the point of my experience is not in the judging or in the capacity to condemn the judgments of others.  So, it is not even clear that the idea of “objectively correct judgment” is important in this case, and I wonder how important it is to the aesthetics of nature in general.   

Also, whereas Berleant rejects the view that there is a “single, unique feature” to the aesthetic, I believe that there is such a feature, and this is a quality which I have elsewhere called “aura.” [4]  The Stanislaus River in this spot at this time (and for me) has the quality of aura, as do many of the components of that environment on which I am focused.  I have described this quality as one in which the object, event or environment under consideration has heightened significance.  It is experienced as more valuable by way of, and through, its sensuous nature.  It seems more than itself, more real, more alive.  During my experience on that day at the Stanislaus everything around me, the rocks, the river, the sky seemed more intense, the perceptual features more meaningful, and even though I am an atheist, it is an experience of the world as if it pervaded by something divine or numinous.  A note about this: like other atheists I accept science as providing the best explanation we have for natural phenomena.  However I do not think science can tell us much about values or about the nature of experience.  Religious experience should be taken seriously even by atheists.  Only religion (not science, philosophy, or even art) portrays the world as full of meaning.  For atheists like myself, aesthetic experiences of the sort I have described are somewhat like religion but without dogma, or even belief.   

A unique feature of my discussion is the presence of the concept of happiness.  When I am talking about happiness here I am not speaking of a state of general satisfaction or overall success in life, but rather the feeling of happiness.  Philosophers, for example Aristotle, have often argued that happiness is the goal of life.  How happiness is to be defined is not my concern here, but rather the connection between the happiness and aesthetic experience.   More specifically, I am interested in the connection between aesthetics and the feeling of happiness when that feeling comes specifically out of sensuous experience in, and related to, a place and time.

Happiness is not much discussed in aesthetics.  The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics does not have an entry for happiness, nor does it appear in the index.  Yet surely one of the reasons we pursue the arts and one of the main reasons we contemplate nature is that doing so makes us happy.  Aesthetic pleasure is discussed in the literature, and at great length, but although the feeling of happiness is pleasurable, there are many other sorts of pleasure.  Perhaps the close relationship between natural beauty and the feeling of happiness is not discussed because it is considered too obvious, or perhaps it seems too personal to deserve presence in the world of theory.  I do not know. 

Haig Khatchadourian is one of the very few philosophers to have discussed aesthetics, and specifically the aesthetics of nature, in terms of happiness: for him the aesthetic life is one of ways to achieve happiness.[5]  He speaks the aesthetic life as a full savoring of a variety of natural beauties.  He further observes that life in isolation from nature’s charms cannot be aesthetically complete.  Khatchadourian seems to agree with Berleant when he says that the aesthetic life requires involvement and should not be purely spectatorial.  At the same time, like me, he believes that this can be consistent with a positive view of the idea of disinterestedness as represented in his case by Edward Bullough’s metaphor of distancing.  

Another recent figure who has recognized the importance of happiness in relation to aesthetic  experience is Alexander Nehamas, although, unlike Khatchadourian, he does not connect it with the experience of nature.[6]  Yet Nehamas believes that beauty issues the promise of happiness whereas I would say, especially in the case of appreciation of natural beauty, it is the objective side of the experience of which the subjective side is the feeling of happiness.  So in a sense, rather than happiness delayed, beauty and happiness are one.  Nehamas may be right about those sorts of beauty associated with desire:  but sometimes beauty and happiness are just there together. 

I want to end with a brief discussion of the scene itself, illustrated in these photographs.  It might be thought that the images picked out show a strong interest in formalism, influenced in part by modern art’s fascination with relations of forms and colors and by postmodernism’s interest in process and change (as found for example in video art).  This is to some extent true, however there is something probably more primordial to my strongly emotional response to the sparkling flow of water over rocks, the contrast of the strength of the river’s current against the calm of the shallows, the dramatic placement of trees on the face of the cliff, the languid positioning of my friend on a rock.  Clive Bell, the classic formalist, saw formal relations in terms of a special aesthetic emotion to which they give rise, that emotion quite distinct from the emotions of everyday life.  Yet, happiness is an emotion of everyday life, the one we most seek and cherish.  Photographs that feature formal relations and textural qualities have their own value but as a record of an aesthetic experience of nature (and nature as experienced with friend) they are poor:  they capture only a memory of something infused with meaning, of a whole environment unbounded by rectangular frames and limitation to one sense, of the dynamic of the live creature interacting in a fulfilling way with its environment (as John Dewey would put it), all giving rise to a feeling of happiness that cannot ultimately be separated.  As Berleant would put it, the subjective and the objective are fused in aesthetic experience.[7]

Thomas Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

[1] Glenn Parsons, “Freedom and Objectivity in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:1 (2006): 17-37.
[2] Allen Carlson, “Critical Notice:  Aesthetics and Environment,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:4 (2006): 416-427.  Berleant’s book was The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia:  Temple U.P., 1992).
[3] Arnold Berleant, “Aesthetics and Environment Reconsidered:  Reply to Carlson,” British Journal of Aesthetics 47:3 (2007): 315-318.  
[4] Thomas Leddy.  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Broadview Press, 2012).
[5] Haig Katchadourian, “Natural Beauty and the Art of Living,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 16:1 (1982): 95-98. 
[6] Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness:  The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton University Press, 2007).
[7]   John Dewey. Art as Experience (New York:  Minton, Balch & Company, 1934) I took a somewhat different approach to these issues in “A Defense of Arts-Based Appreciation of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 27 (2005): 299-315.