Friday, March 7, 2014

The Aesthetic Philosophy of Zehou Li

I have been reading Zehou Li and Jane Cauvel's Four Essays on Aesthetics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).  The points I will raise here should not be seen as a book review but simply as notes about how Li's project can be applied to the aesthetics of everyday life and related issues.  I should say that Li and I were both strongly influenced by Marx's 1844 Manuscripts when young (my introduction, by Anatole Anton at San Francisco State University around 1973).  Li uses these early works by stressing Marx's quote:  "man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty."  However Li also tries to incorporate aspects of several other schools of thought into his own, these including psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Confucius and Lao Tzu. 

As I said above, there are many affinities between my own approach to everyday aesthetics and the philosophy of Li.  (This should not be surprising since Marx Wartofsky, a Marxist humanist himself, had a profound influence on me when I was a graduate student at Boston University.)  For example, Li introduces us to the concept of Zhutixing Practice which he also refers to as "historical ontology."  Like the American pragmatist John Dewey, Li rejects dualism.  So when he refers to ontology, bentilum, he is thinking literally of the study of the root or origin (ben) and stem or body (ti) of things.  Key to this is the idea that "being cannot be separated from the existence of human beings."  Further, "questions such as the possibility of cognition, morality, and aesthetic appreciation originate from and are subordinate to the question of the possibility of humanity." (40)  And it is through "using, making, and renewing instruments that humanity forms social existence" and hence also forms cognition, morality and aesthetics.  This reminds me of Wartofsky's seminal idea of "historical epistemology." [I have written the entry for Wartofsky in the forthcoming second edition of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.]  Of course this is Marxist in its origin:  the superstructure comes from material relations of production.  I would reject the bottom-up determinism of this, but not the dynamics of the interaction.

One of Li's most intriguing ideas is his notion of beauty as the practice of freedom, or, as he puts it: "beauty is the form of freedom."  Freedom is "the power to understand universal forms (laws) by overcoming natural necessity." (57) He also says it is shaping objects "in accord with natural laws."  At first this seems a contradiction:  how can it both be in accord with natural necessity and overcome it?  Li best explains (resolves?) this paradox in terms of the Taoist story told by Zhuanzi about Cook Ding (sometimes called Cook Ting).  Cook Ding was able to cut up an ox without dulling his knife because he could adapt to the emptiness within.  In Zhuanzi's writings he says, "I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are." Following "the Way" (in the Taoist sense) is, then, freedom.  So, what is beauty but the experience of this freedom, perhaps in one's practice or perhaps in the product of a  practice that is free in this way.  (But then, this product would also have to be experienced freely for beauty to be present.)  Freedom, as I understand it, then, for Li, is knowing something so well, and knowing a skill so well, one can do it intuitively.  I do not feel as comfortable as Li does with talking about "objective universal laws": there are so few of these outside the realm of science, and very few indeed in the world of human things.  But I can understand this to mean a self-transcending moment that comes through developing a practice (for example, when one knows how to play a piano piece so well that one senses a feeling of freedom when playing it, and in playing it beautifully).

Li also says that it is "during the process of humanizing both the external and internal natures that beautiful forms and pleasurable feelings come into being."  There is isomorphism of aesthetic pleasure and "interaction between various structures of symmetry, proportion, harmony..." (51), an isomorphism that has "both historical and social qualities." (52)  For Li, the question "what is the root of beauty?" is a philosophical question distinct from asking about aesthetic qualities and aesthetic objects:  the root of beauty, for Li, is humanized nature (the idea coming from Marx).  This aesthetic theory is neither a subjectivism or an objectivism, but a synthetic unity.  A large question that looms for Li and for those who read Li is how the human can attain this primacy given our current awareness of ecology and of the multiple complex relations between man and the rest of the natural world.  Is Li guilty of anthropocentrism?  One could say that he is not guilty of this simply because we cannot escape our humanness:  i.e. we cannot escape anthropocentrism, and so there is nothing to be guilty about in being anthropocentric.  We live in a world seen through human eyes and reconstructed largely according to human needs (i.e. the biosphere on this planet).  

Li writes:  "Because human's material production brings about isomorphic structures, the properties of natural objects (growth...) and their forms (rhythm, symmetry...) enter into the realm of beauty."  So, apply this to everyday aesthetics.  In everyday experience we engage in material production, for example in the home as we tidy up, or at work as we make whatever objects we make or shape whatever processes we shape.  Human production raises natural objects and their forms to the realm of beauty.  This is quite plausible, if not proved.  After all, as Li observes, the "psychological structure of beauty" results from millions of years of human (or hominid, at least) productive practices.  (I would include appreciative practices that go back just as far.)  

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