Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What role should morality play in our evaluation of representational works?

When I was in high school I wrote a paper about the character Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.  He fascinated me and although I would never do any of the things he did (he is practically the embodiment of evil) I felt that I learned something just from getting into his head.  This raises the question of ethical moralism.  There are many versions of this theory, but the basic idea is that if a work of literature promotes or encourages immoral behavior, or even presents it without clearly condemning it, then it is a worse work than otherwise.  Consider another example:  Nabokov's Lolita. This is surely a great work of literature, but the moralist would bring it down a notch, or several notches, because it does not clearly condemn the actions of a pedophile.  It might be seen by the moralist as degrading trash. What I want to suggest is that although it makes sense to rank works of literature in terms of artistic value it does not make sense to move them up or down these rankings based on whether or not the author clearly condemns immoral behavior in the characters or clearly praises moral behavior.  I am not sure how to argue for this point here.  It's just the intuition I will work with.  For instance, it surely is not the case that Lolita would be a better book if the author in some way made more clear that what Humbert Humbert did was bad.  One of the things that makes the book so good is that it forces the reader to enter into the consciousness of a teacher who seduces an under-age student.  The great thing about literature is that it allows you to see the world from the perspectives of others, even others who do things that one would never condone in oneself.  

I want now to talk about a specific current theory by Alessandro Giovannelli that defends moralism:  "Ethical Criticism in Perspective:  A Defense of Radical Moralism."  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:4 (2013) 335-348.  Giovanelli's piece is written in technical analytic style, but it is a very current defense of moralism and worth looking at for that reason.  The abstract of the article actually makes the position very clear.  I quote it in full:

"I defend the ethical fittingness theory (EFT), the thesis that whenever it is legitimate ethically to evaluate a representational artwork for the perspective it embodies, such evaluation systematically bears on the work's artistic value. EFT is a form of radical moralism, claiming that the systematic relationship between the selected type of ethical evaluation and artistic evaluation always obtains, for works of any kind. The argument for EFT spells out the implications of ethically judging an artwork for its perspective, where such an ethical evaluation is understood as an assessment of how well the work's ethical perspective fits extra-fictional reality—how appropriate, correct, or true the perspective is. The argument shows that the ethical legitimacy of judging a work for its perspective ipso facto proves the judgment's art-critical relevance. Hence, the argument effectively amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of theories that admit the legitimacy of ethically judging artworks this way, but deny or qualify the judgment's relevance to artistic merit. Since EFT is stated conditionally, the argument need not indicate how often artworks are subject to this type of ethical evaluation. Nonetheless, I make a case for the relevance of EFT to actual art criticism and contemporary philosophical debate."

The application of moral evaluation, according to Giovannelli only should happen when it is legitimate to evaluate the work.  So presumably there are some cases where such evaluation is irrelevant or illegitimate in some other way.  The theory also holds that works of literature, for example, sometimes (always?) embody a moral perspective.  The work's artistic value should go down in our estimation if it embodies a bad moral perspective.  (Note that this claim is not descriptive, but normative.  It might be obvious that our estimation of the work will go down if it embodies a moral perspective of which we disapprove.  That would just be a descriptive claim.) Giovannelli uses the term "radical" rather strangely to refer to the fact that the theory applies to all kinds of representational art.  The theory assumes that it makes sense to say that works of representational art do in fact embody a single moral perspective.  This raises interesting issues, since plays, for example, usually have the various characters represent different moral perspectives, the author seldom outright telling us which character he/she identifies with.  Thus we could assume that Iago represents an immoral perspective (it is OK to deceive in fatal ways to gain revenge or power) as also Othello (it is acceptable to kill one's wife if suspected of adultery).  So, does that mean that the play as a whole has an immoral perspective, or does the final death of both characters indicate that the author's perspective is moral? 

Another issue is "how well the work's ethical perspective fits extra-fictional reality."  By "extra-fictional reality" I take Giovenelli to mean that there is an extra-fictional moral reality, i.e. a set of objective moral truths.  So, the novel is to be downgraded if its ethical perspective is contrary to objective ethical moral truths.  This would be a problem for people who question moral realism, i.e. the belief that there are objective moral truths.  Situation ethicists for example would wonder about this.  Historical relativists might wonder whether the ethical perspective must match the accepted moral truths of 2013 or the accepted moral truths of 1913.  But there is a further issue.  Why should something that explores moral ambiguity (as literary works often do) be tied down in terms of evaluation of a moral realism of any sort?  This seems a subordination of the meta-moral-perspective of representational art to the meta-moral-perspective of philosophy or religion.  

Let's get down to specifics.  Giovanelli encourages the art critic to praise Francisco de Goya's The Third of May 1808 (1814) for "the condemnation it embodies of the brutality of war and oppression."  Since the Goya does not contain a sentence that indicates that it is condemning the brutality of war and oppression we may assume that this comes in large part from knowing about Goya's life and times.  So, what if we found that we were wrong and that Goya took lurid delight in public executions?  Would this mean that the artistic value of the work should be degraded?  Maybe, instead of being one of the top ten pictures depicting executions it now becomes only one of the top one hundred.  What sense can be made of this?  

On the other hand, surely we are right to condemn a work of being racist, sexist, or for advocating pedophilia.  That is, works that embody a point of view that in general causes significant harm to others are at least problematic for that.  What I want to suggest, however, is that being concerned about whether works should go up or down in the hierarchy of goodness as works based on moral considerations may not be may be metaphysically suspect.  We are back to the issue of realism...in this case not just moral realism but value realism, which also seems to be assumed by Giovenelli's position.

Returning to my additional issue, and to be fair to Giovenelli, he believes that his moralism "need not be committed to the claim that an immoral work would be improved artistically, other things being equal...by an alteration in the work's perspective."  His position only says that the work would be "better artistically, other things being equal, if its perspective's ethical status were...not immoral." (346)  By itself, this does not make much sense.  But, when applied, the claim is that "If what Triumph of the Will glorifies were worthy of being glorified, then...the film would be a better film, artistically..." (346) So, Triumph of the Will glorifies the rise of Naziism and is also a widely recognized as a powerful documentary as well as a controversial, film.  Could Triumph of the Will have been a glorification of the pacifism of Gandhi?  Well, no: it wouldn't then be Triumph of the Will.  Isn't Triumph of the Will necessarily a film glorifying a militarized hero-worshiping society?  One could not make a film remotely like this glorifying Abraham Lincoln, to give another example.  Triumph of the Will is a great film and it just doesn't make sense to talk about downgrading it from that simply because it, in this case clearly, promotes an immoral perspective.  It just means that those of us who do not accept Nazi ideology will view it with a certain distaste or as morally disturbing.  The value we get from it, though, will be in part through getting some perspective into how people with that ideology saw the world.

Also, in response to a concern I raised earlier, Giovannelli would argue that "often immoral views, presented within a work, may be instrumental to the emergence of a different overall ethical perspective, which is the one the work really embodies (as might be the case with King Lear)." (346) The, implication of this view, however, is that if we cannot match the ultimate perspective of King Lear (or Othello in my example) with objective unchanging moral truth then these plays are to be degraded.  But let us say that we cannot?  Let's say that Shakespeare had several moral views that we would disapprove of today (as he in fact probably did) and that his overall moral perspective did not match what we consider the objective moral truth. Does this mean we should not see his plays or love them?  What are the real-life implications of the degrading action Giovannelli recommends? 

In short, the main question I wish to raise is, what is meant exactly by "detracts from the work's artistic value":  how is this cashed out in life experience, i.e. in a way that is coherent?   

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Are philosophy and literature continuous?

Bence Nanay's answer to this question is "yes."  "Philosophy versus Literature?  Against the Discontinuity Thesis."  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:3 (2013): 349-360.  I agree.  Partly Nanay is simply claiming that philosophers would gain (as philosophers) from reading literature.  He also suggests both that literature can do what philosophy is taken to do and that philosophy is not simply a matter of presenting logically valid arguments for precisely formulated conclusions.  Both of these claims seem obvious to me.  Another is that "literary works can count as real philosophy."  I am not so sure about that, maybe just because I see philosophy as a distinctive genre of writing.  But Nanay thinks that holding that the barrier between philosophy and literature is permeable is consistent with holding that there are important differences.  I also find that acceptable.

It is interesting that although several moral philosophers, including notably Martha Nussbaum, have argued for the continuity thesis (she says that "moral philosophy requires such literary texts, and the experience of loving and attentive novel-reading for its completion." 353) aestheticians hardly ever go to literary works to learn about aesthetics.  This is especially surprising given how often literary works deal with aesthetic matters, for example novels exploring the nature of art.  Nanay says that "it is far from clear how [Nussbaum's thesis] could be generalized to other branches of philosophy" (354) and he speaks specifically of philosophy of science and metaphysics.  I find metaphysical speculation to be a regular feature of literary works. But again, what about aesthetics?

I rather like Philip Kitcher's idea that literary works are philosophy when they (Nanay quoting Kitcher) "lead listeners and readers to improved perspectives on a...central philosophical question." (354)  This is by way of providing "a rich delineation of possibilities - accompanied by a tacit injunction:  Consider this."  I would go a bit further since the possibilities are weighted:  the novelist, for example, clearly favors some characters, actions and speeches (with their theoretical formulations) over others.   For example George Bernanos'  The Diary of a Country Priest has the country priest deliver a speech early in the novel which is then critiqued by his mentor.  Although Bernanos is not clearly advocating the mentor's position it is clear that he himself is raising questions about the value of the country priest's position, i.e. as being naive.  For one thing, this speech appears early in the novel, and the author's considered position is rightly associated with what how things turn out in the end, i.e. when the country priest in his dying moments finds God's grace to be everywhere.  Although I am an atheist, I believe that Bernanos' book gives us a kind of knowledge, and knowledge that is different in kind from philosophical knowledge, although continuous with and related to it.  It is not just knowledge of a possibility.  Rather, Bernanos' book presents us with a vision of how things are, one that can be used as a tool, perspective or lens even by an atheist in the pursuit of wisdom.  One way to do this is to put certain metaphysical concepts, for example "God" in brackets or under translation.  In short, the claim that "grace is everywhere" can have deep significance even for the atheist when taken within the context of the development of the novel as a whole (the meaning of the phrase is not found in itself alone) and when taken under translation (allowing for what Gadamer called a fusion of horizons.) 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Paul Guyer "Monism and Pluralism in the History of Aesthetics"

Paul Guyer is probably our leading historian in Western philosophical aesthetics.  He had just come out with his humungous History of Modern Aesthetics in three volumes with 1700 pages costing a minimum of $300.  All I can say is that I hope my library buys a copy.  Easier to read quickly is his article "Monism and Pluralism in the History of Aesthetics" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:2 (Spring 2013).  This is a very illuminating overview of his project, including the moral he has drawn from writing his history.  His basic point is that modern philosophy saw three main functions for art:  cognition, free play of the imagination, and expression of emotion, and that although many in the history of aesthetics have argued that art should only serve one of these functions (monism), Guyer favors the idea, expressed from time to time, that art should (or can?) serve all three (pluralism.)  

He begins by observing that the person who invented the term "aesthetics" Alexander Baumgarten in his Philosophical Meditations on some Matters pertaining to Poetry of 1735 defined "poetics" as the "science of the perfect presentation of sensory representations." He later (in his Aesthetica, 1750) defined aesthetics along similar lines and said that it was the "science of sensory cognition."  I have always been puzzled as to the relationship between these definitions and aesthetics as we practice it today.  I understand that what we translate as "science" can mean "study."  The puzzling part is "sensory cognition."  There could, for example, be cognition that is happens primarily through the senses (no reasoning involved) but without any art.  Presumably what is being suggested is that the arts somehow present us with, evokes or manifests sensory knowledge.  Also, is the claim that works of art perfectly present sensory representations?  Is a poem supposed to be a sensory representation?  Is it being said that perfect representation of the subject matter by way of the senses is the ideal?

Baumgarten's further explication of aesthetics (quoted by Guyer) as "the theory of the liberal arts, the doctrine of inferior cognition, the art of thinking beautifully, the art of the analogue of reason" does not help much.  It seems like a mish-mash of different ideas.  The theory of the liberal arts might just involve debates over what the liberal arts might be.  That the arts provide a form of cognition inferior to, let us assume, the sciences, is a sad thought, if true.  If there is an art of thinking beautifully it might happen in art, religion, science, philosophy, or everyday life.  So why just associate it with the liberal arts?  One can think beautiful thoughts about all sorts of  things, although I am not clear what a beautiful thought is.  And what exactly is the analogue of reason?  As usual, I find myself wishing I had a good English translation of the entire text, or that I could read it in German.  Guyer himself does not try to explicate this, but simply uses the quote to infer that Baumgarten was not a cognitivist but some sort of pluralist.  The two other approaches (apart from the cognitivist approach) are described by Guyer as "the idea that the pleasure of such experience comes from the enjoyment of the emotional impact of art, and the idea that the pleasure of such experience comes from the free play of our mental powers triggered by works of art or nature", a free play that cannot be reduced to cognition.  Wise aestheticians, on his view, recognize that "works of art and nature could please us in all these ways." (134)  Heroes of the pluralist approach are Lord Kames in the 18th century, Wilhelm Dilthey and George Santayana in the 19th, and Monroe Beardsley and Richard Wollheim in the 20th.  I was surprised the John Dewey was not included although such lesser figures as DeWitt Parker, T.M. Greene and D. W. Gotshalk are.

An interesting feature of Guyer's approach is that he is able to lump very diverse figures in aesthetics under what he calls cognitivism.  The object of aesthetic cognition for Wolff is perfection, for Hegel spirit, for Schopenhauer the Platonic Ideas, for Heidegger "Being," and for Lukacs capitalism.  Another group includes those who focus on the emotional impact of art, beginning with De Bos in 1719.  Another interesting feature of the article is that although aestheticians will naturally associate the free play of imagination with Kant, Guyer traces the idea back to Addison's "The Pleasures of the Imagination" (1712)  Guyer associates Addison's idea of Beauty.  He quotes from Addison "a spacious Horison is the Image of Liberty, where the Eye has room to range abroad, to expatiate at large on the Immensity of its Views, and to lose it self amidst the Variety of Objects that offer themselves to Observations." The quote from Addison is fascinating, the eye anthropomorphized here as a kind of tourist who freely ranges, expatiates, loses himself and makes observations.  

 Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Does art give us knowledge?

Derek Matravers in his new Introducing Philosophy of Art:  In Eight Case Studies (Acumen, 2013) addresses the issue of whether art can give us knowledge.  The case for knowledge does not seem strong by the end of his chapter "Art and Knowledge."  He underrates it.  Beginning with the art of literature, he quotes James Currie who holds that "Fictions can act as aids to the imagination - holding our attention, making a situation vivid for us..."  For Currie, we can begin to feel what it is like to be certain characters.  The skeptic, Matravers asserts, can always argue against this that fiction is unreliable and hence any imaginative project based on it is as well, and then it is not knowledge.  (126-7)

I recently read Shakespeare's The Tempest and saw a performance of it.  I also recently read an account of the life and work of Machiavelli which stressed the possible contemporary relevance of The Prince.  The Prince and The Tempest are easily compared.  But one is treated as non-fiction and the other as fiction.  One is supposed to make stronger claims to knowledge than the other (although whether the philosophical truths it asserts are in fact true is open to much debate.)  Instead of just comparing them we can see them as in a contest.  We can see them as competing visions of the good society, i.e. of the ideal relationship between the leader of a society and his subjects.  On this view, knowledge of these things is deepened if one reads the two together and thinks about their competing visions.  They were in competition during their time and are still today, although less urgently so.  Why assume that the vision presented in The Tempest is less reliable than that presented in The Prince?  In The Tempest are we just rehearsing possible situations or are we doing something more?   Rather than a mere set of true beliefs I believe that knowledge is a set of skills, beliefs, models, and narratives that coheres and gives power.  Moreover, knowledge changes through history.  An advance in knowledge is a further development of a vision, a model, a world metaphor.  The Tempest advances knowledge insofar as it questions certain accepted relations between the prince and his subjects.  Currie's idea that fiction allows us to "feel what it is like to be those characters" is true but does not go far enough.  As Mactravers puts it, "Currie does not think our exercises of imagination provide us with knowledge of facts, but rather different patterns of behavior."  (127)  That does not tell me how The Tempest can contain within it the promise of knowledge.  ("Knowledge of facts" is a oddity in the first place.  If you have knowledge you have gone far beyond facts:  knowledge is based on facts, it is not of facts.)  Perhaps the notion of "patterns of behavior" comes closer to what I think of as knowledge, although knowledge must not just be a pattern of behavior, a vision, a model, a metaphor...it must also be true.      

 Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview.