Thursday, August 7, 2014

Can the aesthetics of art be reconciled with the aesthetics of nature? Yes, says Schelling!

What I am saying about Schelling and aesthetics I probably learned from Andrew Bowie, whose book Schelling and Modern European Philosophy I read earlier this summer.  This is a continuation of my last post on Schelling.

When Schelling says "For that wherein there is no Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding;  the Unknowing cannot be known" I take him to be saying that there is a continuity between the knower (humankind) and the known (nature) and a natural fit between the cognition-like structures of nature and human cognition itself.  (This fits quite well, by the way, with Alva Noe's theory of human consciousness as discussed in his book Out of Our Heads, Hill and Wang, 2009.)  So when Schelling speaks of finding science in Nature I suppose he means that we find structures in nature (laws, systems, etc.) which accord well with science and even act in a science-like way (experimentation, for example, happening in "lower" species.)  The distinction, for Schelling, is that in nature the conception is not distinct from the act.  This is why nature strives after regular shapes and geometric forms: "the sublimest arithmetic and geometry are innate in the stars, and unconsciously displayed by them in their motions."  (277)  Thus Schelling is willing to grant, unlike Descartes and many others since, that "living cognition appears in animals" even though they are "without reflection" i.e. do not think like humans.  Thus Schelling can speak of "the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soul-like tones."  (277)  This would be a shocking claim to contemporary aestheticians of music (Jerrold Levinson denies that bird-song could be music, for example), and yet are we not unfair to birds to deny them musical intoxication or soul-like tones?  Others would call this anthropomorphism, but it is more likely that the sin is in the other direction, that scientists are too unwilling to attribute human-like emotions to "lower" animals. (It is noteworthy that there are now behavioral scientists who at last are questioning the assumption that animals are so unhuman-like, that they are incapable of anything like perception, feeling, cognition, emotion, bonding, social order, and so forth.)  Schelling, of course, still believes animals only have "single flashes of knowledge," whereas Man has "the full sun."

So it is this "formative science" (really, the unconscious orderings of nature itself) found both in nature and in art that Schelling believes connects idea and form, as also body and soul.  We have a dualism, but one in which the two factors are dynamically intertwined, much as in Spinoza. (Bowie correctly points out many points of divergence from Spinoza as well.) 

The next sentence, however, could have been written by Plato or Augustine (or even Hegel), and needs some explaining if we are not to reduce Schelling to the position of mere Platonism:  "Before everything stands an eternal idea, formed in the Infinite Understanding" followed by "but by what means does this idea pass into actuality and embodiment?"  The answer is "only through the creative science that is...necessarily connected with the Infinite Understanding."  If however, we set aside a traditional religious interpretation of this and read it against its Platonist meaning we can see it simply as an affirmation of a deep interconnection between the striving and self-organizing ordered and developmental processes of nature (literally striving in the case of organic nature) and the similar processes found in the creative activity of the artist.

Then how is the artist to excel?  "If that artist be called happy and praiseworthy before all to whom the gods have granted this creative spirit, then that work of art will appear excellent which shows to us, as an outline, this unadulterated energy of creation and activity of Nature." (278) What aesthetician today would connect the activity of art with the activity of nature, i.e. the creative process of the artist with that of both nature and everyday life?  Art and artist are excellent that show the creative activity and energy of nature (humankind included, of course.)

How is this art created?  In great art, conscious and unconscious activity are combined (Schelling was one of originators of the idea of the unconscious later developed by Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and so on).  "it is of the perfect unity and mutual interpenetration of the two that the highest in Art is born."  (178)  Works that lack this "seal of unconscious science" are lifeless.  By combining the two, art can give both clear understanding and "unfathomable reality," and with the second the work of art can resemble the work of nature.  This might be a path for reconciliation of the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art (following the path, for example of Emerson and Thoreau.)



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