Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Philosophy as Science vs. Philosophy as Art

I argue against Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" from the standpoint of an aesthetician.  In his efforts to bring philosophy closer to science, Peirce took it further away from art.  That's a problem.  I advocate something more like Rorty's idea of philosophy as an on-going conversation.  Peirce's scientism infects his entire theory, in particular, his theories of truth and reality.  (This is important since although Peirce's own influence was and continues to be limited, the position he advocates, in particular his scientism, is the strongest voice in contemporary philosophy.)  Whereas it makes sense to talk about truth and reality in the realm of science in Peirce's terminology, this leaves out half of philosophy, half of truth, and half of reality.  The other half revels in differing opinion and the pleasures of debate --- until the end of time.  Let us speak of the art, as opposed to the science, of philosophy, or philosophers as artists, as opposed to philosophers as scientists.  Well, perhaps opposition is too strong a word.  Tolerance would be better.  And currently there is little tolerance for philosophy as art or as close to the arts.  Peirce writes that some thinkers have “perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure [so much] that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled.”  He even thinks that such people are thereby led to dislike positive discoveries.  This, he thinks, is "debauchery of thought" since the soul of thought is production of belief.  Yet I suspect that if I viewed the very same (unnamed) thinkers I would look upon them much more positively.  A very large part of philosophy is not much like science.  And the more philosophy is like science, the more it just gives way to science itself.  Natural philosophy became physics in the 18th century: and this is as it should be.  Philosophers are happy to give up to science what rightfully belongs to science.  Philosophy can even be defined as inquiry that is not resolvable by scientific investigation.  "What is science?" for example is a question that science itself cannot answer:  it is philosophy, philosophy of science.

I have a philosopher friend, a real fan of Peirce, who likes to make fun of philosophers for never really quite discovering or settling on anything.  But this is much like criticizing painters for never arriving at their final painting, or painting itself for generating new schools and styles.  And it is just as absurd.   Philosophy is a creative activity and the writings we produce are much like works of art.  Philosophical disciplines consist in large part in a long list of succeeding definitions of the key concepts of the discipline, all couched in articles and books.  Aesthetics for example consists largely in succeeding competing theories of art.  This is as it should be.  (This does not indicate failure anymore than the history of art indicates that art is a failed enterprise.)  Each generation of philosophers must engage in their own debates about fundamental concepts and must come up with their own definitions and supporting theories.  Even Peirce recognizes that beliefs are fixed only to be unsettled again. Thought does not in fact end with the fixation of belief, although one episode of thought may.  The love of philosophy as an art (or as something closer to art than science) is a love of something that does in fact give pleasure, and is also love of it partly for the pleasure it gives. To that extent, Peirce may be right.  But these philosophers are, most of them, also committed to the truth.  Still, the conception of truth here is not the same as Peirce's.  

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," Peirce gives us two figures made of dots starting with five dots on the left in the first and starting with four dots on the left in the second.  The figures are seen to be the same when one is rotated, but look very different as presented on the page.  Peirce thinks that belief that dots are arranged in the first figure and the belief that they are arranged in the second are the same belief since the two figures are the same. To assert one and deny the other is, he says, a false distinction.  He warns us not to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking about.  We should especially not see the quality of an object as essentially mysterious.  He even observes that we believers in inescapably mysterious aspects to reality may no longer recognize the object if it becomes intelligible (presumably through scientific method).  He sees such people as opponents of rational thought, and believes that they are interested in perpetuating a deception.  And he finds a similar deception in mistaking a mere difference in grammatical construction for a distinction of ideas expressed. But the real problem is failing to see that grammatical differences and different ways of expressing things really do make a difference.

Perhaps a more problematic deception for our own time comes however from scientistic philosophers like Peirce. It is the deception that views things that are really quite different as essentially the same.  The assumption that there is nothing mysterious in the universe, that everything may be explained by science, is also deeply problematic.  It can never be proved, and Peirce himself relies on a myth to back it up, i.e. that everyone who pursues scientific method is fated to agree in the end.  (This is what he means by truth!) If you want to agree with Peirce consider that on his view everyone debating about the nature of justice is fated to agree, maybe a thousand years from now, or maybe later, as long as they follow a science-like philosophy.  That view is not only unbelievable but, if it were true, it would eliminate the possibility of human creation and re-creation of the very concepts that order our lives.  It would eliminate not only philosophy but any activity that involves cultural creation.   Moreover, it is somewhat hamfisted to assume that one can clearly distinguish between the parts of our thoughts that are subjective and merely grammatical from the ones that will lead to this science-like truth.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Heidegger's Aesthetic Approach to Phenomenology in Being and Time Introduction II

The method Heidegger seeks to use is phenomenology, which is commonly characterized by the cry of "To the things themselves!" (I am working with Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, SCM Press, 1962) My working hypothesis is that this means something radically different in Heidegger than it did in Husserl, that the things themselves are no longer placed in opposition to things that are not phenomena.  Hediegger does not in any way see humans as walking in bubbles of experience. 
An epoche is not even necessary.  Rather, phenomena simply consist in the entities we experience.  Subject/object dualism is deconstructed.  But what else is new?  I suspect that the analysis becomes fundamentally aesthetic, not because of the primacy of aesthesis, the Greek for perception, but because of primacy of metaphorical seeing.  That is, metaphorical seeing is the core of Heideggerian approach to ontology.  Heidegger does not much use the term "essence," but the goal of his effort is revelation of the Being of beings, which I would call the essential nature of beings (recognizing that these are not Platonic Forms but rather aspects that change over time.)  Heidegger uses false or questionable etymologies to structure our thinking in a such a way as to undercut traditional ways we might look at phenomenology, ontology and philosophy in general.  The phenomenon becomes something that shows itself, and thus is no longer thought of as something internal or subjective.  His derivation of phenomenon from phaino for "bring to light" takes us to seeing phenomena as moving temporally from the obscure into light rather than as objects there simply to be described.  The idea that the object "shows itself" indicates that the viewer is not the sole active agent in the person/entity relationship.  The phenomena include not only the things that are in the light but also things than "can be brought to light."  Moreover a phenomenon can "show itself as something which in itself it is not" and can then "look like something or other," which is a matter of "seeming."  Yet, Heidegger argues, the two ideas of phenomenon (bring to light and seeming) are "structurally interconnected."  First, something has to claim to show itself before it can show itself as something it is not.  This he distinguishes also from symptoms or appearances.  "Appearing" involves something not showing itself, rather than something showing itself as what it is not, as in "semblance."  Also, appearance involves the showing itself of something: it is just that something appears without being an appearance, appearing taking on three meanings, as announcing-itself and as what does the announcing, and as mere appearance, the phenomenon being something that hides itself in the appearance. 

The concept of "seeming" seems at first to be entirely negative, but takes on a different aspect when we look at the second part of the analysis of the word "phenomenology."  Logos is understood in many ways, but Heidegger characteristically traces it back to one Greek insight, that it is a function of discourse, which, in his understanding, lets something be seen in its essential nature.  Again, discourse does not occur in an experiential bubble.  Genuine discourse takes its clue from the thing itself, making it accessible to the other party in the discourse.  So it is a dynamic involving three things, the phenomenon and two interlocutors. 

Now for the aesthetic part. Heidegger sees discourse as "synthesis" in the sense not of a "psychical binding" (in the way Kant would see it) but as letting "something be seen in its togetherness with something" i.e. "seen as something."  This is the metaphorical moment which I have referred to in my working hypothesis, that Heidegger sees phenomenology as revealing essences that are essentially metaphorical, the Being of beings as metaphorical, as seemings, but of a particular powerful, truthful, rather than the (usual) untruthful, sort.  This is why a correspondence theory of truth will not work here.   Truth is something that happens in the synthesis of what is with what it is not; a revealing that also, at the same time, conceals.  We, in talking, let the hidden thing be "seen as something unhidden" or, in the false mode, cover it up.  Truth is this process in which we let something be seen. 

For Heidegger, aisthesis, "the sheer sensory perception of something" is "true" in the Greek sense of true, although not in the contemporary propositional sense.  He takes this to provide a kind of insight into truth, the idea being that the noein "is the perception of the simplest determinate ways of Being which entities as such may possess" and which can be perceived just by looking.  The next stage is the synthesis structure when something is being seen as something and thus possibly covering it up, the true judgment being the opposite of this.  What Heidegger seems to be suggestion is that the Platonic doctrine of ideas is correct if understood in a different way, i.e. under this Greek notion of truth as unconcealment.  (The emphasis on aesthetisis seems to indicate that the uncealment happens in the live interaction of the human creature with its environment, to use Deweyan terminology.)  What is shown in phenomenology is "something that proximally and for the most part does not show itself as all:  it is something that lies hidden, in contrast to that which proximally and for the most part does show itself."  (59)  The is why phenomenology is hermeneutics:  it is interpretation which reveals the hidden.  

So phenomenological reveals Being but not in the mode of judgments under the correspondence theory of truth but in the mode of revealing the hidden while at the same time keeping something hidden by the fact that the truth is metaphorical, a seeming, although a powerful one.  No doubt this is a stretch:  my apologies to Heidegger scholars.  But something to think about.      

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Diotima's Advice on Love

So what does Socrates' "instructress in the art of love" have to say about the topic?  The issue is related to aesthetics since beauty is the most famous of the aesthetic terms, and beauty is the object of love.  I will be using the Jowett translation of the Symposium as found in Art and Its Significance edited by Stephen David Ross.  This comment is not going to be a summary or even a scholarly discussion of Plato.  I am more interested in meditating on a couple main points. First, Plato (or Socrates, or Diotima) begins by giving love an important metaphysical and epistemological position as between the gods and mortals in the realm of intermediary spirits, and between ignorance and knowledge.  It turns out that love is very much like Socrates, poor, a philosopher, a searcher after beauty. One could fairly say that love is the muse of Diotima, Socrates and Plato.  The philosopher then becomes situated also between ignorance and knowledge in the realm of opinion which, although, right, is not yet not backed up sufficiently with reasons (nor perhaps can it be).  It is inspired opinion not unlike that which Socrates elsewhere attributes to the Rhapsode Ion.  The second point, related to the first, is that love is creative activity directed towards eternal possession of the good. The object of love is not just beauty but that which is generated out of beauty. The greatest of the lovers, and the greatest of men, are the poets. But "poet" is broadly understood as any creative maker who aims after the good, not just as a maker of verses. The goal of love is the eternal, to be god-like.  One way humans can achieve a kind of eternity is through physical procreation.  Plato however considers more important a mental union of souls in which something new is created together.  Creative activity for Plato is ultimately collaborative.  The lover and the beloved work together to produce offspring in art and science and not just and not only in the physical production of children.  Bear in mind that the creation of a family, the nurturing of children, is also for Plato, not just physical. Eternal fame is the object of the second layer of love. This can be achieved in the realm of what is commonly called poetry, i.e. in epic poetry of the sort that Homer wrote.  But it can be even more effectively achieved in the political realm through the creation, or recreation, of the laws of society.  Moreover, we exist in a world of change and creativity is always a matter of recollection, of re-creation.  The individual must constantly create and re-create himself too, and this too is part of the rhythm of love.  Love loves "everlasting possession of the good" in the sense that it loves the procreative and creative process.  "Birth in beauty" is birth inspired by beauty. The true lover discovers that there can be beauty in every domain. Beauty inspires.  The Valentine's Day message from Cupid. god of love and philosophy is that the beauty of a couple's love can combine all of these dimensions or simply be focused on the friendship that Plato saw as far closer than that between those who beget moral children. Plato of course failed to see the possibility of combining the two and seems unfortunately to pose a false dilemma, where one can either love at the lowest level of the ladder of love or at the highest, but not at both.  The true lesson (contra Plato's actual position) of the ladder of love is not that the first rungs should be tossed away but that all rungs should be taken together, that it is capacity to move up and down the ladder that is philosophy.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Emerson's Deep Aesthetics of Nature

Emerson's book Nature, his first, published in 1836, continues to be a source of inspiration and provoking thought.  If we are looking for an aesthetics of nature which is not committed to an objectivist or physicalist view of nature but rather sees the relation between man an nature as intimate and laden with meaning, then this is a good place to start.  Even in the short "Introduction" Emerson observes that every man's condition is already the solution to the puzzles posed by nature since he acts this solution "in life" before he understands it "as truth."  But what is investigated when we investigate nature?  Emerson sees it in two senses, first as everything that is not me, and second, in the common sense of "essences unchanged by man." These essences are not Platonic Forms, however.  Rather, they include "space, the air, the river, the leaf."  Nonetheless the difference between the two senses of nature is of little importance since he believes that the things that are changed by man (through Art, as in a house, a canal, a statue or a picture) and hence are not nature in the second sense, are matters of simply mixing man's will with the things of nature, i.e. through various activities.  In the end he is hoping to get a true "theory of nature" which will explain all phenomena, especially things like "language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex" under the general heading of creative change.  This is speculative thinking, but hopefully not unsound or frivolous.

The next chapter, titled "Nature," is perhaps the most famous.  The dominant metaphor here, as in the chapter on beauty, is the ball.  It is important to tease out the overall meaning of this metaphor throughout Emerson's thought.  First he speaks of a special sort of solitude that happens in apprehension of the stars at night.  "One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime."  These stars are seen in a poetic way, as being not only "envoys of beauty" but also providing light "with their admonishing smile." He anthropomorphizes them.  He compares them to the "city of God."  But it is not just the stars:  all natural objects impress us in a similar way if we are open ourselves to this possibility.  Thus, "Nature never wears a mean appearance."  This idea is what philosophers now call positive aesthetics of nature.  However, this is not a cognitivist theory.  Clearly what is in mind is something more poetic.   He is not speaking of the "stick of timber" but the "tree of the poet." What is perceived in this poetic sense is "the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects."  That is, "the whole" is at issue.  The perceived whole has its own unique quality.  

Where the first ball was the firmament of the stars, the second is the landscape.  As Emerson looks over a landscape of farms in the morning he claims that no one owns it, even though there are owners aplenty of farms and woods: "There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts."  So, it is the ball of our perceptual field with its horizon and which, when perceived aesthetically, is integrated.  This is not nature distinct from man, but neither is it a mere projection of our imagination onto nature.  We will discover that the aesthetic ideal of Emerson involves a fusion of the two.  In order to get at the uniqueness of this vision, which is different not only from that of the wood-cutter qua wood-cutter but from that of the scientist-qua-scientist, Emerson calls on us to see nature as an infant would.  The sun, for example, is only deeply seen when it "shines into the eye and the heart of the child."  Otherwise it just illuminates things.  "The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood."  This lover gets a "wild delight" from nature even when suffering from sorrow (although this point is modified or perhaps contradicted at the end of the chapter).  Moreover, "every hour and season yields its tribute of delight" although these can be tied to different states of mind ranging from the breathless to the grim.  Each change of nature "authorizes a different state of mind."  But it is the exhilarating moment that stands out the most:  "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration."  Haven't we all?  And aren't experiences like this really why we are nature lovers?  Earlier, Emerson had mentions the experience of the sublime before the starry heavens:  here he speaks of gladness "to the brink of fear."  It is this kind of experience which religious thinkers draw on when they think of their God.  Emerson himself is a religious thinker, but strangely can express his feelings about nature in ways that can inspire an atheist, as least one that allows that the world-as-experienced can have a spiritual aspect, and does, at its best.  Emerson sees his egotism vanish when he looks up into the infinite having taken the stance of the child.  He says that  "In the woods, we return to reason and faith" by which he means that we return to the capacity for mind to grasp and actualize this spiritual aspect of existence.  "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God."  And this all has to do with being a lover of "uncontained and immortal beauty," something he believes can be realized more in the wilderness than in the city streets.  Beauty happens especially in the "distant line of the horizon."  I take it he is referring to the experience of looking out onto a calm sea or lake from the shore. 

Indeed, Emerson argues, there is in nature (fields and woods) an "occult relation between man and the vegetable."  Don't get too wrapped up in the idea of "occult."  This simply means that in one's experienced world it seems as though the trees recognize me as I do them.  Don't think he means this literally.  He says:  "this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both."  It lies in the harmony, and because of this necessary aspect or our contribution to the experience of nature, we need to bear in mind that when we experience some calamity it is natural for us to feel contempt for the landscape.  

For a discussion of the chapter "Beauty."  See here.