Thursday, March 19, 2015

William James and the Possiblity of an Aesthetic Turn in Philosophy

When I speak of the possibility of an aesthetic turn in philosophy I speak very speculatively and for a future generation.  It is very unlikely that such a thing will happen in the near run.  Aesthetics is still the step-child of philosophy, as it has been going all of the way back to Plato, who shunted his main comments on the philosophy of art to the end of the Republic, and then added insult to injury by outlawing the imitative arts from the ideal society.   It is unfortunate that aesthetics holds so little interest for contemporary philosophers as the domain of aesthetic value is immense and is equally large and significant to our lives to moral value, often overlapping the issues of moral value as well.   Part of the neglect of aesthetics may be traced to a certain attitude contemporary philosopher have towards consciousness itself, an attitude that William James tried to overcome in his Principles of Psychology.  The comments I will make here are based on material found in the selection from that book, called "The Stream of Thought," found in John J. Stuhr ed.  Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy 2nd ed. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000.)  My argument briefly is that James' attack on associationist psychology is an attack on traditional empiricism going back to Locke and Hume,  that this attack is still relevant today, that those philosophers and that tradition have neglected some fundamental characteristics of thought, which, when attended to, indicate that aesthetic experience may be much more fundamental to consciousness than people ordinarily think.

James does not mention aesthetics in this selection, and only mentions art once, although in an important way.  Yet I will show that his examples show an awareness of aesthetic phenomena as foundational to a study of consciousness.  It is perhaps because James studied as a painter when a young man, and then later in his 20s, spent considerable time thinking about the nature of art, that his insight into consciousness has so many affinities to an aesthetic approach to philosophy.  It is also not surprising that in reading these passages from the Principles of Psychology one is often reminded of Dewey's later description of "an experience" in his Art as Experience (1936).  I suspect that there is a direct line of influence here.  But Dewey's book does not make as clear the importance of these insights for philosophy in general.  

James begins by observing that most psychology books begin with sensations "as the simplest mental facts" and then proceed to construct higher stages of thought from these.  Yet "no one ever had a simple sensation by itself."  Rather, consciousness is "of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations" and even what we call simple sensations "are results of discriminative attention."  Instead, James believes we should start with the fact of thinking itself, where "thinking" means "every form of consciousness."  My argument will be that the shifts in our understanding of consciousness brings out aesthetic features of experience that are systematically neglected by the philosophical tradition up until our own time.  

James lists five characters of thought, all of which are relevant to our purpose, but only two of which I will discuss today.  This is cumulative, and the relation to aesthetics might not seem evident from the first.  Bear in mind that in these passages James has nothing to say about pleasure or aesthetic qualities.  There is no mention of grace, beauty, ugliness, and so forth.  However, James is drawing our attention to the greater complexity of experience than is found in traditional psychology, a complexity that is brought out phenomenologically by referring to a halo of experience (177), and also by a deep awareness of the ways in which an experience of, say, the speaking of a sentence, carries something of the past with it, develops over time, and projects into the future.  The overall aesthetic quality that conscious experience has for James might be called "dramatic structure."  The experience of a thought turns out to be much like the experience of a play in Aristotle, with its emphasis on beginning, middle and end, the whole being an organic whole in which each part represents the whole.  Without this understanding of the nature of consciousness, an understanding of experience as fundamentally related to aesthetics, perhaps as fundamentally aesthetic, is lost.  Ironically, although James' thought is directed against Hume's psychology, there is an affinity between James on consciousness and Hume on taste.  Just as Sancho's cousins are able to engage in subtle discrimination, telling that the wine is good but for a taste of leather in one case and metal in the other (both confirmed by finding the key with the leather thong at the bottom of the barrel) so too the subtle elements of consciousness observed by James require very high levels of discrimination.  

James' first point about thought, that "thought tends to personal form" seems at first little related to the point at issue.  The most of value here is the possible implication that all thought is colored by the self to which it is attached, thus increasing the phenomenological complexity of thought.  The mental procession in my mind is the primary datum of psychology, and  it is my mental procession personified as mine and shaded by my personal selfhood. 

The second point, that "thought is in constant change" takes us however in a direction directly opposed to the Lockean theory of simple ideas.  The point is deeply Heraclitean, although oddly requiring a non-Heraclitean view of the external world to do its work.  He writes:  "no state once gone can recur and be identical with what was before."  and further "there is no proof that the same bodily sensation is ever got by us twice." (164)  What is got twice rather is the same object.  It is noteworthy here that the examples suddenly veer to the aesthetic realm:  "We hear the same note over and over again; we see the same quality of green, or smell the same objective perfume, or experience the same species of pain." (165)  We believe in the permanent existence of these realities.  And it is these realities that come up again and again in thought.  But it is careless to think that the ideas of them are ever the same.  He alludes to a later chapter where he will observe that "our habit of not attending to sensations as subjective facts, but only as stepping stones to pass over to the recognition of the realities whose presence they reveal." (163)  Attending to these sensations is the aesthetic as opposed to the practical way of perceiving.  This hunch is immediately confirmed by James when he now brings up what we would today consider to be one of the main insights of the Impressionist movement in art.  Bear in mind that James publishes this in 1890, that he constantly travels to Europe, and that Monet and Renoir are doing impressionist painting in 1869.  So there is ample time for the ideas to pass over.  Here is the quote:  "The grass out of the window now looks to me of the same green in the sun as in the shade, and yet a painter would have to paint one part of it dark brown, another part bright yellow, to give its real sensational effect." He further asserts:  "We take no heed, as a rule, of the different way in which the same things look and sound and smell at different distances under different circumstances."   James' awareness of the phenomenological complexity of sensation, based on the notion that it is never the same, goes also to differences in sensibility based on differences in emotion  about things from one age to another or in different overall moods:  "What was bright and exciting becomes weary, flat, and unprofitable.  The bird's song is tedious, the breeze is mournful, the sky is sad."  That is, things shift in their aesthetic/expressive properties.  A similar thing happens to "every thought we have of a given fact":  "The friends we used to care the world for are shrunken to shadows; the women, once so divine, the stars, the woods, and the waters, how now so dull and common!  the young girls that brought an aura of infinity, at present hardly distinguishable existences; the pictures so empty; and as for the books, what was there so mysteriously significant in Goethe, or in John Mill so full of weight?"  (166)  All of this, although focused in negative aesthetic experience, is still aesthetic.  

I will save discussion of the third and fourth points for later.

The last (fifth) point about thought, that "it is always interested more in one part of its object than in another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks" is directly related to aesthetics by James himself.  What is the aesthetic approach to sensation but a matter of selecting?  As James puts it:  "Accentuation and Emphasis are present in every perception we have." and he takes an example from music: "a monotonous succession of sonorous strokes is broken up into rhythms, now of one sort, now of another, by the different accent which we place on different strokes."  (178)  Further, "what are our very senses themselves but organs of selection?" so that "out of what is in itself an undistinguishable, swariming continuum, devoid of distinction or emphasis, our senses make for us, by attending to this motion and ignoring that, a world full of contrast, of sharp accents, of abrupt changes, of picturesque light and shade." (178)  He even defines things as "special groups of sensible qualities, which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us." (178) 

Not only do the senses select ranges of sound, for example, to attend to, the mind also selects from among sensations to most truly represent something.  For example I may take a table-top as square (and other ways it looks as matters of perspective), erecting "the attribute squareness into the table's essence, for aesthetic reasons of my own."  

When he finally passes to the "aesthetic department" of thought he finds that this law is even more obvious than in other domains since the artist selects tones, colors, shapes and so forth to create unity, harmony, etc.  (179) 

Finally, he sees the entire activity of consciousness as art-like:  it consists of selection of some possibilities and suppression of others by way of attention:  "The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone." (180)  It seems that the very construction of consciousness is deeply and fundamentally aesthetic.  

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