Saturday, May 28, 2016

Merleau-Ponty, Everyday Aesthetics, Eye and Mind

There has long been a strong affinity between philosophers who work in everyday aesthetics and Merleau-Ponty.  I am thinking specifically here of his essay "Eye and Mind." (in Aesthetics ed. Harold Osborne, Oxford University Press, 1972)  Of course this essay is not explicitly about everyday aesthetics.  It is most famous for his discussions of such modernist painters as Cezanne, Klee and Matisse, and its anti-Cartesian approach to space and light.  Yet my own discussions of everyday aesthetics have focused on the close relationships to be found between the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of the everyday, so I think this might be relevant to my own project.  I see Klee's, Cezanne's and Matisse's approaches to the world, their ways of seeing and painting, as ways of illuminating everyday aesthetic experience, and I see Merleau-Ponty as an illumination of Cezanne. (John Gilmour was one of the first to alert me to this, although earlier Anita Silvers, my first aesthetics teacher said that I should read this essay.)  Everyday experience is something that can become extraordinary when aesthetic properties of the surrounding environment are actualized. A valuable aspect of the Merleau-Ponty/Cezanne approach is that it takes us as lived bodies interacting with the environment, much like John Dewey in Art as Experience and Arnold Berleant in his many writings.  Before I go on I also want to recognize the historical and dialectical nature of perception.  It is arguable that the Cartesian way of seeing that Merleau-Ponty describes and attacks works really well with how people actually saw things, and certainly with how they painted things, in the Renaissance.  As Marx Wartofsky, who was my thesis adviser, used to argue, perception has a history. Michael Ann Holy also has some interesting things to say about this in his book Past Looking. Merleau-Ponty describes a way of seeing everyday life phenomena which, arguably, emerges during the time of Cezanne, and that Cezanne (or perhaps Cezanne plus Matisse and Klee) is the artist who best exemplifies and points this out.  But it is also not the case that everyone sees in the same way at any one time.  The way of seeing proposed by Cezanne and Merleau-Ponty may seem too odd and avant-garde for many, even today.   One can still say that this is cutting edge culturally speaking and points to a future in which deeper forms of perception will be possible (an overly idealist hope, no doubt).  The idea that "the world is all around me, not in front of me" (73) is in accord with environmental aesthetics of all stripes. The idea that "Light is viewed once more as action at a distance" (73) is more controversial, however, since it implies that metaphysics not in accord with the natural science attitude.  Here we have a phenomenological approach to experience in which we look at light as-experienced, and also depth-as-experienced. Merleau-Ponty says that "Vision reassumes its fundamental power of showing forth more than itself" (73) and adds that light has a dimension of imagination insofar as it can allow us to see forests in "a bit of ink." This posits a world of experience that is enhanced by what has been traditionally called the aesthetic attitude.  Merleau-Ponty refers to "light's transcendence" and juxtaposes that against a view of seeing in which the mind "deciphers the impacts of the light-thing upon the brain" the problem being that this does not take into account the relationship between the body and the world.  Transcendence, then, comes out of this relationship, an idea never broached before by philosophers, except possibly by Nietzsche and possibly by Dewey. Merleau-Ponty says that it is a question of making space and light "which are there, speak to us" which is a bit hard to take, but I think this means that space and light exist in our experienced world which is embedded with meaning and which can even be taken as person-like, as if a person.  Personification is not just mystification but a way of capturing an aspect of our experience, one that is often invisible but which deals with the emergence of actuality out of potentiality.  So, perhaps everyday aesthetics, at its highest point, is recognition of this level of experience, i.e. finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.  This might be what Heidegger refers to as listening to Being.  Even Descartes was somewhat aware of this when he refers to the minds as "suffused through the body" as Merleau-Ponty puts it.  Merleau-Ponty can then be seen as anticipating what is now called object oriented ontology, except that he avoids the dualism of Harman which I have discussed in a previous blog post. Nature speaks, but not in a way that divorces nature from us who are in nature. 

Another line of inquiry can be from a posing of Merleau-Ponty against Arthur Danto (another dualist of sorts), especially with respect to MPs discussion of the line.  Danto had rejected both the imitation theory of art and the reality theory, which he found in some things said by Roger Fry and some things said by the abstract expressionist painters, and posited a theory of art as two-sided in which the "material counterpart" is much less important than the title and the intention of the artist.  Merleau-Ponty can be posed as offering another option, using Klee and Cezanne as his mentors rather than Rauschenberg and Warhol, who are Danto's.  Danto never that I know of really talks about the line, but in looking at Klee, sees him, or rather modern painting in general, as revealing "a system of equivalences...a conceptless presentation of universal Being."  So this is neither imitation nor just another real thing but a revelation of essences or essentiality of things.  The line is not just "a positive attribute and a property of the object in itself":   this is the "prosaic conception of the line."  (78)  Danto does spend a lot of time talking about one line, that is the one line that appears in two indistinguishable paintings.  This line takes its meaning entirely from the background theory by way of the title for the painting. But this, dare we say, misses the point of lines in paintings (a point, by the way that Nelson Goodman captures more adequately by far than Danto.)  Merleau-Ponty pushes the idea beyond Klee and Matisse and even modern painting all of the way back to Da Vinci and his quote "The secret of the art of drawing is to discover in each object the particular way in which a certain flexuous line, which is, so to speak, its generating axis, is directed through its whole extent..." (78)  Le Corbusier would later say something similar about architecture, by the way.   So the art of drawing for Da Vinci, Klee, Merleau-Ponty is a way of looking that involves discovery in which the prosaic line as mere property of the object and as outer contour is overcome by a line that captures the dynamic essence of the object, one that generates.  Merleau-Ponty sees the contesting of the prosaic line as a matter of "freeing the line, of revivifying its constituting power" as in Klee and Matisse where the line does not merely imitate but "renders visible" the genesis of things.  Merleau-Ponty then provides us a lovely describes of the life of the doodle which is also the life of a line as developed in a work by Klee, where "a manner of the line" is established at the beginning and then "every subsequent inflection"  is related to it as the line's "relationship to itself, will form an adventure, a history, a meaning of the line..." thus corroding prosaic space.  What is the relation between this and everyday life.  Oddly I find myself thinking of the Situationist "derive":  the doodling line of movement through the cityscape.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Plato vs. Aristotle: some thoughts, hint Plato wins

Someone once said, I think it was Whitehead, that one is either a follower of Plato or a follower of Aristotle.  I have always felt closer to Plato.  This semester as a final exam project I had students in my Ancient Philosophy class take sides.  Most were Aristotelians, but there were a few Platonist in the crowd.  I confess that I have no love for Plato as traditionally interpreted, i.e. as a rigid dogmatist Pythagorean who attempts to understand the world as a merely reflection of ideal mathematics-like reality.  In relation to that Plato, Aristotle seems a breath of fresh air.  But the Plato I see is the one who wrote dialogues, who struggled every day with the questions of philosophy, who did not have rigid doctrines, who had a vision, yes, but also had a pragmatic side, thinking for instance that the bridle-user is the one best able to know a bridle, and who had a poetic soul even though he rejected imitative poetry in the ideal society.  I have always thought of Platonic Forms as ideal but not real entities, or at best quasi-real.  They are known as the objects of what we are searching for when we are trying to get at the essences of things.  They are charming although sometimes misleading hypostatizations of the process of Socratic dialectic. Aristotle thinks it is damning to charge Plato with giving us a mere metaphor when he says that things in the perceptual world participate in the forms.  But I think this is exactly what Plato intended:  a metaphor.  That Plato continued to believe in the Forms even after he raised the third man argument (in his version, it was the third largeness argument), shows that the third man argument does not hold much water when directed against what he really believe, not just against the caricature of a rigid Plato.  At first, Aristotle's corrective seems a good one:  forms are in things rather than in some separate unprovable realm, until you realize that it does not make much sense to say that ideals are in things. (It makes more sense to say that they are both in and not in things...more on that later.)  Aristotle's thinking about forms nicely translates into the idea that species have DNA, genetic plans that determine their development, except that DNA has nothing to do with ideals, as anyone with a genetic disease can confirm.  What is left of Aristotle when his forms are reduced to DNA?  When Plato has Socrates search for the form of Piety the answer cannot be some rigid structure pre-existent in things any more than it can be a rigid structure pre-existent in the world of Forms.  For Plato, I suspect the world of Forms, is every bit a myth, and even more useful as mythology, than the world of Gods it replaced.  Most important for me is that Plato leaves room for a powerful combination of mystic vision and ecstatic aesthetic experience. Diotima's philosophy as expressed by Socrates is the key to Plato's philosophy and its superiority to that of Aristotle.  It is noteworthy how weak Aristotle's defense of poetry is in the Poetics:  we should be happy with imitative art since it has therapeutic value, can get pity and fear out of our system, perhaps also give us a bit of knowledge of universals we couldn't get from history.  Blah blah blah.  Plato's attack on poetry is ironically much more friendly than Aristotle's milquetoast defense. The history of art might be seen as an attempt to say "Plato, you are right only in the sense that art has not achieved its highest goal, and certainly does not do so if it reduces itself to merely entertainment.  Art should reach to the realm of the gods, not wallow in the mud of mere amusement." Plato, by attacking art, became the hero of art.  Aristotle, by defending art, became its apologist.  Plato tells us at the end of the Republic that he is deeply moved by Homer and wishes someone would defend him.  Beware of getting what you wish.  Moreover, Plato does not attack art itself:  he sees the greatest artists, at least in the Republic, as creators of constitutions, i.e. as having grand cultural significance, not just as therapists eager to get you on the couch for a good cry. Not only that, but Aristotle is something of a thief.  It is not bad to borrow ideas, but a thief is someone who takes your property and claims it was always his.  Aristotle is supposed to be great for giving us the four causes, the material, final, efficient and formal, all of which are to be found in Plato, although not so neatly lined up.  Even the idea that the Forms can do nothing since they are in a separate world, although fair enough, is simply resolved by Aristotle by bringing in the idea of Love, much as Plato would anyway. Aristotle makes a big deal of dumping on Plato's notion of a separate realm, and then he finds he needs one himself, except his is ridiculously literal, i.e. the eternal realm of the stars and, beyond it, the Unmoved Mover, or fifty six of them, or whatever number he came up with.  (Don't you find this hilarious?)  The Unmoved Mover(s) is going to move everything by way of our love of it.  This is a far less sophisticated understanding of the relation between ideals and reality than that found in Plato's concept of the Good, which too moves us by way of our Love, as Plato makes perfectly clear.   Plato's idea of the Good can be consistent with Deism, Agnosticism or even Atheism, whereas Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is just a Theistic God ridiculously contemplating itself for eternity.  Perhaps Aristotle's only really good idea is his notion of potentiality and actualization of potentiality:  an idea, I suppose, that should allow us to forgive him for all of his other sins.  Oh yes, Plato did not quite have the idea of the final cause as distinct from the formal cause, but to be honest, neither does Aristotle, since he mushes them together as often as he distinguishes them.  At least Plato was not responsible for the years of bad science tied to over-reliance on teleology.  It took Galileo to get us back on the right track.  As for Aristotle's attack in the Nicomachean Ethics of Plato's concept of the good I just wish that Plato had had a chance to get back at him.  First, there is something disturbing about Aristotle's assumption, so contrary to Socrates, that we should base our notion of the good on common belief, as though commonality was itself an argument.  Again, and in the end, Aristotle is going to go the route of the conventionally understood Plato anyway in that he will see the final good as contemplation and scientific study just as Diotima and Socrates do in the Symposium (and yet the contemplation and study is really very different...Aristotle's being the study of an obsessive collector, whereas Plato's is that of a creative visionary).  But this is a far cry from the activist an idealistic Plato for whom the end result is the creative activity that comes out of grasping the Good. The happiness that Aristotle touts is OK, and better than most of what we get in this world, but seems strangely like the happiness that Nietzsche has so much fun mocking.   We get happiness in doing a job intelligently:  fine.  But when do we get joy?  What, happiness just is excellence at a particular skill?  I would like to see a debate in which Nietzsche and Plato take up against Aristotle and not against each other:  Plato and Aristotle are only superficially similar, whereas Plato and Nietzsche are only superficially different.   There is nothing Dionysian in Aristotle:  he is all Apollo.  Nietzsche gets his Dionysian/Apollonian duality from Plato.   Funny how these things work out.  Aristotle gives us the three lives of gratification, political activity, and study as the plausible routes to happiness, but all three are anemic versions of themselves.  As for gratification he has no idea of the way in which eros can animate the pleasure of the senses so that all else seems to melt away.  Plato at least recognizes how beauty of a boy's shoulder glimpsed in a gymnasium can be the start on a path to recognition of the great sea of beauty.  Aristotle, as does Plato himself sometimes, reduces the life of pleasure to the life of gratification: as though the whole point of sex was the orgasm, or the orgiastic life of Sardanapallus.  Aristotle cannot conceive of the Epicurean way of life, maybe even Epicurus couldn't, i.e. the life in which a taste of truly fine wine can give life meaning at least for a day. Similarly, his view of politics is cheap, a kind of Donald Trump view:  politics is all about fame, honor, reputation, making your name big so that everyone in New York City or Chicago can, has to, see it every day:  this is a far cry from the Solon and Lycurgas admired so much by Plato which themselves were so like the founding fathers of America, true politicians in every sense of the word.  Aristotle's and Trump's isn't the notion of politics is a creative craft. And this is the point overall.  Perhaps Aristotle missed it when thinking about potentiality:  creativity is a matter of actualizing something that only exists as quasi-real as a kind of beautiful illusion, a vision, something ideal.  Once we get rid of this, or reduce it to something like DNA, or reduce it to mathematical understanding (which Plato's other followers did) then the game is lost, only to be recovered by Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, each in their own way.  Even the life of study on Aristotle's view loses its generative power and becomes nothing but classification, all pretty much summed up by the notion that thinking could be explained by the syllogism,  All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.  (But since Socrates is one of the set that includes all men we could not possibly know the truth of the first premise without already knowing the truth of the second and also the conclusion.  Logic based on circular reasoning, to be short.)  There is much to be said for pursuing virtue as the mean and this will make for more happiness overall, but it is in stark contrast to radical world-making, to revolutionary thinking, to truly deep thinking.  Creative accomplishment is not going to be achieved by following the mean. Of course the good is something different in each craft...does Aristotle seriously think that Plato did not see that?  The good is not something definable.  It is ideal.  To seek the good in each craft is to seek to actualize the potential in each craft.  By the way, Aristotle's idea of potential is pretty much ruined by his association of it with matter.  The whole radical form/matter distinction is itself problematic as Heidegger observed.  Potential is not to be found in unformed matter:  unformed matter has no potential at all. Potential is to be found in breaking down boundaries, in looking to an ideal that transcends the actual.          

Monday, May 16, 2016

Aristotle on Amusement, Happiness, Everyday Life

In Book X of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle discusses happiness further.  It is here that he most clearly rejects a life of amusement and praises a life of study and contemplation.  It would seem on first sight that Aristotle would have little positive to say about the aesthetics of everyday life.  Happiness is an activity that is choiceworty, and amusement does not count in that.  Yet, amusement and entertainment make up a large part of what we consider makes life good these days.  For Aristotle, "pleasant amusements...are not chosen for other ends, since they actually cause more harm than benefit, by causing neglect of our bodies and possessions."  We often say that people who resort to amusing pastimes are happy, and Aristotle observes that they have a good reputation among tyrants, i.e. for their wit; but he also notes that "these powerful people have no taste of pure and civilized pleasure," which is why they resort to "bodily pleasures."  Decent people will consider these things base.  It is rather "the activity expressing virtue" that is most choiceworthy.   Moreover, it would be absurd if the goal of life were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves."  Indeed, effort aimed at amusement "appears stupid and excessively childish."  Aristotle does seem however to allow for amusement for relaxation since "we cannot toil continuously" and it is not relaxation that is our goal.  A slave "might enjoy bodily pleasures" but such a person would not be happy.   For more on amusement, happiness and the aesthetics of everyday life see my article in Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West Liu Yuedi Curtis L. Carter October 2, 2014 Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Friday, May 6, 2016

Aristotle on Nature and Artifacts


I want to explore for a bit the strange relationship between artifacts, particularly works of art, and natural objects in Aristotle.  The text I will be working with is Physics Book 2 Chapter 1, in the Reeve translation.  Natural things are distinguished from artifacts in that only the former have their principle of change and stability within themselves.  An artifact, of which he lists beds, cloaks and houses, “have no innate impulse of change.”  However, it turns out that such things are coincidentally something else, for example stone, and to that extent they do have such an impulse.  A doctor only causes himself to be healthy coincidentally since the subject of a craft like medicine is changed only by outside forces.  So even if the principle of change happens to be from within, as in the case of the self-curing doctor, it is not “in their own right.”  This implies interestingly that artifacts cannot have a nature and are not  “substances” in Aristotle’s peculiar meaning of that term.  A nature “is invariably in a subject” and that cannot happen to an artifact.  Aristotle rejects the idea that the nature of a bed is the wood since, even though rotting wood could become a tree the, result would not be a bed.  Antiphon believed that the craft of making wood into a bed is a mere coincident of the wood, and in a way Aristotle agrees with him.  But the problem with this is not in the account of the wood so much as in the materialism which Antiphon assumes:  that things just are their material substances.  A large part of Aristotle’s project, by contrast to earlier materialist philosophers, is to project something about craft back to nature, observing that the form of a natural substance is even more important than the material.  But doesn’t this dissolving of the boundaries between the conventional and the natural via bringing form to be essential to nature also lead to dissolving of the boundary in the other direction, i.e. in bringing the artifact closer to nature?  One way we speak of nature is as “the primary matter that is a subject for each thing that has within itself a principle of motion and change” and yet there is another way in which we speak of nature, i.e. in terms of the shape or form.  It seems sometimes that Aristotle emphasizes form as shape over form as something defined by a real definition, or treats both views of form equally, but note that he says that when something is only potentially flesh it is not yet flesh and only gets this “form by way of the account by which we define flesh.”  So the account given by the accurate definition has primacy over the form.  And that is why “form is the nature more than matter is.”  He tries to keep the natural and the artefactual separated, saying “just as we speak of craftsmanship in what is in accordance with craft and is crafted, so also we speak of nature in what is in accordance with nature and is natural.”  Can’t there however be something natural about craftsmanship? 
Back to Antiphon, he observes that some would say that “the nature of the bed is not the shape but the wood” because the sprouting would be a plant not a bed.  Yet he had only a few paragraphs earlier implied that the bed has no nature:  so how can he now speak about the nature of the bed, unless he thinks that Antiphon, unlike him, thinks the bed has a nature.  He thinks that Antiphon’s argument shows that the shape is also the nature since a man comes from a man. 
Then we get the odd sentence that “nature, as applied to coming to be, is really a road towards nature;  it is not like medical treatment, which is a road not towards medical science, but towards health” since medical treatment proceeds from medical science not towards it, while nature as coming to be is a matter of growing towards something, which he seems to think shows that the shape is the nature.  The shape in this case stands not only for the formal cause but also for the final cause:  even before he introduces the four causes (later in Physics) he is introducing this idea in these preliminary comments on nature.  What we are left with however is the idea that in the case of an art or craft the science comes first, it generating, in the case of medicine, the treatment, the goal of which is health in the subject.  The relationship of artifact to maker is peculiar in this way:  it is as though the combination of the creator and the artifact is a kind of natural unit:  it would be the self-moving unit similar to a human being or a plant.