Monday, June 5, 2017

Aesthetics and the Being of beings

I had previously posted on Heidegger and everyday aesthetics here  Here are some further thoughts.

I have been returning to Heidegger to think about the meaning of aesthetics and more specifically of everyday aesthetics.  Nothing I say here should be taken to imply that I am a follower of Heidegger.  Let’s just say that I take inspiration from some of the things he says.  The immediate impetus of my discussion has been reading George Steiner’s Martin Heidegger (University of Chicago Press, 1989).   

The question Heidegger was most interested in concerned the Being of beings.  Unlike Heidegger, I interpret this as a deeply aesthetic notion.  This is how I take this in a nutshell:  when we experience something with heightened aesthetic intensity we are experiencing the Being of beings, and conversely when we experience the Being of beings we experience with heightened aesthetic intensity.   The Being of a being is the dynamic essential nature of the thing under consideration.   But, as we shall see, my notion of "essence" is very unlike that of Plato or Aristotle. Philosophy and Art are concerned with the Being of beings.  Heidegger sensed this when he placed so much attention on the arts of poetry, architecture and painting in his quest for the Being of beings.  Yet Heidegger does not seem to be aware that Being is something fundamentally aesthetic.   

(Steiner indicates that Heidegger ultimately failed to answer the question "What is the Being of beings?"  I think that what I am providing here is an answer.)

I should also note that my view could be made consistent with a certain reading of Plato, a certain reading of Kant, and a certain reading of Nietzsche.  I am very unlike Heidegger in this respect:  whereas Heidegger sees his work as a radical rejection of previous philosophers, based usually on a rather willful misreading of these figures, I see continuities and deep affinities.  When Plato, for example, talks about grasping Beauty itself in the Symposium and also talks about grasping The Good in The Republic he is talking about the same thing as when Heidegger and I talk about grasping the Being of beings.  For Plato, grasping The Beautiful and The Good (the same thing, really) is the goal of philosophy:  and that is not a matter of coming up with a definition but a matter of being able to see essences in the world.  (It is more than that, but that's a start).  What Heidegger calls "the is of what is" is just the essentiality of what is:  but a lot depends here on how we take "essences."  We cannot take them to be entities, beings.  Rather, search for essences is searching for the Being of beings.  I agree with Heidegger that Being is not a being.  Heidegger’s attacks on Plato work only as attacks on the kind of characterization we get of Plato’s ideas in introductory classes.  To think Being for Plato is every bit as much an activity as it is for Heidegger.   The path up out of the cave is a path of activity, of dialectic.  Moreover, the path down from perception of the Good is also a path of activity.  

Heidegger’s own confusion about Being needs to be cleared up, however.  Heidegger confuses mere existence with heightened experience of Being, an experience which, in my view, is also, at the same time, an emergence.  That something exists or does not exist is of little interest to the philosophy of Being.  We concern ourselves with existence in cases like "does global warming exist?" and this is only a question of whether the term "global warming" with its implied definition accurately describes the state of the world.  Modern science confirms that global warming exists.  This has nothing to do with what we are discussing here.

The philosophy of Being is only mistakenly seen as a theory about the word “is.”  The question “why is there something rather than nothing?”  is a case in point.  Heidegger made a big deal about the importance of this question.  It seems at first to be simply a religious question, one that begs the question.  That is, it simply assumes that there is an explanation for why the universe (not only this universe, but any universe) exists.  God has been the traditional answer.  Or perhaps it is thought that the question is somehow important, even though clearly God is not the best answer.  I do not think that this question is very interesting, at least not when taken literally.  But I do not think Heidegger always took it literally.

The real question (the one the stated question was really trying to ask) is rather, “why is there creativity?”  That is, "why is it that sometimes we seem to get something from nothing?"  Why is there an emergence of Being?  Why do we experience certain things as more than the sum of their parts?  Why is there potentiality as well as actuality?   Why is there meaning at all?  The question "why is there something rather than nothing" directs us to these other questions, which, when taken together, much better represent what we are getting at.  Being, as Heidegger well saw, is the ontological question, and that is quite distinct from questions of ontics.

Except that we should be suspicious of the “why” word.   Philosophy cannot really provide explanations, and certainly not causal explanations.  The characteristic philosophical question is a what is x question, not a why question.  Perhaps to some extent these questions just intend to get us to pay attention to the emergence of Being.  

Another area in which Heidegger and I disagree is that I see Being as emergent from natural processes, from biological, cultural and personal evolution.  I agree that Being arises from the interaction of language (in the broadest sense of that term, including all symbol systems) and the world.   But this just means that the emergence of Being is phenomenological:  it happens in consciousness.  Being happens when truth emerges in experience.  "Truth" in this sense has an ineliminable personal dimension.  Being doesn’t just happen in the thing-in-itself.  Or if it does, this is not our concern.  But Being also emerges in shared experience:  it is not purely subjective. 

Investigation into the essences of things is investigation into the ways in which  Being emerges.  Plato saw this as investigation into Forms:  asking the "what is" question, for example "what is piety?" Whenever we ask the "what is?" question of philosophy in a deep way we are trying to get at Being.   Heidegger is right, however, to see this in a different way from Plato:  Plato asks us to leave the sensuous world to experience Being.  Nietzsche and Dewey taught us otherwise.  Being emerges only through our interaction with materials, with media:  it is when, for example, the architect allows Being to emerge through the materials of wood or stone.   

Again, Heidegger thinks that existence is the key, and to a certain extent he is right.  But, to put it better, that which gives rise to the experience of awe “exists” in the strong sense that Heidegger is indicating.  So when Heidegger says that hidden being gives the rock its dense thereness (a point made by Steiner on pg. 66), I think this is best understood in terms of what Yuriko Saito has said about the Japanese gardenist's way of experiencing a rock:  the rock has a dense thereness when we see it as manifesting Being, as manifesting essentiality.   The Japanese gardenist listens to the request of the rock in the way that Heidegger asks us to return to a point at which we listen to Being.

I think that we have always been listening to Being, but I agree that this is rare and made difficult by contemporary life.  To listen to Being is to open up to the way things in the world that speak to us about inner nature (not only their inner nature, but ours) through a medium, i.e. of language, paint, or the stone as used by the architect.

Interestingly, essentiality here is not just what it is defined as but rather the way in which it manifests reality itself.  I said earlier that even Kant is misinterpreted here.   A point at which Kant and Heidegger intersect is at the notion of “aesthetic ideas” developed in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  The Being of beings is aesthetical.

This of course is all in tune what I have previously said in this blog on aesthetic atheism.  See also my posts on Kant on aesthetical ideas.

Nothingness.  Being does not emerge out of nothingness in a straightforward way.  We should beware of hypostatizing nothingness.  Being emerges by way of negation of that which is irrelevant in the construction of a perceived/conceived whole.  But Being can just as well be said to emerge from fullness, or rather from over-fullness.   It emerges from full engagement.  If one fully engages with one's craft then sometimes light shines forth:  Being emerges.  This is creative intuition.

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