Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Positive irrationalism: the irrational at the base of the rational.


Aesthetics in its inner nature fundamentally challenges assumptions found in philosophy: e.g. foundationalism, dogmatic commitment to clear and distinct ideas, acceptance of various dualisms, and the view that philosophical methods must be modeled after those of science.   Aesthetics is a tensional moment within the organic whole of philosophy.  If philosophy is to regain harmony it must extrude aesthetics, destroy it, or transform it  -- or else aesthetics must transform philosophy.

Aesthetics challenges conventional notions of rationality, reality, truth, and ethics.   This is sometimes not apparent because much of contemporary aesthetic theory is actually a philosophical defense against the spirit of aesthetics, an aspect of the ancient battle between philosophy and the arts once referred to by Plato. Usually aesthetics is seen as at the periphery of philosophy.  This is largely because of its close association with the arts as well as with sensuous properties which have been traditionally associated by philosophers with the frivolous and superficial.  On this view it is thought that the core subdisciplines of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics/political philosophy, and logic, with philosophy of mind and philosophy of language running in second place, or perhaps moving to first place.  Aesthetics is indeed a kind of step-child of philosophy.

The deepest challenge that both art and, potentially, the philosophy of art, poses for philosophy all of one piece, machine-like, logical in the manner of propositional logic.  All (or almost all) philosophers are rationalists in the end.  Certainly I am.  But there are different approaches to rationalism.  One approach, much maligned traditionally, is that there is an irrational element at the heart of rationality itself.  This irrational element is most easily found in the creative process whether that be in art, business, science or philosophy itself.   Creativity requires violating boundaries, overcoming categories, seeing things in radically new ways.  The inceptive moment in the creative process is fundamentally irrational.  Knowledge is impossible without this moment since knowledge is based on creative thinking every bit as much as on careful collection of evidence.  Plato was fascinated with this element and occasionally played with it, as for example in his Ion, his Phaedrus, and his Symposium, although he usually rejected it in the end.  For him, the irrational element is understood as the madness of love, or at least one kind of madness of love.  It can also be found, more subtly, in his doctrine of recollection. 

None of this is to claim that the irrational cannot lead to suffering. The negative capacity of the irrational is proved every day. And yet there is a positive irrational.  And the positive irrational is importantly valuable.  It is possible (plausible?) that embracing the positive irrational (for example in such a way as to affirm rationalism in the end) is necessary to solve our problems today. 

That is, only through a synthesis of the irrational and the rational where the end result is ultimately rational can we really work in such a way as to handle the repressed emotions that can wreck havoc in our lives.  Freud, despite all of his failings, recognized the fundamental importance of the positive irrational.   

Logicist/scientistic understanding of rationalism ultimately ends in failure because the possibility of creative thinking is lost.
One strategy that is useful in aesthetics can help in understanding the role of the positive irrational.  In the aesthetics of nature it is commonly thought that the appropriate way to appreciate nature is either through an art-like approach or by way of scientific understanding.  Some philosophers are beginning to recognize that a pluralist approach is best, particularly if it is fully integrated.  I and others have proposed the ideal of John Muir who synthesized not only the arts-based and scientific approaches but also a transcendental or religious based approach.  As an atheist, I reject a literal existent God, and yet the idea of God has sometimes been used to express something quite real: the positive irrational element in complete fulfilled experience, in this case, of nature.  Nietzsche saw this in his notion of the Apollonian Dionysian duality and particularly in his idea of the Dionysian.

It is an interesting fact that the term "irrationalism" does not appear as a heading in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or even in the index in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, the two main encyclopedias I use, and yet it is present as an entry both in the Encyclopedia Britannica here  and in the New World Encyclopedia.  The Encyclopedia Britannica says it was a 19th and early twentieth century movement that "stressed the dimensions of instinct, feeling, and will as over and against reason."  How about a 21st century movement that stresses this dimension as forming a necessary basis for reason?  It is not irrationalism against rationalism, but a positive irrationalism within rationalism at its best.  That essay turns to the early Greek philosopher as often having a "strain" of irrationalism.  This would be true of Heraclitus but also even for Plato as mentioned above.  The Sophists, the Skeptics and the Cynics all also had strains of irrationalism.  The term is often associated with faith and intuition. Other names connected with irrationalism include Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the existentialists.  The essay associates it with literary romanticism.   The anonymous writer talks about irrationalism as coming after the Age of Reason and as being in some way associated with Darwin and Freud (neither one of whom would have thought of himself as irrationalist, and both of whom might be said to have suppressed the irrationalist side of their thinking).   If experience is based on biology and the unconscious then it is not based ultimately on reason:  reason itself is not based ultimately on reason.  The sentence  "Pragmatism, existentialism, and vitalism (or “life philosophy”) all arose as expressions of this expanded view of human life and thought" implies that there is a strain of irrationalism in all of these:  and I think there is.  My own irrationalism is in the mode of pragmatism with a strong emphasis on positive irrationalism which must, to be used successfully, be brought up into the larger rationalist project.  As the author observes, Peirce and James arguing that ideas need to be assessed on practical rather than strictly logical grounds, has an irrationalist side.    I hope to have more to say about irrationalism and its relationship to aesthetics in the coming months.





Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodman's implicit definition of art

In his famous essay "When is Art?"  (in Ways of Worldmaking originally) Nelson Goodman says he has not defined art, but in a way, he has.  We find first that art is a form of symbolization, and that this symbolization may be representational, expressive or through exemplification. Of course this does not distinguish art from a rock sample in a Natural History museum.  However we are also informed that something is art if and when it is functioning as art.  At first, this just seems a circular definition.  But Goodman adds that we know it is functioning as art if it has at least some of what he calls the symptoms of the aesthetic.  By "symptoms of the aesthetic" he appears to mean "symptoms of art" since he does not talk about these in relation to non-art aesthetic phenomena.  He doesn't specify any of these symptoms as either necessary or sufficient for art.  

The symptoms, as he lists them, are syntactical density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification, and complex reference. (Note that he does not think that the stone in the Natural History is art even though it does exemplify: so exemplification by itself is not sufficient for art status.)  You can go to the essay itself for his explication of each of these symptoms.  The important point about all of them for our purposes is that they involve what he calls "nontransparency."  That is, in attending to these features we do not look through them to the thing referenced but rather we focus on the symbol itself.  Even though the stone in the natural history museum exemplifies it does not do so in a nontransparent way.

So one could say that, for Goodman, something is art if it functions as art, and it functions as art when it works as a nontransparent symbol.  Goodman himself does not say this, perhaps because he is worried that in doing so he would be redefining the concept of art.  However, as Weitz observed, that's pretty much what each of the classical theories of art does anyway.  

Another feature of Goodman's approach is that he is clearly opposed to Danto and Dickie, although his argument against the Purist program is remarkably similar to Danto's in that both think the purist art (like the all-black paintings by Ad Reinhardt) is fine:  it is only their claim that their work does not refer to anything outside that is the problem.  For Danto they refer to everything else in the style matrix, and thus, really, to all previous art, whereas for Goodman, they refer to all the other objects that have the same property, for example an all-red canvas refers to all other things that have the property of redness, for example roses.

I have already discussed the relation between these philosophers here.  In my previous post, however, I did not sufficiently stress the importance of Conceptual Art, and in particular Claes Oldenburg's "Placid Civic Monument" (1967).  (Each great philosopher of art has his/her preferred works of art:  in Goodman's case it is this particular conceptual piece, and this is largely because it operates as a counterexample to the opposing theories just as Warhol's "Brillo Box" operated as a counterexample for Danto.)  In this work, Oldenburg hired grave diggers to dig a hole behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then had them fill it up again.  The work was the event.  Whereas Danto and Dickie require that a work of art be an object or, in Dickie's case, an artifact, Goodman does not require this.  But, contra Dickie, Goodman stresses that the artist calling something a work of art is neither necessary nor sufficient for arthood.  So, Oldenburg's work might be problematic for Danto and Dickie but not for Goodman. 

Danto would probably handle this by saying that someone with sufficient art historical knowledge can see Oldenburg's work as art.  Dickie would probably handle it simply by saying that artifactuality is conferred on the event and not on any specific object and that Oldenburg is the representative here of the artworld.  All three would agree that it is art, but for different reasons.  The work is art for Goodman because it functions as art for a time:  it symbolizes, and it does so through exemplification of certain properties, although Goodman does not say which ones these are.  

We can say, however, that "Placid Civic Monument" exemplifies the property of monumentality (although this might be problematic for Goodman, as I will note later).  It is worth noting that the work was deliberately placed in view of an Egyptian obelisk, "Cleopatra's Needle," also in Central Park. The obelisk reaches upwards whereas, in a mirroring way, the hole reaches downwards.  Also the obelisk is about eternity whereas the hole is notably temporary.  In brief we can say that what makes it art for Goodman is a nontransparency that causes us to focus on properties that are exemplified (like Bell, in a way, although the number of types of properties to be exemplified are increased from lines, forms and colored shapes to include such things as size and texture) whereas Danto and Dickie call on us to focus on what is not exhibited, in Danto's case on what we see through the atmosphere of artistic theory and, in Dickie's case, on the status gained through the actions of Oldenburg as a representative of the artworld.  It is interesting that although all three theories would designate this work as art, each calls on us to focus on quite different features:  and each has different implications for how one ought to appreciate avant garde art.  Also, whereas Danto and Dickie both think that "once art, always art," Goodman holds that something can lose art status when it no longer functions as art.  Yet this is not entirely correct since Danto thinks that Warhol's "Brillo Box" is no longer art if it leaves the gallery and the artworld entirely and returns to the warehouse where it is indistinguishable from industrial brillo cartons:  then it just reenters the world of non-art. 

By the way, isn't there something strange about a nontransparency that calls on us to note relations to things considered extrinsic to the work of art?

To understand the five symptoms of the aesthetic in Goodman one does best just to focus on relative repleteness (which also, I think, explicates what is meant by "exemplification" or at least exemplification that is artistic).  That is, one should focus on the difference between appreciating a Hokusai single-line drawing of a mountain and a stockmarket chart:  in the first on focuses on "every feature of shape, line, thickness...counts..."  whereas in the second only height counts.  So, when the rock is moved to a pedestal in an art museum and treated as art the treatment involves a requirement on viewers to focus on every feature of every physical quality.   

What Goodman seems to neglect, however, is other things that can be exemplified.   For example, monumentality is exemplified, as I have argued, in Oldenburg's work, but this is not a physical quality (i.e. not of the same sort as color and texture).  Goodman may well say that in this case we are symbolizing through expressiveness, but Oldenburg was exemplifying monumentality more than expressing it if expression has to do with an emotion expressed. 

  


 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The necessary aesthetic dimension of epistemology: Plato's Theaetetus

Theaetetus is an aporetic dialogue.  There is no final answer given to the question "What is knowledge?"  Although it seems that knowledge must be justified belief plus an account, none of the accounts of account pass muster.   People generally assume that the answer is to be found either in (1) the notion of apprehension of the Forms as suggested in the Republic and other dialogues, or (2) the process of division in terms of species and genera described in later dialogues such as the Sophist, Philebus and Statesman, or (3) some sort of causal explanation as suggested in the Phaedo.   I want to suggest that there is internal evidence within the Theaetetus for another solution.  

However let's begin outside the Theaetetus with what we might think is required for a knowledge that is deep.  Deep knowledge in our culture is often referred to as wisdom.  We will distinguish here between having wisdom in general and having wisdom in something.  We will deal with wisdom in general later.  To have wisdom in something it is not sufficient just to be able to name all of the parts or even to give a definition of a thing of that sort.  Deep knowledge requires being able to make predictions in that domain and being able to solve problems.  Deep knowledge of car mechanics would require that we know about the parts and how they function in relation to each other.  An even deeper knowledge of car mechanics would require knowledge of how cars respond to surrounding conditions, for example driver handling, road conditions and weather.  Deep knowledge requires knowing something as an organic whole AND knowing how this thing functions in larger wholes to which it belongs.   If we are trying to understand a car it is not sufficient just to know the definition of "car" and whether this car meets this definition. Nor is it sufficient to know this plus knowing all of the car's parts or even knowing all of the cars parts and their functional relations with each other.  

Deep knowledge that is wisdom also requires contextualizing ones knowledge within the wider domain of culture and life itself.  I person could have deep knowledge of torture on one level, i.e. in knowing the techniques, how to get confessions, etc., but fail to recognize the ultimate inability to synthesize this practice into the operations of a good society.  So even an expert in torture would fail to have wisdom in the wider sense.  

All of this I think, so far, is implicit in Plato.  Another problem however is one that he raises and never adequately addresses.  It is the problem of knowing particulars, for example knowing a particular person, say the person Theaetetus.  (I am thinking of 208d-210b)  To really know a person, let us hypothesize, is to know his or her essence.  But Plato never talks about essences of particulars.  This is a deep problem for Plato nonetheless.  The philosopher-king, as described in the Republic, should be able to apply the knowledge he has gained from leaving the cave and perceiving the Forms to the world.  But this requires being able to see, for example, the Good, in particulars.  

The problem is that in order to really see the Good as it is present in the particular one must not only know the Good but also know the particular, and to know the particular is to know that which makes it unique, what distinguishes it from every other particular.  The philosopher-king will not be able to do his job unless he is able to to do this.  Similarly, following the Phaedrus, the rhetorician needs to be able to know his or particular audience in order to fit argument to audience.   It helps to break possible audiences into types.  But, as we are finding today with medicine, an individual-based approach has its own advantages.  Moreover, the relationship between the Lover and the Beloved, or between the wise Teacher and his Student, is one that requires awareness of the particular.  Socrates himself in the Theaetetus recognizes this as part of the role of the philosophical midwife:  to deal with the particular idea that the subject gives birth to, and to match the particular student with his most appropriate teacher.   

This is where aesthetics comes in, although in a way that, at first seems not to much involve the arts.  (Later I will point out that it does very much involve them.)  Two points need to be made.  First, Plato seems on first sight to be the great anti-aesthetic philosopher.  For example in the Republic he attacks lovers of sights and sounds.  He consistently attacks most of the arts, for example in book X of the Republic.  And yet aesthetics does play an important role in Plato, mainly by way of his erotics.  In Diotima's theory of love as set forth in the Symposium Diotima requires that the philosopher begin with love of a particular body.  This is followed by love a particular soul.  Now it may be true that all of this is forgotten when one gets to beauty itself.  But also remember that the process of moving up the ladder, as also reiterated in the Phaedrus through the allegory of the wings, requires both the Lover and the Beloved.  They stimulate each other through appreciation of the beauty of the Beloved and the reflection of that in the Lover.  They also stimulate each other through their shared discourses about virtue, i.e. about the excellences of things   Plato's system just does not work without appreciation of beauty in particulars.  Even when the Lover perceives the vast sea of beauty he perceives this, presumably, as a sea of particular things that are beautiful.   

The Theatetus starts off with questioning whether knowledge is perception.  The term translated by "perception" is "aisthesis" from which we get the term aesthetics.   This path to knowledge is ultimately rejected.  But one has to wonder whether Plato is fully behind this rejection.  Some of the arguments are just too quick.  Perhaps he believes that perception does play an essential role in knowledge even though it can never be the whole story.  

Moreover, when Plato describes, in the famous interlude, the philosopher as someone who, like Thales, just does not know where he is going, one thinks that this is precisely not the sort of person one would want for a philosopher-king.  How could Plato be serious about the philosopher as described by Socrates in the interlude?  This "philosopher" is incapable of handling himself in court or in the political realm.  This would not be a person to make the pilot of the ship of state.  There must be some irony here.

So, cutting to the quick, Platonic interpretation aside, here is my take on deep knowledge that can be called wisdom.  Such knowledge is justified truth belief where the justification requires not only definition, classification, predictability, taking into account functional relations between parts, taking into account relations between the object known and surrounding context, but also knowledge of the essences of particulars, a kind of knowledge which is essentially aesthetic.  

Earlier I suggested that the arts do not play a role in this.  But in fact they do.  Who are the experts in aesthetic cognition (a term first developed by the originator of aesthetics, Baumgarten)?  They are the artists.  Sophocles, a great artist, focuses not only on Oedipus as representing man but also as a particular person.  Ironically, this works best for us in the audience because we too are particular humans as well as being human.  Paying attention to the particular requires paying attention to sensual characteristics, i.e. the particular nature of Oedipus who does particular things that can be seen and recounted, for example putting out his eyes.   Art engages us in the universal in the particular, and this distinguishes art from philosophy and science.  

Wisdom goes beyond philosophy and science to gives us also knowledge of the universal in the particular.  It has, therefore, a deeply practical or pragmatic dimension.  Again, the philosopher- king will only be of use if he is able to perceive the Good as manifested in the particular thing and this requires knowing the particular thing.   In short, wisdom requires synthesis of Art and Science, neither, by itself, being sufficient.

All of this is inspired by something said by Socrates as the end of the dialogue at 208d to 209d.  Notice that we return here to a point at the very beginning of the dialogue which, in fact. did refer briefly to a visual art, and, in fact, refers first to music and then to visual art: "If you and I had each had a lyre, and Theodorus had told us that they were both similarly tuned, should we have taken his word for it straightaway?  Or should we have tried to find out if he was speaking with any expert knowledge of music?"  (144e  Levett and Burnyeat).  If then we are interested in faces being alike, for example Theaetetus and Socrates, we should go to someone with knowledge of drawing.  And Theodorus is no artist, he is a Geometer.  (145a)  One would think that, on some accounts of Plato, Theodorus, being a Geometer, would be given some priority over the artist, for the Geometer has a better understanding of circles than a drawer of circles.   But this is not the case.  Somehow, the imitator of the bed who draws the bed, the very person who is degraded in the Republic, at last gains some respect here. 

So, now at the end of the end of the dialogue we have a paradox As Socrates puts it, "if you get hold of the difference that distinguishes a thing from everything else, then, so some people say, you will have got an account of it."  Yet "so long as it is some common feature that you grasp, your account will be about all those things which have this in common."  (208d)  This poses, I believe, a deep problem with the theory that knowledge is true belief plus an account in terms the Forms.   An account of the difference that marks out the uniqueness of an individual like Theaetetus should be something that is ineffable:  it must not be in language since language always deals with the common.  Or, alternatively, it can be in language, but language understood as being so flexible that the meaning of a word can be different in every case in which it is used. (I think this is the better option.)

Socrates' problem with this account of account is "how...did it come about that you were the object of my judgment and nobody else?"  (209b1)  Even when we mention the very visual characteristics that Theaetetus shared with Socrates, snub nose and prominent eyes, we have not distinguished him from everyone else because we have not distinguished him from Socrates.  So Socrates asks Theaetetus, "Shall I even then be judging you any more than myself or anyone who is like that?"   (209c1)  

Then Socrates says ""It will not...be Theaetetus who is judged in my mind until this snub-nosedness of yours has left imprinted and established in me a record that is different in some way from the other snub-nosednesses I have seen...."  (209c4)  "and this will remind me, if I meet you tomorrow, and make me judge correctly about you," i.e. that you are indeed Theaetetus.  (209c6)   Isn't it interesting that this sort of talk takes us back to the discussions of the wax and aviary analogies which were brought up in relation to the issue of memory which was itself brought up in response to the defense of the perception theory of knowledge, that perception includes not only immediate perception but also remembered perceptions?  The aesthetic theory of knowledge had been rejected, but now it comes back when talking about an account, and most importantly when talking about the last and therefore most viable account of account found at the end of the dialogue.  

Yet Socrates draws out the argument in a different direction, saying,  "then correct judgment must be concerned with differentness of what it is about," which leads to the idea that in correct judgment we already have an idea of how a thing differs from other things and so we do not need an addition of an account in terms of knowledge of differences.  And if adding an account means getting to know the differences, not merely judging them correctly, then we are absurdly defining knowledge in terms of knowledge.  And that is the end of the dialogue.

But what I have concluded is that there is an essential aesthetic component to knowledge, an aesthetic component which also contains an erotic component, and thus is essentially connected both to the love of beauty and to loving relations between humans.  That is, I do not think Plato's whole story about knowledge can be told (a story which I find pretty close to being correct) unless the erotic and the epistemological dialogues are synthesized. 


Monday, November 5, 2018

Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art in a nutshell

But how does all of this sum up, students often ask.  Here goes an attempt.  (Whatever I will say here will probably seem like an oversimplification or distortion to someone.)   For Heidegger the essence of art (great art is all he is interested in) is that it reveals truth.  But truth is not scientific or science-like in this case:  it is Being coming into unconcealment. But what is "Being"?  It is the inner meaning of things.  It is what we are no longer good at listening to.  It can be seen as the inner essence of things, if we understand essence in a much more dynamic and historically embedded way than allowed by Plato and Aristotle.  Heidegger is an atheist, but the most religious atheist I know.  In this regard he is somewhat like a Zen Buddhist who tries to get us to attend to things without presuppositions.  

In order to understand what art is we need to understand that it exists and thrives in an dynamic relation between artist, art object, and art (as in, the artworld) itself.  Heidegger's approach to understanding art, as with everything else, is both phenomenological and existential.  The phenomenological part is that he attempts to understand the essence (or, rather, the origin, the dynamic emerging) of something by way of a certain kind of observation and consequent description (phenomenological description.)  By doing this he interestingly arrives at a similar place to where John Dewey arrives at in his theory of art.  Both philosophers believe that one should start with experience, and both understand experience as something that is rich and deep, not as a mere collection of data. To understand art, we have to start with our experience of art, but also with the experience of the artist, since it is the artist who experiences the creative process and gives rise to the product which we then experience.

So Heidegger looks at the question "what is art?" and asks whether this can't be understood in a simple way, that each art work is a thing, and art is the collection of all of these things.  But this does not capture the dynamic nature of art.  He then considers what a thing is.  This is where his philosophical discussion of art gets deep.  There is a traditional notion of a thing which understands things as if they were pieces of equipment, for example a hammer or a shoe.  A traditional view of things is that they are just examples of form applied to matter.  But if you just attend to the thingly nature of a thing this idea begins to dissolve.  That is, if you look at Chartres cathedral and really see that it is made out of stone you also see that this stone is not mere stone:  it itself vibrates with meaning.  You become more aware, in the case of art, of the medium.  But even afterwards, when looking at stones in nature, you become more aware of the way in which the stones themselves can vibrate with meaning.  Back to the work.  You notice the stonely nature of a work of architecture made out of stone.  

So there is a view of art which says that it is just a physical thing with an added symbolic dimension, the symbolic dimension being the real meaning of the work.  Collingwood seems to have had a view like that.  You could say that Danto held this view itself.  So it is a prominent view even today.  Heidegger rejects it not because he thinks that the work is all the material thing or that he thinks it all the meaning symbolized:  rather he seeks to deconstruct or dissolve the very notion of thing as matter shaped by form, i.e. where the two are radically distinct.  

So he uses the example of Van Gogh's painting of shoes to show that the thingly nature of a thing is not at all just the material side of a thing.  In describing Van Gogh's painting Heidegger seems at first to be engaging in a sort of wool-gathering, as though he were imagining a particularly tough life of a peasant woman who may have worn these shoes.  What he is actually doing is recognizing (much as Schopenhauer does when talking about the capacities of the artistic genius when observation a physical thing) that the artist is able to see deeply, in an existentialist sense, into the piece of equipment he is depicting, i.e. the shoes.  By the artist looking closely at the equipment he sees it in the context of its world, the world of the peasant woman who uses them.  And by us looking closely that a painting of this we too can see this world.   

Heidegger does not mention this, but we also see ourselves into this world, as we share certain fundamental existential realities with the peasant woman:  we are all beings heading to our deaths, and this is part of the way we experience the world.  You cannot see a painting of worn shoes except by thinking of them as things worn hard by a person who exists in her own phenomenological space. The point is that the shoes do not symbolize something other than themselves.  Rather this is their inner being, i.e. as present in the world of the peasant woman, i.e. as a window to that world.  Nor does the painting symbolize something other than itself:  it is in seeing the thingly nature of the painting that we see Being, that Being comes into unconcealment.  

So what is the relevant of all of this to us in the 21st. century?  We are surrounded by things but we do not notice the thingly nature of these things, nor do we notice the equipmental nature of equipment, i.e. what Heidegger calls reliability.  We are surrounded by things that have for us, usually, a kind of boring usualness.  Life, as a result, seems meaningless.  We the purchase more things to fill in the gap.  All we get is formed matter, matter that itself is inanimate and which has its meaning only by having form imposed on it.  Primitive peoples perhaps do not experience the world in this way, but we postmoderns are alienated from things, as we are from people.  For we also treat people as things; not as things ought to be treated, but as mere things.  Just as a work of art is not a physical object with a meaning appended so too a person is not a physical body with a soul appended.  This view of artworks and persons distorts both the physical side and the spiritual side.  Again, these two sides need to be dissolved together.

When Being shines forth in a thing then its Thingly nature shines forth, and this means that what Heidegger calls "reliability" shines forth.  The funny thing about this word "reliability" is that it means something quite different from what you would think it means:  the reliability that shines forth is the essentiality of the thing, or better the Being in it coming to unconcealment.  This is why it shimmers, it shimmers with Being.  Art then gives life meaning by bringing us back to the point where we can see that the equipmental natura of equipment, the thingly nature of a thing, and the workly nature of a work, are essentially the same.  You cannot reduce the work to the thing when the thing is taken as a mere thing, but then if you see the thing as something that manifests a world while at the same time doing through through its materials, through its medium, then Being comes forth.

So that's the theory in a nutshell.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Plato and Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations ....family resemblance pages, 30-40).


Plato and Wittgenstein on Generality, Essence, Conceptualization, and the Methods of Philosophy.
 
From Anand Vaidya (my colleague at SJSU who is teaching a course on Wittgenstein this semester).  Prompt for a discussion of Plato and Wittgenstein.  
 
"The point of this symposium is to put an end to the classical view of positioning Plato and Wittgenstein as two Book Ends for Western Philosophy who did not share a lot in common with respect to the goal, method, and substance of philosophy. 

In this discussion Dr. Leddy and Dr. Vaidya will discuss various passages from both authors concerning the nature of language, logic, forms, concepts, and methods with an eye toward bringing forward a new kind of harmony between the two."
 
When I first read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, particularly the material on family resemblances, I thought that here we have a final refutation of Plato.  But over the years I have come to believe that Plato and Wittgenstein are closer than that.  Here are some initial thoughts along those lines.  These thoughts will involve a somewhat unorthodox reading of Plato.
 
Perhaps the central problem with Plato is how to deal with the theory of Forms.  If Plato had been someone like Aristotle he would have set forth a series of pronouncements about the Forms in his first-person voice.  But this is not what happened at all.  Here are the factors that pose problems for the Forms:  (1)  Plato wrote in dialogue format.  Although Socrates is often the lead speaker it is not entirely clear even that Socrates' views are Plato's own.  (2)  Many of the early dialogues and some of the later ones are aporetic. Plato does not provide us with any one answer that the end of the dialogue.  (3)  The Parmenides seems to raise problems with the Forms than cannot be answered.  Parmenides ends the first part of dialogue by arguing that the Forms must exist otherwise dialectic would not make sense.  But this hardly refutes the third largeness problem or the problem of how we can know the Forms while not having the eternal Form of Knowledge itself.  (4)  Sometimes Plato treats the Forms as hypotheses:  which shows that he is not sure of their existence himself.  (5)  The Seventh Letter, if authentic, shows that Plato believes that his doctrine has never been expressed.  This nothing in his dialogues gives us doctrine.  The end path of dialectic is ineffable.  This is also suggested by the Symposium where Beauty itself does not get a definition.  Nor is the Good every defined in the Republic:  we just get an analogue to the Good.  (6)  Plato's attitude towards metaphor, analogue and myth is deeply ambiguous.  On the one hand these would seem to be at the furthest remove from the Forms.  They would be if they were merely imitative.  But they can also be understood as providing various alternative access points to the Forms.  Could the Forms also be constituted by them?  This is not suggested by Plato himself but perhaps by Kant when he discusses what he calls "aesthetical ideas" in section 49 of the Critique of Judgement
 
An obvious similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein would be in that (1) Wittgenstein also has mini-dialogues (2)  these are similarly aporetic (Wittgenstein seems more interested in getting the fly out of the fly bottle than in trying to actually define key philosophical concepts).  (3)  The injunction to silence at the end of the Tractatus may be similar to Plato's talk of ineffability in the 7th Letter and elsewhere.  Of course neither Wittgenstein nor Plato were able to stop talking. 
 
Wittgenstein seems to be interested more in concepts than forms.  However, analytic philosophy can mainly used the notion of "concept" as a replacement for "Form" with the idea that in analyzing a concept one is trying to figure out something that goes beyond merely giving the dictionary definition of that thing,.  Some philosophers hold to the idea that analysis of concepts involves trying to get at the essence of that thing, for example the essence of art.  One of Wittgenstein's followers, Morris Weitz, held that the attempt to define the essence of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions will ultimately fail since "art" is not that kind of concept.   Yet Weitz also argued that art theory is important because of the debates we have over the nature or essence of art.  Definitions of art should be seen as honorific definitions in which we set forth some property as essential to art, one that we think should be especially attended to.  Thus, for Weitz, Clive Bell's definition of art as significant form really should be taken as an honorific definition that calls on us to pay attention to significant form in art.  Although some philosophers have read Weitz as calling for a definition of art that treats it as a cluster concepts, where there are many conditions none of which are necessary or sufficient, others have felt that he is simply calling on us to continue doing what philosophers have done in the past, defining art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but recognizing that these are really honorific definitions offered as if they were "real" definitions of the sort that we get legitimately for such things as "triangle" and "water." 

Could Plato and Wittgenstein be synthesized?  This could be done partly through a modification (or another reading) of Plato, pulling him back from hypostatizing the Forms, and by modifications (or another reading) of Wittgenstein, allowing for a realist interpretation of how the human/language/world relation actually, in general, works.  Instead of seeing the Socratic quest (the quest of philosophy exemplified by questions that begin "What is...?" and continue through contested theories about the subject under consideration) in terms of a resolution that involves cluster concepts the quest is understood as seeking for ongoing resolutions in terms of honorific definitions in which the essence is increasingly revealed in all of its complexity, each definition replacing the previous ones in a dialectical and not merely cumulative fashion.    


Wittgenstein thought that philosophy neither deduces nor explains anything.  One would think at first that Plato was the opposite.  Yet, again, Plato does not provide final accounts, except on a couple occasions (for instance with Justice in the Republic), and although the talks about deduction, it does not really play a significant role in his thinking.  Sure, he makes inferences, but his method is not deductive in the manner of Descartes.  One might say that Wittgenstein is anti-theoretical.  But Plato is too, in a way.  He provides us with many theories.  Towards the end of his career he seemed more interested in methodology than in theory itself:  more interested in the method of division than in any theory that method might generate.  Wittgenstein says “The work of the philosopher consists in marshalling reminders for a particular purpose” (PI 127).  Couldn't be said that the doctrine of recollection in Plato reminds us that knowledge is just a matter of marshalling reminders.  I am not talking here of the mythologized versions of that theory but of the version we find in the Symposium as described by Diotima in her discussion of the "lesser mysteries."  Wittgenstein held that philosophy was a kind of therapy, and Plato held that philosophy is mainly a matter of improving the soul.  Wittgenstein stresses multiple methods:  so too did Plato.  Could Plato too be said to want to show the fly out of the fly bottle?   

Wittgenstein stresses language games.  But what of the language-games of philosophy itself.  Witttgenstein invented some new language-games in philosophy.  Plato used a number of different language-games in philosophy.  The idea of language-games does not replace philosophy.
 
Again, on the face of it, one might want to say that Wittgenstein rejected definition, and replaced definition as a project with finding interweaving similarities, family resemblances.  But one might also say that Plato and Nietzsche were both interested in the role of language and analysis in the pursuit of the best life and that this involves, ultimately, a kind of therapy.  
 
One other thought.  Wittgenstein places a lot of emphasis on the concept of "seeing as."  Seeing as can be seen as a kind of imaginative seeing.  Wittgenstein in his usual manner goes over many meanings and uses for "seeing as" and yet it is quite plausible that imagination plays an important role as providing the glue that holds together the different uses of a concept.  

Rowe provides an excellent overview of the similarities between the lives of Socrates and Wittgenstein (notably not talking about Plato in this regard).  Plato is often seen as opposed to the arts, but there is a poetical aspect to Plato's thinking, for example in his use of dialogue and mythology as well as in his use of metaphor and analogous thinking.  Wittgenstein also seemed somewhat like a poet, as Rowe observes.  Perhaps aesthetic and conceptual problems are closer together than we often think.  Rowe quote Wittgenstein: : 'Scientific questions may interest me, but they never really grip me. Only conceptual & aesthetic questions have that effect on me. At bottom it leaves me cold whether scientific problems are solved; but not those other questions."  CV 91.  M. W. Rowe  "Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates,"  Philosophy, Vol. 82, No. 319 (Jan., 2007), pp. 45-85.

It is noteworthy that Catherine Rowett argues for just this position with regards to the Meno: that it shows that to grasp a concept is to be able to apply it and we do not need to name some single common feature. "What we usually do is appeal to normal practice"   Plato, Wittgenstein and the Definition of Games. in Luigi Perissinotto and Begoñia Ramón Cámara (ed) Wittgenstein and Plato,Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Find it: here


 
 
 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Kant'[s Analytic of the Beautiful: the first moment #1-3

Kant believes that the world as we experience it is full of what he calls "representations."  Thus when I look at a work of architecture I have a representation of it in my mind.  The representation in what I see, not the thing as it is in itself.  Now when I judge something as being beautiful or ugly, i.e. make a judgement of taste, something different happens than when I make a scientific judgment.  I actually refer that representation to my feelings of pleasure or pain and judge accordingly:  if it gives me pleasure I judge it as beautiful, and if it gives me pain, as ugly.  So a judgment of taste is not objective but subjective.  However this is merely a preliminary point and we will soon discover that Kant does not mean the same thing by "subjective" as we might.  Here the emphasis is not not applying concepts of the understanding:  not trying to analyze or classify.  It is one thing to judge a building cognitively and another to judge it in terms of taste.  Kant says that in taste we refer the representation to our "feeling of life, under the name of the feeling of pleasure of pain"  and that the representation is being compared to "the whole faculty of representations, of which the mind is conscious in the feeling of its state."  This seems to mean that in finding a building beautiful we are also conscious of the state of mind we are in, i.e. in terms of imagination and understanding.  Later, he will observe that this state of mind involves the free play of these faculties.  

We next learn that the satisfaction is disinterested.  That is, we are not to think of whether or not the object meets some personal need of ours.  This idea expands Hume's notion that a good judge lacks prejudice.  In Kant's case we cannot appreciate something as beautiful if it is in some way an object of desire, for example of sexual desire, or even of consumerist desire.  "Interested" appreciation is going to be appreciation that cares about whether the object exists.  For example one might care about whether the object can be mine or be used by me.   Or one might care about the moral implications of the object in terms of social structure.  Take a palace.  Some people will judge the palace form an interested perspective.  For example, they might judge it as being immoral insofar as it rests on the exploitation of the lower classes.  Rousseau would say that it represents the vanity of the great.  Kant approves of Rousseau's moral stance.  But when it comes to appreciation of the palace one ought to be disinterested in its contemplation.  Set aside issues of morality.  The question is simply whether the mere representation of the palace in my mind (i.e. the image of it before me) gives me pleasure.  Also, unlike the Iroquois sachem visiting Paris (Kant shows no appreciation of the sophistication of Iroquois culture here), one finds more aesthetic interest in other things than the restaurants.  The restaurants provide sensual satisfaction and the actual existence of the food is important to us (we would be unhappy if the steak turned out to be a mere illusion).  With matters of taste however the question is not how I can use the object but what I make out of it in my contemplation of it.  

 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Medieval Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

I find it particularly difficult to teach a section on Medieval Aesthetics in the Introduction to Aesthetics course.  I have used the online encyclopedia of philosophy article by Michael R. Spicher, which is helpful.  He begins with the influence of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, which is appropriate.  I would only add that Plato's Symposium was particularly important, especially by way of its influence on Plotinus.  I also like Spicher's division between three topics in medieval aesthetics:  proportion, light and color and symbolism.  Proportion is particularly relevant to architecture.  I would add Pythagoras to the original list of influential philosophers since Medieval aesthetics is so strongly influenced by such concepts as harmony, symmetry and proportion. In teaching the material I decided to start with Diotima's description of the higher mysteries, i.e. the ladder of love.  This fits in well with a description of Chartres cathedral.  I was able to use a video from Kahn Academy which shows the stained glass windows of Chartres quite well.  The only thing I disagree with there is that the writers say that the effect of the windows has nothing to do with aesthetics and only with divine symbolism.  I would think that divine symbolism is one style of aesthetics and, generally, I object to using the term "aesthetic" only to refer to superficial attractiveness.  The section on "Light and Color" in Spicher's article particularly relates to Chartres, although one might also have to explain the Neoplatonic theory of emanation.  One thing that we see in medieval aesthetics that we do not see in Plato and Aristotle is stress played on both color and radiance.  Plato brings in light when dealing with the allegory of the Sun, but doesn't seem concerned with color.  I see the Medieval interest in color as an anti-dualist moment or aspect of Medieval thought:  they are asking that we pay attention to beauty in sensuously rich experience in a way that Plato would not.  This also relates to the Medieval ideas of radiance and clarity.  Plato does speak of beauty as a vast sea, but he does not see that beauty in terms of any special notion of radiance.  It is not that the Medievals believe that God is Light, as Spicher implies, but that God is symbolized in a deep way by light especially insofar as it seems to emanate from the things themselves.  Plotinus provides a transition from Plato to the Medievals:  Spicher quotes him "The simple beauty of a color is derived from a form that dominates the obscurity of matter and from the presence of an incorporeal light that is reason and idea."  (1.6)  I love the quote from Hugh of Saint Victor, also found in Spicher: "With regard to the color of things....sight itself demonstrates how much Beauty it adds to nature, when this last is adorned by many different colors."  Spicher puts it in an interesting way:  "There is a sense in which color causes beauty, since everything has color.  Hence, more radiant colors will cause the object to be more radiant and, therefore, more beautiful."  Of course this could be taken too literally.  Spicher takes Symbolism to be a third elemental, although I find it hard to separate this from the issue of radiance.  If the world is a divine work of art then it will be radiant.  In my own thinking, even in a world without God, there is radiance of the world, and this could lead to seeing art as pointing out and enhancing this radiance, the radiance of everyday life.  This could be related to the Christian view of hermeneutics.  If beauty is a reflection of God's beauty and if, as Aquinas held, all knowledge about God begins inn the material realm through the senses (this is how Spicher puts it) then one way to see beauty is radiance that comes from things seen being full of meaning.  Nothing I am saying, of course, is fully consistent with Medieval aesthetics:  it could not be, since I am coming from an atheist standpoint.  

To continue, I find particularly valuable the notion of radiance.  Spicher quotes Gilson "Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful:  it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."  Spicher writes:  "Radiance signifies the luminosity that emanates from a beautiful object, which initiatlly seizes the attention of the beholder."  For Aquinas "All form, through which things have being, is a certain participation in the divine clarity [or light].  And...particulars are beautiful because of their own nature - that is, because of their form."  

Bottom line for me:  the Medievals made one important contribution to aesthetics, i.e. the notion of beauty as radiance that is full of meaning.  I have spoken of this as "aura" in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Plato's Seventh Letter: how ineffable nous trumps mere knowledge

Most of the people who reject the Seventh Letter see it as somehow inconsistent with the rest of Plato's philosophy.  I am not one of those who reject the Seventh Letter.  Plato was constantly experimenting, and so there are going to be differences between each presentation of his main ideas.  Moreover, it hardly makes sense to speak of inconsistency in Plato since, unlike Aristotle, almost all of his writings are dialogues.  Although Socrates often seems to represent Plato's own point of view, it is by no means clear when he does.  Moreover I suspect that many rejections of the philosophical parts of the Seventh Letter are more due to its violating certain intellectualist/rationalist prejudices on the part of philosophers doing the interpreting.  I find the Seventh Letter to be consistent with my interpretation of the rest of Plato's writings, at least as far as one can talk about consistency here.

I am using the L.A. Post translation here, found in The Collected Dialogues edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns.  The passage begins with the striking claim that Plato has not composed any work in regard to his doctrines, and that he won't even do so in the future.  (341d)  The reason for this is that there is no way to put it into words, unlike other studies:  "Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and from close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining."  (341d)  Plato began this discussion by talking about acquaintance with doctrines or subjects, but this seems more like acquaintance with a realm of philosophical truth or maybe even a sort of intuitive oneness with the subject matter.  We tend to associate philosophical doctrines necessarily with something written.  But this is something that happens to the soul, and it is ineffable. 

In the next paragraph we learn that this "acquaintance" (hardly the right sort of word for this, it seems) is of "the nature of things."  Plato then says, "I do not...think the attempt to tell mankind of these matters a good thing, except in the case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance." (342e)  The term "little" seems misplaced here given that he had just said that there would be a long period of instruction.  Interestingly and perhaps with some degree of self-contradiction Plato then goes on to "speak on the subject at greater length" in order to make it clearer.  What he is going to give here is "a true doctrine, which I have often stated before, that stands in the way of the man who would dare to write even the least thing on such matters, and which it seems I am now called upon to repeat."  So, the point is that the doctrine that follows is preliminary to that which is ineffable and philosophically deep.  What follows is not exactly the same as what he said previously, but it is pretty similar, even though he does not use the term "Forms."   By "preliminary" I do not mean that there is another set of doctrines that can be explicitly stated.  I only mean that Plato believes that this "conversational" method gives you the self-sustaining kindled blaze...which is the whole point.

Plato starts off with three classes of objects "through which knowledge about [the nature of things] must come."  He says that "the knowledge itself is a fourth," which is to say that it is a fourth class of things, these in the mind, to consider here.  The fifth thing to consider is the "actual object of knowledge which is the true reality."  

To go into more detail, the first is the name, the second is the description or definition, and the third is the image.  The role of each is interesting to study in detail and this study will reveal some surprises.  For one thing it is quite surprising that Plato incorporates the image (eidolon) into his first three classes as something positive.  I think this is necessary for Plato.  When he attacks the eidolon he only does so when it is mistaken for the real thing.  It is always taken as a necessary starting point.  In the Symposium one must begin with appreciation of the body of a particular young man, for example. Later we will learn that the role of definition is not quite what we would expect either.  

The example Plato uses to explain his theory is a circle.  So, in this case, the name is "circle."  The definition is "the thing which has everywhere equal distances between its extremities and its center." And the third thing is the class of objects drawn or turned on a lathe.  Many would think that the word and the definition would be sufficient for knowledge.  But here we have the difference between mere knowledge and wisdom, or at least whatever wisdom is attainable by the philosopher.  Wisdom is going beyond definition and knowledge.

It is not surprising that Plato makes a distinction between the true circle and the mere image of a circle in the world of appearances.  For example if the drawn circle is erased this does "not affect the real circle to which these other circles are all related, because it is different from them."  A little surprising, however, is the further discussion of the fourth, which is now described as three things:  knowledge, understanding (nous) and correct opinion, for Plato elsewhere distinguishes between these, and here he seems not to care about that distinction, at least between knowledge and true opinion.  

The point he wants to make here is that these epistemic concepts, taken together, are found not in sounds or shapes but in minds, and that the real circle is not found in minds.  In any case he sees understanding as the closest "in affinity and likeness" to the fifth entity, the real circle.  This, too, might be surprising to some who might give this to knowledge (episteme).   But if knowledge is justified true belief then the justification and the belief must be stated in words.  Plato, at this time in his life allows understanding (which is not in words) to trump mere knowledge.

He goes on to extend this point to all of the other Forms (or, better, all things that can be said to have essences), for example shapes, surfaces, good, beautiful, just, bodies (artificial and natural), the elements (fire, water, etc.), every animal, qualities, and states.  To get a complete understanding of the fifth one must "get hold of the first four."  This is striking since one must get hold not only of the name and the definition but also of the image and, presumably, both knowledge and right opinion.  The term "get hold of" is not really explained, but seems to mean "gain a firm grasp of these things and their relations."

He then says "Furthermore these four [names, descriptions, bodily forms, concepts] do as much to illustrate the particular quality of any object as they do to illustrate the essential reality because of the inadequacy of the language."  The point is that the four illustrate particular qualities, and this may be confused with their philosophical purpose, i.e. to illuminate the essence.  This is the reason why he next says that no intelligent man will put into language what his reason has contemplated, i.e. not in written symbols, since writings cannot be changed.  (343a)  This is similar, as many have observed, to the Phaedrus attack on writing as opposed to knowledge based on personal conversation.

To help explain the meaning of what he has said here Plato notes that circles in the world of appearance, i.e. ones that are drawn in dirt or turned on a lathe, are the opposite of the fifth entity, the real circle.  The reason is that they would touch a straight line at several points, and this would mean that they would contain within them their opposite, i.e. straightness.  He then observes that names are not stable since you could call what we now call round straight and vice versa.  More interesting is that he applies this point to description (i.e. the definition) as well, since the definition is made up of words too, i.e. of "nouns and verbal expressions."  So, in general, the four are inaccurate.  (Note that he includes knowledge in this group, although perhaps not understanding!}

So there are two things, the essential reality and the particular quality, and "when the mind is in quest of knowledge not of the particular but of the essential, each of the four confronts the mind with the unsought particular, whether in verbal or in bodily form."  (343c)  So the four by themselves are not sufficient and can actually deceive us, focusing on the particular rather than on the essential.  The further problem is that "each of the four makes the reality that is expressed in words or illustrated in objects liable to easy refutation by the evidence of the senses."  And this leaves us prey to confusion and uncertainty.

Bad training leads us to accept the phenomenal presentations, including both definitions and knowledge as justified true belief, and not to look for real essences.  Those, like the Sophists, who are able to "handle the four with dexterity" can easily make a fool of the individual who tries to provide answers about the fifth entity.  The problem is not the mind of the speaker but the character of the four, which is "naturally defective."  

So how are we to proceed?  There is a method:  it is consideration of the four in turn "moving up and down from one another."  I take this to be central.  All four need to be considered in sequence:  it is not enough to move from word to definition, but one must also move then to the image, and then to knowledge.  And then one must also work one's way back down again.  We must recognize that whatever is in language is changeable.

I think that there is an implicit reference here to Heraclitus' saying that the path up and the path down are one and the same.  Plato often talks of two paths, one leading to the Forms and one leading away from the Forms.  To say that the path up and the path down are the same is to say, I believe, that wisdom is a process and a cycle in which one mounts to the Forms but also descends from them back to the world of appearances.  

As Plato observes, even this procedure "barely begets knowledge of a naturally flawless object in a naturally flawless man."  Most people are "defective" in that they have no interest in essences:  they are not philosophers.  

Plato goes further when he says "most people's minds with regard to intelligence and to what are called morals" are defective.  So  what is needed to engage in this search for essences is "natural intelligence and a good memory" - but also an "inborn affinity with the subject."  That is, one needs to have a passionate attachment to searching for essences, to philosophy, and also, which is the same thing, passionate attachment for self-improvement, achievement of arete. 

By natural affinity Plato may mean not simply a philosophical but a moral affinity, for he says "all who have no natural attitude for and affinity with justice and all other other noble ideals, though in the study of other matters they may be both intelligent and retentive" will fail to grasp the entity.  Also those who are naturally just and otherwise virtuous may have no intellectual ability and will also fail.  So "the study of virtue and vice must be accompanied by an inquiry into what is false and true of existence in general and must be carried on by constant practice throughout a long period..."  (344b)  This will involve comparing names, definitions and "visual and other sense perceptions."  And one must do this in "benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer..."  Only then will the "flash of understanding" blaze up, and the mind will be "flooded with light."  

All of this it seems to me is consistent both with the Republic discussion of the cave, line and sun, and with the ladder of love as presented by Diotima in the Symposium.  When one grasps the Good itself one does not grasp a definition.  Rather one is able to see the good in things.  When one grasps the Beautiful itself one does not grasp a definition but one is able to see the beautiful in things.  Words, definitions, images, and even knowledge itself (justified true belief) are just stepping stones to the flash of insight.  

Is this true?  Actually I think so, although I couldn't prove it.  Also, unlike Plato, I do not think that the real thing, the fifth, is eternal and unchanging.  Or at least it is not so except as ideal empty of content.  I only am sad that Plato used the circle as his main example  I think this confuses things since it makes it appear as though grasping a Form is much like knowing the definition of circle.  This, of course, is not his intention.  

Note on Secondary Sources.  W.K.C. Guthrie provides a useful discussion of this material in A History of Greek Philosophy: V  The later Plato and the Academy.  Cambridge U. Press, 1978.  







Thursday, August 23, 2018

Socrates Apology and Aesthetics

Plato's Apology has been taught thousands of times, maybe hundreds of thousands, over the last two thousand three hundred years.  I have probably taught it at least twenty times.  How ought it to be taught.  I am currently teaching a seminar on Plato and thought I would start off on the first day of class with this chestnut.  So I listed on the board, with the help of my class, the key concepts and topics that are addressed or at least brought up in this dialogue, some that are only implicitly addressed, and some that are left out.  Here is a list of concepts:  death, god, piety, gods of the city, atheism, Socrates' daimon, courage, intellectual courage, justice, wisdom, truth, persuasion, argument, virtue, soul, corruption, education, what makes life worth living. Socratic examination, harm cannot be done to a good man, Socrates' unique duty to the god Apollo, democracy

So, my working thesis is that in order to understand any one of these concepts one must understand its relation to all of the others.   The ideas for a, to use Quine's term, "web of belief."  One good way to enter Socrates' web of belief (here "Socrates" means the character in the Apology) is to stand back a bit from the text and consider how the various key concepts inter-relate.  For example, the unexamined life is not worth living.  So only the examined life is worth living.  The examined life is one that involves Socratic examination.  Socratic examination entails asking questions of people in particular fields and showing them that they are not really wise in matters of great importance to them.  This examination will improve their souls.  Socrates goes about constantly trying to improve people's souls.  An improved soul cannot be harmed:  it is hardened from harm.  An improved soul has courage.  Courage comes at least in part from a certain form of wisdom.  Wisdom is knowing that human wisdom is worthless and that one does not always know what one thinks one knows.  Craftsmen do in fact know their craft.  But they are unwise in that they do not know anything about politics even though they think they do.  Believing that death is the worst thing that can happen to us is typical of the uncourageous person.  Socrates does not believe this because he recognizes the limits of human wisdom with regards to death.  Either death is a dreamless sleep or it is a trip to Hades where one could engage in conversation with other shades.  Neither option seems particularly bad.  Of course there may be other possibilities:  for example burning forever in hell.  But, for a contemporary atheist the argument has cogency:  death is like the dreamless sleep in that in both one experiences nothing.  The atheist believes that one experiences nothing in death because in death one no longer exists (except as an unconscious body).  So the atheist would agree that there is no reason to fear death (unless one fears losing the time to do things one would have had if one had lived longer).  Of course one can fear the painful experiences of the death bed...but that is another matter. 

Is there a center to the web.   Perhaps the daimon is.  In a way, this is not a concept since it is uniquely belonging to Socrates.  One of my students asked whether there is point here for all of us, given that Socrates' situation is unique.  There are two places where Socrates seems to generalize his position:  first, it is not that the unexamined life is not worth living just for Socrates.  It is for everyone.  Second, that man is wise who, like Socrates, realizes that human wisdom is worthless. By the way, since the wisdom of the carpenter in carpentry is not worthless, the claim seems rather to be that any claim to know that goes beyond practical expertise is worthless.  But this does pose a problem for the carpenter as well since if the carpenter is unable to define good carpentry (as would typically happen if he engaged in examination of his life with Socrates) then he would fail to understand his innermost essence.   How does Socratic discourse help us improve in virtue when it inevitably leads to a failure in trying to understand our innermost essence?  The daimon interestingly always gives negative knowledge:  tells Socrates not to go there, not to do this, and so forth.  So perhaps the daimon is the impulse he has to destroy false theories.  Yet the daimon does tell us a truth, as when it does not intervene.  Socrates at the end of the dialogue thinks that because his daimon did not intervene he could be assured that he had taken the right course of action.  The failures of the dialogues are also successes in that bad theories are cleared away:  the path is cleared away for the soul's self-actualization in virtue.

So was Socrates an atheist?  Quite the opposite.  However, the religious belief he introduces is one in which deities play little important role.  The real thing is the process of examination itself, the process that purifies the soul. 

I often worry about the relationship between my main philosophical interest, aesthetics, and other aspects of philosophy.  I have spent lot of time thinking about intimate relations between aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics.  But often in my career I have neglected the relationship with ethics.  But ethics has to do with the good life, and the good life has to do with happiness, and it is inconceivable that a life could be a happy one that was not filled with a wide variety of rich aesthetic experiences.  Socrates implies that the good life is an examined life, and following from this is a sort of wisdom (a very modest sort), and following from this is courage and justice (which, for Socrates, is closely related to the search for truth....he admonishes his jury only to think of truth)   Does Socrates really neglect aesthetics or does he simply hide it.

On one level Socrates is anti-aesthetics in that he attacks the decorative style of delivery in the court-room.  He is going to speak plainly.  And yet there is such a thing as spare aesthetics.  Socrates favors a spare aesthetic in the courtroom.  Perhaps he could also be said to favor a spare aesthetic in life.  From other things we know that he did not shun the pleasures of life but in fact insisted that they were even better for him than for the gourmand.  If we can speak of religion in terms of aesthetics Socrates also favors a spare aesthetics here as well.  The vast realm of mythology is set aside (this is why he is so threatening to Athenian civil society) and in its place is the job of examining people in order to help them to improve their souls.  Improving their souls will involve taking their main interest away from making money, and since the main benefit of money is luxury, this means taking them away from a luxurious aesthetic.





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Do rocks think and feel?

I am intrigued by the new loosely associated school or trend in philosophy called speculative realism.  I am currently reading The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).  Shaviro is basically a Whiteheadian, and so his position is somewhat different from the other speculative realists I have read.  I will be pretty up front about my initial position at least.  Earlier I had posted on the speculative realism of Graham Harman, particularly as found in his book The Quadruple Object.   I think, as I argued there, that most of the useful claims made by the speculative realists can be better made within the context of the philosophy of John Dewey.  Dewey's philosophy also avoids some of their excesses.  I am sympathetic to the anti-anthropocentrism of the speculative realists.  We have to get beyond the idea that humans are the center of everything.  At the same time, I think they tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  They are too eager to caste away everything about Kant for example.  Shaviro also advocates panpsychism.   Most of what he says about this makes sense to me:  for example, that animals and even plants can have consciousness or perhaps just intentionality.   I also agree that for thoughts and minds to exist it must be the case that all of nature has a mental aspect to it.  However I cannot agree that rocks think or that there is something that it is like to be a rock.  I also think that the speculative realists just neglect the fundamental fact that we cannot get out of our own consciousness.  Everything we experience is experienced by us, i.e. by humans.  This includes all of the thoughts had by speculative realists.  So I continue to agree with the phenomenologists, and with Dewey, that we philosophers must begin with experience, and specifically with our own experience.  I agree that values are out there in the world but only in the sense of being out there in the world of experience, in the world as experienced.  There may be values in the world as experienced by a virus:  I have no trouble with that.   But there is no reason to posit values in a world without experience or in a world inhabited entirely by non-living things.  Speculative realists like Shaviro are driven to their extreme panpsychist position because they think that the only other alternatives are anthropocentrism or eliminative materialism.  These are not the only alternatives.   Of course the non-mental physical world has the potential for the kind of complexity that leads to life and experience.  The world of thoughts and ideas is emergent upon the world of purely physical things.  There are probably even elements of the non-living world that are precursors to thought and experience, although we have no knowledge of that as this point.  

One thing that attracts me to Shaviro and keeps me coming back to him despite my disapproval of his more extravagant claims is that he, like Whitehead, places a very strong emphasis on aesthetics.  He talks about aesthetics in terms of allure (54).  When something has allure it addresses me and attracts my attention from beyond.  It is, following Whitehead, a "proposition" in the sense of a tale "that perhaps might be told about particular actualities" (Whitehead, PR 256) which proposes a potentiality to the viewer, one that is anchored in an actuality.  We do not encounter things just as packets of qualities.  Rather they offer a "promise of happiness" which is to say, the potential of beauty,  

I am happy with all of this except that unlike Shaviro I think that the object presents itself to me as a proposition partly because of its nature for me.  That is, this is how it is constituted in my experience.  Beauty arises out of the interaction of me with the object.  Others will not find that particular object as alluring precisely because their consciousness is not similarly prepared.  What doesn't work for me is Shaviro's tendency to anthropomorphize the object of allure, as when he speaks of qualities of the thing as "bait that the thing holds out to me." (55) I have no problem, however, with thinking of the thing as a being which acts as though it were a seducer, and it is as if it were providing bait.

When Shaviro goes on to say some other things in relation to an analysis of poem by Shelley that was performed by Whitehead, he really sounds like Dewey.  Here are some of the Deweyan like pronouncements:  "it is actually 'things' themselves - rather than their representations in the form of ideas or impressions - that flow through the mind.  Shelley's insistence on a universe of actually existing things goes against the subjectivism and sensationalism of the rest of the poem, and of British empiricism more generally....to the extent that the poem envisions a 'universe of things,' it suggests that we perceive and respond to objects themselves...We do not just analyze them in terms of universals by adding up and associating atomistic 'ideas.'  ....we do not just passively receive a series of bare, isolated sensa;  rather, we actually do encounter Mount Blanc, with its surrounding glaciers and woods and waterfalls...  Mount Blank allures us as it 'gleams on high'"  From a Deweyan perspective this is all good an to the point.

But Shaviro goes on and says that Mont Blanc manifests a Power that 'dwells apart in its tranquility'...[and] this Power is also an actor in a vast web of interconnections:  a force of metamorphosis that rolls...through all things, exceeding 'the limits of the dead and living world..."  (59)  And this seems a bit much.  There is no question that we could experience Mt. Blanc as like this....but going beyond that to posit a Power is just speculation, and frankly has a whiff of residual Deism.   I have argued in other posts that aesthetic atheism does a better job with this, for, although it does deny God,  it does not deny these experiences or their meaningfulness for those who have them.  The primacy of aesthetics is partly a matter of such sublime experiences originally associated with religion and later incorporated into Transcendentalism, are still there.   Religion becomes subsumed under aesthetics, but a much broadened notion of aesthetics.  

Whitehead refers to the "brooding presence of the whole" of nature.  (60)  This anthropomorphizes what Dewey better referred to as the sense of an infinite background (see Art as Experience.)

Shaviro also says "every entity in the world has its own point of view, just as I do, and that each of them somehow feels the other entities with which it comes into contact, much as I do." (61) This includes stones, although Shaviro and Whitehead before him do not attribute consciousness to stones.  This seems a contradiction since feelings and points of view entail consciousness, or else Shaviro is using "consciousness" in a very different way.  "I attribute feelings to stones precisely in order to get away from the pernicious dualism that would insist that human beings alone (or at most, human beings together with some animals) have feelings, while everything else does not."  (61)  But this is not necessary, and is a false dichotomy.   One can attribute points of view and feelings and "what it is like to be...." to all living things, for sure, but need not go on to attribute all of this to stones.  

Again, I am happy with "stone as experienced" being treated as having feelings since they are constituted as part of our world as living beings, and our world as living beings extend beyond us.  The psychological truth that panpsychism and romanticism trades on is this experience of nature as animated.  I suspect that the romantics were right that this way of perceiving nature is more healthy, more conducive to happiness.  It would also be more conducive to preservation of the environment.  As Yuriko Saito has observed, the early Japanese garden theorists recognized this in their treatment of stones in a garden.  Shintoism, of course, takes the animation of stones to be literally true.  I take it to be more appropriately metaphorically true.

A great thing about everyday aesthetics is that in attending to aesthetic objects that are not deliberately constructed as art works we can see that even here there is benefit to seeing objects as having "aura" in my terminology.   Karen Barad is observed by Shaviro as holding that it takes radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively dead matter can be.  In a way, I think that is right.  In a way, it is important to overcome the distinction between animate and inanimate, that is within the realm of everyday aesthetic experience.  Everyday aesthetics and closely associated aesthetics of nature can reanimate the everyday and the natural.  But to believe literally that inanimate things have agency is just to bring back an early form of Deism and a kind of magical thinking that can help us little.

When Shaviro and the speculative realists attack what they call correlationism, they are attacking something that contemporary Deweyan pragmatists like myself would also attack in many instances.  For example Shaviro associates the attack on correlationism with Whitehead's attack on "bifurcation":  "Modern Western thought, from Descartes through Locke and on to Hume, partitioned the world between primary and secondary qualities, or between objectively extended objects on the one hand and merely subjective 'psychic additions'...on the other."  Dewey would agree with this, and agree that this was a mistake.  But the speculative realists also hold that the world is not "beholden to our ways of shaping an processing it..."  (55)  This is problematic in a complicated way.  The world as we experience it is in fact beholden to our ways of shaping and processing it in two closely related ways:  first, most of the experienced world is literally beholden to it in that we are constantly shaping and reshaping that would physically to meet our needs:   putting paint on a canvas is one example of such reshaping;  second, and related to the first point, we are constantly categorizing the world, thinking about it, talking about it, and seeing it from our perspective:  much of this is preliminary to the literal reshaping of it mentioned above.  One important aspect of this reconstituting of the world is the way in which we can bring to it our capacity to see aspects of the world as symbols and therefor as animated.  This animation of the world we experience brings it closer to us:  de-alienates it, one might say.  Much of everyday aesthetic experience is a matter of bringing out the potential for animation.

The "world in itself - the world as it exists apart from us" (66) doesn't make sense.  Such a world a priori cannot be experienced or even thought about.  One would have to imagine oneself out of existence, which is basically impossible.  Moreover, to talk about such a thing is to go back to the dualistic vision of Kant, the side of Kant that the Deweyan pragmatist rejects. 

However Shaviro is onto something when he says "we habitually grasp the world in terms of our preimposed concepts.  We need to break this habit in order to get at the strangeness of things in the world...."  (56)  This is what  I have referred to as finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.   I agree that preimposed concepts can be a problem if we want to reanimate experience.  Looking at the world without preimposed concepts and getting at the strangeness of things is a matter of taking the aesthetic attitude.

"If philosophy begins in wonder - and ends in wonder....then its aim should be not to deduce and impose cognitive norms, or concepts of understanding, but rather to make us more fully aware of how reality escapes and upsets these norms."  (67)  I agree with this, except that I take a more Nietzschean line with this.  Nietzsche in his essay on truth "On Truth and Falsehood in the Extramoral Sense" recognized the problem of imposing concepts of understanding on the world:  for him, this is the columbarium of ideas, of dead metaphors, which he later associated with the Alexandrian.  However Nietzsche also recognized that the intuitive man may introduce living metaphors.  These constitute reality in a way that escapes and upsets norms.

Shaviro thinks we must go beyond Kant here, and we must speculate.  Speculation means thinking about the world of things-in-themselves.  I prefer a more Hegelian/Husserlian/Deweyan approach and just reject the world of things in themselves.  Hence I would still reject speculation.  Shaviro says "Pace Kant, we must think outside of our own thought, and we must positively conceive the existence of things outside our own conceptions of them."  But Kant has another strategy which Shaviro neglects:  the genius artist thinks aesthetic ideas.  Aesthetic ideas are not speculative:  rather they are things taken as symbols of the transcendent realm.  Thinking aesthetic ideas is in a sense thinking outside of our own thought in that aesthetic ideas are not traditional conceptions.  They are original creative ideas.  They animate things.  The things thus animated achieve aura.  

It is my view that when this happens essence emerge.  This is not the path of seeing the real as "inarticulable inarticulate mush" (67) but rather as seeing that which is most heightened in its quality of being real as also being ineffable.  The aesthetic idea is ineffable in that it cannot be described in literal language.  

"Philosophers have only described the correlationist circle, in various ways:  the point, however, is to step outside of it.  The aim of speculative realism...is to break free of the circle....attain [the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz] without reverting...to any sort of precritical ...metaphysical 'dogmatism."  Although I do not accept the critique of correlationism I find exciting the notion of reviving something of the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz.  For Meillassoux this means "to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not" whereas I would say it is a matter of getting out of ourselves in the conventional way to find our deeper selves which is what achieved by the genius through aesthetic ideas and through opening ourselves up to aura in things and to the emergence of essences.