Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Schopenhauer on Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

For me the most puzzling thing about Schopenhauer is his idea that the Platonic Ideas are the highest objectification of the underlying Will which is ultimately irrational.  Hard to see Platonic Ideas as irrational or as expressing something irrational.  Schopenhauer of course admitted that he did not intend by Platonic Ideas the same as Plato himself.  Things get more interesting when it becomes clear that Schopenhauer's "Platonic Ideas" are really a lot like Kant's "aesthetic ideas."  Let's back up and think about what Schopenhauer might mean by "Platonic Ideas."  Remarkably he says they are perceptual.  (Plato would never accept that!).  Keep in mind that the Platonic Ideas (I will only mean Schopenhauer's Platonic Ideas here, not Plato's) have the same name as concepts.  But concepts are rigid things that can be completely given in their definitions.  Platonic Ideas are organic wholes and can be realized or expressed in different ways.  Again, this makes them like Kant's "aesthetic ideas."  Its helpful to think about how these are supposed to work in architecture.   The essence of architecture involves expressing the Platonic Ideas of rigidity, light, and so forth.  This seems about right for a lot of architecture and certainly fits great modernist architects like Hahn, Le Corbusier and Ando.

My favorite quote on the Idea is that it "develops in him who has grasped it representations that are new as regards the concepts of the same name;  it is like a living organism, developing itself and endowed with generative force, which brings forth that which was not previously put into it."  (80 in Continental Aesthetics ed. Kearney and Rasmussen).  Schopenhauer, unlike Plato, makes a big distinction between ideas and concepts.  He writes "just because the Idea is and remains perceptive, the artist is not conscious in abstracto of the intention and aim of his work"  (80)   Plato and Kant both believed that the artist could not describe his/her intention and aim, although Kant is closer to Schopenhauer on this point.    For Schopenhauer, the artist is not able to do this since he works "from feeling and unconsciously, indeed instinctively" and again, "only the genius...is like the organic body that assimilates, transforms and produces."  This seems far from the idea that the genius is someone who accurately perceives the ideal and unchanging Forms.  Instead of being a rigid activity this is very much an activity of life. 

This leads me to be suggest that Schopenhauer can be an inspiration for everyday aesthetics in a very particular way.  The relationship between the genius and his materials is very like that of the everyday aesthete, i.e. someone who pays closest attention to everyday life and its essential nature.  This would explain Schopenhauer's approach to the works of the Dutch painters.  His rejection of allegory goes hand in hand with his downplaying of Concepts as opposed to the same-named Ideas.  Schopenhauer's attack on concepts  reminds us of Nietzsche's attack on the columbarium of ideas in his essay on Truth.  No surprise since N. was very much under the influence of S at that time.  "Only the genuine works that are drawn directly from nature and life remain eternally young and strong, like nature and life itself."  (80) 

"a great injustice is done to the eminent painters of the Dutch school, when their technical skill alone is esteemed, and in other respects they are looked down on with distain, because they generally depict objects from everyday life....We should ...bear in mind that the inward significance of an action is quite different from the outward... The inward significance is the depth of insight into the idea of mankind which it discloses, in that it brings to light sides of that Idea which rarely appear.  This it does by causing individualities, expressing themselves distinctly and decidedly, to unfold their peculiar characteristics, by means of appropriately arranged circumstances."  (78)  There is something other than what we normally think of as Platonic Ideas as play here.  First, we have the notion of "sides of an Idea which rarely appear."  Second, we value individualities expressing themselves and their peculiar characteristics, through an "unfolding."  Since aesthetic perception of Ideas is perceptual it is a matter of seeing the inward significance (for or in relation to Mankind) of individual things.  The Platonic ideas are brought down to earth not in an Aristotelian way but in a way strangely like Nietzsche.

There might be an interesting relation between Schopenhauer and Object-Oriented Ontology.  Of course Schopenhauer makes a radical distinction between humans and non-humans:  he does not accept a flat ontology as I do and as OOO does.  But he does believe in speculative realism (the underlying Will is real).  Unlike Kant's thing-in-itself Schopenhauer's underlying reality is pretty much the same as nature itself.  So I do not think he is guilty of what OOO theorists call co-relationism.  

It is still a puzzle to me why genius artist would somehow escape the irrational Will by focusing on its objectifications.

It would be easy enough to write off Schopenhauer with respect to everyday aesthetics.  His glorification of the genius and attack on the common man seems itself to be contrary to any concern for the everyday.  He writes of the genius as engaging in "constant search for new objects worthy of contemplation" (55) whereas the "common mortal...entirely filled and satisfied by the common present, is absorbed in it, and, finding everywhere his like, has that special ease and comfort in daily life which is denied to the man of genius."  This reminds me of the contrast between the aesthetician of everyday life who stresses the extraordinary and the one who stresses comfort in daily life.

Although it is also hard to take Schopenhauer seriously in his acceptance of the notion that the Ideas are eternal, bear in mind also an important modification of the notion that the Ideas are perceptual.  For he adds that the genius needs to supplement perception with imagination:  it extends "the horizon far beyond the reality of his personal experience, and enable[s] him to construct all the rest out of the little that has come into his own actual apperception" (55)  This allows him to "let almost all the possible scenes of life pass by within himself."  Imagination allows the genius to go beyond what he actually sees to what nature tried to form. 

Still, the pragmatist too gives credit to imagination.  Instead of speaking of the imagination as providing us with access to the perfect form, we speak of imagination of enhancing the object as experienced.  There is a perfection here too. 

And there are points at which the two positions seem closer.  The everyday aesthete does linger on the object of contemplation much like the Schopenhauerian genius.  "the ordinary man does not linger longer over the mere perception, does not fix his eye on an object for long, but, in everything that presents itself to him, quickly looks merely for the concept under which it is to be brought, just as the lazy man looks for a chair, which then no longer interests him."  (55)  It is this sort of quick easy classification that the everyday aesthete avoids.   "Whereas to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp that light his path, to the man of genius it is the sun the reveals the world."   (56)  The genius is considering "life itself." 

Another point of connection is in the notion of aesthetics as unified.  Whereas many aestheticians of everyday life see aesthetics as disunified I have argued for continuity.  Schopenhauer writes that since the Idea remains essentially the same in the work of art as in that which it represents "aesthetic pleasure is essentially one and the same, whether it be called forth by a work of art, or directly by the contemplation of nature and of life."  (59) 





Friday, January 11, 2019

Kant and Everyday Aesthetics


Kant seems at first not to be a friend of everyday aesthetics.  It might seem that the distinction between everyday aesthetics and fine art aesthetics divides neatly according to Kant’s distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful.  However Kant’s concept of disinterestedness is such that anything can be an object of aesthetic delight.  So this could include the everyday as well as the unusual.  The examples may be a bit deceiving.  For example, Kant insists that canary wine can only be agreeable, and roses can only be beautiful.  But this doesn’t really work.  Canary wine can be beautiful if perceived disinterestedly.  Food can be beautiful if perceived without hunger.   Likewise, roses can be perceived in an interested fashion, for example as a way to curry favor with a lover.  

But what good is disinterestedness?  Everyday aestheticians have often been particularly unhappy with this concept.  It seems sometimes that there are two modes of everyday aesthetics.  There is the everyday aesthetics of the ordinary and the everyday aesthetics of the extraordinary.  I have argued in the past that there is a continuum between these two branches and that they are not necessarily at odds.  But I have also argued that once one attends to something aesthetically one raises it above the humdrum.

Still, there are pleasures that just do not rise to the level of the aesthetic.  These might well fall into the realm of the merely agreeable.

Aesthetic perception, I have argued, involves perception of something as having an aura.  This requires what Kant called imagination.

One central issue here is how we ought to live our everyday lives.  I am inspired in this by the work of Buddhist philosophers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh.  We should attend to the surrounding environment in a focused way, and this gives rise to aura.  Aura arises spontaneously, usually because of ever so slight novelty.  It is not that with mindfulness everything has the same level of aura.  

I have been reading Michel Chaouli  Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment  (Harvard, 2917) .  I agree with Chaouli that aesthetic perception is poetic.   Disinterestedness brackets out normal everyday concerns and focuses us on the appearance of the thing.  It frees us up in a way.  Focuses us on the now, not the past or the future.  

Chaouli has a somewhat different approach to Duchamp than Danto or Dickie.  (13)  For him Fountain  can actually be understood from a Kantian perspective.  Here we have to dis-associate the beautiful from the merely pretty.  The urinal is a thing of everyday life. 

What Danto and Dickie failed to see (in my view) is that Duchamp was engaged in deconstructing the distinction between the artworld and the everyday.  "the difference between aesthetic and nonaesthetic pleasure that Kant is working to reveal does not lie in the content of the feeling, nor in the object that evokes each, nor again in its intensity, duration, or relation to other feelings...[aesthetic pleasure] describes the relation that the subject establishes between and object and the feeling of pleasure..."  This, of course, can be had towards the everyday.  

One important issue for everyday aesthetics is whether there is judgment in the everyday and not just what Kant called gratification.  When we quarrel we quarrel over things that we judge.  Let's say that I pronounce a cup of coffee good, and my wife agrees.  This is sufficient judgment and sufficient community for us to talk about the pleasure as aesthetic.

The key to knowing whether something is aesthetic in the sense of the beautiful is putting it on a pedestal.  So in what way do we put things of everyday life on a pedestal.  Of course we submit things to judgment everyday:  for example, the neatness of my room, the cleanliness of the kitchen, the tastiness of the dinner, whether or not this sentence is well-formed.  But we also have private experiences:  the odd thing in the neighborhood that gives me a moment of delight.  Do I put that on a pedestal?

I can use the ideas of Susanne Langer here.  The thing appears to exist in a virtual world.  Whenever the real world becomes the virtual world, or whenever a virtual world is created we have something that goes beyond the humdrum.  Maybe the word “extraordinary” is not best:  but whenever something a bit special happens then we have the aesthetic.  Through mindfulness a lot that would ordinarily seem to be humdrum becomes something a bit more special.  One can think of how important taste is in everyday life:  taste in home d├ęcor for example.  Let’s not think too much about “rightful claim upon the assent of all men” and just think of what happens when anyone enters our house.  Who has good taste is my friend.    

We need to also think about the closeness of the aesthetics of nature to the aesthetics of everyday life.  In previous writings I have stressed the relation of the aesthetics of everyday life to art.  But what about nature?  In a way you could say that the world of the everyday is the natural world as it is, normally, for humans.  Our houses, our clothes, our roads, etc. are all part of our natural lives.  We speak of this as culture, and yet it is equally nature, as much as the hive is for the bees.  When the tree I look at on my walk has a certain aura, has aesthetic presence, this is the tree as natural thing as well as cultural artifact:  how can the two be separated.

Kant suggests a way of life.  Again, I am drawing from Chaouli.  He quotes from Kant "If a man who has enough taste to make judgments about products of beautiful art with the greatest correctness and refinement, gladly leaves the room in which are to be found those beauties....and turns to the beautiful in nature, in order as it were to find here an ecstasy for his spirit in a line of thought that he can never fully develop, then we would consider this choice of his with high respect and presuppose in him a beautiful soul."  (#42)  For nature, read everyday life.  But then this would be a kind of human ideal.  This is much like that kind of experience described by Emerson and Thoreau.  There is also a moral dimension here:  a "beautiful soul."   Chaouli observes that this does not involve, for Kant, isolation from human society.  Note that the experience Kant describes is the same one gets from apprehending an "aesthetic idea":  a line of thought he cannot fully develop.   It is interesting that it is a man of taste who turns to nature.   In my view, it is the phenomena of nature that here serve as aesthetic ideas, i.e. as symbols.  They therefore appear in a virtual space, to evoke Langer again.

I think that when things emerge into aura this is their essential nature.  And yet this is not cognitive, at least not in a science like way.  It is poetic.

In a review of Chaouli's book (for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76:2 2018) Samuel Stoner writes "for Chaouli believes Kant "familiarizes us with the idea of aesthetic experience, that familiarity with this idea prepares us to experience the world aesthetically, that this experience allows us to live poetically, and that living poetically can make us happy."  (246)  This makes clear how Chaouli's interpretation of Kant can push Kant in a useful direction for everyday aesthetics.  As Saito has often observed, the importance of everyday aesthetics includes an ethical dimension.  And as Aristotle has taught, happiness the our human goal.  Kant, on this account, encourage seeing the world in the way an artist (of genius) would.  Stoner also correctly observes that Kant would stop short of this since he associates happiness with the agreeable and not with contemplation of beauty.  But is an overall narrow view of the English word "happiness":  surely Kant would accept an expansive notion of happiness that incorporates the notion of fulfilling ourselves as humans.   As Stoner says "Chaouli uses happiness in an un-Kantian way..."  (246)  "opens up the possibility of a life that is happy because it is meaning filled and therefore meaningful" (248, referring to Cahouli 234)   This leads to a kind of existential fulfillment.   

Chaouli believes that the freedom of taste is "freedom to make anything into an object of pleasure for ourselves"   This, of course, opens Kant up to everyday aesthetics, as is his claim that aesthetic experiences is essentially creative, poetic activity.  "I feel aesthetic pleasure thanks to my poetic imagination." (11)   One way that Chaouli helps us appropriate Kant to everyday aesthetics is that he explains the idea of poetic imagination with respect to Kant's notion of aesthetic ideas.  Although "aesthetic ideas" is a concept mainly devised to discuss the artistic genius, it can also be used to describe a certain way of seeing things in the world.  If one sees things as aesthetic ideas then one sees them as symbols that have indeterminate meaning, one sees them poetically.   The line of thinking that I have pursued in everyday aesthetics has been in this direction.