Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some quotes from Epicurus related to Epicurean Aesthetics

Epicurus and his disciple Metrodorus, 150-200 A.D., Roman

These quotes are taken from Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings tr. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997)

"For I at least do not even know what I should conceive the good to be, if I eliminate the pleasures of taste, and eliminate the pleasures of sex, and eliminate the pleasures of listening, and eliminate the pleasant motions caused in our vision of a visible form." (75) This is taken from Athenaeus Deipnosophists.

"I summon you to constant pleasures, and not to virtues, which provide [only] empty, pointless, and disturbing expectations of rewards." (76) a letter to Anarchus from Plutarch Against Colotes.

"I revel in the pleasure of my poor body, employing water and bread, and I spit upon the pleasures of extravagance, not for their own sake, but because of the difficulties which follow from them." (79) from Stobaeus Anthology.

"As they say, remembering previous goods is the most important factor contributing to a pleasant life." (99) Plutarch A Pleasant Life.

He said that the wise person is a "lover of sights and enjoys hearing and seeing Dionysiac performances as much as anyone." Plutarch A Pleasant Life (this taken from Elizabeth Asmis, "Hellenistic Aesthetics: Philosophers and Literary Critics," Encyclopedia of Aesthetics vol. 2. pg. 391. Monroe Beardsley observes that he continues this quote by saying "yet he will not allow musical discussion and the learned inquiries of critics at parties." Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present. 1975. (72)

“It is only the wise man who will be able to converse properly of music and poetry—but not engaging in composing poems as a serious activity.” This is recorded by Diogenes Laertius.

Interestingly, his Roman period follower Philodemus held that music is useful simply for pleasure and that poems give pleasure through the thoughts expressed as well as the sounds produced, this in contrast to the Stoics who thought poetry had to be useful. Asmis is also my reference on this.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Epicurean Aesthetics

Epicurus Greek Philosopher 341-270 BCE
I have been reading Epicurus and the Epicureans recently and have wondered whether there is such a thing as Epicurean aesthetics, and what such an aesthetics could contribute to everyday life. This seems a strange question at first since "Epicurean" is practically synonymous in our culture with a love of the good things in life, i.e. epicureans in food. However Epicurus himself was critical of the very things the contemporary epicureans seem to love. The goal of a good Epicurean is to achieve a life free of pain and worry. The main pleasures one should pursue are ones that are both natural and necessary. One should avoid the ones that are natural but not necessary, especially if pursuing them will cause pain or worry. And shun the ones that are neither natural nor necessary, as they are most likely to bring trouble. So the pleasures of eating and drinking are important, sexual pleasures somewhat less so, and the pleasures of fame, fortune, and gourmet food usually not worth the trouble. In short, one should avoid luxuries if what it takes to pay for them causes some pain. Epicurus recommends a simple life and enjoyment of simple pleasures, although if luxurious pleasures come along without trouble they can be enjoyed without guilt. It seems strange to say that the goal of life is absence of pain and worry. I think that it was a mistake of Epicurus to put the point so negatively. The goal of life, as he elsewhere says, is pleasure, and the most pleasant life is one that is without pain and worry. I suspect that the Epicurean ideal of absence of pain is really one of a kind of pervasive comfort, both physical and mental. So in general one could say that Epicurus is a hero of everyday aesthetics insofar as it promotes a certain aesthetic quality in life. He is certainly not a hero of the aesthetics of art. He does not seem to think much of the arts, encouraging a student in one letter not to study culture. He was even said to have referred to poetry and music as "noise" and to have joined Plato in rejecting them from the ideal society.  I suppose he saw the arts as just more luxuries. But I don't think such an attack on the arts is necessary or even useful for everyday aesthetics. Also, later followers, like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, hardly agreed with him on this point. He is also not a lover of the word in Greek that is usually translated as "beauty," i.e. kalon, which also means "good." This would seem to make him anti-aesthetic, but he is really just against any notion of beauty not connected with pleasure.

One of the things I like about Epicurus is his idea he promotes that "death is nothing to us." Beyond the fact that there is no reason to believe in an afterlife the Epicurean just recognizes that when you are dead you no longer experience. And so fear of death seems particularly absurd. This cuts pretty deeply against existentialism which seems to revel in our dread of death, something that attends us every day of our lives. Of course fear of death is probably genetically ingrained into us, but if we can achieve a certain freedom from it then there are some real benefits. This approach focuses one on one's own life as an embodied being interacting with the world through the senses and via our responses of pleasure and pain. Some followers of Epicurus thought that this meant focusing on the now. Although true in a way, this idea needs modification. For Epicurus mental pleasure is the best, and this pleasure is directed to the future and past as well as the present. So it is rich and complex. A key pleasure is enjoying past pleasures in memory. Another is anticipation of future pleasures. These can easily however be combined with pleasures of the moment as when one enjoys a smell not only for now but for the pleasant memories it evokes. (This seems to contradict the idea that only simple pleasures are wanted. In fact, there is a kind of complexity wanted.)

So an Epicurean, in the traditional sense of the word is someone who seeks a pervasive experience of comfort and safety connected with the basic pleasure of life and richly textured by memory and anticipation (this is much like Dewey).

Another aspect of the pleasures of the Epicurean life is the importance of friendship. There is much discussion in the scholarly literature over whether Epicurus saw friends as merely useful for gaining pleasure and safety or whether he valued friends in themselves. Whereas Aristotle saw man as a political animal Epicurus sees him as an animal for whom the appropriate richness of experience is impossible without friendship. The pleasures of friendship, basically of shared pleasure, add another dimension to the complexity of pleasure. So what I am saying is that an aesthetics of everyday life should probably follow Epicurus in emphasizing the rich complexity of aesthetic experience in the ways just discussed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is central to literary meaning, or the meaning of any work of art?

Sometimes when I read philosophers on this topic I wonder how their theory would work in practice, or even what they are actually thinking of.  Some philosophers seem to be telling us that we are not supposed to pay any attention to what the author says about the meaning of his/her work.  Yet I just saw an excellent commentary on a film by the director that made me appreciate the film more than I did before.  So am I being told that this is not a legitimate experience, or what? Jerrold Levinson holds to a view called hypothetical intentionalism which says "the core meaning of a literary work is given by the best hypothesis, from the position of an appropriately informed sympathetic, and discriminating reader, of authorial intent to convey such and such to an audience through the text in question" and this means valuing "optimal hypotheses about authorial intention, rather than actual authorial intention." I confess that I have no idea how to make sense out of this idea.  If you are trying to come up with the optimal hypothesis about authorial intention you are trying to come up with an optimal hypothesis about actual authorial intention.  What other intention would this be about?  It is true that your best hypothesis about authorial intent might not actually capture actual authorial intention, but you would only know this if you knew what the actual authorial intent was, but then in that case what you knew would then be your best hypothesis.  This seems to me to be remarkably like the lier's paradox.  From what Levinson further says I gather that the problem is that if actual intentionalism were true then the literary text would be no more important than the author's diaries, etc. in determining the meaning of the text.  This is a more subtle issue.  What is seems to assume is that somehow the meaning of the text is independent of contextual knowledge of the reader.  Gregory Currie, an ally of Levinson's on this point say "an interpreter for whom letters [etc.]...have suggested an interpretation of which the text is a defective embodiment has ceased to be an interpreter of the work in question..."  However Currie fails to see that if I had read the letters etc. before reading the text then I would naturally see the text in terms of that contextual information, and if the text is clear to me under those circumstances then it is hardly defective.  It is no more defective than if I read some other writing of Kant before reading the Critique of Judgment and then read the latter work with understanding others might not have!  My quotations come from Jerrold Levinson "Defending Hypotehtical Intentionalism" British Journal of Aesthetics 50:2 (April 2010) 139-150, pp. 139-140.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Should Philosophy of Art Rule Aesthetics?

Christopher Dowling rejects the idea that "Experiences from daily life can afford paradigm instances of aesthetic expeirence.  Such experiences are not bound by the limitation and conventions that temper discussions of aesthetic value in the philosophy of art." "The Aesthetics of Daily Life," British Journal of Aesthetics 50:3 (July 2010)  325-342.  He thinks that some pleasures are not aesthetic pleasures and that thre are some judgments that are too trivial to be considered aesthetic.  They, or rather judgments concerning them, are trivial in the sense that they do not "require others to engage with them."  Scratching an itch, although pleasurable, is too subjective to be aesthetic.  Dowling supports an art-centered approach to aesthetics of everyday life where norms are important.  On his view, you have to be able to say which responses are appropriate and which are not.  I am frankly not sure what my view of this is.  I am suspicious of claims that people have to follow rules when making aesthetic judgments but I do agree that some pleasures are not sufficiently contemplative or reflective to be considered aesthetic.  The pleasures of scratching an itch can be contemplative and even reflective, but they are generally trivial and purely subjective.  I am also suspicous of making appreciation of art the paradigm for aesthetic appreciation in general:  after all, art appreciation involves attending to the intentions of the artist, and this is not needed in appreciation of nature, nor is it always needed in appreciation of everyday life phenomena.