Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Terry Eagleton talk at Santa Clara and Kant's Theory of Aesthetic Ideas

This one is more like a journal entry or a philosophical diary.  Karen and I went to see Terry Eagleton last night (Oct. 9, 2013) at Santa Clara University.  The talk was titled "Why is God for Christians Good for Nothing."  The blurb for the talk said "Atheists tend to claim that God is entirely pointless, and so does the doctrine of Creation. Here, at least, is some common ground between Richard Dawkins and Pope Francis.  This talk will try among other things to spell out why God is pointless and why this is the whole point about God. It will also seek to remind us that when we claim that God is good, we have very little clue as to what we are talking about."  As a long-time atheist who was once a Christian and who had also read a couple of Eagleton's books when he was a Marxist (that's a bit unfair since he recently wrote a book about why Marx was right...but during this talk, aside from a brief mention of Marx, one would never know it) I thought this would be interesting.  It was, although what I got out of it was probably not what Eagleton intended.  I had given a lecture earlier in the day on Kant and it struck me that what I had to say about Kant's aesthetics resonated with Eagleton's comments. As I see it the main purpose of the Critique of Judgment was to find a bridge between the noumenal and phenomenal realms, between the world of faith and the world of science.  Moreover, that is still our main problem today.  Eagleton had a problem with atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins as he believed they were taking a rather shallow approach to the question, simply presenting a crude version of enlightenment philosophy in which the progress of science played the prominent role.  His thought was that, after 9/11, postmodernism lost its footing and grand narratives came back, in this case in the form of the grand story that science is progressing to the final truth without any need for religion.  (Eagleton seems not to have realized that his own reversion to a form of Christianity also has this return to grand narrative flavor.)  I am also not entirely satisfied with the Hitchens/Dawkins version of atheism, but my different direction will be fleshed out below.  As I found during the lecture, Eagleton's idea that god is "good for nothing" turns out simply to be the idea that God should be seen as like the autonomist's view of art, i.e. that it does not serve any actual purpose, that it is only good-in-itself.  So the point is that God is only good-in-itself, although we have no idea what "good" means here.  It seems odd that someone who turns to Christianity would not do so for some of the proposed benefits, i.e. that God will answer one's prayers, reward one in heaven, punish one's enemies, etc., but that is apparently Eagleton's position.  Actually his God seems to do nothing else than create the universe and enjoy life (and be "good" in some weird non-understandable way that allows much evil to persist).  I am inclined to agree with Feuerbach that there is something real here (i.e. that people are talking about real experience when talking about religious experience, that there is something that has to be handled by any serious atheist), but mainly a projection of something that is innate to human experience onto the world as a hypothesized creator of that world beyond that world.  Eagleton almost got to Feuerbach's point by stressing the parallel between religion and art.  Whereas Eagleton's point is that God for Christians should be like great art, my point would be that great art is, for atheists, like God (but does the job better).   I think that most of the insights of religion can be recovered by atheists by way of a kind of revisionary notion of spirituality that is "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" or, better yet, that is dialectical between bottom and top, the bottom being everyday life and the top being the highest achievements of life.  The function of art, and particularly of great art, is the transformation of life.  When we experience art as it should be we experience life differently.  Art acts as a window to life in such a way that it transforms life and gives it meaning.  Eagleton looks for the source of morality in life and in the abundance of life which he connects somehow with God.  I think he is looking in the right direction for the source of morality but slips off to mythology when he thinks this can all be tied into a myth about some mental intelligent being who existed before the big bang.  Aquinas thought the business of theology was to be found in analogies and in the aesthetic experience of claritas, which I think is exactly right except that the claritas is to be found in the way that that the world undergoes transformation through the work of artistic genius, and through the analogies that accomplish this.  (It is also equally found through the work of the genius of appreciation of nature and the genius of appreciation of everyday life.) I suppose my parallel talk to Eagleton's would be something like "Why is "Good for Nothing" God for Atheists?"  Kant helps us here, but beware that the Kant I will be discussing is much transformed through my own lens. 

Kant says that "Fine art is the art of genius" and of course genius is a talent that gives a rule to art.  Further, genius is the capacity for producing aesthetic ideas which place the mind into a free play of the imagination and understanding, which, unlike the case of mere beauty, is unending.  It is the existence of aesthetic ideas that gives art the capacity of bridging the gap between the world of experience and the noumenal realm.  The genius is like God himself insofar as he/she (it is ridiculous to make a big deal of the fact that Kant was not a feminist and did not mention that a woman could be a genius...his idea of genius can easily apply to women) creates his own world using the productive imagination.  This world creates a lens through which we can see our own world transformed, no longer simply the object of scientific knowledge, but now full of a new meaning.  Fine art then does what religion used to do: it provides us with a mediation between the world as understandable by science and the world full of meaning in the sense of being suffused by a sense of transcendence.   This is what I have referred to elsewhere as the experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary.  

One can be an atheist and go along with Kant here.  However it is not simply the need to act as if the transcendent realm exists (as if god and the soul exists). Rather, the necessity of transcendent experience is the matter of a judgment of the sublime applied whether to art or to the natural world where the faculties and cognition are free in the strongest sense.  Kant encourages the use of various methods that block off our usual self-based concerns in order to experience objects with a special view to not only their look of purposiveness (where only beauty is concerned) but to their look of divine purpose (where the sublime is now at issue.)

The place to look in Kant's Critique of Judgment is in #49, which I take to be the key to the living importance of Kant's philosophy.  Soul, in the aesthetic sense, is the animating principle of the mind.  I would say that there is no other sense of "soul" whereas Kant would say that the soul in the metaphysical sense would be one of the ideas of Reason.  I agree that we need ideas of Reason, but that they are great and necessary myths with no correlates in reality.  Eagleton almost agrees as he thinks that God, what Kant considered the most important idea of Reason, is not even appropriately thought of as existing.  As an atheist, I don't mind that since I take it to be sound that God does not exist.  At the same time, and unlike Kant here, I am willing to see the idea of God as something like the transcendental ego, a transcendental (not a transcendent) necessity.  

Back to section #49, we we find that a poem that goes beyond being merely pretty and elegant but has soul is one that presents what Kant calls aesthetic ideas.  Kant writes "by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it."  Kant thinks that the aesthetic ideas are counterparts to and actually best tied to rational ideas, of which God and Soul are two.  Remember that for Kant there is no proof that there is a God or Soul and that we can only believe in them based on faith, although we should act as if they were real.  My view is just the reverse of Kant's, i.e. that the rational ideas are just counterparts or pendants to the aesthetic ideas.  The aesthetic ideas are the thingthey are what we experience.  They are the ground of meaning in human existence.  The rational ideas are nothing but ideals, perhaps necessary for any experience, and hence perhaps transcendental, but not more than that...things unfleshed-out and of no worth beyond what they gain from the aesthetic ideas.  Kant further says that "The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature."  It is the human genius who creates a world, not God, who has had projected upon him by people like Eagleton what humans can do.  Kant adds: "It affords us entertainment where experience proves too commonplace; and we even use it to remodel experience, always following, no doubt, laws that are based on analogy, but still also following principles which have a higher seat in reason..."  Here is where Kant enters the pantheon of heroes of everyday aesthetics despite many other places where he would oppose such a project.  The dialectic of art and the everyday is such that art transforms the commonplace so that it is no longer too commonplace, and remodels experience itself by way of using analogies and metaphors, i.e. violations of well-established categories.  "By this means we get a sense of our freedom from the law of association (which attaches to the empirical employment of the imagination)" --- which I take to mean that, by these means (and with no need for an actual metaphysical soul, since the aesthetic soul, or soul in the aesthetic sense, does the trick) we are able to be free with the attendant sense that we are no longer compelled by association.  But how does this happen?  It happens, at the start, by way of Kant's great but often misunderstood idea of disinterestedness.  Disinterestedness is simply a methodology (somewhat like Husserl's epoche) by which we can block various associations between phenomena and such practical daily considerations as those connected with morality and science, thereby allowing the imagination to go into a free play, although one that maintains a harmony with the other cognitive faculty, the understanding.  This free play, when taken to its highest point, goes beyond the mere experience of beauty to give us the experience of something sublime.  The result of this free play in the artist is the aesthetic ideas, which, when we apprehend them appropriately, also send us into a free play that is even more dramatic.  I like to refer to this moment as one in which the blockage of the everydayness of the everyday allows a transformation of experience in which we rocket out of the ordinary and experience the world as if transcendent.  Transcendence emerges as an aura attendant to the world-as-experienced.  Religious experience in this respect is not different from the highest aesthetic experience except that it misrepresents its conclusions, i.e. by positing a God who explains everything, refuting science, and making the world ultimately good (as if!).  Kant almost seems to realize the point made here when he says, "Such representations of the imagination may be termed ideas.  This is partly because they at least strain after something lying out beyond the confines of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of rational concepts (i.e. intellectual ideas), thus giving to these concepts the semblance of an objective reality."  The last point is exactly right...the rational ideas (God, Soul) can only have a semblance of objective reality.  They are not real because they correspond to nothing.  But they do act as necessary posits to hang the real stuff, the aesthetic ideas, on.  Yes, the aesthetic ideas strain beyond the confines of experience, but by transforming experience itself.  Kant almost gets it again when he slips away from talking about the entire mythology of "invisible beings, the kingdom of the blessed, hell, eternity, creation, etc." and talks instead of "things of which examples occur in experience" i.e. "death, envy, and all vices, as also love, fame, and the like" and he says of the poet that he "transgressing the limits of experience ...attempts with the aid of an imagination which emulates the display of reason in its attainment of a maximum, to body them forth to sense with a completeness of which nature affords no parallel."  Thus the work of the fine art, the genius, the poet, the great architect, etc. provides a basic for meaning in life, the only meaning we can have (when art is understood so broadly that includes any and all intensely creative human activities and not just the traditional list of arts).  That's my thought. 

For further discussion see my other posts on aesthetic atheism in October, 2013).

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