Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is there an Aesthetics of Philosophy?

Donald Phillip Verene says "yes."   More specifically, he argues that "philosophical discourse, as well as philosophy itself, depends upon an aesthetic that cannot be overcome by reason, that there is a philosophical imaginary that necessarily accompanies philosophical rationality. The concept, the idea, always has a shadow, a doppelganger through which the aesthetic haunts reason." (Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 89-103.)  I think Verene is right.  And isn't it interesting that his is the only paper I can come up with that deals with this topic?  Surely aesthetics is much broader than the aesthetics of art, nature, and everyday life.  Surely it covers what philosophers do too.  There must be a reason for the neglect:  and it goes back to the ancient debate between philosophy and poetry.  As Verene observes, the great philosophers have tended to downplay the imagination, especially with regards to the role it plays in philosophy itself.  Yet as much as Plato attacks the imitative arts, including ancient Greek tragedy, he also used images, such as "the allegory of the cave," in his own work.  Yet John Dewey argued that thinking has an ineluctable aesthetic element.  An example of good thinking is an example of what Dewey calls "an experience."  The conclusion of a thought process is a consummation.  Dewey observes in Art as Experience that we philosophers would not engage in the process of thinking if there were not aesthetic satisfactions in the process of thinking itself.  So too, we should not forget the pleasures of reading the great philosophers, or listening to them if they are still alive.  Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, the preferred products of philosophical debates, i.e. theories, which usually take the form of definitions, have a structure that is remarkably similar to that of creative metaphors. (I have gone so far as to say that they are metaphors, perhaps of a special secret sort.) When one makes a claim about the essence of X one usually wants to say that X is Y, and yet, usually, within traditional classificatory schemes, X is hardly ever literally Y.  Philosophical definitions are intended to shock a bit. Great definitions typically leave out as much as they include:  they are intended to highlight some things and neglect or even disrespect others.  That is why it is so easy to come up with counterexamples to philosophical definitions.   It was brilliant of Clive Bell to say that "art is significant form" and yet this definition was deliberately intended to exclude merely descriptive art such as Paddington Station, art that serves the purposes of everyday emotions, rather than generating the aesthetic emotion proper to art. It is not just that "art is significant form" is a metaphor or metaphor-like, but "significant form" itself is a rich and complex concept that needs to be teased out:  it, as used by Bell, has a metaphorical nature itself.

I agree with Verene that philosophy itself has a foundation in sense and sensibility, especially by way of imagination.  It is not the product of pure thought or rationality, despite the history of claims to the contrary.  I like it that Verene quotes Aristotle's famous saying in the Poetics, that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others and it is a sign of genius. For the right use of metaphor requires an eye for similarities in dissimilars."   Would that philosophers, including Aristotle, had taken this claim more seriously in the history of philosophy.  

Verene finds assistance for his project in the writings of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.  Here's a quote from Verene on Vico: "The wisdom of the poets is that of the first two ages, in which the world is formed by the power of imagination (fantasia). The first humans form their world through "imaginative
universals." These are the "poetic characters" of the fables. The first humans of the gentile nations think in metaphors, not in concepts or "intelligible universals" (universali intelligibili). Vico says that every metaphor is a fable in brief."  The assistance might be that Vico dimly saw what concepts, including universals, originate in metaphor, and that metaphors are not just sentences where A is seen as B but are entire stories in brief.  Moreover, they are ones that create worlds in the sense of creating entire ways of seeing things.  So on this view the business of philosophy is to study and construct these "stories in brief."  Histories and myths involve grasping particulars as universals.  Philosophy, then, shares a lot with literature.  Plato was simply a descendent of the mythologists and playwrights he sought to replace. 

Verene also observes that in an early writing Hegel advocated an aesthetic view of philosophy, saying that "the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. Those without aesthetic sense are our literal-minded philosophers
[unsere Buchstabenphilosophen] The philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy." (97)  (from the System-Program of 1796)  Verene argues that Hegel conceived of his Phenomenology as a "mythology of reason." with a gallery of philosophical images. Verene brings both Socrates and Collingwood to the cause of the aesthetics of philosophy when he says "Socrates says that the Muses also inspire the philosophical life (Phaedrus 259D). To attempt to say something original in philosophy we must, as R. G. Collingwood said, 'go to school with the poets in order to learn the use of language... .The principles on which the philosopher uses language are those of poetry..' Philosophy and poetry begin at the same point-with the metaphor" although, as Verene observes, the philosopher uses the metaphor to elaborate a conceptual structure.  As he also notes, Stephen Pepper first noted the importance of "root metaphors" in philosophical systems.  These ideas, I may add, were developed further in the writings of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  

Verene adds that "In educating students to think philosophically on their own we can attempt to make them aware of the importance of metaphor in this process." (100)  He also encourages us to pay attention to style and images in philosophical texts as well as argumentation.  Of course this was the strategy pursued by Derrida and the deconstructionists, although often with a certain sacrifice of clarity.  Following Collingwood's emphasis on the question Verene says that "To teach a philosophical text the instructor can direct the student first to look for the images that are there and then to look for the questions that are implicit in them, for in thinking philosophically the image is never left to speak for itself as it is in poetry." He argues that if we follow this policy,  "A great philosophical work can in this way become a treasure-house of ideas to give life to the mind rather than an arid desert of arguments to cross by aligning each one to the next." 

In closing, I would just like to say that my affinity to this line of thought was strongly influenced years ago by my adviser in Humanities, Sandra Luft, at San Francisco State University:  Luft used this very method in her classrooms, as she still does.  She is also a major Vico scholar.

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