Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Plato and the Second Bed.... or Table

I have been teaching Plato on the three beds (his critique of the imitative arts in Book X of the Republic), and the question that comes to mind is "what role can Plato's theory of Forms play for us?"  A reasonable first response is that Plato might well be right that there is an eternal unchanging Form for mathematical entities.  The argument that the perfect circle is the only circle and this the things that represent the circle or are called "circle" in our world are not really plausible.  Still, it is less convincing that there is such a thing as the perfect bed or even a correct and unchanging definition of "bed."  Equally implausible is that there is a perfect State, although clearly Plato thought so, as in the perfect State would be one in which the three classes were in harmony, the philosopher-kings ruling.  We can at the very least see talk of perfect Forms as simply talk of ideals (or perhaps as replaceable with more common-sense talk about ideals).  So the craftsman who is interested in making good tables can reasonably be expected to have some ideal in his/her mind and be dissatisfied with his/her table to the extent that it does not meet the ideal.  These ideals would not be eternal and unchanging or even universal.  However the notion that one could always make something better or closer to the ideal might itself be universal. 

At the same time, it is not clear that arguing over the nature of the perfect table or trying to come up with a definition of "table" would be of great use to a table designer.  One possibility in all of this is that we can have a definition that has no real normative dimension.  In discussion "table" my students suggested that a table must have a surface that can be used for writing or eating (the two main functions of tables) and must has some support to be sufficiently above the ground to serve this purpose.  The definition I have found on "The Free Dictionary" online is "An article of furniture supported by one or more vertical legs and having a flat horizontal surface."  This has the advantage of classifying it under a genus, i.e. furniture, but does not mention anything about its purpose.  Moreover, some things can rightly be called tables that do not have any legs.  Even the flat, horizontal surface is negotiable as long as the item serves the purpose of a table.  But then "serving the purpose of a table" is not the same as being a table.  A chair or a bed can be used for writing or eating on, but this does not make a chair or a bed a table (even when they have one or more vertical legs and have a flat horizontal surface!)  Still, if you are a table designer and are trying to make the best possible table, as I have suggested above, none of these definitions are going to help that much.  You are probably going to also be thinking of things like excellent craftsmanship, a perfect rendition of a certain design type, and quality of materials, as all going into the quality of your table - and these things just do not appear as features in any of the definitions on offer.  So perhaps one could drive a wedge between the notion of the ideal table and the notion of the ideal definition of a table.  In short, although I had thought that having a normative dimension to one's definition (for example, giving the function) would really help non-philosophers do their tasks, I now suspect that the ideal X incorporates a lot of other things than just the function (although functionality is still important.) 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What is the value of disinterested perception?

Immanuel Kant was famous for advocating disinterestedness in order to achieve aesthetic perception.  However in recent years this idea has been challenged.  Notably, Arnold Berleant in "Aesthetics without Purpose" takes on Kant directly in his criticism of disinterestedness.  However, there have also been some recent defenders of disinterestedness.  One such defender is Theodore Gracyk in his article "A Different Plea for Disinterest." (Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Boston:  Prentice Hall, 2011).  Gracyk's basic argument is that disinterested attention can work together with interested attention, that it is not an either/or proposition.  As he puts it "DA secures attention to subject matter, but in a way that integrates DA with IA." (449)  His area of specific study is popular music.  He notes that in popular music "the music is designed to reward listening through DA, that is, apart from our grasp of the song's subject matter."  (Peggy Brand first developed the idea of toggling between DA and IA in her article "Disinterestedness and Political Art," n. paradoxa online issue no. 8 and 9 Nov. 1998 and Feb. 99.  Her views were the inspiration for Gracyk's.)  But Berleant complains that Kant's idea of disinterestedness rests "on Kant's distinction between objective and subjective sensation, and on excluding the aesthetic from all but humans" and that this involves "imposing external strictures on experience." (150-151)  Berleant is certainly right that function often plays an important role in our aesthetic appreciation of art.  However, Kant himself recognized this with his idea that there is such a thing as dependent beauty, and that architecture is an example of this.  Architecture clearly can be, or rather, must be, seen both in a disinterested way and in an interested way.  When we perceive in a disinterested way we do not have to think as much (or at all) about function....but we cannot do that for very long with architecture, since buildings must serve a function.  On my view the best way to view architecture is to toggle (following Brand and Gracyk) between DA and IA.  I grant that overemphasis placed on disinterested attention is guilty of all of the charges Berleant levels against disinterestedness as a concept.  But once disinterestedness is restrained and balanced against IA it is found to be of the greatest importance, and this is consistent with Kant's best insights into aesthetics.  It is not at all clear how giving credit to disinterestedness as a necessary moment in full and rich aesthetic experience makes the aesthetic "subservient to rationalistic and system-generated preconceptions" as Berleant would argue.  (151)  Nor is it required to see humans as radically different from animals in order to give disinterestedness this role.  Disinterestedness allows us to bracket issues of existence, morality, and knowledge, in perceiving an aesthetic object, thus allowing us to break away from certain prejudices and to see things in a fresh way. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Is There a Perceptual Commons?

Arnold Berleant has recently been arguing for an expanded concept of the aesthetic, and in his "The Aesthetic Politics of Environment" he has set forth a theory that would combine aesthetics and ethics. (in Aesthetics Beyond the Arts:  New and Recent Essays, Burlington: Ashgate, 2012)  The theory is basically a defense of a kind of political liberalism but from an aesthetic base.  I see myself as a liberal and I have long seen John Rawls as having set forth a convincing set of arguments in favor of this political position.  His ideas are based on a version of the idea that humans arrive at a social contract in the state of nature.  Of course, for Rawls, this takes place behind the "veil of ignorance," and the "social contract" is not an actual event but something more like a thought experiment.  We are all to imagine what basic rules we would arrive at if we were behind the veil of ignorance maximizing our own self-interest and developing a social contract.  Berleant rejects this as mythologizing and proposes an alternative:  the perceptual commons that will provide the basis for an aesthetic politics.  He sees the perceptual commons as "the ground of all perceptual experience" and he sees it also as "necessarily, immediately, and universally present and accessible..."   I have trouble believing in anything that has these qualities.  We do share a common world with other humans, but people of different cultures have very different ways of perceiving, and this is because they have different ways of understanding and imagining.   The notion of a pure world of perception beneath our cultural overlays is like that of what Kant refers to as the thing-in-itself.  I think we can do without either.  

Berleant thinks his idea of the perceptual commons can replace the vague concept of "rights."  His thought is that "rights" can be replaced by "claims" (by which he seems to mean "rightful claim" since he does not discuss or consider the possibility of unjustified or vague claims).  He speaks of various "perceptual claims" where most would speak of "rights":  for example to a "quiet public space" and a claim to pure and healthful air.  These are all good things, but it seems to me that whether we call them "claims" or "rights" is unimportant.  Moreover, they are better established in the Rawlsian way than through an appeal to something that is immediate, necessary and universal.

Before going on, I should say something about perceptual immediacy.  It is not entirely clear what Berleant means when he refers to perceptual immediacy.  It could be argued that there is no such thing.  Perception takes time and thus is never immediate.  For example it takes time to see a painting.  Granted, sometimes it seems as though a perceptual event takes no time at all, for example noticing that something is red.  But what percentage of our perception is relatively quick in this way?  It is hard to say.  Another sense of "immediate" is "not mediated" which is to say that nothing outside of the perception influences the perception,  I already questioned the idea of unmediated perception.   As for necessity and universality, there is an apparent contradiction here.  In many of his writings, Berleant argues against Kant's universalism, and yet his own talk of a perceptual commons seems little different. Berleant further explains that a claim, unlike a right, is "a simple assertion evidenced in behavior and grounded on the conditions necessary for life."  But this seems vague or at least problematic since what one person sees as necessary for life another may see as simply good for life, or merely useful, or not necessary at all.  As I suggested earlier, Berleant talks about perceptual claims as immediate and yet admits that it is extremely difficult to isolate the purely perceptual from the conceptual aspects of our experience that color our perceptions.  He says that no one needs a right to the air they breath:  rather they have a perceptual claim to that air. Their "living presence is the sole justification needed for exercising that claim."  Yet, unless you are a total pacifist, you will believe that sometimes it is necessary to kill others, and one of the main ways to do this is to deprive them of air.  It is hard to see how something about perception gives one the absolute right not to be killed by others by this means.  What if the only way to stop a person who is about to murder you is to deprive him of air?  Berleant thinks that his path of replacing rights with claims will avoid myth, which clouds our thought.  However, Rawls has shown that certain myths are valuable, when taken as myths.

Still, one could argue that Berleant's  idea of a perceptual commons is a useful myth too, and I could hardly deny that.  It is helpful to see at least much of the world (i.e. the part that is public) as a commons in which we share certain perceptual spaces.  And, as I said at the beginning of this note, it is valuable, sometimes at least, to see social issues from an aesthetic angle and in terms of perception. 

I do have trouble with the idea of treating rights, the right to water, for example, as perceptual rights.  We need water for survival but we do not need to perceive it in order to use it.  Someone in a coma needs water but cannot perceive the water she needs.  When it comes to water the properties that are relevant to aesthetics are those having to do with smell, taste and look, not healthiness.  Sure, it is usually more pleasant to be healthy than not....but is this really a matter of aesthetics?  If we broaden aesthetics to include the right to water we might unnecessarily intrude into the domain of ethics.  I have sometimes been tempted to combine ethics and aesthetics into one discipline but it is tricky to do this and aesthetics stands a good chance of being overwhelmed by ethics in the process, for example, by being reduced to ethics.

Berleant thinks that aesthetics or "the aesthetic" is charged with creating a new world and a positive culture free of negative mythologies and sociality based on self-interest.  Why the aesthetic?  His answer is "the aesthetic offers the means for clear, unclouded vision."  But when has the aesthetic ever been exclusively associated with clear, unclouded vision?  He ends his section on this matter by saying that the ideal new perceptual landscape "is designed, appropriated, and populated concerns everyone, and it allows many possibilities, both aesthetic and political" in contrast to the current exploitative use of the commons  This is fine, although I am still nervous about treating the physical commons and perceptual commons as one, since it would then treat ethics and aesthetics as one, and that is a pretty hard trick to carry out.