Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fichte and Schelling

These thoughts are prompted by thinking about Andrew Bowie  Schelling and Modern European Philosophy:  An Introduction (Routledge, 1993), particularly Chapter 1 and by an article on Fichte by Dan Breazele (cited below.)  When told that someone is an idealist the natural response is to think that such a person is unrealistic.  In fact there are surprising affinities between the kinds of realism we find in pragmatist thought (of, for example, John Dewey) and the idealism of Fichte and Schelling.  In my last post I discussed Schelling, but let's move back in time to Fichte, who came philosophically right after Kant.  In my view Fichte was right in opposing Kant's dualism:  the idea of a world of things-in-themselves is untenable.  It makes more sense to dissolve the distinction between consciousness and world, or rather, recognize that the world is the object of consciousness and is within consciousness in that sense.  Moreover, Fichte recognized that Kant's own philosophy posited a common ground to his dualistic world:  the transcendental unity of apperception, the "I think" that must be able to accompany all representations.  Whenever I experience something I am at least vaguely aware that there is an I that is doing so: it is the I, my embodied self, that is the active center of my world.   The world is the world we are conscious of, and this includes all of the stuff in the category of "things we can imagine that we are not directly conscious of."  There is nothing inconsistent between this, by the way, and a hearty belief in the methods and conclusions of science.  The "external world" is a  fiction, but it is a useful one. This is also the case for the "internal world."  However, as an overall metaphysical position, monism is preferable to dualism (no embarrassing gaps, not unprovable entities).  Nor do we want to opt for the mechanistic reductionist version of materialism which is the most popular form of monism.  Fichte and Schelling were to be admired for trying to find a role for freedom in a monistic world.  Freedom, as understood by Kant, was an irruption of a thing-in-itself, the soul, into the world of experienced things, one that poses inescapable problems.  There is no real evidence for such a thing as an immaterial soul, for example.  More sensible is to find freedom in the world as we experience it.  How do we experience freedom?  We experience it through a sense of creative flow.  We also experience it through the absence of that experience, i.e. through the blockage of creative flow.  When one feels that one's activity is unlimited, that one has unlimited potential, this is freedom.  (It is possible, however, that one can have a sense of freedom and not be free, as for instance as the effect of a drug.  Feelings are not guarantees of truth.)  For Fichte the essence of the I was spontaneous creative activity unhindered by external forces.  What we today mean by "the I" is certainly a lot more than that, but we feel most ourselves when we have this sense of spontaneous creative and unhindered activity -  so perhaps this is Fichte's point.  This feeling is pretty much the equivalent to the feeling of happiness.  When it is associated with the senses, it is aesthetic.  

Fichte also has a requirement for intersubjectivity.  The I requires recognition of other selves to be conscious of itself.  This goes along with my last post on the goal of the artist who wishes to achieve greatness.  Self-consciousness is a matter of creating one's own self in the context of intersubjectivity in which one follows the Socratic quest of self-examination.  The grasping and articulation of essences is the experience of freedom.

One thing I cannot agree with in Fichte is the notion of pure thing-hood as utter necessity.  First, the experience of freedom is also an experience of necessity, of free necessity as opposed to constrained necessity.  Second, things are participants in our world, having their own meaning-content for us.  When we experience  things as full of potential or as having a certain aura (as being aesthetic) this is also an experience of freedom.  (See
Breazeale, Dan, "Johann Gottlieb Fichte", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

As an atheist, I find it necessary to do some translation when reading the idealists.  When the idealist talks about the Absolute this is usually a thinly disguised notion of God.  The idealists consider The Absolute the ground of existence.  Some, for example F. H. Jacobi, saw it as a ground that cannot be articulated.  A possible translation of this idea into terms that make sense to an atheist is that when we achieve the experience of freedom we sense oneness with the matter at hand, and in a way that cannot be articulated except through metaphor.

In Breazeale's article on Fichte he writes, that for Fichte: 

"the systematic unity of the Critical philosophy—specifically, the unity of theoretical and practical reason, of the First and Second Critiques—was insufficiently evident in Kant's own presentation of his philosophy and that the most promising way to display the unity in question would be to provide both theoretical and practical philosophy with a common foundation. The first task for philosophy, Fichte therefore concluded, is to discover a single, self-evident starting point or first principle from which one could then somehow “derive” both theoretical and practical philosophy, which is to say, our experience of ourselves as finite cognizers and as finite agents. Not only would such a strategy guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself, but, more importantly, it would also display what Kant hinted at but never demonstrated: viz., the underlying unity of reason itself." (op. cit.)

This seems right to me, but my question to Fichte is:  why limit the need to combining theoretical and practical philosophy (only the first two of Kant's three great critiques)?  Isn't it necessary to derive theoretical, practical and critical judgment (aesthetic) together:  only this would "guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself" and also, I suspect, the "underlying unit of reason itself."  But this would involve experiencing ourselves not just as finite cognizers and agents but as both finite and infinite:  finite, since conditioned by our lives, and infinite insofar as we are able to use our creative imaginations to transcend our lives, inasmuch as we are able to experience creative flow and engage with the world in this way. 

Breazeale also says that Fichte believed that what Kant called “intellectual intuition,” "though certainly justified as a denial of the possibility of any non-sensory awareness of external objects, is nevertheless difficult to reconcile with certain other Kantian doctrines regarding the I's immediate presence to itself both as a (theoretically) cognizing subject (the doctrine of the transcendental apperception) and as a (practically) striving moral agent (the doctrine of the categorical imperative)."  Yes, there can be no intellectual intuition as non-sensory awareness of external objects, but there can be as awareness of essences that are as much constructed as revealed, that awareness being fundamentally tied to the body, i.e. to ourselves as sensing beings, a being that is not only cognizing and practically striving but also self-expressing through making and through active perception. 

I also like Fichte's view, also described by Berazeale, that we need to assume freedom as the starting point of our system of thinking, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of skepticism concerning this freedom.  (Of course, I understand freedom not in the Kantian way as acting according the the laws of practical reason, but as experiencing creative flow.  This can also happen in the realm of practical reason however.  It is not limited to art and aesthetic experience.  I am thinking specifically right now of the life of Grace Lee Boggs  Chinese-American philosopher recently featured on the PBS series P.O.V.  "American Revolutionary:  The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" June 30, 2014.  Boggs is a Socratic hero in that she uses (she is 99 years old!) the power of philosophical dialogue to challenge assumptions as she engages in a lifelong revolutionary struggle.)  

It is a shame that Fichte said nothing original about art or aesthetics since this has led to neglect of his metaphysical position by aestheticians and philosophers of art.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What good is defining art to an artist? An open letter to artists who want to be great.

Most artists (and I am including in this all practitioners of the arts, e.g. painting, music, video art, installations, whatever) find the philosophy of art frustrating...partly because philosophers love to wallow in abstractions but also partly because they quickly discover that philosophers of art are more interested in saying something related to the main problems of philosophy than in trying to help artists.  Actually I am not too sympathetic with artists on this point.  It would be like philosophers being unhappy with painters because when they try to paint a philosopher they do not tell philosophers anything important about what it is to be a philosopher.  However I do have something to say to artists about defining art which might be helpful to them anyway.  Bear in mind, this is just my own view and may not be shared by any other philosophers.  

Most artists will find the various definitions of art offered by philosophers and critics unsatisfying.  However some will find at least one of these definitions to be at least somewhat close to his or her own definition of art.  My point about defining art is basically this. It is a process that, despite the frustrations she might encounter when reading philosophy of art, is immensely valuable to the artist.  Why?  Because getting to know them, their advantages and disadvantages, can help the artist construct her own working definition of art.  Why is this important?  Well, as Socrates once said "the unexamined life is not worth living."  By looking at the various dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates is usually the key character, the idea is that if you profess something (being a rhetor, a general, a politician, a friend, or an artist) then examining your own life is a matter of trying to understand what that thing is and what it takes to be a good example of that thing.  Artists need to examine their own lives not just in the sense that they should examine who they are as individuals, but also, in the sense that they should try to figure out what an artist is, or who they are as an artist, or what "being an artist" should mean to them.  Bear in mind that the first answer to this question is always going to be naive, shallow and relatively uninteresting.  The point of the the Socratic dialogue is to show us that we need to test our definitions, discard the first rough attempts, and move on to ones that are more powerful, recognizing that we may (actually, will!) never get to a final one that is fully satisfactory.  Unlike Plato, I do not believe that there is any eternal and unchanging answer to questions of this sort.  (It is not entirely clear that Plato believed this either...but the orthodox view of Plato is that he believed final definitions were available at the end of inquiry.)  Rather, it is important for each artist and each generation of artists to define art for herself and for themselves.  

An example I often use is Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.  These are architects who came up with their own definition of architecture in the late 20th century.  They claimed that a work of architecture is a decorated shed.  Now, explaining their definition of architecture would require going into what they really meant by these two terms and how this was illuminated by their architectural practice and by the movement called postmodern architecture of which they were a part.  The important point is that they realized that they had to come up with their own view of the essence of architecture, something that could be stated quickly in definitional form, in order to sum up the direction they were taking and the future they saw for themselves and for like-minded architects/designers.  They took seriously the Socratic idea that the unexamined life is not worth living.  They examined who they were.  Moreover, the definition they came up with was immensely powerful.  It summed up and also added momentum to a major movement in architecture.  One could say, following a pragmatist conception of truth, that their definition was true relative to that moment in history.  Of course there were many who disagreed, and in particular the deconstructivist architects who followed them made their own definitions of architecture (a strangely convoluted process since deconstructionists did not believe in essences or definitions...but so what!  they still defined, and they still contributed to the changing essences of our culture).  Part of defining something well is defining it in opposition to someone else's definition of the same thing.   

When I have students from the arts in my Philosophy of Art class I encourage them to look at several of the great definitions of art in the past and to understand them as what Morris Weitz called "honorific definitions."  They are not to be seen as science-like definitions:  they are not much like the definition of "water" or the definition of "triangle."  They are definitions that attempt to reveal, solidify and focus the essence of something that changes over time and that changes as the result of changes in the surrounding culture and as a result of debates and conflicts between cultural sub-groups, including, notably, generational sub-groups.  To define art is to define art for your group and your generation for your time.  So defining art cannot just be a personal thing.  It has to do, and is closely related to, even larger definitional searches and even larger philosophical questions that are really as important to artists as to philosophers:  questions like "what is the meaning of life?"  "what is man?"  "what is truth?" and even "what is real?"   It also has to do with more politically and socially concrete definitional projects such as "what is it to be a Chicano" or "an American." To answer the question "what is art?" is to give at least a partial answer to these other even bigger questions.  Socrates and Plato saw this.  Moreover, these larger questions are questions that are of deep interest not just to you as an artist but to everyone else you know, even though not everyone takes a philosophical approach to these questions.  

So, here is the big question:  how do I become a better artist, or even, dare I say it, a great artist.  I cannot base my answer on any empirical evidence.  It is just based on what makes sense to me.  In order to become a great artist one needs to ask the "what is art?" question in somewhat like the level of depth I have been suggesting here.  You have to be asking the question with the view to the other big questions that it necessarily involves.  That gives you (provides the foundation for) the 1% inspiration part of being "great," and the rest is the proverbial 99% sweat and just plain persistence/commitment needed to do well in any task.  Greatness for an artist happens when you reveal/solidify, with mastery, the emerging essence of art as it relates to at least some of the fundamental questions of human existence.  That's my hunch.  And that is why I believe that asking the "what is art?" question in connection with the other even bigger questions is the most important question an artist can ask.  This is not to say that the answer needs to be as articulate as that offered by Venturi and Brown in relation to their answer to the question "what is architecture."  But you need to find some immensely powerful metaphor like theirs.  Coming up with your own definition is coming up with your solution to life's problems as manifested in your art form and your art practices.  

The biggest cop-out (and, I think, the path to the opposite to greatness) is to say "everyone has their own definition of art" and leave it at that.  It is a deeply sad intellectual move since it cuts out all debate, all confrontation, all striving, and even, ironically, all self-examination.  It is something Nietzsche's "last man" would say (and then he would blink -- see Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  It is interesting that most people who say this do not yet have a definition of art of their own.  They say it in order to avoid defining art, which is to say, in order to avoid the challenge of greatness.  Finally, defining art can be something that happens in our art.  When a great artist puts something forward and implicitly says "this, if anything, is art" he or she takes a stand about art itself (and maybe about life, meaning and humanity):  this is the solution to the some of the biggest problems of my time up till now.  This is my hat in the ring.  Duchamp did this with Fountain.  Rembrandt did it equally with The Night Watch.  Joyce did it with Ulysses.  Bourgeois did it with Spider. But other artists do it too in somewhat smaller ways:  you do not have to be the greatest of the great to achieve greatness. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Schelling, Bowie, aesthetics, and metaphor

I have been reading Andrew Bowie's Schelling and Modern European Philosophy:  An Introduction. (Routledge, 1993).  This is pretty difficult reading and I do not recommend it for the beach or for beginners.  However Bowie does a good job of relating Schelling to contemporary concerns not only in continental philosophy (Heidegger read Schelling, for example) but also analytic philosophy (Rorty and Davidson).  I cannot say that I fully grasp Bowie's argument, or at least I don't quite "get" it.  However, since Kant is so important to aesthetics and since Schelling takes art very seriously it is worth looking at.  Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling lived between 1775-1854.  His "On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature" 1807 in Alexander Sesonske What is Art:  Aesthetic Theory from Plato to Tolstoy (New York: 1965) is just one example of his writing on aesthetics.  But why re-consider Schelling?  As Bowie observes, some of the young Hegelians who raised criticisms of Hegel himself heard Schelling lectures in 1841-2.  This means that he had at least indirect influence on such figures as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Marx (not necessarily a positive one...Ruge, Marx's friend, heard the lectures and thought that Schelling was no longer a philosopher. But the young Marx thought highly of the young Schelling.)  His thoughts also found their way into Coleridge's Biographia Literaria on productive imagination and thence to the work of the American Transcendentalists.  I am not much interested in Schelling's direct claims but rather, I am interested in him as a source of inspiration for alternative ways of seeing aesthetics.  This has not been done much, for example, there has only been one article devoted to Schelling in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Bowie thinks that reading Schelling can help us understand overcoming metaphysics in the name of post-metaphysical thinking, the kind of thing Richard Rorty was trying to do.  To do this we need to set aside Schelling's interest late in his life in turning Christianity into a philosophically viable religion.

What first got me interested in Bowie's book was a subtitle of the Introduction, which also happens to be the title of one of my articles, "Metaphor and Metaphysics." (My article of that name is in Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Special Issue on Metaphor and Philosophy) 10:3 (1995) 205-222.) Rorty says that to think of metaphor as a source of belief, in addition to inference and perception, is to "think of language, logical space, and the realm of possibility, as open-ended.   It is to abandon the idea that the aim of thought is the attainment of a God's-eye view."  (5, Rorty, 1991)  I find this helpful.  Bowie's point is that Schelling's views on metaphor do not rely on typical assumptions of metaphysics, and so can contribute to this Rorty-like anti-metaphysical project.  (Bear in mind that these quotes are from twenty years ago and that Rorty is no longer "in favor." I remain, however, a big fan.)  The idea suggested is that the key terms of metaphysics are themselves metaphors, and that metaphor also indicate or draw our attention to the pre-understandings of the world that are prior to language.  (This leads me to think of Richard Shusterman and his insistence on bodily forms of understanding that are prior to language.  There may be an affinity between Shusterman and Schelling.)  Rorty, unfortunately, as Bowie observes, distinguished between metaphor and meaning, thinking of metaphor as innovative use of language and meaning as involving standard inferential connections.  Bowie nicely says: "The problem with Rorty's conception is that it involves retaining a firm distinction between 'problem-solving' (meaning) and 'world-disclosure' (metaphor), which he...wishes to keep strictly separate." (7)Yes, why keep them separate given that metaphors can be helpful in solving problems?  Bowie also says "metaphor can be said inherently to keep alive certain approaches to philosophy that analytical  philosophy in particular had for a time tried to consign to oblivion." (7)  In this respect I love the following quote by H. H. Holz (whom, Bowie says, was influenced by Schelling).  "Every basically metaphorical, because it names and opens up with the means of the known what is not yet known....Everything which is not empirical....can only be said in metaphor.  By being made into an image it can be generally experienced - and this experience is always initially an understanding of the images.  The concept comes to be used in a fixed and identical way and more and more loses its metaphorical character."  (8, cited from Wustehube, 1989).  Bowie finds similar views in Schleiermacher, Humboldt, Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel (the Romantics) arguing that art can show what philosophy cannot say.  Another way in which I find some sympathy with Schelling is his struggle against mechanistic determinism and his effort to develop a theory of emergence in which freedom (and creativity) are possible.  What I think is that metaphors that are live and powerful capture essences.  See my unpublished manuscript
on this.   

In the course of rethinking Schelling it is worthwhile to keep the following quote from Michael G. Vater's essay on Schelling in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics in mind:  "By focusing on the dialectic of conscious and unconscious intention in the artist's psyche, Schelling shifted the inquiry from the cognitive processes of the artist to the work of art itself, to its multiply determined (or "symbolic") meaning inside the public world of cultural objects.  Implicit in his treatment of aesthetic production as the function of imagination...was a general theory of semiotics...Schelling found symbolism and schematism at work in all artistic domains:  formative, plastic, and literary arts..."  (220)  

Another thing I need to bear in mind is that there are commonly said to be three phases in Schelling's thought (this, based on Vater):  Fichte-influenced aestheticism (1794-1800), identity philosophy (1801-1806), philosophy of history (1809-1815), and philosophy of God (1821-1846).  For the atheist with aesthetic interests, the first phase would seem the most interesting, although Bowie has interesting arguments for the value of the last phase as well.  Vater's article also leads me to think that the key reading for Schelling would be the 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism since he soon after came to believe that philosophy was methodologically self-sufficient and began to see the artist as a mere unconscious collaborator for the philosopher.  The subjugation of arts to philosophy seems like the same old story told once again.  

Here is Vater on the System of Transcendental Idealism:  "Schelling makes aesthetics the region that unites theoretical and practical philosophy, not the passive experience of viewer, auditor, or reader, but the peculiar productive activity of the artist: 'aesthetic intuition.'  In Kant's language, an intuition of x is both my representation of x and the production of the x represented.  In producing the work of art, the 'intuitive' creator performs a knowing-as-doing that is more fundamental than the nonproductive knowing and the noncognitive production that differentiate 'knowing' and 'doing' in other phenomenal contexts.  Also, conscious and unconscious productivity, the forces constructive of the natural and social worlds, merge here in the artist's psyche as the interplay of conscious and unconscious intention.  In the very independence of the finished work of art from the material and psychological sources of its production is proof that the artist produces more than she literally knows."  (221)



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Lopes' buck-passing theory of art really even a theory?

The theory of art proposed by Dominic Lopes in Beyond Art (Oxford, 2014) is called the "buck passing theory of art."  It is a theory, he says, because it is "a proposition that answers a 'what is...?' question.  This is somewhat confusing since it is supposed to answer a "what is" question by "passing the buck" on answering that question.  (Normally, "passing the buck" is considered a vice.  Lopes is cleverly trying to make a vice a virtue.  But can he?  Years ago, George Dickie tried to make the circularity of his definition of art into a virtue, and he called his book The Art Circle.  The book was a great contribution to philosophy, but did he solve the circularity problem?)  It is not at all clear to me that the "buck passing theory of art" is a theory at all.  It has no real content:  it is just a formal maneuver, a clever way to suggest we stop trying to talk about art in general and just focus on individual arts.  Of course, the word "art" still appears in every question directed to an individual art:  so refusing to answer the question "what is art?" doesn't really help us to understand "what is music, as an art?" since it tells us nothing about the nature of art.  I suggested in my last post that Lopes is abandoning the "what is" question. He does not think he is.  He thinks that not answering the question, but pointing elsewhere for a possible answer, is an answer to the question.  This is like saying to the teacher "My answer is that you have the answer!"  Right.

It is noteworthy that Lopes takes a comment made by comedian Groucho Marx that "Art is Art" to be a theory (although he admits it is uninformative.)  I would not call this a theory: it is not only circular but completely without content.  It is funny.

Here is the buck-passing theory, the "theory of art" offered by Lopes (trumpets blare) "x is a work of art = x is a work of K, where K is an art."  (14)  This is a circular definition.  In a circular definition you include the term being defined in the definition.  Maybe strict circularity is avoided since the term being defined might be said to be "work of art" and not "art."  But this is quibbling.  If you explain x with a sentence that contains x you have a circularity problem.  I also think that trying to define "work of art" is not a good way of going about doing philosophy of art or asking the "what is" question about art.  Art includes not just objects but practices, institutions, roles, and ways of appreciating.  To just focus on identification of objects as works of art is to miss most of art.  But Lopes thinks "a theory of art states what makes each [of a wide variety of items from different arts] a work of art."  He thinks that, with one exception, philosophers have all interpreted the "what is art?" question as really "what is a work of art?" (he is excluding philosophers in the continental tradition, such as Heidegger.)  Lopes does admit that there are other senses of "theory of art" for example John Frow's definition in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (that it is "a systematic account of all or many elements in the domain of art") and that Lopes' own use of "theory" only covers, at best, a component of this.(12)  Frow's idea sounds about right to me and I have yet to see the advantage of Lopes' narrower meaning, although he is perfectly free to coin terms or give terms special meaning.

Lopes knows, of course, that the collecting of various Ks (music, video games, etc.) under "art" also demands a theory.  However, by the end of the book he thinks that prospects for such a theory are weak.  So the buck-passing theory really doesn't give us anything but a nudge to paying more attention to individual arts. 

In the definition, the term "an art" is understood by Lopes as "an art kind."  The term "art kind" is, however, ambiguous.   Photography is an art kind but only in the sense that there are photographs that are art, i.e. that there is such a thing as the art of photography.  Many photographs are not art:  photos taken by a surveillance camera with no art intention behind them, and no art context in which they can become art, are not art.  This is also true for paintings, dances, and gardens.  In each case there are examples that are art and examples that are not.  If I dance across the room (not lovely to look at) this is not an art work.  Lopes seems to be ignoring the ambiguity when he talks about art kinds, thinking that if he just lists various art kinds he can avoid defining art.  But if dance which is art is distinguished from dance which is not we still need to define art.  Lopes says "any item is a work of art if it is a work in an art kind - if it is a work of music, architecture, dance, or the life."(16)  So can he tell me whether my dancing across the room or my singing in the shower is a work of art?  Is he packing the needed distinction into the word "work" so that he can insist that since my dance is not a "work" then it is not art?  But then isn't this circular too -  since "work" needs to be defined as a work of art (as opposed to what I do in the privacy of my home.)     

Lopes has a kind of answer to a similar question, whether the coffee mug on my desk is an example of ceramic art.  He recognizes that this would be a counterexample to his theory if it were.  (Hmmm.  If I am in the business of coming up with counterexamples then am I admitting that he has a theory?)   He thinks the objection will fail if we can show that not everything made with ceramic slip is a work of ceramic art.  But then he says that it is up to the theory of ceramic art to show that the coffee mug is not art.  Similarly, I presume, it is up to the theory of dance art to show that my dance is not dance and up to the theory of music art to show that my shower song is not music.  But wait, my dance does fit some definitions of dance and my song fits at least some definitions of song, and songs are generally included as examples of music.  The point isn't that my song is not music:  it is that my song does not belong to the art of music.

I said that this is a kind of answer (see his page 17), but isn't it just a circular answer?  Lopes, if I am reading him right, is saying that the coffee mug is not art because, even though it is made of the same materials as ceramic art (ceramic slip) and through similar processes, it is not an example of ceramic art, since it does not fit under the (not yet stated) definition of ceramic art (although this definition avoids answering the question "what is art" which has been ceded to the various art forms of which ceramic art is one).  My head spins.  

Morris Weitz has an advantage over Lopes on one point.  Lopes has no resources for dealing with new art forms.  His theory of a work of art depends on there being certain art forms that are already established.  New art forms pose a problem for him.  What if there is something that seems to fit no previous art form.  Lopes gives the example of Barry's Inert Gas Series, which is neither painting or sculpture.  Weitz simply asks the relevant authorities (mainly art critics and art historians, I think) to decide whether something is sufficiently similar to things previously called art to be admitted into the realm of art, probably by way of coining a term for a new art kind, e.g. "conceptual art."  "Sufficiently similar" is vague, and I think that Weitz should have said "essentially similar" or similar in the sense that it too fits under the essence of art.  I discuss this in my unpublished book (see "pages"). 

Above I implied that the buck-passing theory is not informative.  Lopes argues that it is no less informative than buck-stopping theories (i.e. traditional theories of art, for example "art is significant form.") Neither is informative since "both set us off to think more about the individual arts."  (20)  Wait!  "Art is significant form" tells us something about the essence of art and also tells us what makes an art form and art form.  The buck-passing theory tells us nothing about art or about the what makes an art form an art form.  It is therefore less informative.

Lopes argues that a theory is correct if it is viable and informative.  As we have seen, his "theory" is neither viable (it is open to the counterexamples offered, e.g. the coffee mug and the problem of introducing new art forms) nor informative (it tells us nothing, and certainly less than the traditional theories).  Nor is it even a theory.

Actually, I really hate the kind of paragraph the previous one is.  A good reader, in my view, should not just be dismissive, but should alternate between combat and charity.  With no sympathetic side, reading is pointless as a communicative enterprise.  Reading is also pointless in philosophy if there is no combative side.  There are no knock-down arguments, only stages in an unending path.  Sympathetic open-mindedness to the point of acceptance is also unworthy of philosophy.  Balance between the two is needed but difficult to achieve.

I even have a problem with this style of philosophy. Lopes' style is typical for analytic philosophy and my own when I start talking in the same style.  This style takes the methods of logical analysis we teach in critical thinking classes too seriously since it typically reduces complex nuanced arguments and positions to a series of premises and a conclusion none of which (usually) were ever actually asserted by the proponent (an example of this is on page 39).

Yet there is much value in Lopes' book (not in the so called "theory" but in the theoretical thinking presented in the book as a whole): it is exciting to have something so intelligent and so maddening to think through and argue with, and I look forward to writing further posts.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Beyond Art by Dominic Mciver Lopes

Dominic McIver Lopes' new book, Beyond Art (Oxford, 2014) is a hot item in small world of analytic aesthetics.  After attending a session on it at the American Society for Aesthetics conference at Asilomar, California, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about.  Lopes is the current President of the American Society for Aesthetics, and this is probably the highest distinction someone can receive in contemporary Anglo-American aesthetics.  So one should take his new book very seriously if you care about the future of aesthetics.

I find myself in deep disagreement with Lopes from the very start.  He writes that "the ambition of this book is to show that it is not mandatory to centre the philosophical study of art on the question 'what is art?'" and even further, that the question is "the wrong question for philosophy."  I am OK with the notion that asking the question is not mandatory:  why should anything be mandatory in philosophy beyond blatantly contradicting yourself?  More disturbing is "the wrong question for philosophy."  What is philosophy but a series of "what is" questions: "what is knowledge?" "what is truth?" "what is beauty?" and "what is art?"?  There are some other types of questions, but Plato's Socrates led the way in showing how philosophy works through asking such questions and trying to answer them.  If you are going to have a "philosophy of" (e.g. "philosophy of psychology") the key question in that philosophy of will be the "what is" question.  For example the key question in philosophy of science is "what is science?"  Sure, there are some slight problems with this.  The most important question in philosophy of religion is not "what is God?" but "is there a God?"  Then again, one cannot begin to ask whether God exists without asking about what is meant by the word "God."  Lopes does not deny that the question "what is art?" can be useful:  he thinks that it can "help us to appreciate some works of art by prompting thoughts that are suited to...appreciation of the work...but not to the task of theorizing."  (2)  He will have to work  hard to convince me that what is good for appreciation of art should be cut off so completely from what is good for theorizing about art.  

Why do we disagree so much.  Maybe it is because Lopes begins his discussion with something Monroe Beardsley said in 1983 about why the problem is so important.  Beardsley gave four reasons for the importance of the "what is art?" question.  First, philosophers should be curious to know what they are philosophizing about.  This strikes me as a strange way of putting things since philosophizing about art, on the Socratic view, just is asking the "what is" question.  They are not two different projects.  Beardsley's second reason was that it would be important for cases of import duties and censorship.  It is true that lawyers and politicians concern themselves with defining key terms:  however, asking "what is art?" in the context of philosophy is very different from doing so in these other contexts.  It is not at all clear that one can be very helpful for the other.  In philosophy, "what is art?" has to do with all of the other central issues in philosophy:  what is man?  what is reality? what is value?  It is a philosophical question.  Thirdly, Beardsley thought that answering the question would help out people in the social sciences who need a definition.  I don't much like this idea of treating philosophers as providers of nice definitions for other sciences, as though the question of the nature of knowledge is not more deeply shared than that.  Sometimes the Europeans have a better idea about this.  Someone like Bourdieu, who is interested in the sociology of art, is hardly going to accept any definition of art, or of sociology for that matter, that we might come up with, at least not without a philosophical fight.  Asking the "what is" question in a philosophical way is "doing philosophy" regardless of what department one happens to reside in.  Finally, Beardsley thought that answering the "what is art" question could provide criteria for critics to decide what to criticize.  Again,  I do not think this is needed by critics any more than by sociologists.  Beardsley just failed to see how philosophy pervades all aspects of our society and not just philosophy departments.  Critics like Clive Bell figure prominently in aesthetics textbooks.  Why should such a critic look to professional philosophers to solve this deep human problem. 

Of course Lopes does not accept Beardsley's ideas, but he uses Beardsley to set the agenda.  If this is what the Socratic quest is all about then it is a trivial thing, and this leads to it making sense to stop asking the "what is" question in philosophy...what Lopes recommends.  [On reading the entire book now, this may not be fair. Sometimes it seems the Lopes just thinks that "what is art?" is a bad question and that it should be replaced by other "what is" questions, like "what is music?" and "what is architecture?" although there are other times in which he seems to reject this as well.  He just thinks there is not enough common between the various arts to make the "what is art" question useful.]  I am not arguing that Lopes has Socrates wrong, or is wrong about philosophy, because his view is different from Socrates' view, but I do believe that Plato's Socrates' has a much richer, interesting and more powerful idea about what philosophy can be than I have seen so far in this discussion.  

But perhaps I am unfair to Lopes because he does say one right thing here:  "Philosophy is not taxonomy.  It does not take phenomena fixed in advanced [sic] and then answer, for each phenomenon X, 'what is X?" (4)  He is right:  nothing is fixed in advance:  categories of interest to philosophy shift and change over history.  On the other hand, as soon as you fix on a term, for example, "piety," then you can engage in a philosophical debate for the essence of that term, and the result is going to be something called "the philosophy of piety" which itself is probably closely allied to "the philosophy of religion."  If, however, Lopes is simply recommending that we back off from the "what is art?" question and ask other philosophical questions like "what is painting?" or "what is improvisation?" there is nothing wrong with that (although I do think that once one has fiddled with these more particular questions for awhile one should try moving up the ladder a bit and ask the 'what is art?' question again).   

Lopes' worry about "art" is summed up in the phrase "grab bag of phenomena that are not illuminated by lumping them together as a unity" (4).  What "induces queasiness" in him is the idea of placing "Chardin's still lifes alongside John Coltrane's improvisations, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Mies van der Rohe's office towers."  (3)  One begins to see what he finds problematic:  how can there be something that these diverse things have in common?  I wouldn't put it past Plato to pick three very different things called "pious" and asking Euthyphro what he thinks they all share in common.  It might be that "art" is a more hodge-podge concept than most, and that because of this we should avoid queasiness and go for collections of things that have a more plausible unity. In the next post I will discuss the actual theory posed.  My own view of defining art can be found in this post.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kant, ornaments and the concept of representation, an answer to a Phd student query.

Dear Professor Leddy,

My name is Pavle Pavlovic. I am a Phd student from the Philological faculty of Belgrade. Currently, I am working on a paper, which deals with the problem of mimesis in the w19 century literature. Incidentally, my interest deflected into the field of Kant's aesthetics. As I am not much of an expert in Kant's aesthetics, I would ask you one very brief question – I am quite aware that the concept of representation is not identical to the concept of referentiality, but I am not quite clear about it So I would like to have a simple clue or example leading to that. For example, Kant says in his Third Critique: "Even what we call ornaments [parerga'], i.e. those things which do not belong to the complete representation of the object internally as elements but- only externally as complements, and which augment the satisfaction of taste, do so only by their form ; as for example [the frames of pictures,' or] the draperies of statues or the colonnades of palaces. But if the ornament does not itself consist in beautiful form, and if it is used as a golden frame is used, merely to recommend the painting by its charm, it is then called finery and injures genuine beauty."

So, I don’t think Kant means by complete representation to suggest referentiality, but would like to be clearer about it –just need a clue to disambiguate the two terms, perhaps both from Kant’s or a modern view. I would be very glad if you could give me any sort of suggestion,


From: pavle pavlović>

Dear Mr. Pavlovic:

Thanks for your interesting question. Let me start by saying something about interpretation of concepts such as reference and representation. The best way to think about these terms is as largely gaining their meaning from their immediate context (i.e. the book or article in which they are found, and also, more broadly, the state of discussion concerning that term at that time). When asking what Kant means by "representation" bear in mind first that this is an English translation of a German term which may be translated differently in other parts of the book. We cannot bring very many assumptions from our understanding of English (or whatever language you are using other than German) to understand this term, except that the translator thought they were a good match. This is not such a great problem, however. Usually if the translator tends to use the same English terms to represent the same German terms we can determine what the original author means by the term simply by looking at all of his uses of it in that text or the part of that text we are concerned with. This quickly gets subtle and complex, but also fascinating. As for "reference," this term has different meanings and uses for different philosophers in English and in the languages which use that term and very similar ones in similar contexts. There is no single accepted definition of "reference" in philosophy, although there may be some common agreement on basics. To get to details would involve looking at a specific philosopher's views on reference. There are many theories of reference. Comparison with Kant on representation would be another level of discussion, and a hard one. To ask how Quine's use of "reference," for example, may compare to Kant's use of "representation" would be difficult since these terms serve very different purposes in the two projects.

As for the passage quoted, I have two recommendations. First, go to Paul Guyer Claims of Taste or to his new history of aesthetics. He will probably give you the clearest account of Kant on "representation." You should also go to Derrida's book on painting where he discusses this passage at length in a chapter called "Parerga": the style is extremely different from Guyer's, much less clear but very interesting. If you have never encountered Derrida before you will need to read a secondary source like Christopher Norris's books, something that attempts to explain Derrida clearly.

Now for the passage. It is interesting that Kant thinks that ornamented frames belong in any way to the representation. In our ordinary use of "representation" this would not be the case. Perhaps this is one reason why Derrida found this passage fascinating. How can picture frames belong externally to the complete representation as complements? Of course there are many paintings in which the frame was chosen or even made explicitly for the painting by the artist (Gauguin for example) An art appreciator or critic should take in the frame as well as the painting in these instances. But what of paintings where it is considered the choice of the curator or owner what frame, if any, to use? In this case does the ornament actually form an external complement to the complete representation? Does this mean that in some sense it is part of the complete representation? I would be interested in knowing whether Guyer has an answer to this in his interpretation of Kant. And what does Kant mean by draperies of statues being external: is he referring to the clothes on the figures' bodies or is he referring to some fabric that someone might place on a statue? The represented draperies would seem to me to be internal to the work, not external. However, Kant also argues, in a famous footnote on tattoos (which I have commented on...available online) that they would be beautiful but for the fact that they decorate a human body. So perhaps he thinks that even representations of draperies as part of a sculpture are external to the true subject, which is the human body, and that the complete representation is the sculpture with represented clothes included. This would certainly be the case for the columns on buildings. Here, we do not normally think of buildings as representations, but Kant seems to, and seems to think of columns as external, whereas most of us would not. But this is interesting. Finally, of course, Kant makes the important distinction between external ornamentation that adds to the representation and ornamentation that does not but merely produces charm, and thereby advertises the work. This seems to me a good insight on his part. Scruton in his Aesthetics of Architecture makes a similar point, and this is important in the central debates over modernism in architecture. Of course Scruton is strongly influenced by Kant.

So, to return to your question: a "complete representation" is not the same as something that merely refers. The word "temple" refers to a temple but does not represent it in the sense a picture of it does. But, as we have seen, his idea of complete representation may also include "external things" such as ornaments, when they are formally appropriate and not just there for charm or finery, and this is interesting, although also puzzling. How does such ornamentation enhance the representational character of the representation? Perhaps it does so by encouraging the power of the representation as "aesthetic idea." I think that to fully understand what Kant means by "complete representation" you need to go into what he means by "aesthetic" or "aesthetical" ideas. Also of interest in this regard would be Edward Bullough's idea of "distance" and some of Nietzsche's thinking on the relation between the audience and the actors in his Birth of Tragedy. It may be that the framing devices in the theater contribute to "distance" and to the "tragic effect" in much the way that a frame contributes to the experience and meaning of a painting. A frame is both part of the representation and not part of it. (This is a contradiction, or rather, a paradox.) In terms of my own theory of aura as developed in my book they would enhance aura.

Hope this helps!


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How should we respond aesthetically to ordinary things and events?

Jane Forsey in The Promise, The Challenge of Everyday Aesthetics" Aesthesis attempts to address an issue raised in my book,  which she poses in this way:  "when we subject [a sofa or a ballgame] to our theoretical gaze - we also seem to lift it from the realm of the ordinary and everyday to that of the unusual or striking" making it "somehow extraordinary."  But, she argues "this seems to rob it of the very everydayness that the movement [of Everyday Aesthetics within philosophical aesthetics] has been striving to focus on" although, she continues, if we focus on its ordinary nature then why attend to it aesthetically.  She attributes to me the position which Chris Dowling calls ( The Aesthetics of Daily Life', British Journal of Aesthetics 50:3 (2010) the weak formulation of everyday aesthetics:  "the concept of the aesthetic at work in discussions of the value of art can be extended to include experiences from daily life."  I actually have some trouble understanding why anyone would deny that ideas found in discussions of the value of art could be extended to everyday life.  Concepts are amazingly flexible and, especially if allowed to operate metaphorically, can extend quite widely.  However,  I also have trouble understanding what Dowling means by "the concept of the aesthetic at work" in such discussions, since there is not just one such concept.  So I can't subscribe to Dowling's "weak formulation" quite as stated.  It would have to be modified for me to accept it.  But as modified it seems to me that everyone should accept it:  accepting it marks no special distinction between aestheticians.  

Forsey thinks my claim that to approach "the ordinariness of the ordinary without making it extraordinary, without approaching it, therefore, in an art-like way"  commits me to the weak formulation.   The "strong formulation" is also described by Dowling and advocated by Forsey.   It is that "experiences from daily life can afford paradigm instances of aesthetic experience.  Such experiences are not bounded by the limitations and conventions that temper discussions of aesthetic value in the philosophy of art."  (Dowling, 2010, 124)  I must be missing something here since it seems to me that everyone involved should accept this claim since it only says weakly that this "can" be done.  In any case, I hold that everyday experiences not bounded by limitations and conventions of art may be as paradigmatic (i.e. can also be central examples) of aesthetics as great works of art.  That's the whole point of saying that everyday aesthetics is a subdiscipline of aesthetics.  I would think that everyone involved in everyday aesthetics thinks this.  So I have the difficult problem of agreeing with both the weak and the strong formulations of everyday aesthetics, although I am perceived by some (Forsey, for example) to favor the weak version.  Maybe it would be better to drop all of this talk of weak and strong and say that some people believe that everyday aesthetics fundamentally deals with everyday experiences qua extraordinary whereas others believe that it deals with everyday experiences qua ordinary.  Without trying necessarily to be consistent with my previously expressed views, I would like to consider which of these is true, or if some other option is possible.   A quick answer might just be:  (1) that there is high point of everyday aesthetics, just as there is a high point of art and nature aesthetics, and this involves something extraordinary, and (2) when ordinary things are perceived aesthetically they do go beyond the ordinary, but not necessarily to the level of the extraordinary (the high point)....maybe they just go to the level of "aesthetically interesting."  This is my intuitive response to Forsey, and if it is inconsistent with my previously expressed position I am willing to drop the previous one.  

This leaves open the question, "how should we respond aesthetically to ordinary things and events?"   I am not sure that there is a good general answer to this question, and I am not even sure then the question would be worth answering.  How should I respond aesthetically to the current relative neatness of my room?  I do respond by being somewhat pleased at the lack of clutter, the absence of piles of books, the color of the seldom seen bare wood floors, and so forth.  If I contemplate my room as an aesthetic object with its current neatness my pleasure increases a bit, even becomes a bit richer.  Reaching the level of the extraordinary would be quite unusual here, however, and probably a bit disturbing.  It might mean I had mistakenly ingested some LSD, or perhaps, after months of meditation, this is how my satori experience will be manifested.  Is there some "should" involved here?  Is one aesthetic response necessarily better than the other in the debate between "looks nice" and "wow, wow, wow"?  Is this even a question?

Forsey attributes to me the following view:  "an aesthetic experience is prompted by an object standing out from the flow of ordinary perception, and demanding our notice as being unusual or unfamiliar in some way."  She calls this the "extraordinarist view." I am not sure whether I agree with this view as formulated.  If Forsey means that "an aesthetics experience is always and only prompted by [such]" I would say that this is probably false.  It she means that aesthetic experiences  commonly or often happen in this way, it is probably true, although this would be as true for the interesting as the extraordinary.  However, I think she is attributing the first claim to me.  Why would it be false?  Sometimes aesthetic experiences occur even when the object does not stand out from the flow of ordinary perception. Doesn't this depend on what is ordinary for whom.  Ordinary perception for the enlightened one may not involve anything standing out at all.  On a more down to earth level, some people are just more sensitive to aesthetic properties on a day to day basis.  So, seeing something aesthetically would not be extraordinary or strange for such a person.  Also, turning to the object, sometimes it just has certain aesthetic properties that we notice, but not in a stand-out way.  We might just notice that the room is neat, for example.  So, I am willing to grant that certain low level aesthetic experiences do not "stand out from the flow."

Forsey goes on to attribute to me, and also to Kant, the view that aesthetic experience is "importantly different from the ordinary perceptual, cognitive or moral relations we have to the world around us."  This would make me inconsistent since I have stressed in my book that ordinary perceptual, cognitive and moral relations in the world around us (and ordinary perceptual, cognitive and moral experiences of those things) have an inescapable aesthetic dimension. 

Forsey also says that "approaching the ordinary as extraordinary does not entail that we treat it as fine art," which is certainly true.  I think she attributes this view to me ... but I have never held it.   If I did I would have had a chapter in which I presented an example of a good approach to, let's say, a great painting (by, let's say, a great art critic), and then showed how the exact same things could be done with an ordinary object, say a flashlight.  I didn't do that.  

Forsey may unconsciously hint at how this kind of understanding comes about, however, when she mentions Danto's idea that there is a great gap between "mere real things" and works of art that are indiscernible from them.  Perhaps she thinks that I am attempting to overcome this gap.  Perhaps I am, at least in a way. (See my recent posts on Danto.)    For Danto, the urinal Duchamp saw in the hardware store and chose to transfigure into a work of art called Fountain could have no interesting art-like qualities.  This may well be true for most people when looking at that urinal.  But it is also true that when Duchamp saw ot and said something to himself like "fits the bill...this could be used to make a work of art" he perceived it in an imaginative way that did bring out art-like qualities.  If this is typically how artists view their materials, and I think it is, (whether the materials be gobs of paint on an unfinished canvas, arrangements of flowers in the studio, or figures in a photograph taken in preparation for a figurative study) then the gap between "mere real things" and works of art is not nearly as great as Danto (and Forsey) make it out to be.  This is not to say that one ought to see urinals in hardware stores as having artlike qualities.  However, one way to have aesthetic experiences of ordinary objects is to see them under the influence of experiences of artworks with similar subject matters.  

Forsey wants to argue that "as everyday objects are not works of art, they carry no artistic value, although they may have aesthetic value."  I do not have much of a problem with this, although I wonder whether we cannot include many everyday objects as having artistic value in the sense of having the values typical of the design arts, the decorative arts, and other "minor arts."  Before me I see a number of books and the covers of each are designed.  Some look more elegant or at least pleasing and attractive than others.   I think though that what she means is that such objects should not be approached in the manner we approach great works of fine art.   Her claim perhaps is that there is hardly anything similar between our appreciation of a book cover and our appreciation of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.  Forsey quotes Robert Stecker's minimal concept of aesthetic experience where it is "the experience of attending in a discriminating manner to forms, qualities or meaningful features of things, attending to these for their own sake or for the sake of this every experience."  This seems fine, but it is not clear how this minimal concept can't be applied both to the flashlight (as someone like Roland Barthes might do) and to the Last Judgment.  We can do similar things to things that themselves are vastly different.  For example we can "look closely" at both the flashlight and the masterpiece even though looking closely might mean something very different in each case.  

Forsey further explicates her objection with my position when she says that I (and implicitly Dowling and Irwin) trade on "a view of art as being somehow meaningful or profound" and I "seek to extend this view to our experiences of the mundane objects and activities that make up our everyday lives.  Only by attending to the ordinary in this intensified way can our experiences be called truly aesthetic."  This she sees as the strategy (following Paul Ziff) of "giving meaning to quotidian phenomena."  I do think that good works of art are meaningful and that great works of art are profound.  I also think that mundane objects are meaningful in the sense that we can analyze them for meaning.   I also think they are meaningful in the sense that we can have meaningful experiences of them.  Sometimes experiences of ordinary objects can also be profound, as Richard Shusterman has shown in Living Through the Body when he speaks of his experiences in a Zen Monastery, and as I do in the last chapter of my book.  

Forsey's analysis becomes interesting when she says that "the weak view seems to suggest that my experience of a bowl of peaches on my dining room table, to be aesthetic, must not only involve a normative evaluation, but be qualitatively similar to, say, that of a still life of a bowl of peaches by Chardin."  This is what she thinks I mean when I suggest that one ideal for the aesthetics of everyday life is "to see the world with the eyes of an artist."  Is it true, as I seem to claim, that (using her words) "only by adopting this stance can the ordinary objects and activities of our daily lives have any kind of aesthetic dimension."  I don't know.  I don't want to imply that she has to look at her bowl of peaches in the same way as she would look at a Chardin painting of a bowl of peaches.  Again, however, if she saw her bowl of peaches in the same way Chardin saw the bowl of peaches he was painting, this might be a high point in everyday life experience.  I think that there are lower level aesthetic dimensions however:  if I look at my bowl of peaches and simply note that they look nice, and in a way that is uninfluenced by my looking at paintings of bowls of peaches, I do think this has an aesthetic dimension, and I thought I argued for that in my Chapter VII on neatness and messiness.  But I can see the problem here.  Forsey continues:  "an ordinary bowl of peaches need not be meaningful to be beautiful" and the experience need not be profound to be aesthetic.  I have a little trouble understanding how something can be beautiful without being meaningful, but perhaps we are talking about different senses of "meaningful."  I certainly agree that something need not be profound to be aesthetic.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Defining Art: The Positive View

In my last post I argued that Morris Weitz's famous essay on the role of theory in aesthetics points the way to a more positive approach to the issue of defining art.  He offers us a way of reinterpreting the great theories of art so that they are seen as successes, i.e. as what he called honorific definitions of art.  This was the main point of this truly seminal essay, and yet oddly, in the course of history, it has been ignored.  
Joseph Margolis in "The Importance of Being Ernest about the Definition and Metaphysics of Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:3 (2010) returns to Weitz's essay but seems sometimes more interested in the question of whether Weitz misinterpreted Wittgenstein than in whether or not he was right about the role of theory in aesthetics.  I do not even think we should judge essays of this sort on the basis of whether or not they interpret a great philosopher correctly:  such works should not be judged as though they intended to be mere examples of "secondary literature."  Important philosophers tend to misinterpret other important philosophers:  creative mis-interpretation is part of what goes into thinking great thoughts.  Margolis, ironically, is guilty of this too:  a truly great thinker (certainly one of the finest mind in aesthetics) who often reads others insensitively.

Margolis begins his essay with the traditional negativism about definition:  "The philosophy of art may be doomed, again and again but always once and for all, to define what it is to be 'a work of art'..."  (215) In my last post I argued that the history of efforts to define art has been a history of successes if one interprets these efforts as presenting us with honorific definitions of art that participate in various multidisciplinary efforts at self-understanding understood in terms of their original place at particular times in history.  My take on this is something like what Hegel referred to by saying that in a culture Spirit comes to self-understanding through dialectic, but without the transcendent metaphysics or any notion of progress towards an end-point (there is progress, but it is relative.)  Oddly, in Margolis's effort to show how Weitz misinterprets Wittgenstein, he reconstructs, by accident, Weitz's own discovery, i.e. that definition of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions is not going to happen, but that supposed definitions of this sort are best seen as honorific definitions that focus our attention on one central property or type of property.  I argued that this is done through definition as metaphor.  Margolis observes that Wittgenstein is "plainly open to admitting a great many different kinds of definitions," is willing to impose limitations on open concepts such as "game" for some limited purposes, and that Aristotle's definition of tragedy, which is an attempt to capture the essence of tragedy, would not therefore be problematic for Wittgenstein.  Again, I am not interested here in Wittgenstein interpretation:  if Margolis is right, however, about Wittgenstein, so much the better, since the position is, I am convinced, right.  More interesting is that Margolis misinterprets Weitz since he says "what Weitz might regard as failed essential definitions of the realist kind may, in Wittgenstein's tolerant sense, actually be successful in their own way..." (319)  The point attributed to Wittgenstein was exactly Weitz's point when he brought up that these failed essential definitions of the realist kind should be seen as honorific definitions and therefore successful in their own way!  Margolis thinks that Aristotle's definition is successful in this way, and so do I, and so, as I read Weitz, does Weitz.  Well, as it turns out, once we get past all of this silliness about correct readings of Wittgenstein and Weitz, Margolis is deeply right about definition, and right when he goes on to say that Stephen Davies (and many other contemporary philosophers of art) makes a serious mistake when he insists that a definition of art must be in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  Margolis says that Davies "agrees with Weitz about what a proper definition requires" (219) which is not quite right since, although Weitz believes that a proper "real" definition of art would be of this sort, a proper honorific definition of art does not have to meet this standard.  As Margolis observes, Wittgenstein is tolerant of many different kinds of definitions. (219).  Further, "a 'defective' definition of the essentialist sort...may, nevertheless, be a complete success in terms of a reasonable reading of its philosophical contribution."  (219)  Weitz (and I) would agree with this point, although I would say that there is another, more valuable, kind of essentialism, in which essences are quasi-fictional and changing objects that can actually be captured quite well by honorific definitions.  Aristotle's definition of tragedy is one of these!  So, where Margolis speaks of the skewed influence of Weitz's misinterpretation of Wittgenstein, I would speak of the skewed influence of misreadings of Weitz himself.  Margolis' take on this is that "real" definitions need not be "essentialist" i.e. in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  I would make almost the same point using different language, namely that essentialist definitions of art need not be "real" definitions, i.e. definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

In the end, I am not opposed to Margolis' idea that a definition is "realist" if it addresses the "nature" of a thing, although I find it odd when he says that a "real" definition (in his sense of "real," not in Weitz's) "needs only to be 'usable' in the way ordinary usage tolerates." (220) Well, that would make it "real," I suppose, but not particularly good or true, even in a pragmatist sense of "true."  A good definition must not only be usable and tolerable to ordinary usage (actually, that might be a serious disadvantage!):  it should be true in the sense of powerful and fruitful in the realm of reasoned discourse.  Aristotle's definition of tragedy, again, fits the bill (sometimes more successfully, sometimes  less so at different times in history), but so too does Clive Bell's formalist definition of art and Tolstoy's expressionist definition of art, and so also Collingwood's Crocean "intuitionist" version of expressionism. 

Margolis is right on the mark in my view when he says that Berys Gaut's cluster account view of defining art does not show how it is "genuinely serviceable as a replacement for a definition."  (220), although one could say, to be fair to Gaut, that cluster accounts could serve as one kind of definition among the many kinds that Margolis, through Wittgenstein, is otherwise allowing.  Margolis also thinks that the cluster account really only captures the kind of usage of terms we find in the teaching of those terms to children.

Despite my criticisms I think this essay to be one of the most insightful (could we expect less from Margolis?) in recent aesthetics.  Margolis is dead right when he says "I see no reason why one must choose, disjunctively, between Aristotle and Nietzsche...":  the rest of the paragraph is wonderful, but I have no time to type it out in full.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What is the point to defining art? Heck, what is the point of philosophy?

This post will not be an attempt to define art.  Based on the theory I am about to propose I do not even think I am in a very good position to provide a definition of art, at least not this year.  My theory about defining art is more a theory about philosophy, about philosophical definition in general, with the question "what is art?" being my paradigm of a philosophical question.  Although I think that the project of defining art goes well beyond the task of distinguishing art from non-art objects I will begin with the quote from Robert Stecker's Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art:  An Introduction  (Rowman and Middlefield, 2010.)  In the summary of his chapter titled "What is Art?" Stecker says that there are three groups of proposals for distinguishing art from nonart.  Begin with the first: "First, simple functionalist proposals identify one valuable property that many artworks share, and claim that this is the defining feature, the essence of art.  Whether representation, expression, form, or the aesthetic is put forward as the relevant property, simple functionalism is never able to cover the whole extension of art, struggles to accommodate bad art, and to exclude all instances of nonart."  (120)  The functionalist theories are the great classical definitions of art, often expressed in terms of "art as" as much as "art is," for example "art as imitation" or "art is expression," or "art as experience."  There is the Imitation theory, the Expression theory, the Formalist theory, and so forth.  These are traditionally associated with specific philosophers.  The usual view of these theories, as expressed in this passage by Stecker is that they are failures.  My view of this is very different.  It derives from Morris Weitz's famous article of 1956  "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15:  27-35.  Everyone in aesthetics remembers Weitz's attack on essentialism and thus on the functionalist theories of art.  Few however remember his actual main point, that although a "real" definition of art (i.e. one in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, like the definition of "triangle") will never be forthcoming, theory is still important since the great functionalist definitions of art in the past, when seen as honorific definitions of art, were actually immensely valuable.  What makes them valuable is the "debates over the reasons for changing the criteria of the concept of art" i.e. the reasons given for "the chosen or preferred criterion of excellence and evaluation."  It is these debates, Weitz argues, that make the history of aesthetics an important study:  "The value of each of the theories resides in its attempt to state and to justify certain criteria which are either neglected or distorted by previous theories."  He gives, as an example, the Clive Bell/Robert Fry theory that "Art is significant form."  He takes this not as a "real" definition of art but as a "redefinition of art in terms of the chosen condition of significant form."  The definition is taken by Weitz to have a pragmatic dimension.  It is a recommendation for a certain set of actions.  It also involves the notion that sometimes that has a current definition can be redefined.  This is also neglected in discussions of Weitz.  That it is neglected is important since all of aesthetic theory since Weitz's article has been based on a certain reading of Weitz.  So to go back and reread Weitz is to reread the last sixty years of aesthetics in the analytic tradition..actually to reread the analytic tradition itself. What does "Art is significant form" mean?  It means, "In an age in which literary and representational elements have become paramount in painting, return to the" formalist ones since these are native to painting.  Thus, he concludes:  "the role of the theory is not to define anything but to use the definitional form, almost epigrammatically, to pinpoint a crucial recommendation to turn our attention once again" to formalist elements.  When the great theories of art are taken as honorific definitions Stecker's objections become irrelevant.  The objection that there are things that are art that do not serve the essential function proposed simply treats an honorific definition as a real definition.  This is also true for the objection that they may include things that are not art but serve a similar function.  It is true that the honorific theories do not handle bad art, but that is also a virtue of the theory since it recognizes that the great definitions of art were interested in telling us something essential about the value of art and not simply in telling us how to sort things properly called art from things not properly called art, say in W. E. Kennick's classical example of the warehouse.  Honorific definitions of art are therefore relatively immune to counterexamples.  You can come up with an example of something most would consider art that has no interesting formal properties, but this is not argument against the idea that one ought to concentrate on making and appreciating art with such properties. 

The only problem I can see with Weitz's approach is that he misconceives the nature of essences.  If essences are patterns in experience that are real but changing (as I have argued in various writings) then honorific definitions can be paired with them so that the recommendation to focus on this property could be based on the claim that this is the essence as it has emerged at this time in history.  An honorific definition can be true in the sense of "true" in which truth is something that emerges historically, something that happens.  Honorific definitions of true on the pragmatist theory of truth, which is the one I follow.  Thus, on this view, the history of aesthetics is not a history of failure but rather a history of successes in which different honorific definitions are successively offered.  Each great theory of art is actually a manifestation of the spirit of its time (in the sense that artists, philosophers, and others in the culture share certain questions and attempt to resolve certain burning issues of the time) and is paired with at least some of the great artworks of the time.  

An excellent example of this process working in a practical context and a specific art form is Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's idea that "architecture is a decorated shed."  This theory captures the essence of architecture for them at a particular time in history and also exemplifies an entire theory and practice of architecture, i.e. their version of postmodern architecture, one that is not intended just to cover their own buildings but also to reinterpret the best buildings of the past and provide a framework for future architectural work.  Great definitions are epigrams of this sort, to use Weitz's term.  "Decorated shed" is itself a concentrated metaphor that needs a lot of theoretical and historical knowledge in order to fully understand. 

So the future of theory for each person who believes with Socrates that the unexamined life is the only one worth living (i.e. for each human who is a philosopher in the sense of being a lover of wisdom) is to create one's own honorific definition of art, one that gives the function of art now, and also for the future as an object of personal or group vision. 

As time goes on, great definitions of art (and of subgroups like architecture) lose their liveliness, richness, and creative force, and need to be replaced by new definitions.  They may however be revived a new in a new context, and this is why we have new versions of the expression theory or the imitation theory popping up again in history.

Stecker then gives the second strategy:  "Second, there are proposals derived from the view that our classificatory practice is best captured by something other than a definition:  by similarity to various paradigms (family resemblance), by clusters of properties forming several sufficient conditions, by prototypes."  This is how Weitz's lesson (he used the term "family resemblance") has been interpreted.  But, as I have shown, the point is to avoid trying to capture classificatory practices.

However, Weitz was right that paradigms are important.  To go back to Clive Bell, he took the paintings of Giotto and Cezanne as his paradigms of art (Giotto representing values to be recovered, Cezanne representing a radical new interpretation of those values, i.e. "significant form" that  that gives new life).  I argue that these paradigms flesh out the meaning of the metaphor "significant form."  They are the practical real-world basis for the honorific definition proffered.  By saying that art is essentially significant form Bell is saying (unconsciously, since he did not realize he was offering an honorific definition, unlike Venturi and Brown) that this is the new center of art, and that everything else in art is art to the extent that it shares in this.  Unfortunately, Weitz's insight has been taken to mean something very different; that we can only have real definitions as clusters of sufficient conditions.  This is a form, I believe, of opting out of the Socratic quest, of not taking a stand, of providing a merely formal solution to the problem of defining art.  The question is whether something essentially resembles the paradigms, and if it does it partakes in the creative power of art at that particular moment in this history of spirit.  

The third approach to definition mention by Stecker consists of "relational definitions comparing the institutional and historical views" and I will discuss these in some later posts.  I'll just say here that the great institutional theories of art were also paired with paradigmatic works, for example Duchamp's Fountain in the case of George Dickie and Warhol's Brillo Boxes in the case of Arthur Danto.   So there is reason to believe that these theories too were honorific definitions of art pretending to be real definitions of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Stecker concludes that "the concept of art is a vague concept, and this means that any proposed definition either has to capture this vagueness or be considered to some extent an idealization of the actual concept."  (121)  The concept of art, I argue, is not a vague concept:  it is a philosophically contested concept.  Any proposed definition that makes the concept vague loses out on the importance Weitz saw for theory in art.  Redefinition, which is essential to honorific definitions, is a matter of idealization, to be sure.  We create new definitions based on a vision of a fiction (a rich and deep metaphor like "significant form" or "decorated shed") grounded on chosen paradigms and values and expressed in a metaphor ("art is significant form") elaborated by a philosophical narrative and also by practice itself (for example in the work of Venturi and Brown, or any other seminal architectural firm).  These fictions, when successful in encouraging creative work, are what make life meaningful.  

Unlike Weitz, however, I do not think that new powerful definitions simply recover things that are neglected:  rather they are truly creative in addition to this.  Architecture as decorated shed was neglected by modernist architecture, but the idea is not just a recovery of something that was always there:  it also carries a projection into the future, a vision of what can be, an "idealization" as Stecker put it. 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Can we Paraphrase a Poem or a piece of Philosophy?

I have posted on this matter previously and here, again, I am responding to something written by Peter Kivy, one of the leading contemporary philosophers of art.  In "Paraphrasing Poetry (for Profit and Pleasure," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69: 4 (2011): 367-371, Kivy addresses the issue again.  The article is polemical, mainly directed against points raised by Peter Lamarque who himself had criticized Kivy's previously stated theory.  Despite this polemical nature, the article leads me to think once more about the issue of paraphrase.  Kivy believes that poetry is paraphrasable, which for him, simply means that we can interpret its meaning.  He further denies Lamarque's claim that the only proper way to read poetry is under the idea of form-content unity, where the content (meaning) cannot be separated from the form.  Kivy thinks that reading under the idea of form/content unity is one way to read poetry but not the only way.  He thinks that someone like Lamarque would deny that one could read Paradise Lost as a theological tract and be reading it as poetry, and he thinks this would be wrong.   I tend to favor pluralism, and I would therefore agree with Kivy on this point.   Kivy's reason for his pluralism is somewhat different, however, from one I would give.  He is a realist about meaning and so his reason is simply that "A serious, complex poem like Paradise Lost has so much going on in it that a reader...cannot possibly 'get it all' " with one approach.  (373)  No being a realist I do not believe in the idea of "getting it all."  I even think that many of the good readings of Paradise Lost will be seen as contradicting each other or at least as being in some sort of conflict:  this is not a possibility for a realist like Kivy. I wonder, also, why various different kinds of readings of Paradise Lost cannot all be under the notion of form/content unity.  Does form/content unity really deny giving a theological reading to Paradise Lost?  Kivy thinks his opponents will say that his pluralism will allow a reading of the poem that just concentrates on how many times Milton uses "e" but, and I agree, although we have no theory of poetry to exclude this, we do not really need a theory to do so, and we do not want to a priori rule out the possibility that it might provide a viable reading under some theory.  

Now, if it the paraphrase contains the content and it is possible to get the content without reading the poem then why bother reading the poem?  Is reading the poem rather than reading a good critic's interpretation of it really necessary or even useful?  This carries over to reading philosophy books in philosophy classes.  Students might ask us why they should read the original work by, say, Hume, when we have provided perfectly good lecture notes, and surely our lecture notes are better than anything they could come up with in terms of explication of content.  I am deliberately not using as an example a philosopher who is known for his or her poetic or literary style.  The hard and interesting case is Hume.  To what extent is philosophy, even of the most straightforward sort, paraphrasable?  Of course it is paraphrasable, but the question is, what do we get with a paraphrase?  This has an immense bearing on the philosophy of education since we give our students papers and exams in which we expect them to paraphrase philosophical views and we judge these paraphrases based on how well they "get it."  Interestingly, we are (or at least, many of us are) willing to accept many different kinds of paraphrase of the same philosophical work as correct.  Of course we also have a clear idea when the student gets it wrong.  A correct paraphrase shows understanding, and understanding is what we want from the student.  

Kivy himself raises the issue of paraphrasing philosophy and they have to do with the issue I just raised:  why do we think it valuable for students to read Hume in the original?  Kivy gives three reasons for this, two of which I think are of little importance:  i.e.   the text might have great literary merits independent of its content (this gets us back to the original issue of whether form can be separated from content, and so is not helpful as a reason) and the reader may be curious "as to what the original text is like."  The interesting reason is that "the reader might be at a sufficient level of philosophical sophistication to want to make up his own mind about the meaning of the philosophical text by consulting it directly, particularly as the 'experts' will doubtless differ on points of interpretation."  (375)  This seems plausible at first.  However, most students in Introduction to Philosophy are not at a very high level of philosophical sophistication and are unlikely to want to read texts in the original (or even be able to see why this would be a good idea).  So why do we philosophy teachers want them to do it, and why do they often in the end get something out of it.  One reason is that we want them to be autonomous thinkers.  Another is that many of us think that these texts are rich in meaning and open to multiple interpretations.  These two points are connected:  autonomous readers do not just accept the interpretations of the past but come up with their own interpretations.  To follow Hans Georg Gadamer, they ideally engage in a "fusion of horizons" with the text.  Moreover, it is the possibility of rich new interpretations with new readings that keeps good old texts alive.  Interpretation is a form of dialogue with the great writings of the past. 

So back to the paraphrase problem.  It is not that paraphrase is impossible:  each student who reads a poem or a philosophical text paraphrases when describing its meaning.  The problem is in believing that any paraphrase is final:  that's the heresy of paraphrase.  The heresy is to believe that the text of the paraphrase can substitute for the original text, whether it be poetry or philosophy, that reading the teacher's lecture notes is as good as reading the text.  There is another reason.  The teacher's lecture notes or the teacher's written out interpretation are only as good as the teacher's understanding of the text, and this is just one understanding.  It probably a good understand, deserving even of the highest marks, but still only one of unlimited possible good interpretations.  Reading only the teachers interpretation reduces the liveliness of the exchange since one is two removes from the real thing.  You can't fuse horizons with Kant by reading Guyer's book on Kant, even though his is the best current interpretation.  The experience of understanding is deadened or flattened if one seeks to replace understanding the paraphrase/interpretation with understanding the text itself.  Reading Guyer's interpretation is helpful in not getting Kant totally wrong or in testing one's own interpretation or in knowing what the current state of play is in interpreting Kant, but it is not something that replaces Kant, and this is not just because the literary quality is lost.  I don't think that losing the literary quality is a big deal:  Kant is not know for his literary virtues, although he does have a few good sentences.  An important point is that every paraphrase leaves out things that the paraphraser believes is not essential to the content.  But it is always possible that someone else reading Milton or Kant will find what is left out to be essential.  

I also like Michael Dummett's explanation for the unparaphrasability of philosophy which Kivy gives and partially endorses:  philosophy "aims not to formulate theses detachable from their author's expression of them, but to provide insight into very complex conceptual tangles." (375)  However, Kivy thinks that this idea only applies to non-mainstream styles of philosophical writing (in which he includes Plato, Spinoza, Augustine, Descartes and Nietzsche).  Mainstream philosophy is in "straightforward expository form."   According to Kivy, only when the type of writing departs from the mainstream is "the philosophical content...not detachable from its mode of expression." One oddity to all of this is that it is not clear what great philosopher or even what really good philosopher is excluded from this class of non-mainstream philosophers.  The list of non-mainstream philosophers that Kivy offers is already stellar and I see no reason why it should exclude Hume, Kant, Quine or Kivy himself.  That is, I think there would be a problem with having students read my paraphrase of Kivy as a substitute for reading Kivy himself.   So why does Kivy think that the non-mainstream philosophers are different?  He says "to get the full content of them and, in particular, to understand how these thinkers construed the very nature of the philosophical enterprise, one must experience the particular mode of expression and content.  For the particular mode of expression reflects a philosophical method, and a philosophical method has implications for what the philosopher construes philosophy to be about."  But isn't it interesting that Kivy can only come up with great philosophers in his list of non-mainstream philosophers and comes up with no great philosophers when he talks about mainstream philosophers.  So wouldn't that imply that mainstream philosophers are more closely allied to interpreters of great philosophers than they are to great philosopher since both attempt to write in a style that is easily paraphrased?  Kivy thinks that the strong thesis that great philosophical texts cannot be paraphrased would also imply that one cannot learn Newtonian mechanics without reading Newton's original texts.  But, on my view, this is a reductio of Kivy's position on this point since this is precisely the place at which philosophy is much more like literature than like science.

 Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview.