Saturday, December 12, 2015

Iris Murdoch's revival of Plato's Aesthetics

An interesting oddity of Carolyn Korsmeyer's textbook Aesthetics: The Big Questions is that Iris Murdoch's "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concept" comes right after a selection from Plato's Republic II, III and X, which, although Murdoch considers herself a follower of Plato, is hardly mentioned in her selection.  However, this does give the Philosophy of Art teacher a chance to talk about views of Plato that are much more art-positive than those found in the above-mentioned selections.  The Murdoch selection is taken from a longer essay which itself is one of three essays in her book The Sovereignty of Good published in 1970.  One sees here why Murdoch decided to stop teaching philosophy even though she was a Fellow at Oxford from 1948-1963, a highly prestigious position. Her essay is very much an attack both on analytic and existentialist styles of philosophy.  I think she convinced herself she could do philosophy better as a novelist.    

Murdoch begins her discussion rather surprisingly with emphasis on the importance of metaphor (and images in general), not simply as decoration, but as contributing to the development of consciousness.  This is surprising because Plato does not mention metaphor positively and is generally negative about imagination, a closely related concept:  imagination exists at the lowest level in his epistemology, and such things as dream and shadows are at the lowest level of his metaphysics.  What interests Murdoch is that Plato uses metaphors, analogies and allegories as key points in his dialogues.   She shares with Stephen Pepper, who defended a similar view in his book World Hypotheses (although she shows no awareness of Pepper's work), the idea that the great philosophical systems play with such metaphors and images.  It is impossible to deal with philosophical concepts without using metaphors.  Indeed, metaphysical concepts themselves are deeply metaphorical.  I think this is essentially right and have argued so in “Metaphor and Metaphysics,” in Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Special Issue on Metaphor and Philosophy) 10:3 (1995) 205-222, although at the time I wrote that paper I had not known or had forgotten that Murdoch had a similar position.  Of course, if you think that philosophy's business is to come up with science-like definitions of concepts then the idea that philosophical theories are essentially metaphors, often in disguise, is going to look misguided. Murdoch and I agree on this point.

Murdoch goes on to say that metaphors often have a "moral charge" which disappears if the analysis of such concepts reduces them to plainer language.  As mentioned earlier, she herself favors metaphors to be found in the writings of Plato.  However she then asserts two assumptions neither of which would have been shared by Plato, one that humans are naturally selfish and the other that there is no natural end for man (i.e. we humans have no purpose given to us by God or nature).  I do not think that man is any more naturally selfish than not, but I do agree with the second point, that we are, as she puts it "transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance"  - except that I wouldn't want that to exclude by that the possibility of our having free will.  So, in general Murdoch rejects the idea that there is a God in the traditional sense of the word. Along similar lines, she says that we are anxiety-ridden animals, which seems basically right, although this too needs qualification: there are certainly lots of days in which we are not particularly anxious, and anxiety seems absent in many children.

What is of particular interest in this essay is the way in which Murdoch posits Plato's idea of Beauty, mainly as presented in the Symposium, as an ideal that is both ethical and aesthetic.  What exactly is the relation between ethics and aesthetics?  Murdoch thinks that the path to morality is through unselfishness and that this, plus what she calls objectivity and realism, are connected with virtue.  Mainly she is interested in showing that something about the experience of beauty is more important than the kind of analysis of vocabulary that was typical of philosophy in her time. 

The idea of beauty comes in in a striking image.  She writes, "I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings...then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.  In the moment everything is altered.  The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared." An experience of beauty in nature can set things right between a person and the world.  The self dissolves and,  "there is nothing now but kestrel."   We can "give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care."  Here Murdoch is in deliberate opposition to Kant whom she takes to believe that experiences of beauty are occasions "for exalted self-feeling."  This is perhaps unfair to Kant, although it is true that he sees the experience of the sublime in this way.   

Kant aside, the question is whether taking delight in the beauty of flowers and animals has something to do with virtue.  To answer this, Murdoch brings Plato in again, arguing that, for Plato, "beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct."  Much of her essay involves quite plausible speculation about the great metaphors or images of the cave, the line, the sun and the ladder of love found in Plato's Republic and Symposium.  I too have found these metaphors compelling.  It seems that Plato is saying that only with long philosophical training can we grasp the ineffable Good itself, and that when this happens we will be able to see the Good as it manifests itself in things, its symbol being the presence of beauty.  In addition, the solution to the main problems of philosophy are not going to be, despite all of the Platonic and Aristotelian efforts in this direction, a series of definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  There would be controversy over this among Plato interpreters, but this is a place where I think Murdoch is perceptive:  the end of a Platonic dialogue is seldom an achieved definition, and the ultimate goal is to grasp the Good, which itself cannot be defined at all.  So grasping the Good is just a matter of being able to see the Good in things, or, to speak in other terms, to see things in their essential nature or in terms of the values they exemplify.  The point of the dialogues in a training in intellectual perception, not the wracking up of true definitions.

Murdoch then moves from beauty in nature to beauty in art.  She thinks of art as more edifying than nature in that it is a human product dealing with human affairs.  Further, the good artist has virtues as well as talents, namely he or she is "brave, truthful, patient, humble."  This is true, she thinks, for both the representational and the nonrepresentational arts.  However, the representational arts (painting and literature) are particularly apt since they "hold the mirror up to nature" and are concerned specifically with morality, showing how "the concept of virtue is tied up with the human condition."   For Murdoch, virtue is "pointless," meaning that it is not for any practical purpose (and human existence is pointless anyway, as mentioned above), but it is also supremely important.  The idea is summed up in the notion that "the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue."  She tells us that "good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form." This, she contrasts with what she calls "fantasy art."  True art, she says "affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent."  So, it is opposed to "selfish obsession" and it "invigorates the soul."  As with nature, the perfection of form offered by art "invites unpossessive contemplation."  I cannot help think here of Freud's 1909 essay on poetry and daydreaming in which he understood all of art in terms of wish-fulfillment and therefore fantasy in exactly the way that Murdoch condemns it. Freud deliberately chose popular fiction as his paradigm of art, but of course Murdoch is not going to make that choice.  Murdoch even describes bad art in terms of selfish day-dreams which leads me to think that she was thinking specifically of that essay.  "Good art," instead, gives us an "objective vision."  One could say that it brings us out of the cave.  

Before moving on, I want to stress the idea that for Murdoch, objective vision is a matter both of noticing minute an random detail and finding unity and form.  One of my favorite quotes from her:  "Art shows us the only sense in which the permanent and incorruptible is compatible with the transient" and it reveals to us aspects of the world that we are ordinarily not able to see, although I think she is too optimistic in thinking that art "exhibits virtue in its true guise."  Thus, objective vision of the artist is going to be something like the vision of the good judge in Hume.  Hume's good judge has delicacy of taste which allows him to perceive minute aspects of a work of art and see how they contribute to its overall unity and form, whereas Murdoch's good artist does the same for what she observes. 

On the face of it, and from our current perspective, the idea that anyone seriously can speak of "objective vision" especially when it comes to moral concepts seems naive.  But what fascinates me is this image of the detail of the world brought together in form, and I want to discuss that a bit further.   Murdoch puts a lot of stress on the fact that Plato asked, in the Parmenides, whether there could be forms of hair and dirt, and "if there are then nature is redeemed into the arms of truthful vision."  Murdoch thinks that there are.  This would indicate more emphasis on particularity and on detail, i.e. on everyday life as opposed to a separate mathematics-like realm of Forms.  Similarly, in Plato, as we climb the ladder of love in the Symposium, we start with the perception of something beautiful and erotic, the shoulders of a boy, and end with awareness that beauty is everywhere, a great sea of beauty. 

Murdoch also thinks that the gap between art and morality can be bridged if we take seriously the Platonic idea of techne as intellectual disciplines that are also moral (and that need, on his view, to take the place of the imitative arts), and she then sees the techne of learning a language, in which there is a structure that commands respect and in which attention is rewarded by knowledge of reality, of something the exists independently of her own consciousness:  honesty and humility are required here to succeed, thus the connection to morality, studying being an "exercise in virtue."  It is doubtful however that any focus on techne is going to guarantee virtue, as the existence of evil scientists, mathematicians and linguists pretty much shows. In the end what I find valuable in Murdoch is the stress she places on metaphor and the way she reads Plato on art starting with the Symposium rather than the Republic, interpreting the sovereignty of the good in terms of beauty, which itself can be found in the details and unities of the world we experience.   

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