Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Quality and Aura: Another Deweyan argument for the primacy of aesthetics in philosophy

I am interested here in the relation between what I have called "aura" and what Dewey calls "quality." (These thoughts are inspired by Robert E. Innis's brilliant "The 'quality' of philosophy on the aesthetic matrix of Dewey's Pragmatism," in The Continuing Relevance of John Dewey:  Reflections on Aesthetics, Morality, Science and Society ed. Larry A. Hickman et. al. Rudolpi 2011.) Dewey, following Peirce, speaks of Firstness as "sheer totality and pervading unity of of quality in everything experienced, whether it be odor, the drama of King Lear, or philosophic or scientific systems" experienced.  I am not entirely comfortable with the notion of a unique pervading quality that unifies each thing experienced since this has the slight odor of naive realism. However, consider another take on this, somewhat at angles with Dewey's and Peirce's original idea, but largely in accord with it. That is, (and here I am speaking in my own voice) anything can be perceived as having a pervading quality.  Let's say that this is the same as what I have described in my book as "aura."  Let's say that when something is perceived as having a pervading quality this is a quality that is emotionally charged, filled with a sense of potentiality, and seems to make the object or situation involved go beyond itself, makes the thing seem to be alive, and gives it aesthetic charge (which we humans generally experience as a kind of pleasure).  The point of divergence from Dewey and Peirce is that they would insist (I think) that King Lear has one proper pervading unity, whereas my idea is more relativist, i.e. that there are different possible readings of King Lear that can give rise to a pervasive quality, each such quality being different.  So whereas their account is of "the given permeating total quality of anything experienced" I speak of the given permeating total quality that anything experienced can have if it is experienced "as," which is to say that the experience of that thing has been heightened or intensified in the way described.  Articulation of such experience is usually in terms of some metaphor, i.e. some one word or phrase that takes on a special non-literal meaning insofar as it is what the object or situation experienced is experienced as.  King Lear has its Firstness, but on my account, this would be different for different powerful or good readings/interpretations of that work.  What Dewey refers to as a "total undivided quality" is, on my account, the quality of something experienced as with aura.  I would agree with Innis as to the "primacy of the aesthetic in world-building" but probably in a different sense than his, i.e. that this primacy is a matter of the inception moment of the creative process in science, art, art appreciation/interpretation, religion, philosophy, business, invention, etc. in which the thing or situation seems filled with meaning and possibility, and in which this "feel" guides future developments in the creative process, i.e. in world-making.  (I would allow the feel itself to evolve, perhaps unlike Dewey or Innis).  I agree with Innis that this is not a matter of the quale of primitives such as "red" but rather a "projection of a world." Despite the above-mentioned divergences, my account is completely in accord with Dewey's statement that "considered in itself, quality is that which totally and intimately pervades a phenomenon or experience, rendering it just the one experience which it is" and that this quality is "ineffable."  The only problem I have with Dewey here is that he makes a distinction between the quality as "first, present, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent" and the quality of descriptions of this very quality or the correlated situation that may follow.  The subtle difference I hold to is that the pervasive quality is an aspect the creative process that is not just at the first point but can come and go, and when it is there it certainly has these characteristics, but that this can happen during the process of description too. Thus, on my view there is a continuity between originary and descriptive experience so that descriptive experience is not one removed from the originary but is just one more iteration or mode, i.e. of thinking. That is, the creative process is not just a matter of first the feeling and then the articulation of the feeling. Thus I would strongly disagree with Innis when he says (perhaps agreeing with Langer) that "art, as thematic, is derivative from this prior matrix of qualitative world-building."  (45)  This seems a major error. However,  I certainly agree with Peirce's idea that, as Innis puts it, images, diagrams and metaphors "are all rooted in a shared quality, or firstness..."  A manifestation in short of the object experienced as object with aura is that it is paired with metaphors, images, etc., since it is a way of "seeing as."  This is a matter of seeing what I would call "essences" although such essences are historicised, unlike the Platonic or Aristotelian ones:  thus when Dewey speaks of the sentence "The red Indian is stoical" as a sentence which does not simply attribute a property to the Indian or place him in a class but rather that the Indian is "permeated throughout by a certain quality...he lived, acted, endured, stoically" we are, in my language, speaking of the Indian as being seen as essentially stoical i.e. under the metaphor of the "stoic."  Again, this should be historicized and not essentialized in the traditional Platonic/Aristotelian sense, which would leave us, for example, with a racist (in this case) static understanding of the Indian.  Rather "the red Indian is stoical" would be better seen in this context as a powerful metaphor, if paired with a wide variety of other materials and experiences, that might work well in some context or situation not described here or by Dewey (e.g. as the pervading idea or theme of a novel by James Fenimore Cooper).  

It should also be observed that there is an important relation between the pervasive quality and the notion of an organic whole: as something, for example a painting is seen, effectively, under a metaphor and "as" in this way, it is seen in such a way that each part seems internally related to every other part.  Again, this can happen effectively under different interpretations.  We can then see the pervasive quality as "articulated in the members of the configuration" as Innis puts it.  Note also that this is, as Innis observes, the background to all propositional symbolization.  Noteworthy in this regard is Innis's claim that "Peircean semiotics, for its part, is based on an explosion of the claim of uniqueness and exclusive of propositional - linguocentric symbolization" (48)  If this is true of Peirce then I have misjudged and under-rated Peirce who I have generally seen as a minor character next to Dewey, someone roughly equivalent of the contemporary analytic philosopher of a realist science-centered stamp.   

If, in the end, these findings go far beyond art to discussions for example of thinking in general and if it is right that, as Dewey puts it "existentially, thinking is association as far as the latter is controlled"  association meaning"connection of objects or their elements in a total situation having a qualitative unity" and if qualitative unity is a matter of aesthetics, then it is aesthetics that forms the basis of philosophy, not epistemology or logic in the traditional formalist non-Deweyan sense.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Praise of Shusterman, mostly

What is the purpose of life (i.e. our lives, as humans)?  My current answer is enhancement or enrichment of experience.  I like to go back to ancient Greek approaches to philosophy that emphasize philosophy as a way of live.  The business of philosophy, in this sense of the word (not in our current professionalized sense), is to enhance experience.  Aesthetics takes on a central role here.  By attending to aesthetics we learn how to enhance experience.  Ethics clears the ground for this practice in that it helps us get along with other people, thus maximizing our ability to enhance experience. Ethics then should be subordinate to aesthetics (an unheard of view).  Mathias Girel has recently taught me that Richard Shusterman's philosophy is pretty much in accord with this.  See his "Perfectionism in Practice:  Shusterman's place in Recent Pragmatism" Contemporary Pragmatism 12 (2015) 156-179.   I have followed the development of Shusterman's pragmatist aesthetics over the years and, although I have sometimes been critical, our views are really quite close. This shouldn't be surprising:  we both started in the ordinary language wing of analytic aesthetics influenced by Nelson Goodman and Wittgenstein, both were moved strongly by Rorty's recovery of pragmatism, Margolis's pragmatist aesthetics, and a rediscovery of Dewey's Art as Experience (and in this, of course, I was influenced by Shusterman's own book Pragmatist Aesthetics), and we both then became increasingly fascinated by outlier regions of aesthetics, Shusterman focusing on popular art forms such as Rap, I moving into the aesthetics of everyday life by way of gardens as a marginal art form that could move into the fine art realm once again (I have recently argued for a similar move for fine cuisine).  I was one of the first to think seriously about Shusterman's somaesthetics.   In general I see Shusterman as moving on a parallel path to mine, although of course he is more well-known.  

Before going on to discuss Girel's take on Shusterman I should mention two terms he uses that I find irritating and wish would go away.  The first is "meliorism."  Although I see myself as a pragmatist I do not like this word. defines it as "the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort." The idea that the world tends to become better is just silly and is, at least, hard to reconcile with history. The idea that it can be made better by human effort is vague at best:  for example, the world (i.e. the planet surface on which we live) could be made better by humans decreasing CO2 output, and human life would be better if we were able to cure major diseases or eliminate slavery...there is nothing controversial about either of these claims. But what more can we get from the label of "meliorism" than that one hopes things will get better and tries to make them so, for example, for one's community.  Is this anything more than an optimistic attitude towards life?  Or perhaps meliorism is just the theory that philosophy should be concerned with the art of life or how to improve our lives, which I have already affirmed.  The other, related, word I don't like is "perfectionism."  I suppose the spirit it represents is in the right place, but since human perfection is impossible, and since we can only ever speak of relative perfection, and since terms like "making better" and "improve" just work better, I think pragmatists should just drop this overly metaphysical and unrealistic-sounding term.

That said, Girel stresses "enhanced experience" in his analysis of Shusterman, and this is where Shusterman and I deeply agree. Girel also observes that Shusterman holds to the "somatic and non propositional dimension of experience," and I agree that this was neglected by overly-language-centered accounts of experience. I have stressed the non-linguistic aspect of experience in my notion of "aura" as developed in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, and I have come to increasingly share with Shusterman an emphasis on the "notion of philosophy as a way of life."  Thus, in the debate between Shusterman and Rorty on this point, I stand with Shusterman.  Girel gives a quote from James that Shusterman has advocated and which I like as well:  "the body is the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train.  Everything circles round it and is felt from its point of view."  Girel informs us that Robert Brandom's alternative version of pragmatism sees the idea of experience as useless or harmful since it is offered as something that gives "epistemic authority" without entering into the game of giving or asking for reasons.  Neither Dewey, Shusterman nor I would advocate this for experience (although I do think that Brandom gives too much importance to the space of reasons).  Brandom wants to replace the concept of experience with "perceptible facts and reports of them..." but then that erases the aspects of experience that has nothing to do with facts, particularly the aesthetic and ethical aspects.  Moreover, the act of reporting on a fact is just an aspect of someone's experience anyway.  To deny the existence of experience is like putting one's head in the sand.  It reminds me of when Norman Malcolm denied that we have dreams at night:  for him,  we only have a disposition to tell stories in the morning. Experience is just the way we live in the world.  Rejection of experience seems to come from a deification of language, i.e. removing it to a transcendent realm.  I agree with Shusterman that there are non-linguistic understandings, understandings that come prior to language-based interpretations. A better way to put it is that every interpretation has a non-linguistic side, and the development of an interpretation is a dynamic interaction of linguistic and non-linguistic interpretations.  As Shusterman says, non-linguistic understandings are "deeply shared by culture and history" and, therefore, rejecting foundationalism does not entail rejecting non-linguistic understanding.  Girel observes another point of disagreement between Shusterman and Brandom: Brandom's commitment to linguistic pragmatism implies rejection of the continuities Dewey finds between man and nature in his Art as Experience.  Brandom looks here to be just another representative of the Cartesian/Platonic tradition which sees a radical difference between man and nature, a tradition Dewey wisely opposed.  This is the same kind of ideology that has left us in our current state of environmental disaster.  

But the main reason why I have been inspired to write about Girel on Shusterman is the emphasis placed on enhancing experience. Everyday aesthetics, which I have been advocating since the 1990s, and Richard Shusterman's somaesthetics are, in my view, just two different ways to advocate essentially the same program.  Girel quotes Shusterman:  "Philosophy should be transformational. Rather than a metascience for grounding our current cognitive and cultural activities [the Cartesian project], it should be cultural criticism that aims to reconstruct our practices and institutions so as to improve the quality of our lives."  The only point I would disagree with here is this: Shusterman thinks that we need to choose between improved experience and philosophical insight, or what he calls "originary experience."  Unlike Shusterman, I hold that both are the "ultimate philosophical goal."  However, my understanding of philosophical insight is not to be associated with the Cartesian tradition:  I discuss it elsewhere in my writings on metaphor.  My view of philosophical insight is historicized and pragmatic and thus not Platonic in any traditional sense. We enrich and harmonize our experience by way of having philosophical insight.  

Two more comments before I sign off.  First, Shusterman sees improvement of experience almost entirely in terms of what he calls somatic practices.  I am not against these practices.  What I want to stress however is that the practices involved in making works of art are themselves somatic in ways that Shusterman has never fully recognized, as are also practices involved in the everyday aesthetic attentiveness of any person who goes through life with the view of enhancing experience.  Second, when Shusterman says that "philosophy's cultural politics could take the eminently pragmatic form of seeking to benefit life not merely by writing texts but by other forms of concrete praxis in the world...including somatic disciplines that can make a positive difference to the perception, performance, and attitudes of the practitioner" he should have also mentioned the practices of making works of art and the practices involved in appreciating those arts, whether fine or popular.  That is, we need to recognize that with a revision of our conception of philosophy, what artists do actually comes quite close to what philosophers do, perhaps that what great artists do is even closer to what great philosophers do, although much more body-centered, and perhaps for that reason, more effective overall.