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.



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