Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It is a dream, dream on! Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy Chapters One and Two

(This is an experiment in poetic interpretation of Nietzsche which intends to be philosohical in a somewhat deeper way than is conventional.  If you want a more conventional explanation of Nietzsche on art in The Birth of Tragedy, see this earlier post)

It is a dream, dream on.  The deep difference between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer was that the former had a zest for life, one that would not go for resignation or be attracted to the Buddhistic version of negation of the self.  This is a world of illusion, for sure, but do dream on, maybe even dream the same dream for several nights.  And dream like a Greek.  There is an interesting relationship between the experience of the poet in looking at his dreams and the philosopher in looking at the world of ordinary everyday experience.  It is not an exact parallel.  The philosopher sees things differently when seeing life as a dream, or as like a dream.  The poet sees things differently when seeing dreams as life, treating them as life.  Dream on in both cases.   For dreams, and, more importantly, art, make life worth living.  Apollo is a dreamer himself.  He is like the human on that frail bark in the stormy sea, protected by an illusion.  He is calm, he looks over the seas, he brings light, he is an enlightenment thinker, and yet his conviction that everything is what it is and not something else, the principium individuationis, will fall to an exception, a violation that amounts to confusion of categories, as also will the principle that everything has an explanation, i.e. a scientific explanation.  Some things seem not to have an explanation.  It is in recognition of this that the Dionysian arises, i.e. as response to a need based on anxiety in face of the absurd.  But the Dionysian, as with the Apollonian, comes out of the anxiety of "the primordial one" itself.  The primordial one is the deepest common root of experience.  In Nietzsche's early system the primal one replaces not only God, but also the striving irrational Will of Schopenhauer.  Unlike both, it needs redemption.  It is divided from itself through the eruption of the world of experience.  Its redemption comes with wrenching away the veil of Maya, which is destruction of the separation between world of representation and underlying reality,  This destruction comes with a sense of oneness that comes with ecstatic experience.  But it also comes, in part, from the creation of another world of illusion, the world of dreams, which is like a worm hole in a black hole:  you enter into the Apollonian to come out on the Dionysian.  When Nietzsche tells us to dream on he is calling for us to move further into the cave, further away from the Platonic illusion of a world of enlightenment, the world of Forms, into the unconscious.  Life is justified by the dream and by the work of art. 

The key moment in the history of “the Greek cult,” i.e. the creation of truly great art, tragic art, is the result of a process.  First, the Greek poet creates in his dream images of the gods.  Second, he engages in the Dionysian rites, is intoxicated, is redeemed by ecstatic experience.  Third he falls onto the ground and has a vision of the dreamed gods as on the theater stage.  But wait, this must happen by way of music and, perhaps more importantly, a combination of music and dance.  It is a dance in which all of the powers of symbolism are involved.  It is a polymorphic dance that uses every part of the body.  It is here that the artist becomes a work of art, something shaped by the primordial one as artist god.  He is one not just in his soul or in his head but in his entire body.  He has been imitating not action or character, as Aristotle or Plato would suggest, but the twin art deities, Apollo and Dionysus.  Now he is one with them.  He becomes a god by becoming an exception to the principle of sufficient reason.  The world becomes enchanted around him as it does in Plato’s Ion to the poet.  Its streams are transformed into milk and honey.  The dream images are now something else, not just incredibly vivid and immediate, but symbolic.  If the dreaming Greek is a dreaming Homer, dreaming in bright colors and clear patterns, then the seeing Greek, to our shame, sees yet more sharply.  (How sharply do we see today?)  To imagine really seeing we need to imagine seeing like a Greek poet or a Greek artist.   

But if we are called on to dream on both in the Apollonian and in the Dionysian modes, and if we evoke mass experiences of the multitude as well as cries of horror, the problem of sado-masochism, the "witches' brew," raises its ugly head.  This is an extreme version of what Burke had referred to as the sublime, of a pleasure (or rather, delight) that comes with terror, with pain, although only when there is some distance.  Here, however, it is not simply that a certain delight is associated with pain or fear:  the distance Burke required is overcome, and the horror of existence becomes more prominent, and yet at the same time there is an ecstatic form of pleasure, a form that could just be called "delight."  The primitive pre-Greek Dionysian, at first held back by the Apollo wielding the Gorgon’s head, and then later by the Doric order of columns, now is incorporated into the Apollonian, now is synthesized with it in a way that makes it safer but still worrisome.  The Greek hero as sunk into the depths, has gone through the dream world to the disturbing side of it (the Inferno), has found that the principles of science and the Doric order cannot protect him, has found redemption in these dreams, has called out to "dream on," has imagined gods on his own stage set, has imitated the Dionysian and the Apollonian, has opened up the essence of nature, has overcome alienation of the primordial one, has experienced ecstasy, has created medicine out of poison, joy out of pain, has created music with emotional power, has awoken and exhausted all of his symbolic faculties, has forced all members of the body into rhythmic movement, overcoming the Apollonian world of illusion in favor of the Dionysian vision.  That is the first two chapters of The Birth of Tragedy.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Plato's Meno

I read things as an aesthetician these days, a philosopher of art and beauty.  So in rereading and teaching the Meno after many years I am struck by the ending, which for me is interestingly related to the Ion, which is so important for aesthetic theories.  Both make a big deal out of the idea that right opinion, even when divinely inspired, is different from knowledge, and that although knowledge is to be preferred, there are some areas in life where right opinion divinely inspired is to be preferred on practical grounds.  The main theme of Meno is the question of the nature of virtue.  

The dialogue begins with an attempt to define virtue, followed by the famous discussion of the doctrines of reincarnation and recollection, followed by the discussion with Meno's slave which is supposed to show that knowledge is recollection, followed by a discussion with the politician Anytus over whether virtue can be taught (certainly not by the Sophists) and ending with the notion that it cannot be taught and hence is a matter of mere right opinion, although perhaps only when such opinion is divinely inspired.  The ending is rather depressing.  Generations of philosophy teachers have suggested that we are expected to come to our own conclusion, that although virtue cannot be taught in the traditional sense, Socrates is implying that we can learn how to be more virtuous through the method of question and answering, i.e. the Socratic method.  That is, the Socratic method will succeed where the Sophistic method and the more traditional methods of Anytus failed.  Perhaps also, it is commonly suggested, the solution to the problem is to be found in the Theory of Forms which, although not fully set forth in this dialogue, features strongly in such dialogues as the Republic and the Phaedo.  I tend to believe that dialogues need to stand on their own and that the ending of this one leaves us with inspiration alone with no real intimation of salvation in a worked out theory of Forms. 

Perhaps inspiration is supposed to be tied up with recollection in some weird way, although it is hard to draw a strong parallel between the work of an inspired politician like Pericles and the capacity of Meno's slave to come up with a sophisticated mathematical proof when sufficiently questioned.  After the discussion with the slave, Socrates says "a man who does not know has in himself true opinions on a subject without having knowledge." (86c) But this would make the slave and the brilliant politician the same, except that the slave's true opinions are not actualized and the politicians are.  Before going on to discuss the dialogue in more detail I should note the strangeness of a dialogue that can jump so quickly from religious stories of reincarnation to mathematical proof connecting the two under the same mantle.  

But let's begin rather with the question of whether or not virtue can be taught, i.e. in our own situation.  I teach philosophy in a university and sometimes I teach classes in ethics.  The question often comes up whether we can make our students more virtuous by teaching them ethics.  Of course, as Socrates observes, the question of what is virtue is prior in some sense.  For example, the teaching of ethics, if it were possible, would be different for each one of the definitions of virtue that Socrates and Meno consider. So we need to know which definition is right in order to know whether virtue can be taught. (There is a sense in which the process of investigation into the nature of virtue is itself the only valid training in virtue.)  

Let's say that virtue is just action and a virtuous person is someone who always acts in a way that is just.  So the question is whether telling students about various theories of justice and even asking them to apply these theories to their own lives will make them more just. Socrates makes fairly clear that virtue is not just a form of knowledge:  if we want to teach virtue we do not just want to teach people the various theories of virtue or of justice.  We want to make them more virtuous at the end of the process.  Can this be done?  I am not sure that those who teach ethics classes are trying hard to do this, although I have known some who are strong advocates for certain ethical positions and for certain changes in society that would themselves bring more justice, for example those who advocate radical reform of our criminal justice system. Others think that just getting students to think more logically and/or more deeply is imbuing them with virtue, especially rational or intellectual virtue, but maybe even something more than that:  we often say that we are trying to make them better citizens.  

So what are we to make of the idea, as presented at the end of the Meno, that virtue, both in politics and in art, is not gained through nature or through teaching but through divine influence?   If we don't like the strictly religious take on this (and I, as an atheist, would reject it) we can focus on Socrates' use of the word "unconscious."  The virtuous individual is "divine" or god-like in that "with no conscious thought" (99c) he is "outstandingly successful."

And what are we to make of the thought that wisdom is of no help in this situation?  Doesn't this imply that the solution offered in the Republic, where the philosopher-kings rule by and through their wisdom, is not available here?  Doesn't an emphasis on inspiration and the "right opinion" that comes from that undercut the entire rationalist project?  Socrates says "it is not only under the guidance of knowledge that human action is well and rightly conducted."  He even implies that it is through the non-knowledge method that "men are made good." (96e)  

Socrates does suggest the possibility of an exception, i.e. someone who not only had virtue but would be able to "create another like himself."  Such a person would be "a solid reality among shadows." The concluding paragraph of the dialogue does hold out some hope in this respect: "On our present reasoning then, whoever has virtue get it by divine dispensation.  But we shall not understand the truth of the matter until...we try to discover what virtue is in and by itself."  But then, oddly, Socrates finishes by asking Meno to convince Anytus "that what we now believe is true" where "what we now believe" would seem to be that virtue is a matter of divine inspiration and cannot be taught by anyone, not even the average gentleman citizen of Athens, which was the position of Anytus. 

So we are left with the thought that perhaps in some sense virtue is teachable, or at least that would still be a question that is left open, as long as we come up with a definition of virtue, i.e. one that meets all of the criteria for a good definition that were set forth early in the dialogue.  There are no teachers of virtue now, but perhaps there will be in the future, and perhaps these will use the method of Socratic elenchus, as it is tied to recollection, which is not strictly a matter of teaching.  (The idea that the elenchus will ultimately give knowledge is suggested when Socrates says of the slave "if the same questions are put to him on many occasions and in different the end he will have a knowledge of the subject as accurate as anybody's."  But if the elenchus is understood in this way it should not be simply equated with what Socrates normally does with his interlocutors.  It is a different kid of instruction, for example it does not lead to aporia.  It is really more a kind of training than a kind of inquiry.  So maybe this is not elenchus.  But then it is hard to see how virtue could be taught in this way: in what way is virtue like mathematics and in what ways is it  different?)

However, Socrates' view on this is not too convincing for us as we are unlikely to accept the idea of reincarnation.  It is not even clear that reincarnation helps since if one learned virtue in a previous life the problem would remain how one learned it.  Or to put it in terms of the lesson taught to Meno's slave:  if he learned how to prove this mathematical theorem in a previous life and is only recollecting it now we still have the problem of how he learned it then.  Of course Socrates has a way out of this in arguing that the slave learned these opinions "when he was not in human shape" which implies that the relevant previous life is not a previous human life and thus does not have the limitations of human life, and further that "if...there are going to exist in him, both while he is and while he is not a man, true opinions which can be aroused by questioning and turned into knowledge, [then] his soul has been forever in a state of knowledge" which would imply that the soul is immortal and the knowledge is somehow fixed in its eternal essence. (86a)  From this he infers that we should "take courage" and try to discover what is there, i.e. our immortality means it has got to be there.

Perhaps the theory of recollection is just a metaphor for the process of interactive questioning and answering in which the student is expected to come at the correct solution by way of thinking for herself rather than by way of, e.g., memorizing the answer.  I think this is the lesson most of us take from the Meno, not one about an earlier life or even about some sort of recollection.  Nothing is re-collected or re-called, but rather the potential exists in the mind of the pupil to learn this through the process of guided thinking for herself.   If you want to call this potential "recollection" well, fine, there is recollection.  

Of course, as Socrates observes, knowledge is more valuable than right opinion in that it is "tethered down" by "working out the reason." (98a)  The difference between knowledge and true opinion is that when you have knowledge you have "the reason."  I suspect that "the reason" is pretty much the same as what he was looking for earlier in the dialogue, i.e. the correct definition.  We will have knowledge of virtue and not just right opinion of it when we have the right definition of it.  But since, "for practical purposes right opinion is no less useful than knowledge," (98c) it is not entirely clear how having the reason or the definition can help. 

Another problem: if it is true that, as Socrates says "good men themselves are not good by nature" then how can he also imply that wise men are wise by nature insofar as what they recollect in their wisdom is part of their natures?   Why do we need to bring in gods and inspiration when nature should do the trick? Even the doctrine of recollection does not bring in gods: it is not that we recollect because we access something divine (although of course this in implied in the Phaedrus.)  

One final point for now.  Socrates can be read as taking a position ironically quite close to that of Protagoras as set for in the Theaetetus and arguably a position that the real Protagoras accepts, i.e. that instead of giving his students truth (or knowledge) he is teaching them virtue by way of helping them replace bad ideas with better, more useful, ideas.  So, similarly, Socrates slides away from the doctrines of reincarnation and recollection and simply says that he will fight long and hard for this "thing":  "that we shall be better, braver, and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don't know than if we believe there is no point in looking because what we don't know we can never discover." (86c)  Interestingly, this is a sentence that few scientists or philosophers would reject even today.  Perhaps it is the moral of the story.  But it is ironic that it is essentially a sophist move given that most of the story is in reaction against the work of the sophists, Meno himself being one of them, trained by Gorgias himself.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Kant's Ideal of Beauty as a key to the Critique of Judgment

For me, section 17 "Of the Ideal of Beauty," has always been one of the most difficult passages in the Critique of Judgment. (I am using the J. H. Barnard translation, Hafner Press, 1951).  But I think I have found the key to its understanding.  My current take on it is that it contains important intimations of what will happen later on in the book, particularly in the section on fine art, and can be seen as the entire CJ philosophy in a nutshell. I also see it as both taking into account cultural relativism but also seeking to transcend it by way of the notion of a rational ideal of beauty that goes beyond mere empirical considerations.  It is consonant with his egalitarianism, and it is noteworthy that what would normally be taken to be the paradigm of a western-dominated conception of universal beauty in the sculpture by Polycleitus, which itself was taken as "the canon" in Ancient Greece, is rejected, or at least downplayed, as nothing more than something at the level of the empirical.  One can also see here an anticipation of Hegel since the classical, as represented by Polycleitus, and humorously, perhaps, by Myron and his cow, is sublated in the last paragraph by the rational ideal which would be better represented by what Hegel would call "the Romantic," for example the self-portraits of Rembrandt, in which the inner spirit and inner beauty shows through, overcoming that which is merely average based on a mere mechanical combination of elements. When I discuss the concept of beauty in regards to humans the notion of inner beauty being more important than mere external beauty: this section exemplifies and elaborates on this perception, but also in terms of a creation of an ideal beauty within oneself, a kind of aesthetic self-molding that was elaborated later in Nietzsche, Foucault and Shusterman. Perhaps molding an inner beauty within oneself allows for perception of, and judgment of, inner beauty in others and in their representations.

The section (#17) begins by reiterating that there can be no objective rule of taste, and yet the sensation of satisfaction or dissatisfaction attending the object considered beautiful or ugly is universally communicable in the sense that we can expect, or even demand, that everyone experience it as being beautiful or as having the same attendant sensation.  Kant suggests that it is hardly even probable that this accord will exist in all times and ages, but it ought to exist based on "deep-lying grounds of agreement in judging of the forms under which the objects are given" these grounds being the way that the faculties of the imagination and the understanding respond to forms that are designed or look designed and thus have a certain purposefulness of look.  He then says that we consider "some products of taste as exemplary."  Those who have already read the book may note that the word "exemplary" is also found in the the section on fine art.  Also, as with the genius later, it turns out that taste cannot be acquired by imitating others, but must be "an original faculty" and that, although imitation of a model may show skill, taste requires ability to "judge the model itself."  Again this reminds us of how genius will later be described as creating its own rules.  So it looks like the man of taste is someone who is operating already like a person of genius.

Kant then says that "the highest model, the archetype of taste, is a mere idea which everyone must produce in himself and according to which he must judge every object of taste" etc.  He is saying that the archetype or ideal is something that we create within ourselves, and is not, for example, simply a set of works that has stood the test of time, or even some paradigmatic works set up by a particular culture.  The level of autonomy given to the good critic is stunning. Again, this reminds us of the ability of the genius to create his or her own rules or even his or her own world.  Creating the internal model of beauty is interestingly like creating the original work of fine art, one that exhibits what Kant calls "aesthetic ideas."  

Then it turns out that this idea is a rational concept which is correlated with an ideal which is itself a "representation of an individual being" seen as implied by the idea.  The ideal depends on the "indeterminate idea that reason has of a maximum," which is to say that it depends on the notion of "the best."  So we create within ourselves an ideal of beauty which is connected to the ideal notion of the best.  We are not in immediate possession of such an ideal, but we "strive to produce" this ideal of imagination in ourselves.  

Then the question is whether we arrive at such an ideal, a priori or empirically.  Kant's answer will be in a sense both.  But the a priori method is much more important.  Kant then surprisingly tells us that  the beauty "for which an ideal is to be sought" must be "fixed by a concept of objective purposiveness."   This is a paradox as it seems to go against everything he has previously told us about beauty. As a result, it is not aesthetic as ordinarily understood.  Kant had already undercut or modified his original idea of the aesthetic as pure by introducing the notion of appendant or dependent beauty.  Now he indicates that the ideal of beauty "cannot appertain to the object of a quite pure judgment of taste" as it is "in part intellectual."  There has to be an "idea of reason in accordance with definite concepts" that lies at its basis.  And this idea determines its internal possibility a priori.  Hence there cannot be an ideal of beautiful flowers, furniture or views, nor even an ideal of appendant beauty as in a beautiful house, tree or garden, since these are nearly as vague as free beauty.  It must be related to something the purpose of its existence is in itself, i.e. man, since man can "determine his purposes by reason" and this is why man is alone "susceptible of an ideal of beauty," given that "only humanity in his person, as an susceptible to the ideal of perfection."  

Why turn to man as the ideal of beauty?  Why introduce the notion of man as the ideal of beauty in this book or at this point?  The reason seems to be that only man is connected in this way to the supersensible realm, the realm of soul, God and immortality, the realm that needs to be supposed but which cannot be proved to exist.  Now, Kant continues, there are two "elements" in all of this, the one being the "normal idea" and "the rational idea" i.e. two ideals of beauty.  He spends a lot of time on the normal idea, but what he is really interested in is the rational idea to which he devotes a short paragraph at the end.  I take the normal idea to be a not-to-useful empirical approach to the ideal of beauty in man.  It is the approach that most people take to the ideal of beauty, and it is superficial.  The normal idea is "an individual intuition (of the imagination), representing the standard of our judgment (upon man) as a thing belonging to a particular animal species."  We know Kant would be disinclined to take it seriously since it treats humans as merely animal.  

The "rational idea" by contrast is one that focuses on the "purposes of humanity" which cannot be fully represented in sense but the phenomenal effect of which can be revealed.  The normal idea is taken from experience. By contrast, when we are talking about the purposes of humanity or its purposiveness, a purpose to which "only the whole race [of humanity] and not any isolated individual is adequate" the rational idea of this "lies merely in the idea of the judging subject."  It is this "aesthetical idea" which can be represented in a model, i.e. in a work of art, and presumably fine art, although he is not supposed to be talking about that in this part of his book.  I take an example of such a model to be a work of art that represents humanity by way of representing an individual human, say a self-portrait by Rembrandt.  

Where Kant may go wrong to some degree in this section, or perhaps he is merely being intentionally devious or playful, is in saying that we can make "how this comes to pass" intelligible through a "psychological explanation."  Let us assume that he is just being tricky, for the next paragraph, the penultimate in the section, is almost a joke.  In this paragraph he describes the imagination as reproducing "the image of the figure of the object" from a great number of objects of different kinds or even the same kind, and, by comparison, unconsciously letting "one image glide into another," thus coming up with an average which can serve as a common measure.  For example, we see a thousand full-grown men (as all adults have seen at least), compare their sizes, and judge a "normal size" by way of letting the images of these "fall on one another."  And so "this is the stature of a beautiful man," except that how can anyone take seriously the idea that a mere average size is what makes a man beautiful or have a beautiful stature?  The idea of equating the beautiful with the average is absurd.  Moreover, size has little to do with beauty anyway.  Kant, in short, is messing with us. The normal idea is purely mechanical.  It is as though we were dealing with the philosophy of Democritus, rather than Kant. The "various impressions of such figures on the organ of internal sense" through a "dynamical effect" produces the norm.  As he admits, the result can be arrived at mechanically "by adding together all thousand magnitudes, heights, breadths, and thicknesses" and dividing by the sum of one thousand.  The average man, based on all of this applied to all of his parts, is the "normal idea."  

But then it turns out it is the normal idea "in the country where the comparison is instituted."  The possibility of relativism in beauty raises its ugly head.  The "normal idea" on this culturally relative interpretation or variation implies that the "Negro," "European," and "Chinaman," would all have a different normal idea of beauty, something which may be true empirically, given that what we see as physically beautiful in a human is based on what we are used to looking at plus the fund of judgments of beauty we heard when growing up. 

Kant then seems to transition from this culturally relative moment to "the whole race" by which he means humanity itself, but still talking in terms of the normal idea.  The normal idea for the whole race "is the image for the whole race," and it is this idea "which nature takes as archetypes in her production of the same species" but which is not reached in any individual case.  (Why Kant should intrude the intentions or plans of nature here is not clear.)  But we know we have not gotten far here since Kant insists that this is "by no means the whole archetype of beauty in the race," and in fact is only a necessary condition for correctness in the mental presentation of humanity. The Doryphorus of Polycleitus and the Cow of Myron are examples he gives of such correct representations, but ones which do not reach beyond the normal idea.  Kant emphasizes this by ending the paragraph with reiterating that the presentation of this sort "is merely correct." Moreover, the representation does not please by its beauty, he says, but simply by not violating the condition of correctness necessary for beauty.  It is not, in short, sufficient for beauty.  So we need to move beyond that which is merely considered racially or ethnically correct, or based on the dynamic psychology of the imagination in its associative mode, to the rational (and perhaps to imagination in its productive or creative mode).

The last paragraph contains the key to the section.  As Kant previously observed, we can only expect the ideal in the human figure (as opposed to any other part of nature or in the human artifactual world which could be represented), and this ideal "consists in the expression of the moral" which provides the basis for the object itself pleasing universally, and not just as being merely correct.  What we are looking for is "the visible expression of moral ideas that rule men inwardly." Although we can get this from experience, "the idea of highest purposiveness" in man found in such virtues as "goodness of heart, purity, strength, peace" is only visible in the body or portrait through a "union of pure ideas of reason with great imaginative power."  This is precisely what we find later that the genius artist is able to accomplish with his or her aesthetic ideas.  This further step away from the empirical is required not only in the object itself but in the perceiving subject and, Kant insists, in the creator of the work, i.e. "still more in him who wishes to present it."  We know finally that this ideal of beauty is correct, or rather escapes the realm of the merely sensible, if the satisfaction is not infected by "sensible charm." 

Now this judgment is not "purely aesthetical" since we take a "great interest" in it because of its connection with morality.  But this is not a bad thing for Kant.  

The great irony of this section is that it is immediately followed by the moral of the entire Third Moment, the "explanation of the beautiful derived from this Third Moment," which is that "Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of purpose."  The irony is that this explanation has been transcended, bracketed, or perhaps even sublated, since the ideal of beauty does involve purposiveness, even more than dependent or appendent beauty, which was an odd enough exception earlier on.  Here there is a representation of purpose, although not a logical one. Rather, it is the way that the moral qualities, or inner spirit, shines through some great portraits, for example.  I find myself here thinking of Davide's Oath of the Horatii (1785) where the virtue of courage shines through action, but also, perhaps more appropriately, the portraits of Rembrandt, where an inner light of personal character, sometimes of tragic sadness, as well as deep humanity, seems to shine through.  As said, previously, this is similar to what Hegel refers to as "The Romantic."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Democritus on aesthetics

So for Democritus all that exists is the atoms and the void.  This is reality.  Appearance is based in some way on this, but basically it is not to be trusted.  Well, the senses do tell us that movement and change is possible.  At least we get that from them. Yet, "Sweet exists by convention, and so does bitter, warm, cold, and color; in reality there are atoms and the void." (The First Philosophers tr. Robin Waterfield, Oxford, 2000, 176)  The conventional is the perceptual, which is not really real.  All that we grasp when we grasp things is something that changes "depending on the condition of our bodies, of the things that enter into it, and the things that impinge upon it."  Sextus Empiricus tells us that Democritus believed that there is a bastard kind of knowledge which belongs to "sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch." (176)  Moreover, Democritus liked to stress the relative nature of sense perception:  the same thing that appears sweet to some tastes bitter to others.  So "sensible qualities are perceived by us but do not essentially inhere in bodies," although admittedly some are "inevitable consequences of the aggregation of certain kinds of atoms" as in the quality of heat being the result of aggregation of spherical atoms. (177) Qualities other than heavy, light, hard and soft, do not really exist: "they are all modifications brought about by changes in our sensory apparatus."  That sensible qualities do not really exist is shown by that fact that "they do not appear the same to all creatures" (179) 

Further his atomism militates against the notion of organic wholes in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is the notion of organic whole that allows for rich conceptions of beauty and aesthetic experience.  Democritus says that the entanglement of atoms (as Aristotle tells it) "fails to generate anything whatsoever with a truly single nature out of them, since it is perfectly think that something which was two or more could ever become one." (173)  Moreover, the atoms only act on one another based on contact, but "their contact does not make them a single entity." (172)  For Democritus, adds Aristotle, "creation is just modification."  But isn't it much more than that?  This is one of the deepest problems for aestheticians who seek inspiration from the atomists.

His theory of dreams is of some interest since he held that images penetrate the mind to give images during sleep, and that such images may come from furniture, clothing and plants, among other things. (187)  In part, this passage is an explanation for belief in ghosts, but it could also be seen as an early discussion of the ways in which the phenomena of everyday life can affect us through the imagination, how they can take up complex background meaning, especially in a dreamworld context.  Some of this discussion can be seen as though it were a theory of portraiture.  He writes, "but they also enlist and take along with them the reflections of a person's mental impulses and desires, and his qualities and emotions.  When the images strike with this baggage they speak as if they were living creatures, and tell those who receive them the opinions, thoughts and desires of those whose emissions they are..." (187-88) The eidolon act like really good painted or sculpted portraits in that they carry with them and express the internal lives of the person portrayed.  But if this is so, doesn't this militate against his denial of internal relations and organic wholes elsewhere?

To be sure, Democritus has a theory of happiness in which happiness and misery are properties of the mind (189) and happiness is identified with contentment understood is "determination and separation of pleasures" (189). So there is room for aesthetic pleasure here, but one wonders what role this kind of experience can have if it has nothing to do with reality.  Moreover, happiness as contentment, seems to him to be more a matter of freedom from fear, than the sum of aesthetic pleasures. (190)   At most it is a matter of "a moderate amount of enjoyment." (190)

According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus wrote various works related to aesthetics including "On Rhythms and Harmony," "On Poetry,"  "On the Beauty of Verses," "On Euphonious and Cacophonous Letters," "On Song," "On Painting," all of which were lost.   Most of these aesthetic things fall under the book category of "mousike" and a second, related category, "Concerning Homer, or On Correct Epic Diction," under which "On Song," "On Words," and "A Vocabulary" were included.  Painting falls in the category of "techne."  This has led some to argue that he was the first philosopher to systematically concern himself with aesthetics, although this is hard to credit given Plato's contemporary discussions in his dialogues of such things as beauty, imitative art and rhetoric.

He did say,  according to Cicero, that without madness there would be no poetry, an anticipation of Plato.  On his view, no one becomes a good poet "without a daring spirit and without a breath, let us say, of madness."  Of Homer he said, according to Dio Chrysostom, that he was endowed with a nature that was sensitive to divine influence and "built up a harmonious construction of words of every kind."  ("Democritus' Mousika" Aldo Brancacci, in Democritus: Science, The Arts, and the Care of the Soul, Brill, 2006, 201).  It is interesting that he combined divine influence with harmonious construction of words in his mind.

As for the use of the art, Diodorus tells us how Democritus saw civilization arising where "Once fire and other utilities were recognized, the crafts were slowly discovered and with them whatever else can benefit communal life."  (Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, 2001. 221).  Note also Plutarch who says
"Yet perhaps it is ridiculous for us to make a parade of animals distinguished for learning when Democritus declares that we have been their pupils in matters of fundamental importance: of the spider in weaving and mending, of the swallow in home-building, of the sweet-voiced swan and nightingale in our imitation of their song." Plutarch   "De sollertia animalium" as published in Vol. XII 
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1957 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

On teaching Anaxagoras using Waterfield and Barnes

An interesting aspect of teaching the Presocratics is that each textbook collects the fragments associated with the philosopher in question differently:  often they are arranged to meet the commentator's take on what this philosopher is really trying to say. If the translation is also done by the commentator, the teacher (and learner) is faced with a package:  translation plus arrangement plus commentary plus footnotes.  Also, hardly any text includes all of the fragments:  so the commentator is selecting here as well.   In addition, there is the issue of how the fragments are situated, i.e. how much surrounding context we get.  This is not a bad thing, and I definitely prefer this package to just a collection of fragments without commentary.  But, as a teacher, one feels the need to supplement what is offered.  Then there are idiosyncrasies: Robin Waterfield (The First Philosophers:  The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford U. Press, 2000) is extremely wary of using Diogenes Laertius in his commentaries.  Now I know that DL is considered unreliable, and he is late, but he probably had access to books we can no longer see and he is usually fun to read.  So it is kind of hard to leave DL out of a discussion of any ancient Greek philosopher especially when teaching to undergraduates. Moreover, Waterfield can't be against DL simply because he is relatively late since he often quotes from Sextus Empiricus who is arguably equally late.  Johnathan Barnes, by contrast, in his Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin Books 2001) does use DL to start with, which makes sense to me.  DLs biography of Anaxagoras is short, so that is not a problem. Also, starting with the DL biography entails that the first actual fragment Barnes uses from Anaxagoras is "All things were together.  Then thought came and arranged them" which, DL tells us, was how the treatise of Anaxagoras began!  This is a pretty important fact, or if not clearly a fact then at least something to consider.  It is arguably an essential fragment.  Moreover, it actually sums up the philosophy of Anaxagoras in a nutshell.  This should not be surprising if it is the first sentence in a small treatise in the tradition of Parmenides.  Waterfield never mentions this fragment!  So this is one place where Waterfield really needs to be supplemented.

Another significant superiority of Barnes (or at least something one needs to attend to if one is going to work from Waterfield) is that Barnes gives material from Plato.  You would think that Waterfield, who never mentions Plato on Anaxagoras, would have to mention him since Plato was practically a contemporary. Moreover, Socrates was a contemporary, and the passages from Plato relate directly to the life of Socrates.  But no testimony from Plato appears in Waterfield!  This entails that the teacher must bring in this material.  Of course most teachers of Ancient Philosophy classes will be teaching the Apology and the Phaedo anyway and can bring up the Platonic commentary and Socratic connection at that time, but this is not excuse for Waterfield to exclude it.  One can only suspect that Waterfield is one of that strange breed of classicists that loves Aristotle so much that Plato becomes somehow irrelevant to the history of ancient thought.  I once had a colleague who quite shockingly insisted to me that one should not bother to read Plato's dialogues since Aristotle was Plato's student and everything valuable about Plato is to be found in Aristotle!   

Barnes is also a necessary supplement here since at least he includes the passage from the Phaedo (97BC-98BC) in which Socrates is describing his young interest in Anaxagoras and his disappointment that the earlier dualist had not explained everything in terms of Mind.  The other important passage is not mentioned by Barnes but is in the Apology where Socrates mentions that his accusers confuse him with Anaxagoras, whose book could be bought for a mere drachma in the marketplace. 

As I mentioned earlier, Barnes also includes a marvelous passage from Plutarch in which we learn how Pericles learned from Anaxagoras for example in rejecting superstition in favor of science.  These passages are quite useful in the classroom to give the historical context of Anaxagoras.  

I should also mention that it is worthwhile at this point to bring up Aspasia, consort of Pericles, who is also not mentioned by Waterfield or by Barnes but who is widely considered to be an important part of the intellectual circle that surrounded Pericles and whose name is often paired with that of Anaxagoras:  both of them were tried for impiety, and both, unlike Socrates, survived. Admittedly, the charge of impiety against Aspasia is only found in Plutarch, but it is still worth thinking about.  Moreover, I think it is important to incorporate the work of women intellectuals in the ancient world.  This is usually neglected even today.  See Mary Ellen Waithe Ancient Women Philosophers for a discussion of Aspasia as a philosopher who taught both Socrates and Plato concerning the nature of rhetoric.  Waithe's book is still the main source on ancient women philosophers, at least as far as I know. 

Another thing I like about Barnes as opposed to Waterfield is that he gives us the fragments and testimony from Simplicius (which constitute the most important source of material about Anaxagoras's actual book) in a continuous form, saying "Here the texts are presented in the form in which they are preserved.  This makes for repetition but it offers a better picture of the evidence." Yes, this is helpful, and untrue of Waterfield.  

However, and this is a big however, if you like your presocratic philosophy with a heavy dose of commentary, you need to go to Waterfield.  Although I have been critical of Waterfield I take his version of Anaxagoras seriously and my next post will be on that.

One other sidenote.  We teachers of the history of philosophy often like to use visual illustrations with out presentations.  The various images of Anaxagoras, not only from the ancient world, but also from later times are well known.  I tend to prefer images that are contemporary for the author.  Less well known are images of philosophers readily available on the web that appear on coins. There are several of Anaxagoras, some showing him seated on a globe, some holding a globe, some standing on a globe.  The uniformity is interesting.  Also, Anaxagoras came from Clazomenae.  We are so Athens-centric we forget that philosophy came from specific cities in Ionia.  If you go to the web sites on Clazomenae you will find that there are very interesting illustrated sarcophagi from the time of Anaxagoras, images of the ruins of the city, and pictures of a preserved olive press from the time (hard to believe!).  

An interesting new book is reviewed by Glen Van Brummelen 2015. “Daniel W. Graham. Science before Socrates: Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and the New Astronomy. [2013]" ISIS: Journal Of The History Of Science In Society 106, no. 1: 167-168.  106, no. 1: 167-168.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Different Look at Pythagorean Aesthetics

Traditionally there were two schools of Pythagoreans, the acousmatics and the mathematici.  Philosophers, following Aristotle in this, have mainly focused on the first.  Yet the acousmatics are arguably the old school, closer to the original thought of Pythagoras.  I am not interested here in being the more authentic Pythagorean.  However I am interested in this other direction and in how Pythagoras himself would have approached aesthetics.  This material is based mainly on my understanding of the Waterfield translation in The First Philosophers.  Pythagoras looked at the world and found a preponderance of harmony.  If he had a central aesthetic concept it would be harmony.  The earliest Pythagoreans were interested in numbers for two reasons, because they have meaning in proportions, for example in harmonious chords in music, and because they can operate as symbols.  The two are related since a number is often meaningful as a symbol of a proportion.  According to most scholars, and contrary to what we were taught in school, mathematical theorems and formulae were not of much interest to the first Pythagoreans.  

The acousmatics were also concerned about akousmata.  These were sayings, or rather simple but obscure answers to questions, ones that I suspect had a more literal or practical interpretation hiding behind.  This can be inferred from the fact that in Diogenes Laertius their sayings have standard interpretations.  For example the injunction "not to pick up things that have fallen" is explained as "not to eat in immoderate quantities."  So when we turn to the accousmata we are looking at layers of  interpretation.  The question could be seen as a riddle.   However the standard answer could be seen as another riddle. There was also, as in the injunctions, probably an explanation of the answer, although even this might be obscure.  In this respect the accousmata and the injunctions are like Zen Koans.  Two examples are: "What are the Isles of the Blessed?  The Sun and moon."  and "What is the Delphic oracle?  The tetraktys, which is the harmony in which the Sirens sing." After mentioning these, Iamblicus also mentions "What is most moral?  To sacrifice?" and "What is wisest? Number."  One suspects that the worst way to take these is as literally true.  For example the one on sacrifice is intended to be a riddle itself.  We are supposed to interpret what is meant by saying "to sacrifice" or by suggesting that to sacrifice is the most moral. Sacrifice is a practice already under suspicion by philosophers, as we see in Xenophanes and Heraclitus.  And numbers are not literally wise, although the explanation might be that knowing the secrets of numbers is.

My hypothesis is that the early Pythagoreans saw riddles and harmonies everywhere and that this is a way of seeing the world around us as deeply aesthetic, as charged with an aura of meaning.  Harmonies, riddles and numbers all have hidden structures.  Another puzzle might be their most characteristic oath:  "No, by him who handed down to our company the tetraktys, the fount which holds the roots of every-flowing nature."  The tetraktys is a numerical structure made up of proportions and shaped in the form of a triangle.  Yes, the tetractys is made up of 1+2+3+4=10, and ten is considered the most perfect number, but also this is a basis for an aesthetic ordering of nature and of the processes of natural change.  As Sextus Empiricus says, "it is their view that the whole universe is organized on harmonic principles" and this involves three concords based on the proportions 4;3, 3:2, and 2:1.  As an experiment, Hippasus made four bronze discs with thicknesses that had exactly these three proportions, and which, when struck "produced a concord."   Aristotle clarifies this when he says that the Pythagoreans believed that "numbers are the primary mathematical principles" and that there are "many analogues to things that are and that come into being" in numbers.  Note that the claim so far is not precisely that all things are numbers but that numbers are symbols and like that they are like the other things they symbolize.  The idea is that a certain attribute of numbers is justice and another is soul and mind, and these are associated with ratios and harmonies.  Indeed, "the whole natural world seemed basically to be an analogue of numbers" from which it was concluded that "the elements of numbers are the elements of all things, and that the whole universe is harmony and number."  This is ambiguous:  the element of numbers might not actually be numbers, and the whole universe might be understandable only because we can understand it by way of applying to it numbers or numbers to it in the symbolic (and not measuring or mathematical) way we are discussing.  We think today that this is a matter of seeing it in mathematical terms, and this is partly because Galileo and the other Renaissance philosophers saw Pythagoras in these terms.  But it is more like astrology, where numbers make up a symbol system that makes sense of the universe in terms of ratios and harmonies.  Aristotle sees this in terms of the ordering of the planets and posits that the Pythagoreans needed, for example, a counter-earth to make their system complete numerically.  But let's come back down to earth, back even to home and everyday life, where the idea might be related to the building of a harmonious community, perhaps a Pythagorean one, one in which numbers play an explanatory role by providing a kind of symbolic overlay on experience.  One example of this is the system of opposites that Aristotle mentions in the same section, as in such pairs as limit and unlimited, odd and even, unity and multiplicity, right and left, male and female, still and moving, straight and bent, light and darkness, good and bad, male and female.  Deconstructionism made a business of seeing interpretation as a matter of deconstructing this table of opposites, to which Derrida and others added even more opposites.  If deconstruction is an aesthetic move, since interpretive in a non science-like way, then that upon which it is based, the very idea of opposites to be deconstructed, is another aesthetic move.  

Now consider the following passage:  "The Pythagoreans, as a result of observing that many properties of numbers exists in perceptible bodies, came up with the idea that existing things are numbers"  Focus on the first part of the passage.  They observed in perceptible things properties of numbers:  What can this mean?   We will see that the properties of numbers are their symbolic associations particularly in relation to certain ratios.  So seeing a property of a number in a perceptible thing is seeing a thing as a symbol, as having heightened meaning because of its being a riddle with a name, the name being a number.  Looking at the world in terms of numbers where numbers refer to different harmonies is looking at the world, not only the cosmos but everyday life, as music, as sensuous experience endowed with meaning.  Why do the Pythagoreans believe that existing things consist of numbers?  They do because, as Aristotle tells us, "the properties of numbers exist in musical harmony, in the heavens, and in many other cases."  Again, Aristotle insists that perceptible things are made up of number.  So, for example, "reciprocity or equality is a property of justice" equality being a property of numbers, justice being understood then as the first square number, usually considered the number 4.  Their approach to marriage as a concept is useful in understanding how this works, as marriage is taken as 5 because it is the union of the odd and the even, the odd being male and the even female.  Marriage, on this view, is a harmony, but one based on two opposites, a point similar to that of Heraclitus, that harmony is based on war, on a special kind of tension (perhaps he protested too much in attacking Pythagoras).  Marriage oddly is a deconstruction of the opposites avant la lettre.  A harmonious marriage is a deconstruction of opposites.  Another way that Pythagoreans negotiated life by way of riddles was through what were called tokens: so as Aristotle's fragment in Porphyry puts it "do not walk on the highways" is a recommendation not to follow the opinions of the many.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hume's Standard of Taste: the problem of the true judge consensus

Malcolm Budd speaks of Hume's "blithe optimism about the uniformity of response of his true judges of artistic value." (Values of Art:  Pictures, Poetry, and Music, 1995) and thinks "there is no reason that someone who satisfies the conditions Hume imposes on the true judge is likely to feel the same sentiment as any other true judge toward the same work."  James Shelley replies to this and similar objections to Hume in "Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges,"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:2 (2013) 145-153.  I think that Shelley's response is basically right, although he does take a rather extreme position when he says that "true judges will never disagree" (146).  He also reads the passage on innocent disagreements as implying that although the younger man will be sensibly touched by Ovid than the older man, both will agree that Ovid is good.  The problem is that Hume does not indicate that both do judge Ovid as good. His final position is more nuanced.  He is on more solid ground in insisting that, although someone might fit all the criteria of a good judge, she still may judge a work differently than other good judges, and that Hume would insist that we would quite properly judge by asking "whether their sentiments are more responsive than hers to the anthropocentric values of beauty."  On this view, beauty just is that which gives rise to the sentiment of beauty in the majority of those humans "whose faculty of taste is sound."  The notion of soundness that Shelley references is illuminated well by the following paragraph from Hume, which is further support for Shelley's position, but which also poses problems of its own:  

"But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules. Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy."  David Hume  "Of the Standard of Taste"

There is much that we have to go through first to find this convincing.  To contemporary eyes it looks like the set-up for an experiment:  we find the necessary conditions for a correct reading that would find "catholic and universal," i.e. objective, beauty. Yet what may seem peculiar to contemporary readers is it understands the workings of taste in terms of the workings of a watch with "small springs" that are easily disturbed whether internally or externally, and of a very young plant with a "tender and delicate nature."  All of this, of course, would explain why the feelings of men are often not conformable to the rules of beauty:  something has gone wrong with the small springs of the delicate watch, or with the tender plant.  Of course the good judges, few as they are, would have nothing wrong with the small springs of their internal watches.  So, we cannot explain the aberrant good judges by way of such problems.  If there is a problem with her watch then she will not be considered among the good judges.  This is the motivation behind Shelley saying that all good judges are going to agree insofar as they are good judges.    Perhaps the problem exists in the notion that the aberrant judge "possesses all five characteristics of the true judge":  perhaps more characteristics are needed, or some elaboration of the five characteristics in terms of the above-mentioned conditions of the good aesthetic experiment.  The good judge must, one might say, have an additional characteristic:  he or she must not have her internal springs (whatever that ultimately means in non-metaphorical terms we will leave open) disturbed. That is the value of the judge is also tested by whether he or she will still disagree with others when the conditions of the experiment are met.  Perfect serenity of mind, recollection of thought, a due attention to the object are required as much as lack of prejudice, strong sense and delicacy of sentiment.  If the aberrant critic is lacking in these then it would be false that "her sentiments track the value they track as well as the sentiments" the majority of good judges track the value they track.  Shelley asks whether the sentiments are "more responsive than here to the anthropocentric value of beauty."  Of course the core problem of Budd's objection remains.  We can't resolve the issue in any a priori way, and since there is no clear way to cash out the metaphor of the internal delicate watch mechanism by which we could have good experimental results that fit contemporary scientific standards, we do not really have a way to tell which judges, among real living judges, fall into the category of the ideal judge and which do not.  It is true that most good judges in film for example agree on certain films, for example Citizen Kane, but there is nothing to keep an extremely good critic in film from thinking that Citizen Kane is a piece of melodramatic overblown kitsch unworthy of its accolades by the majority.  We cannot assume that she just watched it without perfect serenity of mind, especially given that, as a good judge, she would have seen several performances of that movie in several different circumstances, thus eliminating the problem of an troubled mind on one viewing.