Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Philosophy as Aesthetic

I just read Sarah A. Mattice's very nice Metaphor and Metaphilosophy:  Philosophy as Combat, Play, and Aesthetic Experience.  Lexington Books, 2014.   Mattice makes the good point that there are many ways to think about philosophy based on different kinds of metaphor.  The original intuition goes back to George Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's groundbreaking work on metaphor in 1980, Metaphors We Live By.  For me, this is familiar territory since my dissertation of 1983 was largely on this topic. Mattice talks about philosophy as combat, as play and as aesthetic experience.  As a feminist, she is not happy with the combat metaphor:  defending one's position, marshaling one's forces, attacking the opponent, etc.  She is also somewhat critical of the play metaphor, although she considers different ways in which it may be effective.  She clearly favors the last of the three metaphors, philosophy as aesthetic.  I find the most value in that chapter and will discuss it briefly here.  One nice feature of the book is that it is an example of Comparative Philosophy.  It draws as much from Chinese sources as from Western ones.  One advantage of this approach may be to give added emphasis to the role of aesthetics in philosophy. As Li Zehou notes, and Mattice quotes, "an aesthetic consciousness is the highest consciousness to be attained in human life" (84), a claim that might not be made by many Western aestheticians, although perhaps by such aesthetes as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater.  It is quite possible that Chinese philosophy provides a broader approach to aesthetics than we usually get in Western philosophy, for example in the notion, developed by David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames that, as Mattice puts it, early Chinese thought stresses what they call "aesthetic order"  which is "characterized by the 'emergence of a complex whole by virtue of the insistent particularity of constituent details.'"  Mattice further observes, "systems of aesthetic order place a great deal of emphasis on relationships between constituent elements and sensitivity to change."  In aesthetic order, the different elements are not exchangeable.  (85)  

In seeing philosophical activity as aesthetic experience, Mattice does not just apply a Western theory such as that of Bullough or Dewey to philosophy, but rather enhances Western theory, supplementing it with aspects of Chinese aesthetic theory. Thus she begins with a Bullough-inspired theory of aesthetic distance but then brings in Chinese notions of aesthetic distance which emphasize such ideas as harmony, whereas Bullough's take on distance is more tensional. 

Of particular note is a similarly enhanced notion of creativity, where, influenced by Chinese aesthetics, she argues that "creativity is a special kind of imitation, where imitation is understood not as mimicry or copying, but rather as a participation with, a partaking of, or a drawing from reality.  When we imitate we begin from what is already present, from our lived experiences and our cultural heritage....then...we make it our own."  (98)  The idea of understanding creativity in terms of imitation is new.  At first it is counter-intuitive, but, from a Chinese perspective, it begins to make sense.  Drawing from Eliot Deutsch's Essays on the Nature of Art, she quotes that creativity is "precisely an intensification and exploration of one's involvement with some one or more aspects or dimensions of reality" and thus holds that creativity is "intense imitation and transformation of what is into a work of art" {Mattice 98).   

One result of this fusion of Western and Chinese is an idea of aesthetic experience in terms of "harmonious relationship between artist, work, and participant," which of course is also an idea important to John Dewey's pragmatist aesthetics, as Mattice is aware.  So, and drawing from Gadamer's idea of questions as central to interpretation, she asserts that "the aesthetic experience metaphor, with regards to distance, shows us a vision of philosophical activity as requiring a certain effort of balance between the impersonal and the personal on behalf of the one asking the question and developing it and one engaging it."  (109)  So the idea is to see someone like Plato as an artist who is examining a certain question, for example what is justice?  

Mattice thinks the introduction of the idea of Distance allows superiority of the aesthetic to the play metaphor:  "Distance requires that those engaged with the work maintain a minimum of distance  they are neither overwhelmed by their own affairs nor subsumed into the work.  Distance as a condition is the establishment of space for self-reflexivity; as a continual return to the negotiation between the personal and the impersonal, distance requires us to pay careful attention to ourselves and to the question."(115-116).   So she sees the aesthetic metaphor as both responding to the challenges of the combat metaphor and incorporating aspects of the play metaphor without its disadvantages.  Dewey of course developed much of this with his idea that philosophical thinking is essentially aesthetic.  The idea, then, applied to philosophy, is that "each solution is provisional, and can always be returned to and revised" (116).  This seems a core notion that we must always keep in mind when thinking about philosophy.  

An important aspect of Mattice's feminist approach to philosophy as aesthetic is the stress she places on the notion of "care."  We have already seen this application in ethics, for example in the work of my SJSU colleague Rita Manning.  Here it is applied both to aesthetics and to philosophy itself.  As Mattice says, using the concept of love as caring here, "another important element of aesthetic oppositionality is loving consciousness, a kind of compassion directed at the others (and the works) with whom one is engaged. An attitude of loving consciousness is one that recognized the call of another to be appreciated and understood, and that situates her in a relational context...This loving attitude is directed to the other in and of herself, tries to let her speak for herself, and appreciates that she will always exceed my understanding and conception of her."  (119)

I am almost wholly in favor of Mattice's approach.  The only modification would in my view would be to argue for cycling between the three metaphors.  The combat metaphor does have its place and should not just be subsumed under the aesthetic metaphor.  Still, it is the aesthetic metaphor that has been neglected. Philosophy really is a lot closer to art than most philosophers prior to Mattice have been willing to argue.  


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