Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Sensible Humean Approach to Taste

Summertime is when I can catch up some in reading the philosophy journals.  This can be tedious work since much philosophy, to be frank, is overly technical and picky.  The payoff is when an article one hardly expects anything from yields riches.  This was the case for me today reading Andy Hamilton's "Scruton's Philosophy of Culture:  Elitism, Populism, and Classic Art."  British Journal of Aesthetics 49:4 (2009) 389-404.  Roger Scruton (perhaps the leading living English-speaking aesthetician/philosopher of art today) prides himself in being an elitist, although he also thinks that the elite product has meaning insofar as it relates to the emotions and aspirations of all.  It may be easy for some to simply dismiss Scruton as an arch conservative, and he certainly does often seem to identify with upper-class values as such.  Yet, although politically a left-liberal, I have long felt a strong affinity for Scruton's work in aesthetics and his critique of kitsch.  Hamilton does a nice job of showing why Scruton has something to offer us on the concept of "elitism" and in his defense of what he calls "high culture." Hamilton rejects these two terms, but mainly because of associations he does not want to advocate. One has to be careful with the definition of elitism, and if you use it in a theory you have to be very clear about the sense in which it is used.  Hamilton defines elitism as "denial of populism...[in] the sense which rejects the possibility of better judgment in moral, aesthetic, and cultural matters."  His view is not to be confused, then, with elitism as defined by anti-egalitarianism.  In short, the elitism Hamilton defends (actually, in the end he just dumps the term "elitism" in favor of "meritocracy") is not the idea that there is a class of people, commonly an aristocracy, which counts as "the elite" and whose taste is to be regarded as superior.  He would not support elitism in that sense.  His defense of elitism is more in line with David Hume's idea (in "Of the Standard of Taste") that there are certain works of art that are of great value, a value which can be perceived by those who have taste in that domain, those people being the "good judges" which, Hamilton would say, is another way of referring to the cultural elite in a cultural meritocracy.

Hamilton calls these works "classics." I find this problematic since some of the most valuable works, especially important works of our own time, are not classics.  For one thing, they have not had the time to stand what Hume famously calls "the test of time." Hamilton would reply to this objection that "The concept of the classic is backward-looking in making essential reference to the test of time, but clearly one must allow that new works can belong to high culture: contemporary high culture is that which critical opinion predicts will become classic." (401)  However I think that even works that may never stand the test of time can still be of immense value, value that is recognized by people with the appropriate taste.  And yet that value is perhaps more in the innovative nature of the work than in refinement and thus does not meet the standard of what we ordinarily consider to be taste when that is associated with things called classics.  Think of really crude but wonderful examples of early blues music.  Such works only get to be called "classic" honorifically since they are at the beginnings of the great blues tradition.   Does Hamilton's notion of "classic" allow in the possibility of a greatly innovative, but raw at the edges, garage band?  Think of the Beatles.  Their earliest music was by no means classic.  If we think of classic Beatles we think of Abbey Road or The White Album.  However, the greatness of the Beatles also includes the raw energy of their early underground club work. My only problem with Hamilton then is that he (and perhaps also Hume) do not allow for that which is aesthetically great or valuable but also not really even connected to the test of time:  both of their views are a bit too backwards-looking.  OK one could argue that the early music of the Beatles can be brought into the domain of the classic retroactively because it leads too their truly classic rock productions.  But that somehow misses the point.  Hamilton fails to recognize that "classic" is invariably connected with a classical style, which, in Nietzschean terms, is fundamentally Apollonian, not Dionysian.  And to say that the good new stuff is predicted or predictable by the person of taste to pass the test of time in the future misses one very important historical fact:  widely recognized "persons of taste," for example very good art critics, have typically failed to properly appreciate great innovative works when they first came out and in their cruder more formative stages.  A sign of the limitation of the concept of "the classic" is when Hamilton writes "Classics are timeless and transcendental, appealing to all historical eras, because they capture what is essential about humanity."  (403) That is OK as a definition of "the classic" but I wouldn't want to hang a theory of taste or aesthetics or value on art on it since I think we can have taste in all sorts of matters that do not fit this definition at all.  

As mentioned above, Hamilton prefers the term "meritocracy" to "elitism" in being concerned with the "classic" rather than with "high culture."  ("High culture" like "elitism" has, as he adequately shows, too many awkward and anti-democratic associations.)  He also believes it is a more positive response to populism.  One of the main ideas of meritocracy is that those who have good taste can come from any part of society.  Meritocracy, on Hamilton's view, is not even inconsistent with a democratic approach since "even the novice's response has a status in critical discourse." (397) (Let me interject here the same problem:  Hamilton only gives the novice a role insofar as the novice debates with the good judge and comes to see in the process of debate that he or she was wrong.  Again, this does not give enough credit to the revolutionary nature of the thinking of some novices who, in debate with the good judge, overthrow the applecart, and in a good way.)  Hamilton correctly sees that Hume is not elitist in the sense of limiting taste to a certain class.  As I have argued elsewhere, for Hume, critical authority comes from practice and comparison that gives rise to delicacy of sentiment within the very area in which practice and comparison has occurred (this also requires good sense and lack of prejudice, as Hume observed).  What the area is is neutral:  it could be opera or hip-hop.  No social hierarchy of art forms is required by Hume's conception of taste.  For Hamilton, "Meritocracy denotes a system of social organization where appointments are made on the basis of ability rather than wealth, family connections, or class" (398) and he extends this to artistic appreciation.  So, for Hamilton, "meritocracy requires an open, non-exclusive body of authorities, and a nuanced notion of authority,.,  It agrees with elitism that some individuals are more penetrating judges of moral, cultural, and spiritual questions, and should have social influence; it denies that the resulting body of authorities is exclusive." (398)  To elaborate the last point, "even if, as elitism asserts, some people are more penetrating judges of cultural and moral questions than others, each individual must ultimately decide these questions for themselves." (398)  (Again, this "decide for yourself" element does not really take into account valuable revolutionary work)  He also rightly sees that, for Hume, the less experienced art viewers do not simply defer to the man of taste but debate with him, and by doing that, can eventually become good critics themselves.  Here, then, is my favorite quote from the article (the one that made me decide to write this post):

"It would be perverse for someone to say 'I just defer to critical opinion.  If I want to buy a painting by a contemporary artist, or recordings of Jamaican dub music, I'll ask an expert's opinion on which to go for.  I'm not interested in developing my own autonomous judgment.  This aesthetically heteronomous individual mistakes the beginning of the process of appreciation for its end. But the opposed extreme is also misguided.  'I never read the critics.  I just form my own judgment' - the claim of the aesthetic solipsist - and 'I never form my own judgment, I just read the critics' are equally perverse." (399)

Hamilton wishes to replace Scruton's concept of "high culture" with that of "the classic," which would include not only that which has stood the test of time and "which demands, and best awards, seriousness and intensity of intention" (400).  "Classic," unlike "high culture" includes all popular and functional genres as well as traditional high culture items, and it is not limited to any ethnic group either.  Classic, for Hamilton, means "excellent of its kind." This allows it also to include design classics such as the Braun alarm clock. (I also have a problem with associating aesthetics exclusively with classics in this sense:  it excludes those aspects of the aesthetics of everyday life which are not tied to works of classic design, for example the pleasure one gets in owning a watch that one recognizes is far from being a design classic, but rather has other redeeming qualities.)

Hamilton concludes his essay rather nicely:  "'Meritocracy' and 'classic' are far from ideal terms, but I believe that they are an improvement on 'elitism' and 'high culture'.  It is regrettable, therefore, that only an exclusive, self-perpetuating group of intellectuals will ever really understand the analysis of culture I have offered." (404)  It is!  

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The place of aesthetics in "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates"

This will be my 300th post!  It seems fitting that I devote this post to the unjustified low regard for aesthetics in the philosophical profession in the U.S.   I will do this by way of discussing the role of aesthetics in Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates by Robert Audi (principal author), a document that "Approved by the APA Board of Offers (Chair, Ruth Barcan Marcus), October 1981." and is posted on the American Philosophical Association site. (This is about as official a doctrine as we have concerning the established or, better, establishment view on the discipline of Philosophy.)  

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art are systematically repressed within the Philosophy world in the U.S.  "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates" is a key example.  Previously I have argued that aesthetics should be considered to be one of the core areas of Philosophy.  Please refer to it for an argument for my position based on the philosophy of John Dewey.  Although Wikipedia and many other sources list aesthetics as one of the traditional sub-categories of philosophy, it does not make the grade in "A Brief Guide."  There, under the main heading "Traditional Subfields of Philosophy" we find: Logic, Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and the History of Philosophy.  Aesthetics is left out.  Instead, it is demoted to the category listed later in the document, "Special Fields of Philosophy." This category does include important fields such as Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Science.  However the demotion is real, which can be seen by the fact that Aesthetics comes next after "Subfields of Ethics" and when it is mentioned, it is only parenthetically after the Philosophy of Art.  Here is the entry.

  • "Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life."
Notice that aesthetics (in parentheses) is given credit for being one of the oldest subfields and yet is not considered one of the "Traditional" subfields.  Old but not traditional?  Notice that Aesthetics is reduced to Philosophy of Art.  Philosophy of Art is a great subfield which does indeed concern itself with the nature of art and the other items mentioned.  Note how aesthetics is subordinated to the Philosophy of Art so that even though "major questions in aesthetics" is mentioned it turns out that these questions only have to do with "artistic creations."  Natural beauty,, one of the traditional subjects of aesthetics, is only mentioned as something considered in relation tot he central concern of artistic creations.  Thus the writers of "A Brief Guide" appear to believe that "aesthetics" is just another word for "Philosophy of Art." Although it is true that most aestheticians do Philosophy of Art, Aesthetics is a distinct field of inquiry that includes not only the arts but also aesthetic phenomena in nature, design, human behavior, and everyday life.  In short, Aesthetics has been demoted because of its narrow identification with Philosophy of Art.  This would be like identification of Ethics as a sub-discipline with medical ethics.  

Let's carry out a thought experiment using standard dictionary definitions.   How would the list sub-disciplines go if the sub- discipline of aesthetics were identified with the first meaning of "aesthetics" that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. "pertaining to perception by the senses"?  Wouldn't a discipline that deals with all that pertains to perception of the senses be up there with epistemology, logic and ethics?  Of course that is not the only way to define aesthetics, and as in every other philosophical term, the actual meaning of "aesthetics" is debated by philosophers.  But I think that on most meanings Aesthetics should not be demoted. Sometimes, for example, aesthetics is defined as a domain of values, where beauty for example is the predominant positive value, this making aesthetics like Ethics in which the predominant positive value is moral good. Surely, that would put Aesthetics up Ethics in the first rung of sub-disciplines.   

Continuing our dictionary experiment, even if aesthetics were identified with the second entry in the OED  "Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art" this would be much broader than "A Brief Guide"s limitation of Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art.  For the word "beautiful" is commonly a stand-in for a broad range of aesthetic properties, which include graceful, elegant, sublime, pretty, harmonious, ugly, and so forth.  Indeed, the vocabulary of aesthetic terms may well be as large as the vocabulary of ethical or epistemological terms.  This is because aesthetics deals with a vast range of human concern.  Just consider how many choices we make every day and that have an aesthetic dimension, including choices made while cleaning one's room, writing a paper, taking a walk, talking with a friend.  Is there any dimension of human experience that does not have an aesthetic aspect?  I have discussed this in detail in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.   

An important source of the confusion that entered into "A Brief Guide" has to do with narrowness and broadness of certain conceptions of aesthetics and art.  If aesthetics were simply limited to the study of the concept of beauty, and not considered to include all other aesthetic concepts, then it would be rightly considered very narrow and limited.  Philosophy of Art might be considered much broader since it includes not only aesthetic evaluation of the arts but also the cognitive power of art, the creative process, the role of art in society, ontological issues regarding the arts, ethical issues in the arts, and the relationship between artistic and religious experience, among others. One could say that Philosophy of Art is whatever philosophers have to say when they address the arts and whatever is said in the arts (for example in art theory) that looks like philosophy or is fundamentally related to philosophical traditions (for example Greenberg deriving his criticism from Kant.)   This makes Philosophy of Art is very broad field indeed. The true story is that Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics simply overlap.  Aesthetics is not simply one small concern within the wider domain of Philosophy of Art since it includes all of the uses of terms in relation to perception that are evaluative:  even "looks nice" is an aesthetic term, as I have argued.

Another feature that serves to downplay the importance of Philosophy of Art/Aesthetics as a live discipline is that aspects of that field are separated off into other subfields.  So, under "Other subfields" the Brief Guide mentions "Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film" whereas, in reality, the philosophers who publish in these areas mainly attend the same conferences and publish in the same journals as other aestheticians/philosophers of art.  

I should mention that "Brief Guide" mentions aesthetics in a couple other places.  For example under "Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits" it mentions philosophy of literature as of value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art as important in understanding the arts (although failing to recognize that philosophy of literature is just a subdiscipline under the philosophy of art.)  It also observes that "advanced courses in the philosophy of art (aesthetics) are designed partly for students in art, music, and other related fields." However, again, and as valuable as these courses are, this reduces Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art and marginalizes it in relation .   

The "Brief Guide" is not alone and represents a broader prejudice against aesthetics that can be found particularly in American Philosophy.  It might even be said that the denigration of Aesthetics goes back to attacks on the senses in Plato and Descartes and by Rationalist traditions in general. 

What should be done?  At the very least the "Brief Guide" should be rewritten to reinstate Aesthetics to its rightful place in Philosophy.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The newly expanded category of the aesthetic: further comments on Porter on ancient Greek aesthetics

Porter's book (see previous post) leads us to re-evaluate the discontinuities that have been traditionally placed between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, discontinuities that were not accepted by the materialist philosophers of ancient Greece.  It leads off in many different directions of which I will mention a few here.

First, although Aristotle is no special fan of the aesthetics of everyday life and, in fact, is listed by Porter in the idealist school of Plato and Socrates, he still makes statements, as does Plato, that can be useful for everyday aestheticians.  For example Aristotle says "the pleasure that comes from living the pleasure we get from the exercise of the soul; for that is true life" and that this is contemplation.  Moreover, for Aristotle aesthetic creatures are lovers of life:  "For in loving life they love thinking and knowing; they value life for no other reason than for the sake of perception, and above all for the sake of sight..."  [quotes taken from Porter 54-55.]  The privileging of sight is not in favor of everyday aesthetics, but the idea of pleasure that comes from living as an exercise of the soul contemplating the world fits in the with tradition that goes on to Pater and the aesthetes of the 19th century.  It is recognized by Aristotle at least in the realm of sight (and also hearing elsewhere) that contemplation is both sensual and intellectual at the same time.

More to the point, perhaps, is the alliance Porter finds with the materialism of Epicurean philosophy.  "the experience of beauty, qua the most pleasurable experience there is, will be an experience of intense perceptual awareness.  It is clear, immediate, sensuous, uniquely suited to our perceptual apparatus...; it has, in other words, all the attributes of a clear grasp of the sensible world...In fact, it just is the sensation we have whenever we have a clear grasp of the sensible world..." (55)  So, "for Epicurus our primary orientation towards the world is not only a pleasurable one, but also an aesthetic one....for Epicurus the experience of beauty and the purest form of experience (ataraxy) differ in no way at all because they are indistinguishably the same experience..." (56)  

In his section, "Aesthetic vocabularies and the languages of art" Porter points to ways in which Greek aesthetic terms (many of which we still use today) crossed many disciplinary boundaries, and thus could be applied not only to what we would call the arts but to other aspects of life.  This is part of the point of everyday aesthetics as well, as least as I have advocated it.  Porter observes that some contemporary writers have dismissed Greek aesthetics because they have not delimited art critical vocabulary from other domains:  but as Porter correctly observes, it is positive when the same terms appear in different domains.  (It might be suggested that it is a healthier culture that does not keep its vocabularies in silos).   Porter observes that even Plato allows aesthetic terms to cross boundaries, for example when he says that "harmonies are found in music and all the works of artists [demiourgoi]" i.e. painters, sculptors and all kinds of makers.  (58)  Thus the term "harmony" is not limited to what we would call the fine arts.  

Porter quotes Socrates in Plato's Menexenus in a way that gives us another clue not to a view that is Plato's own but rather to understanding further what it means to experience life as drenched in aesthetics. The passage is remarkably similar to one found in the Ion in which Ion recounts how he is taken out of himself by inspiration, i.e. taken into another world, when he recites Homer. The passage quoted in Porter (revised from the Ryan translation) goes as follows [I am leaving out Porter's insertion of Greek terms]:

"The speech writers do their praising so splendidly that they cast a spell over our souls, attributing to each individual man, with the most varied and beautiful verbal embellishments, both praise he merits and praise he does not....The result is, Menexenus, that I am put into an exalted frame of mind when I am praised by them [i.e. Socrates feels that he is being praised by the orators as the orators praise his city, Athens].  Each time, as I listen and fall under their spell, I become a different man - I'm convinced that I have become taller and nobler and better looking all of a sudden...The speakers words and the sound of his voice sink into my ears with so much resonance that it is only with difficulty that on the third or fourth day I recover myself and realize where I am"  (67)  

No doubt Socrates and Plato saw this as a dangerous illusion, and it can be.  Hitler cast a similar spell, for example.  But one can see the great orator as doing something more positive, as enchanting the polis so that can be seen as valuable.  This is perhaps something we have lost in our age of anti-politics.  Porter sees the passage as illustrating "how aesthetic qualities can permeate the very fabric of civic life, and not just one quarantined aspect of that life where we would normally look to find aesthetic experiences" so that "to be a subject (a politically constituted subject) is to be invested in a set of aesthetic values, and it is to reflect those values in the very core of one's self-image."  (Porter, 67)

One last quote:  "In place of an embarrassing dearth of aesthetic vocabulary, we run the risk of discovering an embarrassing overflow of evidence:  once we have eliminated the artificial boundaries between the aesthetic and the non- or extra-aesthetic, no text and no artifact will be immune to plundering for its indexical value in the newly expanded category of the aesthetic." (68)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece

I have been reading James L. Porter's The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece:  Matter, Sensation, and Experience. Cambridge U. Press, 2010.  This is an immensely important book both for everyday aesthetics and for aesthetics in general.  Porter is in the Classics Department at UC Irvine and would probably be off the radar for most philosophers who do aesthetics and philosophy of art, although he also has written an interesting book about Nietzsche's philosophy of art.  The intended audience for The Origins must be exclusively classicists since Porter regularly uses Greek without be sure to have your Greek alphabet with you as you read.  Fortunately, most Greek quotes are translated into English.  The primary importance of this book for aestheticians is made clear from the beginning:  no similar work has ever been written on the materialist tradition in ancient Greek aesthetics.   Porter develops the idea of a counter tradition to that of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (the idealist tradition) which he carefully recovers from every source possible including presocratic fragments, Hellenistic testimonia, ancillary fields, and archaeological evidence.  One side effect of this work is to put to rest the common view that the ancient Greeks did not even have anything like an aesthetic theory.  More important in terms of the project of everyday aesthetics is that this book emphasizes the connection between aesthetics and sensuous experience.  A result of this approach to the classical sources is to bring aesthetics back to a continuity between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics.  It is not surprising then that John Dewey's aesthetic theory is an important inspiration for this effort.  "Dewey's book articulates what will in fact be one of the central theses of the present study": in particular he agrees with Dewey that there are no fine arts that can be cut off from utilitarian arts or from everyday life. (36)  It is also noteworthy that Porter is aware of the implications of his study for everyday aesthetics as he mentions Yuriko Saito's seminal work prominently in the last paragraph of the book.  Porter also has some really interesting things to say about the concept of the sublime which, surprisingly, he traces back to a materialist aesthetic to be found in the Presocratics.  Another important aspect of his book is a reconstruction of the history of ancient Greek aesthetics, pushing it back to the Presocratics (although strangely neglecting the Pythagorean tradition, although perhaps this is because that tradition is more allied with the Platonic idealists) covering such figures as Democritus, Protagoras, and Gorgias especially.  If you care about aesthetics, the history of aesthetics or everyday aesthetics, read this book.  At least get your library to order it:  it is expensive and I was only able to read it by constantly reordering it through interlibrary loan.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What is Deep Reading?

What is deep reading, for instance deep reading of a philosophical text?  The evidence is going to be mostly personal here, although one might wonder why I should accept my own account of deep reading over that of another.   My intuition is that the answer to the question what is a deep reading of a concept is going to be pretty similar to the answer to the question what is deep reading of a text. And so there is a circularity here.  My answer to the question what is a deep reading of a concept like "deep reading" conditions my answer to the question "what is deep reading of a text."  Perhaps it is a virtuous rather than a vicious circle.  My first hypothesis is that deep reading of a text is two things since there are two meanings of "a reading":  i.e. there is a reading in the sense of an interpretation, a written text itself, and then there is a reading in the sense of a process.  Generally these are connected:  a deep reading process is one that gives rise to a deep reading interpretation.  Deep reading interpretations only come out of deep reading processes. My second hypothesis is that deep reading interpretations result from a long and arduous process in which the reader is intent on revealing the essence of the text and/or the essence of the subject matter of the text.  The intermediary moment between the hard work and the end product is a moment of creative discovery in which a linchpin or key concept is discovered: that concept in the moment of creative apprehension has a heightened aura of meaning for the reader under consideration.  It becomes a synecdoche for the whole text.  My third hypothesis, and perhaps this is related to Gadamer's idea of fusion of horizons, is that the posited synecdoche, the one that has an aura of additional meaning that gathers together and summarizes the whole and which provides the touch point for further elaboration of a thesis, is also taken as a metaphor for the self.  When the reader finds a way of seeing a concept, a metaphor, a moment in a text as synecdoche with all of the relevant hidden meaning is also the moment in which the reader is one with the text, and this moment is one in which the reader has also provided a new metaphor for herself.  This idea is similar to the Hindu idea that Atman is Brahman:  the deepest nature of the self is the deepest nature of the universe.  So, here, the deepest nature of the text is when some aspect of the text is taken as a synecdoche that is also metaphorically the deepest nature of the reading self.  Deep reading finds the self in the sense that at least a temporary symbolic resolution of deep difficulties is found.  This is the insight of the deep reading.  And this is why great texts are read again and again: each reader reads to find the right reading for her or him.  And of course these can be different at different times in one's life.  And of course a deep reading that reveals the self also reveals one's culture:  a deeper reading is going to go far beyond what is merely subjective.  The deep reading of a text deeply reads the self and also the world, or at least the experienced world of the self.    

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How much is art like philosophy or philosophy like art? Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe

I was eager to read Alva Noe's new book Strange Tools since I had read a previous book of his:  Out of Our Heads:  Why You Are Not Your Brain, which I found wholly convincing.  I even used it
as a text in my Introduction to Philosophy Class, as a contrast to Descartes. Strange Tools did not disappoint.  It continues with the thesis that we are not our brains, but then applies this to the arts. Thus, exclusively neuro-scientific approaches to the arts get well criticized.  I suppose I was predisposed to like this book since it is clearly in the tradition of John Dewey.  It even starts with an epigraph from John Dewey's Art as Experience on how the existence of works of art has become an obstruction to a theory about such works.  Noe explicitly agrees with Dewey that seeing is a transaction of whole animals with the environment, a transaction of doing and undergoing. (78)  Since Noe is one of those philosophers who is cognitive science-oriented he tends to focus on the evolutionary scale of art, thus neglecting the history of culture aspect...but that's can't do everything.  My only other complaint about the book is that it is too loosely written and popularizing in style:  it would be interesting to see a tight followup that is more engaged with the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. 

Evolutionary approaches to aesthetics are popular these days.  Noe therefore spends some time discussing such writers as Stephen Davies and Ellen Dissanayake, but oddly not Denis Dutton who's Art Instinct was a major contribution.  One could say that Noe is anti-evolutionist in that he rejects the idea that art is adaptive, but he engages with Davies and Dissanayake because he is basically in the tradition of Darwin, as was Dewey.

For me, the most valuable aspect of the book is its advocacy of the controversial dual idea that philosophy is closer to art and that art is closer to philosophy than traditionally thought. Dewey of course advocated such a view, but his position on this has been largely ignored.  In support of the thesis that art is like philosophy Noe says such sensible things as "it is a striking and abiding feature of art that it makes us argue.  It is a domain of dispute.  We argue about whether this or that is a good, as art, and also whether it is art in the first place." (139)  He even argues that "aesthetic disagreement is a kind of philosophical disagreement..." This reminds me of the argument in my own paper "The Socratic Quest in Art and Philosophy" published several years back in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Noe then, in the same sentence, says that "philosophy is, in effect, a domain of aesthetic dispute," backing this up with the idea the "there are no proof procedures in philosophy" since the problems of philosophy do not havng on facts or logic but rather on "getting clear about where we find ourselves and what we think given what we already know."  (139)  So, both art and philosophy are sub-species of something larger, which sounds an awful lot like what Hegel is saying when he says that they are both domains of Spirit.  I entirely agree when Noe says that "art and philosophy share a common aim: self-transformation and the achievement of understanding."  Few readers of this book or of this post will recognize both how true this is and how controversial. The claim should be a starting point, almost a given, for all philosophers and artists. 

Noe goes on to say that artists who make pictures are "using picture-making technologies to put pictures and the role that pictures play in our lives on display in order to call them into question."  It is the self-reflective, or dare we say it, philosophical nature of art that distinguishes it from entertainment, and distinguishes art picture-making from all the other sorts of picture-making.   And thus he talks about artworks as "philosophical objects" and of "doing philosophy with pictures."  I admit that there is something too pat about a philosopher finding the essence of art as doing philosophy, and it would be wrong to take Noe's story as the whole story since being philosophical or even reflective is only part of  what art is about, and maybe mostly part of the kind of art philosophers tend to like.  But the main point is that this is just a really good way to look at art, and it is.  There is a textbook in which each of the chapters goes by way of a metaphor for art's essence "art as imitation," "art as expressive" and so forth.  Noe's book would go in as "art as philosophy."   It is one more good metaphor for art, and one that is particularly useful today. 

As an aside, it is noteworthy that Noe's view of pictures is specifically designed to capture and make central the works of certain kinds of painters, in this case Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Al Held.  (It is odd that he chooses a trio of similar painters who were dominant in a very specific period, i.e. the 1950s and 60s, and that that period is most importantly, not now.)   

A further controversial point:  "we can speak of change and history and even evolution in philosophy and in art, but we cannot speak of progress.  This has to do with the fact that there aren't breakthroughs or discoveries or results or findings in these fields..."  (136)  Again, I think this is absolutely correct.  An interesting corollary is that unlike in science "a philosophical abstract is always dubious" since it is the piece of writing that is philosophy, not the report or summary.  This is exactly right, and it makes one wonder about the increasing prominence of abstracts in philosophy.  Further:  "to read a philosophy text is to participate in the performance of the ideas and feelings and puzzlements it traces out."  

In his review of Noe's book Mohan Mathen says that "philosophy is investigation, just as chemistry is" but this misses the entire point since obviously both are forms of investigation just as art is a form of investigation.  The point is that philosophy is much closer to art than to chemistry in its mode of investigation.  If Mathen wants to say it is not then he needs to say so clearly and then back up his position.  Of course it could be argued that philosopher is more like chemistry in that it uses arguments and is written usually in prose, whereas painting provides no real arguments and is not written. But the question remains whether these are the most important similarities... perhaps these similarities are superficial.  The arguments of lawyers also have these features but may not be investigations in the way that chemistry, art and philosophy are.  In short, Mathen's response is crude at best.

Mathen also praises Noe saying that he insightfully distinguishes between "wild seeing" and "aesthetic seeing" where the first is "an openness to our world" and "a contemplation of the world" but does not involve deliberative acts of looking and inspecting, whereas aesthetic seeing is more like entertainment of thoughts about what we are looking at.  Animals therefor on Noe's view are not able to reflect on the world in this way and thus not able to perceive aesthetically.  What strikes me here is how this is contrary to the spirit of Dewey.  Dewey stresses the continuities between the human and the animal, not the discontinuities.  Of course there are both continuities and discontinuities, but the stress may be important.  Wild seeing might be seen as what we often refer to as everyday aesthetics.  Everyday aestheticians, that is, following in the tradition of Dewey, see a continuity between what Noe calls wild seeing and this other kind which he calls aesthetic, and so everyday aestheticians would call both aesthetic, not just one.  I am a bit disturbed also by us of the phrase "entertainment of thoughts about what we are looking at."  Contrary to Noe I would not require entertainment of thoughts for any aesthetic experience.  Also, on the other side, I do not like the term "wild seeing" which implies seeing by creatures that are not in any way encultured.   Humans are encultured and thus do not engage in the seeing of wild animals. But neither am I happy with the idea that animals other than humans are incapable of aesthetic perception simply because they do not entertain thoughts while looking at things.  Why not just say that there are two forms of aesthetic seeing:  aesthetic seeing that is engaged and aesthetic seeing that is disengaged, or maybe three types, since he also incorporates seeing that involves associated thoughts.  What marks off the aesthetic in my view, by the way, is the experience of aura, as I describe that in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  That experience can be found in a variety of different kinds of contexts, both in contemplative perception and in perception with attendant thoughts:  so that distinction is not a distinction that makes much a difference for me, unlike Noe.  To be a bit more blunt, the idea that aesthetic seeing is entertainment of thoughts about what is looking at is just plain wrong.  At best you can say that aesthetic seeing can happen with or without the background experience of entertaining thoughts at the same time.  

None of this is against Noe's central point that "pictures shape our conception of seeing," (52) a point that my old teacher Marx Wartofsky made with such force over his many writings (see my article on Wartofsky in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics ed. Michael Kelly, 2015.)  I might also complain that Noe seems unaware of Wartofsky's work, although he is aware of a similar position offered by Whitney Davis.