Saturday, June 10, 2017

On Heidegger on the relation between metaphysics and aesthetics.

I am currently reading Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics. Far from being an introduction, this is one of the hardest books I have ever read.  I am attracted to it from the standpoint of thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and metaphysics.  My working hypothesis is that aesthetics has been vastly under-related in its importance to philosophy and to the central problems of philosophy.   Heidegger, it seems to me, is onto something with regards to this topic.  Heidegger seeks for the roots of philosophy in the pre-Socratic philosophers and, in particular, in Heraclitus and Parmenides.  The question at issue is "what is being?"  Heraclitus understands being in terms of "logos."  And of course Heidegger has his own interpretation of "logos" via Heraclitus and Parmenides.  For Heidegger, logos is a gathering and togetherness  (134).  It is also a gathering and togetherness that shines.  Being disclosed itself to the Greeks as physis which Heidegger describes in this way "the realm of emerging and abiding is intrinsically at the same time a shining appearing" as he identifies the root of physis with phainesthai:  "Phyein, self-sufficient emergence, is phainesthai, to flare up, to show itself, to appear." (101)  So this unity this appearing is a shining forth which is also a collection. Further, the gathering we are talking about is not just a heaping but a unity of things that conflict:  "It does not let them fall into haphazard dispersion.   In thus maintaining a bond, the logos has the character of permeating power, of physis."  (134)  There is a uniting of oppositions that also maintains their tension.  

This I propose is the root also of aesthetic experience.  To experience something aesthetically is to experience it as something that shines (metaphorically) due to emergence of a unity that pulls together tensions and opposites. Here is one possible way to interpret this:  Being is not just a bare "is" of identity or predication or even existence but something more like Danto's "is" of artistic identification. Being happens when the essentiality of something shines forth for us as a gathering that overcoming opposition. When this happens we have "aura":  i.e. the intensification of experience associated with the various aesthetic terms, most significantly "beauty."  This is, of course, beyond the dichotomy of subjective/objective.  

Heidegger connects all of this interestingly with the nature of man himself:  "We do not learn who man is by learned definitions;  we learn it only when man contends with the essent, striving to bring it into its being, i.e. into limit and form, that is to say when he projects something new (not yet present), when he creates original poetry, when he builds poetically."  (144)  If that is right then it follows that finding out who man is would be only possible through looking at his artistic creative activity.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Heidegger's Other Passage on Van Gogh

The first chapter of Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics is titled "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics."  It was one of a series of lectures first delivered in 1935 and then revised in 1953. Aestheticians have long been interested in Heidegger's discussion of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh which appears in his "The Origin of the Work of Art" which also was drafted between 1935 and 1937 and was also re-edited in 1950 and again in 1960.  So it is not surprising that Van Gogh's painting also appears in "The Fundamental Question."  It is a short passage and it, of course, serves a somewhat different purpose than in the other essay.  I am working here from the Ralph Manheim translation (Yale University Press, 1959).  Here is the quote:

"A painting by Van Gogh.  A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing.  But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here?  The canvas?  The brush strokes?  The spots of color?"  (35)

The point at issue in this passage is not the nature or origin or the work of art.  Rather Heidegger is interested in the question of being.  A few paragraphs earlier he asks "Wherein lies and wherein consists being?"  The question is also reformulated as "Wherein consists its being?" when referring to a heavy storm "coming up in the mountains."  The next few paragraphs cover a "mountain range under a broad sky,"  "the door of any early romanesque church," and "a state," all before we get to Van Gogh case.  After this Heidegger asks "what in all these things we have just mentioned is the being of the essent [thing]?"   In each case there are a lot of questions, and it is not at all clear what Heidegger is intending to say or how he would answer these questions.  Aesthetic issues play a role in some of these cases, but not all, and they are not dominant. When discussing the mountain range, he does consider that it might reveal itself to the traveler who "enjoys the landscape" but also to the meteorologist preparing a weather report.  And he also considers that each of these may only be an aspect of the object and Being may be either be behind these aspects or in them.  

In the Van Gogh paragraph Heidegger assumes, as in "Origin," that we are looking at peasant shoes.  (It has been argued that these are actually Van Gogh's own shoes.)  The sentence fragment that opens the paragraph seems to indicate that we are concerned here with the being of the painting, not of the shoes.  So we have him ask "wherein consists being in the painting?"  He says that the painting "represents nothing" although that is odd since it represents peasant shoes.  The next sentence also refers not to what we would ordinarily think of as the being of the painting but rather to the experiences of a particularly imaginative viewer of the painting. What "is" in the picture turns out to be related to how the picture is experienced by this imaginative viewer.  To repeat:  "you are immediately alone with it [being] as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe...."  The imaginative viewer imagines being a very specific peasant at a certain time of day and year.  Somehow this is in the experience of the painting, or in the painting, or the Being in the painting.  The end of the paragraph comes as an even greater surprise since, after asking "What is here?" i.e. in the panting we have additional questions, which are also possible answers, and which actually refer to the physical substances of the painting:  "The canvas?  The brush strokes? The spots of color?" It is being suggested here that the being is encountered through the imaginative viewing of the painting, but is also there on the canvas, and in the brush strokes.

The rest of the essay has its own disturbing nature.  Heidegger has joined the Nazi party two years previously, and, although he resigned from the Rectorship of his university in 1934 he continued to be a member of the party until the end of WWII.  Moreover, in the essay he makes some pronounced political statements, mostly pro-German and anti both American and Russian.  

He spends some pages worrying over a comment by Nietzsche that "Being" is a "high concept" that is also "the last cloudy streak of evaporating reality."  Nietzsche even refers to Being as an "error," this in The Twilight of Idols.  Heidegger takes Nietzsche to be saying something more like that Being is seen by people today as a mere vapor:  sure the word is empty but it is no fault of the word. Rather, we have "fallen out of" Being, and without knowing it. Being, he suggests, is not a mere word but "the spiritual destiny of the Western world."  

It is odd today to take seriously notions of the spiritual destiny of the Western world, as though the Western world is all that important. I know all about the ideas of a history of the West, one which sees Europe as central.  But, being a Californian, living in a multi-ethnic community, and teaching students from all countries in the 21st. century, it just doesn't make any sense to me to worry about the spiritual destiny of the Western world any more than it makes sense for me to worry about the spiritual destiny of Germany.  I could see a German worrying about that, just as I can see myself worrying about the spiritual destiny of America.  But I am not sure that the spiritual destiny of America, if there is such, is any closer to the spiritual destiny of Europe than it is to that of Humanity or The World.  Let's just say we feel a special affinity to Europe.

Of course Heidegger would not be sympathetic, partly because he already has a role for America to play in his story:  "This Europe, in its ruinous blindness forever on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in a great pincers, squeezed between Russia on the one side and America on the other."  (37)  And in a few short years Europe (by which he mainly means Germany) is fighting both. America and Russia are the sources of spiritual decline. 

This is not to say that he has no enduring insight.  He associates America and Russia with something that is still problematic today:  "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man....and time as history has vanished from the lives of all peoples"  (37-38)  The illness he associates with America and Russia is actually just universal, taking in German and Europe every bit as much as every other part of our civilized world.  Set aside the mistake about Germany (at least the Germany of his time) it might still be worthwhile to look for "new spiritual energies unfolding historically from out of the center."  (39)  We just need to reinterpret "the center."

Of course the bigger issue is how to interpret "spiritual."  


Monday, June 5, 2017

Aesthetics and the Being of beings

I had previously posted on Heidegger and everyday aesthetics here  Here are some further thoughts.

I have been returning to Heidegger to think about the meaning of aesthetics and more specifically of everyday aesthetics.  Nothing I say here should be taken to imply that I am a follower of Heidegger.  Let’s just say that I take inspiration from some of the things he says.  The immediate impetus of my discussion has been reading George Steiner’s Martin Heidegger (University of Chicago Press, 1989).   

The question Heidegger was most interested in concerned the Being of beings.  Unlike Heidegger, I interpret this as a deeply aesthetic notion.  This is how I take this in a nutshell:  when we experience something with heightened aesthetic intensity we are experiencing the Being of beings, and conversely when we experience the Being of beings we experience with heightened aesthetic intensity.   The Being of a being is the dynamic essential nature of the thing under consideration.   But, as we shall see, my notion of "essence" is very unlike that of Plato or Aristotle. Philosophy and Art are concerned with the Being of beings.  Heidegger sensed this when he placed so much attention on the arts of poetry, architecture and painting in his quest for the Being of beings.  Yet Heidegger does not seem to be aware that Being is something fundamentally aesthetic.   

(Steiner indicates that Heidegger ultimately failed to answer the question "What is the Being of beings?"  I think that what I am providing here is an answer.)

I should also note that my view could be made consistent with a certain reading of Plato, a certain reading of Kant, and a certain reading of Nietzsche.  I am very unlike Heidegger in this respect:  whereas Heidegger sees his work as a radical rejection of previous philosophers, based usually on a rather willful misreading of these figures, I see continuities and deep affinities.  When Plato, for example, talks about grasping Beauty itself in the Symposium and also talks about grasping The Good in The Republic he is talking about the same thing as when Heidegger and I talk about grasping the Being of beings.  For Plato, grasping The Beautiful and The Good (the same thing, really) is the goal of philosophy:  and that is not a matter of coming up with a definition but a matter of being able to see essences in the world.  (It is more than that, but that's a start).  What Heidegger calls "the is of what is" is just the essentiality of what is:  but a lot depends here on how we take "essences."  We cannot take them to be entities, beings.  Rather, search for essences is searching for the Being of beings.  I agree with Heidegger that Being is not a being.  Heidegger’s attacks on Plato work only as attacks on the kind of characterization we get of Plato’s ideas in introductory classes.  To think Being for Plato is every bit as much an activity as it is for Heidegger.   The path up out of the cave is a path of activity, of dialectic.  Moreover, the path down from perception of the Good is also a path of activity.  

Heidegger’s own confusion about Being needs to be cleared up, however.  Heidegger confuses mere existence with heightened experience of Being, an experience which, in my view, is also, at the same time, an emergence.  That something exists or does not exist is of little interest to the philosophy of Being.  We concern ourselves with existence in cases like "does global warming exist?" and this is only a question of whether the term "global warming" with its implied definition accurately describes the state of the world.  Modern science confirms that global warming exists.  This has nothing to do with what we are discussing here.

The philosophy of Being is only mistakenly seen as a theory about the word “is.”  The question “why is there something rather than nothing?”  is a case in point.  Heidegger made a big deal about the importance of this question.  It seems at first to be simply a religious question, one that begs the question.  That is, it simply assumes that there is an explanation for why the universe (not only this universe, but any universe) exists.  God has been the traditional answer.  Or perhaps it is thought that the question is somehow important, even though clearly God is not the best answer.  I do not think that this question is very interesting, at least not when taken literally.  But I do not think Heidegger always took it literally.

The real question (the one the stated question was really trying to ask) is rather, “why is there creativity?”  That is, "why is it that sometimes we seem to get something from nothing?"  Why is there an emergence of Being?  Why do we experience certain things as more than the sum of their parts?  Why is there potentiality as well as actuality?   Why is there meaning at all?  The question "why is there something rather than nothing" directs us to these other questions, which, when taken together, much better represent what we are getting at.  Being, as Heidegger well saw, is the ontological question, and that is quite distinct from questions of ontics.

Except that we should be suspicious of the “why” word.   Philosophy cannot really provide explanations, and certainly not causal explanations.  The characteristic philosophical question is a what is x question, not a why question.  Perhaps to some extent these questions just intend to get us to pay attention to the emergence of Being.  

Another area in which Heidegger and I disagree is that I see Being as emergent from natural processes, from biological, cultural and personal evolution.  I agree that Being arises from the interaction of language (in the broadest sense of that term, including all symbol systems) and the world.   But this just means that the emergence of Being is phenomenological:  it happens in consciousness.  Being happens when truth emerges in experience.  "Truth" in this sense has an ineliminable personal dimension.  Being doesn’t just happen in the thing-in-itself.  Or if it does, this is not our concern.  But Being also emerges in shared experience:  it is not purely subjective. 

Investigation into the essences of things is investigation into the ways in which  Being emerges.  Plato saw this as investigation into Forms:  asking the "what is" question, for example "what is piety?" Whenever we ask the "what is?" question of philosophy in a deep way we are trying to get at Being.   Heidegger is right, however, to see this in a different way from Plato:  Plato asks us to leave the sensuous world to experience Being.  Nietzsche and Dewey taught us otherwise.  Being emerges only through our interaction with materials, with media:  it is when, for example, the architect allows Being to emerge through the materials of wood or stone.   

Again, Heidegger thinks that existence is the key, and to a certain extent he is right.  But, to put it better, that which gives rise to the experience of awe “exists” in the strong sense that Heidegger is indicating.  So when Heidegger says that hidden being gives the rock its dense thereness (a point made by Steiner on pg. 66), I think this is best understood in terms of what Yuriko Saito has said about the Japanese gardenist's way of experiencing a rock:  the rock has a dense thereness when we see it as manifesting Being, as manifesting essentiality.   The Japanese gardenist listens to the request of the rock in the way that Heidegger asks us to return to a point at which we listen to Being.

I think that we have always been listening to Being, but I agree that this is rare and made difficult by contemporary life.  To listen to Being is to open up to the way things in the world that speak to us about inner nature (not only their inner nature, but ours) through a medium, i.e. of language, paint, or the stone as used by the architect.

Interestingly, essentiality here is not just what it is defined as but rather the way in which it manifests reality itself.  I said earlier that even Kant is misinterpreted here.   A point at which Kant and Heidegger intersect is at the notion of “aesthetic ideas” developed in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  The Being of beings is aesthetical.

This of course is all in tune what I have previously said in this blog on aesthetic atheism.  See also my posts on Kant on aesthetical ideas.

Nothingness.  Being does not emerge out of nothingness in a straightforward way.  We should beware of hypostatizing nothingness.  Being emerges by way of negation of that which is irrelevant in the construction of a perceived/conceived whole.  But Being can just as well be said to emerge from fullness, or rather from over-fullness.   It emerges from full engagement.  If one fully engages with one's craft then sometimes light shines forth:  Being emerges.  This is creative intuition.