Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Positive irrationalism: the irrational at the base of the rational.

Aesthetics in its inner nature fundamentally challenges assumptions found in philosophy: e.g. foundationalism, dogmatic commitment to clear and distinct ideas, acceptance of various dualisms, and the view that philosophical methods must be modeled after those of science.   Aesthetics is a tensional moment within the organic whole of philosophy.  If philosophy is to regain harmony it must extrude aesthetics, destroy it, or transform it  -- or else aesthetics must transform philosophy.

Aesthetics challenges conventional notions of rationality, reality, truth, and ethics.   This is sometimes not apparent because much of contemporary aesthetic theory is actually a philosophical defense against the spirit of aesthetics, an aspect of the ancient battle between philosophy and the arts once referred to by Plato. Usually aesthetics is seen as at the periphery of philosophy.  This is largely because of its close association with the arts as well as with sensuous properties which have been traditionally associated by philosophers with the frivolous and superficial.  On this view it is thought that the core subdisciplines of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics/political philosophy, and logic, with philosophy of mind and philosophy of language running in second place, or perhaps moving to first place.  Aesthetics is indeed a kind of step-child of philosophy.

The deepest challenge that both art and, potentially, the philosophy of art, poses for philosophy all of one piece, machine-like, logical in the manner of propositional logic.  All (or almost all) philosophers are rationalists in the end.  Certainly I am.  But there are different approaches to rationalism.  One approach, much maligned traditionally, is that there is an irrational element at the heart of rationality itself.  This irrational element is most easily found in the creative process whether that be in art, business, science or philosophy itself.   Creativity requires violating boundaries, overcoming categories, seeing things in radically new ways.  The inceptive moment in the creative process is fundamentally irrational.  Knowledge is impossible without this moment since knowledge is based on creative thinking every bit as much as on careful collection of evidence.  Plato was fascinated with this element and occasionally played with it, as for example in his Ion, his Phaedrus, and his Symposium, although he usually rejected it in the end.  For him, the irrational element is understood as the madness of love, or at least one kind of madness of love.  It can also be found, more subtly, in his doctrine of recollection. 

None of this is to claim that the irrational cannot lead to suffering. The negative capacity of the irrational is proved every day. And yet there is a positive irrational.  And the positive irrational is importantly valuable.  It is possible (plausible?) that embracing the positive irrational (for example in such a way as to affirm rationalism in the end) is necessary to solve our problems today. 

That is, only through a synthesis of the irrational and the rational where the end result is ultimately rational can we really work in such a way as to handle the repressed emotions that can wreck havoc in our lives.  Freud, despite all of his failings, recognized the fundamental importance of the positive irrational.   

Logicist/scientistic understanding of rationalism ultimately ends in failure because the possibility of creative thinking is lost.
One strategy that is useful in aesthetics can help in understanding the role of the positive irrational.  In the aesthetics of nature it is commonly thought that the appropriate way to appreciate nature is either through an art-like approach or by way of scientific understanding.  Some philosophers are beginning to recognize that a pluralist approach is best, particularly if it is fully integrated.  I and others have proposed the ideal of John Muir who synthesized not only the arts-based and scientific approaches but also a transcendental or religious based approach.  As an atheist, I reject a literal existent God, and yet the idea of God has sometimes been used to express something quite real: the positive irrational element in complete fulfilled experience, in this case, of nature.  Nietzsche saw this in his notion of the Apollonian Dionysian duality and particularly in his idea of the Dionysian.

It is an interesting fact that the term "irrationalism" does not appear as a heading in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or even in the index in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, the two main encyclopedias I use, and yet it is present as an entry both in the Encyclopedia Britannica here  and in the New World Encyclopedia.  The Encyclopedia Britannica says it was a 19th and early twentieth century movement that "stressed the dimensions of instinct, feeling, and will as over and against reason."  How about a 21st century movement that stresses this dimension as forming a necessary basis for reason?  It is not irrationalism against rationalism, but a positive irrationalism within rationalism at its best.  That essay turns to the early Greek philosopher as often having a "strain" of irrationalism.  This would be true of Heraclitus but also even for Plato as mentioned above.  The Sophists, the Skeptics and the Cynics all also had strains of irrationalism.  The term is often associated with faith and intuition. Other names connected with irrationalism include Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the existentialists.  The essay associates it with literary romanticism.   The anonymous writer talks about irrationalism as coming after the Age of Reason and as being in some way associated with Darwin and Freud (neither one of whom would have thought of himself as irrationalist, and both of whom might be said to have suppressed the irrationalist side of their thinking).   If experience is based on biology and the unconscious then it is not based ultimately on reason:  reason itself is not based ultimately on reason.  The sentence  "Pragmatism, existentialism, and vitalism (or “life philosophy”) all arose as expressions of this expanded view of human life and thought" implies that there is a strain of irrationalism in all of these:  and I think there is.  My own irrationalism is in the mode of pragmatism with a strong emphasis on positive irrationalism which must, to be used successfully, be brought up into the larger rationalist project.  As the author observes, Peirce and James arguing that ideas need to be assessed on practical rather than strictly logical grounds, has an irrationalist side.    I hope to have more to say about irrationalism and its relationship to aesthetics in the coming months.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodman's implicit definition of art

In his famous essay "When is Art?"  (in Ways of Worldmaking originally) Nelson Goodman says he has not defined art, but in a way, he has.  We find first that art is a form of symbolization, and that this symbolization may be representational, expressive or through exemplification. Of course this does not distinguish art from a rock sample in a Natural History museum.  However we are also informed that something is art if and when it is functioning as art.  At first, this just seems a circular definition.  But Goodman adds that we know it is functioning as art if it has at least some of what he calls the symptoms of the aesthetic.  By "symptoms of the aesthetic" he appears to mean "symptoms of art" since he does not talk about these in relation to non-art aesthetic phenomena.  He doesn't specify any of these symptoms as either necessary or sufficient for art.  

The symptoms, as he lists them, are syntactical density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification, and complex reference. (Note that he does not think that the stone in the Natural History is art even though it does exemplify: so exemplification by itself is not sufficient for art status.)  You can go to the essay itself for his explication of each of these symptoms.  The important point about all of them for our purposes is that they involve what he calls "nontransparency."  That is, in attending to these features we do not look through them to the thing referenced but rather we focus on the symbol itself.  Even though the stone in the natural history museum exemplifies it does not do so in a nontransparent way.

So one could say that, for Goodman, something is art if it functions as art, and it functions as art when it works as a nontransparent symbol.  Goodman himself does not say this, perhaps because he is worried that in doing so he would be redefining the concept of art.  However, as Weitz observed, that's pretty much what each of the classical theories of art does anyway.  

Another feature of Goodman's approach is that he is clearly opposed to Danto and Dickie, although his argument against the Purist program is remarkably similar to Danto's in that both think the purist art (like the all-black paintings by Ad Reinhardt) is fine:  it is only their claim that their work does not refer to anything outside that is the problem.  For Danto they refer to everything else in the style matrix, and thus, really, to all previous art, whereas for Goodman, they refer to all the other objects that have the same property, for example an all-red canvas refers to all other things that have the property of redness, for example roses.

I have already discussed the relation between these philosophers here.  In my previous post, however, I did not sufficiently stress the importance of Conceptual Art, and in particular Claes Oldenburg's "Placid Civic Monument" (1967).  (Each great philosopher of art has his/her preferred works of art:  in Goodman's case it is this particular conceptual piece, and this is largely because it operates as a counterexample to the opposing theories just as Warhol's "Brillo Box" operated as a counterexample for Danto.)  In this work, Oldenburg hired grave diggers to dig a hole behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then had them fill it up again.  The work was the event.  Whereas Danto and Dickie require that a work of art be an object or, in Dickie's case, an artifact, Goodman does not require this.  But, contra Dickie, Goodman stresses that the artist calling something a work of art is neither necessary nor sufficient for arthood.  So, Oldenburg's work might be problematic for Danto and Dickie but not for Goodman. 

Danto would probably handle this by saying that someone with sufficient art historical knowledge can see Oldenburg's work as art.  Dickie would probably handle it simply by saying that artifactuality is conferred on the event and not on any specific object and that Oldenburg is the representative here of the artworld.  All three would agree that it is art, but for different reasons.  The work is art for Goodman because it functions as art for a time:  it symbolizes, and it does so through exemplification of certain properties, although Goodman does not say which ones these are.  

We can say, however, that "Placid Civic Monument" exemplifies the property of monumentality (although this might be problematic for Goodman, as I will note later).  It is worth noting that the work was deliberately placed in view of an Egyptian obelisk, "Cleopatra's Needle," also in Central Park. The obelisk reaches upwards whereas, in a mirroring way, the hole reaches downwards.  Also the obelisk is about eternity whereas the hole is notably temporary.  In brief we can say that what makes it art for Goodman is a nontransparency that causes us to focus on properties that are exemplified (like Bell, in a way, although the number of types of properties to be exemplified are increased from lines, forms and colored shapes to include such things as size and texture) whereas Danto and Dickie call on us to focus on what is not exhibited, in Danto's case on what we see through the atmosphere of artistic theory and, in Dickie's case, on the status gained through the actions of Oldenburg as a representative of the artworld.  It is interesting that although all three theories would designate this work as art, each calls on us to focus on quite different features:  and each has different implications for how one ought to appreciate avant garde art.  Also, whereas Danto and Dickie both think that "once art, always art," Goodman holds that something can lose art status when it no longer functions as art.  Yet this is not entirely correct since Danto thinks that Warhol's "Brillo Box" is no longer art if it leaves the gallery and the artworld entirely and returns to the warehouse where it is indistinguishable from industrial brillo cartons:  then it just reenters the world of non-art. 

By the way, isn't there something strange about a nontransparency that calls on us to note relations to things considered extrinsic to the work of art?

To understand the five symptoms of the aesthetic in Goodman one does best just to focus on relative repleteness (which also, I think, explicates what is meant by "exemplification" or at least exemplification that is artistic).  That is, one should focus on the difference between appreciating a Hokusai single-line drawing of a mountain and a stockmarket chart:  in the first on focuses on "every feature of shape, line, thickness...counts..."  whereas in the second only height counts.  So, when the rock is moved to a pedestal in an art museum and treated as art the treatment involves a requirement on viewers to focus on every feature of every physical quality.   

What Goodman seems to neglect, however, is other things that can be exemplified.   For example, monumentality is exemplified, as I have argued, in Oldenburg's work, but this is not a physical quality (i.e. not of the same sort as color and texture).  Goodman may well say that in this case we are symbolizing through expressiveness, but Oldenburg was exemplifying monumentality more than expressing it if expression has to do with an emotion expressed.