Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dialogue with some my seminar students on the definition of art

Dialogue 1:  Dialogue with Christopher Ortuno on Morris Weitz, "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics"  Christopher is in black, I am in red.

He [Weitz] elaborates the first problem of aesthetics is, “to give a logical description of the actual functioning of the concept, including a description of the conditions under which we correctly use it or its correlates” (Weitz, 30). I wonder why he doesn't think it is an important project for aesthetics to come up with new honorific definitions of art, music, painting, photography and so forth?  That project would seem to be implied by the end of his article if what is valuable is the debates over these sorts of things.  Also, I wonder what he means by "conditions under which we correctly use it"?  Is it really that important to determine when we correctly use the phrase "work of art"?  Isn't there really a wide range of correct uses?  And isn't this just the source of debate:  i.e. some people believe "work of art" is correctly used in relation to Fountain by Duchamp and some do not.  So how do you determine whether the phrase is correctly applied in such cases?  Knowing that "work of art" is an open concept doesn't help resolve the issue.  Weitz suggests that we take our lead from decisions.   I think that the word "correct" is just not helpful here.   He paraphrases an important point made by Wittgestein, that art may be similar to games. “Games” as we call them do not all share a common property but share similar properties across a web of family style resemblances.
            In order to find a definition of art, or to find necessary and sufficient conditions, we would need a closed concept of art. However, art is not completely defined and is an ever expanding concept. In order to close the concept of art we would need to close the range of the uses of the word. This is what philosophers trying to define art have done, or tried to do and failed.
            I like the point that Weitz brings up about art as an open concept. I have often thought of the difficulty of defining art. As soon as a definition may come out, you will have not only philosopher but artists themselves trying to create art that is outside of the closed concept definition. In fact, creating a closed definition of art directly contradicts the essence of creativity that are is supposed to portray.  True, but if we provide an honorific definition this would seem not to close off creativity.  We may sometimes close a particular portion of art in history once the time has passed. For example, “Greek art” may be a definition of a kind of art at a particular time, in a particular place. More importantly, the time has passed and thus the definition of it can be closed.  Good point, and I appreciate your raising it in class.  This bracket closing of time and place makes it much easier to define “Greek art.” In fact, the definition will most likely include time and place. More importantly, since no one can add to this period of art, the concept can be closed logically.  I am not so sure of that.  To close a concept logically is to say that for any new member of a class it must meet the necessary and sufficient conditions.  But if the class is already extensionally closed then such a definition is not even needed.  All you can say about an extensionally closed class is that all the members share certain properties:  but that they share properties has nothing to do with what is essential to their membership in the class.  I think that extensionally closing a class actually forecloses on the possibility of definition. Perhaps we can define art, although, only in groups and only after the fact. In this way we can give a closed bracket definition of a particular kind. This way we will again have groups of types of art that again have family relations to one another, just like that of individual piece of art. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

“Aesthetic Atheism” Talk given to The Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, Feb. 11, 2018 Thomas Leddy, San Jose State University

“Atheists today are too often castigated as materialistic calculators whose lack of spirituality sucks their universe empty of all beauty. Remembering [Percy Bysshe Shelley’s argument for the non-existence of God in his short “The Necessity of Atheism.”] gives us an opportunity to counter this stereotype and to reflect on the aesthetic of enchantment with which a non-theistic world-view can be associated. The works of Shelley join the novels, poems, songs, sculptures, paintings, architecture and plays of generations of godless artists in exposing the straw man of the desiccated rationalist for what it is, and showcasing a humanist vision of life.” Andrew Copson, “Atheism's aesthetic of enchantment,” The Guardian, April 2, 2011   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/02/shelley-the-necessity-of-atheism
I have been an atheist since the age of 15.   I was strongly convinced, then, and am still today, by a number of arguments against God’s existence.  First, there is the problem of evil, which has never been adequately answered by theologians.   How could a good God create a world with so much suffering?  The atheist answer is that the existence of so much suffering proves there is no God if God is defined as the all-good, all-powerful creator of the universe.  Second, there is scientific evidence for a materialistic universe, and there is no need for immaterial things like God to explain what is not yet been explained by science.  Evolutionary theory, for example, gives us a much better explanation of the emergence of human consciousness than any religion.  Third, traditional proofs for the existence of God all fail for a variety of reasons.  Fourth, as David Hume showed, the concept of “miracle” is incoherent.  Fifth, religion is not necessary for morality.  I will not go into the arguments for atheism here, but if you are interested there are a number of good books out there.  In short, I find it hard to understand how belief in God, immaterial souls, and the afterlife can be taken any more seriously than belief in fairies.  But I am not against religion.  I think religion has a lot to offer us, even those of us who are non-believers.   I admire religion for trying to deal with the fundamental issues of what it is to be human, for addressing our deepest hopes, fears, and needs.  Religion at its best is based on experiences (for example of the presence of God in the world and in our hearts) which have, for large numbers of people, given meaning to human existence.  Philosophy of the non-religious sort, however, handles these issues better because it is not burdened by the metaphysical baggage associated with traditional religious belief.   Philosophy questions authority and allows us to doubt. 
But I do not reject religion because I believe in doubt.  To be sure, doubt is something I value.  Although, for many, doubt can be a source of pain, I enjoy it, at least when it is directed to the big questions.  I not only enjoy the adventure of raising difficult questions and trying to answer them, I enjoy the to and fro of debate over these things.  However, philosophy does not just give me doubt.  I love philosophy partly because it gives me a suitable replacement for faith.  That’s not to say that my belief in philosophy is an example of faith.  I do not have faith in philosophy.  Faith is belief based on some scripture or on the say-so of some religious leader, and philosophy does not offer anything like that, or at least it shouldn’t.  In logic, the “appeal to authority” fallacy happens whenever an authority is deemed to be higher than reason or evidence.  An example would be saying that something is true because the Pope says it is true.
What does philosophy gives me more than the joys of debate?  It gives me several quite different, beautiful, and systematic ways of understanding the world, each offered by a single writer or by a school of thought, ways that address some of the same fundamental issues addressed by religion.  Of course it is up to each student of philosophy to not only understand and appreciate these systems but also to oppose them and borrow from them in constructing one’s own system.
But before going into that I will say a couple words about science.  Science is a wonderful thing and I am a great advocate of science.  And most philosophers I know feel the same way.  I am not convinced that science is the only path to truth, but I think it is a very important one.  I, and most other philosophers, are happy with sharing inquiry with science.  Philosophers typically ask and try to answer questions that science cannot answer.  Traditionally, whenever a question becomes resolved or even resolvable by science philosophers happily give it up.  For example, philosophers no longer are concerned with the ultimate building blocks of the material universe.  We think scientists are doing the best job that can be done with this problem.
So what do philosophers do?  They ask and try to answer a certain kind of question.  Most philosophical questions take the form “What is X?”  For example, “What is truth?” “What is reality?” “What is man?”  “What is law?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is art?”  They then offer competing definitions or theories of these things and argue about them.  There are also the “Does X exist?” and “Is X real?” questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is nothingness real?”  And we also ask the closely related question: “What does the word ‘x’ mean?”  For example, you need to ask what is meant by the word “God” before you can ask whether God exists.   Of course not all “What is X?” questions are in the domain of philosophy.  Again, there are “What is X?” questions that are best answerable by science: for example “What is water?”  I am not saying that this question has finally been answered by scientists, but they are on the way, and they are getting better and better answers every day. 
However, there are other “What is X?” questions, such as “What is moral goodness?” which are not answerable, yet, by science.  Religion provides answers to some such questions, but again, religion does so via the appeal to authority fallacy and its answers are metaphysically suspect.  It is questions like these, or at the least the important ones, that are the domain of philosophy.  Philosophy then, sits in many ways between religion and science.  It is sympathetic to aspects of each, but it follows its own path and its own methods.
It also turns out, and this is equally important to me today, that art, especially great art (including music, visual art, literature, dance, architecture, movies) also provides much of what religion gives us, or gave us in the past, but usually without religious belief.  Although most people today still seem to need religion, great philosophy and great art can, together, give us all we thought we could only get from religion.  Nonetheless, as I will argue, that does not mean that religion is without value, even for atheists.
But, someone asks, what about morality?  Oddly, I suppose, I do not consider morality a complicated problem.  Thousands of years ago Confucius, and later, Jesus, got it right.  The basic moral rule is that you ought to treat others as you would have them treat you.  This isn’t true because either of these people said it was true:  they just provided the formulation of a basic insight.  The basic moral truth was recognized much later by Immanuel Kant as the second formulation of the categorical imperative:  act in such a way to treat people primarily as ends and not as means.  Without this moral rule we would not be able to function as a society.  The more people follow it the better off we will be.  There are also moral saints who go beyond following this basic rule in helping others.  I would say that their acts are not only morally right but morally beautiful.  (Since beauty is an aesthetic concept, we are entering here into the domain of aesthetics).  The Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s is an example of something that was not just morally right but morally beautiful.  We can argue over this but I do not think much more needs to be said about ethics, at least by me today.   
You may ask me why I am not an agnostic, especially given my natural skepticism.  Agnostics, it is true, reject all dogmatic belief.  But an agnostic holds that, regarding religious belief, there can be no knowledge one way or another.  On the issue of God the agnostic just says “I do not know…I cannot know.”  But how does the agnostic know that she cannot know about God’s existence or non-existence?  Most agnostics claim to know a large number of things in other aspects of their lives?  So what makes the subject of God so unique?  Some people say that you cannot prove that God does not exist, and yet atheists have come up with perfectly good proofs for that, proofs that just are not accepted by either believers or agnostics.  From the atheist perspective, evidence for belief in God is pretty much on the same level is evidence for other spiritual beings, such as witches, ghosts and fairies, that most people today actually reject. 
Can we ever be absolutely certain of anything?  No.  Can we be reasonably certain that God does not exist?  Yes.   
But earlier I was saying that philosophy offers me something more than just non-belief, and I want now to pursue that.  Each philosopher has his or her own perspective, his or her own philosophy.  Being a philosopher is a matter of building up, usually over a long time, an elaborate structure of ideas that helps make sense of things.  We philosophers generally call this structure our “philosophical position.” Today I will be talking about my own position (or perhaps, more modestly, my own hypothesis), and you shouldn’t assume that I will be speaking for any other philosopher or school of thought.
My point of view is based not only on years of reading and writing about philosophy, but also, like many other thinkers, on key moments of inspiration that have happened in my life.  Few philosophers would admit this.  But I would argue, perhaps controversially, that inspiration plays as important role in philosophy as it does in religion, art, science, and even in business and love.  The idea of inspiration was originally tied to religion:  the thought being that the prophet or mystic is inspired by god.  However, philosophers, unlike saints, do not take moments of inspiration as guarantees of truth, only as relatively reliable guides towards inquiry.  These moments, to be frank, can be like mystical experiences.  Does this pose a problem?  Does any use of inspiration give the game away to religion?  Does it imply the existence of a world beyond our material world?  I don’t think so.  I think that this material world in which we all exist has some pretty amazing properties, one of those being that it generates life, another that it produces consciousness, and another that it brings forth creative thinking and dramatic insight.  One of the main reasons people become immaterialists is that they shortchange what the material world, and the material things in it, including us, can do.  We do not yet know how this world accomplishes these things or how we, as parts of it, accomplish them, but this is no reason to hypothesize another world.
So, when it comes to having insights, I just think it is amazing that there are moments, usually after long study and hard intellectual work, when everything seems to come together and ideas flow, when we have a real idea, a real insight into things.  Again, belief in the value of these experiences does not require belief in something non-material that causes them.  Moments of insight just are one of the many surprising things the material world coughs up.  Moreover, such moments are not limited to philosophy, and can be found in art or, and it may be surprising for an atheist to say this, even in religion.   
So part of the basis of what I will say is a certain kind of experience, an experience of inspiration which is also, hopefully, or at least seems to me to be, insightful.  Whether or not it actually is depends on how its results fare in the battleground of ideas, and I am happy with that.  Again, I do not think that these experiences give what I will have to say any special validity.  I do think that they are much like the mystic experiences described by religious figures, although I have no way of proving so. 
The experiences I am describing often involve a perception of unity underlying a great deal of diversity.  After a number years of teaching philosophy I find such a unity between a wide range of thinkers.  And yet this unity ultimately depends, I must confess, on some rather unorthodox interpretations I have about each of them.  I doubt that I would ever be able to make this clear even to myself, and yet I do think that there is something like a perennial philosophy, that is, some inner truth to philosophy itself, a truth that is unfortunately hidden by superficial differences in language and approach.  The claim, in short, if I were ever able to spell it out, would be that philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Plato, Kant, Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger and Dogon all have a message to convey which is fundamentally the same, despite all of the differences between their various theories.  The central idea is that there is a path of transcendence, but one that is without God, without belief in an immaterial or transcendent realm, and without souls that survive our deaths.  All of these rejected ideas are just myths that hide an underlying and much more important truth.
So, then, what does this have to do with speaking to a group of humanists.  Just about everything.   Humanism, I believe, is also fundamentally committed to this way of seeing things, or at least something like it, i.e. that there is no religious truth and yet there is something like a religion of humanity, or perhaps of life, and that this religion (if we can call something a religion that is without faith or God) has something to do with what Lao Tzu meant by “the Way,” what Confucius meant by “humanness,” what Plato meant by “the Good,” what Kant meant by the “transcendental unity of apperception,” what Hegel meant by “the Absolute,” what Emerson and Thoreau meant by “Nature,” what Nietzsche meant by “eternity” and the Dionysian, what John Dewey (the great American Pragmatist philosopher) meant by “pervasive quality,” what Heidegger meant by “Being,” and what Zen means by “satori.”  Moreover, I think that the great religions were trying to talk about this very thing.  They just got this all confused with wishful thinking about the goodness of the universe and the existence of an afterlife.  
Why all of this talk about inspiration and mysticism?  The perspective I take towards these issues is fundamentally aesthetic.  That is, it focuses on aesthetic experience.  There are all sorts of low- level aesthetic experiences, for example the pleasure we take in a pretty dress, but there is also what Dewey referred to as “an experience” which is the high point of experience, and which is also aesthetic.  That is, experience itself is graded according to its aesthetic value.  An experience, or what Dewey also calls integral experience, has unity, a pervasive quality, great intensity, and considerable complexity.  In general, Dewey argued, we should have more of such things in our lives, and less inchoate experience, which is the opposite.
Aesthetic experience should not be confused with artistic experience.  Art plays an important role in aesthetics, but aesthetics includes natural aesthetics and everyday aesthetics as well.  Aesthetics deals not simply with a certain kind of experience but with the properties that give rise to it.  Notable among these are the beautiful and the sublime.  Religious experience really is just experience of these properties, as is also any profound experience of nature or art.  If you experience God, that is a sublime experience in the sense that it has aesthetic intensity and gives great delight, as well as being pretty scary.  Edmund Burke said that both terror and delight are essential to the sublime.  A better example of the sublime for atheists is seeing something dramatic in nature, like a volcano, but from a safe distance, so that there is an element of fear but a greater element of enjoyable astonishment. 
Now when I said religion is just experience of these properties that may seem unfair.   The believer would say that the experience of God is sublime precisely because God really exists.   Since I deny that He does, but want to be a bit fairer to the believer, I will say that the most profound forms of religious experience are actually profound forms of aesthetic experience.  Religion and art, then, are closely tied.  Religion may be said to come into being with ritual and mythology.  And ritual and mythology are proto-art forms.  Ritual, of course, requires belief in God or gods and the earliest drama and dance were ritualistic.  But as religious elements gradually disappeared from art performance, and as enjoyment of art no longer required belief in spiritual entities, secular art arose.  But it is still tied to its origins in profound ways.   
I have a name for my approach to religion, a pretty clunky one as these things go.  I call it “aesthetic atheism.”   The combination may seem strange.   Aesthetic atheism is a kind of atheism: it is predicated on non-belief.  However, at the same time, it stresses the aesthetic, particularly the beautiful and the sublime.  I developed the idea out of a dissatisfaction with more mechanistic and ham-fisted approaches to atheism, like those of such recently famous atheists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  Aesthetic atheism is somewhat more positive about religion than many other forms of atheism.  As I have suggested, religion is predicated on religious experience, and religious experience is very close in character to the powerful and profound experiences we can have of art, nature, and philosophy.  Aesthetic atheism recognizes this. 
As I said earlier, aesthetic atheism learns from the great philosophers, with the important exception of Descartes who made no worthwhile contribution to this project, whose logicism, over-reliance on mathematics, mechanistic view of nature, hard-core dualism, and rejection of human imagination, made him an opponent to all things aesthetic.
I want to end today with some reflections on Immanuel Kant, who, although deeply influenced by Descartes, managed to break away from him in important ways.  Kant of course was not an atheist.  He did believe in God.  But he also systematically destroyed all of the traditional proofs for the existence of God.  What we were left with after Kant was basically agnosticism.  It would be best, according to him, that we act as if we believed in God.  So Kant was deeply ambiguous about religion.  We cannot prove that God exists but morality would be meaningless without God, and free will would be impossible without the existence of a transcendent soul, or so it seems.  Because of his residual Cartesian dualism Kant could not conceive of free will as just another word for the amazing creativity open to us as material beings.  (But there is one passage that seems to indicate he could.)
Kant wrote three great critiques:  The Critique of Pure Reason, which showed that metaphysics has limits, in particular that it cannot prove that god exists, although it can provide us with certain a priori truths such as that everything has a cause; The Critique of Practical Reason, which attempted to ground morality in the categorical imperative, and The Critique of Judgment, which deals with issues of taste, beauty, the sublime, fine art and the apparent design of the universe.  By the time he got to this last book he had a problem.  He knew he could not prove the existence of a transcendent realm, a realm of God, heaven and the soul, and yet he thought he needed this realm to make sense of his ethical theory.  The Critique of Judgment, besides allowing him a chance to apply his previously developed theories to art, aesthetics and nature, provided, he thought, a solution to the problem of the gap opened up in his philosophy between the world of experience and the transcendent realm.  In my view, and I think in his as well, this book was the culmination of his entire career.  And the most important part of The Critique of Judgment comes when Kant discusses what he calls the fine artist, which he also called the genius.  It is in this discussion that Kant describes what he calls “aesthetic ideas.”
Here’s a quote from Kant on aesthetic ideas, which appears in Paragraph 49 titled “The faculties of the mind which constitute genius”:  (The Critique of Judgment tr. James Creed Meredith.  Oxford U. Press, 1952,)  “Soul (Geist) in an aesthetical sense, signifies the animating principle of the mind [for example when a poem is more than merely pretty or elegant it has soul].  But that whereby this principle animates the psychic substances [Seele] – the material which it employs for that purpose - is that which sets the mental powers [e.g. imagination and understanding] into swing [by which he means a free play] that is final, i.e. into a play which is self-maintaining and which strengthens the power of such activity.”  He goes on to say, “Now my proposition is that this principle is nothing else than the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas.  But, by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination [that picture or image] which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible..”  A rational idea by contrast is a concept to which no intuition can be adequate.  [For example, you could never fully imagine God] Further, “The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature.  It affords us entertainment where experience proves too commonplace; and we even use it to remodel experience…”  And “By this means we get a sense of our freedom”  so that we can borrow materials from nature working them up into something that “surpasses nature.”  “Such representations of the imagination [that is, aesthetic ideas] may be termed ideas.  This is partly because they at least strain after something lying out beyond the confines of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of rational concepts [i.e. ideas like idea of God or other abstract ideas like the idea of death]….thus giving to these concepts the semblance of an objective reality.”  [Notice he says “semblance”:  he is not really committed to God’s existence here.] Further, the poet [meaning any artistic genius] tries to interpret “to sense the rational ideas of invisible beings,” and other religious ideas, as well as abstract ideas related to life. 
Now I must admit that I am going to give a somewhat unorthodox take on what Kant means by “aesthetic ideas.”  Kant might not have approved of how I will go about using his notion.  My take on aesthetic ideas is that they are essentially powerful metaphors.  They are not literal truths but rather ways of seeing things.  They are the central force behind all sorts of creativity.  As Kant correctly said, they cause our thoughts to seemingly go on unendingly, or as Kant said, they generate much thought but no final definition.  They are sublime insofar as we find them astonishing and a little scary.  
The art of the genius is the art of creating aesthetic ideas.  Great works of art just are aesthetic ideas materialized in a medium.  Moreover, when a great work of art is created, including the great mythological stories of the great religions, what we get is a created world.  The genius artist and the religious figure both create a world, a “second nature,” out of the materials of the world.
As I have suggested I have modified Kant’s concept of aesthetic ideas somewhat.  I have given them something of the character of what he called rational ideas or ideas of reason.  By ideas of reason Kant means something like what Plato meant by his eternal Forms.  Kant included as rational ideas, the ideas of God, immortality, and the soul, but also the great ideas of philosophical interest, such as the ideas of justice, truth, and beauty. I am willing to agree with Kant up to a point on this:  the rational ideas are ideals, like the perfect circle which we can never actually draw.  But, on my view, unlike Plato and perhaps Kant, ideal things are not real, or rather, their only reality is their name and their touted ideal nature.  Rational ideas do not refer to real things:  they are just abstract markers, endpoints in a never-ending quest.  The aesthetic ideas, however, are real.  They are real things directed towards or trying to represent something which is unreal except for a name.
I fuse Kant’s concepts of aesthetic and rational ideas, dropping the aspects of each that I don’t like.  That is, aesthetic ideas, on my view, have a quality of unity that Kant never intended them to have, a unity he would not, however, have hesitated to attribute to rational ideas. I agree, however with Kant on many points concerning aesthetics ideas:  that they will not be fully explicable, that they are not unchanging, and that they are directed towards the rational ideas.  But the important thing is that they do not belong to another realm:  they belong to our world.  They are an aspect of the world we experience.
So, on my view, what Kant called rational ideas just are aesthetic ideas, or better, are the unreal things aesthetic ideas unendingly aim towards.  There are no rational ideas above and beyond aesthetic ideas.  One way of putting this is that if you want to see a rational idea or the referent of a rational idea you can only look at an aesthetic idea.  That is, rational ideas are just words:  they have no content, but they function as abstract goals, as things aesthetic ideas try to express, even when those things are not real and have no real reference.  Kant may be right that it might be best to act as if rational ideas were real, but the real things are the aesthetic ideas.   
Aesthetic ideas cause the appropriately receptive mind to have its faculties of imagination and understanding go into a free play that seems unending.  This experience is sublime.
We still feel wonder at certain things in nature:  the natural world seems as-if designed.  Moreover, the great works of humanity, including those of art, philosophy, science, and even religion leave us in wonder. 
It follows that religion is best seen as an unconscious art form.  Religious rituals should be seen as total works of art.  As such, religion incorporates within it many other art works and aesthetic phenomena.  Like grand opera, for example, religion incorporates within itself both the beautiful and the sublime.  It contains also the important elements of tragedy (first worked out in its aesthetic dimensions by Aristotle in his Poetics) and redemption (first understood in an active way by Nietzsche through his idea of the Dionysian as expressed in his The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music). Recognition of religion as unconscious art distinguishes aesthetic atheism from traditional atheism. 
Aesthetic atheism also has some affinity with the small number of religious practitioners who do not believe in the tenets of their religions, but remain in the church, mosque, temple, in order to retain the benefits of seeing the world under the light of a vast, although fictional, drama.  

Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God and affirms our material being, but at the same time it affirms experiences of transcendence, of what Kant called “aesthetic ideas” which themselves both partake in the beautiful and the sublime. These ideas are to be found not only in art but also in other non-art cultural phenomena, including religion.   

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A possible theory of art inspired by Plato's Ion

Could Plato have been suggesting the following theory of art in his Ion?  What follows is a possible theory of art inspired by Plato, although not necessarily his own.

For something to be art (in, for example, the Kantian sense of "fine art" which is to say, art of genius) it must be:

1.  Inspired. 
2.  Contain something god-like as the source of inspiration.  [The source of inspiration might not be an actual god but rather some person or thing, for example other art, that takes one out of oneself, that causes ecstasy.  This thing may be god-like not only in this but in that it has created a world.]
3.  The artist must be taken out of himself, must create in ecstasy.
4.  The artist enters into a fictional world (as Ion, a rhapsode, enters into the world of Homer) and, for example, feels emotions appropriate to that world. [This is part of what is meant by being out of one's senses.]
5.  The artist, in entering into another world, sees our world (or aspects of it) in a transformed way:  i.e. he/she takes elements from our world and gives them heightened significance (for example, the poet sees water as milk and honey).  In this way or sense the artist him or herself is "holy," i.e. god-like. 
6.   The artist breaks down the gap between human existence and the natural world in some way.  For example in seeing the creek as milk and honey the artist humanizes it, i.e. makes it more intimate.
7.  The artist recognizes the limitations of his/her self knowledge:  i.e. achieves a kind of Socratic wisdom.  This would involve recognition of those realms in which he or she does not have expertise, for example being a charioteer.  [This condition is not stated or even implied by Socrates.  Socrates, as a character makes a very strict distinction between knowledge based art and the arts of inspiration.  But Plato as the writer of this drama may be suggesting this in the end.]
8.   The artist does have a field of expertise.  For example Ion is able to imitate characters in Homer and knows how to influence audiences just as a doctor is able to influence a patient. [Socrates probably would not have subscribed to this.  But it makes sense.  Surely Plato was not unaware of this possibility, much as he disapproved of the actual influence of artists.]

for more on Ion see here

Monday, January 22, 2018

JAAC Special Issue on the seventy-fifth anniversary part 1

I had originally titled this blog "Aesthetics Today" with the idea that I would make comments on up-to-date material, and in reality it became a place for me to try out any ideas I had in aesthetics.  But today I want to comment on something quite up to date -- the special issue of the The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism titled "Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Issue."  There will be nothing terribly organized about these comments and I will not try to summarize the claims made by the various authors since these are readily available in the abstracts they have provided.  I will begin by saying that this issue is well worth reading.   I will proceed article by article. 

Kathleen Marie Higgins writes in "Global Aesthetics -What Can We Do?" on something very dear to me -  the idea that aesthetics should not just be limited to Western aesthetics but should include in a systematic way aesthetic theories from throughout the world.  Last year I taught a Philosophy of Art class for the first time with this emphasis.  Higgins had already been an influence on me by way of a textbook she put together several years ago called Perspectives on Aesthetics.  It was partly an interest in global aesthetics that led me to think more and more in the late 80s and early 90s about everyday aesthetics.  For instance, I early wrote a paper on gardens as art which was in response to a paper by Mara Miller (who later wrote an important book on gardens as art), and Miller is also a specialist in Japanese Aesthetics.  Yuriko Saito's work has also long had a very strong influence on my own not only in her interest in Japanese aesthetics and everyday aesthetics but also in her work on the aesthetic of the natural environment.  In my World Aesthetics class I also incorporated many articles on various aesthetic traditions form the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.  I will close with one quote from Higgins:  "We might take our expanded horizons as points of departure for new theories that relate to similarities and differences....If 'aesthetics' is interpreted as being global in scope, new theoretical discussions are likely to proliferate..."  (346)  Global Aesthetics, as described so well by Higgins, can only enhance aesthetics generally speaking.  Ultimately aesthetics should be global, and we are right now making baby steps in that direction.

Paul Guyer "Seven-Five Years of Kant....and Counting"

Guyer's work in aesthetics, especially on Kant, is very high quality.  I have been reading his history of modern aesthetics which has been a rich source for me of instruction and insight.  In this work Guyer explores the history of Kant scholarship within the JAAC.  Guyer, I believe rightly, places considerable emphasis on Kant's notion of "aesthetic ideas."  In this regard, it is interesting to think that there is a metaphysical dimension to Kant's analysis connected with Kant's thought that the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good because, as Guyer puts it, "of analogies between the experience of beauty and moral experience, above all the analogy between freedom of the imagination and freedom of the will." (360)  I find something intriguing about this.  Perhaps there is a deep tie between the two in terms of the notion of freedom:  it seems that when we are truly creative in art, or feel fully engaged in the experience of art, or of nature, we experience ourselves as free.  I do not quite understand the relationship between this freedom and moral duty, but I suspect that behaving morally is a matter of treating one's life as an other-centered art, the "art of living" as Liu Yuedi puts it.  

I am not happy however with Guyer's second point, which basically advocates an idea of Kant's that the naturally beautiful provides a  sign that nature "has our own interests at heart."  This, it seems to me, is precisely the kind of metaphysics Kant tried to overcome in the Critique of Pure Reason.  Whereas Guyer thinks that "perhaps in fact...it is...natural for us to make such reflections" i.e. reflections that there is a God-like being who has our best interests at heart, I think that we need to avoid this illusion (as Freud rightly called it).  Nature does not care about us.  There is no evidence that it cares about anything.  At best the only thing we can say is that we cannot avoid thinking of the world as possibly guided by goodness and that this may somehow be an overlay on our feelings of freedom associated with creative activity and in the art of living.  Only the later can provide any grounds for self-improvement.

Guyer's overall thesis, however, is well taken: as he concludes the paper:  "Kant's aesthetic theory ...combines logical and linguistic analysis, psychology and phenomenology, and metaphysics in both the older and the newer sense."  I would only argue that the metaphysics in the older sense problematic.  However, there is great value in Kant's metaphysics in the newer sense.      

Friday, January 12, 2018

Seeing as, seeing in, seeing plus

Here's a hypothesis.  I have been reading Paul Guyer's A History of Modern Aesthetics vol. 3, 20th century.  (Cambridge U. Press, 2014.)  Great book.  I can't wait to read the first two volumes.  There is a lot of talk about Wittgenstein's idea of "seeing as" and Wollheim's idea of "seeing in."  It strikes me that these may be both subcategories of something that is even more essential for aesthetics:  an umbrella concept for aesthetic seeing, one might say.  I will call this umbrella concept "seeing plus."  Seeing plus happens when you not only see an object but see it as with what I have called, adapting the word from Walter Benjamin (but not the concept), aura.  Seeing plus happens when you experience something with heightened significance.  Seeing plus can happen through seeing as and it can also happen through seeing in.  But neither seeing as or seeing in are required for seeing plus.  Nor is either sufficient for seeing plus.  So, you can see plus an item of everyday life even though you do not imagine that thing as something else or see something in it.  Seeing plus is very much like what the Buddhists call mindful seeing, and yet Buddhists do not tend to accommodate the aesthetic dimension of mindfulness.  Seeing plus might also be described as truly seeing the object.  There is of course hearing plus, smelling plus and tasting plus.  Seeing plus and its cognates are always attended by pleasure.  Wollheim was famous for spending hours looking at one painting.  What is the value of this?  Perhaps at a certain point he no longer sees in but also sees plus.  Seeing plus must also be involved with seeing as it is in itself, or at least seeing something as if you were seeing it as a thing in itself.  Seeing plus might be seen as seeing something not living as if alive.  But when we see the our beloved when in love we also see her plus.  Seeing plus is like seeing as in that it adds something.  But in this case what is added cannot be described:  we have more, but it seems that we have more of the same thing, of the thing itself.  Some Buddhists talk as though we do not really see thing until we have achieved enlightenment:  perhaps seeing plus is an intimation of enlightenment, a small fragment of heaven.  I have sometimes spoken of everyday aesthetics as having a high point.  This would be experiencing the world by way of seeing plus. Seeing plus is not limited to the everyday:   seeing something sublime in nature is seeing plus.   Seeing something beautiful, when you see it as beautiful, is seeing plus.  Pater thought that the goal of life was to have as many moments of aesthetic ecstasy as possible:  perhaps this is a matter of maximizing experience plus.  Dewey thought that great art should give us an integral experience.  Perhaps "integral" is just another word of seeing plus.   Seeing plus might be related to imagination except that an specific image is not required.    

Friday, December 29, 2017

Play and Everyday Aesthetics

I am reading vol. 3 of Paul Guyer's A History of Modern Aesthetics.  (Cambridge U. Press, 2014).  It covers the 20th century.  Guyer has a particular theory of role of play in aesthetic experience (not surprisingly, since Kant gives a big role to the free play of the imagination and the understanding in the experience of beauty).  In his discussion of Collingwood, Guyer quotes Collingwood on Schiller (also famous for his views on play and art) in a way that seemed suddenly relevant to the project of everyday aesthetics.   Collingwood writes:  "Schiller's identification has often been rejected because art is a high and serious thing and play a childish and trivial; or because art is a thing of the spirit and play a thing of the body, its source the mere exuberance of physical energy, its aim merely physical pleasure."  

This caught my attention because the same criticisms have been raised against the aesthetics of everyday life.  So perhaps the aesthetics of everyday life is in some way closely connected to the tradition of Kant and Schiller in the play theory of art and aesthetics.  

Collingwood goes on:  "But these antitheses are totally false.  Serious art is serious and trivial art is trivial; children's games are for children and men's games are for men.  But as children are naturally and instinctively artists, so they naturally and instinctively play; and as art for grown men is something recaptured, a primitive attitude indulged in moments of withdrawal from the life of fact, so play is for grown men something to be done as a legitimate and refreshing escape from 'work.'"  This all from his Speculum Mentis pp. 103-5.  

I would argue that there is a continuity between art and play and that the dichotomies suggested and traditionally held are false.  This is not to say that art is the same as play or even a species of play.  Surely art is generally more serious than play, but the aim of neither art nor play is merely physical pleasure.  So too, the pleasures of everyday life are not merely physical.   

Guyer speaks of both art and play achieve their goals of refreshment and relaxation "through their use of bodily energy without the conscious intention of solving any specific practical problem."  And this is also true for many aesthetic experiences of everyday life, for example taking a walk in the park.  Guyer's argument is intended to defend Collingwood against a common charge of excessive idealism.  He claims, I think rightly, that "the rejection of a rigid division between mind and body is essential to Collingwood's defense of both play and art and of the identification of the two"  (207)  although, again, I would hesitate to simply identify art and play.

Another quote from Guyer in this discussion of Collingwood is also relevant to our concern.  He quotes from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria ch. 1V in support of Collingwood's rejection of rigid distinctions between childhood and adulthood as well as play and art :  "the character and privilege of genius ...[is to] ...carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day ....had rendered familiar..."  (207)    This seems relevant to the contemporary debate over everyday aesthetics.  The everyday may be seen in terms of "the familiar" but it can also be seen through child-like eyes.  Both Coleridge and Collingwood seem to be arguing for an approach to the everyday through a child's sense of wonder, which is what I, much later, called finding "the extraordinary in the ordinary."

Thus reading Collingwood and Coleridge could perhaps help in developing an everyday aesthetics. 

I will close with another quote, again taken from Guyer from Collingwood's Speculum Mentis.   "The true defence of play is the same as the defence of art.  Art is the cutting edge of the mind, the perpetual outreaching of thought into the unknown, the act in which thought externally sets itself a fresh problem.  So play, which is identical with art, is the attitude which looks at the world as an infinite and indeterminate field for activity, a perpetual adventure."  Collingwood concludes later that "the spirit of play, the spirit of eternal youth, is the foundation and beginning of all real life."  (107)   

This would mean of course that art and play are not entirely to be detached from the realm of the practical.   But it approaches the practical from the standpoint of this word "adventure."  If life is approached as adventure it is approached as drama, as something with heightened significance, as wondrous.  The playful approach to the everyday is more in line with what the artist does, hence the continuity between everyday aesthetics, nature aesthetics and art aesthetics.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Interview of Thomas Leddy by Shawn Chong

What is the most memorable event in your life?

It is hard to categorize events as “most memorable” or not.  One of the reasons for this is that you remember different things at different times.  If by “most memorable” is meant the thing that one ought most to remember, that’s one thing.  If it means the one thing you remember the most, that is another matter.  Besides, when people ask this question they usually just want an amusing anecdote.

One thing I remember distinctly and think about from time to time is the day Prof. Brock informed me that I had been awarded a tenure-track position as San Jose state.   I had been teaching here as a temporary full-time lecturer and there was pretty tough competition for this tenure-track position.  Just yesterday I ran into one of the leading contenders for that position at an aesthetics conference.  I was so glad that the department chose me over him.   

What is the most noteworthy event you experienced while working at SJSU?

One wants to ask “noteworthy for whom, and under what circumstances?”  Sometimes we think of noteworthiness as equivalent to newsworthy.  I was in the news quite dramatically twice in my life.

There was the time that a tree fell on me while walking to my office.  It broke my right leg in two.  I was evacuated to the Valley Medical Center.  Thankfully no one else was under the tree at the time.  There is an article about the event in the campus paper archives. 

Another time I appeared in the news was when I was interviewed by the New York Times about our department’s famous stand against problematic use of MOOCS (massive online classes) in higher education.  This was a very important event in the history of the department.  We all contributed to a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the use of such courses.  It was a great moment for the department.  A number of the other faculty were also interviewed in the national media.  Recently we co-wrote an article incorporating our further thoughts on the issue.  This is the only time I have collaboratively written a paper with anyone. 

Who was your idol in philosophy when you grew up, and how have you tried to be like them?

In our society we have no really clear idea of what is meant by “when you grew up.”  I assume you mean something like the period leading up to my 21st birthday, with greater emphasis placed on the later part of that period.   I had many heroes then.  I wouldn’t say they were “idols” since I never worshiped them as gods or god-like beings, but I certainly admired them.  You can look at my web page for a short autobiography in which I list the philosophers who influenced me at certain times in my life.   Under the age of 21?  Well Thoreau and Nietzsche were two philosophers who particularly affected me.  But I also read and was influenced by Descartes, Pascal, Bertrand Russell, Plato, Hume, Kant and towards the end of that period, Wittgenstein.  I was also much taken by some eastern philosophers including Krishnamurti and Lin Yutang.   
“Growing up” implies the process of coming to maturity and one can say that there is no clear cutoff point here.    Am I still “growing”?  Do I still have maturing to do?  I am not sure I know the answers to those questions.

I have been totally immersed in Plato, Kant, Hume, Ricoeur, Dewey and a number of others at different times in my life.   But when it comes to philosophy of life I think I probably draw more from the Stoics. 

During the period before I was 21 (I became 21 in 1970) it was not popular to pay much attention to women philosophers.  However, later in my life a number of women were added to my pantheon of heroes, both living and dead.  My advisor for my M.A. in Humanities was Sandra Luft, who I greatly admired and still do.  On my blog Aesthetics Today I have a list of the women aestheticians who have influenced me in my life.  

What belief or doctrine of philosophy had the most influence on you?

I am not much for accepting doctrines or even “beliefs” if, by that, is meant something someone accepts without questioning.   I have always been taken by skepticism and see doubt as central to philosophy. “Influence” is also a funny word since the relationship between writings one reads, classes, teachers, thoughts, and writings one writes is much more dynamic than can be described by the relatively passive concept of “influence.”  My initial response to this question was “Probably the American Pragmatist tradition had the strongest influence.  However I have also been much affected by both the phenomenological and the analytic traditions.”  But now I think that the strongest influence (assuming, for the moment, that I set aside my reservations about the word) was the dialectic of Christianity of Philosophy.   Christianity, which was an important part of my youth, really did present a doctrine and a set of beliefs that one was required to accept:  but I reacted against all of that.  I first began to think of myself as an atheist around the age of 15 and that was largely because of philosophy.  By the way, an important influence in this was a book I read by John Fowler called Aristos, which was based on the sayings of Heraclitus.   

How have the books you have favored changed throughout your life?

It may seem too obvious to say this but the books that I favored under the age of ten were children’s books often involving adventure.  In my teens I was eager to read the great classics.  My grandfather gave me a list of such books and I was happy to work my way through that.  I was a big reader of novels and history books in my teens, but later in my life I focused more on philosophy.  I still read about twelve novels a year, mostly in connection with a literary fiction reading group that I have belonged to for over thirty years, although sometimes I read mystery and science fiction.

As for individual books, Brother's Karamazov was one of the reasons I became an atheist.  I loved reading the great classics including such works as The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and of course the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek plays.   However during my professional life I have pretty much focused on whatever books I have been teaching.  This semester it has mainly been books on the aesthetics of film, but also, just this week, Suzanne Langer's Feeling and Form.

What time and place would you like to live in?

It seems like a silly pastime to imagine living in another time and place.  But perhaps an indicator of the choice I would make would be what sorts of novels I like to read, including historical fiction, as well as the history books I like to read and the historical sites I like to visit.  Perhaps my choice of novels and history books and sites reflects whatever time I would like to live in (if I had a choice) since to read a novel or to visit a historical museum is to vicariously live in another time.  In this regard I have always favored the 19th century.  It was a time of great possibility and we had not yet discovered that we were about to destroy the planet.  I prefer Sherlock Holmes stories when they are placed in the 19th century, and I love Jane Austin.  Growing up in California, history was mainly the 19th century.  My second choice would be the 18th century.  In both cases life would only be acceptable if in a major city and if one were comfortably well off.  My third choice would be Athens during the time of Plato. 

If you have a chance to meet someone, who might that be?

If dead people are included I would certainly like to meet Socrates.  But I probably would not do very well in the debate.  I don’t really have a list of living people I would like to meet.  It is not so much meeting people that would be interesting but talking with them at length.  But it is hard to know who you would really enjoy talking to at length.  Most great men and women I have known are egocentric and to talk with them you have to be pretty tolerant of that. 

What is your most proud achievement in philosophy?

Pride involves positive feelings of accomplishment.  I have that mainly towards my career as a philosophy teacher at SJSU.  A great source of pride is the accomplishments of my past students.   Another source of pride is my publications…the academic part of my professional career.   I was one of the founders of a new sub-discipline of philosophical aesthetics called Everyday Aesthetics.  My book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life was published in 2012 and I am proud of that book.  Yesterday I attended a talk in which my work in this field was referred to positively, and that made me feel proud. 

Do you consider your work unique?

Uniqueness is a pretty common property.  Everything is different in some respect.  On the other hand, usually when people use the word “unique” they mean particularly unusual.  So, let’s assume that we are talking about this sense of “unique.”  People often associate the word with something positive:  it is considered a complement to say that someone’s work is unique.  But it can be used as a put-down, i.e. uniquely stupid or uniquely incompetent.  My philosophical writings (“my work”) reflect a distinctive voice that is my own.  Whether or not it is unique, in the sense of particularly unusual in a positive way, I might not be the best to say.  If someone other than me decided to read all of my writings and then compared them with the writings of someone considered to be more typical perhaps it could be determined how unique my work is.   But I suspect that the conclusion would be that we were both unique. 

There are some philosophers who simply accept a doctrine and apply a standard method without trying to think very deeply about assumptions.  Such people, and people who are followers of one philosopher, might be less deserving of the accolade “unique.”  I am not that sort of philosopher.  I have tried in my career to derive inspiration from every philosopher I read and I would never say that X is true because philosopher Y believes it is true.  However, that, in itself, does not make me particularly unique. 

What would you change about yourself?

In a way this is a very strange question.  What is the point of talking about changing oneself?  I am not sure I can answer this.  If the question is something like “If you could retroactively modify your DNA or your history what would you change?” how could I possibly answer that?   If I changed myself in this sort of way then I would not be myself.  There is a paradox here. 
Nietzsche argues for saying “yes” to your life including your entire past, and presumably your genetic makeup too.  He sees this as the basis of the only worthwhile optimism.  You should strive to say “I will it thus.”  I agree with this.  So, in a way, I wouldn’t change anything.   There is a paradox here too:  if I try to follow Nietzsche’s advice more often, then perhaps I am not saying yes to a part of myself that says no to myself.   But that paradox does not bother me.

Change is about the future.   One always makes plans and all plans are about change.  Usually this question is directed, however, to what personal habits one wants to modify, for example “do you want to eat more vegetables and fewer saturated fats?”  I do not want to talk about those kinds of projects since that kind of thing is not appropriate for public discourse.

What philosopher's writings have you agreed with the most?

My initial response to this question was “Richard Rorty's writings constantly gave me that sense, although I probably have agreed even more with the writings of Joseph Margolis.”

Thinking about it more I imagine that among my contemporaries I have usually agreed with Yuriko Saito the most.   However, I am not sure how important it is to agree with someone or how important this category really is.  I sometimes have written “I agree” with regards to some claim by some philosopher:  but who cares how often I do this?  In philosophy it is often much more interesting to disagree with someone than to agree with them.  I suspect that I have also disagreed the most with Saito. 

If you could change one period or stage in philosophy, what might that be?

"I would let Descartes disappear:  he did not really do any good for philosophy.  The value of his work is mainly to provide something to argue against, although I admire his dedication to truth.”  This is what I initially wrote in response to this question.  But, thinking again about Nietzsche’s idea of saying yes to life, I would say that I would not change anything about the history of philosophy:  why would I want to?  Even Descartes has value for me.  The debates between Descartes and his contemporaries are particularly fascinating. 

A second possibility would be to have had Heraclitus and Parmenides travel to India or China and have some serious discussions with the philosophers there.  Or Plato.. Or Aristotle:  definitely Aristotle.

Do you believe philosophy is a subject-matter capable of being understood only by a few?

My initial response was “Not at all:  anyone who cares to learn can sink into the world of ideas created by a philosopher.”

I am not sure that philosophy is one subject-matter.   There is philosophy as a practice and philosophy as a collection of writings and talks.  Also some people argue that there is philosophy in literature and film, maybe even in painting and music.  One should not forget the philosophy in one-to-one dialogues such as those described by Plato.   Each work of philosophy presents its own challenges.  If you are reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra you need to learn how to read it.  It is a different think to learn how to read John Dewey’s Art as Experience.  That is why we have seminars and professors.

“Understand” usually means being able to appreciate and explain.   Only a small number can currently appreciate and explain Nietzsche’s great books.  But potentially almost anyone can do so if you are willing to put in the work.   Of course there is a distinction between superficial and deep explanation.  Perhaps the deepest form of explanation (and the deepest form of appreciation) is when someone creates his or her own philosophical work in response to the work in question.  Plato was possibly the deepest reader of Socrates, as Aristotle was of Plato.   As a practical matter, not everyone can read and understand on that level.  There are also multiple possible equally good understandings of a philosophical writing.  There are many other readings of Plato than that offered by Aristotle.  Yet some really good philosophers are not very good readers:  they are perhaps best as coming up with their own theories and may even be engaged in creative misreadings of others.

Do you think philosophers are wrongfully viewed and represented by most people?

“Yes.  But we philosophy teachers are constantly trying to correct that.”  That would be my initial reply.  A better way to answer this would be to survey adults on the question “How do you value philosophy?”  That is, this would be a good question if, by “philosophers rightly viewed,” one means “philosophers rightly appreciated.”  Maybe, however, it means “philosophers rightly appreciated and understood.”  OK, so we generate some questions, ask them of a representative sample of most people and then analyze the responses. But how would you determine the representative sample?

Since most people have not read a lot of philosophy we already know that most people will not have much understanding of philosophy and hence will not view philosophy rightly, if by “rightly” is meant “with understanding.”  One way to answer this question would be to look at popular sayings about philosophers and philosophy.  It might be popularly agreed that “Atheism necessarily implies immorality.”  That would be a wrong view of atheism.  To check this, one would have to read most of the great atheist philosophers and most of the great works defending atheism.  Some people rightly view some philosophers largely because they have read them and understood what they have said.  Some people can do this simply by listening to lectures about the philosopher or reading secondary sources.  Most people wrongly view most philosophers simply because any partial understanding of a philosopher is an incorrect understanding.  I am not entirely comfortable, however, with the dichotomy “right view” vs. “wrong view.”  Maybe we should speak instead of better and worse views of philosophers.

Shawn Chong was a student in my Introduction to Aesthetics class and he uses these questions to write an interview for another class.  I want to offer my thanks to Mr. Chong for posing these questions and getting me to elaborate on my original responses.