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Monday 28 February 2011

Quotes worth saving (5) Horace's consolation for the PhD student:

Molliter austerum studio fallente Laboren. 

Where the interest in the activity beguiles the hardness of the toil involved.

- Horace, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica.

Friday 25 February 2011

Questions to ask yourself before an undertaking

Note: Replace 'say' with 'do' or 'make' or 'enact' where appropriate.

What do you want to say?

Why do you want to say it?

What will the saying of it achieve?

Monday 21 February 2011

Fitted-ness in the Lecture on Aesthetics

The beginnings of this concept can be seen in lecture one and section 8 (L1, S8) where Wittgenstein says that, “it is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetics judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’ etc. Play hardly any role at all... The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’...”
Aesthetic words are used first only as ‘interjections’ it is later on, in learning, that we start using them rarely to describe experiences. Is this just a culturally depend ‘turn-of-phrase’ then? In one sense perhaps, but there is here the first sign of the sense of a word ‘fitting’ its purpose and this too can be culturally significant in many ways. Indeed, how else would it be significant? Unless we mean here that words extend beyond their cultural usage and into some metaphysical realm of use, which I hardly think is the right choice of phrase here.
Gestures of approval (L1, S12) only enter into our discussions when we start to speak of a ‘right’ way to read a poem or interpret a painting etc.
The Tailor
If you haven’t learnt the rules you won’t be able to make an aesthetic judgement. What could you make? An aesthetic guess. The example of the tailor (L1, S13 & 15) seeks to highlight this. When cutting out a suit, for it to be a good suit, one must know the rules of how long, how wide the cuts must be. “In learning the rules you get a more and more refined judgement. Learning the rules actually changes your judgement.”
Although, Wittgenstein then makes a bracketed claim that possessing neither the appropriate nature nor education might not stop one from making a correct claim. Rather than simply a lucky guess we might interpret this as an example of concepts seeping into/through culture. Especially one as far-reaching as music where a lack of specific training doesn’t stop one understanding misplaced beat or rhythm and so forth, it is not then all a matter of rules or simple human nature.
There is also a distinction made (L1, S15) between an attitude which strictly follows the rules, “I say: No. It is right. It is according to the rules.” And an attitude that develops a ‘feeling’ for the rules, i.e. one in which I actively interpret the rules.
Rules of harmony: It is not the interjections one uses to show appreciation, but the way one chooses, selects, etc. (L1, S19) Being able to see how it will fit shows both knowledge and appreciation of the material. To properly describe what appreciation consists in we must also describe the complete environment, thus making it an impossible task. “There is an extraordinary number of different cases of appreciation.” (L1, S21) Limits of knowledge? I could always know more. This isn't a limit as such. However, it just isn’t reachable. We don’t start from the basis of absolute knowledge before making judgements, with start with simplistic or naive judgements and develop these.
On the 'correctness' of the tailor’s judgements. (L1, S23) However, we don't talk of correctness here, merely being 'too short' or 'too long' or whatever. “The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call a culture of a period.” (L1, S25) “What belongs to a language game is a whole culture.” (L1, S26) “In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living.” (L1, S35)
Aesthetics cannot be thought of as a science for saying what sort of things are beautiful, it is far too hard to find boundaries in these descriptions, would it also tell us “what sort of coffee tastes well.” (L2, S2)
The realms of 'utterance of delight' and that of Art, which are quite different but seem similar.
'Causes' seem to imply an addition of something else. Fitting or clicking (see below) doesn't seem to require this extra dimension. If we say that we 'know the cause' we are misleading if we consider this to be the explanation for our action. 'Why?' and 'because' are used when we are explaining our (aesthetic) discomfort, but hardly ever 'cause'. Knowing a cause is akin to tracing a mechanism. The explanation is a grammatical one.
“We have the idea of a super-mechanism when we talk of logical necessity.” (L3, S25) There is no 'super' there are only mechanisms of connection.
An aesthetic explanation (impression) is not a causal explanation. (L2, S 38) and it is “not one corroborated by experience or by statistics as to how people react.” (L3, S 11)
The 'fit' is something like a criterion, which indicates that e know the right thing has happened in the correct place/time (fit here called 'click'. L3, S2) The fitting or clicking is one satisfies one.
And finally,
“We are again and again using this simile of something clicking or fitting, when really there is nothing that clicks or fits anything.” (L3, S 5)

Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966).

Friday 18 February 2011

Some initial notes on the faculty of taste.

This is my own take on taste. It is a preliminary sense that will see what relation it has with the eighteenth century conception. I feel that here is an ever present danger of reading into an older philosophical text something like a false perspective that is part wish fulfillment and part anachronism. Thus, I want to be able to describe the eighteenth century debate but without an attempt 'find' something that was never quite there. Indeed, for all my trepidation of advancing theories there was nothing like that concern present at that time. Rather, it was the growing desire to advance a particular theory of art or beauty or some such that would give us a complete picture of how to 'properly' describe art that was one of the primary causes for the discussion of taste dropping out of the philosophy of art. This focus upon trying to pin imagination down as a specifically identifiable mental faculty and one that is therefore capable of a rationalised reduction into its strict practice is one that I believe deviates from the original conception of taste. With the description of taste as found in the eighteenth century there is more than enough to develop a worthwhile and elucidating discussion upon of relationship with art, artists and their work. However, as these worries can only be fully explained in light of a discussion of the theoretical work of the philosophers writing around Hume's period, I will therefore leave further elaboration on this rejection of theory until their work is under more focus.

What then do I mean by taste? I want to describe something here that is to be seen as part of what it means to be human. That is, something that is a fundamental constituent part of how we interact with the World and with each other. It seems uncontroversial to say that when we experience certain things we take pleasure in the experience. Whether it be seeing a sunset, or hearing a piece of music, or eating food, or any of many other things. Also, that we distinguish between these objects of our experience calling them; beautiful, lovely, good, and so forth. As well as finding certain experiences to be displeasing and these also involving various distinctions. The account of taste is one of the many ways in which philosopher's have attempted to describe these experiences and their objects. It is one that attempts to give something like a description in what I take to be a non-theoretical manner. The immediacy of the judgement of taste is still one that can become more refined by a process of learning the rules. So, we have something like an immediate natural response to an occasion or experience in some way and it is in this sense an individual reaction. We might say that the physiological could play a part here as well as the application of reason, but that this aesthetic judgement that taste makes is also one strongly influenced by the 'surround', that is, by the cultural 'rules' for understanding it is also something shaped by the outside. A further point here would be to not readily emphasise any causal direction of taste, that is to say, to see taste as being primarily beginning with the individual or from the external World (internalist or externalist).

Rather, I would instead characterise the judgement of taste as only being possible due to a merging of perspectives. A judgement of taste cannot be a judgement of taste unless it is subjectivity individual in some way and thus it is your judgement, however, it must also be one that is informed by external cultural practice and the possibility of description to others. There need be no first, or initial starting point, this mainly because a starting point always seems to imply the existence of an end point. In a further distancing from the idea of a theoretical completeness, the judgement of taste is never one that ends. By this I mean that another description can always be given of the experience, it is not ever a final description. If my experience is not directly communicable to others then all I can do is offer more attempts at description, perhaps this will bring the other into an understanding of my insight. To use an architectural analogy, this is akin to what is called 'top down construction'* where they build up and down simultaneously. Building up before the foundations are complete, but obviously never going too far or else the structure, the understanding, would topple.

So, taste can be seen as immediate in a certain regard, but that it must also require this intervention of rules into the process. I do find myself being lead by my intuitions to say that the type of judgement made in taste and the type of knowledge required in making this aesthetic judgement is of another type that there must be something special about the case of art and therefore about taste. However, I think it might be possible to say that and yet still not fall into the trap as seeing it as something especially different, in that it cannot be talked of in the same way to other experiences and methods of description. For in talking about the results of science or in ordinary everyday discourse there could be said to be a similarity, but in these cases as compared to our discussions about art objects there seems to be a greater deal of transparency especially when discussing science. There is most often a very definite way of describing such and such a formula or the results of an experiment. The methodology of science is rarely up for debate in the same way that word-use in the descriptions of ordinary life or of art objects seems to necessitate. Of course, various example could be raised here to show both the actual opaque-ness of some scientific descriptions and the transparency of some art works, where the meaning is just there, however, I would consider as these views are most common (science is transparent and art is opaque) that, for now, it is worth simply accepting them at face value (although further investigation into this might be worthwhile).

I believe that apart from the apparently necessary ambiguity to the language of art that there are as many similarities with ordinary language and, indeed, scientific language than there are apparent distinctions. The potential danger of subjectivism in aesthetic judgements, “well, I can't be wrong because it's how I feel”, is denied by the fact that we can judge these judgements. Not all sentiments are created equal. There is a normative character to how we use our aesthetic language, but it is not exclusive, there is more in common with our language use and development and yet, for all that, I still want to say that there is something special about the character of the aesthetic debate.

*    Specifically I'm thinking of the construction of the Shard currently taking place in London.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Why god-free morals?

Depends on what you mean...

Why god-free morals and not God-free morals?
The main reason is because I'm not singling out the Abrahamic before any other 'type' of god.

How can your morals be god-free?
Well, in a certain sense I suppose they're not. The ethical codes of the various religions have seeped into most aspects of my homeland; f.e. the majority of British law has its basis in Christian ethics. So, in that sense my own personal morality is certainly god-influenced. However, there is another sense (that I've heard) that I'm certainly refuting. That the very basis for human morality resides in god, i.e. that we are moral means that there must have been a god for us to have moral thoughts at all. This strikes me as somewhat odd reasoning to say the least. So, in answer to the question, because I don’t believe it follows that to have moral inclinations implies a Creator of the ability to have these thoughts. Indeed, it’s not just a matter of belief; it’s a matter of reason.

Why are your morals god-free?
 As might be expected from the above the main reason is I don’t believe in an interventionist diety, which is what the creation of an individual’s morality by god must amount to. I’m not totally god-free myself, it’s just my morals that I consider untouched, as they a wholly of this realm and not subordinate to some transcendental cause.

Isn't it just a pun on your name?
Yeah, pretty much, but I like the implications too.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Thomas Reid : On Liberty

Thomas Reid was a Scottish ‘common sense’ philosopher and theologian from Aberdeenshire who was born the year before David Hume (1710) and was part of the Scottish enlightenment. In his moral philosophy (but perhaps less so elsewhere in his work) we find some distinct parallels with Immanuel Kant’s own work on freedom. However, Reid’s work is not as hampered with the complex structure that Kant had built for himself in the Critique of Pure Reason and that put sections of his work on freedom under sense entirely of his own making.
Thomas Reid, in his ‘Essays on the active powers of man’ (1788) argued that “if we have moral duties it must be possible for us to fulfil them… If the will were not free we would have no use for such terms as praise and blame”[1] etc. But he does not conclude from this that there is a phenomenal will (Willkür) that is subject to the necessity of nature and a noumenal will (Wille) that somehow affects the natural will from the intelligible world. It is only Kant’s conception of nature that leads him to argue this way.
Indeed, Reid’s ‘common sense’ philosophy does seem to yield similar conclusions with Kant without the complex architectonic. There is a shared thread of individualism in both men’s works, for example this section of Reid’s is much like Kant’s insistence that positive freedom through reason empowers man as a person, “the first cause in the chain of action is not an event but a person.”[2] This humanist aspect and with it the beginnings of Romanticism are surprisingly strong in Reid, “my free action may be the outcome of rational motives, but motives do not cause my action, I do.”[3] Although both men were strong believers (Reid held parish in Newmachar Aberdeenshire) this self-governing aspect of human autonomy present in their work could be seen as threat (and in Kant’s case was) and worse still as an affront to their faith.
What then is the ‘common sense’ in connexion with Reid’s philosophy? Well, and we may well find another connexion with Kant here, it is not the everyday term but rather a philosophical position that distinguishes Reid from Hume and others. It could be put thusly, “the first principles of morals like the first principles of science, are self-evident.”[4] However, as we might remember Kant did attack the Scottish common sense philosophers, so what might seem like a connexion here is only to be rebutted by Kant himself. Still, I believe that there is some similarity in that Kant states that the rational ‘fact’ of reason is immediately apparent to us, with how Reid justifies the acceptance for his doctrine of liberty. He argues thusly, and this may remind us of the refutation of consciousness’ possible illusory nature, “it [the ‘fact’ of the doctrine of liberty] is justified as soon as it exists and requires no reasoning on its behalf.”[5] Reid likens it to our belief in an external world; if we are to deny liberty then we must also throw our entire existence in radical scepticism. “The assumption that we act freely is one we have by our natural constitution, and it is implied by our moral conceptions.”[6]
How then does Reid define ‘Liberty’ and in what regard is it similar or different to Kant’s Freedom? “By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand a power over the determinations of his will.”[7] This account of liberty supposes that the agent has understanding and will. Liberty requires understanding in addition to will because will requires conception of the thing, and, therefore, an understanding adequate to supply such a conception.[8] Will in this conception, of Reid’s, does not seem to have the more complex and possibly more subtle description of Kant’s but its more everyday or ‘common sense’ use it hold no less merit.
“The liberty of a moral agent implies, not only a conception of what he wills, but some degree of practical judgement or reason.”[9] The difference between Kant and Reid here might be said that Reid does not go far enough, for Kant ‘some degree’ of reason would be a weak claim. Although we can well understand Reid’s point, that the willed result is not enough that there must also have been a motive from reason, for Kant pure practical reason is fundamental throughout the process it is not merely a ‘part.’ “The effect of moral liberty is; that it is in the power of the agent to do well or ill.”[10] Here Reid moves further from Kant, and in a surprising direction. Whereas Kant wanted to suggest that the force of the voice of the moral law should not, but could, be ignored here Reid describes it in a much more matter-of-fact manner, where the agent can choose to act well or ill, without it being depreciating to his character. Kant’s moral agent may act ill sure enough but if he does he negates his rights as a subject. Reid’s description of liberty then, seems to hold a less complex structure (for reasons given) but for all that it is no less penetrating in its description of freedom (liberty).

Acton, H.B., Kant’s moral philosophy, (London: Macmillan, 1985)
Lehrer, K., Thomas Reid, (London: Routledge, 1991)
Reid, T., The works of Thomas Reid, 2 vols, ed. Hamilton, (Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895)

[1] Acton, p. 48.
[2] Lehrer, p. 23.
[3] Lehrer, p. 24.
[4] Lehrer, p. 221.
[5] Lehrer, p. 24.
[6] Lehrer, p. 270.
[7] Reid, p. 599.
[8] Lehrer, p. 256.
[9] Reid, p. 599.
[10] Reid, p. 600.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Quotes worth saving (4) Thin Red Line

This might seem a little odd to quote from a dramatic production rather than a philosophical text, but I consider some of the more aphoristic statements that various characters make to be worth noting. Not sure whether I should credit screenwriter/director Terrence Malick of the excellent film version for the text or the original author James Jones, so I'll just give a hefty nod of acknowledgement to both. 

Japanese Soldier: Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?

Private Edward P. Train: Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining. 

Private Witt: This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed thro this night?

First Sgt Edward Welsh: Everything a lie. Everything you hear, everything you see. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You're in a box. A moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie... There's only one thing a man can do - find something that's his, and make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.

Private Jack Bell: Why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you. If I go first, I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.

Monday 14 February 2011

Old Post #3 'Seeing Beauty'

[I thought this was quite interesting just to see how much I changed my views since writing this and it appears that 'not a great deal' is the answer. If anything has changed then all I can do now is give a more nuanced answer. So, although this is somewhat clumsy (due to its brevity) there is a kernel that still seems correct. And it is Valentine's day afterall...]

The rose is traditionally seen as a symbol of beauty

[The rose as the symbol of beauty prompts the question...]

Is there something ‘in’ the rose which prompts our reaction?

I find this idea objectionable, that aesthetic qualities might be inherent in an object seems wrong. We come to understand something as beautiful (for example) in that we learn to attach a certain meaning (in this case beauty) to the thing. It is in how we first apprehend the thing (that is, the context and how others describe it) and in how we ourselves relate to the thing (an object, situation, or other condition).

Mathematicians describe complex equations as beautiful, or simply the operation of mathematics itself. For many the idea that maths can be seen as beautiful can be as bewildering as those who find cars things of beauty. What is it for the car-fancier or the mathematician to finds beauty in something so mundane to others? The beauty resides ‘in’ their interaction, the activity becomes more meaningful and they appreciate the better functions of the operation now with an aesthetic judgement. The mathematician finds the unity that mathematics provides beautiful in that it simplifies, complicates and explains life. The mechanic finds the smooth fast engine and sleek body of a design of car beautiful in a similar manner, i.e. it is part of an understandable practice (whether it be mathematics or automotive design).

The rose is the most recognisable symbol of beauty (originating from the Greeks most likely) in that it is culturally imbued with this meaning. Cross cultural identification of beauty can be difficult; the first step tends to be a mythologizing exoticism before we can identify with the art of another culture (even with their idea of beauty) as being understandable as a beautiful object, e.g. consider how African art was first introduced by Victorian ‘explorers’ or how the ‘Far East’ has been portrayed.

We only ‘see’ beauty (or hear it, or…) we do not find it already there. Does this mean then that I am saying that beauty is solely in the eye of the beholder? Well, mostly, but remember that this is a human activity and it is from our cultures that we get the idea of beauty from.

Sep 08

Friday 11 February 2011

History of Aesthetics (1) L'abbé J-B. Du Bos

Jean-Baptiste Dubos’s main work Les Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture’ published in 1719 and widely read throughout that period. Indeed, it was to become influential on the philosophy of David Hume as can be seen in his earlier essays and especially in the seminal ‘On the Standard of Taste’.  Dubos was a colleague of Pierre Bayle, with whom he shared a similar sceptical philosophical outlook, but it is mainly Dubos contribution to the debate between the ancients and the moderns that was of interest to Hume. 
At this time there was an avocation for a total rejection of the methods of the ancients, which Bacon and Descartes most strongly cites as being unfounded, that is, based on their own reason rather than by observation for their claims and that their failure to amass any significant data left their general laws as simply a matter of speculation. However, much of Hume’s motivations led him to pull in opposite directions. In some regards he was aligned with the ancients and in others, a reluctance to appeal merely to authority, this led him to advance the case for the moderns. In Dubos this moderation was to be found also.
One of the greatest of which is man’s need to remain occupied, that is, to dismiss the occurrence of ennui - the gripping boredom that renders all activities worthless. However, Dubos is reluctant to describe art as a creation whose (sole) outcome is the removal of ennui; instead he considers that most useful discoveries, whether they are of science or art, might have come about by pure chance. In thus dissuading us from the idea of a view of art as potentially an activity with a sole practical outcome, it seems that Dubos has removed the ‘natural’ origin certain human activities. Indeed, when he then goes on to describe the pleasures that art raises as being artificial (passions artificielles) it occurs that this description might be seen as motivated by his original description of discoveries being made possibly without a constructive hypothesis, by pure chance, so that their apparent weakness is founded is their separation from (pure?) reason. At any rate, Dubos wants to describe the passions raised by art as being weaker in three specific areas; that they are less serious than real passions, that they have no effect upon reason, and are of a much shorter duration. However, despite this they still can have the effect of satisfying our natural need for removing the onset of ennui.
“For Dubos, natural pleasures are always the satisfaction of needs, and the greater the need, the greater the pleasure in its satisfaction.” (Jones, p.95)
Dubos also makes a distinction in our approach and reception to poetry and painting (as might be expected from the work’s title). Works of poetry are mostly only studied in any critical depth by fellow practitioners and academics, all others read poetry merely as an entertainment, that is, for amusement. Therefore, we do not read poetry to receive a ‘lesson’ and if any lessons might be drawn from a poem it is not for the sake of such lessons that poetic works are read. Dubos considers words as ‘arbitrary signs’ which arouse ideas that our imagination can order into affecting pictures. However, in contrast, painting gives us these objects as representations of natural signs in a quicker and more immediate fashion. The mechanical system of creating images that is present in poetry renders poems as more artificial than the more affecting painting.

Jones, Peter (1982). Hume's Sentiments: Their Ciceronian and French Context, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Context Dependency: A Conversation

This is the transcript of a conversation between myself and Ent about the topic on Context.

Isn't philosophy context based, no matter how hard people try to bypass the human in search of human questions?

1) Depends what you mean by context, conceptual analysis might not be timeless or ahistorical, but it isn't context dependant in the same way some practices are. 2) I suppose you'd have to read some philosophy to find out. I've not noticed an attempt to bypass the human, we're not physicists after all.

I would say conceptual analysis was context dependent - but then you are right - I have read very little philosophy. Since I would see being human stemming from the context of this conscious node of relations with individual human biology, the surrounding universe and human cultures then I would see all questioning dependent on context, including physicists. If you say something is not context dependent you are in my perspective bypassing the human...

Your view of context is so wide-spread that in being everything it might as well be nothing. It says nothing about the World, only that we live together in a shared World.

We can't experience the world without experiencing it, so to say anything about the world we draw on these relationships and the ‘us’ that they have created.

I can't really tell what you're trying to say about context. It doesn't fit with any use of context at all. The historical context (that archaeologists and historians are interested in) isn't what you describe.

You cannot disassociate thought from the world it arrived in.

Yes, and? I can't see how this changes anything. We are a Worlded being and so start from being this type of being, one within a World. Right, that's where we all start. So? I'm missing something.

Historical context is part of that - the relationships with people and space and sensation

What do you mean by, "relationships with people and space and sensation"?

It forms the person, the person forms the thought, and the thoughts do not exist without the person.


So, context (historical context) is important to fully exploring a thought.

This seems to imply that to fully understand (explore) a thought we should know everything about everything. So, knowledge is fundamentally unknowable as we cannot ever complete the ‘entire’ environment.

Well yes, but that isn't my main point... we can make a good guess with the tiny amount we know. When looking at a thought and looking for its truth without also looking at the person(s) who presented the thoughts and yourself and your own context you are getting part of a picture - you might wish to see more.
How we understand varies between people and massively between culture - our reference points and emotional understanding.

If absolute knowledge isn't the point (it is for some physicists) how can you talk of truth? Indeed, are you positing a type of absolute subjectivity then? My truth is mine because I see it this way in this context and therefore can't be wrong; you have your own context too.

Yes, but I don't think that truth is one thing - I am fairly convinced it is not.

But truth must equal context on your view. Therefore there must be a conceivable, but not necessarily existent, 'God's context'

No - part of my way of seeing my truth - and I think probably part of our shared cultural understanding of truth

Also, how do we guess?

We decide how

Decide based on what?
Internal reasoning?

An internal reasoning created and adapted by the gestalt hegemony of other's ideas and our own personal history of actions and reactions

So, truth really means how it fits in with standard usage in a culture then?

Quite probably. That's not a very easy way to see the world though, hence why most of the time I can't and many others don't... I may of course be wrong! (Otherwise my theories fall down!)
Any way - historical context - and your own context - worth bearing in mind...

How does the context of Socrates then affect me, if what actually affects me is the prevailing culture?
Because the prevailing culture already includes Socrates in it someway.

He is part of that prevailing culture - a historical myth

So a story about Socrates’ life changes what? Why choose him and not a medieval peasant?

Because it is his thoughts that I thought you might be dwelling upon - I spend a little while dwelling on the existence and stories of medieval peasants!

So a story about how someone lived their lives helps to describe their thoughts?

The whole bundle of how his thoughts reached you might be interesting as well. It might explain why they thought some things and not others you come up with, or how your interpretation across the seas of time and language and climate etc may be uniquely your own and not anything to do with what Socrates was trying to talk about

But it's not HOW he has his thoughts, but WHAT his thought were about that is important.

How can you understand how or what without knowing why and where?

The how is already involved in investigating the what. It plays no further part.
Because, on your view, we are already embedded in the world and can thus make a 'guess' which is enough (apparently)


Part Two, coming soon?

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Context Dependency: Introduction

What is context?
Three main choices:

Worldly: That we are human beings embedded in a World with interconnected human cultural structures.

Historical: The set of facts of circumstances surrounding a certain historical event that might further enliven the description of said event. (Note: there is a radical distinction between facts and circumstances, but more on the Historian's failure to distinguish these later.)

Linguistic: How a particular word (language unit to linguists) is used within a larger discourse.

There are other uses of context, i.e. in Biology and Computing (picture below from a computing project, which seems oddly accurate and relevant) to name just two, but these three are for now our main considerations.

Problems with the Worldly.
It is certain that most things happen as the result of earlier actions and that if we were to see the context in which they happened then we would gain a greater understanding of how things occur. Seems obvious, but it has several problems.

Just how inter-related is it all? This doesn't seem to matter at close quarters but comes to be increasingly more pressing as our 'distances' increase. These distances are linguistic and historical, but could be thought to be surmountable in that there must a similar relation at some point to allow a connection.

Do these connections maintain sufficiently over time and cultural shift? Because if they do not always maintain then the prospect of making a false connection is introduced. Of course they cannot maintain indefinitely, this would be nonsense (as it would imply absolute determinacy and knowledge) but we might not need to worry about falsity. If we don't mind abandoning Truth that is. Wasn't the primary impetuous that there was a Worldly truth?

If our perspectival view is one from a being that is embedded in the World does this mean we are embedded in ALL Worlds? I don't mean this astronomically, but in terms of possibility. All possible Worlds. Certainly not we might say, but if we are happy to abandon absolute certainty what level of certainty are we left with?

Problems with the Linguistic.
Well, we have linguistic certainty. I can communicate with you; I am doing so right now. This can sometimes go wrong (crossed words, mistranslation, etc) but that it doesn't always go wrong and that we can discuss these differences (even without a proper conclusion) surely shows that we have linguistic certainty at any rate.

Language then must be a structure whose construction we can examine and adjust to make it completely, rather than partially, successful. This we only carry if we allow that language is indeed something a structure, like a building or a mathematical formula, it can be certainly made to appear to be so.

We are able to deconstruct the use of certain words at certain times and in certain cultures. So, while our use of language might be cultural/historical that nonetheless it might still be said to have some fundamental structure we might investigate. As we are all interconnected and potentially capable of communicating in some manner (as we are Worlded beings) then it must follow that there must be some similar linguistic root.

Aren't we capable of rebuilding the Tower of Babel in a sense? We might be able to build the 'Tower' in that we could all learn the same language, but it doesn't follow that we must have started from the basis of the 'Tower'. Although surely it does if we believe the formulation of having a necessary pre-existent context of use for language, indeed we might all the learn the same language but this does not need to imply a meta-language, just the capability to learn language at all and this might be explained by our being creatures with a basis in community. This might be the only contextual certainty we have with the linguistic.

Problems with the Historical.
This is a much larger area (problem) and will be further detailed in its own post. There is also coming (tomorrow) a conversation between myself and the Ent about the need to use context in philosophical understanding.

Monday 7 February 2011

Old Post #2 - Aesthetic Appreciation of Murder

[Originally written for and published on the old version of this blog]

In art we are able to appreciate the presentation of matters that we would otherwise find horrific or morally objectionable if they were encountered in real-life. We might say of the brutal death of a character in a film, play, or novel that it was particularly realistic or moving. What is it that finds enjoyment in these situations, are either of these descriptions why we come to call the depiction of murder or torture beautiful?

Mercutio's Death in Zeffirelli's Film

It doesn't appear that realism is a quality that we can have a substantial claim to, at least not for the basis of appreciation of violent fiction. If we take the death of Mercutio as a famous death in fiction as our example, it is not the realism of the depiction that we take pleasure in. If the actor is terrible we might find our enjoyment of the play hindered, but what right do we have to make this claim? From a large audience perhaps it is imaginable that several people might have seen someone stabbed and die in a similar way to Mercutio, but we do not need first-hand experience of any given event to appreciate it aesthetically. Indeed, too much realism may have a similar effect that too little has. Realism here does not have to directly correspond with nature, rather it is whether it is imaginable as the sort of thing that would happen in the narrative we are observing. So, while realism, of a sort, is partially what we look for, it is only ever as a secondary quality (one that, in its absence or abundance, becomes more apparent).

If realism is not the cause of our appreciation then perhaps it is emotional effect of the event. However, the emotional reaction we take from the fictional depiction of murder is distinct to that of a murder in real-life. We don't call the police to arrest Tybalt for example. Is this then the pleasure we experience, that we are able to vicariously experience another's suffering without moral comeback? That the kind of 'cultivated' emotion we experience with the viewing of art, in contradistinction to real-life events and situations, is an opportunity to purify ourselves of these emotions of 'fear and pity' what Aristotle calls Katharsis. Some might argue for this, but I believe this to be too simplistic a theory, we are seeking for the cause of artistic pleasure not some kind of juvenile emotional thrill (whether it is purified or not). Although this too can accompany the experience of viewing art, indeed, I do not wish to deny the emotional pull of witnessing great artistic depictions of death, but that greater still is the 'need' to experience art.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio

We call these artistic depictions of death beautiful, but unless we were a sociopath we would never say the same about the death of a proximally close person to us. (I feel that I have to add the proviso of proximal closeness, as the constant media coverage of the deaths of soldiers, celebrities, and various victims have distanced our engagement with these otherwise real events.) Unless confused by context one can grasp these images of death as a purely artistic creation, but one that must 'fit' within our already accepted structures. However, art is also about pushing both creative boundaries and our boundaries as an audience, that is, the very social norms they must operate within to be intelligible or acceptable. Can an image of a gruesome murder (e.g. Judith Beheading Holofernes) be considered art? We consider Caravaggio's painting as art precisely because it is not only emotive, realistic or technical. All these form part of the construction of a contextual frame which sets the work in the scale of value we might impose on it, but greatest of these is aesthetic experience, for if this is lacking then the work is merely a depiction without merit. A work that depicts a subject as strong as murder without artistic merit is one that immediately falls into a form of moral bankruptcy, in that it sensationalises a subject for cheap returns. Whether it is its 'realism', 'technicality', or 'shock'.

Just to be clear, what I've been discussing is the artistic depiction of what would otherwise be considered a 'morally' shocking event. The further elaboration of a real-life event being treated as art is not worth considering as it falls into the realm of the sociopath again (although we can imagine a situation were the audience believes the actor's performance unaware that he has suffered a fatal heart attack, for example, but this is only due to a context failure). My claim then is that we are not 'duped' by art, willingly or not, into reacting in some quasi-psychological manner (as has been suggested by some philosophers) but that our reactions are very 'real'. However, it is the status of the 'realness' that is being questioned, I consider it a real experience of art, but it is not a real experience of murder.

Friday 4 February 2011

Quotes worth saving (3) Wittgenstein on Taste

“I am not able to judge whether I have only taste, or originality as well. The former I can see distinctly, but not the latter, or only quite indistinctly. And perhaps it has to be like that, & you see only what you have, not what you are. Someone who does not lie is original enough. For, after all, the originality that would be worth wishing for cannot be a sort of trick, or an idiosyncrasy, however marked.”
Taste is refinement of sensibility; but sensibility does not act, it merely assimilates.”
“The faculty of ‘taste’ cannot create a new organism, only rectify one that is already there. Taste loosens screws & tightens screws, it doesn’t create a new original work.”
(Hence, I think, a great creator needs no taste: the child is born into the World well formed.)
“Taste can delight, but not seize.”
All quotations from ‘Culture and Value’, Wittgenstein, p.68e

Thursday 3 February 2011

Reply to the argument #1 - "Timeless experience is not experience"

[Before reading this, please read yesterday's piece here]

Although it is argued that the timeless experience is not "merely a gesture", but that it is indeed a "fuller experience",  it is the intent of this response to show that this is all it is and could ever be under the framework of description offered.

Rather than offer one way in which we might define art (as historical) instead we are given another definition as the one correct manner (or, at any rate, the ‘best’). Indeed, it becomes obvious by the end that this definition of experience is nothing so solid, but is rather merely a vague gesture towards what an artistic experience might comprise of. Hence, the acknowledgement of our own ‘historicity’ and the odd image of the historical and the timeless ‘mixing’ in some part, greater the amount of timelessness the greater the art work, or the experience possible from the art work. However, here is clear point, where is the timelessness to found? By this description it would seem that it is a ‘thing’ that a good artist can implant within a work and thus stimulating a greater or fuller aesthetic experience in us the viewer. This seems misplaced although it is an understandable mistake if we follow the standard trail of aesthetic reasoning as it has developed from the enlightenment until present day. This trail and the misplaced route I place at the door of ‘aesthetic concepts’ as defined most elegantly by Frank Sibley in his same titled work of 1959.

Let me just define where I see the problem before I go on to attack it. Firstly, the placing of the aesthetic concept ‘timelessness’ in the object is problematic itself even before we consider how it is placed there by the supposedly historical being of the artist. Next, having placed this experience as reliant on an external quality of an object, the question of interpretation of art objects is merely dismissed as being an unknowable. Thus, what we are left with is merely a gesture towards some sort of ‘mystical’ experience. An experience that we might conclude is certainly capable of being totally subjective, but not problematic for all this. “Well, it’s MY experience of the object that is of importance and anyway if it’s a timeless experience then can’t we all be said to be experiencing the same sort of thing, in a round-about manner?” Well, perhaps, but then perhaps this timely experience of the timeless aspect of art is rather a sort of mental confusion. The sort of paradox suggested by Zen masters to lead the thinker towards enlightenment, however, this particular koan is an empty gesture, although if the intended outcome what seeing ‘this’ then its complexity was rich indeed. And this then is my main worry, that what we really want when we experience art is some sort of mysterious feeling, as if the point of art is not to feel connected with something but to feel bewildered by the inability to say anything at all. That it is this that is the connecting feeling we must be aiming for. We are all one in the World means we are all so absolutely confused that we accept this all together.

If this were the point of art then surely the majority of films, music, paintings, sculptures, and so forth would instead be a chaotic mass of swirling sound, colour, form, and motion with the strict intent of inducing this kind of pseudo-mystical rapture. I say pseudo here because this sort of conception is exactly that, a sort of ‘quick fix’ mysticism for the pretentious. The mystic, if they are to be a mystic in my understanding, does not engage in something so quick and easy, but neither are they engaged in something solvable by a great deal of hard thinking. Ultimately they might seek refuge in the realm of the beyond (as I would see it) but I would suggest this communion comes about from an acceptance within one’s whole life and is not a simply transportable experience available to all (or, rather, available to all without much effort).

Although an effort is made to suggest that art should be without the evidence of history, it is admitted that this cannot be so, for then it would be outside of human agency, instead we are offered the image of an art work created with intent of it being communicable to all humanity ever. A bold claim. Although the basis of this perspective was to avoid the levelling down of the institutional art experience (that we must know the historical context to understand or to even experience the art object) the outcome has ended the same. An art experience must be an experience that communicates some vague abstract of human experience for it to be an art experience that is worth having, but why must it be an experience of a certain type?

We cannot get round the fact that we are historical beings and that the things we create (be they art objects or not) necessarily ‘live’ with us in time as well as being solid formations of a certain cultural time. It is also true to describe the process of art as an attempt at expressing something fundamental about human experience, that it is an articulation of that experience of the artist. Well, why not just acknowledge these facts? What is challenging about art is not to be found in how we define art, but in how (and WHY) we approach it at all.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Grounds for argument #1 - "Art is best experienced viewed timelessly"

[This piece and its reply are steps along the way to building a larger conception]

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (above) is a painting that can be taken as being in response to a particular event; the Nazi bombing of said town during the Spanish civil war, and indeed in a solely historically defined, or timely fashion, this can be said to be completely correct, but in ‘reducing’ the painting to only having this sort of historical attachment removes what is its deeper more expansive force. In a sense, I want to say and this is my addition, that a true work of art and therefore a fuller aesthetic experience is one that is timeless (to use a Wittgensteinian phrase[1]). That is, that we can appreciate Guernica not because we can relate in some way its historical value but that it speaks to us (that is, it shows us) about things that are of primordial importance to the experience of human existence. The images of horror, pain and suffering without a direct cause show us something of the conflict we all face; against faceless power, against convention, and against our own historicality, that we cannot escape: The war of existence. Thus, we have here a distinction between art (timeless) and propaganda (only timely). The key point here is that propaganda is only timely, that it communicates nothing but present circumstances in an attempt to influence public opinion. Therefore, the more an artwork has of the element of timelessness the closer it is to being true art. However, I do not believe that such a work would ever be completely possible as we are always already within our own historicity. That is, there is always something attaching us to our present circumstances and that this ‘expression’ of the timeless cannot be a true expression in any categorical sense, but that it is attempting to show us something beyond.

This brings forth another point, a distinctly Wittgensteinian one, that of saying and showing (this is how Richard Shusterman in his Pragmatist Aesthetics describes it – in so many words – without referencing the obvious influence). As Shusterman says quoting Dewey, “the particular quality which unifies and thus constitutes aesthetic experience, can only be felt… and cannot be described nor even specifically pointed at.”[2] Any attempt to describe or define the aesthetic experience in words, which goes beyond just a pointing out, is an impossible task. As the aesthetic experience is an ‘immediate experience’ then this is inadequate as grounds for a justificational standard for critical judgement. That is, defining art as aesthetic experience, is defining something comparatively clear (art) by something obscure and indefinable. Thus, there is no measurement here, but if it cannot be properly described how can we define art in this manner? Shusterman answers, “a good definition of art should direct us toward more and better aesthetic experience” and “redefining art as experience liberates it from the narrowing stranglehold of the institutionally cloistered practice of fine art.”[3]

However, what of a foreign visitor viewing Picasso’s Guernica who does not have any of the Western cultural conventions of art that we all do, and for that matter what of our viewing of an ancient art from a ‘lost’ civilisation how can either make any sense without an understanding of the history? Well, this may be true and I would agree with this but then to make this all that the artwork is[4] seems to miss the point of the artwork. We do not need to know the artist’s intent (indeed, there is a strong case that we cannot ever know the artists intent) to interpret an artwork, but to ‘correctly’ interpret it? That is another matter[5].

The question should still remain, how exactly am I using timelessly as a concept? For it seems to suggest some sort of transcendent experience, that is to say, one outside of human agency. However what I am suggesting is nothing like this, perhaps it would be best to say that I am using this notion of timelessness more in a poetically metaphorical manner than philosophically conceptual, I am not suggesting something transcend of human experience. Rather, something that is timeless as ‘we’ are timeless, that is we as Humanity. Thus, the primordial experience shared by all, the experience of experience, but I do not mean this in such a vague and nebulous fashion. At least not in the context of defining art, although to call this notion a concept would be suggest that I have (like many have mistakenly done before) taken an abstract and made it a ‘thing’. Of course, I have no such intention, but I have something like this in mind, “one who lives not in time but in the present is happy” and “in order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world. And that is what ‘being happy’ means.[6] Therefore, art when viewed timelessly (rather when it exhibits this timelessness and is thus capable of being viewed timelessly) is showing us our fundamental experiential natures that is our constant running up against the ‘limits of the world.’ This could be expressed thusly, “feeling the world as a limited whole – it is this that is mystical.”[7] Moreover, we might substitute mystical for an aesthetic experience quite successfully here.

[1] Perhaps a moment to explain this mention of Wittgenstein here, in using ‘timeless’ I am referring to section 6.4311 namely, “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.”
[2] Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics, p. 57
[3] Ibid.
[4] The shadowy figure I refer to here is Hegel, but this may be an unfair characterisation.
[5] That is, what is a correct interpretation?
[6] Wittgenstein, Notebooks, pp. 74, 78.
[7] Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.45. [my emphasis]