Posts Tagged ‘Kant’

Rousseau and Kant

October 4, 2012

We discussed Jean-Jacques Rousseau in class yesterday. He was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.

What’s most interesting to me about him is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.

Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.

So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.

The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, thorough childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP

Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Don’t know yet. But I love a good mystery. I’ll look into it. Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a  relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.

The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in the Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.

That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?

The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.

That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?

Chains, laws, stars, pushpin & poetry

October 3, 2012

Our Little History moves swiftly, we’re up to Rousseau, Kant, and Bentham. And we have one more politically-themed Philosophy Bites interview, with Wendy Brown on Tolerance.

“Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” That’s a memorable phrase.

So is  “Two things fill me with awe: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

And slightly less florid, but every bit as consequential: “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”

So, class: who said what? (Hint: not Wendy Brown)

Would that be a fair question for the next exam?

I have a pretty good mnemonic hook for Kant, if you pronounce him as the Brits do: he was a real pissant.

And maybe everyone knows it’s W(e)ndy (and tolerates her). But we still need some good tips & triggers for Bentham and Rousseau, everybody. Let’s see what we can come up with.

No, three minutes just won’t do for this guy.

He wasn’t an unstable “pissant” of course, he was the epitome of stability. Rose every day at 5 (good man!), walked every day at 4:30 (but why so late, and straight, Manny?-“up and down his street eight times”), and insisted on living the dutiful life of unwavering, dispassionate, exceptionless rectitude. “What if everyone did that?” And what if everyone renounced violence in favor of perpetual peace? [pdf]

A student yesterday posted that she doesn’t understand how Bentham’s Hedonic or Felicific Calculus works. Short answer: it doesn’t. Do you really have time to calculate, when the trolley‘s bearing down? [Philosophy Experiments]

Maybe if you’ve given it some advance thought, though, you’ll have already done the important calculations and will know what to do. That’s the real point of a philosophy experiment. The armchair has its place.

In defense of utilitarians like Bentham, and contrary to real pissants everywhere: consequences in ethics matter. We should always do our best to maximize net happiness, in the broad and virtuous (“eudaimonic”) sense of the term. But we should also respect individual rights, which Bentham was wrong to call “nonsense on stilts.”

Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine may in fact help clarify and deepen utilitarianism. We’ll talk about it more when we get to J.S. Mill next week.

I still haven’t read Rousseau’s Dog yet, but any philosopher who has one can’t be all bad. Schopenhauer included. (He’s up next week too.)

In EEA today, we’re looking into Speth’s proposals for transforming the corporation and moving beyond capitalism as we know it. Good luck to us all.

Appropriately, on the day of the first presidential debate between the incumbent and the challenger who contends that “corporations are people, my friend,” Speth’s Chapter Eight addresses the oddity of “how corporations became people” with 1st amendment rights and individual protections. It’s time for that to change, and also “time to get corporations out of politics.” It may thus perhaps not be the best time to seat a Company Man at the head of the table in the people’s boardroom.

Speth says again in Chapter Nine that he holds no brief for ideological alternatives to free market capitalism. OK, his non-ideological proposals work  for me, and the cloudy forecast of his third “Proposition” bears an inescapably hopeful lining:

In the more affluent societies, modern capitalism is no longer enhancing human well-being… and is instead producing a stressed and ultimately unsatisfactory social reality; people are increasingly dissatisfied and looking for something more meaningful; this dissatisfaction will grow and force change.

Hope and change. Sound familiar? But maybe we’re about to mean it.

Subway hero

February 17, 2012

In CoPhi yesterday we were talking about courage, and how we don’t really know what we’re capable of doing until we find ourselves in a crisis situation. I recalled the real-life (not the 30 Rock) “subway hero,” Wesley Autrey. On January 2, 2007,

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

Incredible but true. The point I wanted to make: neither a Utilitarian nor a Deontologist would have had time to ponder a decision like that. Was it even a decision? No, it was an instantaneous, impulsive, selfless reaction based on a long-prepared disposition to do what feels right. You don’t get that from sitting around in a bar talking about what you’d do if this or that scenario were to arise. Woody Allen in Manhattan says he’d never have to face the situation of whether to risk his own life to save a drowning person since he, Woody, doesn’t swim. Heroism is not hypothetical.

You don’t develop such a disposition merely by sitting in Philosophy class either, reading Bentham and Mill and Kant, meditating on First Principles, or tabulating the hedonic calculus. Doing those things might help some of us think about how to build the character and will to do the right thing, but this really goes back to David Hume: it’s not reason, in the end, but fellow-feeling and a sense of connectedness that clinches our altruism. We become the sort of person who performs heroically in a crisis by performing countless repeated small acts of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is made, not born.

And reason, if it’s smart, notices.

Kant to Marx

November 11, 2010

Hume snapped Kant out of his early infatuation with Leibniz and Rousseau, led him to draw a line between phenomenal knowledge and noumenal speculation, and (ironically) cracked the door just enough to imply the possibility of a rational faith. That’s a lot of philosophical heavy (though inadvertent) lifting, for a skeptic. [Kant’s answerbbc]

Kant said we constitute (kant-stitute, if you please) the objects of our experience, so we don’t have to infer or prove their  reality. Convenient, and revolutionary in a Copernican sort of way.

Copernicus recognized that the movement of the stars cannot be explained by making them revolve around the observer; it is the observer that must be revolving. Analogously, Kant argued that we must reformulate the way we think about our relationship to objects. It is the mind itself which gives objects at least some of their characteristics because they must conform to its structure and conceptual capacities. Thus, the mind’s active role in helping to create a world that is experiencable must put it at the center of our philosophical investigations. The appropriate starting place for any philosophical inquiry into knowledge, Kant decides, is with the mind that can have that knowledge.

As for Descartes’ res cogitans? Kant said it’s not yours or mine, it’s ours in the most inclusive/collective sense imaginable.  The ubiquitous transcendental ego knows all… except what it kant. (Sorry for the puns, it’s Harrison’s fault: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”)

Kant said freedom’s what you get when you suppress inclination and do your duty, as per the Categorical Imperative. But “categorical” means no exceptions, so there doesn’t seem to be much real wiggle room for an ethical Kantian.

Kant said “without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality.” I haven’t found that to be the case at all, myself. Injustice is discouraging, but moral rectitude is strong in those who affirm it on any  grounds. That goes for theists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, naturalists, and atheists. Morality is multi-cultural and resolute.

The concept of a world-historical individual is bracing, even if you’re not Napoleon (or Hegel). Who wouldn’t want to  contribute to the material unfolding of philosophy’s and life’s final goal? But is there such a thing?

Spirit” is bigger than any of us. But so is time, so is history, so is generational succession in general. “The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” Is it a coincidence that Dewey began as a Hegelian? And is it a big surprise that such a cosmic optimist would eventually fall to earth with the retrospective “Owl of Minerva“? (Marx disagreed, saying the point is to change.)

Old Hegel was pessimistic when pessimism wasn’t cool, but Schopenhauer [squashed] came along just in time to become the romantic pessimists’ rock star. Kant’s thing-in-itself became his voracious Will. He seemed to enjoy it. Jennifer Hecht says he got off the funniest statement in the history of doubt, saying of believers:

For if we could guarantee them their dogma of immortality in some other way, the lively ardor for their gods would at once cool; and… if continued existence after death could be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods… they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be hot for atheism.

Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist, said live passionately and leap before you think.

Feuerbach‘s pun was serious: “Man ist was Man isst“? Much depends on dinner.

And, again, Marx turned Hegel upside-down: the clash of ideas is a sideshow, compared to the clash of classes.

Kant, Hegel, Marx…

November 9, 2010
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*
No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces.* (The second involves my old Kantian professor from grad school, whose Brooklyn accent made semi-shocking his story of “how I met my wife.” But never mind.)
Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive as he was un-flashy.
“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.
But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.
Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.
Hegel said “the real is the rational & the rational is real,” implying a tightly-interlocked jigsaw of spirit, nature, and mind unfolding progressively over time. The zeitgeists of successive eras reflect “the march of reason.”
The end-point of all that marching: the “Absolute,” when nature finally comes to know itself through the self-consciousness of rational agents like, well, like Hegel himself. Seems a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Schopenhauer (“Hegel is a stupid and clumsy charlatan”) and Kierkegaard definitely thought so. They objected to his turgid, convoluted style as well as his project of reducing all to Reason.
Kierkegaard was contemptuous of Hegel’s rational ambitions, doubting there was any place in his grand system of  objective reality for living individuals. Was his “leap of faith” a fatal leap from the bridge of reason, “rational suicide”? Or is it just another way of affirming the will to believe?
“The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

But Feuerbach thought he was on to something. Some thing: material, social, economic reality. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.
Schopenhauer, like most post-Kantian Germans, couldn’t resist saying too much about the “thing-in-itself.” For him it was blind, striving, implacable, insatiable will (aka desire, attachment, ambition) which must be renounced and denied. “Sounds like Buddhism to me,” too, but without HHDL’s lightening chuckle.

“You are what you eat,” said Feuerbach. Marx construed “eat” broadly,  in

material and economic terms, and agreed with Hegel that human progress unfolds historically and dialectically. But our ideas (“consciousness”) must catch up to social reality, not the other way around. When they finally do, he predicted, we’ll throw off our chains, abolish private property,  and for the first time really know Eden.
Utopian? So far.
[more realityGermans (mostly)…  Kant to Marxsourpuss…]
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Exams are graded, essays are not. Thanks for not asking. More report presentations this afternoon.

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)

Kant to Marx

March 22, 2010

Immanuel Kant, jostled out of his Leibnizian dreamscape by David Hume’s wake-up call, but equally  frightened by the latter’s skepticism, proposed to limit knowledge to make room for faith, distinguishing experience from things beyond experience, the “things in themselves” we can never know because we know them only by applying our human concepts to the raw stuff of life.

Here’s a handy mnemonic: Kant says we constitute (kant-stitute) the world as we know it, and so should feel fine about knowledge. And here is Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. We do not in any sense have to infer or prove its existence, we’re the  suppliers of its very warp and woof. We ourselves, as “transcendental ego.” But this is a “thinking thing” much more spread out and amorphous and no less problematic than the “res cogitans” of Descartes.

But, it gives rise to a moral philosophy  that– if it succeeds– puts a bandage on that Humean pricked finger, in the form of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Because we all have the same faculty of reason within us, Kant was convinced that we [should] all reach the same conclusions regarding morality. You should always be able to universalize any rational rule (“maxim”), and if you can’t: don’t do it. (That’s imperative.)

Here’s the “making way for faith” part: without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality. We need to believe that, ultimately, moral behavior converges with happiness. Ergo: God, immortality, and an eternal afterlife. This can’t (kant) be experienced on the phenomenal plane (where we empirical egos live) , but is on the Kantian view a rational postulate nonetheless.

Kant was also interested in the concept of the aesthetic “sublime,” when the starry skies and other large natural phenomena put us in mind of an infinity our imaginations still boggle at.  We gain a further sense of our dignity as rational beings in this way, while at the same time experiencing our relative insignificance in the natural scheme of things. For Kant, this too points to the possibility of a rational faith. To me it points to itself: the wonder of nature, and us a part of it all. Nothing “insignificant” about it.

Hegel. In a squashed nutshell: history matters, opposites can be rationally, “synthetically” reconciled in the great perpetual dialectical processes of time and “geist” (spirit).  Michael Prowse: “What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.” We are all in this together.

At the far end of his own dialectical journey, Hegel got owly and cryptic. “The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight,” he solemnly pronounced, apparently taking back some of  his earlier confidence in the power of philosophy (and a philosophy of history) to make history happen.

But, if there is a point to human history, you could do worse than to agree with Friend Hegel (as one of my old profs called him) that it is the realization of human freedom. But now the interesting debate begins: how much of freedom is strictly an individual concern? How much concerns the public interest, the common good, the weal of the collective?

That’s where Marx will come in, soon. (btw: there really is a Hegel Society. Don’t know if they meet for drinks like we did…)

Then comes Schopenhauer, aka ScroogeSourpussHis antipathy toward Hegel was profound. What Schopenhauer most despised in Hegel was his optimism, his sense that humanity was improving. And though he followed Kant in emphasizing the importance of human volition, he departed from Kant by denying the rationality of the will. Will is ultimately without purpose. An  animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cucle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all of this? Use your imagination, Artur! (We’ll see, with Alain de Botton’s chapter, that actually he did. He found refuge from a world he claimed was otherwise unredeemable, in art.)

Kierkegaard.  Existence is not just “being there” but living passionately. Good. But to my taste his emphasais on “subjective truth” is not so good, as a thesis about truth (as opposed to a commitment to seeking your passion).  His skewering of Hegel for ignoring “the existing, ethical individual” is often entertainining and funny, though.  The 19th century rationalists took themselves pretty seriously. Kierkegaard told ’em to take a “leap of faith.”

Feuerbach. Unlike many other Germans of his day, this one was a down-to-earth materialist who punned that “Man ist was Man isst.” You are what you eat. Practically speaking, the dialectical upshot of this view combined with Hegel’s yielded the new Marxian synthesis.

Karl Marx turned to converting Hegel’s dialectic of ideas into a theory about the power of economics. In place of Hegel’s World Spirit were the forces of production. In place of ideas in confrontation were competing socioeconomic classes. The goal of a classless society sounds good.  It doesn’t seem near. Would Marx have consoled himself with a beautiful lounge suite?


November 16, 2009

venusBotticelli’s Venus is beautiful, by most human standards. Can we say why?

I don’t suppose I can. I’m no aesthetician. On my first pass through a museum exhibit, in fact, I don’t always even know what I like. I look at “those cezanne_apples-pears1incredible apples and pears by Cezanne” (on Woody Allen’s list of things that make life worth living) and yawn. If they made me hungry I’d not yawn. But Kant‘s view was that “it is not an aesthetic response if you find yourself gettting hungry and wanting a piece of fruit. An aesthetic response is free from such interests, or any other practical concern.” Or lustful appetite? No You Kant, the Kill-joy of Konigsburg.

I do know I like Venus on her half-shell.

And I  know that I like John Dewey’s pragmatic aesthetic, with its idea that beautiful objects, experiences, moments, and possibilities dot our daily landscape in places not generally noticed or discussed by art critics.

For instance:
Every baseball fanatic of years [yes, I’ll continue to talk about my favorite game throughout its winter off-season, aka the Hot Stove League] who contracted this blessed affliction in childhood understands “the thrill of the grass,” the ripple of pleasure and anticipation and the promise of happy absorption that comes with that first glimpse of outfield through the grandstand tunnel. The aesthetic timbre of such moments is not opposed to intense, active, self-forgetful involvement, but it is something subtly different. This is a neglected dimension of flow, involving as it sometimes does a rapt (but undistanced) spectatorship rather than the engaged technical proficiency and expertise of the chess player, climber, or team athlete. But Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd. . . .”
That passage, from the first chapter of Art as Experience (1934), continues: “. . . who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals. . . . He does not remain a cold spectator.”

So, the bias for high or fine art over craft, and over so-called ordinary experiences, is on my Deweyan view a prejudice we ought to extirpate. There’s nothing wrong with standing and gawking at Venus, and it may actually be more socially acceptable to do that than to stand and gawk at the lovely Venuses to be found at the bus-stop and on the subway and the ballpark and the museum. But let’s not demean the quality of quotidian life with an arbitrary, peremptory declaration that it does not  rise to the level of Art. Of course it does.

Once we’ve unstiffened our aesthetic in this way, we can really begin to appreciate the artistry of life in every dimension.

The native American tradition called “the beauty way” is one example of this. Exploring the Navajo concept of harmony and virtue, hozho, Chris Phillips in Six Questions of Socrates quotes a tribal elder:

“The most important thing, in order to have hozho, is that you must ‘walk in Beauty.’ Every morning, before sunrise, you must run toward the sun to greet the day. This is the Beauty Way… Every dawn is a new day. If you run toward the sacred sun, if you greet and embrace it as it rises, you are blessed with a new beginning, a new chance for hozho.”

I don’t run at 5 am, but I definitely think of my daily pre-dawn appointment at this venue as my peculiar way of seeking the blessings of a new beginning.  Some days, the resulting experience partakes of beauty. Or so I perceive.

I don’t know art and only occasionally do I know what I like… but I know I don’t like the impersonality of  Kantian aesthetics, and I do like David Hume’s acknowledgment of art as a subjective enterprise concerned with feeling.

I like Sappho’s statement, an improvement on Keats’ beauty-truth equation: “what is beautiful is good and what is good will soon also be beautiful.” Our taste is educable, our conventions can change. For instance, some people still think these are ugly:

windmillBut of course they’re beautiful.

Photographic art can do much to transform not only our aesthetic regard for the splendors of nature, but our impact on the planet. That’s why photographer Edward Burtynsky makes a [TED] wish: that his images — stunning landscapes that document humanity’s impact on the world — help persuade millions to join a global conversation on sustainability.

nietzsche-e-schopenhauerWhat of these guys? There’s plenty to dislike in their philosophies, but if art “makes us much more sympathetic to other people” and helps us “transcend egotistical interests and empathize with universal emotions,” it’s just too bad old Arthur didn’t spend more time at the opera. And, the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy in Birth of Tragedy explains a lot.

…the further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes, their continuing strife and only periodically occurring reconciliation. We take these names from the Greeks who gave a clear voice to the profound secret teachings of their contemplative art, not in ideas, but in the powerfully clear forms of their divine world.

With those two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we link our recognition that in the Greek world there exists a huge contrast, in origins and purposes, between visual (plastic) arts, the Apollonian, and the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian. Both very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate for themselves the contest of opposites which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge…

simpson-collegeThe art and philosophy of pop culture matter, too. “Whole books offer philosophical analyses of The Matrix and The Simpsons… (What does make humor funny?)

And Dylan and the Beatles and Springsteen and Buffett…

And advertizing. “What do you think this does to your daily experience and the way you think about yourself and the world?” Makes us mad, mad, mad!


October 28, 2009

Doesn’t seem like it’d take a rocket scientist or child prodigy to bump Kant’s interesting, but typically irrelevant, unhelpful, counter-factual, global question– “What if everyone did it?”– in favor of the more pointed, practical, specific query “What if I did it now, in this situation?” Categorical imperatives feel like straight-jackets.

J.S. Mill (1806-73), the prodigy (he read Greek at age 3, at his father’s insistence… and suffered a breakdown at 20), and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the hedonic calculator (hardly a rocket scientist, but very good with numbers), were all about consequences. Mill, dodging the charge that too much focus on unqualified pleasure is a porcine philosophy, insisted on adding a quality distinction. There’s that pig again.  “Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Better to be a disgruntled Socrates than a happy fool.

Best of all, of course, to be Socrates satisfied. But this is a question of value and priorities. Nietzsche, jabbing Bentham and Mill and the utilitarian mindset,  said only the English place pleasure above all. That was false then, and it was heedless of Mill’s efforts at quality control. It’s laughably false now. We wallow in our pleasure-centered culture of mindless lowbrow entertainment, torpid and sluggish. Hand me the remote.

Maybe what we need is more Aristotelian virtue, especially with its emphasis on balancing  moderation, temperance, and enjoyment, avoiding extremes, and making an effort to achieve excellence in all its human forms– intellectual, emotional, moral, physical.

Aristotle’s search for the mean between extremes, for the right act performed in the right way at the right time for the right reasons, has much appeal. Its flexibility is its greatest virtue, but some find it unhelpfully vague.

Or do we need Nietzsche‘s “revaluation of all values,” a repudiation of “master-slave” or “herd” morality, of the comforts and conveniences of modern middle-class consumerism, and an embrace of the strong, proud, few “dynamic individuals” who would be Ubermenschen?

That didn’t work out so well for the young man in Little Miss Sunshine. He was a bit superior,  disaffected, andlittle miss sunshine anything but heroic while he stood silently beyond the circle of his family. The formula of his happiness, Nietzsche insisted, was “a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.” But a formula is not enough.

“Give style to your character”, sure. Be yourself, be an original. But don’t be snarly and unpleasant and rude and lonely and spiteful. A sunny disposition moves more people off their couches than misanthropy.

Darren posed a question for us the other day, inspired by a new film that presents a less than sunny scenario: you’re entrusted with a box, attached to which is a button that will bring you a million dollars. The cost of pushing it? Someone, somewhere will die.

This is the kind of example most often offered in criticism of utilitarianism, and of consequentialist ethics in general. But if I ask myself “What if I push the button?” in a sincere attempt to clarify the moral implications of my act, and answer honestly, I’m not going to push it. Am I? A human being will die! A presumption of the moral life is that, as moral agents, we are not killers-for-hire. That goes for Ubermenschen and Benthamites as much as for Kantians and commandment-keepers. Has life become so cheap?

“Why be moral?” is  a good question, but asking it in a moral context presupposes the questioner’s commitment to finding an answer. While the search continues, we do need a “standard or standpoint.” A narrowly self-serving slide to relativism, egoism, and selfishness, even if it pulls up short of murder, is just not unacceptable. We can still serve ourselves while respecting the humanity of our fellow humans (and not just our friends), Ms. Rand. We must.

Maybe the story is more complex than the “Box” trailer makes it sound; but if you’re tempted to consider pushing that hypothetical button, for even an instant, please take some time to reflect on your moral philosophy (or lack thereof). Looks like you’ve got a vacuum to fill. Better let in some fresh air and fellow-feeling and sunshine.

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”