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Practice Exercises — Art objects

July 17, 2011 4 comments

Continuing down the list of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy Wikipedia page, the next problem with which we shall concern ourselves is the question of art objects.

The problems here arise when we start trying to put clear lines between art objects and non-art objects, or between particular instantiations of an art object and some wholly original piece. This problem is not, actually, in any fashion different from yesterday’s problem of Aesthetic Essentialism. The fact is that these problems occur at the edges of the conceivable whenever we try to explicitly categorize.

“Art objects” as a word-symbol does not actually refer to any particularly definable class of objects. Naive categorization does not hold, and sooner or later we’re going to recognize that this is not just true when dealing with the set of all sets which do not include themselves. The problem here is the problem of vague predicates, the same exact problem that more explicitly rears its head in the Paradox of the Heap.

What needs to be understood is that all natural predicates are necessarily vague, albeit some more so than others. To express more formally: it’s been understood for some time that a word is a symbol that refers to some entity in the world, be it material, conceptual, categorical, etc. There is, however, a fallacy in thinking that the entire world of entities is referred to, in some clearly defined relationship, by a word. Words do not clearly point to discrete spaces, but they more accurately point to regions of a space filled with entities. The borders between regions are simply not defined, much like a hand gesture pointing vaguely “over there.” In the right context, such a vague hand gesture can be quite helpful, and in the context of our ordinary lives, a word’s association with some nebulous ontic cloud is enough for us to get by.

We can, perhaps, encapsulate a large space of that which is considered art with some clear definition, but there will always be boundary problems. At some point, I will clearly articulate the theoretical underpinnings of this inassailable rift between our linguistic and ontic worlds, but for now let this particular argument be observational philosophy: nobody can clearly define art or what makes a particular piece of art because these concepts are not clearly defined in relation to the world about which they speak. For us to place rigid boundaries against them defies the natural meaning of the words, and is a case of philosophers self-interestedly building a world they can understand; this is not our duty. Our duty is to understand the world in which we exist already.

Categories: aesthetics, philosophy

Practice Exercises — Aesthetic Essentialism

July 17, 2011 7 comments

I’m going to attempt to begin a series of attacks on unsolved problems in philosophy. For this exercise, I’ve very carefully pored over the resources available and developed what I believe to be the most refined list of important individual problems. My methodology has been thus:

  1. Check the List of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy on Wikipedia
  2. Go down the damn list
As my exhaustive method has discerned, the first question with which I shall grapple is the problem of aesthetic essentialism. I recommend reading that short paragraph to contextualize my attack. As defined by Wikipedia,  essentialism in art is “the idea that each medium has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, contingent on its mode of communication.”

My attack on this is crude and unrefined, because it spawns as a reflection of the problem which demands it. Essentialism in any form is a boldly ignorant position. Russell showed the problem with essentialism as it manifested itself in naive Set Theory; Wittgenstein annihiliated essentialism in linguistic categorization; modern empirical psychological results deny cognitive categorical essentialism. The notion of an essential, be it in the definitions of sets, the construction of the universe, or the nature of language and thought is the product of a childishly unorganized thought process.

Back in the philosophical day, according an essential nature to a thing or category was a fine way to organize our thoughts. It was a fantastic tool for slicing our world up into manageable, discussable bits. But we as philosophers need to engage our flow, we need to keep the challenge of understanding the world at a place where it meets our skill, and our skill has surpassed this. We know today that the word-symbol “table” does not refer  to some prototypical, ideal table; nor does it refer to some list of features common to all tables; it refers to a nebulous cloud of tables, tables which enter the category of “table” by some subtler mechanism–probably familial resemblance to other members of the category “table.” At the edges, “table” is ill-defined (the line between a “table” and a “desk” is not always clear, is it?), but we should no longer allow that to bother us. We should, instead, remember that the space of words, of nameable categories, is countable, whereas the space of reality is not so simply bound.

This same ill-defining same holds for artistic ventures. The medium of an artistic enterprise can not be accurately or completely expressed with the naming of a category. An aesthetic essentialist would agree that sonnets and haikus are both poems, both with strengths and weaknesses in communicating different ideas, and would thus be categories of media with their own essential expressive natures. But a particular endeavour which is either a sonnet or a haiku would also be a poem. Now, a poem has communicative strengths and weaknesses, certainly, but knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a poem does not give you all the same information as knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a more refined categorization.

I think most essentialist art critics would agree that it is not sufficient to know merely the fundamental physical media of a particular artistic endeavour (because that would simply be a list of fundamental physical particles: so many electrons, so many neutrinos, a smattering of quarks, etc) to develop reasonable judgment criteria. I think they would agree that it is necessary to have more information, to have a more refined sense of the medium. But the medium of a particular work of art is that material which is used to convey the artistic meaning or message, whatever that may be. The most refined possible notion of the medium of a particular work is precisely the work itself. That is, the work of art is precisely those materials which convey the work’s meaning.

To return full-circle: once upon a time, it may have been fair (because our sense was not so sensitively refined and our critical skill not so well honed) to judge a piece by lumping it in with other pieces that use physically or expressively similar material. And it is still intelligent today to contextualize a piece stylistically and materially. But we cannot allow our aesthetic judgment to rise forth from some notion of commonality among certain categories of art, because that leads to paradox and unrefined judgment–a sonnet and a haiku should not be judged by the same standards, but to judge a sonnet as a poem judges by the same standards with which one would judge a haiku. A piece’s aesthetic quality can only be judged by standards arising from itself: from its intent, from its expression, from its form. In some sense, we could consider the essentialist thesis true: individual media do have certain strengths and weaknesses, and a piece can be judged by criteria rising from its medium. But the medium is the piece itself, so this becomes an entirely useless statement: it’s trivial that individual pieces have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s trivial that a piece gives rise to its judgment.

I think that concludes my daily pontification. As I warned you: my attack was crude, but so was the problem. Essentialism in all its forms is naive and immature, and so my attacks against it shall be correspondingly simple and immature: a philosophical “nu-uh that’s dumb.”

Categories: aesthetics, philosophy

Peace Is Already With You

August 3, 2010 1 comment

A discussion yesterday got me thinking about personal peace. It has been said—and written on coffee mugs—that peace is not the absence of noise and chaos, but rather stillness in the midst of it. We have this image of a wizened old Asian guy sitting around with a serene smile, no matter what’s thrown at him. This is our notion of peace, but what does it mean? When one has peace, does that mean that one is entirely free from worry, or self-doubt, or existential crisis?

Not at all.

See, peace is not peace unless it requires nothing other than itself. Peace is not peace if it depends on a lack of worry, a lack of self-doubt. Peace is stillness and peaceful even when the noise and chaos encroach the boundaries of the self, into that person who is supposed to have attained this peace.

We are at peace only when we have chosen, quite directly, to be at peace. That’s all it takes. You just flip a little switch in your head and quit being not at peace. It’s freakishly simple. So simple, in fact, that most of us refuse to accept that it can be so simple, and it becomes a dastardly difficult enterprise to be at peace.

If we are at peace, we are okay when the noise and chaos is inside of us. If we are at peace, we are okay with the noise and chaos around us. This does not mean that we are complacent. It does not mean that we don’t seek to pacify the noise and chaos itself. It only means that we recognize that the noise and chaos are, and that that is, right now, okay.

This path of reasoning can be dangerous, though. We can tempted to think that acceptance is equivalent to—or leads to—complacency. We can be tempted to think that “it’s all okay” means “it doesn’t have to change.” When we see evil and pain and suffering around us, we can be tempted to think “it’s okay, there’s a reason for it, let it be.” This is, in a word, bullshit. When we see pain and suffering around us, it is not incorrect to think that it should be altered, fixed, rendered peaceful. But we must accept that, right here and right now, that the pain and suffering do exist. This is how we can remain peaceful and make the world a better place.

In that same discussion that led to this post, one person quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” If we interpret this to mean that we want people to strive for goodness, that we want people to strive for peace and an end of suffering, we must ourselves strive for goodness, strike for peace and an end of suffering. But this sells ourselves short. If we are striving for peace, we are not AT peace. If we want the world to strive for peace, it cannot be a peaceful  world. If we want the world to be peaceful, if we want the suffering and the pain to end, we must ourselves be at peace, we must ourselves be without pain and suffering.

We cannot make this world a better place when we ourselves still suffer. We can only make this world a better place by becoming the manifestation of our goals, individually.

“Peace in the world requires peace between nations. Peace between nations requires peace in the nations. Peace in the nations requires peace in the towns. Peace in the towns requires peace at home. Peace at home requires peace in the self.”

A Statement of Artistic Intent

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Philosophers are traditionally concerned with the question of truth. However, the field of philosophy began with an understanding that one couldn’t ever know anything. Socrates in the West, perhaps Laozi in the East (though that’s hard to say), both knew that they knew nothing. It was from the antecedent of these gentlemen, and early thinkers with them, that philosophy as a field of discourse grew to what it has become today. The path changed, however, as thinkers thought. At some point, philosophers became convinced that they could know something, and many of them even started to think that they did know something.

And ideas progressed.

Thinkers continued to think and to write and to peer inside the fabric of the universe. Eventually natural science caught up with (and, frankly, overtook) philosophy, adding more and more to the human field of knowledge. And now the circle is turning full.

Mathematics, the field of certainty, has shown that there are an infinite number of things which cannot be proven, and thus cannot be mathematically “known.” Physics has entered a realm wherein the most rational results are literally illogical, defying the basic laws of reason. And philosophy is starting to remember how little it knows. Wittgenstein wrote that we can’t know anything of value. Alan Watts brought the Eastern ideas of knowing nothing to the West in a form that the West, with our Socraticly-born mindset, can conveniently digest.

So where does that put me, in this time of thought-space revolution?

Blissfully free.

If one were to read through all of the frothing philosophical writings littering my various harddrives, one would see great, giant sweeps of opinion and huge, tectonic shifts in worldview. I’ve been Marxist, Nihilist, and Randian all in very short order. In reading what I’ve written, one would be liable to assume that my philosophical ideas and opinions have changed, and that my worldview has shifted from one conception of truth to another.

This is so. Ish. What really happened is that I absorbed the truth of it all, and then moved on. I would not describe myself as Marxist, Nihilist, or Randian at this moment. But I see the truth in all three.

The attack then comes: aren’t these three ideas mutually contradictory? In fact, I think one would be hard-pressed to find three schools of thought more completely mutually contradictory than these three. How is it, then, that I find truth in three ideas that cancel each other out? The obvious answer is that there is a grain of truth in each of them, and that they fill each other’s holes. This is not what I believe. I believe them all to be completely true. This, though, is because I don’t know anything. In what has been called a “philosopher’s surrender,” I believe them all to be true because I believe everything to be true. Strictly, I don’t believe there to be a difference between “truth” and “untruth.” As such, all things which are untrue are also true, because the two are the same. Of course, everything which is true is also then untrue. It becomes clear why it just boils down to a point where “truth” is a null word. It means nothing. In short: I do not believe truth to exist. I am working on a metaphysics for this, but until I have that somewhere where I can unveil it to the world, I will respond against the most obvious argument against this idea: how can I believe it to be true that truth does not exist? This is paradoxical. My response: That’s okay. I accept paradoxes. When we boil away the central dichotomy of truth and untruth, all dichotomies must evaporate (because their dichotomousness is based on an understanding of the “truth” of the dichotomized), and all things (including the false) become workably true. It is paradoxical, and makes no sense, I know. That’s kind of the point.

From here, one must ask what the philosopher’s job could be. Philosophers are concerned with truth, and I believe truth to not exist, so what in the hell do I do? I don’t give a damn about truth, that’s what.

For me, the philosophical end is something beautiful. I’m not concerned with developing or uncovering or understanding the truth, but rather with building and seeing and experiencing beauty. And beauty is something that damn near everyone can agree is entirely subjective. What I wish to do, philosophically, is think beautiful thoughts. And this isn’t out of some notion that truth is beauty (I can’t say whether or not that statement is true, because I don’t have an idea of what “truth” is), but rather because I like pretty things. That is the only reason. So I will probably continue to write mutually contradictory ideas. I will probably continue to believe mutually contradictory ideas. But so long as I find the ideas to be beautiful, I will persist.

Perhaps, then, “philosophy” is the wrong word for what I do, because I don’t give a damn about the truth. But if I were to actually believe that the ideas that I have to be true, then it would be philosophy. Since, then, the output would be called philosophy if the motive were not known, I shall continue to call it that. At least until I hear a prettier name.

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