Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Anyone Can Learn

After scandalous delays, I recently took the Pennsylvania driving test. Alas, I failed. (Parallel parking.) Perhaps I should consult a learner’s manual.

When I learned to drive in England, over a decade ago, I had the advantage of a book employed by my parents before me, circa 1965. It was memorable for two things. First, the blurb that adorned the back cover, in enormous font:
Driving made easy.
Anyone can learn.
Even the wife!
Second, for its holistic approach to driving well, which it conceived not as an isolated skill, but as an aspect of eupraxia. Hence this remark, from the section on driving mishaps:

One accident to avoid at all costs is the head-on collision. It is sometimes possible to avoid such a collision by veering on to the pavement. But if this would endanger the lives of pedestrians, you may prefer to choose an honourable death.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What is Art?

In an earlier post, I gave brief attention to Tolstoy's view that art is a form of communication, and so is to be evaluated, as art, to the extent that it communicates well what is worth communicating.

Whatever its defects, this view has the merit of making clear the point of thinking about the essence of art: not to effect a classification, but to derive an evaluative standard. If a work of art is by nature a kind of F, it is supposed to follow that it is good, as such, such in case it is good as an F. The essence of art reveals the nature of artistic value.

In this light, the problem with Tolstoy's conception is that it leaves out a great deal of what we ordinarily take to matter in art, as art. For some of the most extraordinary artistic creations, we are hard pressed to say what the "message" could be. And even where this seems possible, to some extent – as with The Kreutzer Sonata or Hadji Murad – it is wrong to conclude that nothing else is relevant. It matters to artistic value how a content is conveyed – and not just how efficiently.

The only way to save the present view is to identify what is communicated by a work of art with everything that is involved in experiencing it. But then the view is deprived of interest. It would have been illuminating to learn that art is good, as such, just to the extent that it is good as communication. It is not helpful to be told that a work of art is good, as such, just in case the comprehending experience of that work is good, as an experience. The question, "What makes an experience good, as such?" is no less obscure than the question of artistic value; and unless restricted in some way, it threatens to be irrelevant. For instance: an experience might be good, as such, because it is morally good, in ways that have no aesthetic significance.

The fundamental issue raised by Tolstoy's view is about the autonomy of artistic value: can the value of a work of art be reduced to values of other kinds? No doubt his theory is too simple: art does many things, and can be good in many ways – as communication, as artifice, as entertainment. But this is consistent with his principal, reductive claim.

It is also consistent with his rejection of beauty, that "all-confusing concept". Beauty is an obvious candidate for autonomous artistic value. But even if we can isolate artistic beauty, as distinct from the beauty of nature, it is hard to see how this could work. If artistic beauty is just artistic value, the proposal says nothing at all. If it is something different, we need to know what it is.

A common suggestion associates the beauty of art with pleasure. But here, again, we should be moved by Tolstoy's critique. If he is wrong to say that causing pleasure is frivolous, and thus unworthy to be the aim of art, that is because pleasure is not to be conceived in Bentham's terms. As Aristotle saw, pleasure involves the apparent perception of value. But then the problem of autonomy is simply deferred. (This is why it is misleading to rely on pleasure as the ground for critical judgements, as Frank Kermode purports to do in Pleasure and Change. If it is relevant here at all, pleasure can only be a symptom of something else: what is the value in which we take pleasure, when we take pleasure in art?)

I should confess that, although I have read some work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, I haven't read that much. I've been trying to isolate the problems I want to think about, first. One problem is about intention and the meaning of a work of art; the other is about artistic value. The question is: what should I read next?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Listening to Abstraction

I begin with two embarrassing confessions. First, that I am intensely fond of instrumental mimesis: the cuckoo in Mahler's First, the barrel organ at the end of Bartok's Fifth Quartet, and the music that descends from another world in the second movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132). Second, that I am pretentious enough to listen to Bach on my iPod while jogging.

In each case, there is an obvious challenge. If you are so desperate to hear something else, why are you listening to this? And what is wrong with "Eye of the Tiger"?

The second question is unanswerable. But something can be said about the first. For the logocentric, like me, imitation has the virtue of being a form of expression in music that is readily described: it gives you something to say. And so it gives the illusion of a response to puzzles about the value of instrumental music.

The puzzle I mainly have in mind is raised by Malcolm Budd, in an otherwise disappointing book:
Music seems to be a paradise essentially unrelated to the world in which we live our ordinary lives, deriving its import and sustenance from itself alone; and its effects on us appear unaccountable or out of all proportion to their cause and object.
Budd's formulation is (deliberately) ambiguous between what he calls "psychological" and "constitutive" readings. We are interested in the latter: in aesthetics, not empirical speculation. The task is to explain what makes instrumental music worth listening to, what accounts for its importance in our lives – given that it seems to be, for the most part, abstract or non-representational.

A partial response would appeal to the power of music to express emotion. But this covers so little ground that I propose to set it aside. More interesting is the view, developed by Kendall Walton, that music is more often representational that we might think: it conveys such things as struggle, return, conflict and resolution. What is distinctive of musical expression – what makes it "abstract" – is, in part, its generality.

As Walton remarks, this generality might be offered as virtue of music by the purist, "allowing a work to speak to many different interests and concerns." But the appeal of generality itself is problematic:
Here is a story of great generality, one which abstracts from an enormous number of specifics:

Once upon a time there was a person.
The End.

It is "about" personhood, I suppose. All of us have a considerable interest in people […]; no doubt this is true of everyone in every culture and every age since the beginning of time. But the story I just recited is notable for its excruciating lack of interest. It is vapid.
I think I like Walton's story more than he does: while dull, in certain respects, it doesn't take long to read, and this is an enormous boon. Still, I take his point.

The solution proposed in the rest of Walton's paper – if I understand it – is that the generality of musical expression lies in its being restricted to properties or universals, not particular situations perceived from a particular point of view, but that it is nevertheless capable of being quite specific. (Mendelssohn was on to something when he said that musical meanings are often too precise to be expressed in words.) Thus, the abstractness of instrumental music is consistent with something like mimesis – if not the embarrassing, auditory kind.

Walton ends by claiming that, "since music treats of things that matter to us in ways that are beyond description […] we needn't be any more astonished by its power than by that of the obviously representational arts." I suppose that's true: we needn't be astonished. But it would be wrong to infer that the worth of instrumental music always lies in what it means. I don't prefer Bach's Art of Fugue because its message is more rousing than Survivor's. After all, how could it be?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

It Must be Human

You will search in vain for voices in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy. Pick a passage from any of its 29 entries; you will not know who is writing. Anatoly Karpov, the Soviet chess master, once boasted: "Style? I have no style." Philosophers take equal pride nowadays in an absence of rhetorical effect. Arguments, circulated and refined like a chess opening 12 or 15 moves deep, are their stock in trade.

This striking passage appeared in a recent review in the Economist, at roughly the same time as a New Yorker article, "Your Move", about the triumph of the chess computer. This conjunction triggered the oppressive image of the philosophy computer, able to defeat even the best human intellects. (Deep Thought, perhaps?)

Stylistic variation may be lacking in the Oxford Handbook, but I think it can be found in recent work. Davidson, Kripke, Lewis, Rawls: each has a distinctive presence in his work, and the same could be said of many others. (This is especially true of some philosophers with whom I am obsessed, but about whom it is not easy to write: Wittgenstein, Murdoch, Stanley Cavell.)

In any case, the real fear is not that philosophical writing is unpoetic, but that this is true of philosophical ideas: "It is as if / We had come to the end of imagination / Inanimate in an inert savoir."

Wallace Stevens (who wrote those words) addressed our question in an unpublished lecture, "A Collect of Philosophy", the theme of which is that the concepts of philosophy are, or can be, poetic. His chief example of this is the infinity of the world. Other proposals are found to be less successful. Thus Leibniz' monadology is "the disappointing creation of a poet manqué [...] a poet without flash."

The highlight of "Collect" is a lovely compendium of condensed philosophers sent to Stevens by Paul Weiss:

Plato: all things participate in the good; all beings love what they do not have, to wit, the good. Aristotle: all beings strive to realize their peculiar goods, already exemplified in some being somewhere in the natural world. St. Francis and St. Bonaventure: all beings have at least a trace of God in them. St. Thomas Aquinas: all existence is owed to God. Descartes: all bodies are machines. Leibniz: the world is at once the best and most rational of worlds; all the things we know in experience are combinations of spirits. Spinoza: all things happen by necessity; all things are in God. Kant: to be free is to be moral, and to be moral is to be free.

Can philosophical ideas still be poetic? The idea, for instance, of numberless worlds, each as real as this one, as concrete, in which everything possible is realized? Or must we fall back, at last, on an argument that ends the poem I quoted above?

Yet the absence of imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.