On A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), parts I, II, and his later intro essay, “On Taste.”
Are people’s tastes basically the same? Burke says yes: they’re rooted in our common reactions to pain and pleasure, those two are not opposites, but simply quite different properties, each associated with a different set of responses. When we are aesthetically pleased by something big, indistinct, and maybe scary, Burke calls that a judgment that it’s sublime.
There are still copies of the 2015 PEL philosopher wall calendar left! Or you can support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.
The Burke picture is by Sterling Bartlett.
Mark Lint and the PEL Orchestra present the longest, slowest, biggest, fattest, most surreal Christmas carol ever.
First Mark explains for a minute what this is (you can read it here), then off we go on a long, strange trip, with different verses of the holiday classic arranged in styles from baroque to folk to metal to disco.
Featuring Jonathan Segel (from Camper Van Beethoven; jonathansegel.com), comedian Adam Sank (adamsank.com), Al Baker (www.albaker.co.uk), Timo Carlier (soundcloud.com/carlier), Maxx Bartko (soundcloud.com/dotdot), Daniel Gustafsson, Jason Durso and Shannon Farrell, Kenn Busch and Jenny Green, Kylae Jordan, Rei Tangko, Greg Thornburg, WILSON, and comedian Alex Fossella (@afossella).
Coordinated and sung by Mark Lint (marklint.com).
Get the music-only version (i.e. without Mark’s spoken intro) in audio form here; this is the link you will want to send around to torture and/or enlighten the masses.
Make sure to buy one of our new 2015 wall calendars with Genevieve’s art on it!
December craziness is making it hard for me to get around to writing decent summaries, so this will be a very immanent announcement; the ep should be soon:
On Dec. 2, Seth, Dylan, and I were joined by photographer Amir Zaki to discuss Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, parts I, II, and the 2nd-edition introductory essay, “On Taste.”
Burke published this in 1756, and after this point, for the next hundred years or so, all serious aestheticians had to talk not just about the beautiful, but about the sublime too. While beauty is (as Kant says, who was very influenced by Burke’s ideas on this topic) all about appreciating the form of a sensory object, which means it has to be clearly presented, and small enough to take the form into your grasp, so to speak, sublimity is about the vast, the powerful, the scary. A great waterfall or mountain, a vast chasm or church, a mighty thunderclap or power chord from a Marshall stack: all this is attention-getting, perhaps awe-inspiring, but not what you’d want to call beautiful.
While Burke has a good deal to say about what qualities something that strikes us as sublime might exhibit, the shift (again, influencing Kant) is toward human reactions: it’s not that anything is sublime or beautiful in itself, but that there’s a common human nature and so when struck by certain stimuli we react in predictable ways, such as with a feeling of the sublime. Though he doesn’t use the terms “stimulus” and “response,” he presents an aggressively physiological, psychological account that is meant as a correction to his predecessors, whom he characterizes as focusing purely on artistic works and not on human reactions. This is why, even though he’s of course interested in art, most of his examples are from the natural world: we react to certain things in certain ways, and when we use our imaginations (generally necessary for producing or even appreciating works of art), we’re only “displeased with the images, from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities…” (intro, stanza 87).
Burke gives us a picture of human psychology based on pleasure and pain, but wants to distinguish himself from his predecessors by not taking them as simply positive and negative values of the same kind of stuff. They are conceptually separable, not simply contradictories, and he denies straightforwardly the old adage that you couldn’t understand one without having experience of the other. In particular, he points out that cessation of pain is not a type of pleasure, and cessation of pleasure is not itself a pain. To give an example of the latter type, he identifies grief as one species of cessation of pleasure, i.e. a permanent severing of ties with a pleasure-giving individual. Though we would hardly consider grief to be a happy experience, he identifies it as within the realm of pleasure: it’s a pleasurable savoring of the memory of the beloved.
So it’s not that pain = bad and pleasure = good, but that pain and pleasure are each psychological foci for a set of emotional experiences, some of which are ones we would want to experience and some of which we wouldn’t. Included within the realm of pleasure is beauty, and included within the realm of pain is the sublime. Since pain is a more powerful force on us than pleasure (we act more keenly to avoid pain than to seek pleasure), the sublime is actually more powerful aesthetically. The key to aesthetic appreciation of the sublime within this realm of pain is distance: I can’t appreciate the magnificence of a raging storm when it’s directly threatening me. It’s only when I’m somehow at a safe distance that I can do this, and so of course a picture (or 3D movie!) of such a storm leaves me dry and safe.
To fill out this picture of our psychological relation to objects of aesthetic appreciation, Burke wrote a new introduction, “On Taste,” to the second edition of the book (two years after the first edition), which tries to explain how, even though he’s given this very physiological account, there can still be bad taste and good taste. We all have the same uncultured tastes, and he actually starts off here talking about gustatory tastes, like alcohol tasting bitter. People who drink alcohol and feel good can come to like the taste, purely through association with this good feeling, not because it’s any less bitter, and this (says Burke) won’t make them like bitter things in general or confuse bitter with sweet.
With more reason-intensive acts of appreciation, there can be even more variation, because to for instance, understand a story, you have to understand the words and syntax, maybe the storytelling conventions, the cultural assumptions the storyteller assumes you have or are familiar with, maybe even the history of the art form in question. The more educated you get about an artform, the less likely you are to be satisfied with rudimentary examples of it, the more demanding your tastes. Burke adds to this that your taste could be not just uneducated but actually displaying poor character, if you take pleasure in the vulgar, i.e. whatever wasn’t considered proper according to the mores of his time.
I need collaborators for an evil Xmas prank/art piece to be completed ASAP, so if you know good musicians who record themselves at home, please forward a link to this post on to that person.
You know how “The 12 Days of Xmas” is about the most boring Xmas song ever? So, so long, going on and on. Well, I’ve had a long-standing joke whereby I start to sing that at “Ave Maria” speed, so even just the first verse is multiple minutes long.
I got to thinking that if you sing something slowly enough, then it ceases to be a melody and becomes atmosphere instead. What if I recorded the entirety of the 12 Days of Xmas, with each verse slower than the previous? Horribly boring and unlistenable? Well, yes, of course, but not so fast…
What if I got various musicians to each take just one verse and treat it like an environment, like a self-contained song that they could simply pick a beat for (or not!) pick an atmosphere for (spacey? jazzy? industrial? metal? funk? classical? avant garde atonal? pure noise?), and quickly layer some parts on it so that it’s interesting to listen to?
So I’m trying it, and folks who want to participate should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and send me links to some of your work and I’ll send you some guide tracks you can record against very quickly (this is supposed to be spontaneous; laboring over your parts is not going to make them better).
This demo version of verses 1-3 includes verse 3 (and verse 1 accompaniment) contributions by Swedish keyboardist Daniel Gustafsson, who played with me on another tune recently.
As of the eve of 12/14, all of the verses have been assigned (I’m excited to say that this includes one of my musical idols, Jonathan Segel of Camper van Beethoven fame!), but for verse 12 (at 25 minutes long!) is shaping up to be a good old fashion interminable basement jam (with some overlaid spoken word stuff), and needs your contribution to fill up that vast ocean of time with interesting noodling. If you think you’ll have time between now and Wednesday, drop me a line and I’ll get you set up.
The plan includes posting some version to YouTube that people can torture each other with for years and years. I’d like to feature warped Xmas art by PEL fans in the video, so also contact me if you’d like to quickly churn out something that we can use for that.
Hey, look! The 2015 wall calendar is for sale here.
This is no digital mirage, it’s a physical object you can hold in your hands, with lush colors and squares you can write disgusting things in, and if you flip the pages really fast you’ll see a cartoon… if you’re very imaginative and always see a cartoon whenever you flip through the pages of anything. When I last flipped through the pages of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I saw a toucan swooping down and gobbling up a baby. It was scary.
But re. this calendar here, anything is possible. First of all, we opted to go with 8 1/2″ by 11″ pages (i.e. it unfolds to 17″ by 11″), so you can carry it around like a secret dossier, or hang it on the wall (they will have the nice round nail holes in them, despite that characteristic being missing from this picture). Second, it has 13 months, because of the necessity when you have a printer make this kind of document of having a number of pages divisible by four. What’s with the extra month? What secrets will it hold? Only you can know, and only if you purchase it, as its contents are a SWORN SECRET that only the most precious mouths can utter, and only when the moon stands blood red over the glade of Mormoth and the whippoorwills cry a mournful “co-wah! co-wah!” as they taste the thick night air with their pointy, black tongues.
Third of all, you are always forgetting my birthday, and G.E. Moore’s too, and never again will that happen if you purchase this product, provided that you gaze at it and memorize its nooks and crannies. But do not be surprised if G.E.M. Anscombe also looks back at YOU and finds you wanting. But in a good way. You want this to happen, trust me.
Fourth of all the things, you are always late to things, and dehumanized by technology. You don’t want a newly fangled doo-hickey bleeping and blorping to tell you that Ramadan has begun. You want something physical to be your master, something with thick, silky pages that can fan you when you are too hot, and heat you when the end of 2015 comes and you throw them in the fire. Or will you treasure them? Will you cut out each picture page and frame it individually? I know I will.
Finally of all the things to be listed among the things that are, our calendar is a status symbol. It marks you as a super nerdy philosophy-loving freak, and how can that fail to impress? If you bring it to work, people will gather around your cube and mourn with you about how you all work in cubes, or if you have it on your refrigerator, all the cold food will gather behind it and try to read it from the inside. It will put your children’s artworks to shame, which will be good for their character. You can also buy several copies and staple them to the inside of a trenchcoat and walk around “flashing” people as if to say “Does anybody really know what day it is? Does anybody really care? If so, I can’t imagine why we all have days enough to cry.“
In conclusion, go buy the calendar lest we be saddled with a bunch of debt for mass producing them. Yay, Genevieve’s art! Yay, PEL fans who like to own things! Yay, months and days and 2015!
On Outlines of Pyrrhonism , Book 1, from around 200 CE.
Are our beliefs warranted? Skeptics following in the footsteps of Pyrrho (who lived just after Aristotle, around 300 BCE, but didn’t leave us any writings, so Sextus, centuries later, has to fill us in) think that for any argument someone puts forward (at least about the nature of reality), you can come up with a plausible counter-argument, and that after you’ve done this enough, you achieve a relaxed state where you you’re satisfied in not being able to decide.
Is this really true? And is there a sharp distinction between beliefs you need to accept in order to live (this is food; that is poison) and theoretical ones? Can a philosopher really get beyond philosophizing in this way? Can one be a scientist and still be a skeptic of this sort? Jessica Berry joins Mark, Wes, and Dylan to defend this position. Read more about the topic and get the text.
Please also visit our sponsor, mobile service provider Ting: If you pay an early termination fee (ETF) to come to Ting, they give you credit for 25% of your ETF, up to $75 per device. To put that into perspective, the average bill for one device is only $26, so that’s almost three months of free service! To up their game, they’re increasing that to 50% until January 5 up to a max of $150 in credit. Go to pel.ting.com to see how much you can save on your monthly bill and get the additional $25 in service credit. That’s up to $175 in credit! Sign up with Ting using pel.ting.com and follow the instructions to provide your ETF details at ting.com/ETF.
The Pyrrho picture is by Corey Mohler.
The annual holiday frenzy has begun, but our Not School groups will still be soldiering on through December. Most groups have decided to carry November’s readings over, so anyone interested in riveting philosophical conversation has another shot at joining up with them. There are also proposals up in the Citizens’ Forum to read on some other juicy philosophical topics. Not School Memberships start at a bargain $5 recurring monthly donation, or the even better deal of $50 per year. Read more about it here.
Our Philosophy and Fiction Group is continuing its read of The Map and the Territory, by Michel Houellebecq. Their conference call on the book is tenatively scheduled for December 14th, so there’s still plenty of time for a swift reader to catch up and get in on it.
Our Philosophy and Theatre Group is also continuing with some selected readings from The Grotowski Sourcebook (Worlds of Performance). Their conference call is tentatively scheduled for December 7th, though there may be more activity concerning this book throughout the month. Check their page to stay posted.
Our Being and Time Group is well into their read of that book, and looks to be continuing. Check with them if you’re interested in finding out more.
Enjoy your reading, and check back next month to see what’s new.
Listen to “Point of Confusion” By Mark Lint.
The first respondent to my call for musicians and other artists at the end of ep. 105 was the Swedish musician Daniel Gustafsson, who immediately contributed around eight different tracks to this song including nearly all the keyboards and all the electric guitars. You can hear a few of his instrumental compositions here, here, here, and here.
This was a song written largely in early fall, 1994, just as I started graduate school. Having been created in the midst of the power pop tunes that became the Fake Johnson Trio album, this was an odd duck: much too wordy and sprawling for me to put in a band context. But the theme of our skepticism episode (coming to a point of ataraxia, or contentment, precisely because of confusion) drove me to find the two pages of lyrics (which for some years had been separated, guaranteeing that I would do nothing with this song), squint and strain to decode my handwriting, fill in the gaps (I have no idea what melody I intended over the lengthy bridge section here, so I sang whatever seemed to work over the chords and wasn’t too repetitive; plus I wrote a few new lines of lyrics toward the end to justify repeating the chorus again and added the little I-IV-V outro), and make what I think is one of my most fun recordings to date out of this tune that I had abandoned.
Much of the credit for that goes to Daniel, whose old-style synths and love of prog rock (we had a little email conversation about Gentle Giant, whom I’ve been delving into of late) created some lovely symphonic moments in what could have been rambling and unstructured. As an instrumental composer, I’m sure he’s not used to having his contrapuntal gestures squeezed down to fit under lyrics (he said this song has more lyrics in it than he writes in a year), but to my ears at least, it all sits together… after my usual dictatorial struggles during the mix, whereby parts get chopped up, shuffled around, smoothed, and buried.
You’ll also hear a cameo on here from my daughter Mina, who’s 11, and can hit those high notes I can’t.
What’s the song about? It’s a big hunk of YA angst. If it were a book in Barnes & Noble, it might be in the Teen Paranormal Romance section. (Which I think should be next to the admittedly less popular “Elderly Surreal Western” section.) Really, just don’t worry about it.
Image note: At the top of this post is the painting “Delusional Confusion,” by Darwin Leon. You can order prints of it here.
A novel about Chile, Art, and literally killer poets. Daniel, Philip, Kimberly, Dan, Cezary and I discussed Roberto Bolano’s novel Distant Star
in the Not School Philosophical Fiction group. We review the plot, then talk about what interests us most in the novel, like the sky-writing poet–and murderer–Carlos Wieder. Citizens can check out the full discussion on the Free Stuff page under “Not School Discussion Group Audio.” [Please, excuse this call’s poor audio, we had some technical difficulties]
“That is how [Carlos Wieder] was; he believed that Nature intervenes actively in history, shaping it, buffeting our lives, although in our pitiful ignorance we usually attribute these blows to bad luck or destiny.” – Roberto Bolaño
The six of us also discussed, aesthetics, the avant-garde, poetry, and more, by way of Bolaño’s story and had a good time too. If you want to join us, become a PEL Citizen, and say ‘hello’ in the Philosophical Fiction group.
Our next novel is Michel Houellebecq’s, The Map and the Territory.
On 11/16/14, we recorded with Jessica Berry (star of our very popular ep. 61) on Pyrrhonian skepticism. Because there are no extant writings by Pyrrho himself (he living shortly after Aristotle around 300 BCE), we read an account of the tradition and practices by a physician from around 200 CE, Sextus Empiricus, called Outlines of Pyrrhonism (aka Outlines of Skepticism), Book I.
What Pyrrhonism is, according to Sextus, is an attitude and a methodology, and it’s very much in reaction to the philosophical (proto-scientific) schools present during this era, all of whom made claims that went beyond what was actually observable, e.g. Democritus in claiming that what’s really real is not what we perceive but the atoms that make it up, or Platonists in saying that it was really the forms that are real, or especially Stoics in saying all sorts of definite things about God and consequently how we should act.
Sextus is not recommending that we declare all those views false, but that we suspend judgment. He thinks that for any given argument for a positive position, you can come up with (if you try hard enough) an “equipollent” argument for the opposition position. Equipollence means that the two arguments have equal force, but the way Sextus uses the term (i.e. the Greek term that got translated this way) is about a feeling: that you as an individual feels that the two arguments have equal weight.
You might think this is difficult, but Sextus gives us “modes” by which we can come up with arguments for the other side of any argument. For example, someone tells us that “snow is white.” Seems pretty uncontroversial, right? But Sextus can reply, “yes, it seems white to you, but what guarantee do you have that snow is white in itself? If you had jaundice, you’d see it as yellow, or if you were an animal we think it would look grey to you. For you to posit your view, or the majority view, as a correct assessment of the objective thing is purely arbitrary.
So these modes (first he gives us ten modes, then five modes, then two modes, relating different ways of presenting the matter among different members of the skeptical tradition) give us many of the famous skeptical arguments used by later thinkers, e.g. “the same oar appears broken when it is in the water and straight when it is out” (seen in Berkeley, who ultimately doesn’t come down as a skeptic but rehashes a good deal of Sextus’s argument in the course of arriving at his idealism), or the bit about jaundice (which is actually wrong; people with jaundice don’t see yellow; their skin looks yellow).
But Sextus woudn’t be bothered by the fact that some of the examples he uses are now out of date (he has a whole section about the spontaneous generation of various animals and how their various origins from mud or donkey butts or wherever undoubtedly make them see the world differently. He’s not arguing for any positive proposition, but only trying to convince individuals on a view-by-view basis that their assertions are unwarranted. If this sounds like Socrates, yes, Sextus says that some of the dialogues of Plato accord with Pyrrhonism.
So why engage in this effort? Well, the goal is ataraxia, or peaceful contentment, which makes Pyrrhonism fit into the pursuit-of-the-good-life tradition along with those Sextus is criticizing. But, strangely, this isn’t supposed to be a passive state where you just give up inquiry; on the contrary, Sextus thinks that only the Pyrrhonians are true inquirers, because they’re never satisfied with a particular view.
So what does it mean to not have any positive views, any beliefs? Well, various slanderers of skepticism at the time and throughout the history of philosophy embraced a “rustic” interpretation where it means that the skeptic doesn’t even bother to get out of the way of a bus that’s about to hit him, because he thinks he can’t assert that the bus is actually there. Sextus makes clear that he doesn’t have this in mind, and more common among scholars (like Jessica!) is that Pyrrhonians merely withhold assent to matters beyond the everyday, ones that involve metaphysical theories, or (what wasn’t any different in the historical period we’re talking about) scientific theories. Abandoning this kind of speculation returns us to common sense, to the everyday, to living according to the customs of our time without buying into any pretentious philosopher’s crazy-ass theories that, if taken seriously, might well upend our world and send us chasing after some ultimately arbitrary ideal of virtue.
While this sounds like a nice rejoinder to someone preaching at you today that you’d better do X, Y, or Z or end up going to hell, it obviously leaves open a lot of questions: Is there really a sharp distinction between the observable/everyday vs. everything else? What about predictions about the future? What about things that aren’t evident, but which science thinks it can legitimately study through empirical, non-arbitrary means? What does this really mean for ethics/behavior? It sounds like we’re supposed to be conservative, just going along with whatever society tells us, so can a skeptic have strong political views? Is the notion of ataraxia (which is freedom from disturbance) really compatible with restless, ongoing scientific inquiry (which certainly has an element of disturbance in it)?
I found This collection of Sextus’s writings to be replete with helpful introductory and footnoted comments that distinguish Pyrrhonism from other kinds of skepticism and explicitly point out where later philosophers interpreted skepticism incorrectly.
I’d also recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Sextus to get at the different scholarly takes on whether Sextus is recommending we not have any beliefs or not.
Also, if you have $56 dollars to burn or are affiliated with a good academic library that you can order things through, you should Jessica’s book Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition.
Are those who can do as they wish powerful? For Socrates, acting on your own whim, killing whomever you please or obtaining great wealth does not make you powerful, if you act unjustly you are acting against your own good. It does not matter how extreme or sophisticated your ability to be unjust if this is all you can accomplish. Callicles offered Socrates a different view, that the tyrants of their day – though unjust – had real power, and indeed, that this power should be held by the strong and privileged against the weak.
Today this question might be posed from within the feminist movement: Are the privileged powerful? When a person, who materially benefits from oppression, acts in a way that oppresses, what is the appropriate response? Are they abusing their power for their own benefit? Or is any unjust action ultimately against their own good?
In the Christian West, and amongst capitalist states in particular, personal responsibility, choice, and blame form the backbone of the cultural sense of justice. It is against this background that those who act for their own material benefit at the expense of others are vilified. And when we discover our own flaws or we act unjustly, we feel guilt. Thus, bound up in the West’s rational engagement with justice is a psychological dialectic of anger and guilt: anger at the failure of others to be moral, and guilt for our own failure.
However, this emotional structure to justice in the West sits in deep tension with feminist critical analysis, which very rarely blames any particular individual for their cultural inheritance. Yet despite this intellectual basis of feminism, and its structural conception of justice, some feminists have been reluctant to reform their emotional foundations.
And a reformation is very difficult. Blame and the axis of anger and guilt run deeply into western legal and moral systems. The punishment of a criminal is often enjoyed–from historical spectacles to the modern retributive lust at the torture of criminals (stripping them of space, of books and television, for calls for their total confinement) we regularly enjoy anger and its resolution, the punishment of another. The psychological cycle underpinning media spectacles then runs over and over as feeding this addiction–outrage and punishment, outrage and punishment, with the petite mort of apology to unify the experience.
Enjoyment of “justice” is then regulated by emotions deeply contrary to structural critique. The spectacle of anger and guilt is that of the individual – and the media cycle reflects this.
The Eastern, and Buddhist in particular, psychology of justice is radically different. Here compassion runs deep and fundamental, as that emotion “one feels in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.” Compassion, which might be taken as the double-negative of anger-guilt, is the unpalatable third option facing the machines of outrage today.
When faced with a rapist (or even, perhaps, a person wearing a t-shirt) the question is immediately formulated against the old dialectic. If you aren’t angry at him then you’re forgiving him; if he isn’t guilty then he’s shirking responsibility. That is, there is only blame-forgiveness and anger-guilt. If there’s no anger-guilt then there must be forgiveness and if there is then there must be blame. Compassion (as the absence of anger) feels like forgiveness on this view. Thus to criticize a person’s outrage is to defend the person who outrages them, and to refrain from anger is to forgive: and the horror at forgiving rape! It escapes those caught up in this cycle of enjoying their anger, that neither blame nor forgiveness are concerns.
I here chose rape as an example as it surely one of the most difficult acts to see from outside the horizon of anger and guilt: What is it to say that a rapist has no power? What is it to say that a rapist should be treated with compassion? Here we might see why it is that Socrates would not attribute power to those who merely do what they wish.
Deep at the heart of feminism, and any universal program for liberation, is a conception of the good society in which just relations between people are better for everyone. What is an act of rape then? It is a symptom of both the oppression of men and women and tied deeply to cultural forces of oppression. In particular, consider those which structure the rapist’s mentality: that women must be pursed regardless of their professed objections (cf. many fantasy story lines), that women are passive and men are active, that men are owed sex and that women are merely the vehicles of it, that virginity is failure, that women are the fuel of the male sex-machine and the double-objectification and inescapable injunctions of this view. The rapist is as much caught up in a system of his own oppression as the person he has raped.
Here something must be again made clear: This has nothing to do with blame. It is only a reformulation of power. An act of rape is not one expressing the power of the rapist over another, but powerlessness of them both. This may be difficult to understand because our emotional connection to rape is often deeply individualist: we connect ourselves to the injustice of the act by its traumatizing of a person, of an individual. We should therefore consider another example.
In the early 20th century we would surely label aristocrats as privileged, we would see their actions as oppressive and the system they sustained as benefiting them and hurting others. Yet, the life of an aristocrat was deeply regulated. Before the sexual revolution and class revolutions of the mid-20th century an aristocrat could not marry who they loved, they could not express themselves for fear of ‘scandal’ and many other oppressions besides. Every oppressive act of an aristocrat was thus, in the same instant it made them ‘responsible’ for harming another, preserving a system of great harm to themselves. The society they were depriving themselves of through their oppression was one in which they were freer too. In all the apparent power of the aristocracy, we find, just underneath, their powerlessness.
We thus find powerlessness under the surface of sexism, of rape, and of every act of oppression which creates a person who is blamed and a person who is forgiven. The powerlessness of the perpetrator who thinks that their desires will make them happy, when they deprive them of a system in which they could be happy. And the powerlessness of the victim who suffers the other half of this loss.
Oppression is not the actions of one group against another but a state of powerlessness in which all our acts deprive us from flourishing. The first question we must ask when confronted with injustice is: What has led to this? And our first feeling must be compassion, to understand the suffering within oppression. It should never be: On whose behalf should I be outraged? At whom should I be angry?
These questions will destroy a movement. What happens when its adherents fail to live up to their principles? When women fail to live a “perfectly feminist” lifestyle – too often have I seen anger and blame directed toward them, rather than compassion. What happens when you yourself fail? Should you spiral into self-hatred, guilt, and the enjoyment of your own hopelessness? What happens when those who, unaware of the oppressive dimension of their actions, are confronted with such overt hostility? Wide-eyed shouting and invective has rarely reformed a person, has rarely encouraged understanding and solidarity, has rarely succeeded.
Compassion is the appropriate emotion of structural analysis. Compassion finds oppression in both those we blame and those we forgive. Compassion is the difficult striving to set aside our anger and do what we must. It is not forgiveness: if there were a serial rapist whose view of the world were so corrupted so as never to be redeemable, that was forever damned to hurt others, then killing this person would be a compassionate act: They will never flourish. Their death, however, is not to serve for our enjoyment and corruption. Their death should be an act of pure compassion: to see them as a total victim of oppression, as a horrible consequence of our history. And the act of killing them should cause a corollary to compassion–grief. Grief at what was lost – a life, the potential for the expression of goodness.
Compassion often requires courage, and the fuel of courage may be momentary rage. But today, as I look around at some professing to fight against oppression, the spectacle of outrage is not a conduit for compassion. It is a corrosive cycle of obsession, degrading to the character and toxic to the movement. Alienating and hostile, fracturing and harming. Activists seek out marginalization and oppression to get their outrage-fix, and are moved to shout-down and attack rather than lead or help. This addiction to anger is anti-liberation. There is no justice in the spectacle of punishment, and no progress in division and hostility.
I recently finished reading Noel Carroll’s remarkable book Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction, and the result was a newfound appreciation for aesthetics and art, and it even caused me to change my mind regarding some of the untested assumptions I had regarding art. For example, I regularly meet with a writing group and we workshop short stories. The other guys in the writing group have published their short fiction; I haven’t. One of the members’ way of writing irked me for a long time because I couldn’t see enough of the author in the work. I secretly resented some of his stories because he didn’t explore a topic that would present him as an author as vulnerable or embarrassed: no admissions of loneliness or depression, nothing of making a fool of himself in public. It wasn’t until I read Carroll’s book that I realized I was operating under a tacit assumption: Art ought to express something of the author’s emotions. But of course this is a Romantic view, and surely not found in all works of art. In fact, if I really thought this were true, it would exclude whole swaths of art I very much love, art that seems to say very little about the author’s own vulnerabilities or emotions. What in The Odyssey, for instance, lets the reader know what gave Homer the blues?
Carroll’s book is very good at setting up various theories of art and examining their strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next. When I began reading the book, I thought this was a futile enterprise. It seemed an odd exercise of typical analytic philosophy, to set up a book that tries to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes a work of art what it is, just to knock it down and maybe ultimately reveal in the end that nobody can give any necessary and sufficient conditions. That is not what this book did. Carroll takes seriously the theories he explores, and one of his values seems to be that there is something that can be learned from these theories of art.
Take the theory that is as old as Plato and Aristotle that says that art is just an imitation of reality. Even if we ultimately dismiss this theory as insufficient (e.g., how to account for non-representational art), we can discover from those philosophers who proposed art as representation some important facts about the nature of representational art. For instance, we might gain a newfound appreciation for the design of a representational work of art, how difficult it is to make the formal properties and their relations cohere to actually make, say, a painting of a woman in a kimono resemble a real life woman in a kimono. (Of course in the picture below, the photograph came later.)
Carroll’s book can be awfully opinionated as well, as with the concept of disinterestedness and aesthetic experience. He never mentions Immanuel Kant by name but his presence looms large over the chapter on aesthetics. As you may remember from the Kant episode, disinterestedness toward art would involve approaching a work of art without ulterior purposes—impartially, in other words. According to Kant, we ought to attend only to the formal organization of the work.
Objections immediately arise to this view of disinterestedness. Perhaps the most important objection is what to do about artwork produced with religious, political or ulterior purposes in mind. How else to appreciate, for instance, what the image of Rosie the Riveter is doing unless we consider it in context, that is, as an attempt to encourage people, especially women, to contribute to the war effort in WWII? The art theorist or philosopher who would still encourage us to only attend to the work of art in terms of beauty by looking at its formal organization would seem to be asking us to miss the point of the work, Carroll wants to say. And this is not the only example of artwork created with personal or larger social interests at the core of its creation. The history of the art world has been replete with examples of art that contain representational and expressive properties, in addition to formal properties, that we’re supposed to pay attention to.
In Carroll’s view, that’s what is really at the heart of Kant’s concerns and the other people who espouse disinterest toward art and other manifestations of beauty: attention and concentration. According to Carroll, the problem is that our attention and concentration in view of beauty can come in degrees–we can be more or less attentive or concentrated. But we can never have disinterested attention in view of what is beautiful. By paying attention or failing to, we necessarily are not impartial to what we’re taking to be beautiful.
Kant held in The Critique of Judgment that “taste is still barbaric which needs a mixture of charms and emotions in order that there may be satisfaction, and still more so if it makes these the measures of its assent.” As much as some of us may have misgivings about consumer society, it would be difficult to find someone whose taste does not include a love for charms or at least some art that doesn’t possess emotional properties. Call this objection of Carroll’s “the way aesthetic experience actually works.” This, coupled with the claim that at least some art is made to provoke partiality, should make us doubt Kant’s view, Carroll thinks.
The central topics of Noel Carroll’s book are indicated by its chapters: the book deals with representation, expression, form, aesthetics, and defining and identifying art. Instead of moving through each chapter, however, I would like to propose some questions that might provoke some of your intuitions regarding aesthetics and art. I’d be curious to see what your opinions would be regarding these questions before and after reading the book.
To play fair, I’ll give you my answers, without any presumption on my part that the answers I have provided are adequate, let alone definitive.
1. What is your favorite work of art? How would you describe your relationship with it?
My favorite work of pictorial art these days is Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), and I am especially partial to the 1895 lithograph because I had the privilege of seeing it in person recently, on display in Seoul’s Museum of Modern Art in Korea. I have a copy of it hanging on my wall in my apartment. Munch described his inspiration for the work in an 1892 diary entry:
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.
The expression on the screaming man’s face in the work looks almost comical to millennials like me who first saw this grab-your-face-and-yell gesture on the VHS box cover of the 1990 film Home Alone. Even though my love for the piece sits uncomfortably alongside my love for other art (I prefer Renaissance and Baroque pictography), it is not an ironic appreciation; it is just that I and my millennial friends come to it with more cultural baggage than its early 20th century audience would have carried to it—with baggage heavy enough to make us appreciate the work more if we’re careful about it. The absurd associations we could make with the work highlight the absurdity of the action and in turn the absurdity of the sentiment that the work is trying to express. Imagine yourself walking along the bridge, a well-dressed couple, cheerily predisposed, passing you by, the sun setting to your left, when all of a sudden you are hit with the thought you and all the people you love are going to die. You know it would be strange to grab your face and scream out in horror, yet somehow you think it would be appropriate in a moment when you realize your own mortality, and you wonder why everybody isn’t showing their horror of death more often. This thought hits me like a punch to the gut. And that’s why I love it.
2. Does the appreciation of beauty make us better (perhaps more moral?) human beings?
I think an aesthetic approach to art or to people and objects in the world is essential to being a human being but it’s fundamentally different from approaching the world ethically—or logically, scientifically, spiritually, or mythically for that matter. Experiencing the world aesthetically is a matter of paying attention to the form and particular qualities of something. It’s possible to do this with a work of art but it can just as easily be done when viewing an oak, a person’s face, or a dog’s paw. The kinds of qualities that are particularly aesthetic qualities are qualities of expression, as when something appears somber or serious; qualities of taste, as when something looks kitschy or cheap; or qualities of unity, diversity, motion, and so on, which are often called Gestalt qualities, and are a matter of playing on the ways in which we’re psychologically constituted and things appear to us.
Consider George Cooke’s “Tallulah Falls,” and the way its rows of trees really do appear like a mountain side, and the way the river really looks like it’s flowing and how the man who is reaching out toward the tree looks precariously close to the edge. Nothing about the appreciation of this beautiful work entails a moral-ethical approach. A moral-ethical approach means looking at the world as being consistent with a good life, or promoting or preserving positive relations with others, including those regarding care, fairness, freedom, group loyalty, legitimate authority, and purity. There is overlap between viewing the world aesthetically and ethically, to be sure, but one approach does not entail the other.
3. In what sense is art an imitation of reality?
Art is clearly not always an imitation of reality, and so art imitates reality only if an artist designs an artwork such that its form, relation, and properties create the illusion that what appears in the artwork approximates people, objects, and events in the world. If you consider non-representational art, however, like Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space,” it doesn’t look as though the artist is trying to represent something. A clever viewer might say that Brancusi captured the swoop of a bird in flight but even if that’s so it’s stretching it to regard Brancusi, therefore, as creating a work of art that is imitative or representational art. In fact, U.S. Customs officials set off a legal battle regarding this piece in 1926 about whether the piece should even be regarded as a work of art.
4. Is a copy of a great work of art itself a work of art?
I think so, although I have no idea how I’d go about checking whether or not this is the kind of proposition that can be true or false. Any reader feedback regarding this would be helpful.
5. What is it that makes some things art while others are not art?
A work of art has some special formal relations and properties but outside of that I don’t know of a surefire way to determine what art is. The subject is a matter of great debate and is often determined by an ongoing dialogue, not only within the art-world but also among groups of ordinary people, and sometimes the issue even makes it to the courts, where for legal expediency a decision has to be made. Just to delight your fancy, think of the work of art below by Michael Craig-Martin titled “An Oak Tree.” Just in case you can’t see, it’s a glass of water sitting in the near-middle of a transparent shelf attached to the art wall. Your grandmother might not have thought it art, but the art-world does today.
Okay, I fibbed. One more question:
6. Do you think Carroll characterized Kant’s position on disinterest fairly?
What do you think?
On Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), Pt. 1, Book 1.
Kant thinks that finding something beautiful is different than merely liking it. It’s a certain kind of liking, not dependent on your idiosyncratic tastes (like your preference for one color or flavor or tone over another) or on your moral opinions. He wants these judgments to be subjective in the sense that they’re not about the object, but about the fact that people receive pleasure from it, yet he also wants them to be universal, so that if I (correctly) find something beautiful, then I expect others to feel the same way, and moreover, if they have taste, they should.
Of course this is all put into very difficult Kantian language with virtually no actual examples, so the regular foursome had a good time attempting to translate it to something you can get your head around. Read more about the topic and get the book.
End song: “Cool Down” from Mark Lint & the Fake Johnson Trio (1998), newly resung and remixed. Download the album for free.
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Robert Nozick tries to knock out anarchism as a possible political theory in his argument for the Minimal State. But does he really knock it out? Or can anarchism as a political theory be defended? And what is at stake?
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick imagines a world in which, as if by an invisible hand, society moves away from Anarchy toward the Minimal State—an organization with a monopoly on violence and protection, including protection of private property and the enforcement of contracts. Nozick believes the Minimal State is the only political organization that is morally justifiable. The movement away from Anarchy, however, is not to be confused with anarchism. Anarchy is the imagined condition when human beings lived without anyone claiming a monopoly on violence and coercion. Anarchism is the commitment to the principle of autonomy. Nozick conflates the two concepts, and so with a little parsing I think his claims can be rebutted and anarchism can be defended as a principled position, even if ultimately it’s best considered one valuable position among others.
Nozick lays out five possible scenarios in which someone could try to defend political organization and still maintain a commitment to the individual’s natural rights.
Scenario 1: Anarchy. Human beings are self-governing to the extent that they do not harm others. The old saying runs, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”—have all the freedom you want but just don’t go around using that freedom to hurt me or anybody else. Of course, the outbreak of violence or coercion is always possible under this scenario even if it’s never morally justified.
Scenario 2: Competing Protective Agencies. Human beings are not entirely self-governing because in this scenario there are little protective agencies that people pay cash or kind to in order to keep from being harmed by others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are entirely self-governing are open to harm.
Scenario 3: Dominant Protective Agency. Human beings are not self-governing if they pay tribute to this big protective agency but they can rest assured that if someone tries to harm or defraud them, they are going to be covered. Anybody not paying tribute to the big agency gets no protection but are self-governing.
Scenario 4: Ultraminimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—but it only protects those who pay. Anybody who harms a non-paying member may suffer but the non-paying member is not entitled to compensation for violence, fraud, or other harm.
Scenario 5: Minimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation.
Nozick reasons that Anarchy is insufficient because I am always at risk of being harmed, and I have only me and my friends and family’s recourse for retaliation to help solve problems. Nozick thinks, too, we can quickly dismiss Competing Protective Agencies, the Dominant Protective Agency, and the Ultraminimal State because these scenarios do not respect the natural rights of people who are outside the coverage of these protective agencies. The only legitimate political organization, therefore, is the Minimal State, which will protect people in a territory, no matter what, from violence, coercion, and fraud, and will enforce the rights, especially the property rights, of everyone. Criticizing the Ultraminimal State, Nozick writes:
A proponent of the ultraminimal state may seem to occupy an inconsistent position… Greatly concerned to protect rights against violation, he makes this the sole legitimate function of the state; and he protests that all other functions are illegitimate because they themselves involve the violation of rights. Since he accords paramount place to the protection and nonviolation of rights, how can he support the ultraminimal state, which would seem to leave some persons’ rights unprotected or illprotected? How can he support this in the name of the nonviolation of rights? [Nozick’s emphasis]
What is deeply troubling to Nozick is that the Ultraminimal State (and its intermediaries, the Competing Protective Agencies and the Dominant Protective Agency) violates natural rights because it excludes non-paying members to the protective agency from being properly compensated for wrongdoing. His argument is an argument from unfairness: it would be unfair to make those who can’t pay for protection suffer life’s vicissitudes. But the argument is also an argument from rights: above all, we ought to preserve the natural rights of human beings to the extent that they’re not harmed or defrauded—to the extent that they can maintain their freedom.
Yet what Nozick gives with one hand he takes with the other.
Nozick acknowledges that there might be some really existing material conditions where the lack of money limits the possibility of people being free from harm or coercion because they cannot pay for the services that will allow them to be free from such harm. But what if there were a world in which some of these scenarios were mixed? What of the following?
Scenario 6: Minimal State with Competing Protective Agencies. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. But there exist some smaller protective agencies to whom people pay cash or kind in order to suffer fewer opportunities of harm from others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are outside the smaller agencies are more open to harm.
Nozick seems to think that among really existing states of affairs, Competing Protective Agencies naturally turn into a Dominant Protective Agency and later into the Ultraminimal State. But it seems to me that mixed forms could exist, as with Scenario 6, where the State provides blanket protection but where smaller organizations exist alongside the State that could increase the probability that one is not exposed to bodily or mental harm and that sometimes do a better job, all told, at protecting people’s claims.
In fact, I think that to a less idealized degree, certain conditions within the United States approximate to Scenario 6. To the extent that some people can afford higher priced attorneys with regard to their legal claims, better health care, better universities, better neighborhoods, more comfortable exercise facilities, and healthier food, they enjoy more freedom from harm. This is because their quality of life is better and they have greater capacities to exercise their rights. The freedom to exercise your rights is no use to you if you never have the chance to use it, or if you’re dead, and real freedom is always more important than nominal freedom. Even constitutional guarantees to freedom and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless words on parchment without the opportunity for use, rendering a constitution little more than a paper tiger.
In Scenario 6, everyone is free from harm but some people are freer from harm than others. Such a world seems morally unjustifiable. In which case, I’d propose the following scenario for rectification:
Scenario 7: Welfare State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and to people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. To the extent that there exist any Competing Agencies, the lesser off are compensated for the disproportionate amount of harm they incur when some people have greater access to the protections of private agencies.
Scenario 7 would rectify occasions when Scenario 6 more closely approximates the world we live in, and it uses much the same justification for its moral legitimacy as Nozick uses for his argument for the Minimal State as opposed to its less fair alternatives. Yet the whole reason that Nozick got off on this track in the first place is because he thought that Anarchy, where everyone had maximal exercise of his natural rights, would naturally devolve toward a state of war where everyone would be competing every man for himself, and so he needed to find some legitimate institution that could bring order out of all this chaos. But does Nozick’s argument against Anarchy constitute an argument against anarchism? Nozick seems to have thought so but I believe otherwise.
Nozick writes as though his arguments for the Minimal State constitute an argument against anarchism. In the beginning of the work, he writes:
I treat seriously the anarchist claim that in the course of maintaing its monopoly on the use of force and protecting everyone within a territory, the state must violate individuals’ rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Against this claim, I argue that a state would arise from anarchy (as represented by Locke’s state of nature) even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about, by a process which need not violate anyone’s rights.
Nozick’s claim “that a state would arise from anarchy…even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about” is a non sequitir in view of the anarchist’s objection because the anarchist views the State as morally illegitimate, even if not factually indispensable, by virtue of analyticity. The State violates a person’s autonomy: it seeks to govern people instead of let people govern themselves.
The anarchist, committed to the principle of autonomy, believes people ought to govern themselves. One of Nozick’s contemporaries and a vocal philosophical expositor of the anarchist position Robert Paul Wolff argues that anarchism is a commitment to the principle of autonomy, and that “[t]he autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another. He may do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it. He is therefore, in the political sense of the word, free.” “The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled” (In Defense of Anarchism). The stage is already set for conflict:
The anarchist may grant that if we reached a world where we had only the Minimal State to contend with, where private tyrannies were excluded, it would be better than the alternatives, better than a subscriber State or rule by competing agencies. The anarchist could even say it would be better than Anarchy if Anarchy naturally entails that people do harm to one another and others go out on vengeance killings, for example, to rectify wrongs. But this is all beside the point. The anarchist has no truck in these affairs because these are imagined scenarios whereas anarchism is a principled position in view of real scenarios. The anarchist considers what the really existing states of affairs are and tries her best to maximize her autonomy within those states of affairs. Wolff writes:
Now, of course, an anarchist may grant the necessity of complying with the law under certain circumstances or for the time being. He may even doubt that there is any real prospect of eliminating the state as a human institution. But he will never view the commands of the state as legitimate, as having a binding moral force. In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time…
The anarchist is like “a man without a country” because he lives according to the principle of autonomy, the principle where he avers that he must obey his own law, and only obeys the laws of the land out of expediency or because they’re in accord with a law he’d give himself. Autonomy and authority are diametrically opposed, and the anarchist in principle believes it always best to choose to be autonomous to the extent that it’s possible.
… If autonomy and authority are genuinely incompatible, only two courses are open to us. Either we must embrace philosophical anarchism and treat all governments as non-legitimate bodies whose commands must be judged and evaluated in each instance before they are obeyed; or else, we must give up as quixotic the pursuit of autonomy in the political realm and submit ourselves (by an implicit promise) to whatever form of government appears more just and beneficent at the moment… It is out of the question to give up the commitment to moral autonomy… When I place myself in the hands of another, and permit him to determine the principles by which I shall guide my behavior, I repudiate the freedom and reason which give me dignity. I am then guilty of what Kant might have called the sin of willful heteronomy.
The anarchist seems to share some overlap with the libertarian. They are both ultimately committed to freedom and autonomy. But libertarians believe the way to get there is to minimize government and cut to the chase—they want to mate the king but without all the foreplay. Anarchists, however, believe there may be multiple avenues that will allow greater and greater freedom and autonomy. This is why it’s so hard to get a straight answer out of them when you ask, regarding making a more perfect world, “So what do you think the solution is?” Freedom can come in baby steps as well as leaps and bounds, and we’re invited to be suspicious of proposed avenues to get to a greater freedom that would seem to undermine the very thing we’re all after.
I am not an anarchist. I think there are other valuable principles worth fighting for than autonomy—but autonomy is a principle well worth preserving. Therefore, to the extent that anarchists fight for autonomy, they’re fellow travelers. What I do hope is taken seriously, however, not only by the anarchists but people no matter what their political affiliations are, is that there are always more pressing and proximal goals to attend than some final vision of society. There are any number of issues worth tackling as they’re really affecting us, including crime, health care, and poverty, and if we believe in principles like tending to the less fortunate, reducing suffering, and extending our fellow feeling to other human beings, then it ought to be reflected in behavior somehow.
It’s been a long time since we read Kant (see here and here), and folks always like our aesthetics episodes (see here, here, and here), so now you get the best of both worlds: Kant’s Critique of Judgment, aka the third critique, which aims to somehow bridge the gap between his epistemology (first critique) and ethics (second critique). If it seems funny to try to do this by talking about art, it might sound even stranger when you learn that the book also contains a big section on teleology, i.e. how in science we interpret data as if there was purpose in it, e.g. in talking about the function of an organ in a body or in describing the tendencies of a particle in physics.
For this episode (recorded 10/28/14 with the full foursome), we read Part I, Book I, i.e. “Analytic of the Beautiful.” We’ve already decided for episode 107 to read Part I, Book II on the sublime.
Kant wants to distinguish finding something beautiful from actually wanting it. If you see a painting of a nude and you like it because it inspires lust, that’s not an aesthetic judgment. It’s OK if a work does inspire you with lust, or longing, or something else, but a judgment of beauty can’t be based on that, according to Kant. You have to be disinterested insofar as you’re making an aesthetic judgment. Another way to put it is that if it’s representational art, like a picture, you don’t care whether the thing exists in reality. In fact, you might not want it to really exist, like a picture of a fearsome monster, but it could still be beautiful.
Judgments of beauty are also not really about the object, but are about our reactions to it. When I say that something is beautiful, what I’m really saying is that it gives me pleasure, but pleasure of the disinterested sort just described (which is a funny sort of pleasure; I could recognize that something is beautiful even if I’m not personally in the mood to enjoy it right now), and, moreover, because I don’t think it’s some quirk in me that makes me enjoy it (like if I enjoyed spicy food due to my particular palate), then I expect that everyone else should find it beautiful too. So Kant thinks that there’s a “common sense” in all of us, i.e. that we can recognize the beautiful because we all react in the same way in the presence of a beautiful object. So even though a judgment of beauty is subjective (meaning it’s really about the subjects feeling pleasure), we are justified in speaking as if it were about the object due to this universality.
But Kant recognizes that clearly not everyone will find a beautiful object beautiful, so this universality can’t be a matter of actually looking at people’s reactions. As with Kant’s morality, where the Categorical Imperative was given to us by Reason a priori, judgments of beauty involve the transcendental, i.e. they involve us imposing expectations on experience which Kant also thinks are justified a priori (just like mathematical truths, which we can’t learn from the world, because the world could never show us that they’re necessarily true).
As with his epistemology, where Kant was trying to come up with a synthesis of insights from rationalists (knowledge is from reason) and empiricists (knowledge is from experience), here he’s trying to synthesize and transcend the views that, on the one side, beauty is something in the object that we can understand by analyzing beautiful things (e.g. all beauty involves the golden ratio) and on the other side, that the only way we can talk about matters of beauty is by looking at what people like. Kant denies the rationalists here by saying that beauty is non-conceptual, that you can’t put into words what it is. He denies the empiricists by insisting that some people just have bad taste, and we can know what’s beautiful even if some people (including us!) might be wrong in particular judgments about it.
So remember that for Kant, the Understanding is the faculty that deals with the phenomenal world, i.e. the world that science studies. It uses the Categories like causality and number to interpret everything we see, to in effect form our experience. Reason, on the other hand, is a higher level faculty that tries to integrate everything, e.g. looking for fundamental laws. Now, Reason likes to reach beyond the phenomenal world to Things-In-Themselves, which is a mistake if you’re talking about theoretical reason: we needed the Critique of Pure Reason to tell us that, e.g. causality is a concept that only applies to the world we could potentially experience, and we have no idea if it applies outside of that, so any attempt to use it to, for instance, say that there’s a first cause of everything and so prove (or disprove) the existence of God is fundamentally confused. That’s a theoretical use of Reason for Kant, which is different than practical Reason, which is what he thinks gives us the Categorical Imperative (and even ends up proving in a very indirect way that we have to assume that God exists; we discussed that in episode 39).
So the field of objects that the Understanding covers is the phenomenal realm. Reason also covers those objects, but tries to extend itself wider to everything, so you can think of the Thing-In-Itself (the noumenal realm) as being the field that’s particular to Reason (with the above caveats that Reason tends to screw up and make too many claims about it, which is what all metaphysics amounts to). Well, Judgment is a faculty too, but it doesn’t have its own special field of objects. It’s used on the one hand in cognition to apply the concepts (the Understanding’s transcendental Concepts like causality, but also ordinary empirical concepts like being an apple or being green) to individual things in perception. In doing that, it’s bringing the Understanding in contact with particulars. But Judgment also serves to try to figure out new concepts for the particulars we see, which is getting into the realm of Reason’s unifying activities. So you might say that Understanding and Reason run in parallel, with Reason operating at a higher level of abstraction, and Judgment then runs vertically to connect the two of them and to connect them to individual sensations.
Kant uses this weird picture of the mind to try to explain what appreciating beauty amounts to. He says it involves the machinery of cognition, i.e. the faculty (Judgment) that is used to categorize things, but doesn’t actually categorize them. So it’s all about recognizing orderliness and form in things: admiring the play of the lines in a painting or the notes of a piece of instrumental music as they flow by in time. We recognize that there’s form, but we don’t conceptualize it. Yes, you can analyze a work and say, e.g. “that was a major scale,” but that operation of mind is not why the work is beautiful.
He describes this as the “free play of faculties.” We make a judgment that something is beautiful based on feeling pleasure when the Imagination and the Understanding are “in harmony.” The Imagination is yet another faculty used for cognition, where whenever we recognize something as an egg, for instance, we have to “imagine” (i.e. remember) the other eggs we’ve seen, and whenever we even recognize a 3-dimensional object in space as what it is, we have to imagine/remember that it has sides and a back and an inside, etc.: we “synthesize the manifold” by bringing together a bunch of remembered and anticipated experiences (we discussed this a lot on our Husserl episode).
So in a normal perception, Judgment uses Imagination to apply the concepts of the Understanding (like causality and number), and also the concepts that we came up with using Reason (e.g. like calling something an animal or fruit) to identify the thing. In an aesthetic experience, the same mechanisms are all in play, but we don’t come to a conceptual judgment: instead, we basically screw around mentally, and feel pleasure from that, and so bam! we call the thing beautiful. Strictly speaking, a judgment of ugliness, then, isn’t an aesthetic judgment: it’s just the lack of this kind of thing going on.
Note that of course, full-on cognitions can be involved in perception of a beautiful thing. E.g. if you’re contemplating a piece of sculpture, you can recognize that it’s a sculpture, and so a physical object, and that it’s supposed to represent a cow. But at the same time, you’re also having the aesthetic experience, and in fact Kant thinks that that experience is more pure if you’re not being distracted by so many of such cognitions, e.g. if you’re not judging an example of a species. Judging the best-looking cow involves knowing something about cows and what kind of excellence is appropriate to them, and could make a sculpture of a cow much more beautiful if you had more freedom in shaping its curves just so, and not having to worry about it actually looking like a cow.
One way that someone could have bad taste is to confuse beauty with the other kinds of approval: you might say a castle is ugly because you disapprove of the moral excess involved in castles. Wrong! Pay attention to the object itself! Or (more problematically) Kant thinks you might find some of the ornamental flourishes involved charming, and that kind of approval is more like finding food delicious or an image lust-inspiring: it’s not properly disinterested. Again, get your mind off the track of your own peccadilloes and on to the object!
This leads Kant to revere purity in aesthetics. He likes instrumental music over something with words, and would find our pop music scene, where you end up connecting to the personality of the singer, absolutely barbaric. Likewise he says that all colors are equally beautiful (even if you might like red better than green) so long as they’re pure, and it’s the purity that presents the formal beauty (the simplest possible form, i.e. the uniform).
You might also fail to see beauty if you fail in some stage of the cognitive processes involved, like if you just can’t follow a melody at all, or are too distracted by the picture being of a naked lady to pay attention to the formal elements, or if you don’t understand the metaphors being used in a literary work enough to see the beauty in their use. So there’s room and need for eduction about art, even though it’s non-conceptual and supposedly universal.
So what does all this have to do with purposefulness, with teleology, as I mentioned at the beginning? Well, this free play of faculties is also described as “purposeless purposiveness.” Just as we’re using the mechanisms by which we categorize things but not actually categorizing them, recognizing but not naming form is tantamount to recognizing that something looks purposive (i.e. designed intentionally or having some evident function), without actually assigning it some particular purpose. So Judgment in recognizing the beautiful involves some of the same elements as recognizing the orderliness of nature that leads us to look for universal, scientific natural laws.
To conclude, even though beauty can’t be put into words on Kant’s view, he ends up having a lot he can say about what kinds of things are beautiful, though, typically, he spends next to no time dwelling on actual examples that would help us understand his theory. Nonetheless, Kant’s picture of disinterested appreciation was highly influential, setting the tone for a whole era of modern aestheticians who nonetheless did not see the need to involve Kant’s whole picture of the psyche.
I highly recommend also taking a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia article on this topic. For a nice, clear presentation, I also recommend listening to the two lectures on this book by James Grant for the University of Oxford Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art lectures (also available via iTunes U).
At a bakery you can have any kind of cake you like: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry.. Indeed thanks to the great defenders of individual choice in the baking world there are now hundreds of flavors for you to choose. You can’t choose bacon or chicken at the bakery however, and bakers have yet to introduce the lamb custard. The baking industry has been deliberately designed and regulated so as to maximize the number of available products—up to a point. In baking circles it is heretical to suggest that fish is an appropriate dessert choice. And shoes will never be for sale.
In our economic system (bakery) one may not choose one’s salary, office, boss, or the quality of his workstation or area, and only occasionally can he choose his hours. Of course, we can choose between one terrible job where we do not have these choices and another terrible job where we do no have these choices. Why, there are many jobs available to us, in principle, wherein we cannot choose anything important. We can have chocolate crappy jobs, strawberry crappy jobs and even vanilla crappy jobs. But always at the heart of the choice is our total future restriction.
And this is the basic structure of choice: Every choice we make is always one from a limited number of options. But our choices are not only limited by tacit assumptions about what should or should not go on cheesecake. Our choices are also limited by our looks, our wealth, our intelligence – and most of all today, by our location. More and more however, we are sold the virtue of increasing the number of options available, but not their kind or quality.
Solutions to this problem of the “quality of economic choices” abound, but many attempts to improve the quality of the choices are systematically undermined by contemporary economic and political thinking. Democracy proper is feared and despised in many areas of the current intellectual climate and “Individual Freedom of Choice” is presented as an inviolable virtue of contemporary society – a Natural Right against which all societies should be judged. It is taken for granted that this freedom is meaningful, that its prescriptions and prohibitions are clear – that a society of great freedom is clearly distinguishable from one of limitation. And indeed, that “limitation” is the natural opposite of the freedom to choose.
However, there is a fundamental incoherence to the universal prescription of the freedom to choose: since anyone choosing anything is impossible, the parameters of this freedom are who is choosing and what they can choose – ie., it is impossible to universalize (and thus cannot be a Right at all).
In raising choice as such to a moral imperative we create choices for the sake of choosing, moral dilemmas where none need exist. In a system of private healthcare a parent of two children may face a dilemma: In an accident affecting both children, and with limited funds at the family’s disposal, which child should the parents prioritize? Perhaps more pertinently, in a system of private education, and with limited funds: Which child should be sent to the better private school, and which the worse? It is a virtue in a system of “free choice” for this question to be forced upon you by circumstance. With universal education, health, etc. parents are spared the horror of evaluating their child’s worth. The “cost” of a universal system is that you have fewer choices – but in what sense could this be a cost at all, in what sense can choice as such have a value (i.e., the act of choosing regardless of what options are available)?
The relevant political and moral calculations should, then, always be: What options are we exchanging when we act politically – what new choices are being forced upon us, what is the kind and quality of their options? To be able to pose these questions, however, we cannot do so as individuals – since an individual is always beholden to the system in which they are operating. An individual can no more decide on the meaning of words in the language he’s using as how other people will treat him.
An individual person cannot demand of society to be treated as equal to every other, for example. For some, these limitations of circumstance (the loud bigotries of society, economy, and politics) are the natural inheritance of any free person – freedom consists in playing this game, not in organizing collectively to challenge it. What individualists of this kind miss is that these bigotries are already collective decisions, that racism is merely an institution without self-awareness.
Therefore, breaking apart collective bodies (from, say, a group of citizens to a worker’s union) does not “free” individuals from the tyranny of collective decisions; it just changes the parameters of limitation toward the irreflexive, unchanging, and narrow. In the absence of a union, the board makes all the decisions for workers. In the absence of a government, prejudice takes this role. When fewer people provide the parameters of our choices, fewer interests are expressed: When it is only the board who decides how a company is run, then people work the longest hours possible – leisure time existing only in equilibrium with efficient work. And when a larger irreflexive group provides the parameters of choice less moral interests are expressed: racism, sexism, feudalism, sectarianism and the other stupidities of spontaneous reaction.
Thus the individual is in a constant face-off with his culture and circumstances, the tension emanating from the fundamental constraints on his choices. Only by making collective decisions reflective and accountable, by making economic, political, social and moral systems themselves available for modification – for choice – can the individual assert, through others and themself, any meaningful freedom of choice.
This month both the Fiction and the Theater group will be starting new texts, the Heidegger group will be continuing, and a new group exploring conservative political philosophy is just starting up. If you’re interested in any of these subjects or in forming a group to read something else, you can read about how PEL Not School works and join up.
The Heidegger Group will continue making its way through Being and Time\ this month, so check out their page to learn more. These folks have been recording their talks as they work through the book, and have accumulated an impressive backlog.
Last but not least, our new Conservative Political Philosophy Group will reading and discussing Michael Oakeshott’s essay On Being Conservative (originally 1956, contained in the compendium Rationalism in Politics and other essays. They could use a few more members, so if political philosophy is your thing, you might want to check them out.
It’s early in the month, so you can still get a November group off the ground if you hurry. New proposals pop up all the time, so remember to check the forum.
Enjoy your reading.
- Daniel Cole
During late October, the Philosophy and Theater Group (Carlos Franke, Philip Cherny and Daniel Cole) wrapped up a month and a half long study of Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. For anyone out there who may have listened to our Schechner or Artaud discussions, this one tops off many of the themes and issues we explored in those. PEL Citizens can find all of these on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, and if you aren’t a member yet, take a look at some of the perks of membership.
Victor Turner was a true inter-disciplinarian, and this book draws from his own work in anthropology, as well as philosophy, drama and sociology. Like Richard Schechner, Turner believed that acting out the rituals of other cultures provides a rich, sympathetic connection to them that can’t be accessed from detached observation or the perusal of data. Like Erving Goffman, Turner saw drama and ritual all over the place in developed societies, with plenty of parallels to the tribal cultures he’d studied in Africa.
Come listen to us try to get a handle on the “liminal” and the “liminoid”, as well as Turner’s conception of “social drama.” These naturally led into questions about what the self is between or outside of the roles we play, and what the experience of the liminal phase might be like.
For November, we’re exploring the work of Jerzy Grotowski by way of The Grotowski Sourcebook. This will culminate in a live discussion that will likely take place in early December, so swing by our page if you’re interested in joining us. New members are always welcome.
- Daniel Cole
I’m gratified that from what I can tell, we weren’t wildly unfair in our Nozick episode, and in particular that Metcalf’s participation apparently didn’t irredeemably taint our coverage, what with his being an already established opponent of the text.
As is typical when we cover and largely pan a work related to a movement that people are invested in, we get more requests to cover different texts that would make the case more effectively (in this case, a couple of people have brought up Michael Huemer. I would encourage such people to go create a Not School group right now to talk about it, as no further forays into this area are scheduled or anticipated. If you start a group and record your discussion, I will eventually get around to doing another Not School highlights episode, meaning that at least the beginning of your discussion will get shared with the full PEL listenership.
Our next planned steps in sort-of political philosophy are in economics, covering Smith first, then probably a Keynes-Hayek combined episode. We’ll also definitely get to an anarchism episode, i.e. Proudhon/Bakunin. That’s all I can safely predict at this point, though your suggestions are always welcome and will certainly be considered (especially if we hear the same suggestion from enough different people).
So that leaves us where we often are given our “great books”-based approach: we’ve considered the main representative of a view according to the philosophical canon, but arguably haven’t grasped with the issue itself. Disgruntled libertarians can join the Marxists and and atheists and theists and people who think we read the wrong Merleau-Ponty text or haven’t yet received proper guidance on Lacan.
So our opinions about libertarianism as a wider social position beyond Nozick’s book will for the foreseeable future instead be a product of lots of third-hand gossip and encounters with irritating dorm-mates or things we heard in the media or whatever, i.e. how people normally get their opinions who don’t make a concerted scholarly effort to grapple with a view. So I invite libertarian-leaning listeners to engage us here to help us understand what we may be missing.
To me, the rationality behind someone’s libertarianism has everything to do with what kinds of nasty government actions they have in mind when they say that government action is in general, or outside of specified narrow limits, unjustified. When Thoreau was complaining about government, he had in mind the stupid wars of his day and the enforcement of slavery, which are pretty damned good things to complain about. If your problem with the federal government today is foreign wars and drones, I’m with you, though I also recognize that I don’t actually know much about foreign affairs, and just about nothing about strategic defense of American interests. As we discussed as far back as our first episode and more recently on our Oppenheimer episode, we necessarily rely to a very large degree on expert opinions, and so when it comes to fighting terrorism or the like, the best I feel I can do is try to gauge whether the people we put in charge of such things are corrupt or not, i.e. whether they’re going to be doing primarily the bidding of their campaign contributors or whether they actually have the public interest in mind. I tend to think that most people in public service, given that public service doesn’t pay as much as the private sector, are at least trying to do the right thing.
What’s my rationale for that opinion? It’s a “bullshitty” one, to quote myself re. Thoreau. I work with some people with some government power (mostly in the transportation sector), and have thought and researched enough about the relationship between jobs and human nature to feel confident that people don’t want to live wasted, shitty, corrupt lives. While a low-level government job may attract many a person in search of a sinecure (this is one of my favorite words; look it up if you don’t know it!), if you’re actually going to work at something, you want it to matter. I have less understanding of real-world instances of the raw motivation toward power that characterizes public servants in our media, but, as with money, think it obvious that such a hunger would be much more easily satisfied in the private sector than in our checks-and-balances system.
Inevitably, any attempt to generalize about the psychology of libertarians is going to be highly inapplicable to many of them, but if we’re dealing in anecdote and near-groundless generalization, as semi-philosophical essays about the social apparently must according to Wes, then here goes:
Libertarians like Thoreau tend to be both highly cynical, contra my assessment of public servants above, and maybe also think that there’s something about government power in particular that corrupts more than other kinds of power, probably because of the whole monopoly on force thing. Someone high up an a corporate, or academic, or nonprofit political organization may well be an ass and promote policies that exploit others, but he can’t have his underlings and constituents arrested or killed.
The problem here is how to provide a tempered response to a real problem. I had a musician friend once who was so paranoid about being robbed that he would always keep his blinds closed so that no one passing would so much as see his equipment and start hatching plans to steal it. Some people are so worried about driving or flying that they simply won’t do these things. What makes for a rational response to a real risk is a matter of judgment, and so people with different sensibilities are going to put more or less emphasis on particular threats.
I actually found David Brin to be pretty persuasive on this: we shouldn’t discount any of our concerns about the power of any elites, private or public, but should recognize that it’s not the level of power someone has that matters (and we can’t do much about this anyway), but what’s done with the power. I’m not concerned with arguing that in principle, some elites need to be restrained from any possible bad moves, but am concerned with there being accountability for and checks on all elites.
Another point of what I’d call personality-engendered disagreement is how you view the possibility of social change and our personal and collective responsibility for bringing that about. I’m a liberal, of course, in the sense that I see many of the world’s evils as capable of being addressed… maybe not cured, but greatly greatly lessened. There’s no reason given our level of overall world wealth why we should still have poverty. There’s no reason why we have to keep wrecking our environment. We can’t remove natural disasters, but we can develop more effective ways of responding to them to mitigate long-term damage. We can’t stop disease and death, but we can invest a lot in medical research and more in propagating preventive care and other medical resources that we already have. We can’t get rid of religious strife and power struggles and general human dickishness, but we can change aspects of the culture through more communication and better guidance. (Would you have believed when you were a kid that bullying would actually be getting real treatment as a problem in the way it has been of late?)
So there’s a lot that I think needs to be done to address these problems, and I don’t really give a crap who does it. If a corporation can address one of these needs, great, and if they get rich in the process, fine. But as we know, corporations aren’t designed to serve the public interest (well, some are), so it becomes the task of government to defend those who don’t have the resources to defend themselves. This, I think, is the position of the very centrist Democratic party of today: We just want things to work, dammit. We want effectiveness, we want long-term planning, we want deep thought about a vision of the future but don’t want to sacrifice any incremental gains that might actually be politically achievable in the name of some principle that not enough people will understand or be on board with to allow it to result in new laws.
Given my mindset, I have little patience for someone who gets hung up on some bias against government action (or against private ownership, or again religious organizations, or against international aid, etc., etc.). You might argue that one can’t legislate change: that real change comes from within, from changing people’s hearts and minds in the war of ideas. This ignores one of Marx’s fundamental insights, which is that people adapt to their material circumstances, and typically our ideas express the status quo or the teleology inherent in the system in which we live. So, for example, you can’t legislate that people stop being racist, but you can use laws to discourage discrimination and positively give opportunities to minorities. In the short term, this creates tension, in that, for example, whites suspect that any minority in a position of power was only there because of affirmative action. But as a long-term proposition, the result is more minorities in positions of power, and people obeying that power as they generally must, and so what was most terrible about old, racist society largely dissipates.
I sometimes romanticize my time in school, because it’s an example of where most of us lived under a different kind of governing structure, and in my case (in my affluent Chicago suburb that to this day always votes “yes” on referenda to shower the high school with new and improved facilities), the result was very positive. No, I’m not advocating for a paternalistic society that determines our main activities, but what worked for me was that there was of course the main activity (classes) which was at least designed with our human capacities and interests in mind (yay, New Work), and then there were all these extracurricular opportunities (sports teams, drama, etc.) that only only gave us something to sink our ambitions into, but there was a culture that was amenable to fostering friendships and consequently cooperative efforts not sponsored by the school, like, say, starting a rock band or running an underground magazine.
I’m more than aware that lots of people had very different experiences of school, and am not urging that model on society as a whole, but it tells us something about the possible relationship between intentionally designed, institutional community and human thriving. College provides another set of models we can learn from, as do many civic, church, and business communities. To rule out government action on grounds of principle is as foolish as ruling out any role for technology in conquering our problems.
But any such openness to central (or highly decentralized!) planning, and any admission that there are problems that are “ours” as a larger collective instead of belonging to each of us as individuals or maybe at best families, already runs against what I’ve witnessed as the sensibilities of many a libertarian. Some are pessimists and/or cynics: the problems of the world are bad enough that admitting the world or even the whole nation to our circle of care will simply ensure that nothing gets solved… they’ll just drag us down, whether through their orneriness or laziness or simply because they’ve got it too bad for us to add their problems to our plate. Some deny the connection between human hardship and happiness, taking Freud to mean that we’re pretty much going to be unhappy however we structure things, so why worry about it? It’s hard enough dealing with your own shit. Some simply don’t give a shit at all about other people as a species, and deny on principle that we are fundamentally social beings.
In our Nozick discussion, this came up in our confusion/disagreement re. whether Nozick had anything to say about ethics proper. You could (as I interpret Nozick) take him to be arguing against any government duty towards positive ethical action (specifically, arguing that any attempt to follow such a duty would violate a moral side constraint) while accepting that as human beings, we do have duties towards each other. Seth maintained instead that Nozick’s position that individuals can’t have such positive duties either. Clearly, Thoreau was not only against government charity, but against charity altogether. Or you could believe that government shouldn’t try to help, but we still as individuals and voluntary agencies should. I take neither position to be well justified, but at least the latter isn’t obviously misanthropic.
Most often, I hear the accusation that we naive liberals just don’t understand economics, that we fail to recognize how somehow any action by government screws up the not-perfect-but-the-best-we-can-do action of free markets. This challenge I do take seriously, which is why we need to do a short survey of economic theory. My initial hypothesis is that economics is our modern theology, and that it’s just as bullshitty as old-time theology was. Collecting more data and examining historical patterns does not predict the future, and the disagreement among major economists (left- vs. right-wingers) as well as their failure under any administration to effectively address real-world economic problems (or tell us with with any confidence what the economy would look like if some actions had been taken or not) makes me think it’s all a high-priced guessing game, used, then, by this class of libertarian to justify their political opinions which are actually based on sentiment, i.e. bullshit.
By all means, I encourage our listeners to tell me what I’m missing here, and that means actually telling us here, not just pointing me at some 300 page text that for sure none of us will read. Thanks as always for your patience in reading my bullshit.
While Henry David Thoreau was conducting his life experiment, living simply and deliberately in a cabin alongside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845, he began to feel that “[t]he wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar.” In Walden, he wrote, “I find myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Words like these hint toward an ostensible tension between a higher and a lower nature. But another way to read his account in Walden is that Thoreau thought, as has been evidentially borne out, that one and the same human nature can be the source for self-control, empathy, and reason on the one hand and dominance, revenge, and violence on the other. Further, the norms and institutions we create for ourselves will either cultivate our spiritual lives or allow our tendencies toward harm and destruction to thrive. From the Wild come our tendencies toward baser behaviors but also our tendencies toward the Good.
Thoreau’s reference to the Wild and the Good appears in Walden, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” between two incongruous passages. The passage appears after Thoreau confesses his desire to eat raw a woodchuck he saw scurrying about and before a passage saying there’s something inhumane and rather grisly about eating animals for sustenance. He writes, “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he [the boy] does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.” And as if to emphasize he knows how inflammatory his comparison between a suffering rabbit and a suffering child might be, he writes, “I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions.” The sentence suggests that being philanthropic is not just a matter of bearing in mind the equality of persons but one of considering the suffering of all sentient creatures.
Thoreau reasons that making an animal suffer is much like making a child suffer. The reasoning parallels contemporary ethical discussions about how to think about the suffering of animals in view of our long history of consuming them, including in the works of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan. However, Thoreau does not mean for his reasoning to be conclusive. He is debating with himself. He is inviting dissent, or at the very least dialogue regarding the issue, just as he does in Walden with the strangers he meets.
The discussions that Thoreau has throughout his experiment in simple and deliberate living are philosophical in the broad sense. Sometimes the discussion centers on the injustices of the wage system, or at other times on what might be called the topic of multiple intelligences, Thoreau averring that those who are often called “simple” possess more intellectual capacity than they’re given credit for. The topics seem to emerge in these conversations effortlessly and naturally, like clouds from frozen water crystal, and then just as quickly pass.
In addition to expressing empathy with the pain of other suffering creatures and reasoning about abstract topics as they pertain to the practical necessities of life, Thoreau appeals to what he calls purity to guide him through his life, but which we could just as easily call self-control. Thoreau writes of this self-control: “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute him.” We are fundamentally physical creatures, Thoreau says, biological animals with a capacity to use our bodies as we will—but with that comes the responsibility to use them for nobler purposes. And this is what self-control amounts to, and what it would mean if we are to follow Thoreau’s command to wake up. Thoreau writes:
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep… To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
Self-control, alongside empathy and reason, helps us focus reform on creating a better quality of life for other people first within ourselves. The norms we follow and encourage others to follow and the institutions we create, if they are built upon our strengths, will actually lead to a better world. Pioneers like Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendalists, the Enlightenment figures, and the Renaissance and Church reformers before us have made it possible for us to live in a better world where extreme poverty has fallen, global inequality is at an all-time low, and violence is declining, to name a few issues. Other problems abound, of course—two of the issues at the forefront of my mind are poverty and income inequality and the decline of democracy within the United States. There is still more work to be done to make our wild biological selves expressive of our virtues. But we’ll get there, with a little organization and effort.