Thursday, July 30, 2009

The road to incoherence

I've recently endorsed the neo-Thomistic philosophy of Jacques Maritain, whose "Art and Scholasticism" extends the theories of the mediaeval schoolmen to the study of aesthetics. For scholastic philosophers, the realm of aesthetics encompasses not only the "creative arts," but the entire sphere of productive action. (By "productive action" they mean any action whose goal is to produce something.) Under this broad definition, anything from a symphony to a clock to a house to a natural landscape is subject to aesthetic judgment, since each of these is the result of a creative act. The success of any created thing in providing aesthetic satisfaction, moreover, depends on the extent to which it fulfills the three Thomistic conditions of beauty: integrity, proportion, and clarity.

So far, so good. But this picture of aesthetics has two controversial corollaries that are a stumbling block to modern minds:

1) The work of art, taken abstractly as such, is morally neutral. The Scholastic picture depends on a division of human action into the sphere of Doing and the sphere of Making: any action can be judged either based on the rightness or wrongness of the action itself (ethics) or based on the product created by the action (aesthetics), but never both simultaneously. This means, among other things, that Stockhausen was wrong about the September 11th attacks; flying a plane into a building belongs definitively in the sphere of Doing.* This is not to say that the individual artist does not fall under moral judgment - if he is deliberately sloppy in his work, for instance - or that works of art cannot have tremendous impact on the sphere of practical action. It does mean, however, that the moral content of a work is a matter of indifference to its value qua art. If a work of art depended for its value on its immediate ethical relevance, much of the Western canon would no longer be worth looking at: one thinks of Wilfred Owen's war poetry, Picasso's Guernica, almost all of Dickens, and, errr, the entire corpus of instrumental music.

2) Aesthetic quality is objective. This doesn't mean that you can judge art quantitatively with a protractor or anything silly like that; it simply means, in the dictionary meaning of the word "objective," that the aesthetic quality of a work of art pertains to the qualities of the work itself. It could not be otherwise, because Scholasticism insists that the work of the artist is an act of craftsmanship rather than an act of communication. An art work is not a direct telephone line to the maker's emotional state, as the Romantics thought at their worst, nor is it an echo chamber that repeats our ingrained social prejudices, as certain postmodernists would suggest. It is nothing more or less than a made object, and our judgment of it should not be so different from the way we judge plumbing, or carpentry: is it made well? Does it do what it's supposed to do?

This is a bitter pill for some people to swallow because of the more-or-less-unchallenged hegemony of aesthetic relativism. While the average person still balks at applying relativism to ethics ("Murder could be right or wrong, depending on your point of view") or epistemology ("There might or might not be such a thing as a 'giraffe', depending on your point of view"), it seems natural to acknowledge a plurality of different possible opinions on a work of art. If Harold Bloom thinks that Messiaen's "Apparition de l'Eglise eternelle" is hideous cacophony, for example, and I think it's a wonderful work of enormous power, who's to say that one of us is "wrong"? The Scholastics have an answer for this one too, of course, which is to acknowledge that every art work created by humans is flawed: every work of poetry, visual art, or music evokes, at best, a partial and limited beauty. Each observer, based on their social context and personal idiosyncracies, will be more or less attuned to specific types of aesthetic beauty, and thus will naturally prefer certain types of art to others. Through education, however, we can learn to appreciate new types of beauty, and works that formerly held no attraction to us reveal their full potential. This view may not seem so different from relativism: haven't I just conceded that there are differing valid aesthetic stances? But in fact there's all the difference in the world; relativists hold that different cultures have wholly incompatible worldviews which prevent outsiders from gaining any true understanding. The Scholastics, however, acknowledge the obvious fact of differing aesthetic opinions while still maintaining that these reflect some small aspect of an objective truth.

Distinctions like these seem tedious to many people: why does it matter whether you hold aesthetic values to be objective or relative, as long as you're tolerant of conflicting views? How could any of this possibly have an impact in real life? I am increasingly convinced, however, that half-digested philosophical presuppositions like these have a far-reaching impact on the rest of our life. In other words, ideas have consequences. A slippery-slope effect occurs; the widespread acceptance of relativism in one field leads to the suspicion that other fields might be ripe for relativization. Before you know it, you've accepted nominalism, then moral relativism, and finally you turn into this guy:
I once debated a famous ethnomethodologist who claimed to have shown that astronomers actually create quasars and other astronomical phenomena through their researches and discourses. ‘Look’, I said, ‘suppose you and I go for a walk in the moonlight, and I say, `Nice moon tonight,' and you agree. Are we creating the moon? ‘Yes’, he said.
-John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.

The dominance of relativism eventually reaches the point that even avowedly anti-relativist tracts, like Paul Boghossian's Fear of Knowledge, fail to reach the root of the problem. Boghossian successfully demonstrates that epistemic relativism is conceptually incoherent, but he's unwilling to extend his criticism to other domains of relativism. Thus, for example, one of his central critiques proceeds by stating a traditional argument for moral relativism** and demonstrating that an argument which works for ethics does not work for facts about the external world. While Boghossian never explicitly endorses moral or aesthetic relativism, his books gives the impression that they are, at the very least, legitimate intellectual positions. Unfortunately, this gives away the store at the outset: the acceptance of relativism in moral and aesthetic domains creates precisely the conditions under which epistemic relativism will continue to recur.

There is something about contemporary culture that encourages us to see objective or absolute theories of truth as "limiting": they supposedly pin us down to a single way of seeing the world, and close our minds to others worldviews. Yet, paradoxically, we cannot have true intellectual freedom unless we agree to be bound by these constraints. By claiming that facts about the outside world are socially constructed, we are admitting that our ideas lack any real-world referents, which is tantamount to saying that our ideas are meaningless. Which, for relativist writers, is often correct.

* I'm being a bit glib here; bear with me.
** pp. 47-51.


Dave said...

Bravo, well put.

sensit said...

You may find interesting another review on Construction of Social Reality by John Searle