Friday, November 12, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking

"As spectators of art we enter a state of calm passivity and enhanced objectivity, and the various art forms allow us to recognize diverse aspects of reality from a vantage point where our own individual will is not engaged."

The above is from an essay in the Times Literary Supplement (Oct. 15, 2010) by Christopher Janaway, who is here discussing Arthur Schopenhauer's view of the value of art, namely, its disinterestedness, which allows us to escape from the demands of "will." The sentence struck me, reminding me of something I read long ago in Freud. Though I have not been able to rediscover it since, Freud wrote something to the effect that reading a novel allows us, as in no other way, to enter into the "head" of another person. In other words, to see the world from another's viewpoint. I think he may also have been suggesting that reading of novels allows us to develop empathy for others.

When I reflect on my own thinking, it seems that it is characterized by two things. One is obsessiveness: I go over (and over) a subject, as if trying to solve a problem. Unfortunately, the subject is usually very banal. The other is "aesthetic." Often this second manner of thinking concerns art, though in a very broad sense, in that I am often absorbed by the beauty or ugliness of my surroundings. But aesthetic judgments are even broader than that, characterizing my reactions to people. Sometimes my reaction is pleasure (in the case of someone really pretty or handsome); sometimes it is revulsion (do I need to give examples?). Those reactions I would almost consider "objective," since many people might have the same reaction. But my judgment also includes reactions to people's behavior: approval, disapproval, and the like. Once upon a time, say, when I was growing up back in the 1950s, there were some "universal" standards for judging behavior. We all knew who the juvenile delinquents were. Now, of course, you can't even use that term.

It was in the 18th century that the arts -- literature, music, painting, sculpture, and so on -- became subject to discussion on a wide scale. There was a sense that the traditional authorities -- Aristotle, Horace, and so on -- no longer provided direction. Longinus appeared in this fluctuating situation as a gift, requiring that art move us. Thus, the role of feeling entered into the judgment of "taste," the word that suggests a standard but at the same time withdraws the imprimatur of objectivity. We know what is beautiful, and we expect others to feel the same.

In a sense, however, the arts are beside the point. We judge, and we expect others to share our judgments.

German philosophers since Kant have been particularly interested in the arts, for instance, Hegel and Schopenhauer (both of whom Goethe knew), Nietzsche. This interest reminds me of the Greeks: Plato and Aristotle. The Germans might be said to have returned to Western philosophy's origins and preoccupation with the mind.

Picture credit: Jeff Hopkins

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems a philosophy, too, can be quite beautiful (if one has so to speak a taste for it)...just started reading an introduction to the philosophy of Hegel (Weiss's "the essential writings"). Apparently, Hegel is quite "playful" in his seriousness. There is a back and forth, from what I can tell, that appeals to me. Then there are the very special "moments" in Experience. Undoubtedly "rapture" was and is one of those special "times." The price of this, as in the Christian "way" (alienation and return) can be painful but extremely rewarding! I'm looking forward to this trip! I love the Germans!