Thursday, December 15, 2011

thought experiements vs stories

Telling a story is like presenting a thought experiment in the following way. You aren't asserting that whatever scenario you describe actually obtains. If you say in a story or a thought experiment that France is a monarchy, you haven't asserted that this proposition is true, and you haven't lied if you know this proposition to be false.

However, telling a story is different from presenting a thought experiment in what you are inviting the reader to do/what it takes to "get" the thought experiment. Someone presenting a thought experiment invites you to recognize the metaphysical possibility of the state of affairs described in the thought experiment, and then to infer from this this that some philosophical moral follows (e.g. that you can have justified true belief without knowledge). A listener who has done this fully "gets" the thought experiment, and they are not asked to linger any further.

In contrast when someone tells a story they invite the reader to linger over many (open-endedly many?) different aspects of the scenario being described, and the words used to do the describing. There is no fact or pattern such that when you have recognized this you have got the point of the story and are done.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Do English Departments Make (Some) Literature Possible?

Here's a commonplace of philosophy of language: Contra Humpty Dumpty, you can't make words mean anything you like just by privately intending them to be understood differently. If I want my words "please open the window" to mean "please close the door" I will need to say or do some suitable thing change the context, and prepare my listeners (e.g. say "let's now speak a modified version of English in which `open' means 'close' and `window' means door"). What an utterance of mine can mean thus has something to do with how I can reasonably be hope to be understood.*

If you apply the same idea to fictions, so that the properties of a fiction have some systematic relationship to what reactions the author could reasonably hope to inspire in their community this suggests a weird possibility. The existence of scholarly bodies studying modern languages (a fairly recent phenomena), might have very literally expanded the realm of literary techniques which it is (metaphysically) possible for writers of those languages to use.

Here's what I have in mind: there might be patterns which one could not reasonably expect to be found by a dedicated single reader, but could reasonably expect to be found by a dedicated community of readers, building on each others work, using word-frequency searches, and being financially motivated (by the drive to publish) to explore even the most remote conjectures. If so, then the existence of English departments might make it the case that a text can do something by displaying one of these patterns (e.g. allude to Joyce, make it true in the fiction that the series of words displaying the pattern was not produced by chance) while a text with the very same pattern could not have had this function before.

*of course there are many books worth of caveats and subtleties to be dealt with in figuring out exactly how to phrase this

Saturday, July 24, 2010

harold bloom and firsties! in art

Nehamas quotes Harold Bloom as saying:“the degree of aesthetic value is the degree to which something is done that was never done before, the extent to which human imagination has been expanded.”

I need to find what's being quoted here, because this looks super implausible. Is he saying that if it turned out that someone else had written something very similar to Shakespeare, but it had been lost, than Shakespeare would not have asthetic value? Really?

I mean something like this might very well be true for art that was made at the far boundaries of what history has preserved e.g. Sappho. Does anyone seriously think that we should suspend judgment on whether Sappho is any good until we know (which we may never know) whether she had any excessively similar predicessors.

My neo-kantian story has a nice story about why doing something radically new should be CORRELATED with aesthetic merit: i.e. if you are inventing a genere verses continuing one, there will be more aspects of your story that you have particularly chosen to fit with your main themes and other choices (hence more curiosity porn in finding out how theses aspects of the story to do fit), as opposed to aspects which you have just carried over without thinking because it is part of the genre, and hence seems normal. So it's not surprizing that we *associate* stylistic innovation with aesthetic merit. But to identify the two, as Bloom appears to, is totally crazy!

Beauty and Finding Stuff You Can Care About

I've started reading Nehamas' 'Only a Promise of Happiness', which reminded me that I've been focusing on the Kantian curiosity-porn aspect of responding to art/nature, to the exclusion of other philosophically interesting things that looking at things which are standardly called beautiful does for us.

So I propose that what people get from the 'great' novels and natural beauties they appreciate typically includes at least three things

1. epistemic pleasure: the fun of discovering lots of striking and salient things new things, not by luck and effort but just by considering the beautiful object in ways that it seems to objectively invite. [i.e. the curiosity porn aspect]
2. direct pleasure [e.g. the pleasure that people who like to color purple get from looking at it, according to Kant, and maybe the pleasure of tasting sugar.]
3. project-based pleasure: the pleasure of discovering new projects, which we are disposed to care about non-instrumentally.

Now I want to say some things about why I include this third ingredient.

a. We DO seem care about lots of things non-instrumentally. For example:
You're sharpening a pencil to write a poem, but why are you writing a poem?
You're taking the asprin to end your pain, but why are you trying to ending your pain?
You're buying the wine to impress this person, but why are you trying to impress this person?
You're doing this grading so you can have the opportunity to think about philosophy, but why do you want to think about philosophy?
You're moving that card so you can win the solitaire game, but why do you want to win the solitare game?

b. Given sufficient leisure, we typically want to discover MORE such things that we can care about for their own sake.

Not having any desires or plans which you can act to further, feels boring and frustrating - one might even say depressing. And conversely, things like games which are designed to give people pleasure do so largely by making us desire new things, so that we can then have the pleasurable experience of making progress towards them.

Sometimes (in a gloomy mood, or e.g. at the end of a romantic relationship when you have to give up on lots of large scale projects, and things you care about all at once) it can be a real challenge to find things to care about in the world around you. I like to think about people picturesquely as projecting themselves forward into planed future situations, and then -as they pleasurably drag forward, making these plans actual- projecting further forward to that to make new plans, like an earthworm that thrusts its front parts into the earth and then drags its hindparts along, then thrusts its front parts forward again. (Unlike earthworms though, humans would have many alternative possible plans they are pushing towards.) [Hmm...this whole conceit may be a result of misunderstanding the one heidigger class I took in college] Anyways, it hurts when your delicate front plan-making parts get cut off, i.e. there stops being a practically viable path from where you are, to the stuff that you want and care about. And it's boring and frustrating when you don't have any plans you care about to push forward into.

So, you will generally want to "diversify your portfolio" of plans, and hence like discovering new plans that appeal to you, plans which you could come to care about more.

c. Art/nature which we like, very often helps us find more stuff that we can care about (either by bringing new possibilities to our attention or by describing old ones in a vivid or unusual way)

the most trivial examples of this kind of effect of beauty would be:
-wanting to follow a winding path in a beautiful landscape
-wanting a character to do well in a story (here the possible plans are rather limited to monitering their situations and hoping for the best, though)
-some character in a story acts in a distinctive way, which you think is cool and want to emulate

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Frege Geach Problem

The following seems to save all the intuitions that makes people want to be expressivists about beauty/goodness, while being immune to Frege-Geach worries. Who has tried it?

"x is beautiful/good/honorable/chaste"
- states the proposition that x is in a certain descriptive category of things which (as it happens) people tend to enjoy/admire, (think about the historically explanatory but merely descriptive properties most people think Cornell realism gets you).
- but conversationally implicates that the speaker themselves has the relevant attitude.

I shall haunt the department lounge and try to encounter some (meta) ethicists...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

a list of questions

Tomorrow I'm getting coffee with YO (!), author of an interesting article about how Kierkegaard apparently criticized a novel of Hans Christian Anderson for 'failing to express a coherent philosophy of life'.

My questions:
- How can a novel express a philosophy of life?
- Maybe by describing life in a way that exemplifies certain habits of attention? i.e. habits about a) which of all the many different propositions which are true of our situation we notice and b) which possible projects which our situation allows we consider.
- Is there some other mechanism/sense in which a novel can express a philosophy of life?
- How can a 'philosophy of life' be incoherent? A philosophical theory can be incoherent if it contains propositions that contradict one another and hence can't all be simultaniously true. But what's the equivalent for habits of attention? Maybe if you keep noticing projects that require incompatible things for their achievement (like if one person tried to follow through on the plans of K's seducer and his judge at the same time).
[-Does this view make novels dangerous, insofar as they might infect us, and change our actual habits of attention in ways that we don't want them to change, or in ways that well prevent us from noticing things like human suffering which we ought to notice?]

A Neo-Kantian Theory of Ugliness

Kant seems to provide a theory of beauty without providing a theory of ugliness, and it's a famous interpretive problem to see what his theory of ugliness could be.

Here's a suggestion in the spirit of what I take Kant's story to be, which I'd like to propose on its own merits (I don't claim its what Kant had in mind).


On my current version of the Kantian story beautiful objects are a kind of curiosity porn. They fit so well with our investigative faculties that their pattern of descriptive features tempts us to look for endless purposive explanations (the art is like this in order to let us detect that) without expecting that these should fit into any overall goal (the overall point of getting us to see all these things is to..).

Maybe ugly objects are ones that actively extinguish this kind of curiosity. So, for example, when a poem makes you suspect that the poets only goal was to shock the reader by using profanity, or impress them with erudition, you might say that this suggests that there are NOT going to be more interesting features of the art which will tempt one to give purposive explanations. You feel like you know everything substantive there is to know about 'why' the art is like it is - there will obviously be a historical explanation for why the poet chose those particular profanities or allusions (e.g. they were the ones he had heard most recently) but this explanation has nothing to do with the intended effects on an audience.

I think there's a remark in Wittgenstein's notes on culture and value to the effect that when things in nature seem ugly to us, they seem to resemble human artifacts. That fits nicely with this theory of ugliness - you can only feel like you've exhausted all there is to notice by way of as-if-purposive explanations for something in nature if it feels to you like human production whose total (paltry) intended effect is all too clear.

Hmm maybe this theory does solve the interpretive problem too. Guyer puts the problem like this:

‘Since harmonious free play is always pleasurable, and since
all judgements of taste are accompanied by harmonious free play, it fol-
lows that every judgement of taste must be accompanied by the feeling of
pleasure in the subject which ipso facto makes every judgement of taste a
positive judgement of taste.'

So here's what I'd say. Yes every judgment of taste involves the harmonious free play of intellect and imagination, and yes as such every judgment of taste is pleasurable. (Isn't making a negative judgment of taste e.g. putting your finger on the self-indulgence or incoherence etc that makes you judge the work ugly and stop looking for more aesthetic subtlties often quite fun?) Kant says that pretty much any case of getting what you want is pleasurable, and figuring things out about an object that initially raised your curiosity to look for purposive explanations is one special case of this.

But the fact that you are experiencing this pleasure doesn't mean that you should return a positive verdict on the asethetic merits of the work of art. Insofar as the artwork doesn't give you pleasure *by giving you a feeling of purposiveness without purpose* (Kant's definition of the experience of beauty) you shouldn't judge that the work is beautiful. Just as much as he clearly says that pleasure in a work that comes from that works alignment with your interests doesn't count towards aesthetic merit, the pleasure that comes from disinterested aesthetic investigation leading to the result that some object suggested for aesthetic consideration is trivial shouldn't count towards the merit of the work.