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.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Artistic Effects vs. Classic Speech Acts

The way an allusion gets you to think of Marvel is different from the way a command does

"Think of the line 'let us roll all of our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball' in Marvel's poem!"


"Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question.." (from Prufrock)

Both sentences 'objectively suggest' (i.e. suggest in a way that doesn't depend on suitable authorial intention) something like, that you should think of the line from To His Coy Mistress.

But they seem quite different e.g. we don't talk about obeying poems, and there are way too many suggestive things in poems for us to try to think about everything that's suggested for thought simultaneously.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ambiguity AND Objectivity

Surely, a piece of literature can be objectively suggestive of both an attempt to get the reader to approve of something *and* of equally objectively suggestive of an attempt to get the reader to mock that thing (suppose that these reactions are filled in so that it's impossible to do both at the same time).

I mean compare: there are definite objective facts about the meaning of english sentence "Meet me at the bank" - facts which determine that it is ambiguous between two specific things: an invitation to meet the speaker at a financial institution vs. an invitation to meet them at the bank.

So: saying that there can be multiple, incompatible readings that are equally strong (e.g. readings that differ as to whether a given question is rhetorical) does not establish that there are not objective facts about how strong each reading is!

ok, now i will try to stop being so cranky :)

What the story means vs. what it tries to get you to do

It creeps me out when people talk about theories about what a story "means" in lit theory.
What lit scholars are arguing about doesn't seem to be:
-what the truth conditions for the story are (how could a story even have truth conditions anyways?)
-(just) what is supposed to be true in the fictional world of the story
-what the truth conditions are for various sentences in the story?

Arguments about the following things just don't seem to have much to do with the *meanings* of words or sentences, in any thing like the ordinary sense in which a sentence can express a proposition.
-whether the story is a satire or work in praise
-whether x passage is an allusion to y
-whether the story is "about" a certain theme e.g. incest, the reader's predicament, democracy etc.

I propose that literary disputes, conflicts between different "readings" etc. would be better understood as disagreements about what the text objectively appears to be trying to get the reader to do.

- a satire would be a text that's suggestive of authorial intent to get you to criticize,
- a work in praise, something suggestive of authorial intent to get you to admire,
- an allusion to y, something suggestive of authorial intent to get you to consider y and compare it to the work at hand
- a story with a theme, something suggestive of authorial intent to get you to consider how different parts of the story, find and compare different ways in which it does.

[p.s. hmm these are quasi purposive explanations of why something occurs in the text (e.g. it's as if the story contains this line, in order to provoke the readers general faculties of intellect and imagination to recall text y, and compare it to the text) so this fits nicely with the neo-Kantian thing i'm generally pushing]

Sunday, March 28, 2010

More NeoKant: Beauty, Realism and Organic Unity

This neo-kantian stuff about how experiencing beauty = being set of on pleasurable chains of judgements and imagination, (where you are tempted to explain more and more of the artwork as being made to have a certain effect on you, while not thinking of the artwork as having an overall purpose) seems to explain soo much!

- Why things that are unrealistic often but not always seem un-beautiful: if some character just randomly does something which seems flatly psychologically implausble (i.e. you can't fill in the details to make it seem likely that someone in that situation would so behave), this decreases your temptation to find out explanations for how other actions of characters are really likely or plausible. Hence, ceterus paribus, psychological unrealism is bad. BUT If however the unrealistic psychology persists through the novel, and all seems related, like maybe the extreme reactions of Dostoevsky characters, then this doesn't tempt you to just give up on psychological explantions, all together, but rather to seek different ones than you normally would. And ditto if the story has something else going on where you are tempted to explain the behavior in terms of that instead e.g. in terms of symbolism, or in terms of how a person's actions can *seem* to a different person. (maybe Kafka stories are an example of this, but im not sure)

- What people are talking about when they insist that beautiful artwork has "organic unity". Obviously, 'unity' here doesn't mean that the art has to be all the same color, or the same events over and over again. Rather, I propose the idea is one has to be tempted to explain why any one piece/aspect of the artwork is the way it is, in terms of other features of the artwork e.g. this thing happens at this part of the novel to contrast with this that thing at the beginning of the novel. A very natural way to make sure there are lots of chains of thought suggested by a single chunk of text would be to put the reader in a state where they think there might well be an interesting relationship between each piece/aspect of text and each other one. In contrast, if an artwork seems NOT unified, then this means that you won't go looking for relationships between the different parts, so it thereby has that much less of a tendency to spark chains of thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Morally Illuminating, but not Morally Improving

I recently heard about an interesting controversy between Martha Nussbaum and a Supreme Court Justice, regarding whether literature is morally improving.

There's definite intuitive attraction to the idea that literature can produce moral insights. Doesn't reading Jane Austen show us how someone can be behaving in a transparently selfish way, while only citing to themselves the loftyest motives - and hence make us aware of this possibility? Or doesn't Lolita show us how passionate love is compatible with persistent cruelty? It certainly seems prima facie plausible that vividly imagining and thinking about cases like this would help you avoid similar hypocracy or cruelty in your own life.

However, the judge then made the nice point that we don't seem to expect students of literature to be more moral than students of related fields. So if literature is really so morally improving, why don't we expect to see good effects ?

Here's one possibility: literature can make us aware of subtle ways to be cruel or self-deceptive (or kind or sensitive) to one another. Insofar as it does this, it may tend to make people behave better e.g. by making them notice when they are considering doing something similar.

However, the main barrier to acting well in ordinary life may be more a matter of organizational skills and overcomming akresia than a matter of recognizing subtle morally relevant aspects of one's situation. It doesn't take any subtle act of imagination to recognize that you could help people by donating to unicef, and to find something attractive about this prospect. This puts a limit on the extent to which we should expect moral improvement from literature.

And, in fact, it suggests a way in which literature might actively have the opposite effect. Thoughtful imaginative engagement with the prospect of committing adultery, or spending lots of money touring the ruins of ancient China, can also make someone feel more keenly how much one is giving up in forgoing these. Insofar as literature can make us aware of morally salient features of a situation, it can also make us aware of hedonistically or self-interestedly salient features. If Madam Bovary and Camera Obscura engage our thoughts and imagination with certain aspects of adultery, Marvel's "let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball" (or Chekov's The Lady With a Lapdog) engages our thoughts and imagination with quite different ones!

Thus, literature might be morally enlightening, but not -on net- morally improving.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Authorial Intent - Everything Matters

When facts about an author's intent/the production of an artwork can't be guessed from the artwork itself, can these facts matter to the interpretation of the work? Or does it only matter what an informed audience of the authors contemporaries would have been able to infer from the work?

This seems to be a major debate in the contemporary lit, but...

There doesn't seem to be a sharp/principled line between what the author knows vs. what "their community" would know. Rather we have a gradually increasing body of facts available to...
- all people speaking the same language as the author
- all people speaking the same language, living at the same time
- all people speaking the same language, living at the same time in the same country
- all people living in the same town
- the author's friends
- the author themselves, just after they wrote the work
- the author at some moment, while at work on the book

Actual art scholars' practice seems to be (so far as I know!) to ignore biographical facts when they speak against an otherwise motivated interpretation (e.g. the poet says they didn't intend any symbolism of this kind, or that The Wizard of Oz is just an elaborate political allegory), but to take them into account when they allow for a much stronger/more interesting interpretation (e.g. the artist reveals that she copied the lines in an abstract painting from pornography).

Suggestion: Everything about an artwork can matter to the "interpretation" of it e.g. theories of what happens in the story, what's ambiguous, what themes there are etc. But interpretation isnt the job of guessing what the artist, or their community or anything else is about. Rather, the point of interpretation is to facilitate valuable engagement with works of art (=the Kantian free play of the intellect and imagination etc.) by coming up with the most compelling possible interpretations. This is USUALLY served by telling us facts about the artists' community, and sometimes served by telling us facts about the artist, since interesting features are likely to arise by way of the artist consciously or unconsciously putting them in. But, given this aim, no facts - even facts about eery resonances with events after the production of the art- are out of bounds to the literary/art critic.

So I think facts about the author's intentions can matter, but only for the same reason that facts totally unknown to the author can matter. e.g. Here's Nabokov bringing his extra knowledge of entomology to bear on Kafka's Metamorphoses:
". . . neither Gregor nor his maker realized that when the room was being made by the maid, and the window was open, he could have flown out and escaped and joined the other happy dung beetles rolling the dung balls on rural paths" (Strong Opinions 90-91).

Arguing about novels: a neo-Kantian account

Key idea: we tend argue about novels not fruit, because pleasure in novels somehow arises from chains of thought/imagination of propositions, so suggesting propositions can kick start someone's novel-appreciation, while it can't kick-start their fruit appreciation.

Expect agreement not in patterns of thought, but in acknowledgement of possibilities for 'text-suggested' patterns of thoughts
-(e.g. relatively little agreement in actual beliefs about math vs. massive agreement in what people could be lead to acknowledge about math)
-massive agreement in when a literary critic has made their case for x being reminiscent of y, compared to actual chains of thought prompted by reading x.

Generic lit reading faculty = (weak) what lets you correctly evaluate claims about what is reminiscent of what/ evaluate claims made in literature journals.
(strong) you are actually somewhat likely to be reminded of x by what's reminiscent of x, curious about y when a text raises questions about y, drawn to compare when a text contrasts etc.

The application of the strong generic reading faculty to a text creates a chain of curiosity which is then pleasurably satisfied by actually finding the answer to these questions, imagining the scenarios you are made to want to imagine etc.

Call something beautiful insofar as you think the "free play" of the generic reading faculty creates pleasure i.e. nearly all paths lead to suitable pleasurable chains of inquiry/. We typically conclude this by taking a few random walks, and having reason to expect nothing other than the tendencies included in the generic reading faculty were responsible for your pleasure.

When people disagree about beauty one of them is wrong.

But there is no reason that people ought to relate to texts with the generic lit reading faculty, deviant readers are just wrong insofar as they ascribe their experience to the beauty of the work (e.g. as opposed to e.g. vanity or the work plus certain descriptive personal facts, which might be added to the work to create something that was beautiful)

hello world

I'm a philosophy grad student with a very new interest in aesthetics. Hence, I'm quarantining all the half-baked ideas and sophomoric enthusiasms I don't dare put on my regular blog here. You know where the back button is :)