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]