Friday, 31 August 2018

What Exactly is Deconstruction?

Jacques Derrida
The movement of “deconstruction” was developed by Jacques Derrida. John Searle, in his essay, “The World Turned Upside Down,”  tries to find out what exactly is deconstruction and why it has become so influential in American literary criticism. Searle writes:
I think if you asked most practicing deconstructionists for a definition they would not only be unable to provide one, but would regard the very request as a manifestation of that "logocentrism" which it is one of the aims of deconstruction to, well, deconstruct. By "logocentrism" they mean roughly the concern with truth, rationality, logic, and "the word" that marks the Western philosophical tradition. I think the best way to get at it, which would be endorsed by many of its practitioners, is to see it, at least initially, as a set of methods for dealing with texts, a set of textual strategies aimed in large part at subverting logocentric tendencies.
Here’s an excerpt from Searle’s description of the methodology of the deconstructionists:
To deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise. There are numerous such strategies but at least three stand out. First, and most important, the deconstructionist is on the lookout for any of the traditional binary oppositions in Western intellectual history, e.g., speech/writing, male/female, truth/fiction, literal/metaphorical, signified/signifier, reality/appearance. In such oppositions, the deconstructionist claims that the first or left-hand term is given a superior status over the right-hand term, which is regarded "as a complication, a negation, a manifestation, or a disruption of the first" (p. 93). These hierarchical oppositions allegedly lie at the very heart of logocentrism with its obsessive interest in rationality, logic, and the search for truth. 
The deconstructionist wants to undermine these oppositions, and so undermine logocentrism, by first reversing the hierarchy, by trying to show that the right-hand term is really the prior term and that the left-hand term is just a special case of the right-hand term; the right-hand term is the condition of possibility of the left-hand term. This move gives some very curious results. It turns out that speech is really a form of writing, understanding a form of misunderstanding, and that what we think of as meaningful language is just a free play of signifiers or an endless process of grafting texts onto texts.
Searle goes on to note that deconstruction is a game that anyone can play:
One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the privileged term "deconstruction" is in fact subordinate to the devalued term "logocentrism," for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority, its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But his efforts to do this are doomed to failure because of the internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself.
Michel Foucault was very hostile to Derrida’s deconstruction. Searle points out in his essay that once when he was having conversation with Foucault in French, Foucault characterized Derrida's prose style as "obscurantisme terroriste” (terrorism of obscurantism). Derrida writes so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is, and then when one criticizes it, Derrida can always say, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" ('You didn't understand me; you're an idiot'). That's the terrorism part.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl

Franz Brentano
David Bell’s biography of Edmund Husserl, Husserl, begins with a section on Franz Brentano. Bell justifies his digression into Brentano’s work by pointing out that a large number of doctrines, methods and assumptions that Husserl makes in his works will appear arbitrary and unjustified unless we have a basic understanding of the work that Brentano has done in psychology and philosophy. He writes in the Preface:

“Brentano stands to Husserl in very much the same relation in which, say Frege stands to Wittgenstein: one can no more hope to gain a sympathetic understanding of Wittgenstein’s presuppositions, preoccupations, and procedures in ignorance of his inheritance from Frege than one can hope to gain an understanding of Husserl’s in ignorance of his inheritance from Brentano. And in both the cases the reason is the same: neither Wittgenstein nor Husserl enjoyed a widely-based, formal education or training in philosophy; on the contrary, their respective philosophical outlooks were initially formulated in the context of, and in response to, an extremely narrow set of philosophical concerns—the concerns, predominantly, of a single philosopher. Husserl’s early philosophy is Brentanian through and through (though this is not of course to deny the influence of others on him—Bolzano, Lotze, Stumph, Kant, and Frege, amongst others).”

In the chapter, “Prolegomenon: Brentano’s Legacy,” Bell says that “at the most general level Husserl inherited from Brentano a vision of the nature, the goals, and the methods of philosophical enquiry; and more specifically he inherited from him doctrines concerning, for example, phenomena, intuitions, language, logic, science, truth, certainty, evidence, and analysis.”

Brentano was primarily a psychologist and his work was devoted to investigating the empirical laws which govern mental phenomena. However, most of his books are inclined more towards philosophy than empirical psychology. According to Bell, Husserl was introduced to the word “phenomenology” by Brentano:

“Although Husserl was undoubtedly influenced, and formatively, by Brentano’s so-called ‘psychology’, and although, more generally, Husserl was clearly excited by the revolutionary new ways of studying the human mind that were beginning to emerge at precisely the time he became interested in philosophy, it was not at all ‘empirical psychology’ which captured his imagination; rather he was fired by a distinctively philosophical discipline which Brentano liked to call ‘descriptive psychology’, or ‘psychognosy’, or, sometimes, “descriptive phenomenology’.

It is noteworthy that in the time of Brentano, phenomenology was primarily a discipline of empirical psychology—it was strictly focused on the study of mental and physical phenomena which means to the mental acts and their contents. It had very little to do with philosophy.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

What Exactly is Phenomenology?

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers a simple explanation for Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. Here’s an excerpt:
So what exactly is phenomenology? It is essentially a method rather than a set of theories, and — at the risk of wildly oversimplifying — its basic approach can be conveyed through a two-word command: DESCRIBE PHENOMENA.  
The first part of this is straightforward: a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be.  
The things that we describe so carefully are called phenomena — the second element in the definition. The word phenomenon has a special meaning to phenomenologists: it denotes any ordinary thing or object or event as it presents itself to my experience, rather than as it may or may not be in reality.   
She elucidates the phenomenological method through a cup of coffee. How will you define a cup of coffee? You can define it in terms of its chemical composition and its origin in a coffee plant; you can talk about how the coffee beans are grown, transported and processed; how people prepare the coffee drink at home, how they ingest it, and the effect that coffee has on the human body.  You can even analyze a cup of coffee in terms of your sentimental memories of coffee drinking. But such descriptions will not give you an understanding of the cup of coffee as a phenomena. Bakewell describes the phenomena of the cup of coffee in these words:
[T]his cup of coffee is a rich aroma, at once earthy and perfumed; it is the lazy movement of a curlicue of steam rising from its surface. As I lift it to my lips, it is a placidly shifting liquid and a weight in my hand inside its thick-rimmed cup. It is an approaching warmth, then an intense dark flavour on my tongue, starting with a slightly austere jolt and then relaxing into a comforting warmth, which spreads from the cup into my body, bringing the promise of lasting alertness and refreshment. The promise, the anticipated sensations, the smell, the colour and the flavour are all part of the coffee as phenomenon. They all emerge by being experienced.
So everything from the chemical composition of the coffee bean, to the growing of coffee plants, the transportation of coffee beans, their processing, and my personal sentimental association with coffee is not relevant to the phenomenologist. He is only concerned with the phenomena of the cup of coffee that is present as a certainty before him. Bakewell goes on to present Husserl’s perspective on phenomenology:
Husserl therefore says that, to phenomenologically describe a cup of coffee, I should set aside both the abstract suppositions and any intrusive emotional associations. Then I can concentrate on the dark, fragrant, rich phenomenon in front of me now. This ‘setting aside’ or ‘bracketing out’ of speculative add-ons Husserl called epoché — a term borrowed from the ancient Sceptics, who used it to mean a general suspension of judgement about the world. Husserl sometimes referred to it as a phenomenological ‘reduction’ instead: the process of boiling away extra theorising about what coffee ‘really’ is, so that we are left only with the intense and immediate flavour — the phenomenon. 
But what is the use of phenomenology? Bakewell talks about the contributions that phenomenology can make in psychology and certain medical procedures. She also offers a perspective on the political use of the phenomenological method. As phenomenology forces us to focus only on our own experience, it can become a tool for looking at the political reality after bracketing out all the “isms,” and the political and cultural propaganda—if it’s done correctly, the phenomenological analysis of the political situation can have a revolutionary impact.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Sartre’s Existentialist Twist to Husserl’s Phenomenology

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre read Edmund Husserl’s works on phenomenology when he was in Berlin in 1933 and he was immediately impressed. Husserl has shown that consciousness is consciousness of something. The mind is always engaged in aboutness: it has intentionality, which means that a mind can became aware of itself only by thinking about something. A mind that is experiencing nothing, imagining nothing, or speculating about nothing is not a mind at all.

Sartre realized that Husserl’s phenomenology has the potential of bringing immense freedom to the mind. If we are nothing more than what we think about, then no pre-defined inner nature can hold us back. He decided to make Husserl’s phenomenology a key element of his existentialist thought. While he was still in Berlin, Sartre started working on an essay in which he gave an existentialist twist to phenomenology. The essay was published in 1939, under the title, “Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology.”

Here’s an excerpt from Sartre’s essay:
Consciousness and the world are given at one stroke: essentially external to consciousness, the world is nevertheless essentially relative to consciousness. Husserl sees consciousness as an irreducible fact that no physical image can account for. Except perhaps the quick, obscure image of a burst. To know is to “burst toward,” to tear oneself out of the moist gastric intimacy, veering out there beyond oneself, out there near the tree and yet beyond it, for the tree escapes me and repulses me, and I can no more lose myself in the tree than it can dissolve itself in me. I am beyond it; it is beyond me.  
Do you recognize in this description your own circumstances and your own impression? You certainly knew that the tree was not you, that you could not make it enter your dark stomach and that knowledge could not, without dishonesty, be compared to possession. All at once consciousness is purified, it is clear as a strong wind. There is nothing in it but a movement of fleeing itself, a sliding beyond itself. If, impossible though it may be, you could enter “into” a consciousness, you would be seized by a whirlwind and thrown back outside, in the thick of the dust, near the tree, for consciousness has no “inside.” Precisely this being-beyond-itself, this absolute flight, this refusal to be a substance is what makes it be a consciousness. Imagine for a moment a connected series of bursts that tear us out of ourselves, that do not even allow to an “ourselves” the leisure of composing ourselves behind them, but that instead throw us beyond them into the dry dust of the world, on to the plain earth, amidst things. Imagine us thus rejected and abandoned by our own nature in an indifferent, hostile, and restive world — you will then grasp the profound meaning of the discovery that Husserl expresses in his famous phrase, “All consciousness is consciousness of something.” 
According to Sartre, if we close our mind and somehow stop experiencing, imagining or speculating anything then we will cease to exist. The mind cannot exist by itself—only by living in the world and partaking of all the sensations and experiences that the world has to offer that we become conscious of our consciousness of the world.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Edmund Husserl and The Beginnings of Phenomenology

Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology which became a major philosophical movement in the 20th century, defines phenomenology as a descriptive analysis of the essence of pure consciousness. He interprets pure or transcendental phenomenology as an a priori science.

Richard Cobb-Stevens, in his essay, “The beginnings of phenomenology: Husserl and his predecessors,” (Chapter 1; Continental Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Richard Kearney), says that Husserl’s “principal contribution to philosophy was his development of the concept of intentionality. He reasserted and revitalized the premodern thesis that our cognitional acts are intentional, i.e., that they reach out beyond sensa to things in the world. When we think or speak about things, and when we perceive them, we deal with those things and not with mental intermediaries. Intentionality is our openness to the world, our transcending mode of being. Husserl also developed the implications of this fundamental thesis. He repudiated Locke’s interpretation of ‘mind’ as an inner space set off from the rest of nature, and he rejected Kant’s distinction between phenomena and things-in-themselves. He also rejected the view that the task of philosophy is to guarantee that our concepts and theories somehow mirror the world.”

In his 1931 book Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Husserl offers a detailed explanation of the phenomenological method. But he first articulated his ideas on phenomenology in his lectures given at Gottingen University in 1906-7.  In these lectures he characterizes his phenomenology in explicit transcendent terms and introduces the notions of the epoche and reduction (the terms are often interchangeable), while also clarifying the notions of immanence and transcendence.

By positing a distinction between phenomenology as a science of pure consciousness, and psychology as a science of empirical facts, Husserl tries to negate the reductionist tendencies in psychology. He notes that the domain of pure consciousness is different from the domain of real experience, and that phenomenology is a study of pure phenomena and not of actual experiences, or actual facts and realities. Here’s an excerpt from the essay by Richard Cobb-Stevens:

“According to Husserl, modern descriptions of the relationship between immanence and transcendence tend to invoke two complementary themes: inside versus outside and accessibility versus inaccessibility. When immanence is described as an enclosure containing mental processes and impressions, transcendence is correspondingly defined as whatever remains outside of that enclosure. When immanence is described as a region of indubitable givenness, transcendence is defined as a region populated by unknowable things-in-themselves. Most epistemologies combine these two senses of the relationship between immanence and transcendence. They first conflate mental acts and their contents by describing both as ‘contained’ within the mind’s psychic processes. They then construe the enigma of cognition as a problem of how to establish a connection between intra-mental representations and extra-mental things. The ‘unspoken assumption’ of these theories is that our cognitive processes are devoid of intentional import. This, according to Husserl, is the ‘fatal mistake’ of modern philosophy. Husserl praises Hume for acknowledging that this way of formulating the problem would in the end lead only to scepticism, but he adds that Hume’s scepticism is itself riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, Hume degrades to the status of fictions everything that transcends impressions and ideas. On the other hand, he ascribes to the processes of mind the same sort of reality as the transcendent things that we would reach if we could somehow break out of the circle of immanence. Husserl concludes that whenever philosophers ask about the possibility of cognition in a way that implies that ‘cognition is a thing apart from its object’, or that ‘cognition is given but the object of cognition is not given’, they introduce an inappropriate notion of transcendence, which in turn entails an inappropriate interpretation of immanence.”

Husserl is of the view that philosophy needs a new way of thinking and a new critique of reason. He proposes a radical method which requires the bracketing (epoche) or suspension of natural convictions. He holds that when empirical data is bracketed away from further investigation, it will leave pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction. Richard Cobb-Stevens points out that Husserl immediately distinguishes his new method from Descartes’ doubt:

“Descartes’ goal was to establish certitude about the existence of the thinking self and transcendent things. Husserl has no interest in such a project. His goal is simply to uncover the essence of cognition. He points out that Descartes failed to grasp the essence of cognition because he defined himself, qua, inquirer, as a ‘thinking thing’ having the same status as the transcendent things whose existence he had called into doubt. The purpose of the new method is to free us from this incoherent interpretation of transcendence, and consequently to enable us to redefine both transcendence and immanence. When we bracket everything within the realm of transcendence (as it is understood by Descartes and Hume), we in fact exclude nothing more than the incoherent interpretation of transcendent being as a region situated beyond the range of our knowledge. In so far as the mind’s ‘inside’ is interpreted as having the same sort of ontological status, it too must be bracketed. This approach permits us to redefine immanence, in a broader sense, as the zone of all manifestation, wherein both immanent objects (considered now, in a narrower sense, as reflectively intuited experiences) and their intentional correlates (transcendent things) appear to us. Immanent and transcendent objects are now distinguished in terms of their different styles of appearing, rather than by appeal to the difference between intra-mental appearance and extra-mental being.”

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Dewey’s Philosophy of Aesthetics

John Dewey
The central feature of John Dewey’s philosophy of aesthetics is its naturalism. In his popular book on aesthetics Art as Experience (1934), he attempts to develop an understanding of art on basis of man’s natural needs, experiences, psychology, and activities. The essence of art, he notes, lies not in the final work of art, but in the experiences of nature which inspire the creative process, and the dynamic activity through which art is created and observed.

In the first chapter, “The Live Creature,” he points out that there is a connection between the aesthetic experience and the processes of living. The live creature for him is man, and he notes that an aesthetic theory can only be developed through a study of the sensory interactions between man and his environment. He writes:

“Nature is the mother and the habitat of man, even if sometimes a stepmother and an unfriendly home. The fact that civilization endures and culture continues— and sometimes advances—is evidence that human hopes and purposes find a basis and support in nature. As the developing growth of an individual from embryo to maturity is the result of interaction of organism with surroundings, so culture is the product not of efforts of men put forth in a void or just upon themselves, but of prolonged and cumulative interaction with environment. The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience. The works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living as these are carried to unexpected happy fulfillment.”

For Dewey, all art is the outcome of interaction between the living organism and the environment, and it entails a reorganization of energies, actions, and materials. In chapter 7, “The Natural History of Form,” Dewey talks about the formal conditions of art being rooted in the world itself:

“Interaction of environment with organism is the source, direct or in-direct, of all experience and from the environment come those checks, resistances, furtherances, equilibria, which, when they meet with the energies of the organism in appropriate ways, constitute form. The first characteristic of the environing world that makes possible the existence of artistic form is rhythm. There is rhythm in nature before poetry, painting, architecture and music exist. Were it not so, rhythm as an essential property of form would be merely superimposed upon material, not an operation through which material effects its own culmination in experience.”

He goes on to point out that “the larger rhythms of nature are so bound up with the conditions of even elementary human subsistence, that they cannot have escaped the notice of man as soon as he became conscious of his occupations and the conditions that rendered them effective.”

The rhythms of nature give rise to various sensory experiences and inspire men to perform activities that are conducive for their flourishing, and also inspire the rhythms that we find in art.

“Because rhythm is a universal scheme of existence, underlying all realization of order in change, it pervades all the arts, literary, musical, plastic and architectural, as well as the dance. Since man succeeds only as he adapts his behavior to the order of nature, his achievements and victories, as they ensue upon resistance and struggle, become the matrix of all esthetic subject-matter; in some sense they constitute the common pattern of art, the ultimate conditions of form. Their cumulative orders of succession become without express intent the means by which man commemorates and celebrates the most intense and full moments of his experience. Underneath the rhythm of every art and of every work of art there lies, as a substratum in the depths of the subconsciousness, the basic pattern of the relations of the live creature to his environment.”

According to Dewey, art can serve as common bond for humanity as it speaks the universal language of nature. In chapter 14, "Art as Experience," he suggests that art can facilitate greater cooperation and peace in society. “Instruction in the arts of life is something other than conveying information about them. It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of the imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non~communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques.”

Much of Dewey’s views on aesthetics is probably dated—his ideas have been contested by the analytic and the postmodern philosophers.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Immanuel Kant on Natural Beauty

Immanuel Kant’s offers a characterization of his concept of natural beauty in his book The Critique of Judgement (Part I: Critique of the Aesthetical Judgement; Second Book: Analytic of the Sublime; section 23). He notes that natural beauty is the quintessence of the ‘purposiveness of form,’ which he has in the section 14 of the book asserted is the basis for pleasure underlying the judgement of taste. He says:
Natural beauty (which is self-subsisting) brings with it a purposiveness in its form by which the object seems to be, as it were, pre-adapted to our Judgement, and thus constitutes in itself an object of satisfaction. On the other hand, that which excites in us, without any reasoning about it, but in the mere apprehension of it, the feeling of the sublime, may appear as regards its form to violate purpose in respect of the Judgement, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and, as it were, to do violence to the Imagination; and yet it is judged to be only the more sublime.
He also discusses natural beauty in section 16 (First Book: Analytic of the Beautiful):
Flowers are free natural beauties. Hardly any one but a botanist knows what sort of a thing a flower ought to be; and even he, though recognising in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no regard to this natural purpose if he is passing judgement on the flower by Taste. There is then at the basis of this judgement no perfection of any kind, no internal purposiveness, to which the collection of the manifold is referred. Many birds (such as the parrot, the humming bird, the bird of paradise), and many sea shells are beauties in themselves, which do not belong to any object determined in respect of its purpose by concepts, but please freely and in themselves.
Kant holds that we judge the beauty of any manmade structure by its ability to serve the purpose for which it has been constructed. But a free beauty is something that we can appreciate without considering its purpose. Nature provides us with some of the most accessible examples of free beauty.

In section 40 (Second Book: Analytic of the Sublime), he explores if natural beauty is of interest to us because of the universality of the feelings that it espouses:
If we could assume that the mere universal communicability of a feeling must carry in itself an interest for us with it (which, however, we are not justified in concluding from the character of a merely reflective Judgement), we should be able to explain why the feeling in the judgement of taste comes to be imputed to every one, so to speak, as a duty.
He rejects this with respect to art; however, in section 42, he notes that if beautiful forms of nature interest someone immediately, then that man may have a good moral disposition:
Consequently, the mind cannot ponder upon the beauty of Nature without finding itself at the same time interested therein. But this interest is akin to moral, and he who takes such an interest in the beauties of nature can do so only in so far as he previously has firmly established his interest in the morally good. If, therefore, the beauty of Nature interests a man immediately we have reason for attributing to him, at least, a basis for a good moral disposition. 
According to Kant, morality is only possible when there is a correlation between nature and our exercise of free will—the ends that are proposed by reason must be in line with what we find in the natural world. 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

To "'give style" to one's character

Nietzsche, 1861
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche talks about giving style to one’s character. He calls it a great and rare art. Here’s a famous passage:
One thing is needful.— To "'give style" to one's character — a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste! ~ (The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann; page 232-233)
Here Nietzsche is talking about deceiving oneself by removing the original nature, concealing the ugly, and devising an artistic plan to improve one’s image. He points out that this can be accomplished only by first conducting a survey of one’s strengths and weaknesses. He goes on to say (page 232-233):
It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents in the face of all stylized nature, of all conquered and serving nature. Even when they have to build palaces and design gardens they demur at giving nature freedom.  
Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style. They feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned; they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve. Such spirits—and they may be of the first rank—are always out to shape and interpret their environment as free nature: wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly, and surprising. And they are well advised because it is only in this way that they can give pleasure to themselves. For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims. If only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy. 
It is not easy to achieve style. The art of improving one’s image, or self-stylization, needs a strong and domineering character—for the weak characters are incapable of recognizing their own flaws and are unwilling to conceive of an artistic plan for transforming themselves. In his unpublished work, Nietzsche says, “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” Nietzsche is unique among philosophers for the important role that he assigns to art in human life. He saw life itself (whether ugly or beautiful, bearable or unbearable) as an artistic phenomena. We may be flawed creatures, but through art we can defy the truth and make life bearable.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Postmodern Art and Postmodern Philosophy

Marcel Duchamp Fountain, 1917
Charles Jencks, in his book The Post-Modern Reader, points out that the term “postmodernism,” or “post-modernism”( as it was spelled in the 1960s), was not an invention of the philosophers but of artists. He says that the earliest appearance of the term was in the 1870s, when the British artist James Watkins Chapman used it to mean something like “more Modern than Paris, more Modern than Impressionism, more Modern than Modern.” However, Chapman could not popularize the term.

In the 1880s, the term “post-impressionism,” gained popularity, and in the 1910s, the intellectuals were using the term “post-industrial.” But in the 1960s, the use of postmodernism to describe the end of modernism became widespread, especially in literature. By the 1970s, postmodernism was a powerful movement in all arts and sciences. The term got picked up by philosophers due to the rising influence of French post-structuralists or deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard in America.

Given the non-philosophical origin the term “postmodernism,” is there a connection between the postmodern philosophy and postmodern art? In his essay, “Postmodernism: Barthes and Derrida,” (Chapter 14; The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes), David Novitz points out that there is an important connection between postmodern philosophy and postmodern art. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:
As one might expect from its name, the artistic movement known as modernism has its origins in a growing emphasis on the worth, the autonomy, and the achievements of the individual: as both the subject and the creator of art. Influenced by the philosophical doctrines of the Enlightenment, modernism tended to the view that works of art were individual, quite unique, objects of beauty created by the imaginative endeavors of highly talented individuals. The boundedness of art, its separation from life, its intrinsic artistic nature, capable always of a true explanation, and capable of carrying real values that could, and in the best cases would, survive across cultures and times, are all doctrines that are intimately related to the central thought of the Enlightenment, and all help characterize what art critics now refer to as modernism. Coupled with this is the idea of genius: that some people have outstanding natural talents, a natural brilliance, and are capable of designing, more or less from scratch, wholly unique and exceptionally valuable artifacts that are works of art. High modernism, towards the end of the nineteenth century, saw the essence of the visual and musical arts as residing in their formal properties; it was this that distinguished them from life (Bell 1961), as well as from non-artistic artifacts.  
Postmodernist art begins with an assault on the modernist boundaries of art; a refusal to see art as purely formal and as distinct from life, hence a willingness to appropriate the ready-made objects of everyday living and to subsume them under the rubric of art. Hence, we can think of Dadaism as the first postmodernist art movement; and there is, of course, a well-documented history of subsequent assaults in contemporary art on the once sacred boundaries between art and life. But it can and has been shown that while the modernist boundaries imposed on art tend to distort and oversimplify the scope and complexity of our artistic endeavors, this fact does not and need not commit us to the philosophical doctrines of postmodernism (Novitz 1992). One can hold the view that modernist ideas about art and the associated practice were needlessly confined, without thereby subscribing to the epistemologies, the anti-metaphysics, the theories of value, interpretation, and meaning advocated by postmodernists like Derrida, Barthes, Margolis, or Rorty.
I think that a postmodern philosophy is a critical need for postmodern art because a postmodern artist is not just making a pretty picture, he is making a philosophical statement. He aims to transcend the previous conceptions of aesthetics and get the audience to see the ugly as the new beautiful. This can only be done through philosophy.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Aesthetics of Rebellion

Albert Camus (1957)
Albert Camus, in his essay, “Rebellion and Art,” (Chapter 4, The Rebel), offers an analysis of the political and cultural significance of art. He notes that creativity manifests itself through an act of refusal, and art is essentially a depiction of the spirit of rebellion in an individual or a social movement.

He begins his essay by pointing out that “Art is an activity which exalts and denies simultaneously.” This combination of exaltation and denial is a depiction of the artist’s intolerance of reality. The artist does not hide from reality; he takes cognizance of it. In his art he showcases his rejection of certain aspects of what exists, while remodeling the world as per his own plan.

He writes: “In every rebellion is to be found the metaphysical demand for unity, the impossibility of capturing it and the construction of a substitute universe. Rebellion, from this point of view, is a fabricator of universes. This also defines art.” He goes on to note that in all arts there is the tendency that “the artist reconstructs the world to his plan.”

The recreation of art by the artist is not indiscriminate; it is selective or set within the boundaries dictated by the artist’s sense of style.  Camus says: “This correction which the artist imposes by his language and by a redistribution of elements derived from reality, is called style and gives the recreated universe its unity and its boundaries. It attempts, in the work of every rebel, and succeeds in the case of a few geniuses, to impose its laws on the world.”

Camus holds that a good art must have some kind of equilibrium between “form and matter, between evolution and the mind, and between history and values.” If the equilibrium is destroyed, then the art will evoke the feeling of a degraded form of nihilist art, which is a supporter of dictatorship or anarchy, propaganda or formal insanity.

Talking about modern art, he says: “Whether it succumbs to the intoxication of abstraction and formal obscurantism, or whether it appeals to the whip of the crudest and most ingenious realism, modem art, in its semi-totality, is an art of tyrants and slaves, not of creators.”

In a totalitarian society, the artists are pitted against the rulers—their conflict can be seen as a creative revolution versus a nihilist revolution. Art is bound only by the restraints that the artist’s style imposes on it—when it faces external restraint, it becomes distorted and eventually withers and dies.

The creative efforts of the artists are a source of hope for those who are trapped in totalitarian societies. “And for us who have been thrown into hell, mysterious melodies and the torturing images of a vanquished beauty will always bring us, in the midst of crime and folly, the echo of that harmonious insurrection which bears witness, throughout the centuries, to the greatness of humanity.”

It is noteworthy that the aesthetic philosophy of Camus has several parallels and affinities with Ayn Rand’s aesthetics.  In this regard, Roger Bissell’s essay, “Langer and Camus: Unexpected Post-Kantian Affinities with Rand’s Aesthetics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol. 7; No. 1), is worth reading. He brings to light the common areas between Rand’s aesthetic philosophy and that of Susanne Katherina Langer and Camus.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Two Forms of Nihilism: Fascism and Communism

Here’s an excerpt from Albert Camus’s essay, “Rebellion and Revolution” (The Rebel; Page 191-192):
The revolution based on principles kills God in the person of His representative on earth. The revolution of the twentieth century kills what remains of God in the principles themselves, and consecrates historic nihilism. Whatever paths nihilism may proceed to take, from the moment that it decides to be the creative force of its period and ignores every moral precept, it begins to build the temple of Caesar. To choose history, and history alone, is to choose nihilism, contrary to the teachings of rebellion itself. Those who rush blindly to history in the name of the irrational, proclaiming that it is meaningless, encounter servitude and terror and finally emerge into the universe of concentration camps. Those who launch themselves into it, preaching its absolute rationality, encounter servitude and terror and emerge into the universe of the concentration camps. Fascism wants to establish the advent of the Nietzschean superman. It immediately discovers that God, if He exists, may well be this or that, but He is primarily the master of death. If man wants to become God, he arrogates to himself the power of life or death over others. The rational revolution, on its part, wants to realize the total man described by Marx. The logic of history, from the moment that it is totally accepted, gradually leads it, against its most passionate convictions, to mutilate man more and more, and to transform itself into objective crime. It is not legitimate to identify the ends of Fascism with the ends of Russian communism. The first represents the exaltation of the executioner by the executioner; the second, more dramatic in concept, the exaltation of the executioner by the victim. The former never dreamed of liberating all men, but only of liberating a few by subjugating the rest. The latter, in its most profound principle, aims at liberating all men by provisionally enslaving them all. It must be granted the grandeur of its intentions. But, on the other hand, it is legitimate to identify the means employed by both with political cynicism which they have drawn from the same source, moral nihilism.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Auguste Comte and Karl Marx

Auguste Comte developed his philosophy of positivism with the intention of correcting the problems which he believed led to the failure of the French Revolution. He saw himself as a successor the French revolutionaries of 1798—and in the Jacobin cult of reason he saw an anticipation of his philosophy of positivism. Albert Camus, in his essay on Marxism, “State Terrorism and Rational Terror,” (The Rebel; Page 137 to 190), outlines in a single paragraph the intellectual debt that Marx owes to Comte. Here’s an excerpt:
As for the necessity of evolution, Auguste Comte, with the law of three stages of man which he formulates in 1822, gives the most systematic definition of it. Comte’s conclusions are curiously like those finally accepted by scientific socialism. Positivism demonstrates, with considerable clarity, the repercussions of the ideological revolution of the nineteenth century, of which Marx is one of the representatives, and which consisted of relegating to the end of history the Garden of Eden and the Revelation which tradition had always placed at the beginning. The positivist era which was bound to follow the metaphysical era and the theological era was to mark the advent of a religion of humanity. Henri Gouhier gives an exact definition of Comte’s enterprise when he says that his concern was to discover a man without any traces of God. Comte’s primary aim, which was to substitute, everywhere, the relative for the absolute, was quickly transformed, by force of circumstances, into the deification of the relative and into preaching a new religion which is both universal and without transcendence. Comte saw, in the Jacobin cult of reason, an anticipation of positivism and considered himself, with perfect justification, as the real successor of the revolutionaries of 1789. He continued and enlarged the scope of this revolution by suppressing the transcendence of principles and by systematically founding the religion of the species. His formula ‘set aside God in the name of religion’ meant nothing else but this. Inaugurating a mania which has since enjoyed a great vogue, he wanted to be the Saint Paul of this new religion and replace the Catholicism of Rome by the Catholicism of Paris. We know that he wanted to see, in all the cathedrals, ‘the statue of deified humanity on the former altar of God’. He calculated with considerable accuracy that they would be preaching positivism in Notre-Dame before i860. This calculation was not as ridiculous as it seems. Notre-Dame, in a state of siege, Still resists: but the religion of humanity was effectively preached towards the end of the nineteenth century and Marx, despite the fact that he had not read Comte, was one of its prophets. Marx only understood that a religion which did not embrace transcendence should properly be called politics. Comte knew it too, after all, or at least he understood that his religion was primarily a form of social idolatry and that it implied political realism, the negation of individual rights and the establishment of despotism. A society whose scientists would be priests, two thousand bankers and technicians ruling over a Europe of one hundred and twenty million inhabitants where private life would be absolutely identified with public life, where absolute obedience ‘of action, of thought, and of feeling’ would be given to the high priest who would reign over everything, such was Comte’s Utopia which announces what might be called the horizontal religions of our times. Convinced of the enlightening powers of science, Comte forgot to provide a police force. Others will be more practical the religion of humanity will be effectively founded; on the blood and suffering of humanity.

Instead of correcting the problems in the French Revolution, Comte enshrined its worst features in his positivist philosophy. Instead of trying to protect people from state interference and oppression, he proposed that a new ruling class of technocrats should use a scientific method to regulate people’s behavior. As Camus points out in his essay, the scientific method, which entails suppression of all signs of independent thought, can only be implemented through the extensive use of the police machinery. And that is what the communist regimes are doing. Comte detached religion from theology, but attached it to communism. 

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Philosophical Difference Between Original Art and a Fake

Rembrandt’s Lucretia
Why do people prefer an original work of art to an exact-copy of it when they cannot tell the difference between the two? It cannot be due to aesthetic reasons because the two look similar. It is possible that if the copy which looks like the original is a counterfeit, we will be averse to it for purely moral reasons, just as we are averse to any act of fraud.

But even if the copies do not entail any act of counterfeiting, they can evoke some kind of negative response from people. For instance, there are copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa and other famous masterpieces that are openly labelled as exact-copies. If the original and the exact-copy are displayed side-by-side in a museum, people will queue up in front of the original.

Nelson Goodman offers a perspective on the philosophical difference between an original and a copy in Chapter 3, “Art and Authenticity,” of his book Languages of Art: An Approach to A Theory of Symbols. He argues that we prize an original more than a copy because we realize that even though we do not detect the difference between them today, we may in future have the knowledge and the tools to discern the difference. He writes:
Although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures. 
According to Goodman, even if the copy is better than the original, people will prefer the original. He argues that we derive more aesthetic pleasure from a work of art that we know is original. He offers the example of Rembrandt’s Lucretia—even if we have an exact molecule-for-molecule copy created by an advanced computer of the painting, we will still want to look at the original because our aesthetic need can only be quenched by looking at a painting that has been created by Rembrandt.

The history of a work of art plays an important role in the way we judge it and the pleasure that we derive from looking at it. Goodman says that “a forgery of a work of art is an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) original work of art.”

In a passage in The Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant offers an argument similar to Goodman’s. Kant talks about the joy of hearing the song of a nightingale on a quiet moonlit summer evening and notes that the sound may not be enjoyable if we came to know that it was being produced by a some clever, roguish boy hiding in the bushes with a reed in his mouth. “Our interest vanishes completely as soon as we realize that we have been deceived.” Therefore the history of a work of art plays an important role in the pleasure that we derive from it.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Michel Foucault’s Analysis of Las Meninas

Las Meninas by Velázquez
Michel Foucault begins his popular book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences with a chapter titled, “Las Meninas,” which contains his analysis of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las Meninas. Foucault notes that the painting’s complex and enigmatic compositional structure presents an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Here’s an excerpt from his interesting description of the painting:
[W]e are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. We, the spectators, are an additional factor. Though greeted by that gaze, we are also dismissed by it, replaced by that which was always there before we were: the model itself. But, inversely, the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity. And here the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the centre between spectator and model. Because we can see only that reverse side, we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing? The painter is observing a place which, from moment to moment, never ceases to change its content, its form, its face, its identity. But the attentive immobility of his eyes refers us back to another direction which they have often followed already, and which soon, there can be no doubt, they will take again: that of the motionless canvas upon which is being traced, has already been traced perhaps, for a long time and forever, a portrait that will never again be erased. So that the painter’s sovereign gaze commands a virtual triangle whose outline defines this picture of a picture: at the top – the only visible corner – the painter’s eyes; at one of the base angles, the invisible place occupied by the model; at the other base angle, the figure probably sketched out on the invisible surface of the canvas. 
The painter is not the only element that is inside the painting but represents a point of reality outside the painting; there are also the two elements, the mirror image (containing the reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa) and the shadowy man in the background.  All three elements are part of the painting, even though they represent a point of realty that exists outside the painting. Therefore what lies outside the painting is meant to provide a meaning to what exists inside it.

Foucault says that the relatively detached and abstractive standpoint that the painting displays is illustrative of basic principles that define the intellectual temperament of the Classical period, by which he means the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He writes:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velàzquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping together and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
Such an impression is created because the painting contains the twice-removed reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa, who are the implied observers of the painting, and the implied subjects of the painting. They are the subject of the painting by Velàzquez, but their representation in the painting is vague; they appear in a distant mirror, while their bloodline, in the person of their five-year-old daughter Infanta Margaret Theresa, is at the center of the painting along with an entourage of duennas, maids of honor, courtiers, and dwarfs.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Rousseau and The Regicide of 1793

Execution of Louis XVI
Albert Camus, in The Rebel (Chapter: “The Regicides”), says that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract served the purpose of legitimizing the regicides, including that of Louis XVI in 1793. He notes that The Social Contract presents a magnified view of a new religion whose god is reason, confused with Nature, and whose representative on earth, in place of the king, is the people considered as an expression of the general will.

Rousseau attacks the traditional political system which was based on the divine rights of the king and dogmatically demonstrates that the privileges of the royalty are an outcome of the pact between the people and the king and therefore the general will has precedence. Camus says, “Until Rousseau’s time, God created kings who, in their turn, created peoples. After The Social Contract peoples create themselves, before creating kings. As for God, there is nothing more to be said for the time being. Here we have, in the political field, the equivalent of Newton’s revolution. Power, therefore, is no longer arbitrary, but derives its existence from general consent.”

By substituting the will of god himself with the will of the people, Rousseau deprived Louis XVI of his power, made him appear as a violator of the general will. The enemies of the monarchy were able to use his arguments to make the case that that Louis XVI has committed the ultimate crime of violating the general will and he must pay the ultimate price. Camus says that Rousseau gave rise to a new god, the will of the people, which is an expression of the eternal truth, and it is for this reason that the words like “absolute,” “sacred,” and, “inviolable,” are found very often in The Social Contract.

The French Revolutionary Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, who was elected as a deputy to the National Convention in 1792, spearheaded the campaign to execute Louis XVI. He was inspired by Rousseau's arguments in The Social Contract. In his famous speech, he argued that the royalty is a manifestation of the eternal crime of violating the general will of the people and every trace of it must be destroyed. Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay:
Saint-Just, therefore, postulates that every king is a rebel or a usurper. He is a rebel against the people whose absolute sovereignty he usurps. Monarchy is not a king, ‘it is crime’. Not a crime, but crime itself, says Saint-Just; in other words, absolute desecration. That is the precise, and at the same time, ultimate meaning of Saint-Just’s remark the import of which has been stretched too far*: ‘No one can rule innocently.’ Every king is guilty, because any man who wants to be king is automatically on the side of death. Saint-Just says exactly the same thing when he proceeds to demonstrate that the sovereignty of the people is a ‘sacred matter’. Citizens are inviolable and sacred and can only be constrained by the law which is an expression of their common will. Louis himself does not benefit by this particular inviolability or by the assistance of the law, for he is placed outside the contract. He is not part of the general will; on the contrary, by his very existence he is a blasphemer against this all-powerful will. He is not a ‘citizen’ which is the only way of participating in the new divine dispensation. ‘What is a king in comparison to a Frenchman?’ Therefore, he should be judged and no more than that. 
By taking advantage of the ideas invented by Rousseau, Saint-Just successfully charged the king with the crime of tyranny. He argued that the general will can forgive any crime, but not the crime of tyranny because such a crime is against the ultimate nature of things. With such arguments, Saint-Just blocked every egress for the king, except the one that led to the guillotine where the king met his fate on 21 January, 1793.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Camus on Nietzsche’s Rebellion

In The Rebel, Albert Camus discusses Friedrich Nietzsche in detail. He presents Nietzsche as the philosopher who has understood that nihilism is the decisive crisis of modernity. But Nietzsche’s nihilism is not without moral restraints and it aims to be the fountainhead of a rebellion. Nietzsche believed that one can only create good or evil by first destroying all values. In The Genealogy of Morals, he says, “To raise a new sanctuary, a sanctuary must be destroyed, that is the law.”

Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay, “Metaphysical Rebellion,” (The Rebel, Page: 41):
Nietzsche’s philosophy, undoubtedly, revolves around the problem of rebellion. More precisely, it begins by being a rebellion. But we sense the change of position that Nietzsche makes. With him, rebellion begins at ‘God is dead’ which is assumed as an established fact; then rebellion hinges on everything that aims at falsely replacing the vanished deity and reflects dishonour on a world which undoubtedly has no direction but which remains the only proving-ground of the gods. Contrary to the opinion of certain of his Christian critics, Nietzsche did not form a project to kill God. He found Him dead in the soul of his contemporaries. He was the first to understand the immense importance of the event and to decide that this rebellion among men could not lead to a renaissance unless it were controlled and directed. Any other attitude towards it, whether it were regret or complacency, must lead to the apocalypse. Thus Nietzsche did not formulate a philosophy of rebellion, but constructed a philosophy on rebellion. 
Camus points out that Nietzsche’s idea of freedom rests on the idea of duty. Nietzsche understood that real emancipation is only possible when there is acceptance of new obligations. A free mind is not a comfort; it is something that can only be achieved through a long struggle. Camus says in his essay (Page 44):
If nothing is true, if the world is without order, then nothing is forbidden; to prohibit an action, there must, in fact, be a standard of values and an aim. But, at the same time, nothing is authorized; there must also be values and aims in order to choose another course of action. Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but nor does absolute freedom of choice. Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom only exists in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom. If fate is not guided by superior values, if chance is king then there is nothing but the step in the dark and the appalling freedom of the blind. At the conclusion of the most complete liberation, Nietzsche therefore chooses the most complete subordination. ‘If we do not make of God’s death a great renunciation and a perpetual victory over ourselves, we shall have to pay for that omission.’ In other words, with Nietzsche, rebellion ends in asceticism. 
The acceptance of what is necessary is a sign of freedom for Nietzsche (Page 46):
The free mind willingly accepts what is necessary. Nietzsche’s most intimate concept is that the necessity of phenomena, if it is absolute, does not imply any kind of restraint. Total acceptance of total necessity is his paradoxical definition of freedom. The question ‘Free of what?’ is thus replaced by ‘Free for what?’

The Invention of Ideology


Monday, 13 August 2018

Albert Camus: The Dandies' Rebellion

Albert Camus, in The Rebel (Chapter 2, “Metaphysical Rebellion”), says that dandyism is a degraded form of asceticism and a refusal to submit to the traditional norms. He writes:
The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of singularity and of negation. "To live and die before a mirror": that, according to Baudelaire, was the dandy's slogan. It is indeed a coherent slogan. The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance. Up to now man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with Him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, and to wasted sensibility. Therefore he must take himself in hand. The dandy rallies his forces and creates a unity for himself by the very violence of his refusal. Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he is coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others' faces. Other people are his mirror. A mirror that quickly becomes clouded, it is true, since human capacity for attention is limited. It must be ceaselessly stimulated, spurred on by provocation. The dandy, therefore, is always compelled to astonish. Singularity is his vocation, excess his way to perfection. Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it. He plays at it until he dies, except for the moments when he is alone and without a mirror. For the dandy, to be alone is not to exist. 
The connection that Camus draws between romanticism and dandyism is quite interesting:
Romanticism demonstrates, in fact, that rebellion is part and parcel of dandyism: one of its objectives is appearances. In its conventional forms, dandyism admits a nostalgia for ethics. It is only honor degraded as a point of honor. But at the same time it inaugurates an aesthetic which is still valid in our world, an aesthetic of solitary creators, who are obstinate rivals of a God they condemn. From romanticism onward, the artist's task will not only be to create a world, or to exalt beauty for its own sake, but also to define an attitude. Thus the artist becomes a model and offers himself as an example: art is his ethic. With him begins the age of the directors of conscience. When the dandies fail to commit suicide or do not go mad, they make a career and pursue prosperity. Even when, like Vigny, they exclaim that they are going to retire into silence, their silence is piercing.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

An Existentialist’s Critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Ayn Rand; Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre started calling himself an existentialist in the 1930s. To explain the tenets of his philosophy he wrote like a novelist—which is not a cause for surprise since he was a fiction writer. In 1938 he came up with a novel called Nausea which is regarded as a manifesto of existentialism. He went on to write several philosophy books to further explain his ideas on existentialism.

Like Sartre, Ayn Rand too was a fiction writer; unlike him she did not give a name to her philosophy in the initial years of her writing career. Her novel The Fountainhead in which she offers an account of her philosophy of individualism was published in 1943, but she started looking for a name for her philosophy after the publication of Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s. She felt that word “existentialism” would have been a good name for her ideas, but this word was already taken—Sartre’s existentialism had become a major intellectual force in Europe by the end of the Second World War. Eventually Rand picked up the word “objectivism” in 1958.

After Sartre died in 1980, existentialism started fizzling out, and by the end of the decade, the movement was extinct. The fate of Rand's philosophy was not too different. Objectivism had been meandering confusedly since 1968 when Rand had a nasty breakup with her main disciple and associate Nathaniel Branden. Soon after her death in 1982, objectivism ran out of steam and it currently has a very small following.

But in the 1960s, when existentialism was at its zenith, and objectivism seemed to be on the ascendent, several scholars had started believing that the two philosophies were destined to collide and compete. In the 1960s no one could have predicted that by the end of the 1980s, existentialism (with a capital “E”) and objectivism (with a capital “O”) will become irrelevant.

Hazel E.Barnes, in her book An Existentialist Ethics (1967), has devoted the Chapter 6, “Egoistic Humanism: Ayn Rand’s Objectivism,” to objectivist ethics. As Barnes, in the 1960s, was an existentialist devotee of Sartre, it is understandable that she finds several flaws in objectivist ethics and total perfection in existentialist ethics. In her essay on objectivist ethics, she offers an extensive critique of Rand’s ethical theory. Here’s an excerpt from her essay:
Ayn Rand has made her own position on existentialism very clear. In her essay, "For the New Intellectual," she writes, "The majority of those who posture as intellectuals today are frightened zombies, posturing in a vacuum of their own making, who admit their abdication from the realm of the intellect by embracing such doctrines as Existentialism and Zen Buddhism." Despite all this, the popular images of the Rand hero and the Existentialist have something in common. Both are commonly held to be totally selfish and solitary individuals who acknowledge no authority save their own arbitrary whims, whose human relationships are motivated solely by immediate self-interest, who recognize no responsibilities. If we forget about these popular distortions and leave the level of overgeneralization, we find that the task of comparing to two is surprisingly complex. There are a few precise similarities; there are some obvious sharp divergences. [….] 
It would not be a distortion to say that both Objectivism and existentialism call for the assertion of the free individual against those theologies and those oppressively conformist societies which seek to make him deny his unique self in the interests of ready-made social molds and values. Both oppose a psychology which would reduce man to the animal level or to a mechanistic pattern of stimulus and response. They are equally opposed to the soul-body dichotomy of traditional theology. Objectivists and existentialists argue that every person is responsible for what he has made of his life Each man is ultimately a free choice. In so far as they claim that man himself is his own end and purpose, both may properly be called humanistic. This is an impressive list of parallels. One might easily suppose that with the sympathetic sharing of such fundamental premises, the general similarity in their over-all positions would outweigh any differences in detail. 
Only what emerges is not a common point of view. It is not merely that Rand and Sartre differ as to how the individual should go about engaging his freedom and asserting his newly discovered self. One discovers that somehow words have not meant the same things in these descriptions. The self and its freedom do not mean for Rand what they mean for Sartre. If we examine these basic premises and starting points closely, we find that only one is left standing as a common landmark. That is the rejection of God or of any form of belief in an eternal spiritual world beyond the human. Man remains the author of his own destiny, the creator of his own values.
Further in the essay, Barnes points out that Rand and Sartre have serious disagreement on existence and man’s place in it. She is essentially saying that Rand says,  “Existence is identity,” Sartre says, “Existence precedes essence,” and the two shall never meet. Rand believes that it is possible for a man to undertake an action that is completely good, whereas Sartre holds that when it comes to specific choices in the real world, the complexity of life is such that no action is pure and every man must make the best possible choice based on his own judgement.

Barnes is critical of Rand’s theory of selfishness. She says:
I reject Objectivism, not because it is self-centered or because it seeks self-aggrandizement. I criticize it for being selfish in the pejorative sense of restricting the horizons of the Self so as to leave the self-center, not enriched but impoverished, not blown up but withered and blighted. The Self of the Objectivists runs the risk of the only child—it is not unloved, but it is likely to be spoiled, ailing, and fretful, due to the overprotection and the too close attention which prevents the growth of responsible freedoms. 
Barnes finds a lot of disagree with in Ayn Rand’s famous essay, “Racism.” She accepts Rand’s viewpoint that racism is the result of collectivist thinking, but she disagrees with the broad historical and political perspectives that Rand offers on collectivism. Barnes says:
Given her definition of “collectivism,” however, equated with “statism” and applied indiscriminately to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and any liberal government which does not definitely eschew the concept of Welfare State, then Rand’s statement that “historically racism has always risen and fallen with the rise or fall of collectivism” is not supported by evidence. This was not the case with the ancient Graeco-Roman world. The thesis is particularly hard to sustain for the United States. Rand attempts it by stating, “It is the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the United States.” It is true that the North, because of its greater industrialization, had less need for slaves, but it was not the capitalist leaders of the industry who became fervent abolitionists. It was the liberal intellectuals and religious idealists. Nor should one equate the near-feudalism of the South with collectivism. Rand entirely ignores the fact that, in the twentieth century, it has been the Liberals who have consistently spearheaded the pressure for civil rights and nondiscriminatory legislation. 
There are several problems in Barnes’s critique of objectivist ethics, but a part of her criticism is right. For instance, she is right that Rand has used bad historical evidence to prove that there is a connection between collectivism and racism. Indeed, it was not the businessmen of the North who were fervent abolitionists—it was the liberals and religious idealists (who can also be seen as collectivists), and all the farmers of the South were not collectivists.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The Argumentative Existentialists: Koestler, Camus, and Sartre

Camus; Koestler
The existentialist movement dominated the cultural life in Europe after the Second World War, but by the 1980s, it had fizzled out, and the word “existentialist” with a capital  “E” was seen as an embarrassment. But why did existentialism fail? It failed because the movement was more about identity and less about philosophy; it had too many rockstars and too few thinkers.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers an account of the of emotional and egoistical conflicts between the rockstar existentialist thinkers. Here’s an excerpt:
Their intellectual battles form a long chain of belligerence that connects the existentialist story end to end. In Germany, Martin Heidegger turned against his former mentor Edmund Husserl, but later Heidegger’s friends and colleagues turned their backs on him. In France, Gabriel Marcel attacked Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre fell out with Albert Camus, Camus fell out with Merleau-Ponty, Merleau-Ponty fell out with Sartre, and the Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler fell out with everyone and punched Camus in the street. When the philosophical giants of each nation, Sartre and Heidegger, finally met in 1953, it went badly and they spoke mockingly of each other ever after. 
Bakewell’s description of the drunken brawl between Koestler, Camus, and Sartre is revealing of the mindset of the existentialist elite:
Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus and Koestler had previously become good friends, debating political topics in high spirits during convivial, drunken evenings. During one of their wild nights out at an émigré Russian nightclub around 1946, the question of friendship and political commitment came up. Could you be friends with someone if you disagreed with them politically? Camus said you could. Koestler said no: ‘Impossible! Impossible!’ In a sentimental buzz of vodka, Beauvoir took Camus’ side: ‘It is possible; and we are the proof of it at this very moment, since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.’ Cheered by this warm thought, they boozed on happily until after dawn, although Sartre still had to prepare a lecture for the next day on, of all things, the theme of ‘The Writer’s Responsibility’. They all thought this was hilarious. At dawn, they left each other in exuberant spirits. And Sartre did somehow get the lecture written in time, on almost no sleep.  
During another late-night carousal in 1947, however, the friendship question came up again, and this time the mood was less good-humored. Koestler clinched his side of it by throwing a glass at Sartre’s head — not least because he got the idea, probably rightly, that Sartre was flirting with his wife Mamaine. (Koestler was known as an unscrupulous seducer himself, and an aggressive one to say the least.) As they all stumbled outside, Camus tried to calm Koestler by laying a hand on his shoulder. Koestler flailed out at him, and Camus hit him back. Sartre and Beauvoir dragged them apart and hustled Camus off to his car, leaving Koestler and Mamaine on the street. All the way home, Camus wept and draped himself on the steering wheel, weaving over the road: ‘He was my friend! And he hit me!’ 
The flight from existentialism started soon after Sartre’s death in 1980, and within a few years the movement was finished. Many of those who left existentialism branded themselves as structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and postmodernists. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Kierkegaard and Existentialism

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard (1840)
Soren Kierkegaard used the word “existential” to refer to a new way of looking at the problems of human existence. The word appears in the long attention grabbing title that he gave to his 1846 work Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, An Existential Contribution.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers the following insight into Kierkegaard’s existentialist treatment of man’s place in the world:
Kierkegaard was well placed to understand the awkwardness and difficulty of human existence. Everything about him was irregular, including his gait, as he had a twisted spine for which his enemies cruelly mocked him. Tormented by religious questions, and feeling himself set apart from the rest of humanity, he led a solitary life much of the time. At intervals, though, he would go out to take ‘people baths’ around the streets of Copenhagen, buttonholing acquaintances and dragging them with him for long philosophical walks. His companions would struggle to keep up as he strode and ranted and waved his cane. One friend, Hans Brøchner, recalled how, when on a walk with Kierkegaard, ‘one was always being pushed, by turns, either in towards the houses and the cellar stairwells, or out towards the gutters’. Every so often, one had to move to his other side to regain space. Kierkegaard considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride. He wrote that he would love to sit someone on a horse and startle it into a gallop, or perhaps give a man in a hurry a lame horse, or even hitch his carriage to two horses who went at different speeds — anything to goad the person into seeing what he meant by the ‘passion’ of existence. Kierkegaard was a born goader. He picked quarrels with his contemporaries, broke off personal relationships, and generally made difficulties out of everything. He wrote: ‘Abstraction is disinterested, but for one who exists his existing is the supreme interest.’
Kierkegaard’s spirit of rebellion is apparent in his argumentative manner of dealing with the past philosophers. For instance, he disagreed with Rene Descartes’s saying, “Cogito ergo sum.” According to Kierkegaard, Descartes had things back to front. Existence, he insists, is not the result of a logical deduction. Human existence comes first and is the starting point of all we do. To counter G. W. F. Hegel’s theory that the world is evolving dialectically and will eventually become united with the Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard poses an awkward question: “What if I don’t choose to be part of this ‘Absolute Spirit’? What if I refuse to be absorbed, and insist on just being me?”

In his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin,  Kierkegaard says that anxiety is an outcome of the dizzying effect of freedom, of paralyzing possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s own existence. Here’s an excerpt from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.
Kierkegaard holds that anxiety is a kind of existential paradox of choice, a viewpoint that also features in Jean-Paul-Sartre’s work.