If you believe Plato, then the answer is "yes". If all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then the artists have been subordinated to the philosophers for about 25 centuries. According to Plato's Republic, especially the last section, the artists present a danger to society and to your soul. Two of my favorite thinkers disagree with Plato and Socrates on this point. Friedrich Nietzsche and Robert Pirsig both make a case that there is something terribly wrong with this Platonic legacy. In one of Nietzsche's earliest works, The Birth of Tragedy, he asks us to consider the consequences of the Socratic idea that virtue is knowledge, that all sins arise from ignorance, and only the virtuous are happy. As a consequence, Nietzsche says, the "virtuous hero must henceforth be a dialectician" because virtue and knowledge are necessarily connected such that "Truth" is the highest good.
"[E]ver since Socrates the mechanism of concepts, judgements and syllogisms has come to regarded as the highest exercise of man's powers, nature's most admirable gift. Socrates and his successors, down to our own day, have considered all moral and sentimental accomplishments -- noble deeds, compassion, self-sacrifice, heroism, even that spiritual calm which the Apollonian Greek called sophrosune -- to be ultimately derived from the dialectic of knowledge, and therefore teachable." -- Nietzsche
We can see this attitude throughout Plato's dialogues wherein the Sophists, the rhetoricians, the rhapsodes are pressed by Socrates to give an account of their know-how. Socrates' demand for intelligibility works its magic and each kind of artist is chopped up into little pieces. Gorgias the Sophist is compared to a pastry chef who panders to our child-like appetites, for example, and poor Ion the rhapsode is more or less reduced to a blithering idiot. What was Plato's motive for this condemnation?
As Pirsig sees it, "Plato's hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other."
The fact-value distinction is, I think, one of the more recent consequences of this Platonic legacy. As difficult as it might seem to achieve agreement as to the facts, it's still pretty easy compared to gaining a consensus on values. These days, common sense and the dictionary both tell us that "sophistry" is a dirty word and anyone who engages in it is just some kind of manipulative bullshitter. This is what we might unkindly say about advertisers, politicians, talk radio hosts and other types of crass button-pushers. Mere "spin" doesn't count as art by anyone's standard and nobody would be crazy enough to defend anything like that, right?
"And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them and the dust was buried under the rubble of declining Athens through its fall and Macedonia through its decline and fall. Through the decline and death of ancient Rome and Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire and the modern states - buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done..." -- Robert Pirsig
As Nietzsche paints it, the new Socratic hero of the dialectic "opposes Dionysiac wisdom and art; tries to dissolve the power of myth" and instead "believes that the whole world can be corrected through knowledge and that life should be guided by science". In the process of establishing the supremacy of Truth, these dialecticians and logicians inadvertently killed something precious and wild. A clean, well lighted order was imposed on everything, taming the passions and training the affective domain of consciousness as if it were a dangerous animal, the dark side of the soul. Dionysus, the god of mystic union becomes the god of drunks and Apollo, the god light and order, becomes an obedient prude. For Nietzsche, this is "the vortex and turning point of Western civilization."
"It was Socrates who expressed most clearly this radically new prestige of knowledge and conscious intelligence when he claimed to be the only one who acknowledged that he knew nothing. . . . From this point of view, Socrates was forced to condemn both the prevailing art and the prevailing ethics. Wherever his penetrating gaze fell he saw nothing but lack of understanding, fictions rampant, and so was led to deduce a state of affairs wholly discreditable and perverse. Socrates believed that it was his mission to correct the situation." -- Nietzsche
It's not just a coincidence that Nietzsche and Pirsig both present their work in an unusual style. In both cases, their artsy form is consistent with their rebellious content. There is no pretense of logical rigor or objectivity and instead enjoy a sense of power and intimacy in their work. Nietzsche talks like a poet and a prophet and Pirsig's philosophy is quite deliberately tangled up with his own biography and presented in the form of novel. In both cases, they are practicing what they preach.
Maybe it goes without saying but I'll say it anyway; their criticism of the dialecticians does not mean that we ought to abandon intellectual standards or that we ought to live by gut-feelings alone. As I read them, they are denying that philosophy is better than art. But they're not exactly saying that art is better than philosophy either. The idea, I think, is that philosophy is a form of art - if you're doing it rightly.
"It's been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature's order which was as yet unknown. Now it's time to further an understanding of nature's order by reassimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man's consciousness, are a part of nature's order too. The central part." -- Robert Pirsig
Chris Mullen says
As I read them, they are denying that philosophy is better than art. But they’re not exactly saying that art is better than philosophy either. The idea, I think, is that philosophy is a form of art – if you’re doing it rightly.
To this i would wholeheartedly agree.
“Better than” is rather pointless terminology. To be sure though philosophy does provide the conditions that ground the possibility for there being art altogether, specially today wherein to not take a philosophical stance about art means resigning yourself to a theory of art as merely another generalized form of commodity production determined in and of itself already by economic market relations before artists become involved. While it is often now argued that philosophy has justly become more concerned with interpretation than a pure understanding of truth, this is still a conceptual notion presupposed by the capacity for making a distinction between what constitutes a right interpretation and what does not.
David Buchanan says
A few words about your objections, Ryan. You don’t see the point of framing the question that way? The point of the essay is to explain why Nietzsche and Pirsig reject Plato’s answer to that question. In that sense, the title basically just announces the essay’s topic.
Philosophy provides the conditions that ground the possibility of art? I think that’s the basic premise that Nietzsche and Pirsig are both rejecting. That’s the premise behind 25 centuries of art’s subordination to philosophy. As they tell the story, art was already a very old man on the day philosophy was born. The story they tell is about what happened to art when philosophy arrived on the scene.
Refusing to take a philosophical stance on art means resigning to a theory of art as commodity production? Please connect the dots for me. How does one get from their refusal to that quasi-Marxist resignation? This is not a “rhetorical” question. I really just don’t see any connection between those two things.
If your last sentence means what I think it means, I agree. Rejecting objective Truth or absolute Truth does not mean that every perspective is equally valid. Some people might read Pirsig or Nietzsche as offering that sort of vacuous relativism but I’m not one of them. They aren’t rejecting truth altogether (Pirsig subscribes to the Pragmatic theory of truth), but rather objecting to the idea that truth is better than art, rejecting the idea that art is subordinate to theory. Pirsig is quite explicit about reversing the priority so that theory is always secondary or after the fact.
As John Harwood puts it in the prolog to his book (Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation), “Academic exegesis, I had decided, was a form of translation which annihilated what it claimed to illuminate.” He then quotes Pirsig (from Zen and the Art) on this point.
“It wasn’t any particular point of view that outraged him so much as the idea that Quality should be subordinated to ANY point of view. The intellectual process was forcing Quality into servitude, prostituting it. …These metaphysicians think their subject is some kind of peppermint bonbon they’re entitled to smack their fat lips on; something to be devoured; something to be intellectually knifed, forked and spooned up bit by bit with appropriate delicate remarks and I’m ready to throw up. What they smack their lips on is the putrescence of something they long ago killed.”
How does it become decided which is better today? It has nothing to do with discourse, it is purely a matter of sales figures – and in so far as language is also some how involved it is only about being able to commodify and sell the right words. My last sentence is a condemnation of this idea that there are “good” truths but no objective or absolute truth. This is only an absolutizing notion of the good, and it is philosophically grounded on the capacity to decide between what is and what is not – what is a good truth and what is not a good truth – truth always before the good, and art wherever we have decided there is art rather than no art. Socrates was correct very long ago about the dismal practice of pawning off sophism as knowledge and the problem has only become amplified today now that commodities are so much a universalizing function between people, when can we say there is art and not just abstract commerce?
Bill B says
Another way to phrase the question may be “Is self expression better then self understanding?”.
Whatever the answer, one’s relation to one’s self will be the determining factor in self expression and understanding. Does one see one’s self as primarily in a relationship to an impersonal universe? Or related primarily to other persons? Or related primarily to a personal universe (God(s)). Socrates apparently sees his self as primarily a relation to God(s).
Apollo and Dionysus were personal gods. Any understanding of them in which this is not the primary understanding, may be obfuscating deicide.
Eric Harvey says
“As I read them, they are denying that philosophy is better than art. But they’re not exactly saying that art is better than philosophy either. The idea, I think, is that philosophy is a form of art – if you’re doing it rightly”.
To this I would wholeheartedly disagree.
No, art and philosophy are two very different ways of trying to reach the same (perhaps) goal. For example: most artists would agree that a large proportion of their work is ‘actually produced’ (as opposed to mused over), unconsciously. I don’t think by definition that philosophy can be written down unconsciously. Of course ideas can be left to stew over time, but to ‘actually produce’ philosophy requires conscious semantic thought.
Seeing the foundation of an art/philosophy distinction being based on a contrast between expression/understanding, passion/intellect, Apollo/Dionysus, is to miss what could make philosophy (teleologically) akin to art. Art is primary but unintelligible.
“To be sure though philosophy does provide the conditions that ground the possibility for there being art altogether”
Completely wrong. Wrong for the reasons that David Buchanan responds with, but even more importantly wrong because what grounds ‘art’ is not thought but experience. A bodily experience of the world (Merleau Ponty). If anything the order of grounding should be reversed.
Since the original villain here is Socrates, and since this podcast originates from the USA, perhaps an appropriate example of a possible relationship between art and philosophy, would be the waging of war. The theorization and strategic thought of the 5 star general should sit well with the philosopher, but he should always keep in mind that the bodily experience of war belongs to the arses on the ground doing the dirty, and that experience is both primary and necessary. Visiting a battlefield is not good enough; dabbling in art, visiting galleries or doing some motorcycle maintenance is not sufficient for incisive aesthetic theory.
“what grounds ‘art’ is not thought but experience.”
While this notion might be interesting enough to consider, you can not possibly have circumvented the labor of conceptualization in order to stipulate it as such. By digging away at the conditions which ground bare experience like so all you are going to find is your own self-imposed spiral into thinking increasingly more impoverished abstractions until you end up with what you have vacuously deemed an almighty unintelligible. Is it surprising to you this project did not reach any notable end with Merleau-Ponty? No, phenomenology has been attempting to demarcate something antecedent to mere idealist subjectivism long since then, and ironically has only moved further away from its claim to immediate embodied experience into these various kinds of mystical word soups. As far as your vicious metaphors regarding art and philosophy being modes of the same old Darwinian struggle for life, I would have hoped they should have been put down for good with the rest of the Victorian Era aristocracy classes.
David Buchanan says
You’ve raised an interesting point (with your wholehearted disagreement), Eric.
I’d like to address this point in particular: You said, “most artists would agree that a large proportion of their work is ‘actually produced’ (as opposed to mused over), unconsciously. I don’t think by definition that philosophy can be written down unconsciously.”
Please notice the types of artists that are being defended (by Nietzsche and Pirsig) against the Socratic demand for intelligibility; the sophists, rhetoricians, rhapsodes, etc.. This defense is mounted for the sake of word-artists in particular – and of course language is the philosopher’s medium too. Thus it becomes a contest between these artists and the dialecticians.
Writing “unconsciously” certainly does sound like a very strange, if not impossible, thing to do. But I have heard this from many different writers, although “unconsciously” seems too strong a word. They talk about the experience in terms of being visited by the muses, in terms of inspirational moments and sometimes even in terms of “channeling”, none of which is to be taken literally. They’re talking about this odd experience wherein the work seems to do itself or the words aren’t deliberate or labored but seem to flow through them. David Lynch, for example, and the guy who wrote “Deadwood” both talk like that about their process. Please notice that neither of them are undisciplined hacks with no experience.
To make a case that philosophy is a form of art is NOT to reject careful deliberation, is not reject the skilled handling of abstractions, or to dismiss the value of clarity and precision. They’re not saying that intelligibility is a bad or that it should play no role in philosophy. (It’s very hard to imagine how that would work!) The idea is not to reject deliberate reflection but rather infuse it with heart and soul, so to speak. It’s a matter of reversing the priority, not of eliminating intelligibility but rather demoting its rank so that art is no longer subordinate to it. We’re talking about a fusion or integration of the heart and head, the passions and the intellect. As a practical matter, it almost takes a lot of discipline and practice, practice, practice to be creative.
Psychologists these days have a name for this type of experience. They call it “flow” or “peak experience” and we hear it in the slang too. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about being “in the zone” or maybe you have a musician hippie friend who talks about getting “in the groove”. If one has achieved a certain level of mastery or virtuosity and all that is brought to the task at hand such that the task demands everything you’ve got, the challenge is so demanding and all-absorbing that there is, so to speak, no room for anything else, not even self-conscious awareness of the task.
Like the artful motorcycle mechanic in Pirsig’s book, creative solutions only come to experienced mechanics with a feel for the work, to those who also know how the bike works, what the tools are for. As with the art of philosophy, the artful mechanic understands the value of order and precision, etc.. The qualities that make language both accurate and compelling are certainly part of this art. Pirsig even extends this kind of artistry to the field of mathematics. He found that Poincare had thought along these lines and had asserted that of all the possible options the most interesting and beautiful mathematical solutions were pre-selected by an unconscious aspect he called “the subliminal self” and Pirsig recognized his own notions in this. The following passage can be found a few pages from the end of chapter 22 of ZAMM…
“Poincaré then hypothesized that this selection is made by what he called the “subliminal self,” an entity that corresponds exactly with what Phædrus called preintellectual awareness. The subliminal self, Poincaré said, looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness. Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of “mathematical beauty,” of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. “This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know,” Poincaré said, “but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted to smile.” But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all.”
Eric Harvey says
Nice response David; normally I can’t stand writing, but you have provoked me (in a good way) to reply to three of your points. I’ll then try to briefly explain where I am at with my thoughts on art and philosophy.
1. “defence is mounted for the sake of word-artists in particular” True, but the term ‘word-artist’ is a little deceptive. Performances of ancient Greek poetry and tragedy was more entertainment/instructional than an artistic production in the modern sense of the word, and I think that it is this educational aspect that is taken to task by Plato. It is not so much a battle between artists and dialecticians, but between different styles of teaching. I think there is an underestimation of how great a gap there is between Art and Philosophy, which is my point, and which I will clarify.
2. “We’re talking about a fusion or integration of the heart and head, the passions and the intellect”. Can’t agree with this division at all: head/rationality/philosophy versus heart/passions/art. There is a gap between art and philosophy but the locus is elsewhere, not between representational/rational or expressionist/emotional.
3. “Psychologists these days have a name for this type of experience. They call it flow or peak experience”. Could not agree with you more, and this is closing the gap. I enjoy a surf when time and conditions allow, and being in the groove is what it’s all about. Being in the ‘zone’ on a tennis court or working attentively on your motorbike, however important as a bodily state, is not the phenomenon that underlies art (or perhaps philosophy). It is ‘concern’.
All talk about art presupposes an idea about that entity that makes art. I follow Heidegger’s description of the artist and viewer as ‘being in the world’ (a doing). And what is Dasein doing? Well he is endlessly and compulsively making a world/worlds. What sort of a world/s? Usually he is remaking a world/s that has been given to him by those more powerful. How is this done? I follow Merleau Ponty’s description of the bodily/perceptual field of possibilities as the basis of this making.
Why must human beings make world/s?
Because they do not fit into any world, even the ones that they construct.
I have to agree with professor Farnsworth in ‘Futurama’, all the best thought is done when you are naked. One day spent nude in the Australian bush observing the wildlife will teach anyone that they do not fit into nature. Our bodies are incredibly weird, of all the animals on this planet we are the only one who do not have an environmental niche.
This is the foundational human experience that underlies all art. All art is a bodily attempt to grasp the world/s through the production of an artefact, an artefact that can also deal with time. This is what drives an artist, the desire to lay hold of a world in which they have no place, under the ever present threat of time itself.
If philosophy and art have something in common then it is teleological not methodological, as the shared goal in grasping the world. Personally though I suspect the majority of philosophical enquiry is motivated by semantic attempts to control world/s, rather than to bodily touch them. Thus the gap.