The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination. Continue reading

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The Birth of the Subject as the Death of Art

It is virtually unquestioned that the essence of art lies in the expression of the self. To give a dangerously vague definition of this doctrine: Art is the taking of something inner by way of some medium and rendering it external. It’d be fair to say that this is a watered-down and popular version of expressionism, which is a doctrine that ‘stresses the artist’s emotional attitude toward himself and the world,’ (H.W. Janson, History of Art, p. 666). This doctrine may have its origin in Kant, for whom aesthetic judgement of taste cannot be subsumed under any universal law or generalization, which seems to kick off the ‘turn to the subject’ in aesthetics – that is, post-Kant, aesthetics is primarily concerned with the inner state of the subject. This isn’t too far from romanticism – indeed, expressionism and romanticism are in some cases so similar it can be difficult to distinguish them:

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Rational Reality and Inherent Intelligbility

One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.

Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.

T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.

Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.

Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.

This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.

Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.

The Aesthetics of Kant and Hegel

If I had to sum up the differences between the aesthetics of Kant and Hegel, I’d put it this way: Kant is concerned with a metaphysical aesthetic in the abstract, while Hegel is concerned with art in the concrete. It’s rather difficult to trace their aesthetic ideas without conducting a full-blown study of their metaphysical systems, but I’m going to attempt to do just that – and I’m going to assume a working knowledge of both of their systems so as not to be to long-winded.

Hegel sees art and the beauty of art as another way that the Idea manifests itself in the world (keeping in mind that nature as such for Hegel is an external manifestation of the Idea). Broadly, Hegelian aesthetics emphasize aspects of art that are common coin in continental philosophy: the historicicism of art, that is, the context, history and meaning of art as an expression of the ideas of a culture or historical period. This is a significant difference from Kantian aesthetics, which are concerned with a much more universal aesthetic. Art is also seen by Hegel as being the reflection of the mind on truth.

Hegel takes a fairly typical idealist line with regard to the individual arts (Kant takes roughly the same line): the more ‘material’ an art is, the further away from the Ideal it is, and vice versa. So with that and mind, we can map out how Hegel thinks of individual arts roughly thus:

IDEAL

Poetry – No external embodiments – moves directly into the realm of ideas

Music – no spatial form – music can ‘reinterpret’ or ‘recollect’ different themes on each hearing

Painting – concerned with appearance as such and minimal material-ity

Sculpture – determined by content and concerned with showing bodily form (bodily form is a manifestation of the Spirit)

Architecture – an attempt to master a medium

MATERIAL

A common theme in Hegelian metaphysics finds its way into his aesthetics, and that is the rising to self-consciousness of the mind, seen in his explanation of epic, lyric and dramatic poetry, the last of which being where the characters themselves become poets through their speeches and soliloquies (think here of Shakespearean drama) and rise to self-consciousness.

Kant takes a decidedly different route and develops an aesthetic characterized primarily by his idea of disinterestedness, or the contemplation of art and the beautiful for its own sake. It’s fair to say that this has been the dominant trajectory of aesthetics since Kant.

Disinterestedness is when we contemplate the beautiful in its perceptual form (Kant doesn’t see colour, smell and other sensations as being aesthetic because of their sensuous nature) in a non-practical, non-practical way. It is an end in itself, not something we use to attain an end. No concept attaches to matters of aesthetic judgements, which can be classified into to groups: judgements of pure taste, which is a judgement of beauty, and judgements of the agreeable, which is a judgement for oneself.

Kant holds that the beautiful is universally valid – for something to be beautiful is for something to be beautiful for all people. For me to say that ‘X is beautiful’ is then to, in a way, demand that other people see it as beautiful. It is to make a judgement for all people. This is the ‘aesthetic ought’, but differs from the more well-known ‘practical ought’ in that, since it is a matter of aesthetics, no concept attaches to it, and hence there is no way to resolve any kind of aesthetic disagreement which inevitably arises when someone makes a judgement of pure taste.

If there is no way to settle aesthetic disagreements, and one can’t simply be forced into agreement regarding a judgement of pure taste, then it seems that the idea of a universally valid idea of beauty is pretty empty. Kant makes a trademark move, however, and argues that the possibility of universal validity is a transcendental condition for beauty – it’s what must be possible for there to be beauty.

Kant called the principle that determines what is pleasing about perceptual form subjective finality, and it occurs when a form is pleasing for its own sake. When this happens, the imagination, which provides raw data for the understanding to synthesize with its categories, is united in a free interaction.

A few differences between Kant and Hegel:

– Kant’s aesthetic is purely subjective, and is concerned with the aesthetic as such in the abstract, as well as universal notions of art and aesthetics (as is typical for Kant).

– Hegel is concerned with particular expressions of art in all their historical/contextual concretness, because for Hegel art becomes actual in the particular. Hegel is thus much less concerned with an abstract metaphysic of beauty, because he sees the particular and concrete beauty of art as a manifestation of the Idea. A rough map:

Individual———-> self-consciousness———-> Idea

– Both, however, see the most ideal in the least material

– Hegel sees the rise to self-consciousness as an end, of sorts, for art

– Kant sees that the aesthetic has no end and is an end in itself – if it has an end, it’s not purely aesthetic. His aesthetic is much more ‘static’ and much more metaphysical.

– Hegel’s aesthetic possesses an historical dynamic, since he sees art as one more step to the Idea realizing itself in history.

A question for further reflection: would Kant or Hegel see photography as art? A tentative step towards and answer could be that Hegel might be see it as art, despite the materiality of its medium, since a photograph can really show the historical context for when it was taken. Kant may be in a better position to say if photography is aesthetic because of his fundamental subjectivism.

Random Study Notes

Current cosmology: focused on information, holographic principle and black hole event horizons. Lots of conjecture but not as much empirical evidence in favour of one over the other. Importance of mathematics cannot be overestimated in current physics, but seems very easy to mistake the mathematical formulas describing phenomena for the phenomena itself. See Bertrand Russell on the mathematical skeleton of reality.

Idealism: in its classical form a powerful metaphysic, in theology, seems to border on heretical (ie Edwards, Berkeley). Similar to pantheism and emanation and poor distinction between thought, being and reality. Having a mental picture of an object is not grounds to assert that all reality is mental even though the mental plays an obviously key role in our perception of reality.

Hegel: powerful thinker whos ideas, to paraphrase That Individual, would have been brilliant had they been posited as an elaborate theory, but Hegel’s assertion that his philosophy was reality turns his ideas from interesting to absurd and even mad. Chilling ideas on the state, freedom and morality which laid the groundwork for a very bloody 20th century. Thoughts on the nature of reality similar to Heraclitus IE all is flux. History, the Real, Absolute Spirit all powerful ideas that need to be taken seriously as a system of thought.

Critical realism: primary viewpoint of Christianity – God exists independently of our thought or perception of Him. Stratification of truth (T.F. Torrance) distinguishes between kinds of truth IE truth of being, truth of relation, truth of statement. Operation of the human mind naturally realist – the words we employ point to the reality for which they stand rather than themselves. Our mind does not create reality but rather accepts the reality forced upon it, either in natural science or theology.