Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Joining the Conversation

I'm immensely enjoying the debate between Theo and Gawain and Conrad over at Heaven Tree and the Varieties of Unreligious Experience, although I cannot help but think that they’re not really arguing, in the sense that one is asserting X and the other not-X. Instead, I’m seeing this as the putting in to play of two (of many) competing kinds of philosophical method.

To lay my cards on the table, I have a great sympathy for Conrad’s defence of Plato. Although I’ve never read him in Greek (does that make me illiterate?) I enjoy Plato for the same reasons I suspect many people do – he’s a great writer.

Does he have the occasional straw man? Ion comes to mind, but as Conrad notes, if you can make your way through Parmenides (I found it harder than Wilfrid Sellars), it’s remarkable to watch Plato turn his dialectical guns on his own vaunted Theory of Forms, laying the groundwork for Aristotle’s later criticisms. Plato was a formidable, unrelenting thinker.

My own thoughts about Plato is that had he had the logical tools available to him, perhaps he would have realised that the reason he could not pin down terms like “truth” or “beauty” via definition was because the ways in which these terms can be used exceeds our ability to define them. That is, the fact that the meaning of beauty is to some extent undecideable isn’t a strike against beauty as a useful or important word, but a reflection of the place the word occupies in the logical and conceptual space of human life.

I’m trying to walk a fine line here – I’d like to affirm that Gawain’s (phenomenologically-inclined?) naturalised view of aesthetics has promise, but that this has little bearing on the fact that there are also very likely many unnatural ways for things to be beautiful, and that these unnatural ways can be shaped and guided by the forms of discourse we participate in. There’s a normative element here that I’m not sure Gawain’s approach can, or will ever capture. And my friend, this isn’t a strike against you in my eye, just part of the fun.

So this is where my sympathies with Conrad’s claim about the importance of Plato in talking about beauty lie – Plato set us down a methodological path that, like it or not, has shaped the way in which debates about beauty are conducted, scientific ones included, in much the same way Descartes, in his Meditiations, set the agenda for epistemological debates for hundreds of years. And within these debates, we may find new kinds of beauty, kinds that will never find their way into the realm of experimental psychology.

Moreover, definitions are important, aren’t they? Knowing what beauty is, or perhaps more importantly, what beauty is not, will have a great influence in how one would go about coming up with experiments to determine how people deal with beauty.

Much, no all, of philosophy is wrestling with texts, taking on their histories and their concepts, living them and responding to them in a meaningful kind of way. To my mind, the best part about philosophy is that Plato is still relevant, that we can enjoy him on an intellectual level, watching Socrates in the agora corrupting the young men of Athens, and finding ourselves ensnared by the same thoughts they were.

Although I don’t share Richard Rorty’s relativism, I’m not so bothered by his talk about philosophy as a kind of conversation, an engagement, to which I’d like to add, in the words of A.P. Martinich, can give birth to a science. This is one of the wonders of philosophy, that in the constant churning and working out of thoughts, one can rise from their armchair and make their way out to the world, to the lab, to life.

This has been a fascinating discussion that has forced me to think in new ways. I don't know about all of you, but that's all I really need right now!