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!


Gawain said...

Hello, little thought, I like (and have often thought to myself) the suggestion which you make here that some things may escape defintions. (perhaps all real world things outside of math, actually).

You suggest beauty and truth. How about "cats"?

(I don't remember who made the rather arresting point that the word "cats" better remain an open ended category for we never know when we will run into a new kind of cat which doesn't quite fit old definitions. Wittgenstein and "family resemblances" and all - old hat, i should think by now).

(In any case, the Hippias fragment in question was about what makes things beautiful; I don't think a definition is called for to answer that (if we can at all), and the one Socrates offers ("whatever is suitable") is not very enlightening, even if a defintion were called for).

Yet, later you say, "yet defintions are important". I'd like to know how you square the two views.

I mean: if things escape defintions (as you suggest) what is the implication for talking about them (beauty in particular?)

(I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Austen's "France is octagonal" example -- ie the view that statements (or defintions) dont have to be "true" or "false", just "pretty good").

Finally, I confess, I am a little perplexed by this statement:

"also very likely many unnatural ways for things to be beautiful"

Whatever do you mean?

(I would like an example).

I agree, Plato is fun to read.

best regards, and it's a pleasure (as always)

Gawain said...

BTW, yes, the view is phenomenologically inspired, as is all the work in experimental psychology I name in my last post. The idea is that if some internal states "feel" the same way, then they will perhaps be processed by the same widget in the brain. CAT scans make looking for these things a piece of cake.

Gawain said...

PPS I agree it isnt much of a structured debate -- its more like a TV talk show called "Plato love him or hate him?" -- but it has been great fun, hasn't it? and rumbling conversations like this are more likely to throw up new ideas -- and perhaps make better friends, too.

Conrad H. Roth said...

ALT: glad you're enjoying the free-for-all. Funny we should be talking about definitions, because the Hippias Major raises a key point (though it is not resolved very well, IMHO) about definitions.

The point is this: if to kalon [the fine] is the same as the pleasant, how can we square the fact that things are pleasant by hearing, and pleasant by sight? (These stand for the rest of the senses.) How can a Leonardo and a Mozart concerto both be called 'pleasant'--what do they have in common? Socrates, through and through a monist, is convinced that there must be something in common, standing 'behind' the heard and the seen, making them both pleasurable. Nonetheless, the possibility of disjunctive (we might say 'Wittgensteinian) definitions is raised here for the first time: another Platonic contribution.

ALT's suspicion that things transcend definition is fundamentally un-Platonic, in the sense that Plato (and everyone else until fairly recently) believed that language was subject and subordinate to reason, or the structure of the universe. It was only with thinkers like Hamann (and then Humboldt, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the rest) that language came to be seen as coming first, or being metaphysically more primary--hence a number of 'philosophies of language'. That leads to your view, that concepts aren't formulable in language, that 'language beats reason', or to put it another way, that usage beats definition. It is really a Romantic viewpoint.

Gawain: firstly, S's solution isn't (in this case) the beautiful is the suitable--he explicitly denies this, as what is suitable changes, but what is beautiful does not. The dialogue is ultimately aporetic.

Also: "if some internal states "feel" the same way"... isn't this the ultimate victim of a falsifiability criterion? How could anyone ever know if two states "feel" the same way?--it is exactly these phenomenological conditions which *can't* be tested, surely!

Gawain said...


how can two states feel the same? a good question: i suppose we know only vaguely (at best) how we feel at best of times. knowing that we feel on Tue the same way as we do on Wed is at best a conjecture. talk about need for being vague.

is there something that stands behind beauty of a painting and beauty of music? yes, i think there is: a brain widget which produces the emotional "flag" (if you are willing to accept programming language).

does it mean that there is such a thing as "beauty"?

gosh, i dunno. but my guess is -- not any more than "love".

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I have a confession to make - I read Hippias Major around 8 years ago, and as it was about the third piece of philosophy I had ever read, I had no appreciation of the issues involved. I intend to reread it this weekend.

Gawain, the way I would square my views on definitions would be by saying that I think definitions are important, but they are not always the end.

And setting out what we think aptly describes some concept is surely a part of attempting to conduct an investigation of it, isn't it?

As Conrad points out, this is a distinctly unplatonic view, but I don't fault Plato for not having that kind of mindset - as he mentions, my view is distinctly in the "language is public" view of Hamann, Herder et al.!

Again, my favourite living philosopher, Ian Hacking, has a wonderful book about how early modern philosophy thought about language called "Why does language matter to philosophy?", and which greatly informs the historical context of my own thoughts.

As for my assertion that there may be "unnatural" kinds of beauty, I meant this strictly in terms of my seeing your thoughts as "naturalizing" concepts like beauty.

I think that many of the things we find beautiful will have no widget to speak of in the brain, and that the only path to discovering where they came from, why we think they're beautiful, is by checking into the history of that particular feeling within the confines of a culture and its history. This isn't to dismiss your thoughts, merely that I believe they'll have a necessary upper bound.

Conrad, I should clarify something. I don't think usage always beats definition, rather they occupy slightly different roles in philosophical practice.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but they have a kind of dialectical relationship in all this, don't they? I think we need them both, but that in the end, a new use can and will trump an established definition. I think a lot of this has to do with the relation of certain words to the notion of second-order terms in formal logic into this, but I'm just not far enough into that to say much.

I think the think Gawain has in his favour with respect to his widget theory is that we may have public ways of checking these brain states now, via MRIs and similar technologies.

That being said, and here we go onto something else, is whether or not each mind represents those brain states in qualitatively identical way.

And this has me thinking about something else, but I think I'll save it for a post, because as Conrad noted at his blog, my posts are infrequent!

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but they have a kind of dialectical relationship in all this, don't they?"

Absolutely. The relation (ontologically and historically) between usage and definition (or between conventional and creative language) is one of the greatest problems of language; I'll probably end up writing my PhD on it.

"That being said, and here we go onto something else, is whether or not each mind represents those brain states in qualitatively identical way."

Well this is the key problem. The brain is just a lump of matter, there's nothing to stop us knowing everything about brain functions using MRIs etc. But I can't see that we'll ever be one step closer to an understanding of 'qualia' or phenomenological states, either in one individual or between different people. To take an obvious example, there's know way of ever knowing, let alone proving beyond Pyrronic doubt, whether you and I see the colour red in the same way, or feel anger in the same way. All we know is what is external, either in language or neurons firing.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I read Hippias Major around 8 years ago, and as it was about the third piece of philosophy I had ever read,"

Hmm, that's an odd, obscure choice for number 3. What provoked you to read it?

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Conrad, it's funny, because I was kicking myself over saying that definition and usage are "dialectically" related! I meant something a bit more precise, that the concepts are somewhat symbiotic. I think that what led to the “demise” of ordinary language philosophy (aside from Gellner’s polemic) was that its methods often resulted in checking the various uses of a word to come up with a more comprehensive definition!

Doing a PhD on something like that sounds right up my alley - I think Wittgenstein traces some potential paths of inquiry around this kind of question in On Certainty.

As for Hippias Major, it was a simple case of picking up a well-worn Penguin Classics edition of the Early Socratic Dialogues that led me to read it very early on! Not much of a story I’m afraid!

Gawain said...

"I think that many of the things we find beautiful will have no widget to speak of in the brain, and that the only path to discovering where they came from, why we think they're beautiful, is by checking into the history of that particular feeling within the confines of a culture and its history. This isn't to dismiss your thoughts, merely that I believe they'll have a necessary upper bound."

Let me clarify:
A widget is what produces the experience (amygdala produces fear). this is what i see as the biological basis of the experience. the experience can be triggered by hard wired mechanisms -- or perhaps by some goings on in the frontal lobe which some people may call "cultural". but what is "cultural" is not the way we feel, but ways of triggering the response. (it is not clear that the history of culture affects the structure of the widget -- at best the history of the individual, and even then -- how?)

anyway, i am about to make apost about that this week.

br to all

Sir G

Gawain said...

PS Both your remarks about the brain/mind relationship shows woeful lack of grounding in recent work in this matter. :) The science has advanced considerably since the days when YOUR professors took a cursory look at it. (No offense intended, just goading you in what I hope you see as a friendly manner).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gentleman, it seems to me that this debate is happening at crossed porpoises. It is the notion of 'cause' which led to so much complication in Aristotle about the subject. Consider, for instance, a possible third party:

"It's no use talking about historical reasons for a certain response to beauty or aesthetic viewpoint, nor any use making reference to amygdalae or other biological functions, because really all we're talking about is a bunch of photons, electrons and quarks. One day we'll have a complete understanding of subatomic physics, thanks to the experiments at CERN etc., and we'll have no need of discussing such outmoded ideas as 'widgets' or 'frontal lobes', or even 'brains' at all."

The point is that it is of course possible to discuss causes on different levels. Certain types of explanation suit different levels; if I want to understand the representation of marriage in Dutch painting, then talking about brain functions isn't as much help as doing a cultural analysis, even if every fact relating to the subject can be described in neurological terms. Just as if you're asked, why are you in pain, a bad response is "because my C-fibres are firing", and a good response is "because I fell off my bike".

Instinctively to me, no amount of biology is going to answer all the possible questions about beauty in a satisfying way.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Yes, I think we're getting to the nitty gritty here.

We all appear, at various stages, to talk about beauty as though it's the property of an object.

However, and correct me please if I am wrong, but Gawain believes that rather than the object beingbeautiful, the object sets off some kind of beauty "organ" in the brain, which produces the feeling of beauty in people.

Conrad, I think you're absolutely right in your last comment that we talk about things at various "levels", and that those levels don't often cleanly reduce down to a single level.

However, if I'm not mistaken, Gawain just wants to shift talk away from trying to define beauty and over to the experience of beauty. This shift would be supported by the biological side of things, but all talk about beauty wouldn't be reduced to talk of brain functions.

Gawain, does this seem to be a fair, if concise, summary of your views?