Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Aesthetics, Part One: Plato

Some may not know what the word: Aesthetics means, but you should! This word is something that describes some property that is fundamental to us being who we are, human. The admiration of beauty and or being concerned with beauty is what Aesthetics means. Being able to admire the beautiful, the sublime, the mundane -the aesthetic, has been considered a way to admire life and the parts of it that contribute wholly to our existence (this was especially propounded by Nietzsche). Usually, the term/word: Aesthetics has been used to describe the beauty or "aesthetic value" of art. Art and aesthetics have been intricately involved long before the term was coined. Many feel that art is a way for use to escape from pains or appreciate something beside us like -life. Nevertheless, even if you may agree with the previous, there is a strong argument made by one of the most well-know philosophers in history  -Plato.
I would like to take a moment and outline the basic view of Plato's argument, and then provide some thoughts concerning his position. 
To proceed let us quickly pass though some of the general ideas of Plato
1. There exists a more complete and "perfect" realm beside the actual experienced world that is filled with certain entities called: Forms. These "Forms" are eternal and changeless. 
- Forms can be understood as some absolute "idea"
- Plato sometimes describes "Forms" as Hypothesis
2.  Forms are paradigmatic for the physical objects, which are represented by shadows and reflections of the Forms.
- The physical realm (the actual realm) is always changing. The Forms do not.
- The Forms can be understood more adequately by the faculties of soul.
- The faculties consist of reason and understanding.
Now concerning the soul, we must make a distinction (as per this is a large part of his aesthetic theory). The soul consists of three parts.
1. Reason (Highest faculty/part; these people are the rulers Guardians) 
2. Spirited (Passions/thymus; the people of 2, are the guardians/warriors)
3. Appetitive (Desires,appetites, etc... For most people 3 is the strongest and for those people they are suited for being the merchants)
Any state that is ruled by the Merchants or guardians (small 'g') is an unjust state. Moreover, 
A well-constituted person should have reason at the head and thus should be able to keep passions in check. Ok, we have considered and reviewed some basic views concerning Plato's metaphysics, but what does this have to do with beauty and art? In Plato's book The Republic, he is trying to evaluate the question:  What role do the lyric poets have in the ideal state? Plato concludes that they must be banished. Why should they be banished, you ask? Plato feels that poetry removes us from the forms.
 The first account that we find that deals with this argument is that art (poetry) is a mere representation of the forms, and thus causes us to be trice removed from reality. If you think about the constitution of the state we don't look toward the artist for knowledge of true things, of reality; we can further evaluate this claim by noting that since God made the forms, and the craftsman creates the physical objects (physical artifacts). So, humans create some "copy" of the some form when they produce some object. The craftsman must be closer to an understanding of some form than an artist is, for an artist is only able to copy the image or portray a reflection of a form. So, suppose that some craftsmen makes a bed, the bed would then be a instantiation or representation of the form 'bed.' However, the problem, then, is that art -such as painting-  is a mere representation of some physical object, and in this case a painting would be merely a mere representation of the artifact or bed that was made by the craftsmen. Since there is the first instantiation or representation of the form 'bed,' and there is the second instantiation, the art/painting of the first representation of the bed and thus we go from (1) the from bed (2) the physical objectification of bed, and  (3) the painting. This retraction is bad because the forms are truth and thus your are removed from the truth by art. For example: the art of painting is to capture what things appear to be and not as they really are, so Plato ends up cashing art out as shadow's and illusions. 
An additional problem with the argument that art is illusion is that since  art is a copy of a copy art appeals to an inferior part of the soul and can be at best entertainment and at worst mere delusion; the part of the soul that Plato would most likely feel this is being applied to is probably the passions/pleasure part. What I see being a problem for Plato's argument is that some paintings like those of Pollock do not represent any particular object, so how would Plato deal with such art?
The Second [art is powerful and stirs-up emotion] argument that is made in favor of Plato's conception that poetry and such should be cast out of the state. (Against the Poet) Artist stir-up the emotions and make it harder for reason to control the lower faculties of the soul/keep things in line (reason). 
The Third Argument is similar to the second: art work can arouse our sympathetic emotions. the idea here is that this goes against how we want to act, in our own real-life case. So, in other words, you watch something tragic and you weep and wail, but when you face your own tragedy you want to have some control of the passions -you don't want to loose your mastery (Stoic mastery) of the passions of the soul. In the Republic Plato states,
"But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest account in our accusation:-the power that poetry has in harming even the good, is surely an awful thing?"
"Yes certainly, if the effect is what you say"
"Hear and judge: the best of us, as I conceive , when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling our his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast -the best of us, you know        delight in giving away to sympathy and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most." 
"Yes of course, I know"
" But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on thee opposite quality-we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us is the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman"
What are some of the objections that can be made to Plato beside the objection already mentioned in the first argument. 
1) Emotional Reasoning
- There is a strongly  supported claim that reason and emotion are closely tied together. Consider, so called practical reason. Kant talks about practical reason (i.e. ethics).  
In the spirit of Hume: -emotion is closely wed to moral reason, so we don't want to abstract reason from emotion, but rather train the emotion to work in conjunction with reason. Additionally, some moral psychologist feel the imaginative moral element is important in being able to understand the function of ethics; empathic development might be a certain function of art, and art might be able to stretch our capacities so as to make us understand more in depth how we can reason morally. Also, if art has an instrumental value it could help push us towards moral understanding... If we adopt this objection, this seems to really crush his view because instead of art being bad due to its adverse effects on our morality, it is actually better for our morality (but this seems to be mainly for [1] and [2]). How could we argue more solidly for (2)? Even if the arts do lead us from truth, is it an either or statement here; why can one not do both? I personally feel that there is not much of a difference for physical artifacts and art. It could be the case that art might actually make a better representation of some form than some object. So, suppose that I make a bed and that bed looks more like a stone, and suppose further that I paint some image of a bed (a bed that I never saw), and that bed that I have painted is more precise than the created bed (like an instruction picture).  

However, Plato seems to have a good point in a sense. There are certain works that might sociologically or psychologically alter or affect someone to do some incorrect behavior; like morbid accept, moral insensibility, rationalization of bad behavior, even illegal and evil acts.  
That is Plato in a nutshell, and next I will examine the view of Schopenhauer. 


Here are a few great links to web pages that discuss this very idea. 


  1. Your Sibley stuff seems good; let me state a few things. First, you list blue as both an aesthetic and non-aesthetic property, which you shouldn't do. Secondly, the supervenience stuff is relevant to Sibley, as follows. If A properties supervene on B properties, then all things identical with respect to B properties are identical with respect to A properties. Now, to say that knowing what B properties a thing has isn't sufficient to know what A properties it has means that the WAYS B properties are related must also be included in the set of B properties, and of course to know how they are related requires that we actually observe the object.

  2. You say that Plato sometimes treats Forms as hypotheses. This isn't right. Hypotheses are means by which we can know the Forms.

    Sorry I don't have time to comment on the rest of these, as I've been teaching all day and am now headed out. What I've seen, though, suggests that you'll do just fine.