Seeing as though I’ve just decided to get back into blogging I figured I would set an optimistic tone for Ne Quiz Nimis with a nice, non-controversial somewhat introspective post (beware, many to come will probably be far more vitriolic than this)

At this point in my education I’ve known many artists; they’ve been my girlfriends, best friends, family members, fellow students and borne just about every other relationship to me that you could possibly imagine. Several years ago one of my best friends who is an artist put it best when he said to me (after we had downed several beers I might add) “you know I think we get along well because artists and philosophers…we just get each other you know? We just see the world in similar ways.” I’ve never forgotten this comment of his and have reflected on it often. On the one hand it has struck me as something of an overstatement; in my experience many of my artistic friends have come from a background that promotes what I will callously and carelessly label shameless liberalism. Please don’t take this label too seriously-it’s meant as something of a joke. What I mean is that in my experience  many artists I’ve known are often the purveyors of some extreme postmodern viewpoints that I dislike rather strongly, i.e. radical subjectivism, relativism, constructionism, nihilism etc. Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with any of these views in my opinion, except that I think an ironic historic consequence of their prevalence has been their institutionalization as a new orthodoxy. I find this ironic insofar as the original purveyors of these views were often reacting against the institutions of another era- ‘traditional (i.e. Religious) morality,’ ‘conservatism,’ ‘the Protestant work ethic’ etc and encouraging the youngsters of a past generation to “open their minds” and “think critically,” and consider that perhaps past widespread viewpoints that just seemed like common sense were not so invulnerable to criticism as they first appeared. However in today’s day and age, at least in my experience, these new views have become the new orthodoxy, such that I’m often greeted with perplexed looks when I explain my skepticism of views such as relativism or subjectivism. As far as these views go, in my experience, it seems that the revolution has become the establishment, the former rebels have become “the Man.”

But more recently I have come to have a far greater appreciation for art (and for artists and artistic vision) than I once had. Perhaps this is a consequence of getting older and gaining some perspective; after seeing my art major friends pull all-nighter after all-nighter in order to finish a project or make a piece absolutely perfect, I have come to see the extreme attention to detail and completeness that is present in the general demeanor of most artists. This attention to completeness is, in my opinion, an area in which contemporary philosophers ought to learn the most from our colleagues in fine art departments. In today’s era philosophy has become utterly fractured into so many different subdivisions that at times it seems to me they have almost nothing in common. Philosophy of psychology, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of chemistry- these newer areas have, at least in the analytic tradition, raised important questions, most importantly questions about how they are all to relate to one another. Common sense seems to say that psychology is ultimately reducible to neurobiology, which ought to ultimately be reducible to biology proper, which ought to be ultimately reducible to chemistry, which ought to be reducible to physics QED. And yet this common sense perspective does not seem to be panning out; the concepts at the level of psychology simply do not reduce smoothly to those of neurobiology, and the considerations of biology do not seem sufficently addressed by those of chemistry, which may not even be fully accounted for by the concepts of physics. While this may not necessarily entail an ontological distinction between respective fields (though I’m inclined to think it does,) it certainly seems to me that there is a problem here- simply put, the problem of completeness. How do we turn a vast array of scientific fields and their philosophical concerns into an overall, coherent worldview? Stated another way, how do we turn a vast series of details and shapes into a single, complete picture?

This attention to completeness is, in my opinion, what is most conspicuously lacking in contemporary analytic philosophy. It seems to me that different sub-fields are only growing farther and farther apart, with few attempts being made to unite them. I just completed a philosophy of psychology class this past semester, and towards the end I began to wonder what Socrates, Plato or Aristotle would have said if they could see modern American and British philosophy and the sort of highly specialized topics (such as psychology) upon which it so often focuses. On the one hand I think they would be thrilled; particularly Aristotle, who originated many of the categories of biology that are still used today, would probably be pleased to see the vast degree of scientific progress that has been made since his day. But speaking from the standpoint of philosophy, towards what end are all of these developments growing? A professor of mine once wryly remarked that the one question that philosophers seem incapable of answering is what the hell their subject is actually about; to me it seems that philosophy is, at heart, a rational attempt to create a systematic worldview. We have all inherited worldviews from our parents, from our upbringing, from our culture and our religion and our education. Philosophy is, in my opinion, the humble attempt to unite these divergent perspectives into a single worldview that answers those three pivotal philosophical questions; “what am I, what do I know and what should I do?”

But there is another, related part of artistic vision that I believe is sadly lacking in contemporary philosophy that is very important, and that is passion. In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, when Aristotle critiques and improves upon Platonic Realism, he writes

“some may find this [that is, his critique of Platonic Realism] cruel, those who introduced the Forms were friends of ours. Still it seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve truth. And we must especially do this when we are Philosophers, lovers of wisdom, for though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to love the truth first.”

This is one of my favorite philosophical quotes ever (you may have noticed it’s my one-liner under the blog title) and I think it clearly displays a certain amount of passion for the field- the same way that Socrates is reputed to have said “we must follow the argument wherever it leads,” Aristotle implies that the pursuit of philosophy includes a passion for understanding the truth, even if it’s difficult, even if it isn’t what we always want to do. It seems to me (and this is only my own intuition) that us sophisticated modernists have lost some of this idealistic drive- you’d be hard pressed, in my opinion, to find a quote such as this in  masterpieces of contemporary analytic philosophy such as Fodor’s “Language of Thought” or Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity.” And though the continental tradition has preserved some of this more artistic drive, many of us analytic theorists dismiss such perceived literary sentimentalism as unparsimonious at best, and sophistical at worst. But to me I think there’s another important lesson to be learned here- why are we doing this, exactly? Many of my friends who have taken philosophy classes and hated them often ultimately traced their dislike of the subject to that question; who cares? Why is it important? What does it matter? Even at the beginning of the 20th century when Russell and Moore were laying the groundwork for Ordinary Language philosophy I think that far more passion was involved in the field, because the big picture was kept in mind. Without bearing that big picture in mind, I suppose the passion underlying philosophical work, passion originating not from practical considerations but from the more noble human drive to seek understanding, begins to fade.

There is no doubt that art often raises deep philosophical questions, some of the more boring sort (which fascinate nerds like me) such as “what is the ontological difference between an assortment of colors vs. an  image” or “what is the nature of ‘representation’ when considered in an artistic, rather than a mental context” but many of the far more poignant, human sort. What is ‘expression,’ and what differentiates artistic impression (which clearly requires a great degree of skill) from other modes of expression? I recall visiting Spain several years ago and seeing Picasso’s famous (and massive) Guernica, which captured the horror and tragedy of war far better than my sociological analysis of the Spanish Civil War for a Social Revolutions class several years later ever could. Why is it that such a qualitative experience can evoke such an impression, one that seems so much closer to the real experience, than even the most detailed and systematic description?

To conclude, it seems to me that ultimately what my friend said was right; perhaps aritsts and philosophers “get” each other because in many cases we address the same sorts of questions, though from very different perspectives. To the degree that I once thought this was not the case, I now think that maybe this betrays a lack of key values that philosophers traditionally held- the drive for passion, for completeness etc. Values that perhaps we have neglected in recent decades but ought to bear in mind more in the future. I suppose what I’d like to see now for the future of philosophy is more of an endorsement of what seem to me to be these “artistic” values; passion for our field, the drive to unite the details that we pay so much attention to into a more universal picture. In these areas it seems to me that we philosophers have much to learn.