What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you.
(Saint Paul to the Athenians)
I present below a compilation of three papers of philosophy I defended for my master’s degree before a panel of doctors of philosophy. I present them now for this reason, that I, and indeed my family, have been charged with intellectual incompetence and an incapacity of educating my own flesh and blood.
I am speaking, of course, of the latest tirade against this man and his family by BetrayedCatholics author Teresa Benns. She recently wrote:
“Those educated in secular colleges or universities will have the greatest obstacles to overcome in successfully operating a home school. For unless they do their best to deprogram themselves successfully from the indoctrination they received, much of which is so deeply lodged in the intellect it escapes identification and correction, they will not be able to competently instruct their own children. Understanding the deviant nature of such indoctrination and how to combat it is key to ridding themselves of its effects.”
Now, maybe she goes on to justify this asinine presumption of another’s character and intellectual formation and piety, but, I confess I ceased reading further for risk of a brain aneurism brought on by the blindingly stupid things I was sure to read had I proceeded further.
I say I am presenting my work toward my master’s in philosophy, so as to give you, reader, critic and judge, a chance to see whether this man stood in need of any “deprograming” from the indoctrination he received while at university, whether any error of the modernist was so lodged in his brain as to escape detection, or, rather, whether the modernists were well within hand and held at an arm’s breadth from his brain and heart.
One word more before presenting the papers: I say this with moving emotions in my soul, that I was not allowed to proceed to the doctorate level of my philosophical studies precisely because I was too Catholic for the institution, and they knew it, because I let them know it in my work and in the classroom and in private discussion every single day. Everyone knew what I believed, and I was persecuted for it, and I was prevented from pursuing a doctorate, notwithstanding my near 4.0 at the graduate level. I say this because now it seems I must suffer again for my work at school, not at the hands of infidels, but from the keyboard of one who only sees evil everywhere, even in her fellow coreligionists.
For those who have been swayed by Teresa Benns’s smear campaign, I offer these papers in defense of my sound Catholic intellect. For those interested to know the academic level at which we homeschool our dear children, and the rigor with which we form their little minds to reflect the glory of the Almighty, you may visit my wife’s website to get a glimpse.
The following is not easy or leisurely reading, but dense philosophical text. Nevertheless, you will mark the light prosaic style that you have been accustomed to in articles at the CE LOG to freshen and encourage your reading. If you have any questions about the texts, I would love to hear them in the comments section.
One last word (promise). I hold no hate in my heart for Teresa Benns. I think I have said that now like seventeen times, but it bears repeating. I think the poor old woman feeds off of controversy. I wish she would go over to OnePeterFive or the Remnant, where she can have a feast of non-Catholic controversial victuals to live on for a long while. She need not cannibalize a fellow Catholic.
I just read a comment posted on the article of BetrayedCatholics linked to above in which Teresa Benns disparages the liberal arts. She writes:
“These teachers are imparting useful information, and as long as it is not mixed in with the liberal arts garbage, this is fine.”
This is probably the most ignorant thing I have ever heard uttered on the subject of education. If you desire to know Catholic thought in the liberal arts, read this article. If you want to be infected by bone-deep ignorance, continue to read Benns.
THREE PAPERS OF PHILOSOPHY
B.A. The Catholic University of America, 2015
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for the
Master of Arts Degree
Department of Philosophy in the Graduate School
APPROVAL OF THREE PAPERS OF PHILOSOPHY
Three Papers Submitted in Partial
Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of
Master of Arts in the field of Philosophy
(Kenneth William Stikkers), Chair
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
AN ABSTRACT OF THREE PAPERS OF PHILOSOPHY
By Robert Robbins, the Master of Arts degree in Philosophy
at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
TITLE: THREE PAPERS OF PHILOSOPHY
MAJOR PROFESSOR: Dr. Andrew Youpa
In “A Critical Review of Ressentiment: Why Max Scheler’s Account of Moral Transvaluation is Incomplete and Why It Must Remain So,” I present Scheler’s account of moral transvaluation, and demonstrate how such an account misses the causal mark of moral degradation to begin with, which, I argue is a matter of sin––a term conspicuously absent from Scheler’s work.
In “Nietzsche: Philosopher?” I sample some passages of the putative philosopher of popular opinion, with the aim to disclose the fact that Nietzsche does not concern himself with what has traditionally been considered philosophical issues, such as practical wisdom, ethics, aesthetics, theology; and so I conclude that he really cannot be considered a philosopher as such.
In “A Commentary on the First Three Chapters of Art as Experience and on the False Dichotomy between Perception and Recognition Found Therein,” I develop an expositional commentary on John Dewey’s work on aesthetics, and then draw attention to the inadequate and contradictory description Dewey has of perception and recognition.
Cordi Immaculato Mariae
If I were to put into a single word what these three papers of philosophy have in common, it would be heresy. Scheler, Nietzsche, and Dewey are all heretics in their own way, though that is not exactly what I mean by saying each of them have heresy in common. Heresy is but the cause of their philosophical failure, overt in the case of Nietzsche, less pronounced in Scheler, and very subtle indeed in the case of Dewey. I contend that there is a right way to look at reality, and consequently a wrong way. Scheler, Nietzsche and Dewey each look at reality ultimately in the wrong way, some more egregiously erroneous than others. I believe I have shown how this is so with each of them.
I apologize up front if my papers of philosophy come across as dogmatic––the natural and reasonable consequence of one who actually believes in dogma. But we, all of us, have dogmas, whether we believe them or not, indeed whether we know of them or not. I both know of and believe in the dogma of Christianity. As such, I am bound by conscience and intellectual honesty to argue against and oppose any inimical ideology to that dogma. I do not know if Scheler was conscious of his humanist dogma––the one which believes man is sufficient unto himself, and can through his own effort redeem and save himself. I am almost certain Nietzsche was painfully aware of his own absurd anti-Christian dogmas, however feebly and flimsily expressed and defended, or understood. Though Dewey’s religion was self-evidently man-worship, which he was aware of, he seemed to be unaware of the dogma and heresy expressed in his Art as Experience book, which is more relevant to our paper’s purpose, that of anti-intellectualism, or a distrust of and disdain for the intellect.
Lest it be concluded that what follows is merely the vehement defense of a religious zealot, I wish to remind the reader of the title: Three Papers of Philosophy. I have intentionally confined myself to conclusions that have been demonstrated from freely accepted premises, and not those needing an assent of faith. Thus, though the beginning of the theses of the papers may have been Christian piety to a strongly held dogma, the work and end result was philosophical through and through. Just as the heretics began in heresy and ended in philosophical falsehood, so I begin in orthodoxy and end in philosophical truth.
Robert RobbinsTABLE OF CONTENTS
I — A Critical Review of Ressentiment: Why Max Scheler’s Account of Moral Transvaluation is Incomplete and Why It Must Remain So 1
II — Nietzsche: Philosopher? 18
III — A Commentary on the First Three Chapters of Art as Experience and on the False Dichotomy between Perception and Recognition Found Therein 28
A CRITICAL REVIEW OF RESSENTIMENT
Why Max Scheler’s Account of Moral Transvaluation is Incomplete and Why It Must Remain So
I wanted to name this essay, On the Unaccountable Conduct of Hobbits and Other Such Mystical Creatures, but then I ran up against the obvious difficulty of explaining the expansive ontological terrain of that fictitious world, Middle-Earth, with its strange and staggering cosmology, history, philosophy, and perplexing social structures of hobbits, ents, wizards, dwarves, men, elves, dark lords and orcs, while at the same time representing my views and those of Max Scheler and keeping with the expectations of an academic paper in philosophy. Though I have since abandoned the hope of so noble a title, and of introducing even nobler creatures to my reader, nevertheless I do not think it a very great impropriety to at least begin with what inspired the thesis of the essay by describing my state of mind, and the contents of my thoughts, when first I began critically to think about Max Scheler’s Ressentiment.
I was thinking how very odd Hobbits are for Scheler. Hobbits are, in the world of Middle-Earth, handicapped by nature, being about the height of a three-year-old child. Their means are, as a rule, rural, mainly sustaining their humble existence by agriculture and manual trades, not unlike medieval European peasants. There is neither a warrior nor scholar of serious worth counted among them. They are simple folk of the shire: beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, comfort-food eating bumpkins, really. And yet, through a series of adventures, a band of these bumpkins set out on a quest to destroy a ring of power in a volcano, thwart a wizard’s war-machine, and slay a Ring Wraith Witch-King, and, after having saved Middle-earth from the oppressive slavery of a Dark Lord, are paid homage to by kings of men, elves, and dwarves.
According to Scheler, this, though not ruled out entirely in theory––after all, because Scheler’s theory only touches on human nature––nevertheless presents some difficulties which must be addressed. Beginning with the social status and stature of Hobbits: By all accounts, Hobbits should be riven with ressentiment. They are not called “halflings” for nothing. Scheler says that dwarves (in this world, not Middle-Earth) are naturally disposed to ressentiment, on account of their visible handicap. Why not Hobbits? Also their social standing: Hobbits do not posses the elegant quality of the elves, nor their enchanting wisdom. Nor the physical power of either man or dwarf (it is complicated, but dwarves in Middle-Earth, though short, are actually very fast and strong). And how could Hobbits possibly compare with wizards, who have all these qualities and more? There is clear inequality among persons in Middle-Earth, and Hobbits, by all accounts, would seem to be the least endowed, and the most prone to envy, malice, hatred, and spite, given their inferior qualities––only they’re not. The essay which you are about to read may suggest why this might be, especially if we keep in mind that J.R.R Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and his epic fairytale a Christian allegory through and through: The Meek shall inherit the earth.
THE PHENOMENON OF Ressentiment
“Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature,” (Scheler, 25). There is a conspicuous claim made within the brevity of this descriptive definition of ressentiment, which I will have space and time to deal with in the second part of this essay. Let me just mention it here, because it is important to realize Scheler is working within a philosophical anthropology, a modernist paradigm, which rejects, at least conceptually and methodologically, the supernatural origin and high destiny of man. True, Scheler is also writing out of a Christian intellectual tradition, and has many sympathetic things to say for Christianity, but his beginning and end points are quasi-modernist humanism in depth and scope. As evidence for this claim, no saint would say revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite were normal emotions or affects of human nature, but wicked and rotten fruits of a plant planted in the garden of human nature by Satan. Holiness is normal. Sin is abnormal. So, keeping this in mind, let us proceed to understand what ressentiment is.
Ressentiment takes hold of a man when he has strong feelings of revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, or spite, but at the same time is unable to act upon these emotions, because he is self-consciously too weak, either in character, body or mind, (Scheler 27). Scheler notes that it is a sociological law that ressentiment will increase with the increase in “discrepancy between political, constitutional, or traditional status of a group and its factual power,” (Scheler, 28). And in our American society where there exists a formal equality among persons but a material inequality in wealth, prestige, education, cultural sophistication, health, physical beauty, among so many other factors, our society is ripe with ressentiment.
But these discrepancies only become apparent through comparison, which the ressentiment man is rather fond of doing. If he be weak, the man who compares himself to others and others to himself becomes a man of ressentiment. If he be strong, he is an arriviste. This free-for-all comparison tendency, whereby men, no matter their station or actual place in society, feel free to compare themselves with any one else, no matter their station, is caused by free competition, in other words, the free market capitalistic enterprise system, (Scheler, 32). Scheler says it wasn’t always the case. Yes, the peasant compared himself with other more successful peasants, the knight with other knights, the artisan with other artisans, etc., but the peasant never compared himself with the Lord of the Manor. Everyone had their place, and was either placed there by nature or by God. (Scheler, 33).
Scheler gives some examples of men of ressentiment, beginning with women in general. Woman are the weaker sex, and therefore more vindictive. They must compete for man’s favor. They are reactive and passive by nature and by custom in love. And when rejected, women repress their hurt feelings through pride and modesty, (Scheler, 36-37). Compare this tendency of the woman of ressentiment, in particular with her having to compete for man’s favor, with woman prior to the women’s suffrage, workplace rights, and industrialization of femininity and the rise of feminism in general, that is, when women were called upon by competing suitors, and the imposition of custom Scheler speaks of takes on a whole new spin. Women then only had to be themselves, that is, womanly, and men would literally draw swords in order to have an intimate word with her in the garden. Now women compete for men. The unmoved mover has been removed, like the Earth herself, and is now hurling through the heavens like a comet on fire with resentment for her dislodged place among the heavens, hearth and home. But more on that in the second part. Old age as compared with youth is another source of ressentiment. When the youth no longer look to the old for guidance and wisdom, because information is more accessible now than in bygone eras, the old are replaced by an iPad, and naturally resent it, (Scheler, 38). The mother-in-law is another ressentiment figure. By comparing herself to her son’s wife, she is to be affectionate and respectful of the woman who stole her son’s affections after having done nothing to merit them. The priest is also one such figure, who at once must suppress baser emotions as revenge, wrath, hatred, all the while presenting himself as peaceful and tranquil of heart, (Scheler, 40). Scheler gives other examples of ressentiment types, but the brief catalog given should be enough to get an idea of the kind of phenomenon we are talking about.
Comparison is but one component of this phenomenon; the woman compares herself to the man; the old to the young, the priest to an idealized self. Repression is another important component in understanding ressentiment. If left unchecked by a moral corrective attitude, a repressed negative feeling toward a definite object, e.g., the boss who just thumbed his nose at me by way of an office memorandum indicting me for leaving outdated milk in the break-room refrigerator, may become detached from its original object, either partially or altogether, and take on a life of its own, (Scheler, 44). Things or persons which only have a loose relevance to the original object now become the object of negativity. Refrigerators, milk, computer paper all become colored by the originary offense.
Thus far we have discussed the formal requirements of ressentiment, that it involves negative emotions in persons who, through comparing themselves to others, are not able to act on these negative emotions, and so repress them, whereby a detached devaluation of related or unrelated objects takes place. It is to this devaluation as a part of ressentiment that must be discussed, in order to understand the movement of the phenomenon.
MORAL VALUE JUDGMENT
First things first, Scheler clearly states that authentic moral order and genuine moral value judgements are eternal and above human involvement. True, man discovers moral truths in time, and so these are historical, but the truths themselves are eternal, (Scheler, 45). It is a psychological law, Scheler says, that we overcome the discrepancy between desire and impotency by depreciating or denying that the object of our desire has a positive value. This is not ressentiment, at least not yet. It is the old tale of Aesop in the Fox and the Sour Grapes. The fox in vain tries to jump up to get the grapes, but, after a line of failed attempts, finally he stomps off, assuring himself the grapes were probably sour anyway. This is a step along the way to the full achievement of ressentiment, the inversion of moral values. As yet, the moral values remain in tact. The existence of the negative value ‘sour’ implies a positive value ‘sweet’. And the fox himself is still normal, insofar as he desires sweet grapes, and so doesn’t want these supposed sour ones. This is, what Scheler calls, a falsification of a world view, (Scheler, 48).
The final stage of ressentiment is the perversion of the positive values themselves, such that what would have been deemed negative values, such as poverty, suffering, illness, and death, become positive values, and their counterparts, wealth, health, and fullness of life, become negative. Through his weakness, fear, anxiety and slavish character, the ressentiment man cannot even perceive these positive values as such. Through this transvaluation, the ressentiment man is liberated from the oppressive fact of his impotency and inferiority, and becomes, in his own deluded eyes, good, pure, and human, (Scheler, 48-49). Nor is this value judgement a kind of lying, otherwise it wouldn’t be delusion. Rather, the value judgements themselves are based upon the transvaluation of morals, so that, to the man of ressentiment, they are entirely consistent. The values that he affirms, e.g., poverty, suffering, etc., are positive in themselves. And it is “on the road of experience into consciousness” that these impressions of value take place, not in the conscious thoughts of the man himself. This is important to note, because it underscores the authentic nature of the inverted values themselves, quite apart from any conscious effort to mask the truth through conscious self-deception. The man of ressentiment is an honest man.
Ressentiment leads to the perversion of value judgments, but this should not be confused with moral relativism. Scheler says that moral relativism does not constitute value relativism. That is, the moral relativist is still the moral absolutist; he just has a different preference system. Morality, Scheler tells us, is a system of preference for this or that value, and ressentiment has done its job when the whole system of preference is perverted, such that what was once called good is now called evil, and evil good. This is radically different than, say, pre-industrialized Englishmen calling cottage gardens and open green country good, and post-industrialized Englishmen calling factory chimneys and sooty streets good. Englishmen once preferred the value of the tranquil and soul-salutary countryside; now they prefer the hustle and bustle of enterprise and commerce. The rules of preference have changed, not the values themselves, (Scheler, 51-52). The perversion of value judgments is what Scheler means by the term transvaluation.
EXAMPLES OF TRANSVALUATION
The final stage of a fully mature and rancorous ressentiment is the perversion of value judgments themselves. Let us now look at some of these that Scheler develops in his last chapter in Ressentiment: 1. The Value of Things Self-Earned or Self-Acquired; 2. The Subjectivization of Values; and 3. The Elevation of the Value of Utility Above the Value of Life.
Beginning with the first, Scheler formulates the rule of preference for modern morality: moral value belongs only to those things and acts which has been acquired by an individual’s efforts alone, (Scheler, 97). There is no hereditary good or guilt, no callings to higher life, no gifts of grace, in short, all men are created equal. This value shift takes place through ressentiment, wherein a new attitude arises in the individual who compares himself to the individual endowed by grace (in a religious context) or nature, and suffers. In a pre-ressentiment attitude, any normal person, be he of superior or inferior disposition, would welcome the individual endowed with the greater nature or endowment of grace. He would see, if he attended to the value itself, that the individual so endowed would be of an advantageous starting place, and would attain to a higher degree of perfection, even granting an equality of effort. The mechanism of ressentiment sets in, then, when this reality becomes apparent, (Scheler, 98).
The result of this ressentiment mechanism is that work, or the effort one puts forth in developing qualities, becomes the moral value itself, quite apart and distinct from the moral qualities themselves. Thus, the moral axiom which arises from this transvaluation is that there is moral value in what everyone can do.
Scheler speculates that this ressentiment has as its source the envy of the laboring classes for those who inherited their lands and wealth, instead of working for it. And there is an analogous relation in the value of labor, where each is entitled, according to the theory, to an equal quantity of values to labor, quite apart from whether the products of labor are valuable in themselves, (Scheler, 100).
This kind of ressentiment attitude also has ramifications for society itself in the sphere of hereditary guilt and good. Just as man is neither good nor guilty on account of what he is but only on what he does, it follows from this that neither is he guilty or good on account of what others do. Man has no original sin through Adam and Eve, because he himself hasn’t committed any wrong; nor is he good on account of the Saints and Jesus Himself. This moral solidarity, where everyone shares in the guilt and good of everyone else, is opposed in principle to individualism, which is the cornerstone of modern morals. Where inequalities exist, as they do to an unfathomable degree, modern man chalks it up to be different quantities of work or experience, or, if that seems implausible, to innately unjust institutions, which he endeavors to destroy, (Scheler, 102).
Let us pause on this first transvaluation, and consider briefly its consequences. In a normal or noble mind, the individual who is superior by birth is seen, according to the framework of moral solidarity, as a star for the light of the world. His birth is a benediction and a boon to all, if the moral solidarity framework is kept in tact. He understands that his gifts of grace and nature are not only for his good, but the good of his fellows, among you, the greatest of all is to be the servant of all, (Matt. 23:11). As a consequence of this normal outlook and proper view of values, he is able to live out his vocation, or calling, to bring about the common good of the community. At once, destroy the very notion of born greatness, and the moral solidarity principle is destroyed as well. Everything the man is is because of his own efforts; and, as such, why should he share? His gifts are not gifts at all, but hard-earned and toiled for spoils of his own mediocre nature and character which has risen above his humble origins, and has surmounted his brethren through his indomitable will. Thus, not only is this first transvaluation of morals a distorted view, it follows that the view distorts, corrupts, and ultimately undoes civilization at its foundations, all in the name of supposed equality of men and moral value! The stakes are high, and it is not merely a fine philosophical distinction among the sources of modern morals, although it is that. It is a stark diagnosis of the plague affecting modern society, and it demands attention.
Another consequence of this transvaluation on a personal level is a false sense of personal guilt when one who, by nature or grace, is inferiorly endowed cannot perform up to the standards even of the moderately endowed. This poor individual is looked on by society as lazy, as a willfully inept leech on the system. According to this ressentiment view, if only the individual pulled himself up by the bootstraps, he would get on. But he doesn’t, and so he is lambasted for his natural mediocrity, and probable material poverty. We see this sorry figure in the homeless especially, where charges of alcoholism and mental illness are supposed to be the causes, if not laziness, but never because the vagrant is naturally inferior. And though society may feel somewhat responsible to these, in the event of a natural discrepancy––addiction or mental illness––it never arises to the same level of felt responsibility in a moral solidarity model, where society does not merely feel sorry for the individual but feels guilty for his plight. As a speculative aside, this may also explain the drastic rise in prison populations in the past hundred years where this morality shift has taken root in society. Perhaps because of the unbearable pressures to perform in society with this natural inferiority, persons end up in prison because they have lashed out against an unjust system. It is interesting and thought-provoking, but it does take this essay too far afield for a thorough philosophical inquiry. I only wish to draw attention to yet another possible and severe consequence of a morality shift which lays upon the backs of people the intolerable falsehood that men are created equal, when they are not.
The next example of transvaluation is the subjectivization of values, where all value is but the product of the subjective mind and has no independent existence apart from that mind, (Scheler, 102). Simply put, values are the products of desire; a thing is good because I desire it, not because it is good. The result of this transvaluation is either uncertainty or the substitution of an objectivity of value for majority rule. The transvaluation takes place through a ressentiment attitude when a man is faced with the reality of a hierarchy of objective value, and through his own natural inability to recognize these goods and attain to them, transvalues them as merely subjective phenomena. When at first the man began with wanting to will an objective good, but through repeated failure was unable to succeed, through his envy seeing others gain ground where he did not, ressentiment set in, and so subjectivity of value replaced objectivity, (Scheler, 103). The factual condition of his debased desire becomes the criterion by which the good is determined. And being weak, he must be consoled in his subjective view, paradoxically, by appeal to other viewpoints, to a consensus of subjective views to create an objective value judgment. His personal quest for the good becomes a collective survey of what others deem good, taken, of course, from the least exulted positions in society, the opinions of the men in the street. Sight is imparted by a multiplicity of blindness, where one set of eyes which cannot see is supplemented by a million that supposedly can.
What is good, then, becomes what is generally human, with the corollary that what is specific to a group or even a person is not valuable. This brings to nought contributions of great men, and contributions of great cultures––I am thinking particularly of Western culture, founded on the contributions of great men of art, science, and religion, Aquinas, Augustine, Boethius, Bach, Beethoven, as a small sample––and relegates their contributions to the category of mere opinion. Examples of this ressentiment tendency to subjectivize moral value abounds in our culture, where there exists no distinction in value between a Backstreet Boys song and a Bach cantata few have heard of. The popularity becomes the deciding factor of the value of the thing, not the value of the thing itself. The Billboard determines the value, how many albums it’s sold.
What is limitedly communicable and verifiable, what cannot be explained to all is only the product of subjective imagination, (Scheler, 105). The consequence of this attitude and mindset is the dissolution of the Church as such, insofar as revelation, mystical experiences of the saints and prophets, and the Bible and tradition are not experienced by all, nor can they be in principle, either because revelation has already happened, or because mystical messages and prophecy is generally only revealed privately, with the outstanding exception of the Miracle of the Sun at Fátima. Hence the widespread agnosticism or downright atheism plaguing the world today, or, even worse, the wholesale denial of any validity or truth to religion by way of CoExist bumper-stickers.
Modern scientific method, as I think Scheler’s philosophical position commits him to but doesn’t develop, is wrought with this same ressentiment attitude. The benchmarks of truth in the modernist scientific method are verifiability through experimentation and observation. The scientific method exists to supply the modern world with a systematic methodology which is able to recognize general validity and universal capacity of values of truth. But this is nothing more than the subjectivization of value, insofar as it is based on the consensus of scientific opinion. For example, evolutionary theory is given the value of truth, not necessarily because it enjoys an objective value of epistemological validity, but because many scientists happen to believe it to be so, and so it takes on the quality of truth or fact––notwithstanding the fact that many, though marginalized, other scientists with the same scientific method and tools believe otherwise. Another example of the same phenomenon in science is the heliocentric model and the cosmological principle. According to these views, validated merely through consensus and not objective standards of truth, the Earth revolves around the Sun, when, in point of scientifically demonstrated fact, the Sun could just as well be considered revolving around the Earth. And the Earth is not the center of it all but is merely a speck of dust in the all enveloping and arbitrary dark of the universe. This, too, has little scientifically demonstrated basis for it other than some fancy footwork by theoretical cosmologists and physicists, such as Hubble’s expanding universe theory to explain away the phenomenon of red-shift (which implies we are, in fact in the center of it all) or Einstein’s theory of special relativity (which attempted to explain away the objective results of the Michelson-Morley experiment which failed to demonstrate the Earth moves). Rather, it is considered very probably true or else fact because it has been the consensus and custom of scientists for a hundred years to believe so. An interesting topic of inquiry into the damning effects ressentiment may have on science––among all things! but this essay must proceed to the third and final example of transvaluation.
The elevation of the value of utility above the value of life is the inversion of the material values themselves, (Scheler, 106). In this chief manifestation of ressentiment, which reverses the hierarchy of values of the vital and the useful, modern morality denies in theory and practice the self-evident proposition that the useful is dependent on the vital, and not the other way, and so is preferable. Scheler defines the useful as anything that is able to be brought about that is good, pleasant, and within one’s control, (Scheler, 107). But these useful goods which bring about pleasure are useful and so pleasant for a living being, and so are dependent as such on a vital value. Further, not only are useful things dependent on the vital beings, they are to such an extent that the vital beings can be strengthened by them. So any useful thing that obstructs a vital value is bad, regardless of its intrinsic value with all things being equal––because, in fact, all do not have the same capacity for enjoying useful things, such as property, according to Scheler (107).
The idea of control is operable here. It is not that all useful values automatically cause pleasure, but only to the degree that these can be controlled by the will. Thus, the strength to control the useful (and by means of it the pleasurable) which is the capacity of the vital value is the only criterion by which they are to be distributed among men.
Let us pause in the development of this last form of transvaluation to anticipate an objection––well, not really an objection as much as an emotional reaction. I know when I first read this, I was forming the opinion that Scheler was doing some fancy foot work of his own, in an attempt to justify capitalistic tyranny of the impoverished masses. “See,” Scheler seemed to say to me, “the rich are justified in their apparently gross and unequal distribution of wealth. The poor are too stupid and base to be given any more than they have; whereas the rich are entitled to theirs by the principle of justice, because they are smart enough to handle it.” Scheler is no friend or ally of capitalists, least of all in this final chapter. The principle is quite evident to anyone who has given it a moment’s more thought than I initially did. How many times have we read in the papers of the poor, hapless Lottery winner who gorges himself on mansions, sports cars, yachts, and every other toy and pleasure money can by, only to blow his head off? Or who is wholly ignorant to the fact that if a child is given a hundred dollars, he will inevitably purchase fifty pounds of sweets, and end his splurge in a sugar coma? Scheler, I do not think, is advocating not distributing wealth according to necessity, that is, ensuring each is given a roof, food, clothing, and the means to support a family, through an opportunity to do so through work and just compensation. I think Scheler is advocating not giving everyone the same thing, without due consideration for their capacity to handle the responsibility, which is charitable.
In the course of this ressentiment, even pleasure, though dependent on the useful for its being, is set below the useful. The modern asceticism says that useful work is better than the enjoyment of pleasure, an essential component, Scheler says, of modern capitalism’s formation, (108). This is the result of a ressentiment that envies those who are endowed with more vital value such that they have an increased capacity for enjoyment of pleasure.
But the greatest perversion is of the reversal of the useful with the vital itself. Through the supposed virtues of the merchants and industrialists, the reversion of values took effect, where the people with the money determined the values, (Scheler, 111). A fatal result of this ressentiment was––and is–-that the non-useful have no value, and indeed that the vital is no value unto itself at all. It has many corollaries and effects which will not occupy space in this essay. This last example of ressentiment is not only most perverse but most destructive, because it attacks life itself. To put into a neat picture the ressentiment shift of values here, what has essentially happened is that the banker has knocked the knight off his high horse. The useful values of cleverness, adaptability, a calculating mind, desire for security, and business communication have replaced courage, bravery, sacrifice, daring, high-mindedness, vitality, desire for conquest (read here perhaps adventure), indifference to material goods, loyalty to lord and land, etc., (Scheler, 111).
To summarize Scheler’s account of the transvaluation of morals, we begin with negative emotions brought on by the discovery of discrepancies between ourselves and others through an act of comparison, which comparison is necessary because self-value only has meaning through comparison for the ressentiment figure. Naturally, these emotions are repressed, but an account or statement of the way things are must be given, in order to maintain self-continuity, or sanity, and to avoid the awful truth of one’s inferiority. I am the way I am, not because I am inferior, but because…Hence a transvaluation, or morality shift. The first discussed transvaluation was value only though self-acquisition, which stated that there is no moral value apart from individual acts. Individuals are neither good nor bad, but only what they do. The implication of this morality shift is that all men are created equal. It is only effort that accounts for inequality. The next morality shift was subjectivization of values, which stated that no value in itself is good, only the desiring of this thing or that that makes it good. Whereas the first dealt with the pervasion of the will as the ultimate source of value, this perverts the intellect as the ultimate source of value. This morality shift has implications for intellectual and epistemological activity, such that what is true or known is only what everyone thinks: Truth by majority rule. The final transvaluation dealt with was that of the value of utility with vital value. This is an assault on the material values themselves, which subjects the vital to the useful––an absurdity, just as if one were to subject the end to the means––and has far reaching ramifications for the modern world, and is indeed the ultimate source of the unmatched degree of despotism and death in this past century, among all the past the world has seen, e.g., nazism, communism, capitalism, with the death toll on the order of a billion. Ressentiment, according to this account of things, is the ultimate cause of the evils of the Modern World. It is the psychological process by which man has lost his way, Scheler believes. Accordingly, if only one were to recognize this process for what it is, perhaps those evils could be prevented. After all, what is the point of this study if it is not to unlock the door to a better future? The second part of this essay will tend to this purpose, through a criticism of Scheler’s quasi-humanist theory of transvaluation.
PRIMARY AND INTERMEDIATE CAUSALITY
IN A SUCCESSION OF CAUSES AND EFFECTS, a preceding effect is also an intermediate cause. Thus, when an arsonist burns down a barn, the fire is both an effect of ignition but also a cause of the burned barn. Likewise, when a ressentiment man represses envy for his fellow man who excels him in this or that, and through the repression transvalues strength for weakness, envy is a cause, yes, but only an intermediate cause. The emotion here is principally an effect. According to the preceding account given in part one, it is no exaggeration to say by analogy that Scheler would have us believe that the arsonist burns down barns because he lights them on fire. Scheler’s account, though very good in its descriptive methodology, attention to the phenomena, and thoroughly erudite exposition, nevertheless leaves one wanting in the same regard as with the arsonist. Why tends to implicate intentionality, not psychological, mechanistic processes. In having read cover to cover his very learned and philosophically persuasive work of Ressentiment, I am still left with this question: Why do people feel envy, or hate, or spite? Or better, why do others not feel this way? Whence evil emotions? The account given by Scheler does not address this question. He takes up the question midway, at the intermediate causal stage of the emotional wreckage, and not at the place and stage when and where the malice, hatred, or envy arose. One cannot reverse the final effect without recourse to the reversion of the primary cause. One may yet impede the final effect by removing the intermediate causes, such as taking away the arsonist’s book of matches, lighters, and flints, but if I know arsonists, they will find alternative ways to consummate their delight in seeing things burn: probably with a magnifying glass. Likewise, the ressentiment figure will not likely get on by being told that he is not equal to his fellows, or that truth and morals are quite objective apart from his opinions. He may be told that, and may even come to agree with it; but he will still have the problem of his negative emotions to deal with, for how they arose was not shown to him. He will continue to burn with these, just as the arsonist burns with a passion for fire, destruction, devastation, and anarchy. Nor indeed is the analogy accidental, for modern man may very well be likened to an arsonist, who burns down such edifices as Family, Church, Natural Law, Reason, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Nobility, Sublimity, Mystery, and ultimately himself in an ultimate act of arson: suicide.
I would argue that Scheler deals with the intermediate effect, instead of the primary cause, the process of ressentiment––for it is a process, and not a beginning––because he cannot come out and say in a philosophical work written in the twentieth century, “Sin is the cause of evil in the world! Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” Even for my tastes, that is philosophically insipid, however pious. But so is telling the world it is all wrong because it was made to believe that it is better than it really is. That is like trying to pop a bubble that is already popped, like kicking a man that is already down, all the while telling him to get up. The man who is brimming with envy for his coworker’s successful proposal to introduce glitter into the marketing campaign posters compared to his failed efforts, can hardly be consoled with the sentiment: “Buck up, boy, you know you aren’t as good as her anyway. Everyone is born with greater and lesser degrees of perfection. Sorry, she has it; you don’t. Don’t bother trying harder. Won’t help.”
I do not mean to imply that this is just what Scheler is telling the modern world. He does have a very pleasing articulation of Christian love as a remedial corrective to ressentiment man: “Christian love is a spiritual intentionality which transcends the natural sphere, defeating and superseding the psychological mechanism of the natural instincts (such as hatred against one’s enemies, revenge, and desire for retaliation). It can place a man in a completely new state of life. But that is not essential here,” (Scheler, 56, emphasis added). In fact, it is so pleasing, it just happens to be quite nearly my thesis of this essay. It may not have been essential to what Scheler was saying in that particular paragraph about the condescending movement of Christian love as compared with the aspirational movement of pagan love, but the description of love taken here in Scheler’s own words, literally contradicts everything he has said up to this point in the book, and everything after, or, if contradicts is too strong, at least shows it to be quite superfluous. Ressentiment does not take hold of the man full of Christian love, because such hostile feelings of revenge, hatred, envy, and spite are transcended, defeated, and superseded, such that the intermediate cause of transvaluation of morals does not take effect, because the primary cause is removed.
According to Scheler, then, Christian love corrects ressentiment. I agree with this, but again, Scheler has confounded the intermediate with the primary. Christian love is not a system of moral tenets, whereby one is enabled, if practiced to the letter, to be holy. That is not Christianity but legalism. Christian love, as the words imply, is the love of a Christian. Christian comes first, then love. Scheler seems to suggest that, in order to be a Christian, you must love; but the reverse is true: In order to love, one must be a Christian! And so Scheler cannot cure the world of ressentiment by telling it to love like Christians. Rather, he must tell the world to be Christian in order to love!
LOSS OF IDENTITY
In the first section of the first part of this essay, I began with a quote which ended with the words, “[Revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite] are normal components of human nature.” Obviously, if these are normal components of human nature, then a natural, and not a supernatural, solution should be sought. Scheler is consistent with this. His analysis of transvaluation through the process of ressentiment is natural enough. It begins with human nature, and ends with the human nature. If the objective moral order and hierarchy is to be preserved from the perverting influence of ressentiment, an authentic view of human nature as such is to be postulated, i.e, Man is not created equal; truth is not relative; the hierarchy of material values is such that utility is founded on vital, and not the other way. Any reasonable person, who is endowed with intelligence enough can readily assent to these philosophically demonstrated propositions. But, by assenting to the above propositions, does modern man free himself from the destructive consequences of transvaluation? I argue no.
Transvaluation and ressentiment are the effects of a loss of identity. Ressentiment does not primarily cause transvaluation of morals, but is an intermediate effect. Identity loss causes ressentiment, which in turn causes a transvaluation of morals. Scheler’s account misses the principle cause, and mistakenly puts ressentiment in its place, which is itself only intermediate. It serves as an adequate analysis of the process whereby modern man has lost his way, but it cannot ultimately return him to himself, and cure him of his false morality, because it cannot cure the malady without reversing its original cause. Scheler’s exclusive appeal to the phenomenon of ressentiment as the moral transvaluation process fails to attain its object, because it fails to address the cause. Like a well-meaning physician, Scheler sets himself to the task of bringing down a fever with an ice-bath analysis of the process of moral transvaluation, instead of removing the infectious, poisonous ideas that man is made from mud (evolutionary theory); that he does not occupy a special place in the cosmos (Copernican principle); or that man, in a state of nature, is selfish, ferocious and warlike (Social contract theory). Fittingly, all these poisonous ideas are directly contradictory to the truths espoused in the Judeo-Christian Tradition articulated in Genesis. There we read that Man and Woman were made in the likeness of God, that indeed God breathed life into their members; that Earth preceded the sun and stars; and that, prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in harmony, both with themselves and with nature. Scheler neglects the reality of this identity loss of man. To Scheler, the transvaluation of morals is not a consequence of the Fall, but a failure to see things in their proper philosophical light. All we need do, so the argument runs, is see things rightly, and all things will patch themselves up like clockwork. But that cool, Enlightenment-oriented approach has not and cannot work. If it were not so, then that Rabbi born in a stable in Bethlehem need not have spilt his blood down a ruthless piece of Wood.
I concede to the objection that this is an unphilosophical position to take, that transvaluation is primarily caused by a loss of Judeo-Christian identity, that, through sin, man has lost his way. I can only say that, if not sin, then what? What accounts for the malice, the envy, the hatred for our fellow man? Why did Cain slay Abel? Ressentiment? Really? That hardly explains it. Scheler begins with these emotions, not before them. I think it is very philosophically sound to point that fact out from the beginning, and through it, to call into question, at least on those philosophical and logical grounds, a problem with Scheler’s approach. Wickedness is as much a mystery as holiness. That is the fact few are willing to contemplate, or to countenance in philosophical works of morality. To Scheler, and to a host of other intellectuals brought up in this humanist paradigm, man can save himself, if only he acquire the requisite knowledge, however esoteric. But what of those Hobbits? And, what’s more to the point, those Christians who, though meek, shall inherit the earth?
In a kind of call for philosophy papers, Nietzsche puts the following question at the conclusion of his first essay concerning good and evil and good and bad: “What is revealed, regarding the history of the evolution of moral ideas, by philology, and especially by etymological investigation?” (GM, 41). The short answer is nothing. Nothing is revealed by etymological investigations of moral ideas, for the simple reason that moral ideas are not primarily or essentially etymological entities. It is true that good, bad, evil, noble, vulgar are thought as moral values, but properly speaking these are not moral values at all. They are, when read quietly to oneself, or heard aloud, mental constructs cued or conjured by visual-auditory sensibles, which may have corresponding phantasms or other intellectual information as various as the individual reading them. They are words, and as such may or may not have anything to do with reality, with moral ideas, with potatoes or space probes. Nietzsche makes the classical mistake here of holding everything to account by his own select science or craft. The shoemaker understands everything in terms of shoemaking, in metaphors relating to footwear; the painter too, in viewing his world in terms of arbitrary names of color, such that the morning sky is a cool shade of ultramarine blue. To the meteorologist, the same morning sky is a low-humidity, high-visibility, atmospheric condition. The biologist sees everything in terms of biological entities and the physicist in terms of mathematical and moving entities. Nietzsche is no different. Goodness is nothing more than a verbal entity socially evolved.
Words may or may not resemble reality, but my emphasis above was on not resembling. Words may resemble reality, just as the words evil or good may have sprung from cultural contexts having nothing to do with intrinsic goodness or evil, in the sense of health-giving or harmful things. I can imagine a time in which goodness could have meant, to a base and senseless people, the pleasure of mutilating the corpses of their felled enemies, a people modeled after Achilles. I can also imagine a time in which goodness meant something more wholesome than all that. The point is that words could mean reality or not. In order to get to answering that question, asking after the reality behind the words, you must, well, go behind as in beyond the words themselves. Nietzsche does not do this. He stays in the words, and only, like a true philologist, pursues their supposed truth through etymological histories, which themselves are dubious. So, not only is Nietzsche working with a second-order of evidence, the mere representation of reality, the words, this order is itself the by-product of speculation.
But does it not seem fitting that a philosopher should see the blue sky for what it is, instead of what a particular view or intellectual or practical discipline sees it as, or at least see that his philosophical view is one of many? The obvious presumption behind any critique on these grounds of Friedrich Nietzsche is that he is not being very philosophical. The question of whether Nietzsche was or was not a philosopher has been entertained before, so my proposed thesis for this paper has some precedents. That thesis, which I will in short order expound, must be preceded by a preliminary remark which I make in order not to be misunderstood.
I am knowledgeable of the vast brilliance of mind and literary ability of Nietzsche, of his wit and penetrating locutions which have captivated, if not held spellbound, generation after generation for over a century. Nor am I motivated, as far as I am aware, of any secret yearning to retaliate for his anti-Christianity. On that score, I found Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity to be juvenile at best, Protestant through and through, by which I mean his attacks on Christianity were attacks on an artificial chimera, and so did not touch upon the true nature of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith, which, preceding his Lutheranism by a millennium and a half, is about as different from a typical Protestant sect as a Cabernet Sauvignon is from cough syrup. Had Nietzsche spent more time around good, wholesome, God-fearing, life-loving, beer and wine drinking, dancing catholics, he wouldn’t have succumbed to the preposterous notion that Christians hate life, and are somehow antagonistic to the Dionysian spirit––any historic sense of Catholic festivals, from carnival and mardi gras, to Christmas and Easter, among the innumerable smaller celebrations, would put that nonsensical notion straight from Nietzsche’s head. True, Christians are not known for their licentiousness and debauchery, but then again neither was Nietzsche. And I doubt that was what Nietzsche had in mind when he put Dionysus against Apollo. The opposite or contrary of Apollonian is not the unlawful, but the playful, in the sense of play, or drama, or dance and ritual, or, (and this may come as a surprise to my reader), the Holy mass or the Greek drama––they are the same in form and essential structure, though not in object. There is such a thing as a choir (or chorus) loft in a church. Had Nietzsche not been blinded by his childhood Lutheranism, I think he himself would have recognized the parallels between Roman Catholic worship and Dionysian drama, and at least qualified his disdain for Christianity, or perhaps even converted.
Nietzsche may have been a poet. He most certainly was (by all accounts) an accomplished philologist. He was a social critic, for sure. Perhaps even a fairly perceptive art critic for his part. But I emphatically protest that Nietzsche should be associated with philosophy or referred to as a philosopher. My reasons for thinking so are presented in what follows. A word though about the structure of that presentation. I have adopted a very unsystematic approach to commenting on Nietzsche, by which I mean that one thing in one section does not follow from nor depend logically on what preceded it. This approach was necessary, because I wanted to sample Nietzsche’s work, to give an overall impression of his approach to his subjects, and how he related to the object of his inquiries, whether it was in truth philosophical, or merely something less exalted. The form, then, will be a quotation, and a judgement whether it should be considered philosophical.
Let’s get one thing straight. By philosophical, I do not mean infallible. Every great philosopher, from Aristotle to Descartes made a mistake or ten in their investigations. By philosophical I mean a certain spirit of inquiry, not whether one hit the nail on the head every time he swung the hammer. That spirit I shall call the spirit or virtue of sublime veracity, or the habit whereby one is disposed to think and speak the truth, but not just in matters of daily living, such that one tells no lie to the waitress or banker, but rather that one is so disposed by this virtue so as to be truthful in matters as high as heaven and as low as dirt, no matter the consequences or undesired effects of the inquiry. Socrates had that spirit of sublime veracity. St. Justin Martyr had that spirit. Misotheists, like the one I read recently who said, if it were mathematically proven to him that God existed, he still wouldn’t believe; or the literati who get their giggles by blaspheming the Deity they sincerely believe in, do not have this spirit of sublime veracity. Even if it was proven that I, you, and the world and everything in it were just the electromagnetic projections of a holographic simulation supercomputer, I would still worship the super geek who created it, for the simple reason that reason and justice demand my worship, just as I render honor unto my father and mother, though they be imperfect beings, because I wouldn’t be at all were it not for them, and further, because whatever the supposed short-comings of the super geek god who created the computer, it also created me, and so must have a considerable portion of knowledge, wisdom, and guidance greater than my own. Hubris, pride, is not only a moral failing; it is an intellectual failing as well–-it is a failing in the intellectual and moral virtue of sublime veracity.
The question is whether Nietzsche had this spirit, or if he had another habit of mind, be it to entertain with his writings, to promote kinship with himself and his readers, to be a self-professed spiritual leader or prophet, or any number of other motives other than that of truthfulness in sublime veracity. I argue in what follows that, whatever else he was doing, he was not doing philosophy.
Let me now sample some of Nietzsche’s words, discern their meaning and motivation, and ask the reader whether they constitute that spirit of sublime veracity which I said marks the philosophical soul, or not.
I have a stack of Nietzsche’s books before me, and taking one up and flipping it open at random, Human, All Too Human: A Book for free Spirits, I read this:
The statue of humanity.— The genius of culture does as Cellini did when he cast his statue of Perseus: the liquefied mass seemed to be insufficient, but he was determined to produce enough: so he threw into it keys and plates and whatever else came to hand. And just so does that genius throw errors, vices, hopes, delusions and other things of baser as well as nobler metal, for the statue of humanity must emerge and be completed; what does it matter if here and there inferior material is employed? (Human, 121).
According to Plato, it matters a good deal whether inferior material is employed. It also just so happens that it matters a good deal to the metallurgist. If I may change up the analogy, imagine that humanity is shipwrecked on an island. She must come together and build a ship that will brave the terrible seas, if she hopes to return to the Fatherland. There are a variety of woods that grow on the island, from hard, dense, oily, water-resistant woods, to porous, flimsy, and thin woods. The problem, if it is a problem, is that the inferior woods (inferior for shipbuilding, but pretty good for firewood burning) grow twice as fast as the superior woods. The island has two warring shipwright factions: the one says, humanity must build as soon as possible, and so throw the inferior material into the mix, get the ship seaworthy so that the present generation of Islanders do not die before seeing the Fatherland. The other side says that the ship that will best bear the people over the terrible seas is one built up with only the best woods, which take time to grow.
Now it made sense to Plato, as it does to me, and seemingly doesn’t to Nietzsche, to let philosophy decide the matter. In the Republic, the man of gold, the guardian, the philosopher would have decided. The question is, how, according to the passage above, would Nietzsche have decided the matter? The analogies are essentially similar, I think, so what Nietzsche thinks is a good course in the one would seem to suggest itself as a good course in the other. What does it matter if here and there inferior material is employed? The answer to that question with our predicament above is that more than likely the ship will spring a leak and sink to the sea floor before ever reaching home.
What is Nietzsche’s motivation here? Why does he not think to question the practical disadvantage of building up humanity with vice and error? Vice, like alcoholism which almost led America to silent civil war, or illicit drug use which has led to silent civil war today? Or error, which tears out the bottom of an enterprise, and brings to ruination everything it touches, from baking muffins to building bridges? The only answer I can surmise is that Nietzsche was not so much thinking as feeling. He was feeling out his thoughts, without bringing them to fruition and logical conclusion. The logical conclusion of building a statue out of error and vice is disintegration, so what was the point in the first place getting it erected as soon as possible? Sit down, slow down, and think out what it is you are doing, then act. An axiom of practical intelligence is that the means ought not to contradict the end. Nietzsche is so shallow a thinker, this axiom, or commonsensical notion, doesn’t even occur to him––and here we have the paragon of genius and culmination of Western philosophical thought? I humbly submit we do not.
When Nietzsche is not building up statues that fall down, he is trying to disparage true men of mental genius by the merest of weaponry: sentimentality. For instance, in his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche quotes Aquinas as saying “‘Beati in regno coelesti’” he says, meek as a lamb, ‘videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat.’” In this, Nietzsche says, is what Christians believe to be what bliss in Paradise consists, and insists that Paradise itself was created out of hatred. But, had Nietzsche not been motivated by sentimentality, but rather by true philosophy and reason, he would have read on in the Summa Theologiae to this passage:
A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: while the punishment of the damned will cause it indirectly. (ST, III Supplementum, Q.94 Art. III Emphasis added).
Aquinas already anticipated Nietzsche’s objection of Article I by this distinction in Article III. Aquinas further notes that to rejoice in another’s evil is hatred itself, and so if the saints in paradise were actually rejoicing in the punishments of the damned being submerged in pitchy tar and shanked with pitchforks, then obviously paradise would be created out of eternal hate, and would be a veritable playhouse of horrors to which only a psychopath would want go.
Why the charge of sentimentality, though? Well, the sentimentality charge sticks, or else willful misrepresentation of another’s thought, or scholarly sloth––I will let the reader decide. The passage quoted above from Aquinas is but two articles away from that which Nietzsche quoted. So I assume, assuming it was only sentimentality that was motivating Nietzsche, that he read that passage in Aquinas, dropped the book in utter horror and disgust, and ran out of the room ripping his waistcoat. Had he been more possessed by a philosophical spirit, he would have read on, and considered the vital distinction Aquinas made a few lines later. But, seeing as how he misquotes Aquinas in a simplified version, what was most probably the case was that he heard that passage being kicked around the tavern one night where he’d take his bread and beer. Had he encountered Aquinas in the raw and unfiltered by public opinion, he probably would have come across more sensible, or at least less sentimental.
And when Nietzsche is not disparaging churchmen, he is disparaging the Church: “The Church certainly is a crude and boorish institution, one that is repugnant to an intelligence with any pretence at refinement, and offensive to the genuinely modern taste,” (GM, p. 24). Dust and nonsense of the highest order. What Church is Nietzsche referring to here? It would have been possible, prior to the tenth century, to speak in such generalities, when the Church was unified under pontifical rule, and worship and custom were loosely the same worldwide. After the Protestant vandalisms, that generalization itself became crude and boorish, signifying nothing. Perhaps Nietzsche is speaking of some faint and half-forgotten memory of a Lutheran chapel service of his youth, the existence of which was most certainly predicated upon the denial of the Popish pomp and ritualistic refinement of the mass. Whatever he refers to here, he is not referring to Roman Catholic worship in the manner of art, sculpture, poetry and liturgical music, otherwise he represents himself as a buffoon and ignoramus of high art. And what does Nietzsche mean by refinement? Why could it not mean a veritable vision of Heaven painted on a ceiling of a Church, or stoned figures that seem themselves to cry to heaven ? Why not an ancient, undulating melody that transports to a timeless dimension? Why not the choreographic disciplined dance of a priest offering mass? That is easy to answer for Nietzsche. These things could not be considered refined, because the Church is not refined, and anything coming from or related to the Church is unrefined. The circular logic is obvious and odious.
Thus Nietzsche is infected with a Protestant prejudice which precludes him from seeing the reality of the artistic refinement of the Church, which made David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Missa de Angelis, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, and so much and many more works and names that I could fill a backyard swimming pool with. But I am not writing this essay to catalogue the great men and works of art the Church suckled with her sacraments. Had Nietzsche even an inkling of the vast aesthetic riches of the Church, he would have been a little more cautious in claiming that the Church is repugnant to refined intelligence. One can only conclude that Nietzsche did not have a refined intelligence for beautiful things, since he mistook transcendent beauty for the boorish and crude. And what is sublime veracity but refined intelligence for transcendent beauty?
And when not disparaging the Church, Nietzsche is disparaging reason itself:
If one needs to make a tyrant of reason, as Socrates did, then there must exist no little danger of something else playing the tyrant. Rationality was at that time divined as a savior; neither Socrates nor his ‘invalids’ were free to be rational or not, as they wished —it was de rigueur, it was their last expedient. The fanaticism with which the whole of Greek thought throws itself at rationality betrays a state of emergency: one was in peril, one had only one choice: either to perish or—be absurdly rational…. The moralism of the Greek philosophers from Plato downwards is pathologically conditioned: likewise their estimation of dialectics. Reason = virtue = happiness means merely: one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark desires by producing a permanent daylight—the daylight of reason. One must be prudent, clear, bright at any cost: every yielding to the instincts, the the unconscious, leads downwards…(Twilight of the Idols, 10).
I wonder what it would look like, a world absurdly rational, by which every action of means would seemingly have a perfect and efficient correlation to its end of action, where men would judge each according to right reasons and principles of axiomatic surety, where indeed men acted from reason to virtue and attained happiness. Then I wonder how that could possibly be construed as tyrannical, as Nietzsche says. Tyranny, in my experience anyway, implies the converse of reason. To take an example. As a husband and father of four children, I am a kind of ruler. On good days I am a good ruler. On bad days, I am a tyrant. But it is precisely on those bad days that I am being a tyrant because I am being irrational, not because I am being reasonable. I overreact to a milk spill caused by a little girl who has dexterity issues or insist that the children not run in the house when it has been rainy for two days and they haven’t been able to exercise their little legs. Were I more reasonable, I would have taken all things into account, and judged them according to principles of conduct, safety, health, human flourishing, etc. It is so easy for Nietzsche to look at the Greeks and sneer at their love of reason, while he sits back in his easy chair and merely manages his personal finances or typewriter ink stores––which, by the way, he does with reason. The Greeks, those of the Academy, were concerning themselves with the welfare of an entire state and people, just as I am concerning myself with my own state and people I have brought into the world. Do I allow my children to yield to their instincts, to the unconscious desire of my two-year-old daughter to rip out her older sister’s hair, because she covets paternal affections all to herself? to my eldest son’s instinct to shoot squirrels out of a tree, even though he has no intention of eating them, because he has a taste for blood? A household, a kingdom or polis, can prevent falling a thousand ways with the rule of reason, and fall a thousand ways without. Indeed, as a father, I must be prudent and clear at any cost, because the livelihood, peace, and happiness of my family demands and depends upon my being so. The only alternative is the path that leads downward. The Greeks must be forgiven if they didn’t desire to go insane, and so invoked reason as an antidote. Nietzsche apparently didn’t have the same regard for reason.
I could continue and offer many more random quotations which express similarly this apparent disregard for reasoned discourse, but the exercise is tiresome and I am afraid wouldn’t demonstrate more than what has been demonstrated already. Further, I have knowingly avoided treatment of any key doctrine or passage from Nietzsche’s corpus, not because I think it would prove difficult for me. On the contrary, the Ubermensch, eternal return, perspectivism, Death of God, eternal return, and transvaluation of morals, Nietzsche’s core insights and doctrines, are easily enough dealt with as argument fodder. I have no interest, according to the confines of my thesis, to disprove Nietzsche on these grounds but rather to show or hint at how Nietzsche tends to be or has a habit of being very unphilosophical. My reasons for not focusing on these main passages and themes, but on the back alleyways and corners of his discourse, as it were, are because a man shows what and how he really thinks when he gives his opinion quick and unpolished over his supper than when he gives it in carefully crafted prose. I have no doubt I could find very insightful and even truthful sayings within his aphorisms or within that great book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which captivated my imagination as a kid, but all that would show is what I already conceded, that Nietzsche was a powerful rhetorician. But I wanted to demonstrate, through statistical probability, I suppose, the likelihood of hitting upon an unphilosophical opinion at random, to show that Nietzsche’s habit of mind is in itself unphilosophical, however many brief flashes of brilliance there may be in his writings. I believe I have shown that, and so have given ample evidence for my thesis, that Nietzsche was not doing philosophy, at least not, it seems, throughout the entirety of his writings. I have said that philosophy entails what I called the virtue of sublime veracity. That may be arbitrary, and there may be no such thing, but then neither could their be wisdom or philosophy, and my thesis should still stand. If there is no truthfulness, as I believe Nietzsche believed there was not, then there would be no veracity of any kind, let alone about ultimate reality, and so one could not more be wise (and a philosopher) than one could be a fisherman in the Dead Sea.
ON THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS OF ART AS EXPERIENCE
ON THE FALSE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN
PERCEPTION AND RECOGNITION
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.
* * *
“Recognition is too easy to arouse vivid consciousness,” Dewey tells us. This essay is in large measure a working up of the intellectual momentum to challenge the epistemological assumptions behind this statement. I say a work up, because before I get too heavily into my thesis’s defense, I would like to summarize, synthesize, and demystify Dewey’s exposition of the aesthetic in the first few chapters leading up to this point in the discussion where we read the above. Art as Experience is a massive body of philosophical text, which could not be covered in a graduate term paper, even cursorily. Dewey’s writing is the most dense I have ever read. Each page drips saturated with erudition and penetrating speculation and observation, such that I find myself often having to reread what I had already reread, because it just didn’t all soak in. I should think I am not alone in this experience, and so would like to offer, in addition to my ultimate thesis and its defense, this paper as a commentary companion to the first three chapters of Art as Experience.
Let’s face it: Dewey demands demystification. This is necessary, not because Dewey is unclear. Dewey is as clear as a traffic jam. You see the swath of colors extending off into the infinite horizon, but only with difficulty do you discipline your eyes to select for intense inspection each and every vehicle, be it a sedan, semi, sports car, pickup truck or motorcycle that may make up the motor menagerie. One of the main reasons for this need, in addition to Dewey saying so much in so little space, is because Dewey tends to prefer the universal to the particular, the abstract to the concrete. It will be my duty, as commentator, to supply, for those key but obscure passages and motifs, particular, concrete examples where Dewey has been less than forthcoming.
The structure of this paper will be in two parts, the first presenting a commentary of the first three chapters of Art as Experience, “The Live Creature”, “The Live Creature and ‘Etherial Things’”, and “Having an Experience”, the order and title of subsections corresponding thereto. The second part of this paper is purposed with zeroing in on a peculiar and philosophically intriguing idea found in the third chapter, which deals with this dichotomy between recognition and perception, why Dewey maintains the distinction, and some possible epistemological drawbacks for doing so. Because this paper is principally a commentary on Dewey’s aesthetics, I will reserve the exposition of the thesis for the second part, because I am not interested in burdening the reader with those considerations, prior to first delving into Dewey’s thoughts on aesthetic experience, supplemented with my examples. I am interested in demonstrating a working knowledge of Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, while also displaying a modest amount of original thinking; not going at the throat of John Dewey like a spiteful rattlesnake, with much noise and venom. The dissenting thesis is but an appendage to a commentary; not the impetus to it.
A Commentary on the First Three Chapters of Art as Experience
The Live Creature
We open a book entitled Art as Experience, and expect the first words or chapter title to say something about what we have been told is culturally, traditionally, and socially concerned with art. There’s the rub. This is what Dewey means by the common conception of artworks, which identifies, recognizes, these artifacts in a building or book, painting, or statue, often times set apart in a museum, or placed off somewhere out of the way of everyday business, on a shelf, on a wall, or on a lawn no one walks on.
Instead, what we get is a chapter title that conjures up the idea of a biological or ecological treatise. For us, who have been perhaps a little too conditioned by culture, the connection between live creature and art is not as apparent as it should be. But art, whatever else it may be, is fundamentally concerned with the aesthetic, or, in the everyday pleasures of existence and experience. The live creature is the aesthetic creature, the art-oriented creature. It is only through sociological-political forces that have removed art from the common life that this truth often is neglected or even shunned. Because art, and by extension the aesthetic, is considered by cultural influence today to be of the museum, the common people starve, as it were, for being in want of daily necessities like intense and meaningful aesthetic experience, and so often turn to what is intense, perhaps meaningful, but most often cheap and vulgar.
It wasn’t always so. Once, not so long ago, people glorified in artistic artifacts of hearth and home, sword and plow. Cleaning, bathing, cooking, hunting, warring, all the everyday, humdrum comings and goings were punctuated with a sense of the delicately wrought and intentionally adorned that today art enthusiasts and collectors seek out such things as ancient oven mitts or rug beaters for fresh stock in the museum. Thus compared with today’s counterparts of factory made Target line kitchen utensils, these ancient artifacts probably do look like veritable masterpieces of the eternal artistic spirit. But whether they be truly fine and sublime art or no is not in question. Dewey is here drawing our attention to the fact that art has been removed from the sphere of everyday living, and the consequences of the removal is that it obfuscates or confuses us and our notions about what it means to be a piece of art, but also what it means to appreciate or let art be a piece of us and our lives.
The causes of this removal are varied. Nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, and a community’s desire to portray itself as sophisticated and not wholly mercantile, trade mobility, and industrial changes in production have all contributed to the coffer of the museum or helped to alienate the live creature from art. If you want to know the who’s who in the arts of a given region, you go to the capital museum. These also hold the loot of past conquerors, so museums are imperial storehouses; and the same is the case for either militaristic or capitalistic imperialism. The effect of either the Napoleon or Rockefeller is the same as it relates to art. Mass production helps to exaggerate the emphasis placed on the individual in artworks, because of its propensity, or essential structure to make every single damn thing look, feel, smell, taste, or sound the same: think Starbucks. Works thus removed from everyday living are given a sense of glory, nobility, sublimity, etc, that simply is foreign to what the thing is in itself, and in its natural environment, and so the aesthetic theorist tends to believe that these attributes are of the works themselves instead of their artificial habitat.
A theory of art cannot begin, therefore, with celebrated artworks, at least not if the theorist wants to have an accurate theory of the facts of the subject. The celebration is assumed, without questioning its origin. Dewey calls us back to the beginning, the birthplace of the works of art, calls us down to earth. Art theory has for the most part missed the mark, because it either focuses on the spiritual, contemplative aspects of art, or it begins with a false compartmentalization already expressed above. If the theory is to shed light on the practice, it must be engaged with the practice itself, to identify and clarify art’s development, valuation, and appreciation. Such a theory, based on the birthplace of artworks in everyday experience asks questions that are essential to the philosophical understanding of the phenomenon: When does the useful, beneficial, or expedient making process of routine life become genuinely artistic? At what point does sensory experience become aesthetic experience?
To answer these question, the theorist must ask the question of what makes for an ordinary experience. Dewey identifies two places where that question is answered: the body and the environment, or the organism in his habitat––properly speaking, though, not in his habitat, but as an extension or a part of his habitat. The organism and the environing condition constitute a unity of possibilities, successes or failures, both for the organism and the environment. The organism acts on and is acted on the environment as much as the environment acts on and is acted on the organism.
Equilibrium between the organism and his environment is reached out for through desire. Life itself is marked by phases, the ebbing and flowing of desire and satiation of needs derived from environment, and growth or death are functions of this interplay of an organism’s desire and the environment that supplies it. And here we find the fundamental germs of aesthetic attributes: balance, tension, harmony, and rhythm––and we haven’t even left the biology classroom. The mechanism by which an organism is capable of growth is through adaptation, and this is made possible when the environment is not accommodating. The tree bears fruit, but on limbs as flimsy as spider legs unfit for climbing. A projectile is invented to harvest the fruit. A projectile which can selectively knock down a piece of fruit may be used to shatter an enemy’s skull: Hence a boomerang-like object is born, its origin understood in terms of adaptation. Form and order follow from a reached, achieved stability in the equilibrium of the organism and his environment through adaptation. When this process takes place through a series of conflicts, difficulties, or obstacles, then the experience starts to look a lot like an aesthetic experience.
In man does this disintegration and unification between environment and organism body become evident, through the sign of emotion, as objects become charged with meaningful potential to reunite or harmonize man’s desire with his environment. Disharmony is not only a fall, but a flight, wherein man rises above his unconscious self into the realm of actualization, becoming more than what he was through trial by fire. This phase of becoming, the tense and resistant moment, the hour at which failure looms, death knocks, is the fitting time for the artist. The artist rests in the resolved tension, the dynamic rhythms of life’s dramatic episodes, of loss-gain, fall-rise, whereas the man of science, the intellectual, merely uses these dramatic phases as material to form problematics for further investigation. These dramatic dynamics are not infused with emotional meaning by the artist––perhaps as the scientist would insist––but rather excavates their signification in the phases themselves, which are not only temporally but also spatially situated: the cloud form comes into being and passes through time, but in a moment, it may have a balance and tension of brilliant highlights as well as dread-inspiring darks and shadows. Through direct experience, aesthetic values are unearthed by the sensitive organism, the reflective, contemplative type, the artist and mystic, who sees things as they are, not as he would have them be. The artist is the the anti-idealist, because he sees things, not through preconceived, imposed values, but through the matter of their very existence, the half baked, half soaked clay mud clot, the sour-sweet tang of the early spring strawberry, The bitter apple and the bite in the apple. These are what they always were, realities we either come to terms with and overcome, or in the very least appreciate and understand, or neglect and are destroyed by.
We happily reside in a world that is imperfect, imperfect at least from our weaker, slothful estimations, not aesthetically informed. A world where this dynamic phase of problem-resolution would not be possible if we either lived in a perfectly problematic world, where nothing made sense or added up or work out, and equally so in a world where everything was resolved, where no one had to strive, to overcome, to achieve in adversity. Though a paradox, this world is precisely perfect because it is imperfect. And this imperfect world, our imperfect lives, rest upon time and memory, which the artist, the fully live creature, adapts. Its past recalled, memories of failure and success become worthy guides in each their own right to direct a present course by. The future, too, has a place in the present of the live creature, as a possibility formed from the present reality. An organism’s environment is thus conceived, not only spatially, the green woods, the rocky paths and running brook, the gritty city street, but also temporally, through the present in constant relation to its past and future. Art’s emphasis and concentration on this reality intensifies our experience of it.
The aesthetic experience is sourced through the sensed environment of the live creature. The senses testify to our place within the cosmos, within our environing world, through an interactive, penetrating commerce with it. Art, the aesthetic experience realized, rests upon and is founded by this interactive commerce of sense and world––otherwise it is mere fancy, imbecility, or lunacy: the first is the child, the second the second-rate artist, and third the madman. Each are fundamentally united in their error of failing to base their aesthetic ideal or artistic production on its natural and essential source, the sensed environment. Any art theory, therefore, that rejects or ignores experience (the sensed world) as properly the source and situated meaning of art, is fundamentally flawed from the beginning.
Dewey has led us out of the cave of the typical art gallery or museum, where the flickering shadows of mere appearance can no longer do us injury. The quest for a theory of art doesn’t stop with the live creature in experience but gets its beginning and direction therefrom. Let us follow Dewey where he may lead, into the realm of the etherial and back again.
Live Creature and “Etherial Things”
The etherial things of this world are composed of this world, as Keats and Dewey draw our attention to. What does Dewey mean by etherial? The eternal, universal significations of things in things, which society or culture, critics and dualistic philosophers have supposed are separate from and inaccessible by sensed experience. This was the problem dressed up in other garb, with which Dewey began the book: the problem of compartmentalization and the separation of the arts, in theory and practice and appreciation, from the live creature and the raw ore of experience from which the arts were made. In this chapter Dewey is concerned with the live creature in the context of the etherial, or experience impregnated with sense-meaning, and the paralysis induced by dualistic philosophies and socio-cultural habits.
We have accepted the artwork as an artifact of the gallery or museum, instead of our own lives and immediate experience, because the imposed order and compartmentalization of our lives by institutional structures makes it so easy to do so. Even the senses themselves are compartmentalized, perhaps through the pervading and imposed alien structure of our lives, both in relation to each and each, such that we see without the corresponding sense of touch, and hear without the sense of sight, and in relation to the object of sense. When the latter happens, the etherial becomes inaccessible and hinter-worldly, and the senses and objects of sense become devalued, and disparaged as base, such that the Kingdom of Heaven is sought for in the clouds, nirvana or spiritual bliss in self-alienation and annihilation, and, what’s ultimately worse perhaps, bad art.
But, when once man becomes ever more aware of meaning’s dependence on his sense-organs, of man as spirit-animal composition, then a wide vista of possible experiences opens up. Man does not become simple, the more he embraces his animalistic powers. On the contrary, the sensory data, as it were, of his experiences, when much attuned to, become the material out of which he invents a new complex of significations, which go to enrich his life, not debase it. And this invention, which man as live creature and aesthetic oriented, that is, sense-oriented, takes place in time, and is conditioned by past actions, past experience, lived out and brought to fruition in the present. Dewey uses an illuminating example. The landscape is shrouded in shadow but for the momentary burst of electric fire from the sky, which brings all to life, light and form. Suddenly, you realize and recognize a mailbox, garden gnome, and looming evergreens off in the distance. But do you really realize it suddenly? No. Your perception of the evergreens, the gnome and mailbox are the culmination of a long maturation process of sense and meaning over the course of years, perhaps the course of your life. Such things do not become apparent to you in an instant. Instantaneous recognition is impossible, because recognition is based in perception, which is based in sensory experience, which unfolds in time, not in a momentary flash of existence. The philosopher or poet who loses sight of this connection, loses sight of this context of recognition and meaning, is expressed in an inadequate and unconvincing theory or an unmoving and shoddy artwork. This unwanted result, Dewey would say, is the result of stopping at recognition, without realizing recognition historically situated and preceded by perception, or the cumulative acts of the senses which gathered enough data, as it were, to make recognition possible in the first place.
Thus perceived and recognized, relationships between cause and effect in nature become in the consciousness of man means and ends, in an artistic or productive sense. In art, in the conscious capability of restoring the meaning of the union of sense of the pattern or rhythm of desire and fulfillment, man eventually achieves his greatest feat, the very idea of art. Man not only understood and reproduced his understanding of experience, but could now reproduce the effects of the primal matter out of which those experiences came. Thus, man could not only write poetry about the fire that came from heaven, he could reproduce that fire itself, through his powers of useful scientific praxis. On that note, the distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts is artificial. The distinction is not intrinsic to the object, be it a spoon or a sword or a button from a blouse. Products will lack an aesthetic quality, and so be deemed merely useful, to the degree that they are not infused with this union of sense-meaning, and when they are not enjoyed because they lack pleasant, harmonious attributes. The spoon will be just a spoon and not an object of fascination and admiration if it lack that elegantly impressed, winding, whirling vine shape, with its soft verdant curves contrasted against the cool-to-the-touch, sterling silver metal handle, emphasizing symbolically (which is to say sensorily) the relationship between one’s broccoli soup and the spoon one eats it with.
Those who try to maintain a dualism between spirit and matter, art and everyday living, lead lives of quiet desperation, to be sure, but also miss the point of the continuity of man’s achievements within his environment and the environment itself. The so-called etherial realm (perhaps Plato’s eternal ideas), divine inspirations, and such things, either real or illusory, do not fall from the sky into man’s head, but flow directly from his sensory experiences with his environment. Poetic sentiments and testimonials attest to art and science’s dependency on sense-experience of natural environments. The ideal, the spiritual, perceived eternal or universal truths are embodied in experience, in the sense of harmony of movement, which touches us to the core. The religious ritual is an extension, or exemplification of this. The religious experience ought not to be thought of as existing apart from the body, from sense experience, but in and through it. Ceremony is bedecked with colorful vestments of bright gold, perhaps symbolizing divinity through the very earthy notions of the purity of the yellow metal. Incense, which is taken to be a sign of the mysterious, is a rather organic, crude thing, derived from smashed tree bark, and other plant matter. Religious experience, the ultimate of the etherial things, appeals, not so much to the heart or intellect but to the eyes and nose, and other sense organs. The medieval world, and Church of that time, best exemplified this dependency of sense of sense, of meaning and emotive content on the stuff of our sensory experiences. At this time, the arts lived and flourished in the dance between the spirit and the flesh, the water and tears, smoke and veil, wine and blood. The idealization of ideality, and its separation from sensual reality, has, quite literally, sucked the blood from the body of our lives.
Dewey concludes, the artist is the live creature, who has not spurned the stuff of sense for etherial things, nor yet is the live creature a skeptic who is not contented with half-truths, with unjustified speculations, precisely because he has no need to be perturbed in his musings. His poetic insights are fully informed by reality, the deepest sense of reality, the relationship and interplay of the organic body with and in its environment. These he gathers by an intuitive sense, unmediated (initially) by intellectual reflection. The great artist, the great thinker, does not let the second-hand objection of the intellect impede his expression or thought, which was given in the first place unattended by any intellectualizing in his sense-experience. Why should he question it? The Coleridges of this world do question it, and their art suffers. And the reason why is not so hard to understand. Reason itself is dependent upon sense and imagination. If the world of sense is not trusted, then reason will fail, or reason is already set up for failure insofar as it pretends to offer to the organism what it itself does not have. Art, through the re-presentation of our sensory experience gives us back ourselves as it relates to our incorporated existence with our environment. Reason attempts to be set apart from this drama, to play a lead role when it was only an auxiliary. Reason, that is, attempts to set up a false dualism between nature and spirit, the live creature from etherial things.
Thus much for the live creature, his environment, and what are productive ways of thinking about how they are related, and not so productive ways. Our next and final stop will be in chapter three, Having an Experience, wherein we’ll see how experience may be understood from the intellectual to the practical, to differentiate and isolate it so as to identify the aesthetic experience.
Having an Experience
Though we are ever engaged in experience, because the word implies this dynamical shaping and reshaping of sense-perception and organic being out of our environing conditions, we only ever have an experience when certain factors are in play, such as continuity and fulfillment of action. The former factor implies there are minimal or negligible interruptions of the act, and the latter that the act does not stop prematurely. An experience is one we look back on as unique, individual, distinct from the backdrop of our lives. The breakfast on the balcony that had a definite beginning––being first served a steaming cup of espresso and cream––and an end or consummation, with the last morsel or crumb eaten. A game, a bike ride, a night of stargazing with a cheap telescope, these things could very well constitute what Dewey means by an experience, or, what is equally important and true, they could be so punctuated and pierced with interruptions, or delayed fulfillment, that they do not arise in the memory as distinct and individual experiences, but as episodes not quite defined, nor of much value.
To understand what exactly Dewey means by an experience, perhaps a useful analogy would be the musical movement. I have in mind Franz Shubert’s little piano piece, Moment Musical No. 3 in F Minor. Dewey says an experience has continuity of movement between the whole and the parts, such that each part flows naturally into making up the whole. Music, and the charming piece mentioned, captures this so well. The parts, each measure, naturally dance rhythmically into the next, neither imposing themselves, taking up too much of the spotlight, nor feeling shy, not wanting to share in the attention awhile. And through a continuous movement and merging, there is not room for dead air, lifeless time in which one is bored, unmoved, or unmoving. This is not because the piece, and experiences generally, does not have a rest on all staves at any one time, it is because, even a momentary pause, a musical rest, would be fitting and good in that experience. An experience has a name, just as this piece does, because of a pervasive quality about it. What is it in this piece? I would say it is one of determined joy, no matter the obstacles––very much like Dewey’s philosophy.
Thinking is yet another example, which Dewey himself supplies. Hume and Locke believed thinking was comprised of atomic units of ideas, each upon each impressing itself, distinct, separate entities that were like pieces of furniture in the living rooms of our minds. This error has been no doubt exaggerated by logical analyses that divide an experience of thinking into premises and conclusions––as if the conclusion were not the source of the premises! The only difference between intellectual experiences, those of thinking, and aesthetic experiences as such consists in the fact that intellectual material does not in itself have any quality, whereas aesthetic material does. But, insofar as the integrity, and fulfilled effort of organized movements of intellect and will are realized, understood and felt, then even an intellectual experience shares essential characteristics with the aesthetic experience, and may be understood as such to that extent. And without this aesthetic quality, there would be no intellectual experience. Hence, to divide sharply the aesthetic from the intellectual is erroneous.
Another example is the practical experience. Aimlessness and mechanical efficiency are the two extremes of practical experience, each of which for its own part fails in the individual taking interest in his actions, and so lacks an aesthetic dimension to it. If there is an interest taken in the doing of a practical act, then there is a degree of the aesthetic to it.
Experiences in general are so identified by this interplay between doing and undergoing, and the meaning of experience suffers to the extent that either doing or undergoing are exaggerated, thereby distorting the perception of the relationship between them. Intelligence is but the perception of this relationship, so it makes little sense to distinguish artistic modes of action from intellectual. Be it the application and perception of pigments, algebraic symbols, or stresses or words, the painter, mathematician, or poet are all engaged in the same business.
What do these distinctions have to do with art and the aesthetic? Well, art is about doing, and aesthetic about undergoing, yet Dewey points out that these should not be distinguished so sharply, because then that would do away with intelligence, which is the perception of the relationship between these two. The doing is both a skillful artistic movement, but also an aesthetic doing, and undergone, reflected and felt doing, such that, for example, the painter senses as he paints the particular strokes, which render a particular effect, with his eyes and hands, maybe even his ears, if that is how he tuned to his craft. Beethoven was nigh deaf when he composed some of his best work. He didn’t hear his pieces. He felt them. His piano’s legs were cut off so he could feel the vibrations of the different pitches and registers. This is one example of how an artist is engaged in aesthetic sense while being artistically productive.
The truly aesthetic experience comes to the fore when the doing is guided by the pleasure of the undergoing or perceiving, such that the action taken in the doing is directed as cause is to effect. That succession of melodic notes, coupled with this rhythmic urge, produces a delightful effect, I should think, says the composer at play; or, that stroke renders these clouds quite fluffy, summery, and warm, I believe, says the painter.
Perception and appreciation is not passive but a responsive act which is built up, one upon another, to completion and fulfillment. Dewey says that, otherwise, one is not perceiving but recognizing. Recognition is undeveloped perception. Recognition is always at the service of something else other than the object before the experiencer, whereas perception is motivated by the thing itself, to explore, understand, and feel out the thing itself, to truly encounter it.
Recognition is schematic, based upon previous observation, conditioning, or detailing which helps to make bare identifications of the thing in question. We are struck by a detail or other of a landscape, a face, a piece of furniture which had escaped our notice before. We become aware that we were not aware before that moment of the detail of the thing. The new awareness is through perception, Dewey tells us, which replaces the facile act of recognition, which, in a way, was a stumbling block to our perceiving the thing in itself for what it really was. “This act of seeing involves the cooperation of motor elements even though they remain implicit and do not become overt, as well as cooperation of all funded ideas that may serve to complete the new picture that is forming. Recognition is too easy to arouse vivid consciousness.” One who merely recognizes is not quite engaged in the experience, insofar as the new material no longer has a chance to develop, since the old is dominant, and arrests or prevents the new from taking shaping and becoming itself.
Perception is pervaded with the emotional, with a commotion of energies that pervade the entire organism thus engaged in the act. Further, perception is receptive but not merely passive, because an expenditure of energy is required to really take in the object. We dive in, and become overwhelmed with the perceptive act. Perception, thus, is creative, in the sense of the form the artist created the object, or more strictly speaking, recreative. Just as the artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged according to his interests, so too must the percipient do so, if he is to perceive the object as a work of art. Signification abstraction must take place with the viewer as it had with the artist. If this work of the aesthetic perceiver is neglected, then his artistic appreciation will be, whatever else, not of the the piece of art in front of him.
From digging holes in the earth to cataloging the cosmos, if the experience is marked by this sense of integrity, it is aesthetic––that would explain, among so many other things, why children never really see digging in the mud as work, where as ditch-digging is often a pejorative insult to laborers, or, when a boy who is fascinated, emotionally driven to discern and disclose every minute detail of a topic or object, we call him––pejoratively, again––a schoolboy. Yet the practical and the intellectual are nevertheless not the aesthetic in the focal meaning, because either does not dwell within the experience as a whole, but always favors the end. The practical experience may be aesthetic in potential, but as soon as it becomes too focused with the aesthetic mode of the means to the end, the end is delayed or not reached. Chesterton uses an example of a man who really did have a deep admiration for interworking and miraculous invention of the telephone. He would linger and wish to remain in the means of communicating his desire to be connected to a telephone miles away uptown, thereby never actually able to fulfill that desire. The intellectual experience, too, would suffer the same fate if it tried to be a purely aesthetic experience. If an astronomer were to just stare at his images, instead of place them in a broader body of knowledge and draw certain inferences from them, thereby arriving at a conclusion, he would probably not keep his telescope subsidy time.
The aesthetic experience, then, is the perceived interrelations between doing a thing and perceiving a thing, or the perception of how a thing was done, which involves a recreated act of the form that that thing was done in, through significant abstraction. That is to say, the aesthetic experience can be either artistically productive, or an experience of how that produced art, through a sensitivity to the way in which it was done, was made. There is no clean divide between art and the aesthetic experience, just as there is no clean divide between the practical and the intellectual experiences with the aesthetic. Both the practical and the intellectual, if they hope to rise above the mundane routine or aimless daydreams or idling about, must be aesthetic in the sense of having an integrated meaning to their movements. And when the perceived factors which are involved in the practical or intellectual become a thing in themselves to be marveled at, not in part but in their integrated totality of the whole act, then the experience becomes authentically and purely aesthetic.
Thus concludes my commentary of the first three chapters of Art as Experience. It has been an informative journey, one which disposes me to exciting possibilities for the experience of deeper meanings and emotions in my life, whether I be digging a trench for a hedge, cooking hamburgers on the grill, or writing an essay on aesthetic philosophy.
On the False Dichotomy between Perception and Recognition
Is it really the case that recognition is so at odds with perception? Dewey makes it seem as though those who recognize are somehow aesthetically inept bookworms who just go around pointing their fingers, identifying things without seeing them, without experiencing them. The impression is that people who merely recognize do not have emotional reactions to what they identify, or to the act of identification itself. But is this the case? Does Dewey do a good job at isolating a phenomenon, distinguish it in its place and phase in a broader spectrum of the act? I argue no, though I must not give the impression that the distinction Dewey does make between perception and recognition cannot be helpful and instructive. He is signaling, identifying, recognizing himself an important phenomenon. The question is, whether that phenomenon, whatever it is in the broad landscape of experience, should be called identification or bare recognition, or if it should itself be distinguished from it as something else. I argue in what follows that perception is not the developed form of recognition but is actually the first stages, the gathering phase of the aesthetic act, which itself is only made possible, not finally through perception, but through recognition, which is itself a mysterious act.
That recognition is inseparable from perception is obvious, even according to the language Dewey used to talk about the perceptive act. To recall, “This act of seeing involves the cooperation of motor elements even though they remain implicit and do not become overt, as well as cooperation of all funded ideas that may serve to complete the new picture that is forming.” The very ideas of, well, ideas are given in the perceptive act according to Dewey’s description. Ideas are either given or created, are recognized, are, yes seen (idea means in the Greek, as the reader well knows, the seen quality or shape of the thing). The funded idea is the idea which was given or created in experience from a time before, and as such in this phase of the new experience constitutes a kind of recognition, which is not passive but actively involved with the subject or object of the experience. The continuous act of perception is impossible without the acts of recognition, and there is no act of perception without recognition.
But neither is there any act of recognition without perception. This is where Dewey makes his mistake. Ultimately, or primarily, recognition is not the beginning but the end of an experience of a thing. It is clear that perception must be the grounds upon which recognition is based, not the other way around. If one were to trace the personal history of a quality of thing from its conception, one would find that it is the perceived qualities that come first, then the identification of the qualities with a group of things having those qualities, but with the added differentiating quality that sets it apart, thereby justifying its inclusion in one group, or genus, but separate from other subgroups or species.
The histories of these qualities are not always apparent. Substances, like kangaroos or unicorns, are easier, because these ideas usually originate with an individual, such as a biologist or poet. But where did the straight and the curved come from whereby we distinguish between a scimitar and an Arthurian broadsword? Wherever they came from, the ideas of straightness and curvature, this much is clear, recognition of these qualities did not come before. There must have been a gathering process, of sense-perception, perhaps of the way light hits a curved surface versus a straight surface. Perhaps it is how it feels, the continuous, smooth assuring regularity of a hand gliding over a straight surface, or the somewhat uncomfortable feel of a hand over a curving surface, with the precarious movement of an uncertain climax or falling off. Wherever it came from, these qualities of straight and curved help to explain and catalog or identify phenomena as diverse as weapons to the very speculated structures of the cosmos. But they have their origin in a pre-recognition act of the intellect. It is true, to say with Aristotle, that the universal is somehow present even in the sensed particular, otherwise how would it be distinguished from any other sense particular, and so named, but this sensed universal particular is not what I think Dewey was meaning by an act of recognition. Recognition for him suggests something far more established than what Aristotle was referring to.
The problem we are running up against is age-old, and is based on the ancient debate between theories of knowledge, whether it be based on recognition, as with Plato, or sensation, as with Aristotle. I am not sure where Dewey saw himself in the debate, or if he even cared about it. His lack of sensitivity to the question suggests that he either didn’t know or care about it, but it is a real problem. If we think with Aristotle that things are not remembered but sensed, and the ideas of the qualities are created out of an active intellect, then it would be difficult to insist that, with Dewey, perception follows recognition. It could be that all knowing, all sensing is recognition, as Plato would say. But however it may be, based on the merits of Dewey’s account, recognition must follow, not precede perception.
To complete the picture, to use Dewey’s language, and so complete the aesthetic experience, requires an act of perception, of course, but fundamentally an act of recognition. Funded ideas come in and complete the forming picture. But it is precisely these funded ideas that I mean by recognition. Funded ideas are not perceptions, because as ideas they have intellectual content, are differentiated species, without which no picture could form in the first place. And they are thus recognized in their act of completing the picture, the aesthetic experience. If they are merely perceived, they are merely sense-perceptions lacking intellectual content whereby they fail to differentiate themselves from anything else in the frame. Differentiation is the essence of recognition or identification. It also happens to be the essence of the artistic or aesthetically sensitive person. To differentiate pitch, color, texture, etc, is the work of the aesthetic experience, both of the artist and the appreciator. Perception merely supplies us with the raw data upon which to act in our differentiating. But differentiating itself presupposing identity, which may come to us either through an Aristotelian process of nascent universal-particulars, or fully-formed, eternal forms we remember in a Platonic process. The point is, Dewey belittles recognition, and props up perception, when it is precisely in recognition that aesthetic experience is made possible or not.
This helps to explain why, when recognition is not possible, as in the case of most modern “art”, pleasure or enjoyment from the experience, if it can even be called an experience, is so lacking. It also explains why a child is so giddy to recognize and identify a particular bird in the backyard. The pleasure comes in the fulfilled understanding of the thing experienced. If it were merely a bird, or merely an animal, or merely a moving mass of unidentifiable color, the child would not be as moved to such glee––just as I am not moved to such glee when I fail to identify a piece of twisted junk metal someone upstairs in the art department calls lawn art. The color, the movement, the genus of animal, the species of woodpecker, these are degrees of intensified meaning, and so a movement through them constitutes an essential ingredient in the aesthetic experience. To stop at color or movement, very abstract, for close to sense-perception ideas, would be to, in effect and directly contrary to what Dewey said, arrest the aesthetic experience from happening and developing. Recognition does not arrest perception, and so experience. Recognition is the culmination and consummation of experience, be it practical, intellectual, or aesthetic. Further, were the perceptions that Dewey said perfected experience to be precisely these qualities of movement, direction, color, pitch, texture, fast, slow, freely, rigidly, dolce or melancholic, and other such abstract, non-substantial qualities, he would still be committed to the proposition that recognition consummates experience, because if one could not identity or recognize, could not differentiate between these qualities, one would not be having an aesthetic experience at all, but would be merely passive, inert, undergoing, and not fully alive––not very Dewey-like.
Scheler, Max. Ressentiment. Marquette University Press. 2007. Print.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Penguin Group (New York). 2005. Print.
Southern Illinois University
The Catholic University of America
Bachelor of Arts, Philosophy, May 2015
“A Critical Review of Ressentiment: Why Max Scheler’s Account of Moral Transvaluation is Incomplete and Why It Must Remain So.”
“A Commentary on the First Three Chapters of Art as Experience and on the False Dichotomy between Perception and Recognition found therein.”
Major Professor: Andrew Youpa