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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Morally Sound

Posted by Daniel Green on 07/26/05 at 07:00 AM

In “Literary Aesthetics and the Aims of Criticism” (included in Theory’s Empire), Paisley Livingston comes to this eminently reasonable conclusion about aesthetic experience:

An aesthetic experience of literature, I suggest, is an intrinsically valued experience occasioned by the contemplation of the qualities of a literary work of art. Such contemplation is what is lacking in nonaesthetic modes of reading. In the latter, the work or its text is read in a purely and exclusively instrumental spirit, or the intrinsic value attached to the experience does not fine its basis in an attentive and apt attention to the features of the work.

Livingston then renders his own description incoherent by sneaking “moral content” through the aesthetic back door:

. . .the moral content of a literary work should be acknowledged as being directly relevant to an appreciation of that work qua literary work, my principal reason being that in some contexts moral featues directly influence the work’s aesthetic function and value. Attempts to define the specificity of the artistic responses to works of fiction along purely formalist lines have been notoriously problematic. . .If, on the contrary, moral and political ideas are an intrinsic part of many literary works of art, their assessment would seem directly relevant to an evaluation of the works’ overall merits. What is more, since it is reasonable to think that our emotional (or quasi-emotional) reactions to works of fiction are directly relevant to the aesthetic dimensions of these works, moral considerations should be recognized as of aesthetic relevance. . . .

It seems to me that in the second passage Livingston undoes all the good work he’s done in the first to identify the distinctive features of an aesthetic experience of literature. How can it be that “nonaesthetic modes of reading"--which presumably would include reading experiences of such things as moral discourse or poltical analyses--lack a “basis in an attentive and apt attention to the features of the work,” but nevertheless “moral and political ideas” ought to be assessed in an aesthetic mode of reading? Does Livingston mean that we ought to consider such ideas in their aesthetic dimension, whatever that might be? (A beautifully formed “poltical idea”?) Or in insisting that moral and political ideas be taken into account while evaluating a work’s “overall merits,” is he defining “merit” broadly, as something that goes beyond the merely aesthetic? (A given work has both aesthetic and “moral” merit?)

It would seem that Livingston thinks that “moral features” are somehow an “intrinsic” element of a literary work’s aesthetic makeup--or at least of our “aesthetic response” to the work. “Aesthetic” includes both the formal and the moral. But how can this be? Dictionary definitions of the terms tell us that an aesthetic judgment applies criteria of “beauty”; a moral judgment applies criteria of “right behavior.” It might be true that an obnoxious moral belief held by a particular artist or writer could lead to a flawed aesthetic choice, but ultimately our judgment of the work in question should be based on its subsequent aesthetic flaw, not on its moral repugnance (although we may feel moral disgust as well). If “aesthetic” and “moral” are as interchangeable and permeable as Livingston suggests, don’t they become meaningless terms? They simply designate some vague and underdetermined “response” on the viewer’s or reader’s part.

Since human beings hold all kinds of beliefs, and give a higher priority to some than to others, it would be unreasonable to expect we could always neatly separate out our aesthetic sensibilities from our moral reactions from our political ideas. It does seem possible, however, that literary criticism could make an effort to “bracket” the aesthetic and the moral and not to deliberately conflate them.  It could insist that while works of literature come loaded with moral implications that are well worth reflection and debate, moral considerations should not “be recognized as of aesthetic relevance” unless by “relevance” you mean “something to think about after you’ve located these considerations within the otherwise distinctive and qualifying context provided by the aesthetic.” Moreover, it might be more specific about what a “moral consideration” properly might be other than to equate it with “emotional (or quasi-emotional) reactions to works of fiction.” (I’m not sure I’ve ever had a quasi-emotional reaction to anything.) It might maintain, in fact, that both aesthetic and moral responses to literature are much more than just manifestations of “emotion” in the first place.

If the editors of this anthology want to return literature to the study of literature, the inclusion of Livingston’s essay (its publication in the anthology marks its first appearance in print) suggests the editors of Theory’s Empire don’t want to exclude “content” from the consideration of “the literary.” Neither do I, but I don’t see how blurring distinctions between the aesthetic and the moral is going to set literary study back on a solid foundation. Ultimately, what’s the difference between smuggling “moral content” into an account of the “aesthetic experience of literature” and smuggling in sociological analysis and political ideology, the sort of thing for which TE takes Theory’s emperors to task? I don’t say that the aesthetic counts for everything in the study of literature, only that it’s where such study should begin. Let’s “contemplate” for a little bit before we rush on to making moral arguments.


Okay, Daniel, consider this example: in Middlemarch George Eliot devotes dozens of pages to the elucidation of a problem faced by a doctor named Lydgate. Lydgate has a patron, to whom he owes his job, and that patron (whose name is Bulstrode) has a favored candidate for the chaplaincy of a hospital. Lydgate is a member of the board who will elect that chaplain. He knows that if he votes for Bulstrode’s candidate everyone will wink and say that he’s in Bulstrode’s back pocket, which will cost him social credibility. He doesn’t know too much about this candidate, but the other finalist (named Farebrother) he knows quite well—in fact, Farebrother is a friend of his, and he doesn’t want to lose that friendship. However, as much as he enjoys Farebrother’s company, he has serious reservations about Farebrother’s commitment to the ministry, and doubts that he would be committed to the work of being a chaplain.

As I say, Eliot devotes dozens of pages (though not in one chunk) to this single dilemma. Is her devotion aesthetically warranted? Does this part of the novel <i>work</i> specifically as art? It seems to me that any answer any reader gives to that question will be at least partially dependent on whether that reader agrees with, or is at least sympathetic to, Eliot’s understanding of how everyday moral decision-making works. A reader fundamentally at odds with her account of the moral life will probably find the description of Lydgate’s problem tedious—in just the same way that Tolstoy thought Dostoevsky a bad writer because he thought Dostoeveky was making life seem a lot more complicated than it really is. (Or in the same way that a reader from an earlier period in European history would find it impossible to understand why Eliot thought this insignificant man’s moral problems worth narrating at all.) However, it is also possible that someone who began <i>Middlemarch</i> predisposed against Eliot’s moral philosophy could be converted to it by the strength of her narration.

Both here and on your blog, you seem committed to the idea that it is vital to find a way to disentangle these strands of response, so that the aesthetic is clearly differentiated from the non-aesthetic. I think James Wood is right to call this a kind of “puritanism,” and I admit that I can’t understand why someone would think such disentangling so necessary. If it were possible—which I doubt—what would it achieve?

By on 07/26/05 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(What’s with the HTML tags there? Sorry about that.)

By on 07/26/05 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan: I really don’t know what to say about your example. I find all of Middlemarch tedious, precisely because I don’t read novels to discover the author’s “moral philosophy.”

I also don’t know at all what you’re trying to suggest by accusing me of “puritanism.”

By Daniel Green on 07/26/05 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I once heard the philosopher Noel Carroll give a paper in which, in the course of criticizing the Kantian account of aesthetic judgment as inadequate, he gave a thumbnail account of what he believed most appeals to aesthetic appreciation include (in an effort to give aesthetic judgment the strongest possible case).  He saw two elements being foregrounded (if I remember right): sensitivity to design and appreciation of expressive power.  In other words, few people highlight an appreciation of construction alone, but assume that the experience of beauty requires an appreciation of depth or resonance or grandeur or piquancy or something along those lines.  In short, pathos. 

I’m guessing that you’ll find that view unconvincing, Daniel, but if it’s true, Alan has it right, I think.  It seems almost inevitable that moral features will indeed inevitably work their way in through the back door. 

In any case, though this isn’t exactly on point, haven’t most accounts of the aesthetic since at least Schiller had a strong moral or ethical dimension--i.e., not just that it’s fun, but that it’s good for you.

By on 07/26/05 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whether you find Middlemarch tedious, or fascinating, or something in between is not germane to the question I was raising, Daniel; I was not giving an illustration of aesthetic (or for that matter philosophical) excellence, but rather an illustration of the ways in which aesthetic and philosophical judgments tend to weave together, both in the act of writing and the act of interpretation. So what I find interesting is your explanation for finding the book tedious: that Eliot is too much the moral philosopher. Would you say that the novel is not the place for moral philosophy? (If so, I would counter that there’s a certain kind of moral philosophy—George Eliot’s kind—which can really be done only in novels, though people like John Stuart Mill tried to do it in other ways. But I digress.)

If you would say that the novel is not the place for moral philosophy, then I wonder if that is an aesthetic judgment or some other kind. It sounds like a moral judgment to me. Of course (you see I’m giving you options—think of this post as a multiple-choice quiz) you might just decline to make any such statement, and confine yourself to repeating that you find Middlemarch tedious. I do know people who think that the test of a true aesthetic judgment is that it can’t be translated into any other terms—so that they would indeed just say that they find a given work tedious or moving or stimulating or whatever it is—but that seems to take us perilously close to the I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like school. A real conversation-stopper, that one. What I think unfortunate about your hostility to James Wood is that he has done more than anyone else currently writing to find an adequate—and a highly artful!—vocabulary for explaining and developing aesthetic judgments. (See his great essay on Melville for conclusive evidence of this.)

As for “puritanism”: that was Wood’s word, and what I think he meant by it—and if he did then I agree with him—is something like this: Puritans are separatists, determined to keep the wheat well clear of the chaff, intent on practicing a strict spiritual hygiene. Your insistence on policing the boundary between the aesthetic and the moral, for the specific purpose of treasuring the aesthetic and setting the moral aside (if only for a season), follows the same logic. Only it’s an aesthetic hygiene you’re pursuing rather than a spiritual one.

By on 07/26/05 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Would you say that the novel is not the place for moral philosophy?”

I would say that. Moral philosophy is the place for moral philosophy. I believe that someone interested in “aesthetic hygiene” might be called an aesthete rather than a puritan.

“haven’t most accounts of the aesthetic since at least Schiller had a strong moral or ethical dimension--i.e., not just that it’s fun, but that it’s good for you.”

I don’t know if “most” have, but these would be exactly the acounts of the aesthetic I would tend to avoid--as well as the artists who seem to accept them.

By Dan Green on 07/26/05 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read the essay, Daniel (though I will when the book reaches my library) but the passages that you quote don’t seem incoherent to me, nor do I read them as contradicting your last sentences: 
I don’t say that the aesthetic counts for everything in the study of literature, only that it’s where such study should begin.

From what Livingston says here, I don’t see him arguing that doing literary aesthetics should also involve passing judgment on a work’s moral orientation.  Nor is he saying necessarily that a critic ought to assess how elegantly or persuasively or whatever a moral/didactic lesson is expounded by a literary work. 

Isn’t he saying, rather, that a work’s aesthetic effects are sometimes worked up via arrangements of morally saturated materials?  Some works are so weighted in that direction that it’s hard to see how a coherent aesthetic account could entirely set the moral element aside, ignore it.  I find this completely reasonable with works that are much concerned with disgust or pity or terror or horror, all of which I’d consider aesthetic emotions (120 Days of Sodom, Journey to the End of Night, Junky.) Contemplating the literary elaboration of disgust isn’t the same as denouncing it - though I think there are times when as a human being you need to be able to exercise conscience, even in relation to literary representations.

By on 07/27/05 at 02:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I would say, in reply to Dan, that there is a place in the novel for anything—even moral philosophy! —that a gifted artist can convincingly bring into it. I would not want to say in advance, or in the name of some principle (aesthetic or otherwise), what does and does not belong in novels. Such policing of the boundaries, such strict border control, does indeed smack more of puritanism than of aestheticism.

By on 07/27/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My money is in “most,” Dan, but that’s a trivial point in this context.  The real question for me is whether in fact it’s not true that something like expressive power is key to the experience of aesthetic pleasure and whether that does not in fact mean that moral concerns are inevitably in play.  If you read Lear, say, and note the beauty of the mad king’s language, but not the way it expresses the torment that arises from Lear’s relations with his daughters, you’ll be missing something important to the design of the play. If you’re impressed by Humbert Humbert’s prose or Nabokov’s invention and don’t note that it has something to do with child abuse, you’ll be simply a bad reader.  Nothing extraneous in that, or in taking note of it.

By on 07/27/05 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the way it expresses the torment that arises from Lear’s relations with his daughters”

I agree with this, but I don’t see what it has to do with “morality,” or with something being “good for you.” It’s precisely *the way* it expresses the torment that makes it beautiful, not the moral sentiments being expressed. Shakespeare’s accomplishment is still an aesthetic accomplishment, not a moral one.

By Dan Green on 07/27/05 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You don’t see how the story of Lear and his daughters has to do with morality?  Surely, too, it matters to our experience of pathos what moral sentiments are being expressed: frustration at insubordination, dismay at arrogance, anger at injustice, jealousy at partiality, regret at self-involvement--those all involve moral judgments.  If you didn’t think they were significant, beauty of expression alone wouldn’t make a drama moving.

That doesn’t mean it’s good for you, of course.  I mentioned that earlier because I think it’s actually quite typical for aesthetes to smuggle morality into their recommendations for disinterested aesthetic judgment.  Like Alan, I think that’s because it really is futile to try to erect a wall between the two.

By on 07/27/05 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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