(Written by Pete F, a Philosophy & Literature graduate who is currently studying for an MPhil in Philosophy at UCL. Interests include language, art and Wittgenstein)
Andrew Hirst wrote here a little while ago about the expectation that certain (read:’classic’) art must be liked. I think the phenomenon he described is importantly symptomatic of an expectation that the most appropriate reaction to art in general is enjoyment or pleasure.
Hume and Kant
Such prominent writers on aesthetics as Hume and Kant more-or-less took it for granted that aesthetic experience, at least of beauty, was pleasurable in and of itself, or was perhaps itself a special form of pleasure. Of course they acknowledged that not everyone will take pleasure in the same art, but largely attributed this to, say, prejudice, lack of sensory refinement or a less-than-wholly disinterested attitude. On these sorts of assumptions, taking pleasure in art is a condition on proper aesthetic judgement of art. Claiming not to take pleasure in a play of Shakespeare’s, then, will be tantamount either to saying that it is not good art, or that one is not a good judge.
Of course both Hume’s and Kant’s positions are much more subtle and interesting than the caricature sketched above, but I think that the prominence of the idea of pleasure and enjoyment as an appropriate aesthetic response holds in their thought has had a huge effect on the way we often frame issues of enjoyment and understanding in art.
If free will does not exist, then we should not praise good behaviours.
Can we behave as though free will doesn’t exist? What would we do if we believed that all human behaviour (and everything else, for that matter) was determined by causal chains which stretch back to the Big Bang? What would we make of other people’s behaviour? Would we still judge them for bad actions and praise them for good actions? Would we ever punish any criminals? Would we award prizes to those who’ve performed well?
After all, if we don’t believe in free will, all of these actions are not caused by the person themselves. They are caused by a series of causal chains affecting their bodies, brains, and everything else around them, which stretch back a great distance into the past. Unless we’re willing to state that souls or other spiritual entities exist and have some as yet unknown effect on causality, all the best scientific evidence we have points to the fact that free will is illusory. Plenty of people in the world believe this to be the truth. The problem is, however, that these same individuals walk around judging people, praising people, assigning moral and political responsibility as though everyone still has free will. Why?
The beautiful simplicity of the video above, in which a Kindness song is broken down and demonstrated to a young boy, is effective because it explores the dynamic of young children being introduced to contemporary ‘adult’ culture. Videos working on this theme have been repeatedly popular over the past few years. Whether they are candidly reviewing Skrillex at a makeshift disco, harmonising their way through Ariel Pink tracks or simply waking up and having an instinctive bop to Waka Flocka Flame, there is clearly something we find endlessly fascinating about children interacting with music from outside the mainstream cultural frame, which would otherwise be unlikely to enter their sphere.
This piece is a personal account of various intellectual problems I have experienced over the years with academic philosophy. Note: this kind of philosophy can be referred to as the Western analytic tradition, which begun in Ancient Greece with Plato, Artisotle and co. and is still the main focus of philosophy curricula in Western universities. Other kinds of philosophy may have different problems (and different merits).
I chose to study philosophy at A-level on what was basically a whim – I knew little about the subject beyond vaguely remembered names like Plato and Kant and I had grown up in a cultural environment where philosophy was… well, not quite treated with disdain, but seen as a little bit pointless. My other three subjects, psychology, maths and English language, were in my mind way more useful and worthy of study. Philosophy was just a mildly intriguing subject that sounded more interesting than geography or chemistry, which I – after 5 years of study – was well and truly sick of. Little did I know that I’d still be studying it 9 years later.
Right from the start, philosophy had a completely unprecedented effect on my life that no other subject has come close to. I began asking myself questions I had never asked myself before… questions I never even realised had existed. I distinctly remember those initial moments of seriously considering the arguments for the existence of god for the first time, and how it seemed that my world had suddenly become brighter, fuller and full of purpose. There were these huge questions out there that I had never even thought about! Worst of all, there were billions of people who’d never thought about these questions either! My life’s purpose became quite clear: 1) find the answers to these amazing questions and 2) teach these questions to everyone who would listen.