Category Archives: Philosophy

Dewey and Husserl on the Western Crisis

In the early twentieth century, academics sensed a crisis in Western (European and American) thought. A profound skepticism and melancholy seemed to grip Western culture. People lost faith in traditional academic disciplines, like philosophy, to address social problems and provide a sense of purpose and direction. American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had different responses to this crisis. Dewey argued that philosophy must become practical, while Husserl believed philosophy must continually find new areas for science to investigate. That way, philosophy could be saved from the intellectual trash bin.

John Dewey

John Dewey

Dewey believed the crisis in Western thought, a crisis which leads to anxiousness and pessimistic uncertainty, originated in Platonic dualism―the separation of concepts like Truth, Being, and Value from the changing physical world, and their removal from empirical study. The growing complexity of such thought led it further and further away from practical application, and the brightest minds spent their time studying algorithms and abstractions instead of applying their knowledge to the practical world.

As a pragmatist, Dewey called for a reconstruction in philosophy along pragmatic grounds, which would eventually bring abstract thought back to a realm of usefulness. We should take our beliefs in concepts like truth and value and put them to the test just as we do with other considerations. If it turns out those concepts have some practical use, we should keep them. If they don’t, we shouldn’t waste any more time or resources theorizing about them. There is no longer any scientific support, Dewey claimed, for morality standing outside the natural processes of change. Nor can science deny morality is a realm open to scientific inquiry.

If the crisis is to be solved, science and philosophy must be reunited. Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy: “can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing… the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and exclusively human.” In other words, philosophy should be aimed at the natural, not the ‘supra’ natural of Plato’s forms, or the abstract spirit-driven historical method of Hegel.

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Hegel and Kant on Art

Why is art beautiful? Does art reveal something about truth? Is truth identical to beauty? German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) both contemplated these questions, and they came up with different answers. For Hegel, truth and beauty are found in art. For Kant, truth and beauty are in the mind of the beholder.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

According to Kant, when we view beautiful art, we recognize it as beautiful (a judgement of taste) because of the feeling it arouses. Liveliness of the mind brought about by a “harmony of the cognitive powers” is the basis of tasteful judgment. This feeling of harmony shows us that beauty is in our minds, and is not a quality that an object possesses.

The two cognitive powers at work when we perceive the beautiful are imagination and understanding. Understanding allows us to recognize the universal. The “free-play” resulting from these two cognitive powers in harmony together is sensed by the effect it has on the mind and produces a sense of pleasure.

When someone recognizes beauty and experiences this feeling of “free-play”, they assume everyone else also feels that way about the object, since everyone has the ability to experience the interaction between imagination and understanding. The ability for everyone to experience that particular feeling is what makes it universally subjective. Because of this, for Kant, a judgment of beauty requires agreement between observers.

Form and design are both essential to beautiful art, according to Kant, because they each play a role in how we judge what is beautiful. Only from form can we “abstract from the quality of the kind of sensation in question.” Kant believed that all primary colors, which are kinds of forms, are beautiful because they have yet to be mixed together. He does not believe mixed colors are beautiful because “we lack a standard of judging whether we should call them pure or impure.” Purity is an important aspect of form.

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Quills: Madness in the Age of Reason

quillsQuills (2000), a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, France, wonderfully echoes the themes in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book, Madness and Civilization (1965). Michel Foucault (1926-1984) originally wrote Madness and Civilization as his doctoral thesis. It examines ideas, practices, institutions, art, and literature relating to insanity in Western history.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) was a French aristocrat imprisoned for crimes including blasphemy and sodomy. He became a revolutionary politician and anonymously authored several erotic novels, including Justine and Juliette. He spent his twilight years imprisoned in Charenton asylum after Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the author of Justine and Juliette, which he considered blasphemous and obscene. At Charenton, under the care of Abbé de Coulmier, de Sade had an affair with 14-year-old Madeleine LeClerc. These events formed the historical basis for the movie Quills.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. The film opens during the French Revolution. Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) witnesses the execution of a young aristocratic woman from the window of his prison cell in the Bastille. The executioner is none other than Bouchon, who later appears as the most disturbed patient at Charenton. “One day, Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man every bit as perverse as she, a man whose skill in the art of pain exceeded her own,” de Sade explained to the audience. Later, when his services were no longer needed, the poor wretch was locked up without any kind of treatment (because, as Foucault tells us, madness was not considered to be an ‘illness’ at the time). The implication was that justice in the “Age of Reason” was dolled out by the insane.

When Napoleon orders de Sade’s execution, an advisor suggests instead that he send Doctor Antoine Royer-Collard, “a staunchly moral man of impeccable character,” to appraise the situation at Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

“Welcome to our humble madhouse doctor,” de Sade says as Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) arrives at Charenton. “I’m sure you’ll find yourself at home.” Historically, Royer-Collard arrived in 1806. He did not believe de Sade was insane and petitioned to have him sent to a regular prison. In Quills, the character of the doctor symbolizes several themes in Foucault’s work. He presents himself as a purely rational and moral man. Because human passions were seen as a form of madness, the doctor shows his sanity by being totally dispassionate. He places an iron barrier between himself and those he considers insane.

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Hegel and Nietzsche on Art

Early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his later counterpart, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), had different views on art and its purpose. Both philosophers believed Classical Greek art was art in its highest form, but disagreed over who it served–man or nature.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

According to Hegel, art, along with religion, science, and philosophy, are all expressions of our mind’s need to know itself, or its need to reconstruct the world in its image. He believed this is realized through practical activity, activity that, for art, includes painting, sculpture, etc. It’s through these mediums that absolute spirit (everything real, including the external world and human minds) expresses itself in sensory form. Because it is a power of spirit to externalize all internal things, and internalize external things, art must be an expression of some internal aspect of the artist.

In the broad case of art through the ages, the “artist” is spirit working itself out through history. Hegel believed the internal aspect of spirit is truth; therefore truth must be what is externalized in an artwork. The truth of art is inseparable from its physical form. Hegel also believed the ideal of beauty is perfection of form, which for him expresses the most spiritual truth. Since, for Hegel, art reaches its technical perfection (in other words, in perfect form) in Classical art, Classical art is therefore the most beautiful art form. The goal of art is to unify content and form.

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Nietzsche and Ortega Juxtaposed

In “Nietzsche and the State” and “Ortega and the State,” I examined critiques of statism by two prominent modern European philosophers. Because Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) witnessed the rise of the modern state in central Europe, and José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) experienced statism’s maturity and destructive potential, these two philosophers offer an excellent juxtaposition with which to critique contemporary statism. Although they did not agree on every point, their perspectives shed light on the leviathan.

José Ortega y Gasset

José Ortega y Gasset

Both Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset were alarmed by the development of the modern state, which matured to ascendancy in the late Eighteenth Century. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Nietzsche witnessed Otto von Bismarck forge his native Germany from a collection of dozens of independent political entities into a German Empire with a strong central government, mass conscription, national welfare programs, universal manhood suffrage, and an urban mass media.

Nietzsche died before the First World War, but José Ortega y Gasset lived to see the nation-states of Europe engulfed in that conflagration along with the chaos that followed. He saw the revolutions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, and that of his own country, Spain, which degenerated into civil war shortly after he published La rebelión de las masas.

The events of their lifetime undoubtedly had a profound impact on the philosophies of both men, and both departed from their philosophical analysis to point out contemporary events to illustrate their critiques. They knew these events could not be escaped, although both Nietzsche (who fled to Switzerland and northern Italy) and Ortega (who fled to Argentina) tried. While Nietzsche loathed politics, however, Ortega took an active role in attempting to guide the events of his day in his own country. Ortega believed that a liberal republic in Spain could moderate and control the violent excesses of the social transition from pre-modern to modern. History proved him wrong.

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Ortega and the State

José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was the preeminent Spanish philosopher of the first half of the Twentieth Century. A complex figure, he was at the same time an elitist, a classical liberal, and a republican. He was born into a wealthy bourgeois family, became the Chair in Metaphysics at Complutense University in Madrid in 1910, and he was the deputy for the province of León until the Spanish Civil War. After the outbreak of the war, he lived in self-imposed exile in Argentina until 1945. Ortega, as a witness to both the First and Second World Wars, was an ardent critic of the modern state. In The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas) (1930), he predicted that the forces of statism would inevitably lead to ever-increasing levels of violence. The state, he wrote, was “the gravest danger now threatening European civilization.”

The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas)

What set Ortega apart from other critics of the modern state was his concise social and psychological analysis of the origins of statism. Rather than frame the evolution of the modern state in simple philosophical, religious, or economic terms, he sought to explain its rise as the logical outcome of a revolt of the common man, or the “masses.” By “masses,” Ortega was referring not to a class of people but a type of person who by his or her nature constitutes a numerical majority. This majority is made up of unexceptional people, people who toiled for thousands of years in relative anonymity. Their sudden awakening was made possible by the unprecedented growth of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages.

The state, such as it existed during the Middle Ages and throughout most of recorded history, was as Ortega put it, “quite a small affair.” By the 1700s, however, society, in the form of a middle class, outgrew those rudimentary structures of government. Where the old Noble class excelled in leadership, “historic responsibility,” and sheer bravado, the new bourgeois class excelled in rationalization and technique. The state, Ortega argued, is not a thing in and of itself, but a technique; a technique that is utilized for public administration and for preserving public order. Therefore the bourgeoisie naturally agitated for an increasingly larger role in state affairs.

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