Friday, May 18, 2012

Shaviro on Kant, Hegel, and the Priority of Aesthetics

I would like to reblog an older but great post by Shaviro at The Pinochio Theory.

There, he claims that “the differend between Kant and Hegel is still crucial” even for speculative realists.  I agree with the notion, though I note that it can be expressed in other ways.  my favorite part is:

“Or else, as I prefer — following Whitehead as I understand him — we can invert the order of the Critiques so that the 3rd critique comes first — becoming, as Whitehead put it, a critique of feeling, which makes the other critiques unnecessary — that is to say, aesthetics precedes cognition — we affect and are affected by other things aesthetically before we cognize those other things, and even (or especially) when we cannot cognize them adequately. We cannot *know* things in themselves, or things apart from their correlation with us; but we can, as Harman rightly suggests, allude to them, i.e. refer to them metaphorically or indirectly. And we can, as well, be aesthetically *moved* by them — indeed, this is the primordial mode ofactual  contact among entities (and in saying this, I am espousing a Whiteheadian version of SR which differs from Harman’s object-oriented ontology).”

The idea that the “aesthetic precedes cognition” is not new with Whitehead, and I believe that Shaviro knows that.  Arguably, it was not new with Kant, as he does treat of aesthetics as order in the first Critique.  However, Shaviro is right in that it is the third Critique that treats of purposes in nature.  Regardless, the notion goes at least as far back as the romantics.

I have posted previously, however, about the danger that this model exposes.  If aesthetics precedes cognition, then what is the relation of morality to aesthetics?  Many contemporaries aestheticize morality, and I see this as necessary on this view, although how morality is aestheticized is crucial to avoid adopting a Humean view … unless that is one’s intent all-along.  In that case I would disagree.  More on that later, though for specifics I would direct inquirers to my Transactions article.


  1. To me it makes sense to say that normativity is already part of the aesthetic, and hence political and moral principles, too, are already part of the aesthetic (and thus independent of human construction or not simply a human construction). Aesthetics is politics, aesthetics is ethics. But we need to adjust what we mean by those terms.

    To say that normativity is already part of the aesthetic is to suggest that the intensities of experience - sensation- combines in such a way so as to produce either harmonizations or discordances among the data.

    The principle of harmonization is that of the beautiful, competing intensities are aligned in such a way that the various parts come together as a stable whole. As a whole with various parts balances it is beautiful, "good."

    Discordance is felt as pain and ugliness, perceived as falsity, and is an imbalance, it is to be avoided though does provide the necessary contrast such that alliances can be joined and sutured.

    Moreover, value and worth, importance, appears to be part of the natural world itself - part and parcel of these activities. Perhaps nature is a "valuing", and ongoing activity of striving toward the good and beautiful as a principle (where there is no transcendent good per se). Again, the good, the true, the beautiful simply being the harmonization of the competing intensities of experience.

    A morality that states the good is desirable in the terms outline above can be wholly naturalistic (I think at least).

    Just riffing here, provisional thoughts as always. If I had to nod to several philosophers to get some contextualization going I would say Plato, Whitehead, Hartshorne, perhaps even Deleuze (though he would emphasize the discordant and anarchic but I am suggesting more of a neoclassical balance which admits the discordant and anarchic as part of what establishes natural beauty).

    Leon/after nature

  2. As a post scriptum I should address why the good, the true, the beautiful is more desirable than pain, ugliness, evil, falsity, etc. That involves a "judgment" however *that the good is more desirable* is independent of judgment. One might say that naturalistically harmonies are "better than" discordances as a form of metaphysical stasis - where that basic condition of stasis is what all things are after but cannot attain, as the striving for stasis is what motivates life. And so while the basic nature of life is an anti-conservative force, a pushing out and breaking off into discordances, a struggling and a striving, the heart of the matter is conservative - a longing for wholeness and completion, and stasis which cannot be fulfilled absolutely. Thus abit of Freud here as well.

    Metaphysically and hence also politically this normativity would be fundamentally libertarian (freedom, discordance) and conservative (stasis, balance, order).

    Again, just riffing here.

    Leon/after nature

  3. Leon,

    I will have more detailed comments later. Yes, I along with Peirce would place all those under the normative sciences. Aesthetics and ethics are kinds of valuation. The problem is that the two are simultaneous but mutually irreducible. My critique is then that scholars, especially some pragmatist scholars, are either explicitly reducing the moral to the aesthetic, or are implicitly doing so through their methodology. Dewey can be read either way, and I think it's possible but much harder to save James from this--does he want to be "saved?"

    For the record, I am a virtue ethicist. That makes me more "conservative" than many academics.