Art and Beauty

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the Brentano Quartet at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. They played three pieces. I liked two of those pieces very much. The first one that I liked was a set of madrigals composed by Carlo Gesualdo, arranged for a string quartet. The other one was String Quartet No. 7, in F Major, Op 59, No. 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven, which I loved. It had all the intensity you would expect from a Beethoven piece, but there were some parts of it that played with interesting dissonances, making it less predictable while still clearly Beethoven-ish.

I did not like the third piece that they played, but it is the inspiration for this blog post.

The piece was “From the Fifth Book” by Stephen Hartke. He wrote it specifically for the Brentano Quartet, and they premiered it in November of last year. I find that modern music of this sort tends to be, simply put, unpleasant. There is too much dissonance and no tonality. I can never tell where it’s going; indeed, it’s unclear whether it’s actually going anywhere. Maybe I just don’t get it, but I’m skeptical that there’s anything to get, just as I’m skeptical that there’s something significant I’m missing when I look at highly abstract modern art.

Upon hearing the piece, my initial thought was “this is bad.” My subsequent thoughts were about how I might justify the initial one. Do I have good grounds for saying that music should not be like this? Shouldn’t music be beautiful? I have been pondering a similar question with regard to modern art. Much modern art seems to me to be pretentious nihilistic crap (e.g. Duchamp). Am I justified in thinking the same way about modern atonal music as I think about Duchamp’s “Fountain”?

I do think I can justify my position, which is that modern atonal music is not only unpleasant to me, but is bad. So I’ll try.

To start, I think it’s important to determine what exactly is the telos of music. More broadly, it would help to consider what might be the telos of art in general. My first thought was beauty, but after further consideration, it seemed to me that not all good art is beautiful. This is especially true in literature. I recently read The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, and beautiful is one of the last words I would use to describe the book. But still, I believe it is good literature. But what makes it good?

My tentative requirement for art to be good is that it powerfully exhibit the truth. Truth is thus the telos of art. In representational art forms, it is easier to see how this works. For example, Crime and Punishment exhibits timeless truths about human psychology and morality through the story of Raskolnikov. But in nonrepresentational art forms, things become more difficult. How can a work of nonrepresentational art be true? In other words, what truth-content can a nonrepresentational work of art have? These are important questions to consider in this context, as most music is nonrepresentational.

Whereas representational art refers to the truth, nonrepresentational art is the truth. True representations lead one along the path to truth; they are not themselves truth, but they are true. True nonrepresentational art does not lead to truth, but is itself the truth. Representational art is true by virtue of what it says. Nonrepresentational art is true by virtue of what it is. This raises the question: What must nonrepresentational art be in order to be true?

This question returns me to my initial instinct, which is to appeal to beauty. But I’m not sure how to define “beauty.” And I’m also not sure if it’s right to say that music must be beautiful in order to be true. Perhaps the beauty follows from the truth of the music, rather than the other way around; indeed, this seems more likely. If this is the case, then we can say that the truth of the music is that which makes the music beautiful.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been watching too many Jordan Peterson videos, but I think that what makes a piece of music beautiful is its mediation between chaos and order, between unknown and known territory. This means that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another, as chaos and order to some degree depend on individual experience. A piece of music fails to be beautiful when it suffers from either an excess of chaos (e.g. too much dissonance) or an excess of order (e.g. no dynamics).

As far as I can tell, atonal music cannot have a sufficient degree of order in it to be beautiful. The order present in most music gives you an idea of what is to come. It creates expectations which it can either meet or subvert. But atonal music cannot create such expectations, meaning that it can neither meet nor subvert them. It just ends up being utterly dull and unengaging.

There still remains the possibility that atonal music is just unexplored territory for me, and that some people do find in it sufficient order to form expectations of what the music will become. But I’m skeptical. I’d love to be proven wrong.


A Common Non Sequitur

It seems that in political/philosophical discussions, no matter what you’re talking about, someone will attempt to argue against your view by injecting “nuance” into the debate. Or at least, they’ll explain how the difficulty of the questions we’re discussing means that we should hesitate to claim confidence in our beliefs. The tricky thing about this is that it is, indeed, important for us to recognize our epistemic limitations. But it doesn’t follow from this that we ought to suspend belief whenever questions are too complex for us to be certain of our answers to them.

People on both sides of the political spectrum do this. For example, I believe that the Civil War was about slavery, at least for the parties who had the power to make decisions relevant to the waging of the war. Some people I know who are right-of-center on the political spectrum argue that other factors (usually states’ rights or economics) were significant enough that it would be inaccurate to say that the Civil War was about slavery. Which is fine. That’s something we can discuss. The problem is when people say my view lacks nuance as if that in itself is evidence against the truth of my view. It’s not. If my view is wrong, it’s wrong because it’s wrong, not because it lacks nuance.

Likewise, those on the far-left are not so enthusiastic about attempts to define human nature. An attempt to say what it is to be human is likely to be met with claims that humanity is far too complex for us to understand its essential features. I’ll be the first to say that I want to be careful when it comes to making bold claims about the nature of human existence. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make such claims at all. In fact, to dogmatically cling to the formula that human nature is indefinable is to make a dogmatic claim about human nature, viz. that it is indefinable. The argument that humanity is too complex for us to know its nature not only fails to present a substantive challenge to my views, but also includes a dogmatic claim about human nature that seems to be defeated by the argument itself.

Some things are nuanced. Some things are not. The merit of a view does not depend on the view’s nuance or lack thereof. It depends on whether the view is true. Just because a question is hard doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an answer, nor does it mean that my answer is wrong.

On Charlie Gard

I do not often use profanity, but some situations call for it. This is fucking wrong:

Chris Gard and Connie Yates lost their final legal bid to take their son to the US for treatment.

Specialists at Great Ormond Street Hospital believe Charlie has no chance of survival.

The court agreed, concluding that further treatment would “continue to cause Charlie significant harm”.

Charlie is thought to be one of 16 children in the world to have mitochondrial depletion syndrome, a condition which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage.

His parents had previously seen a Supreme Court challenge to continue Charlie’s life support fail.

It’s one thing to argue that declining to offer treatments with an extremely low probability of success is permissible. It is another thing entirely to forbid such treatments as a matter of law. Charlie’s parents raised a large sum of money to pay for an experimental treatment for his condition in the U.S., but they have been legally forbidden to seek this treatment. Thus, Charlie will die. Perhaps he would have died anyway. But I guess we’ll never know, now.

Perhaps what is most chilling about Charlie’s situation is the rationale of the Court that effectively sentenced him to death. Justice Francis of the High Court writes, “The duty with which I am now charged is to decide, according to well laid down legal principles, what is in Charlie’s best interests.” According to Francis, it is in Charlie’s interest to die with dignity rather than to pursue a moonshot treatment, one that is unlikely to save his life and likely to cause him some measure of suffering. In itself, this claim, while certainly debatable, is at least reasonable. But this was not just a person arguing about medical ethics. Justice Francis’s opinion had legal force.

It is with the heaviest of hearts but with complete conviction for Charlie’s best
interests that I find that it is in Charlie’s best interests that I accede to these
applications and rule that Great Ormond Street Hospital may lawfully
withdraw all treatment, save for palliative care, to permit Charlie to die with

At least Justice Francis is sure of himself.

There are two sides to the horror of the reasoning in the opinion. First, Francis’s opinion implies that a form of utilitarianism is the law of the UK. In Charlie’s case, the likelihood of continued suffering is so high, and the likelihood of recovery so low, that the expected utility of attempting further treatment is less than zero. Ergo, it’s better for Charlie to die. Were Charlie a legally competent adult, Francis could make the exact same argument and it would be equally valid. Would he not then defer to Charlie’s own opinion? Perhaps he would, but the reasoning in this opinion would compel him to overrule Charlie and permit the hospital to withdraw life support whenever it pleases. Is this really what we want?

The second disturbing thing about the opinion is its casual (and unequivocally wrong) assumption that the state is competent to decide objectively what is in a person’s interest. And if this assumption applies in this particular situation, there is no reason it shouldn’t apply in all of them. If the state can decide that it is better for you to die than to live, why shouldn’t it decide everything else for you? After all, most decisions we make are far less weighty than the choice between life and death. The stakes cannot possibly get higher than they were for Charlie and his parents.

The fact that this opinion was ever written is an abomination, made even more abominable by the fact that two appeals have resulted in no changes. Even if you agree with the utilitarian reasoning that Francis employs, you should be horrified by the monstrous power assumed to belong to the state by his opinion, the power to decide for you what is good for you even in matters of life and death. This is totalitarianism, pure and simple.

Short Response to “X is a social construct” Arguments

The mere fact that something is a social construct does not mean that the thing has no essential features. Construction of all kinds is constrained by rules. For instance, the construction of a stable building requires taking into account the law of gravity. You can point at any given building and say “it could have been otherwise,” but you cannot say that “all ways of erecting a building in this spot are equally correct,” as many of the ways of building the structure will result in said structure collapsing.

Likewise, you can point to our understanding of gender and say “it could have been otherwise,” but you cannot say that “all ways of understanding gender are equally valid.” A good account of gender cannot ignore human sexual dimorphism or the reproductive function of sex, which is why a binary understanding of gender has been so common across cultures. It has prevailed because it has been useful.

Language is another example of something socially constructed that is bound by rules. Just as an understanding of gender which does not meaningfully account for sexual dimorphism is unlikely to be useful, so is a language without some sort of grammar unlikely to be useful. There are differences between the grammars of different languages, but they all have grammars, because the grammar is necessary for the language to serve its function, i.e., facilitating communication.

The fact that buildings, gender roles, and language are made by humans does not imply that the construction of buildings, gender roles, and language is constrained by nothing except the boundaries of our creativity. There are rules that we can’t just wish away unless we plan on doing away with the things themselves. The constraint of being useful for communication is constitutive for language, for example. Without such a constraint, there would be no language. And insofar as the things themselves are useful, as buildings, gender roles, and language certainly are, we should not discard the constraints from which those things derive their being.


Past and Future in Augustine and Heidegger

I recently read through Augustine’s Confessions in its entirety for the first time. While in school, I read excerpts, but there were parts of it that I never got to. The part that most struck me was the part during which Augustine discusses time. In particular, reading Heidegger at the same time led me to question Augustine’s analysis differently than I otherwise would have.

Augustine argues that only the present exists. The past was, and the future is not yet, according to Augustine. When we think of past or future, what we are really thinking about is our memories of the past and expectations of the future, both of which are present to us in our minds. In this way, Augustine equates being with presence, effectively defining the past and future out of existence.

What made this striking to me is how it makes such a good example of what Heidegger criticizes in Being and Time. Because Augustine’s definition of being is too narrow (i.e. he equates being with presence), he has to claim that certain things which clearly are, in at least some sense, are not. Instead, we end up with a purely psychological account of past and future, which is hardly satisfying.

I’m not okay with saying that the past exists only in memory. Likewise, I’m not okay with saying that the future exists only in expectation. Both past and future seem to have some kind of phenomenal reality that does not depend on memory or expectation. While it is true to say that past states of affairs no longer are and future states of affairs are not yet, the past and future are not equivalent to the sum total of all past or future states of affairs. Phenomenologically, they are something entirely different.

To use Heideggerian language, I think past and future are existentiales. This means that the past and the future are essential features of Dasein’s being, which can vary in their character but are always “there” in some form. Other existentiales include the World and Being-in. Every Dasein has a past and a future, otherwise it is not Dasein at all. I’d say that the past is related closely to Dasein’s facticity, while the future is tied to Dasein’s potential for being.

“Facticity” is a somewhat obscure Heideggerian term. As such, it is hard to provide a definition for it. But I will try. Heidegger uses the term specifically to describe Dasein’s being, and not other kinds of being. The merely factual does not demand action, as facts are not always relevant to what one does. But the factical does demand action; its very existence is necessarily of some concern. Dasein’s being is factical. By the very fact that Dasein exists, Dasein is required to act, and he is required to act within the factical World in which he exists.

The past is connected to facticity in that the past has a partial role in producing the World in which Dasein is. The particular factical conditions that demand Dasein to act at any given moment are products of the past, even if that past is unremembered by Dasein. Moreover, Dasein’s own response to the factical situation in which it always is must always be shaped by the past, as well. This, too, does not depend on memory, however. Much of what Dasein does is habituated; we incorporate skills into our being until we exercise those skills unconsciously. I do not remember learning how to speak English, and yet I speak.

The future, on the other hand, is that upon which Dasein projects its possibilities for being. Heidegger is fond of saying that Dasein is its own possibilities. Thus, Dasein has a peculiar relationship with the future such that the future as such exists for Dasein, even if future states of affairs themselves have no being. Whereas the past partially creates the factical conditions of Dasein’s being, the future is what allows Dasein’s possibility to be realized. A possibility which cannot be realized is no true possibility. Thus, without the future, Dasein can have no possibilities for being, and thus cannot be Dasein.

As the future conditions of the World will always be relevant to Dasein’s being, the future has a bearing on the World’s possibilities, as well. However, the World does not project its own possibilities in the way that Dasein does. Rather, when Dasein projects its possibilities, it always projects the possibilities of its World as well. Dasein needs its World in order to be Dasein. While the possibilities for Dasein’s being, along with the possibilities for the being of its World, are not present, they certainly are, in some way. And the future is a necessary condition for the being of possibilities.

I like my Heideggerian account of past and future above better than Augustine’s account, mostly because it avoids Augustine’s psychologism. Because Augustine claims that there is no such thing as the past or the future, he has to offer an account of why it seems that such things exist. And his account relies purely on memory and expectation, which I take to be insufficient to explain our experience. The past conditions our existence even when we are not consciously aware of the past. Likewise, even unexpected future possibilities are possibilities which have implications for our being. A phenomenological-existential account allows us to say that past and future exist without making the clearly false claim that past states of affairs and future states of affairs are present.

The Anti-Thrasymachus

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors discuss the meaning of Justice. What is it? According to one character, Polemarchus, Justice is giving to each what he is owed. This probably sounds about right, to most people. Another character has a much more controversial opinion. Thrasymachus believes that Justice is the advantage of the stronger. In other words, might makes right.

It’s easy to see why we might not want to adopt Thrasymachus’s view. But I think another view of Justice has become pervasive in our day which is just as pernicious—we instinctively regard Justice as the advantage of the weaker; conversely, we regard Injustice as the advantage of the stronger. Whatever benefits the weak is good, and whatever benefits the strong is bad. Nietzsche referred to this kind of morality as slave morality, and he hated it because it rewards weakness and hobbles mankind’s potential for self-improvement. I hate it because it’s wrong.

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

– Leviticus 19:15

Lisbeth Salander is the Übermensch

Today I bought a copy of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. It’s the third book in a series by the late Stieg Larsson, of which I have read the first two. The first book is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m not sure if I can recommend the books. There’s lots of sex and violence. But it’s a really good story, one of those books that’s hard to put down, and the main character (the girl referred to in the titles) is compelling because of her dark past, her cunning, and her unrestrained goodness.

(Spoiler alert)

Her name is Lisbeth Salander. She’s very small. But she can fend for herself. She doesn’t hesitate to lie, kill, or steal if it’s in her interest to do so. But she always pursues ends that are good when she does these things. She completely disregards the rules, but she is still bound by her own sense of morality, and she follows it without fail.

I see Salander as a literary instantiation of the Nietzschean übermensch because of this. The übermensch does not need to cling to the dead values of those who have already passed. Instead, she can create her own values to live by. This is exactly what Salander does. She decides what she thinks is good, and she does not let anything or anyone get in her way. Her pursuit of the good is relentless, and cannot be stopped by social norms and customs or even laws.

Characters like this are fascinating because the idea of an übermensch is kind of appealing, in some ways. What if we could pursue the good without being constrained by all these burdensome societal expectations? What if we could do evil that good may follow without a guilty conscience? It’s interesting to think about. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t make the world a better place. But what I appreciate about the idea of the übermensch is the idea that you have to own your values. Otherwise they’re not really yours. And if they’re not yours, then you’re not likely to care that much about them. Of course, you’re not free to create your values, because we can’t do that. But we must actively commit ourselves to the good, and not just passively acquiesce to it. Salander does that.

Mixed Motivations

Sometimes it’s hard to tell why I’m doing what I’m doing. Am I reading all these difficult books because I actually want to, or because I want to be able to say that I’ve read them and impress other people? To some degree, it’s both. I want knowledge for its own sake. But I also want it because more knowledge might make others think more highly of me. And I’d like that. There are multiple sources of motivation pushing me toward the same actions.

I think it would be better if I were motivated solely by the pursuit of excellence. Intrinsic motivation is generally more reliable than extrinsic motivation, as it need not change when your external circumstances change. But if the two line up and encourage you to do the same things, I consider that to be a good reason to give thanks. My surroundings are such that I am encouraged to do the things that I know I ought to by those around me. That’s great.

The primary motivation, however, should be the intrinsic one. Extrinsic motivators can complement intrinsic motivation, but they cannot replace it. When your sole motivation is extrinsic, you end up accomplishing something very different from what you otherwise would. For instance, if I were solely motivated by the prospect of impressing people about the breadth and depth of my reading, I would have little reason to actually engage with difficult texts like Being and Time. A surface-level understanding would be sufficient to make it look like I know what I’m talking about, especially to people who aren’t familiar with Martin Heidegger.

That excellence is often rewarded with honor is a good thing indeed. But excellence should be the goal, and not merely the means to the end of honor, which is a pleasant by-product of excellence, and not a worthy end in itself.

While I don’t think much of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I do think that she gets this particular point exactly right. In her novel The Fountainhead, the main character is absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision of architectural excellence, no matter what the client or the architectural community may say. Public opinion is easily malleable, and does not necessarily correlate with the truth. Thus, it should not derail your pursuit of excellence when others think less of you for it. It is lamentable that excellence might not receive praise, and even more lamentable that mediocrity might receive it, but excellence is not worth pursuing for the sake of praise, but for its own sake.

When Rand extols the virtue of selfishness, this is what she means: When you act, act in pursuit of excellence, and not for the purpose of appearing excellent to your peers. It is the thing itself, and not the accolades that come with it, that are relevant. The Good is not determined by what the masses think is good. Therefore, orient yourself toward the Good, and not toward the masses.

Equality and Mediocrity

There’s a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in which a mediocre playwright, Ike, reads a mediocre play to the fictional Council of American Writers. The initial feedback is strongly negative. The consensus seems to be that the play is trash. But then one listener, a well-regarded theater critic, says that it’s great, and that he’s going to make a success out of it.

What made the play great, according to this critic?

It was so perfectly mediocre that praising it would annihilate the meaning of praise entirely. When we treat the shallow as if it were profound, we blind ourselves to profundity. We dull our aesthetic and moral sense. From the novel:

“Ibsen is good,” said Ike.

“Sure he’s good, but suppose I didn’t like him. Suppose I wanted to stop people from seeing his plays. It would do me no good whatever to tell them so. But if I sold them the idea that you’re just as great as Ibsen—pretty soon they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

“Jesus, can you?”

“It’s only an example, Ike.”

“But it would be wonderful!”

“Yes, it would be wonderful. And then it wouldn’t matter what they went to see at all. Then nothing would matter—neither the writers nor those for whom they wrote.”

I’m still trying to figure out what to make of Ayn Rand. From what I understand, her philosophy is naively rationalistic. She hates philosophers that attempt to criticize reason, such as Nietzsche or Kant. But at the same time, The Fountainhead has a lot of Nietzschean themes, one of which is that cultures that hold equality as the highest value inevitably lose their ability to appreciate beauty and excellence.

Indeed, in a dogmatically egalitarian society, beauty and excellence are threats. Beauty and excellence imply inequality, that there is something else which is less beautiful and less excellent. If we commit ourselves fully to equality as the highest value, then there is no room for any other values. This is the egalitarian nihilism that Nietzsche warned against. Rand does a good job describing the moral and aesthetic emptiness of such a state of affairs. The characters in her novel praise mediocrity for the sole reason that everyone else is praising it. They have no thoughts of their own. They have been reduced to generic, interchangeable instances of the collective. They fail to be themselves.

My problem with Ayn Rand is that she seems to think that a fresh commitment to reason is the antidote to this egalitarian nihilism. But reason itself cannot teach us what is beautiful. Reason is a tool which can be put to good ends or bad ones. The revitalization of a culture that’s been hijacked by egalitarianism requires something more than reason. Rand seems to understand this implicitly, based on the fact that she wrote novels in addition to works of philosophy. There’s a part of the human soul that loves what is good and hates what is bad, and that part of the soul must be cultivated and brought to maturity. If this part of the soul is neglected, then reason does us no good. It just becomes another tool with which the Good can be dismantled.

This is why I think that studying great literature, art, and music is of paramount importance. When we come face-to-face with the sublime, our soul begins to awaken. We begin to develop a thirst for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. At the risk of sounding overtly Platonic, I capitalize these words, because I believe that they correlate with fundamental desires that we have as humans. There is a longing for goodness, truth, and beauty ingrained in the fiber of our being. To refuse to serve this longing is a grave sin, to extinguish it an even graver one.

But the destruction of these noble desires (which I consider to be parts of the imago dei) is a necessary part of creating an egalitarian society. To desire the Good, the True, and the Beautiful is unfair to the mediocre, so let’s pretend that there is no Good, True, or Beautiful. Let’s pretend further that life is still worth living, even better, without the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And then let’s tell people when they’re unhappy with the vapid life we’ve given them to live that they’re unhappy because they’re too selfish, that they need to subordinate their own ego to the common good, that they must effectively cease to be in order to be content. And after we have thus sacrificed our souls to the false god of equality, we will feel a vague sense of contentment, because you need a soul to desire and to love, and we, being soulless, will want nothing.

Faith and the Pursuit of Truth

There was an op-ed in the Daily News yesterday that had harsh things to say about Bill Cosby. Of course, he deserves it. The op-ed also referred to Cosby’s lawyers as “soulless.” What did they do to merit such criticism? They’re defending Bill Cosby.

It’s understandable that people don’t care much for criminal defense lawyers, especially those who are defending the alleged perpetrators of horrible crimes. But the criminal defense lawyer is an important part of the criminal justice system. There are certain rights that you never forfeit, even when you’ve committed a heinous crime, and it is the role of the criminal defense lawyer to protect those rights for you. And if you’re not sold on due process, then just wait until you or someone you know is accused of a crime you didn’t commit. It happens.

In the adversarial system, each side puts forward as a strong a case as possible, and then after both sides have been heard, a decision is made. If you’re an attorney for one of the parties, it is your duty to fight on behalf of your client. The system collapses if you don’t. The idea is that the stronger case should win, and that if both cases are well-argued, the truth should come out on top. Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way, but we don’t have a better alternative. The only thing worse than the system is everything else.

We need the adversarial system and criminal defense lawyers for the same reason that we need free speech. If we impose restrictions on what can and cannot be said, then we limit the ability of society as a whole to work out what is true. Discourse is a battleground for ideas. Our goal in discourse should be to find which ideas are the best. The only way we can do that is by making sure they’re all included in the ring. We have to trust that the weak ones will be killed off, and that the strong will prosper. Of course, there’s no guarantee of this. We need to accept it on faith.

But the alternative to having faith in the effectiveness of discourse is to have faith in those individuals or groups who act as censors, deciding what ideas are allowed to be shared. We would effectively be trusting people to rig the game in a way we find unobjectionable. Perhaps this round’s game-masters will be favorable to us, but the next round’s might not.