October 2006


Philosophy Department Colloquium PODCAST

October 26, 2006
John Cleary
Boston College

Poetry and Paideia in Plato’s Republic

click on the link above to go to the podcast.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

The RSS Feed is:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/rss/file.php/10/2/forum/13/rss.xml

You can find information on RSS feeds here:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/index.php?pid=60

Truth

Yes, for we fight for more than Love or Pleasure; there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count. (E.M. Forster, A Room with a View)

Truth is a relationship between our representations and the world. We represent the world in language, pictures, and signs. When they correctly represent the world, they are said to be true. Sometimes people use the word Truth (often with the capital ‘T’) to talk about the objectively real features of reality that we aim at representing and that make our representations true.

Is truth in us or in the world?

The simplest way of understanding truth is as correspondence. A representation is true if it matches, or corresponds, to reality. The model here is the simple relationship we can see between a picture and the object it pictures. Of course, this model works only when we have access to both the object itself and the picture so we can check to see the correspondence or matching of the one to the other. Once philosophers recognized that whenever we see an object (at least with our senses) we are really representing it, it became hard to see how we could check the correspondence of our ideas to the world as it really was outside of our representations. The idea of correspondence becomes problematic if we believe we have no access to objects except through representations.

Another view of truth, which tries to address this problem, is coherence. When I check a portrait of a person against the actual person to see if it is a likeness, I am checking one representation (the painting) against another (my visual representation of the person when I see them). If I can never get outside of my representations to check against reality as it is in itself, when no one is looking, then truth is a matter of how my representations cohere amongst each other, not of how they relate to the world outside of my representations.

But this seems to ignore the very “truthiness’ of our original conception of truth (to borrow a recent phrase whose satirical use arises from our awareness of the problems with contemporary understandings of the term). We want out representations to be really true, not just true in my version of reality. It is clear us in this post-modern era that wherever we go, there we are: that we cannot step outside of our representations and that our very act of thinking itself alters the reality we attempt to know. Whenever we try to find the Truth, we always find ourselves in the way and discover that we are looking at merely another representation or construction of reality, instead of the real thing. Nonetheless, even if we cannot find a way to think about reality without having us there thinking about it, we still can conceive of, and yearn for, a reality beyond our representations as the ideal towards which they tend.

The very idea of representation itself, becomes incoherent without an object outside of the representation towards which it is directed. The artist who aims at no truth outside of them is merely creating, not representing. But how can you create something with symbols and representations unless they are about something besides themselves?

Even in this era, where “truthiness” has replaced truth, where truth can seem to have to do more with how something is said, and by whom, and for what purposes, than it does with what is said; even in the post-modern world, we only care about what is said because we want it to be True. Truth still does count, if only because we cannot do without it without doing in our own representations.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Kevin Staley is the fourth profile in the series.

In this interview, Prof. Staley talks about how he got into philosophy, his interest in St. Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics, as well as his interest in medieval science and alchemy and its relation to Neo-platonism.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

The RSS Feed is:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/rss/file.php/10/2/forum/13/rss.xml

You can find information on RSS feeds here:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/index.php?pid=60

While it is often said that we live in the “information age,” many recent philosophers would contend that it would be closer to the truth if we called our times the “age of power.” Let me suggest that we consider the merits of the latter claim by focusing on two senses of the word power.

1. Nature as power

In physics power is defined as the ability to do work, energy. The natural world as a material reality harbors this kind of power. Rivers can be dammed, coal can be burned, wind harnessed, and so on to extract power from nature. Of course, we now extract power at the nuclear level, splitting open nature at its most elementary levels to unleash the extraordinary quantities of power locked within it. At this point the distinction between matter or mass and energy seems to dissolve. Insofar as our lives are dependent on our new technologies, which are dependent on natural power, we could fairly say that today is an “age of power.” The consumption of power, the discovery of new sources and forms of power, and the struggle to secure access to power, dominate much if not most of our science, economics, and politics.

Friedrich Nietzsche takes this analysis one step further by formulating a metaphysics of power. For Nietzsche the very essence of life is a “will to power.” According to Nietzsche society has to learn to let the will to power express itself and develop on its own terms in order to evolve greater and stronger forms of life. Our morality, based on Judeo-Christian ideals of selflessness, humility, and care for the weak, according to Nietzsche, stifles our instinctive will to power. In the late nineteenth century Nietzsche anticipated the dawning of a new age when the will to power would express itself anew by rejecting morality and achieving ever-greater manifestations of itself. He never lived to see the horrors of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or 9/11. He also could not have imagined cell phones, the internet, nano-technologies, or modern medicine. Are we living in an age of the will to power? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

To consider further these last two questions, we can turn to one of the twentieth century’s most important and controversial philosophers, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger argued that the essence of modern life is technology. Technology for Heidegger is a manner of revealing the truth of Being through processes of containing and controlling nature. Within this framework the natural world is revealed to be “standing reserves,” i.e., resources to be contained, extracted, and used, power. What’s more, Heidegger claims that human beings are also controlled by modern technology. Technology controls us when we think of ourselves as human resources or human capital; when we think of our projects or relationships as our investments; when every problem seems naturally to call for a technological solution. For Heidegger, we are indeed living in the age of power.

2. Social Control as Power: How does power function?

Twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that we need to shift our focus away from metaphysical theories about the essence of power and pay attention to how it actually functions in society. To do this Foucault isolates and challenges what many take to be the basic movement of modern liberal societies: the struggle for individual liberty. From the perspective of this struggle, power is repressive or oppressive. Kings, dictators, or party bosses oppress those below them. Oppression or repression constrains actions and curtails rights. In modern liberal society the goal is to have only as much power as absolutely necessary and as much freedom as possible. The American and French revolutions, civil-rights movements, and anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century are all expressions of the desire to limit political power in order to liberate individuals.

To challenge this view Foucault proposes a simple hypothesis: what if power does not always function solely or even primarily by repression of individual freedom but instead is positive and productive? This hypothesis forces us to consider the possibility that freedom is to some significant extent a function of power. How is this possible? Foucault argues that modern power operates mainly through mechanisms of surveillance and training, what he calls “discipline,” rather than through blunt oppression. In modern society, we are perpetually trained and examined for our own benefit and development: in schools we are trained and examined; doctors examine us; employers watch us in all sorts of ways at work; our movement through cyberspace is constantly monitored and recorded; surveillance cameras watch public and private spaces. This pervasive discipline (surveillance and training) has a number of effects. First it develops skills and aptitudes in individuals. Second, it produces knowledge about individuals and groups. Third it allows for standardization through statistical knowledge about human norms or normalcy. For example, statistical information gathered through examining students allows us to develop statistical norms of human development and effective pedagogy. Fourth, these norms influence how individuals think about themselves. We begin to wonder: Am I normal? Am I healthy? Do I learn too slowly? Is my child walking at the right age or reading at the appropriate grade level? In other words, norms are internalized. These norms influence whether we feel like we are living our lives to the fullest, whether we think that we are free and healthy. Modern society, Foucault claims, “normalizes” individuals and we internalize that process as a desire to live a “normal” life. Does this mean that freedom is an illusion, that there is no such thing as liberation? Does it mean that we are entirely products of power and normalization?

What do you think? Do we live in an “age of power”? What is power and is it good or bad for the natural world, individuals and societies?

(Nietzsche (1844) and Foucault (1926) share a birthday on October 15th)

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Montague Brown is the third profile in the series.

In this interview, Prof. Brown talks about his interest in St. Thomas Aquinas, freedom in both art and a rational human life, as well as the different roles of reason in the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (the theme of his new book, The Restoration of Reason: The Eclipse and Recovery of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.)

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

The RSS Feed is:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/rss/file.php/10/2/forum/13/rss.xml

You can find information on RSS feeds here:

http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/index.php?pid=60

(This entry is adapted from Robert Augros, “Beauty Visible and Divine” published in The Aquinas Review, Volume II, 2004)

The Definition of Beauty
Saint Thomas defines beauty in four simple words: id quod visum placet, [*] that which pleases merely by being seen. Visum names the part of beauty pertaining to knowledge, and placet, the part pertaining to its ability to gratify. The notions seeing and pleasing are appropriate for this definition because they are more known than beauty and together manifest its nature.Not just anything that causes pleasure when seen is an example of beauty. Id quod visum placet means, not that the pleasure merely happens to follow vision, but that the vision alone causes the pleasure. An art collector can enjoy looking at the Mona Lisa in a museum even if there is no possibility he will ever own it. Why do antique car enthusiasts attend auto shows if they can never own or drive any of the cars? It is because simply looking at a perfectly restored 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith is a delight. This is beauty. The contemplation that characterizes beauty is disinterested. Independence from utility distinguishes the beautiful from the good. Although beauty is a special kind of goodness, the two are distinct.
The Constituents of Beauty
Next we need to determine what it is in a beautiful thing that causes delight simply by being seen. Saint Thomas proposes three things: “Three items are required for beauty: first, integrity or perfection, for things that are lessened are ugly by this very fact; second, due proportion or harmony; and third, brilliance—thus, things that have a bright color are said to be beautiful.”[†]
Integrity means that the object lacks no part that belongs to its species, for anything deficient or mutilated is not beautiful. This is obvious in the human face where even as little as a missing tooth mars beauty, to say nothing of a missing eye. Baldness, especially in women, harms beauty because it is a lack of something due. Also implied in this first constituent is that the object has nothing in it contrary to its nature, such as a face with scars, tumors, or a rash. Other names for integrity are wholeness, completeness, and perfection.
The second constituent of beauty is due proportion or harmony, which requires that all the parts be of the appropriate size and shape in relation to each other. A sketch of an attractive human face can be rendered ugly by making the nose too big, the eyes too close together, or otherwise interfering with the delicate balance of due proportions. Due proportion of parts results in a pleasing shape, so that form is connected to this second constituent of beauty, as is balance.The third constituent of beauty is brilliance, with its equivalents or dependent notions of color, light, splendor, luster, and clarity. Color and clarity are critical to the beauty of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other gemstones. Clarity is a transparency through which light can travel unimpeded. What do we mean by a beautiful day? Certainly not one which is rainy or so foggy that one cannot see beyond twenty feet. To be beautiful a day must be bright, clear, and full of light.
Beauty as a Path to God
The painter, the biologist, the chemist, and the physicist all encounter the beauty of grass at different levels. Nature’s beauty is not skin-deep; it penetrates the marrow. In all natural things, living and nonliving, and at every level within each thing, from grassy plain to electron, proton, and neutron, beauty saturates nature. Such abundant beauty of so many kinds and at so many levels could never come from chance. Beauty is so abundant in nature, it cannot arise from chance; there must be some reason for it. But that reason must be open to alternatives, since there is no absolute necessity that animals, plants, and nonliving things exhibit beauty in the first place. Therefore, the beauty found in nature proceeds from a cause not bound by necessity and yet with a reason for acting. Such a cause is a mind. Therefore, a mind is responsible for the beauty of natural things. That mind, standing behind nature and directing it to beauty, all men call God. Thales of Miletus, the first of the Greek philosophers, said, “Of all things that are . . . the most beautiful is the universe, for it is God’s workmanship.”[‡] As the poets intimate and the philosophers demonstrate, the loveliness and charm of a gazelle or an orchid are stepping stones to the loftiest and most exalted beauty of nature’s Author.


[*] Summa Theologica, I, q. 39, a. 8. The text actually says, “pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent.”
[†] Summa Theologica, I, q. 39, a. 8, c. Trans. Vernon J. Bourke, The Pocket Aquinas, 263. My emphasis.
[‡] Quoted by Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925), I, 37.