Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, October 02, 2015

ROGER FRY: An Essay in Aesthetics (Why Art?)

In the past couple of weeks we read about two different ways to look at life.  Claude Bernard showed us how to look at life scientifically through observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor showed us how to look at life through the experience of literature.  Now Roger Fry wants to tell us how to experience life by looking at art.  Who?  According to the introductory notes Roger Fry “abandoned the scientific career for which he had been trained and resolved instead to devote himself to painting.”  Can a mind trained in science use the same skills to analyze art?  Fry himself admits “I have never believed that I knew what was the ultimate nature of art.”  Plato would approve of this statement.  But he would go on to ask: then what makes you qualified to write an essay on it?  Please share with us this wisdom you have gained.

Fry may not know everything about art but he knows more than most of us.  He begins by quoting “an eminent artist” who defines the subject this way: “the art of painting is the art of imitating solid objects upon a flat surface by means of pigments.”  This is a very objective definition that should appeal to Fry’s scientifically trained mind.  And it does.  But not totally.  Fry responds that the definition “is delightfully simple, but prompts the question; is that all?”  No, it’s not.  The art lover in Fry is searching for something more, a deeper meaning of art.  Why would people flock to art museums merely to look at colored pigments on a flat surface?  There must be more to it than that.  Fry turns to philosophy and finds “Plato, indeed, gave a very similar account of the affair, and himself put the question; is it then worth while? …he decided that it was not worth while, and proceeded to turn the artists out of his ideal republic.”  So much for philosophers and art.  But in spite of Plato’s opinion Fry still thinks art is worthwhile.  He says we have to start “with some elementary psychology, with a consideration of the nature of instincts…”  When we see a wild bull in a field we set off the nervous mechanism which results in fight or flight… which sets off another emotion which “we call the emotion of fear.”  Fear can be a good thing.  It helps us survive in a dangerous world.  We should be afraid of wild bulls because they’re bigger and stronger than we are and can kill us.  But in addition to the survival instinct Fry thinks we also have a kind of natural “instinct” for art.  He says “man has the peculiar faculty of calling up again in his mind the echo of past experiences of this kind, of going over it again, ‘in imagination’ as we say.  He has, therefore, the possibility of a double life; one the actual life, the other the imaginative life.”  Looking at a painting of a wild bull isn’t the same thing as meeting a wild bull in a field.  This is one reason people flock to art museums; it’s safer there.  Fry claims when we look at art “we become true spectators, not selecting what we will see, but seeing everything equally, and thereby we come to notice a number of appearances and relations of appearances, which would have escaped our notice before.”  If we’re busy running away from a real bull, for example, we won’t notice (or much care about) all the delicate details.  But if we’re looking at an imaginary bull in a painting we can stand and look all day if we want.

So Fry says there’s a big difference between “actual life” in the world and the “imaginative life” of the artist.  This is his own definition of art: “art is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life… (it is) the chief organ of the imaginative life.”  Art brings the imagination of the artist to the surface so other people can see it too.  And Fry thinks “it is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it.”  People go to art museums precisely to look and experience the rich imaginative life of the artist.  Fry thinks these shared human emotions are the key to appreciating fine art.  Scientists work hard to keep their emotions out of the picture.  Not so with art.  Fry says “art appreciates emotion in and for itself.” 

Monday, September 28, 2015

O’CONNOR: Everything That Rises Must Converge (How to Evaluate Literature)

Last week Claude Bernard explained how we use the tools of observation and experiment to evaluate physical phenomena.  What tools can we use to evaluate literature?  Flannery O’Connor probably put it best.  “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story.  The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.”  If we want to know what a story is “about” we have to read the story and experience it ourselves.  Bernard said in order to be scientific “the observer’s mind must be passive.”  It’s impossible to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story with a passive mind.  What is this story about?  An ungrateful son?  Racism?  Many different interpretations are possible because Flannery O’Connor is a very good writer.  Here are a couple of examples how she uses literature to flesh out her themes and makes them come alive for our reading experience.

The theme of the ungrateful son.  Consider this sentence.  “Julian did not like to consider all she did for him…”  Why not?  Isn’t he grateful for his mother’s sacrifices?  “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”  Why does Julian get depressed when his mother finds contentment in the simple joys of life?  “It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated (the old mansion she grew up in)…all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him; whereas she had hardly known the difference.”  Whether she lived in a mansion or in a run-down neighborhood it was all the same to her.  Why did this irritate Julian?  According to him “she lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot.”  He believed she lived contentedly in her own “fantasy world” while his own world of reality was bleak and lonely.  But what really irked him about his mom was “the dwarf-like proportions of her moral nature.”  In Julian’s eyes she was an outright racist.  She was just too dumb to realize it.  He, on the other hand, had been to college and was enlightened about the new racial landscape.  This is a pretty good picture of an ungrateful son.

The theme of racism.  Julian’s mom viewed the world through her own prism.  Instead of breaking light down into a few colors her own personal prism broke life down into a few classes of people.  Here’s how her prism worked: “…if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.”  (She said this every time he took her to the YMCA reducing class.)  “Most of them in it are not our kind of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody.  I know who I am.”  When she uses the phrase “not our kind of people” she’s not talking about black people.  She’s talking about other white folks in her YMCA class.  She can be gracious to them because that’s what people from her background do.  They act graciously toward their inferiors.  When she says “I know who I am” she’s really saying I know my place in society; I know how I should live.  And Julian’s mom applies this same equal opportunity cultural prism to everyone, regardless of race.  She says “I remember the old darky who was my nurse, Caroline.  There was no better person in the world.  I’ve always had a great respect for my colored friends.”  This is the kind of talk that makes Julian cringe.  But what about his own enlightened attitude?  The story tells us “he had never been successful at making any Negro friends.”  Why not?  Julian wants to make friends with black people because they’re black; and to get back at his mother.  Julian’s mother wants to make friends with black people because they’re people; and because she likes them.  Her racism is a mile wide but it’s only an inch deep.  Of course that’s just one personal observation.  Other readers may make different observations.  Claude Bernard’s method is scientific: observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor’s method is literary: observation and experience.

Friday, September 18, 2015

BERNARD: Observation and Experiment (for Non-Scientists)

In last week’s reading Tocqueville outlined how it was entirely possible (and even probable) that a new aristocracy would arise in America out of “the bosom of democracy.”  Two hundred years later he might revise his theory and show how modern American “aristocracy” is driven more by science and (new) technology rather than the old aristocratic standards based on land and/or manufacturing.  In this week’s reading we meet another Frenchman from the 19th century, Claude Bernard.  He’s very different from Tocqueville.  Bernard isn’t interested in culture and how politics works.  He’s interested in science and how Nature works.  Professional scientists may understand exactly what Bernard is talking about.  Many of us non-scientists will struggle with it.  After reading this selection on Observation and Experiment we may come away with more questions than answers.  We might begin with a simple question.  What is the purpose of science?  Then we might make a stab at a couple of simple answers.  The purpose of science is to understand Nature as it really is, on its own terms.  But how can we understand Nature on its own terms?  We can only understand things on human terms.  Ok, then how about this: the purpose of science is to express Nature in a system we can understand.  That sounds fine but leads to a troubling conclusion.  What we know then is a system we’ve developed ourselves.  How do we know the system accurately reflects Nature and not the nature of our own minds?

Maybe Bernard can help us figure it out.  He says there are “two classes of conditions” called ideas and facts.  That’s fine.  But what does he mean by that?  What’s the difference between an idea and a fact?  And how do we distinguish between them?  Is gravity an idea or is it a fact?  What about evolution?  The theory of relativity?  Bernard says we need “two qualities of mind” to answer questions scientifically.  One quality of mind is that of observer.  Bernard says “the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace; it listens to nature and writes at nature’s dictation.”  That sounds easy enough.  But will two people observing the same phenomena necessarily “see” the same thing?  Compare two accounts of a presidential debate.  Obviously we need a standard method and language if we plan to study Nature; so we need to add another quality of mind.  Bernard calls this quality of mind “experimenter” and goes on to explain that “an experimenter’s mind must be active.”  But this presents another problem.  How do we know all this human activity won’t distort the phenomena we’re trying to study?

Let’s assume the observer’s report is accurate and the experimenter’s method gives us a true reflection of Nature.  Then what?  Bernard says “as soon as Nature speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision.”  Now another question pops up.  Why?  Do we have to accept Nature’s “decision” as final or can we bend it to serve our own human needs?  And the questions keep on coming.  Bernard says “it is the scientific investigator’s (experimenter’s) mind that acts; it is the senses that observe and note.”  For the purposes of science, which is more important: the mind or the senses?  Bernard says we need both but goes on to make a curious statement: “we must give free rein to our imagination.”  Hm.  What is the role of “imagination” in science?  Is this the same kind of imagination we bring to poetry and drama?  Would this kind of imagination work just as well in another field of study, such as mathematics?  What about history?  Science is different from literature and mathematics and history.  It has different aims and uses different methods.  Bernard says scientific “hypotheses, unverified or unverifiable by experiment, would engender nothing but systems and would bring us back to scholasticism.”  But what is science itself if not a system?  And what’s wrong with scholasticism?  So many questions in such a few pages.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Future of Human Labor

Regarding the quote by President Coolidge, I think he was mostly right. I think the "business of America" is what most people do to earn a living. But earning a living is not the same thing as the abstract pursuit of wealth. Earning a living is how people pay their bills, which consists primarily in feeding themselves, finding shelter and acquiring the things necessary for a normal life. Anything beyond the basic necessities for life is often considered a luxury.  But most people (certainly most Americans) are not content with the bare necessities for existence. They want a higher level of comfort in their lives. Over time, as our economy has grown, our "pursuit of happiness" became associated (perhaps mistakenly) with a desire for physical comfort, i.e., leisure. Is comfort the same thing as luxury? Well, it can be. It all depends on how much comfort you feel you need in your life. The industrial revolution made possible the creation of wealth on a larger scale which made some people rich, while giving many other people the ability to acquire things which made life more pleasant, such as washing machines, televisions and cars.

Adam Smith talked about the social organization of labor. Thanks to the industrial revolution and its compartmentalization of labor, the factory became a more efficient system for producing goods than the old pre-industrial arrangement based on individual craftsmanship. With machines, you no longer needed skilled labor to do many of the jobs which could now be done faster through automation. Unfortunately, we learned that repetitive behavior and treating people like machines leads to boredom and the loss of pride in one's work. This results in higher absenteeism in the workplace. Today, many employees no longer feel any loyalty to their work or their employer because they know that they can be easily replaced by other non-skilled workers. This results in a downward spiral of low self-esteem, absenteeism and a steady decline in quality control. This trend was famously exposed in the American auto industry in the 70s when Japan started bringing its cars into the American market. Japanese cars demonstrated a higher level of quality for less money than American cars. Within 10 or 15 years, Japanese cars dominated the American market. Some of this can be explained by saying that the price of labor was cheaper in Japan. But the Japanese also proved to be more innovative in their systems management. The relationship between employer and employee is completely different over there.

In a mechanized economy where manual labor is increasingly generic and disposable , will competition result in an aristocracy of labor or its eventual demise? The old Greek term "arete" (excellence) referred to the art of doing things well. Pride in one's work was expressed in the craftsmanship of the finished product. But when manual labor today is reduced to flipping switches to activate machinery, there doesn't seem to be much room for either pride or virtue to be associated with work. Work then becomes simply a means toward a paycheck, which doesn't seem to inspire anyone to rise above the mediocrity of manufacturing goods and selling them at the lowest possible price. Of course, it is possible that machines will continue to improve both in efficiency and quality until the products of human labor will become much too expensive or perhaps not even worthy of being marketed. In this technological future,    when machine made objects are perfect and superior to anything a human being could do, what role will humans play in the manufacturing process?

Monday, September 14, 2015

TOCQUEVILLE: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

In this week’s reading Tocqueville begins by stating “I have shown how democracy favors the development of industry (by multiplying without limit the number of those engaged therein).”  Does this mean democracy (American style) is primarily an economic system or a political model?  President Calvin Coolidge once said the business of America is business.  Was he right?  Or is the “business” of America to build a democratic form of government?  Tocqueville was interested in what the industrial revolution was doing to society.  He wrote “the man is degraded as the workman improves.”  Factories were taking the place of farms and family-owned shops.  Factory work is repetitive. Tocqueville thought it stunted a worker’s human potential.  But farming and small retail shops take lots and lots of work hours.  What if factory jobs significantly reduced the number of hours needed to earn a living?  Couldn’t factory workers use those extra leisure hours to expand their human potential?  By reading Great Books for example?  That was the original vision of the Great Books program.  They envisioned factory workers and other ordinary people reading and discussing the classics in Great Books groups across the country in libraries and homes.  Tocqueville might respond, in a good way: only in America.

But he seemed less approving of America’s industrial policies.  He said, “An industrial theory stronger than morality or law ties a worker to a trade, and often to a place, which he cannot leave.”  Is that true today?  In a rapidly changing economy American workers may have the opposite problem.  They’re often forced to change jobs or careers and move to another city to find work.  Of course “morality” can also tie workers down.  A man may feel obligated to take over his father’s business.  Or he may choose to stay in his hometown at a lower paying job because that’s where his family has lived for generations.  These aren’t the kind of people Tocqueville has in mind.  Those poor Russian dock workers in our last reading (Chelkash) were stuck.  There was no other work they could do and they had nowhere else to go.  These were the workers he was talking about.  What should we do about people on the bottom rungs of society?

That problem is still with us today.  Tocqueville says “at the same time industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the masters.”  Today we call it income inequality.  Economists still ponder questions such as these.  In what way does “industrial science” lower the standing of the working class?  Does it seem reasonable that all classes would benefit from increased production and wealth?  Who’s going to buy all those extra goods and services our economy produces?  Tocqueville’s main point was this.  “It would thus appear, tracing things back to their source, that a natural impulse is throwing up an aristocracy out of the bosom of democracy.”  This is an interesting observation and leads to an interesting question.  Which is more “natural” to the human condition: aristocracy or democracy?  If the answer is aristocracy then the American experiment in government will naturally find its way back to the more normal human condition of an aristocratic society.  Or it may be that there is no “natural” form of government.  Democracy may work for some people in some times and places but not for other people in other times and places.  Tocqueville seems to take this view when he writes “the more I see this country (America) the more I admit myself penetrated with this truth: there is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of political institutions, their efficiency depends almost always on the original circumstances and the social condition of the people to whom they are applied.”  Political institutions that work in America may not work somewhere else.  And our original question remains.  Is the primary business of America business or is it government?  Two hundred years after Tocqueville we’re still working it out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

GORKY: Chelkash (Virtue and Freedom)

In our last reading Adam Smith (Intro GB1) claimed “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”  This tendency is deeply ingrained.  Whether we live in Scotland or America or Russia it’s common for people to ask what we do for a living.  In this Russian story by Gorky a young country bumpkin named Gavrilla drifts into a port city and meets a streetwise older man named Chelkash.  Gavrilla asks, “‘What are you, a cobbler, or a tailor, or what?’  ‘Me?’ Chelkash mused awhile and then said: ‘I’m a fisherman.’”  Chelkash is not, in fact, a fisherman.  He has another occupation.  Human beings may have an inclination to “truck, barter, and exchange” goods and services.  But some human beings have a strong inclination to engage in another occupation: stealing (which gives a special twist to the term “free market”).  Chelkash is a professional thief.  And he’s a very good one.  Two questions come to mind for this story.  Can a thief be a virtuous man?  Do we choose our occupations and lifestyles or do they choose us?

Let’s consider the social and economic conditions these two characters lived in.  “‘Here’s what I’m up against,’ (said Gavrilla). ‘My father died without leaving anything much, my mother’s old, the land’s sucked dry.  What am I supposed to do?  I’ve got to go on living, but how?’”  Most young men at some point walk in Gavrilla’s shoes and ask the same question.  What am I supposed to do?  How am I going to earn a living?  These are important questions because the answers determine the options for navigating through life.  A person’s occupation isn’t the only factor in living a good life but it’s an extremely important one.  In Adam Smith’s mind a philosopher isn’t much different (considered strictly as a human being) from a “common street porter.”  But a man who teaches Plato and Aristotle at a university surely has more options than a man who loads and unloads luggage for a living.  What options does Gavrilla have in this story?  He can load and unload freight on the docks; which is hard work for low wages.  Or he can become a thief like Chelkash; dangerous work for high wages.  Or he can go back home.

What should Gavrilla do?  Could Great Books help him?  Here are three samples from earlier readings.  William James (Intro GB1) wrote “A man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves… What may be called ‘club-opinion’ is one of the very strongest forces in life.  The thief must not steal from other thieves.”  This would have been useful information for Gavrilla after a heist.  It’s ok for Chelkash to steal from other people; but it’s not ok for Gavrilla to steal from Chelkash.  Socrates would have a field day with this notion of honor among thieves.  He would ask what kind of virtue is this.  In The Republic (GB5) he said most people want more than they really need and that’s when a small community with simple needs starts running into trouble.  What does Gavrilla really need?  Adam Smith (Intro GB1) gave this formula for people to get the things they really do need: “you give me that which I want and I’ll give you this which you want.”  The trouble begins when that simple formula is changed to a worse one: give me that which I want or I’ll either take it from you or kill you.  The Athenians used this tactic to get what they wanted from the Melians (Intro GB1).

Short summary.  A young man comes to town looking to improve the limited “social self” options he had back home on the farm.  In town has a chance to make money; big money.  He can get rich.  But to get it he has to abandon his core values and his good and simple life.  He'll never be the same and he’ll never be able to go back “home” again.  Is it worth it?  No one can answer that question but Gavrilla; not even Great Books can tell Gavrilla what kind of man he is.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

ADAM SMITH: The Division of Labor (Healthcare, for example)

In last week’s reading of Rothschild’s Fiddle there’s a scene where Jacob takes Martha to see the doctor.  Dr. Maxim examines her and concludes “Ah well, the old woman’s lived her life, praise the Lord.  How old is she?”  “Seventy come next year.”  “Ah well, her life’s over.  Time she was on her way.”  Jacob’s not a trained physician but he’s not satisfied with that diagnosis and offers his own advice.  “We ought to cup her, Dr. Maxim, sir,” he said in a low voice.  “Haven’t the time, my good man.  Take your old woman and be off with you.  So long and all that.”

Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labor may help shed some light on that scene.  Consider healthcare from Smith’s point of view.  Who should make the final decision regarding medical treatment?  Trained physicians?  Patients (or family members acting on their behalf)?  Insurance companies?  Government?  Smith says in a free market system there’s an “invisible hand” that guides the allocation of resources.  He believes the “division of labor, from which so many advantages are derived… is the necessary… propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”  In this case Jacob wants to exchange his money for Martha’s healthcare.  What are the advantages of  Smith’s theory here?  Jacob is a coffin maker by trade.  He doesn’t know much about taking care of sick people but he sells coffins and gets money in return so he can buy the things he needs.  Dr. Maxim probably couldn’t make good coffins but he knows a lot about healthcare.  Dr. Maxim is much better qualified to make decisions concerning the proper care for Martha.  But in this case here’s the disadvantage of Smith’s theory.  Jacob loves Martha (in his own kind of way); for Dr. Maxim she’s just another patient.  He’s got a room full of them waiting for his services and there are only so many hours in a day.  How do we determine the best allocation of resources (Dr. Maxim’s time) in this situation?  And who’s best qualified to make this determination?  These are questions we still wrestle with today.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is a vivid image but it’s open to different interpretations.  How exactly does this invisible hand work?  Supporters of a free market system see millions of people making daily decisions about how they spend their own money.  For them this freedom to choose is by far the best way to determine how resources should be allocated.  Let the customer decide; not just when they buy a bar of soap but also when they need healthcare or education.  That’s the best way to insure maximum utilization of resources.  Let people decide for themselves.  Other folks don’t like Smith’s model.  Healthcare and education are inherently different than buying a bar of soap.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob illustrates the point when he says “he’d have cupped a rich man, but for a poor one he grudges even a single leech.”  Rich people have more options than poor people.  They can buy a better brand of soap.  They can afford better healthcare.  They have better educational opportunities.  This isn’t fair.  We don’t need an invisible hand.  We need a plan.  Adam Smith thinks these government “plans” just muck things up and tend to prevent the free flow of goods and services in the marketplace.  He also believes governments “are themselves, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society.”  Plans cost money and politicians are always eager to spend other people’s money so they can put their own plans in place.  But Smith was also a professor of moral philosophy and he understands how good and honest people (including politicians) can distrust free market results.  Smith says “The difference in natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of… The difference between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.”  That’s why many people believe education (and healthcare) are too important to be left to chance by some mysterious “invisible hand.”