Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Role of Art in the Affairs of Men

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, was a sound made by the tree falling?  Your answer to that question depends on your definition of "sound."  There is a common tendency to confuse two different questions when you ask whether a sound is made: what actually (physically) happens; and how can you know (or verify) what actually happened. Verification is the act of proving or demonstrating why something is true, as opposed to not having proof or lacking knowledge that something is true.

We infer something happens when we lack direct observation of a particular event, but we have reason to believe that it occurred. If you have a tape recording of a tree falling, you will have physical evidence to support a belief that a sound was generated. Unless the tree falling in the woods happens inside a closed dome with a vacuum inside, then we can logically infer that a sound was made. Why? Because the physics of one object falling against another creates a sound wave that is transmitted through the air. Now, if there are no human ears to receive sound vibrations, and no instruments to record the event, then we lack empirical evidence. Still, we  are justified in saying that sound was created because we infer from the evidence (the given facts) that such an event occurred.

There is no metaphysical mystery here. There is simply the problem of explaining why we believe something happened. Any confusion concerns our use of language, not the facts themselves. The facts are given to us-- a tree falls in the woods and there is no observor present. We know what is supposed to happen: a falling tree makes a sound. The problem here is how do we go about demonstrating what we know to be true (a falling tree makes noise) when we have no witness. This is a common problem in our criminal justice system. How do we prosecute criminals when there is no eye witness to the crime? Answer: we gather evidence and build a logical case.

Any time you move from empirical events like a tree falling in the woods to the concept of beauty, then you have a different kind of problem-- the problem of human language. All language is metaphorical, i.e. it lacks precision. It is a symbol system in which every noun or verb is merely a substitute for something else (the "thing itself" or the "event itself"). Language is not the direct experience of anything. It is a mere reconstruction of something else. Thus, all language is grounded in ambiguity. Every word we use operates as a replacement or substitute for something else (what Kant called "das ding an sich"). That is why we disagree about such things as color or smell or the tactile feeling of a rough surface versus a smooth one.

Aristotle is a classifier. He puts things (concepts) into categories because that is what classifiers do. Science is based on the principle of classification. Everything has its proper category because that is how we distinguish one thing (one class of objects) from another. The properties associated with a particular object become the means by which we identify it. Without a scheme of grouping things having similar properties or "values," we would be unable to talk about them intelligently. All language involves an act of substituting a verbal description for the thing in nature we are trying to describe. What, then, is beauty? Is it a feeling we have when we look at something, or is it a concept we have when describing it?

When Aristotle talks about tragedy, what foundation is he working from? Does he have any personal experience from writing tragedies? No. But he has knowledge derived from reading or listening to plays written by people like Sophocles. Still, his views are nothing more than opinions. As far as we know, Aristotle never won any prizes for writing a tragedy of his own. So, what makes him qualified to explain to us how tragedy works?  Why should we believe him?

Well, for one thing, he is smarter than just about anybody else living in his time. But this is not simply about Aristotle being smarter than everybody else. This is about the wisdom of what he says. Tragedy is never about human perfection. For Aristotle, tragedy concerns the fall of someone we respect and admire, but is flawed in some particular way. Perhaps he has an overly high opinion of himself. That would be the flaw of vanity. Then, you take a person who we admire but we know to be flawed, and observe how he responds when his world crumbles around him. For Aristotle, this is the defining element of tragedy: a person who is admirable and blessed with prosperity who falls into ruin because he fails to realize or acknowledge his own weakness ...  In other words, human frailty. The reason we still listen to Aristotle when he talks about tragedy is that he identified the qualities that we look for in art, e.g. nobility and honor, even in the face of suffering.  Aristotle knows something about art because he knows a lot about human beings themselves, especially the kind of human beings we admire and want to emulate. This is why he is still relevant today. He didn't just enumerate his personal preferences for art-- he defined for us the role that art plays in our lives and why tragedy is the school of virtue. And this is what Aristotle teaches us: we learn from observing what transpires around us, both in nature and society. We learn from our mistakes, and we move on. None of us want to end up like King Lear, carrying a dead daughter in our arms. In art, tragedy becomes the antidote to personal failure.


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