Reason and Emotion Clash in the Arts

Whether you write or work in the visual arts, or merely consume writing and objects of art, it is interesting to have some sense of the artistic tradition you follow or prefer. Often, writers and other artists simply get on with their work. While they consciously follow the inspiration of some particular artist or genre, they have no firm sense of where they fit into the artistic tradition. Consumers may also have no idea of where the works they favour fit into the grand scheme of things.

Salvador Dali's Profile of Time

Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and watches are the best known examples of surrealism, one of art’s less rational movements. (Image: Wikipedia)

When we look over the highlights of that artistic tradition, we see that it constitutes a kind of progression as one major art movement superseded another, often reacting against the one that went before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our rather eclectic times, all of them persist in one form or another. For example, in writing, the Gothic, fantasy, and science fiction genres draw heavily from the ideas and conventions of one of the oldest and most colourful movements – romanticism.

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The Search for Personal Moral and Ethical Truth

German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs (i.e. businessman), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz always said that he found no book so bad that he could get nothing from it. He was referring to serious works of non-fiction and meant that he could glean a few bits of worthwhile material from any book he read. There is a more powerful way to think about bad books. The fact that they are obviously wrong helps you to clarify your own thinking. (Perhaps Leibniz had this in mind as well.) You can view your own notions in the light of the wrong ideas in the bad book, make comparisons, and work out arguments to knock down what you are reading. I make a habit of reading books (not necessarily bad ones!) that present views opposed to my own.

Portrait of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Philosophers such as Leibniz work out entire philosophical systems. Ordinary people settle for a set of personal values. (Image: wpclipart.com)

There is a vital clue to being an intellectual in this.

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Fishing Language from the Sensory Deprivation Tank

In recent decades, a great deal has been made of the notion that language and object are not related. That is to say, a signifier (word) can never fully capture or embody the signified (object). From this position, philosophers and others (such as psychiatrists) then draw the conclusion that language is somehow useless or dangerously misleading.

Man thoughtfully fishing with a stick

Language is essential for sustaining consciousness. Without it, we go into a coma. (Image: Reusable Art)

A vague mysticism sets in where we assume that humans are condemned to live in a world we can never properly describe or even conceptually grasp. Unless we can master something like the knowledge-obliterating Buddhist technique of direct perception, we are forever divorced from reality and therefore must live our lives in a language-induced haze of unreality, error, and arbitrary subjectivity. There exists a widespread opinion that what goes on inside our heads has little or nothing to do with what goes on around us. Solipsism, the philosophical theory that all we can be sure of is the self, gains credence.

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Slicing the Life of Pi

The Introduction

These are irrational times. Subjectivism (noun: the doctrine that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by your subjective experience – WordWeb) is something I believe in myself, but the idea is being misused to justify some highly questionable moral and spiritual positions. We see this in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. Martel is a fine writer. His book is a great read, but its message is just plain foolish.

Life of Pi Cover

Can we skip thinking, ignore reality, and believe something just because we like the sound of it?

The Moral Sense

Martel ludicrously simplifies the difficult subject of the moral sense by working the popular emotional angle: “… a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love.”

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The Creative Person’s Holy Grail

The Sangreal or Holy Grail

Creative people get lost and become blocked when they fail to recognize that the endpoint or goal of their project has shifted. (Image: public domain.)

American philosopher of mind and of art, Suzanne Langer, asserted that the expression of one’s vague feelings, to clarify them for oneself, is artistic creativity’s primary purpose. This is certainly true, but her further claim that communication to others is merely a peripheral by-product does not stand up to close inspection. Research has shown that artists have a powerful need to share what they have learned. Art is the medium chosen for the clarification attempt precisely because the creator can share artistic products with others. However, where the attempt to share fails, as in those cases where the artist cannot win an audience, the artist will usually continue producing art anyway.

According to Langer, “Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature.” That is, artists make their feelings about the world concrete by embodying them in some form of art, but since feelings are entirely subjective, the process results in an object that presents a subjective view of the world.

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The Lonely Thinker’s Path

Nowadays, we strongly emphasize emotion. Our IQs seem to matter little while our EQs loom large. I thought it would be useful to remind ourselves of what it means to be a thinker.

Plato as Imagined by Raphael

With the emphasis now on feelings are we, as a society, losing sight of the value of thinking? (Image: public domain)

The Desire of Knowledge

French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges writes: “The desire of knowledge defines our intelligence as a vital force … it is the thinker’s special characteristic to be obsessed by the desire for knowledge.”

In other words, for the thinker, the acquisition of knowledge is an emotionally important idea. It is what American psychologist Carl Rogers would call a “subjectively formed guiding principle.” This means acquiring knowledge is one of the primary objects of the thinker’s authentic will. The activity is not an add-on, an external “interest” he has acquired; it is a fundamental part of his self and personality. The behaviour will have been there from early childhood remaining unrecognized until the thinker matures and turns to matters that are more serious and noteworthy.

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