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The Eternal Recurrence in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice

2013/02/27 6 comments

A brief glance at the categories into which my posts on this blog fall will reveal that I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I have once before written a post on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice. That film opens with a scene in which Nietzsche is discussed prominently, so it should come as no surprise that I have for some time been interested in writing a post about the role of Nietzsche in that film. I have had trouble writing it, however, always getting hung up on one particular point. This morning, while reading Kierkegaard’s essay on crop rotation (in Either/Or, Part I), I found what I needed.

What here interests me is a mistaken understanding of Nietzsche that a character in the film espouses—and then corrects. Gino Moliterno has written an interesting essay on the role of Nietzsche in the film, but he neglects to discuss the fact that Otto the mailman, in expounding Zarathustra’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, first gets the nature of such recurrence wrong. Since that detail is in the film, I assume it is important, and so Moliterno’s discussion, while helpful, is not enough.

After the credits sequence, the background of which is (visually) Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi and (aurally) the “Erbarme Dich” aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, we see Alexander (the primary character Tarkovsky follows in the film) planting a barren Japanese tree with the help of his son. As they work, Alexander muses on the importance of rituals. He is interrupted by a shout from off-screen, which turns out to belong to Otto the postman, bringing him a letter and good tidings on his birthday. In the letter (which is full of references to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) is the line, “God grant you joy, health, and peace,” which prompts Otto’s question, “say, how is your relationship to God?” (I do not know whether the strange choice of “to God” rather than “with God” is intentional or an oddity of the translation.) This garners the response, “non-existent.”

Following this, the discussion slowly turns to Nietzsche, as Otto brings up the “peculiar notion” of the dwarf that made Zarathustra faint. Otto professes not to be an expert on Nietzsche, merely someone interested in him, who gets “silly things in my head, things like this ‘eternal recurrence.’” Otto describes it:

We live; we have our ups and downs. We hope. We wait for something. We hope; we lose hope; we move closer to death. Finally, we die… and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just a wee, wee bit different, but it’s still so hopeless, and we don’t know why. Yes… No, I mean:  really, it’s quite the same, literally the same. Just the next performance, so to speak. If I’d made it all, I guess I’d have done things the same way. Funny, eh?

As he speaks, two other interesting things are going on. First, it is thundering, and second, Alexander’s son is playing a prank on Otto, tying his bike to a bush. Alexander scoffs at Otto, but Otto affirms that he does believe in “his” dwarf and “his” recurrence, adding that if he truly believes, it will be so: “Believe that it hath been given, and it shall be given unto you.” Otto then excuses himself: he must go home and think of a gift. He begins to ride off, falls victim to the prank, and, after falling off his bike, turns back, raises his arms in the air, and jumps twice, grinning. Then he rides off. All of this takes place in a single shot.

It is useful at this point to see Nietzsche’s own statement of the eternal recurrence. There are several, but the most compact and explicit I think is that in The Gay Science. While Otto has clearly read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and I suspect has not read The Gay Science, my interest is in exploring how Otto’s mistake relates to what Nietzsche actually believes, so I don’t see a need to limit myself to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In book four, §341 of The Gay Science, a section entitled “The Heaviest Weight”, Nietzsche writes:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sight and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing: “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the heaviest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

This is an incredibly rich passage and I will explain my understanding of it shortly. First, however, I want briefly to return to The Sacrifice. The dwarf in Thus Spoke Zarathustra jumps on Zarathustra’s back and fills his mind with leaden thoughts, and Zarathustra must fight to throw him off. Zarathustra does this by finally thinking what he has been reluctant to think, namely, the eternal recurrence.

With this in mind, we can start to see a number of interesting parallels in The Sacrifice. When Otto jumps after falling off the bike, the image he presents is something between a demon and a dwarf. He is not a frightening figure like the demon of The Gay Science, but he has made the demon’s suggestion: “This life as you now live it and have lived it…” And Alexander, likewise, is reluctant to think this thought; his immediate response is to scoff. Moreover, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Alexander is lonely and cut off from those around him, so it seems he is ripe for such an apparition. The parallels are, of course, not perfect, but then Alexander is not Zarathustra, and what is appropriate for Zarathustra is not what is appropriate for Alexander. Zarathustra has his dwarf; Nietzsche has his demon; Alexander has Otto. A heavy weight lies on Alexander, and only by facing up to the eternal recurrence can he throw it off. Or so, at least, I suggest.

But this leaves three questions unanswered: What is the eternal recurrence? Why does Otto initially get it wrong? And how, if at all, does Alexander face up to the thought in the rest of the film? I shall take these up in turn.

Books can be and have been written about what, exactly, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence means. Kathleen Higgins’ Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a particularly good one. What I can offer here is only a thoroughly imperfect sketch of some crucial points, and not a full analysis. With that caveat out of the way: The first thing to note about Nietzsche’s doctrine is that absolutely everything recurs with no change whatsoever. Otto’s mistake is not one of mere detail; rather, Otto initially misses the entire heart of the thought—more on this later. The suggestion, I take it, is that every detail of one’s life, however “unutterably small or great,” is essential, i.e. part of one’s essence. An essence is, as generally conceived, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions required for belonging to a category. In this case, every detail of one’s life is a part of one’s essence: the details are disjointly necessary and conjointly sufficient. Hence a change in a single detail of my life would make it no longer my life at all, but rather the life of a completely different person with a different essence. (A very similar person, no doubt, but it is useful here to think of identical twins. For all their similarities, they are nonetheless entirely distinct people.) A recurrence of the slightly different would thus not at all be a genuine recurrence. For my life to recur, it must recur in exactly the same way, “even this spider and this moonlight between the trees.”

This thought is then supposed to lie on our actions as “the heaviest weight.” Action implies choice: the thought of the eternal recurrence is a thought that lies first and foremost on our choices. Whatever we choose, it will recur again and innumerable times again. So of every action we must ask, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” To be able to response to this question with a joyous and deeply thankful, “Yes!” is divine. It is a tremendous moment in which one can give such a response, to be able, in each of one’s choices, to will that that choice and all of its consequences become necessary parts of who one is—as Nietzsche implores: Become who you are!

I stress that this thought at its core involves choice. Keep in mind that nothing in the doctrine of the eternal recurrence says that this is the first “performance”—this is simply one performance in a line extending infinitely backward and forward. Hence any choice I make is a choice I have made innumerable times before. Every time one reruns the tape, I make the same choices. In one sense, I have no other choice but to choose the same way, because it is a recurrence of my life and, as we have seen, every detail of my life is essential. So one might be tempted to say that Nietzsche’s thought is self-defeating: it is supposed to lie on my actions as the heaviest weight, but it seems to make incoherent the very possibility of an action. On one conception of the notion of choice, this is right, but it is a petty reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, at various places in his work (e.g. Beyond Good and Evil), contests this very way of conceiving choice. To think Nietzsche’s thought fully requires being able to understand choice as choice of what is necessary. The freedom inherent in choice is an intimate bedfellow of necessity; indeed choice requires necessity.

With this in view it is easier to see the import of Otto’s mistake. Before correcting himself, Otto relays the thought in a way that allows none of its crucial consequences to come into view. I mentioned at the start of this post that I had trouble writing it previously; this is the point that gave me trouble. I could see the consequences of Otto’s mistake, but could not relate them very well to the film. A few weeks ago I had the thought that Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage might provide insight into this, but it wasn’t until this morning, when I read “The Rotation of Crops” (Either/Or, part I), that I saw how to make the connection clear.

The first part of Either/Or is a collection of writings by an unnamed man, called A, who figures as a representative of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage (as contrasted to the ethical and religious stages). One of these writings is the essay in question, in which he advocates crop rotation as a model for keeping boredom at bay. Crucial to the idea of crop rotation is the dialectic between recollecting and forgetting. Specifically, one must be able to forget poetically—which does not mean to be forgetful. Rather, it implies a sort of ability to forget at will, in such a way that one does not recollect unpleasantness. Life is a fight against boredom; crop rotation is the most effective strategy in this fight. As with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, the essay is marvelously rich, and unfortunately it would take me too far afield to delve into them fully. I do want to isolate one sentence from the essay, however:

Everything will surely come again but in a different way; what has once been taken into the rotation process remains there but is varied by the method of cultivation.

Here, in Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, we find an example of recurrence of the slightly different. For those whose lives are fights against boredom, there is such a recurrence. Part of this recurrence is a matter of recollecting and forgetting: these processes are “poetic”: they are selective and partial. Recollecting an event requires in a deep sense forgetting it, requires recollecting it other than as it was. In short, the aesthete’s poetic recollecting and forgetting turns on losing sight of the details—hence the recurrence of events is only “in a different way.” If Nietzsche is right, this sort of recurrence should make impossible any sort of stable identity, since every detail is essential. And this is just what we find. The diapsalmata that open A’s papers show an individual who constantly vacillates and contradicts himself. Nelson Goodman once argued that, since we must accept contradictions, there must be many worlds or none. An analogous argument applies here: A must contradict himself, so he must have many identities or none. This is captured by the fact that Kierkegaard gives him no name—on the other hand the man in the ethical stage (whose papers are part II of Either/Or) is given a name.

Otto’s mistake is thus that he initially describes a form of recurrence appropriate to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, but Nietzsche was no advocate of the sort of existence propounded in part I of Either/Or. What importance does this have for the film? I think there are prominent aspects of the aesthetic in Alexander as we see him at the start of the film. Before I go into these, let me preface myself by making it clear that I am not claiming that Kierkegaard influenced Tarkovsky—I genuinely do not know, but in any case there is no definitive evidence in the film that there is any such direct connection. What I am saying is that Kierkegaard’s philosophy provides a good model in light of which the film makes a certain sense.

Alexander’s relations to others are strained. Though he interacts with them well enough, when we see him alone he always seems profoundly dissatisfied and his interpersonal interactions come to seem incidental—his thought always lies elsewhere. I would even suggest that Alexander is bored, or constantly fighting to keep boredom at bay. Even though he is not engaging in crop rotation, he seems the sort of person to whom A might recommend such a course of action. He is ripe for a recurrence of the slightly different. Or, to put it another way, he has a dwarf on his back that he cannot throw off, and it is weighing him down. Throughout A’s papers there are Christian allusions and references to “the Good Lord”, but it is near-impossible to read these without at least a trace of sarcasm—A’s relationship to God is clearly non-existent, just like Alexander’s, despite the outward appearance of being religious.

But Alexander is not a pure aesthete; indeed he could not be. Otto, at one point later in the film, remarks that every gift involves a sacrifice, and the film is ultimately the story of Alexander’s sacrifice. A pure aesthete, however, has nothing to sacrifice, because a pure aesthete avoids commitment to anything. The act of recollecting and forgetting, for the aesthete, is an embodiment of this: to forget something is only possible if one is not committed to it. Hence if Alexander is to make a sacrifice, he must not be purely in the aesthetic stage.

And indeed this is so. In the crop rotation essay, A has a firm stricture against marriage and against holding public office. Both of these involve commitment, and in just this way they involve not aesthetic but ethical categories. To be married and to hold public office both involve duties to other people. Now, Alexander is married, and though his marriage is an unhappy one, he has not divorced his wife, so I suppose this testifies to something ethical in Alexander. But what really matters for the film is Alexander’s relationship to his son. It is there that Alexander’s ethical commitments are really seen fully. That is why, when Alexander offers to give up his son if only God will prevent a nuclear holocaust, and then goes through with it, it constitutes a genuine sacrifice. Alexander’s sacrificing his relationship with his son is, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, a teleological suspension of the ethical. (Note that Kierkegaard’s primary example of a teleological suspension of the ethical is the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, upon which the film is surely modeled.)

How this sacrifice comes about is interesting, and leads to consideration of my third and final question above. In one of the more opaque scenes in the film, Otto comes to Alexander and tells him he must travel across the island to sleep with his housemaid, Maria. The Moliterno essay I linked above discusses some common problems found with this scene that are worth considering. Johnson and Petrie are confused by what seems to be a double sacrifice: Alexander both sleeps with Maria and burns his house down—why both? Why not just the one? And Strick complains that it seems arrogant to think that God would avert nuclear disaster simply because of “one man’s silence and self-deprivation.” (References for both criticisms can be found in the Moliterno essay.) Seeing why both critiques are misguided will help elucidate the role of the eternal recurrence in the film.

I think it is unquestionable that Strick’s complaint is eminently sensible and reasonable—and this is just why it misses the point. One aspect of Kierkegaard’s discussion of a teleological suspension of the ethical is that, when faced with a person who acts on such a suspension, the rest of society cannot but judge him ethically. Strick’s condemnation is just such an ethical critique, and as an ethical critique it makes perfect sense. From an ethical standpoint, there can be no teleological suspension of the ethical, and so from an ethical standpoint Alexander’s action is indeed arrogant and presumptuous. But an ethical standpoint is not an appropriate one for assessing Alexander’s actions: he is in the religious stage at this point.

Johnson and Petrie’s criticism cuts deeper. I think I can answer the charge on Tarkovsky’s behalf if I can show how the film subsumes Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence to the Christian concept of sacrifice that the film clearly exemplifies. In this regard it is worth noting that Tarkovsky considered calling the film The Eternal Return (see the Moliterno essay). That suggests that there is a deep relationship, for Tarkovsky, between the Christian idea of sacrifice and the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence. Consideration of the “double sacrifice” in this light I think clarifies the role that it plays.

Tarkovsky’s films are always shifting between “solid” reality and the more ethereal world of dreams, and frequently scenes are ambiguous or suspended between these two states. The Mirror provides a great many examples of such ambiguous scenes, and The Sacrifice does not break the pattern of Tarkovsky’s earlier films. Early in the film, Alexander begins having apocalyptic visions, which then seem to become a reality. Planes start flying thunderously overhead, and the radio announces that threat of nuclear war.

In the face of this, Alexander retreats to his room and offers a desperate prayer to God, in which he offers his son (and more) as a sacrifice, if only God will make things as they were before the threat was ever announced. Shortly after this, Otto comes up to Alexander’s room and gives a set of bizarre instructions: he must go sleep with Maria. Alexander keeps demanding an answer as to why, but Otto cannot give one, beyond saying that Maria is a witch of the “best kind.” So, eventually, Alexander goes; he sleeps with Maria, and then—he wakes up, and everything is as if there never was any threat.

Two questions can be asked here. One might ask for a clear delineation of what “really” happened and what was “just” a vision. Did the threat of nuclear war really occur, only to be effaced by God, or was it merely a figment of Alexander’s imagination? Did Alexander really sleep with Maria, or did he only imagine sleeping with her? These are metaphysical questions, and the film doesn’t answer them. Attempting to force an answer on the film is as fruitless as attempting to determine whether Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence is metaphysically “correct.” Nietzsche offers no evidence for the doctrine because it doesn’t matter: the question is just not a metaphysical question. Nietzsche does not say that a demon steals after you in a vision, or that a really real demon steals after you; he says: “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness?” The metaphysical question is immaterial. The experience happens, and changes you “as you are.”

So I propose that instead we ask only the second question: why must Alexander sleep with Maria? There isn’t an easy answer, and I don’t know if what I will say can satisfy Johnson and Petrie fully. Nevertheless, here is what I suggest. I have already suggested that Otto is portrayed as to an extent demonic, and of course he has already espoused the doctrine of the eternal recurrence to Alexander. Here, I suggest, is a repetition of that scene, in a way. The demonic Otto steals after Alexander in Alexander’s loneliest loneliness, when he is despairing and forsaken, and says: sleep with Maria. And now Alexander must choose who he is to be. Will he affirm everything up to this moment, including his promise to God, and everything that follows from this choice, he knows not what, by going and sleeping with Maria? Or will he be crushed by the weight of the choice? Will he be changed as he is?

Alexander’s going to sleep with Maria, then, is the decisive moment in the film. It is the tremendous moment when he can say to Otto, “you are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” His actions upon waking to find everything as it was are a natural continuation of this decisive moment, and not a double sacrifice at all. Further, in seeing that the film involves a teleological suspension of the ethical, it is crucial to recognize that sleeping with Maria is just such a suspension: Alexander must step outside the ethical bounds set by his marriage.

I once read somewhere, I forget where, that one aspect of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is that it involves stamping eternity on each individual moment. By recurring eternally, each moment is abstracted from time altogether and is in that sense eternal, is outside time. This seems right, and is exemplified by the film. When Alexander sleeps with Maria, Tarkovsky does not show them having sex. Instead, the shot is of Alexander and Maria intertwined, motionless, levitating above the bed. The camera rotates around them, giving us a view of from all angles. The shot itself, of course, is extended in time, but what it shows is a moment altogether abstracted from time, a moment expanded to eternity, in short, a Nietzschean moment.

Hence I think, for Tarkovsky, that Alexander’s sacrifice and his Nietzschean affirmation of Otto’s demonic visit are not a double sacrifice; rather, they come to the same thing. Otto’s initial discussion with Alexander sets the stage for this two-sided coin. On the one hand, his mistake illustrates Alexander as he currently is, weighed down by what Otto calls ‘gloom’ (Nietzsche would, I think, call it a spirit of gravity). On the other hand, his correction foreshadows the thoroughly Nietzschean elements of his sacrifice. One element of Tarkovsky’s film is showing how thoroughly religious Nietzsche’s idea really is.

Addendum

There is so much in this topic that I wish I could explore, but this post is too long as it is. So I will simply mention two issues that are raised by the film that I would have liked to discuss in more detail, but could not. The most obvious question is this: given Nietzsche’s fierce condemnations of Christianity (most fervent in his late work, The Anti-Christ), does the synthesis of Nietzschean recurrence and Christian sacrifice even make sense in the first place? I confess that one reason I have not even tried to address this question is that I simply don’t know how to answer it. Another topic worthy of some reflection is the fact that every time Alexander asks Otto for a clear reason why he should sleep with Maria, Otto demurs or otherwise circumvents the question. Why is this? And why, in the face of this, does Alexander nonetheless do what Otto says?

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Kiarostami and Goodman on the value of copies

2013/02/17 1 comment

Questions of forgery and authenticity abound in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy. As a way of getting at these issues, I want to consider aspects of Goodman’s discussion of art and authenticity, found in his book Languages of Art. (Advance note: there will be spoilers.)

I do not wish to recreate the whole of Goodman’s discussion, for that would be tedious. I do wish to isolate a few core ideas from his discussion. Goodman begins by considering forgeries of paintings, and asks: can a difference between an original and a forgery that cannot be seen by a normal observer merely by looking make an aesthetic difference? More loosely: if you can’t tell the difference between two paintings just by looking at them, can they still be of different aesthetic value? (Goodman actually puts the question somewhat differently, since he is sensitive to complicating factors that aren’t relevant here.)

Goodman argues that “unobservable” differences can make an aesthetic difference. The cornerstone of his argument is that there are no clear bounds on what can be seen “just by looking”—not within observers and certainly not across them. He is right in both cases: were Goodman and I to look at the same painting, he would undoubtedly see a great deal more than I—hence what can be seen varies across observers. But, further, I could learn to see the painting as richly as Goodman does by learning to become sensitive to its aesthetically relevant features—hence what can be seen varies within observers over time.

It is the second case that is particularly crucial to Goodman’s argument. Two importance aspects of within-observer variation in what can be seen are pertinent. First, one learns how to see a painting, learns what is relevant, and this is a process. Further, as with any pedagogical matters, there are more than one ways to learn, and not all will be equally effective. Second, this process is always ongoing; it never comes to a definite end. No one reaches a point where she can see all there is to see, and in principle she can always develop her sensitivity further. One reason for this is that there simply is no definitive list of what a particular painting says. A painting may be truly seen and truly described in many ways (Goodman would add that these ways might even contradict one another), and there is no totality of the ways it can be truly described. (It is better to see this not as there being an infinity of ways to truly describe it, but rather as there being an indefinite number of ways to truly describe it.) Thus there is always open-endedness when it comes to seeing a painting, i.e. there is always the possibility of coming to see more.

These points can be augmented by recognition of the point that not only does one learn how to see paintings in general, one also learns to see particular paintings and styles of painting. Revolutionary art is revolutionary precisely because it upsets old ways of seeing and forces people to adjust to the new standards for seeing it sets. (This also explains why, once people have become inured to the new standards, the painting can cease to seem revolutionary.)

Keeping in mind that learning to see paintings is an open-ended process that applies both at a general level and to individual paintings, we can see why Goodman thinks that it makes an aesthetic difference whether or not a painting is a forgery. Knowing of two paintings that one is an original and one is a forgery matters because it tells one how to look at the paintings, provides information useful for knowing what to look for. Goodman’s fleshes out this idea (Languages of Art, 105):

In short, although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures.

Note that Goodman is not saying that the original is automatically better than the forgery—it might not be.

I have thus far followed Goodman in talking about painting, but it is worth noting that the above points about learning to experience a work of art apply to all art forms. There are, however, differences. In a certain sense, while one might forge a copy of a painting, one cannot forge a copy of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Why not? Goodman introduces a distinction between autographic and allographic art. Autographic art is that which permits of forgeries. There can only be one original Mona Lisa; all others are fakes of one sort or another. Allographic art, on the other hand, cannot be forged. I own Certified Copy on Blu-ray, as do many other people, and each of us is watching the original film. None of us are watching mere copies. Likewise, Gould and Perahia’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are performances of the same work—neither is in any sense a forgery.

What distinguishes autographic from allographic art, according to Goodman, is that for allographic art forms there exist definitive tests that will distinguish an original from a copy. A copy of a painting might get taken for the original (no definitive test exists unless you already know which one is the original), but a performance that is not of the Goldberg Variations is always easy to spot: it doesn’t follow the score. This hits on what Goodman thinks is the crucial difference between allographic and autographic art: allographic art involves some form of notation that will allow one to establish a definitive test of authenticity: faithfulness to what is notated.

Before moving away from Goodman and toward Kiarostami, I want to focus on one last case that Goodman discusses. Goodman does not think that the distinction between autographic and allographic art is hard and fast. Because allography depends upon notation, and because it is possible to develop a notation for an art form that lacks it, an autographic art may eventually become allographic. In this capacity, Goodman discusses dance, which might seem to be an autographic art, but for which several people have attempted to develop notation systems (indeed, the cover of Languages of Art is just such a notation). So dance exists on the border between autography and allography.

I bring up dance because it allows me to make a brief detour through Nietzsche (I can’t resist) and in so doing effect the transition between Goodman’s philosophy and Kiarostami’s film. Nietzsche is relevant because he often describes life in terms reminiscent of works of art—especially dance. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche claims, “High culture will resemble a daring dance, thus, requiring, as we said, much strength and flexibility” (§278, Faber translation). And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he is even bolder: “I would only believe in a God who could dance.” Life, for Nietzsche, is substantially like dance.

If I may imaginatively extend Nietzsche in light of the discussion of Goodman, we might see Nietzsche’s critique of morality as a critique of attempts to develop a notation for human life: just follow this script, and you will be a good human being. Of course, as with a music score, the script leaves a great deal of room for how it is to be followed, and these differences of performance may be tremendously important, but the notation system nonetheless isolates a single set of aspects of human life as essential, and in this way makes all people performances of the same work (if they live up to the “score” at all).

Against this, Nietzsche urges that every detail of a person’s life is essential. On one reading of his doctrine of the eternal recurrence (a reading I rather favor), one lesson it teaches is that were one’s life to be repeated with even the slightest difference in detail is not to repeat it at all—it becomes someone else’s life. Hence to affirm even one moment of one’s life is to affirm every moment. You cannot just affirm the beautiful and despise the ugly and evil, for each is necessary. Indeed, that is why Nietzsche in other places (I forget where specifically) talks about learning to see what is beautiful in what is necessary, which for him amounts to making what is necessary beautiful. One instance of this comes in The Gay Science: “Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall” (§56, Hollingdale translation).

Life, then, is autographic. Certified Copy makes this point vividly, and in a way that multiplies the complexities of distinguishing originals and copies. Goodman, in his discussion, starts from the assumption that we have a determinate original and a determinate copy, and works from there. In Certified Copy, there is a world of copies, with the originals always out of sight. But, I want to suggest, Certified Copy is equally a world of originals—indeed precisely the theme of the film that I wish to explore is that the boundary between originals and copies is not at all a hard and fast one. Goodman’s discussion takes place with a static view: here is a painting, and here is a copy of it. They are extended in space, but not time. The copies in Certified Copy are extended in time, however, and that makes all the difference.

Certified Copy is a rich, complex film, and I will not do it justice. I am isolating only one strand of it, albeit a major one. Because it is such a complex film, I don’t know how clear I can make the following discussion to those who have not seen it. Nevertheless, I will attempt a basic summary that will orient the reader to the overarching structure of the film. James Miller has written a book called Certified Copy, in which he suggests that copies are worth every bit as much as originals. The film opens by showing him giving a talk in Italy, which is attended most importantly by a woman and her son, Julien. (The woman never gets a name, so I will henceforth call her ‘the mother’.) The mother runs a shop that sells copies of antiques, and this seems to be the pretense for her meeting James at some time after the lecture. (Her son suggests that the real reason is that she wishes to fall in love with James.) They end up spending the afternoon together, visiting a small town in Italy. In a scene in a café, the waitress mistakes James for the mother’s husband, and the mother plays along. From this point onward, the straightforward narrative of the film becomes warped, and going forward the film proceeds with James and the mother increasingly acting like a married couple—not playacting, mind; it seems that somehow things have changed and they in fact are married.

This deliberate ambiguity about what is real I do not intend to deal with, on the grounds that I do not yet fully understand it. Instead, I want to focus on what is constant in the film: its exploration of the question of the value of originals and copies. The film never answers the question; rather, I suggest that it reveals the question to be on some deep level misguided. This has to do, as mentioned above, with the fact that entities and events are extended in time and not just space, so you cannot get a static vision: here is the original, here is the copy. Originals and copies take on different histories and so accrue different values.

There is an explicit example of this just before the major shift-point of the film. The mother has taken James to this small town to show him a famous painting in a museum. The painting was for centuries renowned as an original, but, 50 years before when the film is set, was discovered to be a copy. Nevertheless, after the discovery, it remains displayed in the museum, remains the one of the prides of this town. Though it is a copy, its centuries of association with the town make it as valuable to them as an original. In an interesting exchange, James gets frustrated with a tour guide who is explaining the history of the painting—James thinks he need not have mentioned that it is a copy. The mother thinks people have to know (presumably so that, following Goodman, they know how to look at the painting properly), but James thinks it a matter of total indifference. The painting has, in his view, taken on a life of its own, independent of the history of its origins. It speaks for itself and has its own value, independent of the painting of which it is (or once was?) a copy.

This is the simplest example in the film, dealing still with paintings. It is possible to take a static view of paintings, even if perhaps one ought not. With life itself, though, things are more complicated, and it is life that is the real context in which the film’s central question is posed. Life, by definition, is animate, is always moving and changing. At one point James suggests that promises are foolish precisely because they attempt to impose some constancy on this flux, a flux that soon leaves the conditions in which the promise was made behind, and hence leaves the promise looking ridiculous and effete.

The connection between copies, originals, and life itself is made right at the start of the film, as we see James giving his lecture. He discusses an etymological connection between our word ‘original’ and a Latin root connected to giving birth. Creation of an original is an act like that of giving birth, he suggests. But what is it we give birth to? The metaphorical treatment of creating an original as akin to giving birth draws a connection between the artistic process and childbirth, and in this context James suggests that, at least in some sense, children are copies. Namely, they are DNA copies of their parents. Not exact copies, to be sure, but all of the genetic material that so thoroughly determines goes into “building” a child is copied from two people.

This thought that children are copies of their parents recurs later in the film, when the mother says (to James) that Julien is the spitting image of his father. (“Spitting image” is the phrase of the subtitle, but the mother is in fact speaking Italian and uses the phrase “copia conforme”. The translation thus fails to capture the explicit connection with the title of the film.) This occurs just after the café scene, and so at this point James “is” her husband, and hence by implication is Julien’s father. Her annoyance with her son mirrors an annoyance with James of a moment before, so I think it is clear that she is comparing Julien to James. So Julien is a copy of his father, yet he is also an original human being. A fairly trivial point in itself, but an illustration of the fuzzy line between originals and copies. (I also suspect that there are a great number of ways that Julien and James mirror one another in their relationships to the mother, and that studying these is crucial to understanding the film as a whole. But that is a task outside my concerns here, and outside my current comprehension of the film regardless.)

The final example that I want to discuss, though not the final example in the film by any means, is the most central. It is also more speculative, but I think the clues are solid enough to establish that I am at least moving in the right direction. As James and the mother drive to the museum, the mother asks James to sign some books, including one for her sister Marie. In the ensuing discussion, it comes out that Marie agrees with James that copies are just as good as the originals—James applauds her ability to believe it without any complexities, whereas he had to write a book to convince himself of the idea. Marie’s husband, it turns out, stutters, and Marie considers his stammer of her name (“M-M-M-M-Marie”) to be a sort of love poem. In one of the film’s final moments, well after James and the mother have “become” a married couple, they are visiting the hotel where they stayed on their marriage night 15 years ago. The mother lies on the bed, looks at James, and says, “J-J-J-James.” My interpretation of these correspondences is that they suggest that James and the mother are, in an odd way, a kind of copy of Marie and her husband. (It is worth noting that Marie’s husband, like the mother, never is named.)

These three examples are hardly the only copies we see in the film. I think, however, that they are sufficient to draw a couple of conclusions about the nature and value of copies. As stressed above, every copy and every original has a history, and no copy can share the same history as the original it is copied from. Because historical details matter, an original and a copy can never be evaluated solely as original and as copy. What starts out as a copy immediately begins to diverge, immediately begins to become an original. The painting in the museum is an example of this: over time it accrued a significance that the original lacks, and hence, despite being a copy, it is still displayed. Julien provides an even clearer example: he is a “certified copy” of his father, but he is shaped by a distinct set of experiences and is certainly not the same person by any means. The world of Kiarostami’s film is a world of copies becoming originals.

What is particularly interesting about this aspect of the film is that this divergence always takes place in the absence of the original. The painting was initially thought to be an original, and was only later discovered to be a copy. Had it been known to be a copy from the start, it never would have had the chance to gain the significance it did (this, at least, is the implication). Further, by all appearances, Julien’s mother is a single mother—and even when she and James become a couple later, their interactions make it apparent that James has been frequently absent over the past 15 years. So Julien, too, has grown up apart from the original from whom he was copied. Likewise, Marie and her husband are never seen, only described. There are no originals in Certified Copy, only copies. The suggestion, I think, is that we can be so star struck by an original that tmight never give its copy the time of day. Since the film indicates at multiple points the importance of perception for the value of a work, ignoring a copy (or only ever seeing it as merely a copy) is as good as consigning it to always remain a copy.

The second conclusion has to do with the intriguing issue of simplicity and complexity. James may be a copy of Marie, but it is noteworthy that he is much more complex. Marie thinks only fools work hard in life; James has to work hard just to come to believe an opinion that Marie holds simply. What this suggests that it is in some sense easier to start out as an original: then one simply need not work to become an original. If, however, one begins as a copy, then it is a constant struggle to become original. In showing us a world only of copies engaged in this struggle, with originals appearing only in stories, as if they were mythical creatures, Kiarostami suggests that copies, like turtles, go all the way down. There are no originals, and hence there is no way of avoiding the difficult process of changing from copy to original.

Goodman, then, is right so far as he goes: no copy is identical to an original, so knowing that something is a copy rather than an original can be important in learning to spot those differences. But precisely because it changes how we perceive the copy, this knowledge is a double-edged sword. It can prevent us from ever giving the copy its due. Goodman’s emphasis on knowing what is an original and what is a copy seems much more important on a static view of things, whereas Kiarostami suggests that it is the historical view that matters most. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which of the two is right.

Aesthetics and Objectivity

2013/02/14 1 comment

For a few years now, I’ve been bugged by the issue of objectivity in aesthetic judgment. Today, I came across a notion (in an entirely distinct context) that has helped clarify my thinking on the topic. This post is my attempt to give voice to this newfound clarity, and to see if my new thought might not be that rare genuine insight.

My goal in thinking about objectivity and aesthetics has been to find a way to move between forms of objectivism and subjectivism that I find equally untenable. As such, a useful place to start will be with these views and their inadequacies. I’ll start with the objectivist side of things. For the objectivist, roughly speaking, there is a determinate right answer to questions about e.g. the value of a work of art (which probably requires there being determinate right answers to questions about how the work is to be interpreted). I do not know if many people really hold this view—most people with objectivist leanings stop somewhere short of it.

The problems with this view do not lurk far below the surface. Anyone who has ever been involved in a disagreement about the value or meaning of a work of art can probably recognize the untenability of this view. People disagree wildly about what works of art mean and what they are worth (and even if they agree about overall value, they’ll disagree about why they are valuable), and there seems to be no way of mediating these disagreements (particularly those about value) so that people can come to agree (as opposed to paradigmatically objective questions like “what is the charge of an electron?”). Why is this? One reason is that the appreciation of art depends substantially on subjective factors about the person experiencing it: their past experience, their values in other areas, and so on. To achieve objectivity of a strong sort would require eliminating or minimizing these subjective factors. In the face of such an imperialist strategy—could it even be made plausible (which no one has done, to my knowledge)—a question naturally arises: what’s the point? Subjective factors matter deeply to the experience of art, so to efface these factors is to miss out on the actual experience of art.

In response to these difficulties, people naturally move toward a subjectivist position, which emphasizes these subjective factors. What matters is the subject’s experience of the work of art. To say that a work of art is good amounts to saying that you like it, not to make a claim about its “objective” value. Endorsement of this view is also driven by a broadly scientific worldview (whether the results and success of scientific inquiry force this view on us is another question). Values are not objectively measurable; you cannot collect empirical evidence for a value judgment, so value judgments are subjective. This sort of view has debilitating consequences (one might think) for ethics, but the stakes of aesthetic relativism are rather lower, and so one can comfortably accept a subjectivist view about ethics. But, if anything, the problems for this view are more severe than those for the objectivist position.

I complained of the objectivist view that it has trouble handling the phenomenon of disagreement in a satisfactory manner. The subjectivist view of the matter finds itself in the rather more unfortunate position of being unable even to recognize that disagreement. If every value judgment about aesthetics amounts to a claim about how the person speaking values the work, then it is simply not possible to disagree. “I like this painting.” “I disagree, I dislike it.” But there is no incompatibility in my liking and your disliking the same work. The most the subjectivist view can recognize is that people have different value judgments. Without a claim to legitimacy that transcends one’s own perspective, disagreement cannot happen. Insofar as people think they disagree, they are deluding themselves. I do not think the phenomenon of apparent disagreement can be accounted for by denying that it is really disagreement. When people disagree, they give each other reasons for why they disagree, and they try to convince other people. These reasons may be good or they may not, but they nonetheless are reasons and they are expected to have a rational pull on the other person. To do so, they must transcend the perspective of the person offering them—precisely what the subjectivist disallows.

The problem runs deeper even than this, for the subjectivist must deny the possibility of another common phenomenon. Often, people will revisit a work of art they once disliked and come to the realization that they were wrong previously. In effect, this is a case of disagreeing with one’s past self, and as such it is no more recognizable for the subjectivist than interpersonal disagreement. Change of opinion can never amount to more than mere change of opinion; to think anything more is to suffer from a delusion. Nevertheless, people do have this experience, and I contend it is legitimate. Perhaps you notice some new, relevant factor that you had missed before: your prior judgment was wrong because it did not take this factor into account. Other cases of the sort are possible and prevalent.

Beyond being unable to recognize disagreement of either sort, the subjectivist view is also, I think, an excuse for laziness. One reason why I constantly am coming to find past judgments I’ve made about works of art inadequate is that, as I continue to experience and think about art, I continually become more sensitive to how they express and mean things. This takes hard work, and I have a long ways to go. Nevertheless, I am learning how to experience art in more nuanced ways, and as my sensitivity increases, the legitimacy of my judgments in some sense increases.

These inadequacies of both poles are sufficient that even in the absence of a good intermediate position I’ve been convinced that an adequate solution must somehow find a place between them. It must respect the importance of subjective factors while nonetheless making room for disagreement and recognizing the importance of training oneself to experience art. The general thought that I have tried to develop in the past is view on which people engage in the improvement of their own standpoints in response to internal and external criticism. Simply by becoming more sensitive to art, one can come to see one’s prior inadequacies—this is internal critique. Likewise, by paying attention to and evaluating the judgments and supporting reasons of others, one can come to be aware of problems with one’s own positions—this is external critique. In both cases, what is required is an openness to reasons that may transcend one’s perspective.

The reason this is distinct from objectivism is that it does not posit a determinate answer. I like to think of this in terms of a distinction between terminal state and creativity models. The objectivist picture is a terminal state model: there is a determinate right answer to questions of aesthetic value, and the goal of aesthetic inquiry would then be to find out and believe this answer. The view that I have toyed with is a creativity model. It involves progression from one’s current state, but not a progression to any determinate final state. The subjective factors mentioned above are allowed to play a role in determining what counts as a good reason for a person—but they are not above criticism. Rational reflection always occurs from within a perspective, but it always carries with it the risk of discovering inadequacies with that perspective—this is as true for aesthetic inquiry as any other. In this way, I believe I can respect subjectivity without excusing laziness.

Nevertheless, when I have tried to defend this view before, I’ve always found it difficult to make it clear just how objectivity is involved. My purported new insight, if it is worth anything, helps to make the matter somewhat more limpid. The source that sparked my thought was J.J. Gibson’s paper “New Reasons for Realism”. Gibson was a revolutionary psychologist, and that paper, published in the philosophy journal Synthese, saw him offering his ecological theory of perception up to philosophers for use in defending direct realism (roughly, the epistemological view that perception provides grounds for knowledge about the external world). That is not my concern here, though the philosopher John McDowell holds a broadly Gibsonian view in the philosophy of perception and has applied such thinking to aesthetic matters in his paper “Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the World”. (This is a good point to mention that my thinking on matters of aesthetic value has been deeply informed by McDowell’s work on reasoning and ethical judgment.)

My interest here is rather in a distinction Gibson raised toward the end of the paper, which I hope I may appropriate and pervert to my own ends. Gibson introduces the idea of a continuum of publicity and privacy of perspectives. Because his area of study is perception, he means specifically perceptual perspectives. Thus, if two people both walk around a tree, observing it from various angles, they can by and large share the same perspective of the tree. On the other hand, the view of my nose that I get by sight (not in a mirror) is uniquely my own; no one else every sees my nose from my perspective. In between these two are hands. To a substantial degree, I and another person may share a perspective of my hands, but not completely (consider that my hands are themselves part of my perceptual apparatus). So in moving from trees to hands to noses, we move from more public to more private perspectives. We can get still more private if we consider after-image effects that, even more than my view of my nose, are maximally private.

This notion of a continuum with maximal publicity and maximal privacy at its poles provides a way of reconsidering just what objectivism and subjectivism are in aesthetic judgment. In thinking about art, I think we can find a range of types of perspective, and we can arrange these along a continuum similar to Gibson’s. Objectivists and subjectivists promote different regions of this continuum. An example of a maximally public perspective of art is, I think, music theory. Anyone of sufficient drive and intelligence can learn music theory, and can learn to analyze music using its tools. At the opposite pole would be each person’s subjective experiences of a work of art: the pangs of joy, the tears of boredom, and so on. This is maximally private: no one else can share my sensation of listening to a Bach keyboard concerto, for instance. In between this are various other sorts of perspectives. Kierkegaard’s analysis of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Either/Or seems to me a good example of a middle ground perspective. On the one hand, it characterizes the opera in a way that is publicly accessible; on the other hand the analysis is clearly the result of a very particular way of thinking about life, what Kierkegaard later designates the “aesthetic stage”. So it is somewhere between maximal publicity and maximal privacy.

This opens up a possible way of characterizing my two bogeymen. The objectivist is someone who praises those value judgments that arise from a maximally public perspective on art, e.g. music theory for music. It is a questionable matter whether value judgments can arise within such a maximally public perspective, and worries of this sort are part of what drive people to reject objectivism. Nevertheless, it is true that an analysis from the perspective of music theory makes possible judgments of complexity, of technicality, and of innovation, among others, and these are to at least some extent connected to value judgments. This is the sort of source for objectivist value judgments. The subjectivist, on the other hand, emphasizes the maximally private: the private experience of engaging with a work of art.

I called these positions bogeymen because I think few people strictly hold either one. Objectivists rarely take positions so extreme as the one I’ve characterized, and subjectivists frequently allow for more than mere enjoyment to count. An example of this latter point is the phenomenon of guilty pleasures, in which one recognizes that, while one enjoys a particular work, it is nonetheless not good, and so they feel guilty. (To their credit, some subjectivists disavow the notion of a guilty pleasure altogether. These people are probably the closest to fully agreeing with either position that I’ve laid out that anyone comes.) I have introduced them mostly to provide a good frame in which to bring my position into better relief.

Indeed, I think I am now at a point where I can give my position a more robust exposition. I earlier characterized my view as emphasizing rational self-correction of one’s own standpoint, but I was not particularly clear about what a standpoint is supposed to be. I think it is not to be identified with any particular perspective. Rather, it is a mish-mash variously informed by all the various different perspectives one might adopt with regard to a work, whether more theoretical and public or more experiential and private. Improvement of one’s own standpoint is a matter of coordinating these various perspectives, of making the mish-mash reasonably coherent. There is no set formula for this: one goes by one’s own lights, with help from interaction with others. What matters is that no perspective is immune to criticism from any other.

With this picture in view, we can see how it is that I can respect the features of aesthetic judgment and aesthetic disagreement that gave objectivists and subjectivists alike such difficulties. Disagreement is possible because one’s standpoint is a mix of public and private factors. You cannot very well disagree with my enjoying a work of art on the grounds of your not enjoying it. But when I defend an aesthetic value judgment, I am not just making a claim about my own enjoyment: I am also drawing on interpretive and analytical claims that are much more public. Because subjective/private features still matter, there is no right position toward which one should strive. Because objective/public features matter, one can always improve one’s position. So, while there is more to be said, I think the way of thinking I have outlined here points toward the possibility for a happy and healthy pluralism about aesthetic judgment, one that allows for disagreement without excusing laziness.

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Constructive Empiricism and Interpretation

2013/02/12 1 comment

For thirty-some years now, the philosophy Bas van Fraassen has been defending a posi­tion in the philosophy of science known as constructive empiricism. It is a nuanced view, but it is characterized by a central theme: making empiricism plausible. Empiri­cism for van Fraassen is a “stance”—an attitude with no content itself (empirical or meta­physical), but which determines how one responds to particular bits of content. Con­trasting with empiricism is the stance van Fraassen calls materialism. Van Fraassen characterizes the two stances as follows (The Empirical Stance, 62-63):

Characteristic of materialism is a certain deference to the content of sci­ence. This deference takes two forms: the belief that the scientific descrip­tion of the world is true, in its entirety or near enough, at least a strong inclina­tion toward completeness claims for the content of certain sciences. …

Empiricism may also be approached through reflection on its positive atti­tude toward science. But this admiring attitude is not directed so much to the content of the sciences as to their forms and practices of inquiry. Sci­ence is a paradigm of rational inquiry. To take it as such is precisely to take up one of the most central attitudes in the empiricist stance. But one may take it so while showing little deference to the content of any science per se. …

For the materialist, science is what teaches us what to believe. For the empiri­cist, science is more nearly what teaches us how to give up our be­liefs. All our factual beliefs are to be given over as hostages to fortune, to the fortunes of future empirical evidence, and given up when they fail, with­out succumbing to despair, cynicism, or debilitating relativism.

Importantly, van Fraassen does not think that one stance is more rational than the other (though he thinks many actual materialists go astray and endorse what he consid­ers “inflationary metaphysics”—e.g. modal realism). The constructive empiricist be­lieves that successful scientific theories are empirically adequate (which means that they save all of the observable phenomena), but not that they are strictly true, which would require that they be true about the unobservable phenomena as well. For the construc­tive empiricist, all that is required for scientific inquiry is that, when one accepts a scien­tific theory, the only belief to which one is committed is that the theory is empirically adequate. Van Fraassen adds that one is also committed to further testing of the theory, and to giving it up if it should prove not to be empirically adequate. Importantly, how­ever, van Fraassen does not believe that it is irrational to believe that the best scientific theories are true; he simply believes it is not rationally compelled. Neither the empiricist nor the materialist can accuse the other of irrationality.

It is important to recognize that constructive empiricism does not involve any ontologi­cal claims about the unobservable. What is observable, for the constructive empiri­cist, is what is observable-for-humans, as our best current theories of perception delimit what we can observe. But it would be quite strange to believe that nothing that exists escapes detection by our perceptual systems. The constructive empiricist only ab­jures accepting any claims about what it is that so escapes our perceptual faculties.

How might one recognize an empiricist or a materialist? The materialist is more likely, for one thing, to think that ethical and aesthetic judgments amount to nothing more than opinion, for there is no hope of deriving e.g. an ethical philosophy from the content of scientific theories. The empiricist is more likely to think that ethics, interpreta­tion, aesthetics, etc., are matters of serious rational inquiry. Note that in the quote above, van Fraassen describes the empiricist as believing that science is a para­digm of rational inquiry, but certainly not the paradigm.

The dichotomy between these two stances is not exhaustive. Also possible are stances that do not think science is a paradigm of rational inquiry at all (though this is much more difficult to maintain sensibly these days), and, more pertinently to my case, stances in between materialism and empiricism. I am sympathetic to aspects of both views. The empiricist restriction of belief to beliefs about observable phenomena is not something I find particularly plausible. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to van Fraas­sen’s modal nominalism, and I certainly side with the empiricist in thinking that ra­tional inquiry extends well beyond the rather rigid confines of scientific inquiry. Take what David Foster Wallace once said in an interview:

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I think what David Foster Wallace is doing is setting out a task for a type of inquiry carried out by artists. This inquiry requires several steps: the artist must first locate what is “human and magical” in the world, and then she must apply CPR to these elements. The CPR metaphor is apt: the artist not only illuminates “the possibilities for being alive and human” at a particular time, the artist brings these possibilities back to life. The artist does this through some marriage of form and content. One need not think that there are determinate answers to the question “what are the possibilities for being alive and human in today’s world” in the way there is a determinate answer to the question, “what is the charge of an electron?” in order to think that this is a domain of inquiry that requires exacting rigor and the ability to give reasons that have more than a mere subjective validity. Does art discover these possibilities or create them? The question is really immaterial. Good art shows, on a rigorous and I would contend rational basis, what possibilities there are. (I should add that I do not intend to imply that this is the only task of art. But it is I think indubitably a task.)

But my topic here is neither science nor the creation of art, for I am neither a scientist nor an artist. What I engage in with this blog is a mixture of philosophy and interpretation, and in this case, philosophy of interpretation. However one feels about constructive empiricism as a philosophy of science, I think it is particularly useful in thinking about interpretation. I will try to elucidate this thought at an abstract level, providing examples where I can. Before I begin, let me be clear that I don’t know if I agree with the view I will sketch out. This is primarily an attempt to sketch out a position, with the hopes that being forced to formulate it explicitly will help me to evaluate it going forward. So my acceptance of what I say below is provisional. With that, onward.

Van Fraassen’s claim that acceptance of a scientific theory does not require acceptance of its claims about unobservable entities is notorious, but an analog of this claim in the case of interpretation seems to me like it at least ought to be uncontentious. Here goes: an interpretation of a work of art must be consistent with everything contained within the work (i.e. it must save the “observable phenomena” regarding the content of the work), but its claims about what is not part of the content of the text need not be literally true (of the work).

What does this mean? In a film, certain events are shown on the screen, but only rarely is a film so purely self-contained that everything that matters occurs onscreen. There are time gaps between scenes. There are times when characters wander in and out of frame in the middle of a scene. Interpretation of the film is probably nigh on impossible if the interpreter cannot give some account of what is going on in instances like these. What is observable in a film, however, is nothing more or less than what is seen and heard while the film is playing. Any interpretation must be consistent with what is seen or heard.

At this point there is a disanalogy between the constructive empiricist approach to interpretation and the constructive empiricist approach to science. Regarding, say, physics, the constructive empiricist is perfectly happy to admit that there might be electrons—she simply does not feel compelled to believe there are. But in the case of a film, the literally true answer to what happens off-screen is: nothing. It is perfectly appropriate to think of the film as creating a world that encompasses more than just what is seen and heard in watching the film, but it is a mistake to reify this world. What exists is nothing more or less than what is contained in the work of art. It is a strange ontology that limits what exists in our “physical” world to what we can perceive, but in a work of art this ontological restriction is exactly right. What exists is what is shown (film, painting), heard (film, music), or described (literature).

Nevertheless, in interpretation, it may be absolutely crucial to make claims about what happens that are not specified in the work itself. In order to “save the phenomena” of a work, it may be necessary to have an account that goes beyond these phenomena. And this will involve a sort of talking as if those events are every bit as real as what is contained within the work. There is a substantial gap in time between where Infinite Jest ends and where it begins, and any interpretation of the work must say something about what occurs to bridge this gap, but there can be no literally true answer. One cannot save the phenomena of Infinite Jest while remaining silent about this gap.

There is another important analogy between scientific and interpretive constructive empiricism at this point. In constructive empiricism about science, to save the phenomena is to be consistent with them in a logical sense. Any consistent theory will suffice as empirically adequate. Nevertheless, we want scientific theories to do more than be empirically adequate; in particular, we want them to explain. Van Fraassen devotes a chapter of The Scientific Image (his first book-length defense of constructive empiricism) to arguing that explanation is a pragmatic virtue of theories, and does not provide any indication to think that they are true. It is a valid reason for acceptance in the constructive empiricist sense, but explanatory power does not compel a realist attitude. This demand for explanatory power is at least one reason why science cannot consist of just an exhaustive list of patterns among the phenomena. Likewise, an interpretation of a work of art cannot just be a description of what occurs in the work: it must make these occurrences sensible. And just as this may require the positing of unobservable entities like electrons in the case of physical theory, so may interpretation of a work of art require positing “unobservable” events.

One final point. Nelson Goodman in Ways of Worldmaking suggests that ‘true’ and ‘false’ (conceived, I think, along the lines of van Fraassen’s “literally true” and “literally false”) are not exhaustive of the ways we may be right or wrong. To these limited notions Goodman would add notions of metaphorical truth and falsity, as well as a general purpose sense of rightness and wrongness that can be expanded to include anything appropriate—no doubt Goodman himself favors inclusiveness in fleshing out just how things may be right or wrong. A description of what happens in a text may be literally true or false, but interpretation goes well beyond description, and so is better evaluated as right or wrong. And so, even though claims about what happens off-screen or outside the text or beyond the picture frame may be literally false (because what is beyond the work of art literally does not exist), they are nonetheless subject to standards of right and wrong. If I posit that, during the time between the events that end Infinite Jest and those that begin it, Descartes’ evil demon freezes time, moves everybody five inches to their right, and then unfreezes time, I am wrong, despite my claim being no less literally false than any other that describes that time. And while interpretation may not generally be as clear-cut as that (indeed, no interesting interpretive claim will be), it is still subject to the need for rigorous reasoning.