Monday, April 18, 2016

Art and the Examined Life

It's a common thought that works of art can (somehow) imaginatively suggest different ways of approaching and experiencing the objective world around us. For example, a character in Rebecca Goldsmith's curious novel The Mind Body Problem says

``The interesting thing about art is your being presented with another's point of view, looking out at the world from his perspective, seeing the dreaminess of Renoir's world the clarity of Vermeer's, the solemnity of Rembrandt's, the starkness of Wyreth's.''

Some philosophers and literary scholars have suggested that engaging with such works of art is valued/valuable because it helps us understand and sympathize with other possible points of view (whether these really were occupied by specific artists or not) -- and might thereby make us nicer to people. Art experiences might make us more inclined to try to be nice because we are more sympathetic to certain people, and they might make us better at actually doing nice things because we understand these people better.

But  (to my knowledge) there's no clear empirical or folk-psychological case that having deep artistic experiences does make people significantly nicer. And I'm inclined to be skeptical.  There's a funny line in C.S. Lewis somewhere about how any inclination to think that art makes people more virtuous will be dispelled by asking an English professor to think about their colleagues. (Lewis was an English professor at Oxford and Cambridge).

I'm gonna suggest a different idea about why we might highly value art for its power to evoke a different way of looking at things (in addition to valuing it as a source of pleasure, a tool for distraction etc.).

Maybe art experiences are valued for expanding our knowledge of how it would be psychologically possible for us to approach the world (including what adopting such approaches would feel like from the inside). In doing so, they help us a) live an examined life and b) choose how to live by expanding our sense what the space of (psychologically accessible) options is like.

For great works of art seem to reveal the possibility of ways of approaching and experiencing life [noticing things, finding projects appealing, reacting emotionally] which it would have otherwise been very hard for us to first personally imagine (imagine Jane Austen reading Nietzsche, or Nietzsche reading Jane Austen). Like Hume's first taste of pineapple (and unlike his first experience of a missing shade of blue) such art experiences expand our knowledge of what kind of experiences it is possible to have.

This has two benefits.

First, art can help us adopt a life we want to live, in approximately the same way that travel or visiting different social scenes does -- by making us aware of regions within the space of possible approaches to life [i.e. the space of options which are at least sufficiently psychologically possible for us to take up that we can imaginatively simulate them/enter into them for a while] is -- hence potentially aware of attractive options which were hitherto overlooking.

Second, I suspect that merely getting this kind of knowledge of psychological/phenomenological possibility space (whether it ever gives us practical benefits or not) contributes more to `living an examined life' (in whatever rough intuitive sense that seems desirable) than many big pieces of awesome philosophical knowledge would (e.g. knowledge of the right solution to the liar paradox).

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