woensdag 17 augustus 2011

Jeder Mensch ein Künstler?

The role of ideals in reasoning (3)

Jeder Mensch ein Künstler. The maxim sums up neatly our modern condition: we have to be original. It is no longer morally sufficient, no, it is even morally reproachable, just to be a good citizen or a good Christian or a good ---. For to follow such a readymade moral identity and the guidelines, restrictions and aims that come with it reduces you to someone acting out moral rules. In the kingdom come, we shall all have fifteen minutes of fame.

This predicament, paradoxically, is both democratic and elitist. It is democratic because self-realization is – or at least should be – open to anyone. It is elitist because it requires one to rise above moral restrictions: each man an Übermensch. The compromise is to give each his little space for self-realization and respect that of the other. But this is not a sufficient conception of self-realization: it brackets the motivation for what we are doing and trying to be, and puts our motives and ideals beyond scrutiny. Without a substantial way of reasoning about ends, it reduces us to Nelsons in our own bathtubs.

Why be original, anyway? To make a difference. Or, in philosophese: to be a full moral agent. If we did not have new ideas or conceptions of what we wanted to achieve, someone else could just as well do it. But the maxim of originality also tucks away our ethical motivations in the sphere of aesthetics. The fifteen minutes of fame, or jeder Mensch ein Künstler, have become the Late Capitalist versions of the schöne Seele. The ideal of Life as Art is way too flattering: what it comes down to, indeed, is Life as Kitsch, or Life as Bad Art, pretentious, boring, overestimated, and only occasionally inspiring.

Our general response, when asked about our ideals, beliefs and true convictions, is to fall silent or babble. (Unless you have the bad luck of walking into an Evangelical or a communist hardliner.) And rightly so. Our reasons for doing something are massively underdetermined, for the simple reason that how things should be cannot be established as a fact, that reasons are at best hints for doing something, and that arguments are something you can disagree with. In fact to have a too robust conception of how things should be is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. A rational mind is corrigible and self-correcting both on the level of facts and of ends. So rather than follow an ideal up there at the horizon, we rather piece ourselves and our moral identity together as we go along.

The good news about this is that it gives some cognitive basis to a more-than-subjective view on ethics. As rational creatures, we are self-correcting, so we also try to make our conceptions of ends and means as coherent as possible. The bad news is that making such a motivation explicit also implies a depreciation of others. To the extent that the argument is lucid and reproducible, it is also not just ‘your opinion’. Even the imperative that you have to conduct such a scrutiny already implies a criticism of those who say “this is just as I do”, or that just don’t bother.

Such is the inherent problem of any conception of philosophy that clings to the three Kantian problems: What should I do? What can I know? What may I hope for?
It is not a huge problem, for that matter. With the less philosophically minded, it is just a matter of tact. As long as they do me no harm I have no quarrel with them, and I don’t have a personal relationship with 6 000 000 000 human beings or 16 000 000 Dutchmen anyway. But it is a substantial problem because a conception of philosophy that declares ‘the less philosophically minded’ irrelevant is self-defeating and carries no conviction. In this predicament, there is no better solution so far than ‘show, don’t tell’.

Jeder Mensch ein Künstler – the maxim sums up the predicament so neatly also because it shows the problem that philosophers and artists have in common. Like artists, philosophers do creative rather than scientific work and operate on functionally vague concepts, with no sources, data or formal deductions to point to. Unlike artists, however, they cannot get away with vagueness. Artists, at any rate, produce a work of art and it’s there, like it or not. Philosophy that is not made explicit, argued for, and drawn to its consequences does not even exist. Although the intellectual demands are higher, this is no reason for looking down on artists from Mt. Philosophy: much work in philosophy is actually much more boring and irrelevant.

In the conception of philosophy that I am espousing here, philosophizing comes down to an impossible task: to develop new, coherent and inspiring ideas that carry the full weight of argumentative rigour without claiming the status of scientific fact. It is impossible in two ways: first, because in order to be plausible such ideas have to be informed by general as well as in-depth knowledge in several fields, and to carry argumentative weight they have to make the leap from the factual to the normative, from is to ought. One could outsource some of the labour by making it the work of a research group. But then, when you arrive at the normative level, you get ideals developed by committees.

A more modest conception of philosophy would be to say: I don’t care if it’s philosophy, as long as it’s interesting – following a conception of art that is commonplace in contemporary art. Such a conception of philosophy was indeed current before it fleshed out as a ‘discipline’ somewhere between Kant and Hegel. Arguably, this discipline formation was at best half successful – German Idealism, at any rate, soon became a dead programme. But the pursuit of philosophy as a form of general erudition, at the current level of academic specialization, reduces it to Schöngeisterei.

Like there is more than one way of doing art, there is more than one way of doing philosophy. Two workable models that present themselves are 1. the philosopher as public intellectual and 2. as interdisciplinary analyst. The first requires the thinker to be historically, politically and sociologically informed, preferably with some additional cultural baggage, and to argue more thoroughly than journalists. The second means to play a mediating role in which the philosopher analyses research findings for philosophical implications that are outside the scope of that research, and maybe also popularizes them in the process. In both roles, however, the philosopher is reacting to something rather than bringing forth original ideas of her own.

A more democratic approach is to let people do their thinking for themselves, and use philosophy as a carrot and a stick. This actually means combining several of the above roles: pointing people’s attention to what is interesting, noteworthy, and potentially mind-changing; inspiring them with some Schöngeisterei; unceasingly scourging their intellectual laziness; assert a public role; and maybe add a whiff of satire. (Moreover, I am still waiting for artists finally to carry out the promise of the ‘artistic research’ revolution and become critical intellectuals for a change, instead of parroting their art theory textbooks.) This is a role for philosophers which is both elitist (very) and modest (slightly).
Is it sufficient? Hardly. It carries the serious risk of turning the philosopher into a pedant and an intellectual clown. That said, it is the best I can come up with for the moment being.

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