Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (2): Sensibility Formation

A quick follow-up to the last post.  Nussbaum’s project is to show how the reason/feeling divide misrepresents how we actually come to know things.  Judgments are guided by feelings.  There is no way to separate out feelings when we come to “cognize.”  Rather, feelings are an indispensable component in our acts of knowing.

Still: kindness, grievance, tolerance, sympathy, envy, hatred, and the like are not themselves “knowledge.”  They are better characterized as “dispositions,” as feeling states that influence how we judge situations, people, ourselves, and events.  Because different people have different sensibilities, different sensitivities, they process the world differently.  They come to different conclusions, different judgments, not only abut the significance of what they deem to be the case, but make different assertions about what is the case.

That different dispositions can lead to radically different assertions about the facts of the matter has become very apparent in 2020 America. 

The Trump cult has been created not simply by the man himself but by a right-wing media (led by Fox News) that has inculcated a sensibility best described as combining a perpetual sense of grievance with an openness to believing the worst about designated enemies.  (Immigrants are criminals, Democrats steal elections, liberals are socialists, and leftists are pederasts who are kidnapping massive numbers of children.) 

If cognition is so dependent on disposition, then it is no surprise that one theory of art would say that art is more directed to creating (fostering) certain sensibilities, certain predispositions, in its audience, than in making concrete assertions about what is.  The success of Fox News, or of the “lost cause” narrative in the American South, testify to the power of word, image, story, anecdote, staged emotions (outrage, condemnation, fellow feeling for those on one’s side), ceremony, and ritual to shape how people understand the world and their place in it. 

In our day, “culture” appears more and more intractable.  More than 150 years after the American Civil War, and the set of shared feelings and grievances that ignited that war still shape the American political and social landscape. 

The creation of culture, of shared dispositions across a group of people, is, it can be argued, aesthetic.  It is a matter of shaping feelings, of shaping how we “sense” things, and what “sense” they have for us (to go back to the root meaning of “aesthetic.”)

Thus, one non-cognitive theory of art would look not at any knowledge art might convey, but (instead) to the ways art fosters sensibilities.  If a novel, as Nussbaum claims, makes me more “sympathetic” with the sufferings of orphans, it is not primarily because it has given me new information about orphans.  It is because it has changed my general disposition toward suffering by making me “see” it, experience it, differently—and in a way that moves me beyond just responding to this particular case, this particular orphan, to a more general care for suffering orphans in the plural. 

I want to say more about “sensibility” and what that term might mean in subsequent posts.  And that discussion would connect up with Nick Gaskill’s interest in “aesthetic education” (a concern he shares with Joseph North).  Is the goal of aesthetic education to create certain kinds of sensibilities—and how might that creation be achieved?  I am inclined to think (as a teaser for where I think I am heading on this topic) that Kenneth Burke’s focus on “attitudes” will prove useful here.

But, first, I want to return to the effort to overcome (or, at least, mitigate the fact/value divide)—and that will be the subject of my next post.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (1)

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art

Enough of this election anxiety.  Back to the airy heights of theories of the aesthetic.

My four posts on cognitive theories of the aesthetic were really just a prelude to considering non-cognitive theories.  And I am going to start with Martha Nussbaum (although she can be seen as just the latest in a long line that would include David Hume and George Eliot).

Basically, Nussbaum believes that art works activate sympathy.  A novel can portray the sufferings of Oliver Twist and children like him.  Such a novel may serve to bring to our attention facts about orphans and workhouses, thus adding to our knowledge.  But more crucial is the way the story inspires fellow-feeling, a new sympathy for the plight of orphans.  It is one thing to know that orphans are often underfed; it is another thing to respond to that fact feelingly, to experience it as something that should be rectified.  The moral emotions of indignation and sympathy are brought into play through the power of the story, a power that a simple recitation of the facts does not have.

Such a way of explaining what is going on rests on a fairly stark fact/value divide, Hume’s worry about deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  One can see that an orphan does not have enough to eat.  But that seeing does not entail the judgment that the orphan’s hunger is “wrong” (or “unjust”) and that it should be rectified.  Rationalist theories of moral value (Kant or Mill, one deontological, the other utilitarian) believe that reason provides the basis for moral judgments.  But the Humean school hands that job over to feelings.  Our moral judgments come from those moral emotions, from our indignation at suffering felt (perceived?) as unnecessary or cruelly inflicted, from our sympathy with those who suffer.  

Some may be able to see the hungry child and feel no sympathy, may even be able to claim the child is getting what he deserves.  Those seeking to convert such a person to their sympathetic view needs to find a way to pull on the heartstrings, to call forth the needful feelings.  Arguments and reasons will not do the trick.  We don’t know something is heinous simply by looking at it.  Thus it is unlike knowing something is red.  We don’t need some particular “feeling state” to judge the thing is red.  But we do need the appropriate feelings to judge something is unjust, should be condemned and, if possible, rectified.

This is philosophy, so of course it gets complicated.  My own theoretical and moral commitments mean that I really would like to avoid such a sharp fact/value divide.  There are, as far as I can see, two pathways to lessening the gap between fact and value.  Neither, I think, closes that gap completely.

The first path is one I think Nussbaum takes.  She is very committed to the assertion that feeling and cognition are not distinct—that, in fact, a feeling-less cognition is monstrous and mostly impossible.  For her, sympathy enhances understanding.  The story of Oliver Twist increases our understanding of the plight of orphans. (George Eliot would make this claim as well.) If we define “empathy” as the ability to get a sense of another’s experience, then sympathy is the gateway to empathy.  We know more about others when we are able to sympathize with them—and that ability is feeling-dependent.  No amount of simple or “rational” looking will do the job.  The feelings must be activated for the most adequate knowledge to be accessed. 

Thus, Nussbaum (ultimately) is a cognitivist when it comes to (at least) literature. (What she would have to say about non-literary artistic forms is not clear; she seldom writes of them.)  But there still lingers the difference between explanation and understanding, or determinative and reflective judgment.  To know that the house is red is a determinate judgment (in Kant’s terms).  We don’t claim to “understand” the house; we just state what its color is, and would presumably “reduce” that judgment to the physics of wavelengths and the semantic facts about English if we had to explain to someone the basis for the judgment. 

[A digression: I continue to struggle with the possibility that there is a significant difference between “explanation” and “understanding.” To “understand” the orphan’s plight is not to “explain” it; to understand can mean either I now see that he is hungry or now empathize with, have a sense of, his suffering. To explain his hunger would, presumably, be to trace its causes, what factors have deprived him of enough food, or what physiological processes lead to hunger. Since Dilthey (at least) there has been an effort to see “explanation” as characteristic of the sciences, and “understanding” as characteristic of the humanities. My problem–shared with many others–is not being able to work out a clear distinction between explanation and understanding. Plus there is the problem that making such a clear distinction threatens to create another gap similar to the fact/value divide. Do I really want to see the sciences and the humanities as doing fundamentally different things, with fundamentally different goals and methods? How drastic a dualism do I want to embrace–even when a thorough going collapse of all distinctions between the science and humanities is also unattractive? The trouble with many aesthetic theories, in my eyes, is their desperate commitment to finding something that renders the aesthetic distinct from every other human practice and endeavor. I don’t think the aesthetic is so completely distinctive–and I don’t see what’s gained (in any case) if one could prove it unique. So my struggle in this long series of posts on the aesthetic is to find some characteristics of the aesthetic that do seem to hold over a fairly large set of aesthetic objects and practices–while at the same time considering how those characteristics also operate in other domains of practice, domains that we wouldn’t (in ordinary language as well as for analytical reasons) deem aesthetic. And, to name once again the golden fleece I am chasing, I think some account of meaning-creating and meaning-conferring practices is the best bet to provide the theory I am questing for.]

To return to the matter at hand: The judgment that the plight of orphans is unjust or outrageous is a reflective judgment in Kant’s sense.  Reflective judgments have two features that distinguish them from determinative judgments:

1. The category to which this instance is being assigned is itself not fixed.  Thus, for Kant, “beauty” is not a stable standard.  A new work of art comes along and is beautiful in a way we have never experienced before and/or had hardly expected.  But we judge that the term “beauty” is appropriate in this case, even though it is novel—and even though our judgment revises our previous senses of the category “beauty.” 

2. Kant is also very clear that reflective judgments originate in subjective feelings.  He is concerned, of course, to find a way to move from that subjectivism to “universal validity” and “universal communicability.”  But the starting point is individual feeling in a way that it is not for determinative judgments.  My feeling about the house plays no role in my assertion that is red.  But my feelings about the Matisse painting are necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, to my judging it “beautiful.” (not necessarily sufficient because my judgment also takes the sensus communis into account. I judge, as Arendt puts it, in the company of others. Reflective judgment is neither entirely personal nor entirely social. Its public character comes from the fact that it will be stated for/to others.)

Thus, even if we (as Nussbaum wants to do) say our aesthetic and moral judgments count as knowledge, as assertions that we make with confidence and expect others to understand (at least) and agree with (at best), those judgments still arise from a different basis than judgments of fact. (N.B.: I am following Arendt here in taking Kant’s aesthetics as a more plausible basis for morality than Kant’s own moral theory.)

To summarize: aesthetic judgments (“this is beautiful”) and moral judgments (“this is unjust”) would still be seen as “cognitive.”  Such judgments are assertions about how some thing in the world (an art work, an orphan’s hunger) should be understood, should be labeled—and purport to say something substantial about that thing in the world.  But the process by which that judgment is reached—and the process by which I would get others to assent to it—is distinct (in certain ways) from the processes that underwrite statements of fact. A key feature of that difference is the role feelings play in reaching the two different kinds of judgment.

So maybe Nussbaum’s approach is not non-cognitive; instead, it is committed to their being different forms/processes of cognition.  Then we would just get into a fight over what we are willing to label “cognitive.”  How capacious are we willing to let that term be? Is calling the Matisse painting “beautiful” a knowledge claim or not. The positivists, of course, pronounced aesthetic and moral judgments non-cognitive in the 1930s–and philosophers (of whom Nussbaum is prominently one) have been pushing against that banishment ever since. The only stake (it seems to me) would be whether being deemed “cognitive” is also seen as conferring some kind of advantage over things deemed “non-cognitive.”  Nussbaum certainly seems to think so. She is very committed to expanding the realm of the cognitive and the rational to include feeling-dependent judgments—and seems to believe that enhancing the status of such feeling-dependent judgments will increase the respect and credence they command.

But the alternative would be to say credence does not rest on something being cognitive; that we should look elsewhere for what leads people to make judgments and to assent to the judgments that others make. Standard understandings of cognition are just too simple, too restrictive, to account for the complexities of how people actually judge and come to have beliefs. Better to abandon the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction altogether–and provide an alternative story about how we come to think and feel about things.

I am going to leave it here for today—and discuss in my next post an alternative way to lessen the fact/value gap, one that does move toward ignoring characterizing judgments and beliefs as either cognitive or non-cognitive.

Vulnerable Democracy

After the 2016 election, David Runciman in the London Review of Books wrote a prescient piece about how democracies die when we take them for granted.  I do think (but, then again, what do I know—and I certainly don’t have any way to influence what happens) Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th

Republican twaddle about a stolen election will collapse as the next two months unfold because their lack of substance means no court in the land will credit that narrative.  But counting on the courts is a thin reed when so many judges are right-wing nut cases.

Ninety percent of Republican politicians and government officials know that cries about a corrupt election are unjustified.  They are only spouting the narrative because the Trump base is now their base, their source of power, and they alienate that base at their peril. 

The trouble, of course, is that the base does not have this cynical relation to the stolen election story. The base believes. The last four years (nay, the last ten; ever since the rise of the Tea Party) have shown the extent to which the base drives the party, not the other way around.

A digression: I understand that the full story is more complicated, since the Tea Party is only partially a true base, grassroots phenomenon.  But it would be a bad mistake to deny that a true populist base exists for the Republican party—and that that base stands at some odds with the party officials. Perhaps it is simply more accurate to say that the far right wing of the party has now taken it over, and not speak in terms of “base” versus officials. The trouble with dropping all references to the “base” is that it discounts Trump’s ability to enthuse voters, among them many who have rarely voted before. Leftist Democrats would like to mirror that right-wing success—in taking over the party and bringing many new voters to the poll.

The party hacks are counting on the courts and our other democratic institutions to hold the line—just as they have counted on the taboo against political violence to keep their inflammatory rhetoric from inspiring wide-scale actual violence.  They believe their words will have no serious impact, will be seen as the empty rhetoric they are, just what a politician has to say to curry favor.  That’s why their words are cynical; those words are designed not to effect what they say, but to manipulate those to whom they are addressed.

But Trump’s words have never been cynical; he is at one with the base in believing in the corruption, malfeasance, and devilry of his opponents.  And to the extent that he has transmitted those convictions to 40% of the American populace, it would be foolish to think it will all blow over, that our democratic institutions and norms will somehow keep that genie bottled up.  The bottling up will work until it doesn’t—and then we will have not the slow erosion of norms that the punditry keeps bemoaning, but full-scale collapse. 

When the hacks cynically parrot Trump’s non-cynical words they place a faith in our democracy that is touchingly naïve.  They think that democracy is not vulnerable to their attacks, which aren’t, after all, sincerely meant.  They still think they can contain and control the beast of the anti-democratic, authoritarian right, using it as a lever to obstruct and oppose anything the Biden administration attempts to accomplish.  But by making our government utterly dysfunctional, utterly hamstrung in its efforts to even begin to address our society’s (and world’s) multiple crises, they feed the notion that we need a different kind of governance altogether—a strong man, authoritarian kind.

The next four years are going to be ugly as Biden tries to ride the whirlwind.  Right-wing media and a fair number of right-wing politicians are going to push the illegitimate government line hard.  Biden may be able to undo some of the administrative, executive level damage that Trump has done, but his scope for action beyond that will be extremely limited.

And the prospects post-Biden are even grimmer.  The roused right wing is not going away—and its fury at losing will be even more frightening than its triumphant displays during the Trump years.  It is no rhetorical hyperbole to say that American democracy is at risk.  And one of the risks is a complacency about its strength and resilience in the face of attacks, no matter if those attacks are made cynically or meant sincerely. 

The friends of democracy are going to have to fight long and hard for it.  And their fight will be handicapped by the right wing’s hold on the courts and on the majority of state legislatures.  Gerrymandering and voter suppression will proceed apace, with nary a checkpoint to curtail these practices in the whole governmental apparatus.  The hounds of the right-wing media will continue their hunt.  Please, oh democrats, don’t be deer in the headlights.

More Post-Election Musings

In response to my last post, my colleague Max Owre wonders why Democrats cannot convert the majority of voters who agree with liberal policy proposals (medicare for all, increased minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich are some prime examples) into votes for Democratic candidates.  And another colleague, Sabine Gruffat, tells us that her father voted for Trump on the basis of Trump’s being good for the economy and out of the conviction that the Democrats’ “socialism” would lead to economic disaster. (Their responses are on my Facebook page.) 

It doesn’t matter for many voters that any objective measure shows that Democratic presidents since 1930 (Eisenhower is a notable exception) have been better for the economy than Republican presidents.  (Greater over all growth rates under Democrats, and a more equitable share of that growth across the board. Links below.)  Similarly, surveys that show a majority supporting government financed medical care also show that voters don’t believe that Republicans have tried (and desire) to shrink Medicare and abolish the popular pre-existing conditions rule that is part of ObamaCare. 

But much more important than this ignorance is to realize (despite what political junkies would like to believe) that policy has almost nothing to do with how people vote.  The Republicans have won the rhetorical war over the past sixty years; they have managed, against all evidence, to brand the Democrats as socialist, unpatriotic, bad for the economy, and hostile to the economically bereft unless they are non-white.  The increasing “partisanship” of the U.S. political scene is a product of the deliberate strategy of demonization that was initiated by Newt Gringich in his attempt to delegitimize the Clinton presidency.  That effort was then taken up by the right wing media, has continued unabated to this day, and has been a fabulous success.

Recently, the novelist Joseph O’Neill has recommended a similar strategy for the Democrats.  They should, he argues, brand the Republicans as the party of incompetence and malevolence—a party that is unfit to govern.  Whether he is right or wrong on the specifics, the larger point is that it isn’t policies that win votes, but the “big picture” characterizations.

Driving this point home, of course, is the fact that the Republicans had absolutely no policy proposals for this election.  They dispensed altogether with writing a platform—and the voters barely noticed and certainly didn’t seem to care.  Policies are for nerds.

The reason this election has been so disappointing to Democrats is that, contrary to what we hoped and believed, Donald Trump has not hurt the Republican brand.  While his odious behavior turned off enough voters to give Biden the win, the craven enabling of that behavior by rank and file Republicans had no downside.  The Blue Wave (we had one in the 2008 repudiation of George W. Bush) did not occur.  Down ballot Republicans pulled more votes than Trump, with a gain in House seats (unusual for the party that loses the presidency) and holding their own in the Senate.  The country has not come to see the Republicans as a party unfit to govern.

Here’s where I don’t quite know what to think.  The down-ballot Republicans did better than Trump.  Yet I also believe that the strength of the Trump cult largely accounts for the huge turn-out on the Republican side.  After this election, will those Trump voters go back to not voting? The dilemma for the Republican party going forward is how to keep the Trump enthusiasts engaged even as the party either backs away from Trump-like antics or discovers that even would-be Trumps can’t reproduce his hold on the public imagination.  The Republicans are tied to the mast of Trump because of all the new voters he has brought to them, but will find it difficult to hold on to those voters to the extent that they act even semi-responsibly as public officials.  (“Holding on” here does not mean losing them to the Democrats; it means keeping them fired up enough to come out and vote.)

Doubtless, several Republican presidential candidates in 2024 will attempt to occupy the Trump lane.  But I suspect Trump will prove inimitable.  His ingenuous self-absorption, his lack of any filter between id and mouth, his ADHD coupled with third-grade verbal aggression, and his sheer delight in sowing chaos as a means of keeping all eyes turned his way will prove hard to reproduce via calculation.  The easiest part of his repertoire to imitate with be the endless self-pitying sense of grievance, of being put upon by all.  Expect lots of whining from the Republicans to continue.

Still, the 2016 primaries already showed that Ted Cruz cannot attract the adulation Trump received and it is even more absurd to think Mike Pence could.  Without a cult figurehead on the right, there is a fair chance that voter turnout will return to earlier levels—and that such a drop-off (despite all those Democratic fantasies that large turn-out favors them) will benefit the left more than the right.  More accurately: in our polarized time, when the party’s “brands” and the loyalties of most voters are fixed in concrete, the biggest fight is the turn-out fight, and I think Republicans are going (post 2020) to have as tough, if not tougher, time getting their partisans to the polls as the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the claims in the left-wing precincts I frequent that it was the moderate Democrats who lost and the progressives who won (especially in House races) have begun.  The Democrats just need to move to the left to be more successful.  That analysis is willfully blind to the make-up of the House districts.  Of course, progressives win in overwhelmingly “safe” districts.  And moderates lose sometimes in “swing” districts.  Republican gerrymandering leads to more extreme House candidates on both sides of the aisle because there are so many “safe” districts now.  To ignore the nature of the districts to make the leftist argument is specious.

I get it.  It is frustrating as hell that the Republicans have achieved electoral success by moving further and further to the right.  Extreme conservatism does not (apparently) carry any electoral cost.  (Although Trump did lose.)  So why can’t the Democrats make a similar move to the left and reap the benefits?  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, as Kevin Drum is fond of reminding us by reproducing the long-running Gallup survey that shows over 35% of Americans self-identify as “conservative” while only 24% are willing to call themselves “liberal.”

If the Democratic party wants to move left, it has to create a left-leaning electorate first.  That’s the rhetorical task it has flunked since 1966  The reasons for that failure are complex—and intimately tied up with the ongoing narrative of American racism—but a failure it has been.

Of course, it is not just the Democratic party that must do this work.  It will also depend on vibrant, long-lasting, and active social movements.  The gay liberation movement (sorry for the ham-handed label; I grasp its various inaccuracies) has been a notable success over the past thirty years.  If many of my non-politically informed or engaged students are now knee-jerk Democrats, it is mostly because the right’s hostility to non-heterosexuals is baffling to them—and a huge turn-off. 

The spectacular failure of American politics since 1966 has been to develop strong social movements around economic issues.  Martin Luther King tried—and might have succeeded had he lived.  The unions have not gone down without a fight, but they have mostly gone down.  And nothing substantial has arisen in their wake.  The living wage movements have had some successes—and even Florida has just voted (by over 60%!) for the $15 minimum wage.  So it is not an utterly bleak landscape.  But there is much work to be done.  Reverend William Barber’s admirable attempt to revive King’s Poor People’s Campaign has not gotten much traction yet, but it is early days.

For me, that’s where the action is.  Creating that electorate open to the left’s bread-and-butter issues even as it acknowledges the inequities (not just economic) foisted on POC in our country.  And that work is going to have to take place as we leftists also watch how Republicans try to catch the Trump lightning in a bottle in their ongoing effort to direct America’s course in a vastly different direction. 

Links:

On relative economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents.

On voters’ refusal to credit actual policy preferences of the Republican party:

https://www.vox.com/21502189/preexisting-conditions-trump-republicans

Joseph O’Neill’s advice to the Democratic Party:

Survey of Americans who label themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal: