Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve? One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge. Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way. The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience. Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?
Descartes, again, provides a foil. Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him). To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all objective basis for knowledge. At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God. But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God. But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?
What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted. Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles. Its value? We could KNOW things. But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences? Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE. It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?). Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences. But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.
Is there anyone who does not find this silly? It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers. Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know. Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact. One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions. Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble. What, then does this dispute amount to?
Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so. The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.
Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics. A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.). There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed. Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)). But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem. A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it? The answer should be straightforard. If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do? Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way. They assume that objects exist. Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case? Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience? While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?
What is the role of the critic? How should criticism interact with an art form? These are questions that have been asked and answered in various ways before. In what follows, I would like to draw from my own personal experience as someone who has been writing on jazz for a little over a year. I do not wish to claim absolute originality for any of my thoughts, but only the originality of them as my own personal observations, based upon the particular context of my experiences. I invite comments and criticism from readers that may further the discussion. In the course of these thoughts about the role of the critic I have also been led to say a few things about the relationship between art and philosophy, and moreover, about the relationship between science and philosophy. My belief about the relationship between the artist and the critic is that when they work together best, the one acts to push forward the thought of the other. The particular way in which that positive interaction comes about will be the subject of what follows.
In the case of non-linguistic arts (such as music or painting) when the critic puts into words a description of a non-linguistic art form, the result is a kind of translation that involves a jump from something communicated at a sensual level to one that engages the understanding in a rational reconstruction of the “sense” of that sensuality. Embedded in this description is a more general assumption about what critics ought to be doing. It may be spelled out clearly as the assumption that critics ought, at some point, to make an effort to interpret art, and not merely evaluate it in terms of whether it is agreeable to their personal tastes. From a long-term perspective, tastes may vary, and while it may be interesting to read about the tastes of different critics, or of different critics over time, the more enduring and more valuable critical work is the work that shows us how a way of seeing or feeling can perhaps be linked to a way of thinking or understanding. Critical work that takes on that kind of task is critical work that engages in the project of interpretation. An interpretation, despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of art, can be refined over time to the point where a world view begins to be articulated through reflection upon art. It may also be the work of multiple hands.
This point seems to call for an explication of the role of the artist in relation to the critic. The view I would like to propose is that the artist presents in art a way of seeing that can introduce listeners or viewers to new ways of seeing. New ways of seeing, in turn, push interpreters toward ever new ways of thinking and understanding. Thus, art can be seen as an embryonic stage in the march toward the development of systematic philosophies. All art seems to have a way of seeing embedded in its creation. That way of seeing is typically not rigorously drawn out in terms of a systematically ordered set of concepts. That wouldn’t be “art”, but something else, like a mature form of criticism or a philosophy perhaps.
But to anticipate a possible objection, does philosophy always begin with art? In one sense the answer will be “No”, but with a way of seeing, and with the project of articulating that way of seeing. This, it seems to me, is the point at which philosophy divides itself from science (to the extent that a division based upon modern practices in the universities must be rationalized): whereas science takes the elements of the empirical world as its starting point, philosophy takes a way of seeing involving an act of interpretation as its starting point. But there was also a “yes” answer. What, then, is the way in which philosophy always begins with art?
The “yes” answer to this question involves embracing the thesis that what makes art “art” is simply the intentional act of seeing it as art. For example, I am sitting in a café at this moment and there is a coffee cup on the table. I may decided to look upon it as a scientific object, in which case I will be interested in its empirical properties with a mind toward some sort of classification or seeking answers to questions like “Why does it appear white?” or “What might be the best material for a coffee cup?”. But, if my interest is an artistic one, I will look upon it in a different way, with a different set of intentions. I might decide that it is a beautiful object, or I might decide that a different sort of lighting could help its appearance.
The point is that any object can be considered as art inasmuch as any object can be looked upon from an artistic point of view or with the intention of evaluating it from an artistic perspective. Seeing an object as art, furthermore involves the possibility of seeing it as representing a way of seeing. To return to the coffee cup, it might seem far fetched that a coffee cup could represent a way of seeing; but if one considers centuries of work that has been done on ancient artifacts, whether Greek, Etruscan, or Egyptian, one cannot help but admit the possibility of seeing a worldview in such creations. That critics would like to articulate the sense of that worldview might be considered the starting point toward a philosophical viewpoint. Here, it may be realized, the progression does not go from one medium or subject matter to another. The progression is rather from the presentation of a viewpoint toward a systematic articulation of that viewpoint.
Finally, I would like to introduce the thought that the relationship between the artist and critic is a macrocosm of what occurs in each one of us when we attempt to understand the world on the basis of the information that the senses deliver to our intelligence. We work toward an understanding of the world, and of ourselves in relation to the world, seemingly as an extension of our innate drive toward survival. Those poles seem to interact as follows: we begin with a sensuous kind of understanding that later reaches a fuller articulation once it has been subject to the task of adhering to logical consistency. Once the latter is achieved, a kind of philosophy may be said to have come into bloom.
Aristotle’s phrase, to ti ên einai, is generally understood as a formula for expressing the notion of “essence”. A problem that has arisen for translators, interpreters, and readers is how to understand the original greek words in a way that makes sense to us today. The difficulty arises simply from what many have thought to be the disjointedness of the literal translation, which runs, “the what it was to be,” or as some have rendered it, “the what it was being”.
One prominent suggestion for how to deal with the phrase comes from the Aristotelian scholar, Joseph Owens. Owens argued that the “was” in the phrase should be understood not literally, but in terms of its imperfective aspect. Thus ên (“was” above) would be read as connoting an action taking place in a “timeless present” (“was” in its imperfetive sense carries the idea of an action without a start or an end). Thus, the translation Owens recommends emerges as “the what-IS-being” (here the ‘was’ becomes a timeless ‘is’). Moreover, as might be expected in the context of his book “The doctrine of being in the Aristotelian metaphysics”, Owens builds metaphysical implications into the timelessness of the IS in the expression, saying that it points us to what “essentially, necessarily is” in a thing, apart from the “unintelligible matter…which is the principle of contingency and change” in a thing. Many translators choose to simply gloss the phrase as “essence”; but Owens’ translation serves as an attempt to work through the language to uncover the thinking behind the literal meaning of the phrase.
Owens’ treatment is indeed useful in developing Aristotelian concepts that are latent in the language. Nevertheless, I believe that an older tradition which translates the phrase more in terms of its literal meaning, which leaves the “was” intact also reveals a great deal about the notion of essence that should not be cast aside. In what follows, I would like to point out that there are ways in which his view complements the one being the literal rendering offered here, but also that there are important ways in which it may lead a reader to conclusions that are unlikely to have been accurate.
To take up the complementarity between the “was” and “IS” translations first, it is important to see that Owens’ “the what-IS-being” emphasizes an aspect of form that places it outside of time in a way that contrasts with “the contingency of matter and change, upon which time follows” (4). In this precise sense of form, it coincides with an understanding of form not as present in things, but as ideally separate in a way that coincides with a more Platonic sense of “form.” Needless to say, this is, as was hinted at in the opening a highly metaphysical sense of form. There is, of course, a sense in which one can consider “form” as abstracted in thought from all matter in which case it becomes literally an idea or else a celestial object in Aristotle’s cosmos. Such a conception would lead one to consider form as manifested in matter apart from matter, and in this sense it coincides with one of the principles of the natural world, as one of the senses of ousia (the one that coincides with entelecheia) outlined above.
What is lacking in this reading is that it seems to forget that the entelechy in view is equally an aspect of ousia as it is experienced in the world around us. Several of Aristotle’s pronouncements on the proper methodological approach to the natural sciences point in this direction, and it is perhaps as clear in De Anima II.2 as anywhere. At the beginning of II.2, at 413a9-16, Aristotle is concerned to go beyond the the facts gathered together in the initial, general treatment of the soul in De Anima II.1 to access the core, so to speak, of what makes it what it is. In doing so, he will proceed from what is more evident to the senses (phaneroteron) to an explanation that is more intelligible and clear as a reasoned account (kata ton logon). (5) What should be noticed is that in doing so, Aristotle is in search of a cause that will explain the presence of the phenomenal facts gathered in the first section. That cause or reason will have two aspects: one mentioned immediately above that is purely intelligible and can be grasped in terms of its logos or account, and another that is present in the thing: an aspect emphasized in the present context where he says that the cause sought after must be phenomenally present in the subject under discussion (alla kai ten aitian enhuparchein kai emphainesthai). These are the two familiar poles of Aristotle’s notion of understanding, his fundamental starting points of knowledge (logos and sense experience) which must be connected if any truly explanatory demonstration is to be possible.
Any account of “essence” for Aristotle must be consistent with these two aspects of the cause or reason that explains what a thing is. Moreover, as one might have glimpsed, these two aspects can and should be related to the three-fold division of ousia Aristotle draws out explained above as entelecheia (actuality), dunamis (potentiality), and the composite of the two. In searching for the cause of the observable phenomena associated with a thing, one is likewise in search of its underlying actuality, or, again, that which makes a thing what it is. Owens’ account would have our understanding of essence limited to actuality apart from all potentiality or coming to be not only in terms of its logical, rational formula (cf. kata ton logon above) but also in terms of its existence in a composite thing. That this is in fact what Owens is up to can be seen most clearly where he writes that “The notion back of the imperfect therefore should be that of necessary Being….” and again where he says his treatment of to ti ên einai “implies that the form is the fundamental Being of the thing”. However, most decisively, Owens writes that due to timelessness of this “Being”, “the Greek imperfect cannot be taken here as denoting past time” since “It refers in this phrase to something still present, and applies equally well to the timeless separate Forms.” (6)
Now, interestingly, Owens arrives at a sense of the role of to ti ên einai in Aristotle’s researches into the natural world that is perfectly compatible with the three-fold analysis of ousia given above. This can be seen where Owens presents matter, form, and the composite as possible answers to the socratic “what-is-it” question and then relates to ti ên einai exclusively to the formal aspect of what a thing is (pp. 186-7). Owens relates this type of “Being” not merely to the form of a thing but also attempts depict it to the formal cause of a thing in a way consistent with his earlier characterization saying that, “The form appears to be ’cause’ in the highest sense, and as such is the ‘Entity’ of the what-IS-Being of the thing to which it is the cause”. (7) It does not seem to occur to Owens that there is a discrepancy between (a) his fully separate “Being” and (b) the role to ti ên einai plays in relation to ousia as analyzed in terms of the natural world: such an ousia is not, as the example of his treatment of the soul makes clear, to be understood as an abstraction from things, but the being of things. The formal causality that such a being brings to composite being is more in tune with being in time rather than “Being” construed as separate and timeless. This is brought out explicitly where Aristotle, at 412a27 writes that the soul is the first entelechy (lit. being-at-its-goal) of a physical body potentially having life, supporting among other things, waking and sleep. Such beings can come into and go out of being in the natural world; only as mental abstractions or when considered as necessary within a logically based ontological reconstruction of the cosmos do they have a necessary being. Thus, it seems it must be concluded that however strange Aristotle’s formulation may initially seem, it would be misleading to characterize to ti ên einai as indicating a purely timeless, abstract Being in all contexts.
The question presents itself, then, whether Owens’ understanding of to ti ên einai in the Metaphysics ought to be taken as peculiar to that context or whether it might be construed as a more architectonic way of treating the phrase than the more temporal interpretation of essence given by the traditional translation. It follows from what has been argued above that, precisely as it has been formulated, Owens’ translation will not stand as a more architectonic way of understanding of the role of to ti ên einai. This should be evident from the fact that it is not applicable without qualification to the context of natural science (the method announced in the De Anima being applicable to the natural sciences generally). On the other hand, as alluded to above, there is a sense in which the metaphysical reading of to ti ên einai is compatible with a more everyday physical way of considering being. What, then, is the proper way of conceiving the relation between entelectic being and Owens’ Being?
If there is a priority that may be given to the metaphysical sense, it will not be one that connotes a platonic sense of essential Being. That sense does not apply generally, if at all to Aristotle’s researches in natural science. It may apply to the immaterial heavenly bodies of an Aristotelian cosmos; but even in such a context, may we be said to be contemplating a kind of Being that is truly timeless? Such beings would seem to require a separate realm if taken to be entities in Aristotle’s sense. Recall that the planets do have motion-in their revolutions. (8) I propose that the proper sense that belongs to the metaphysical formulation should be construed as compatible with what is for Aristotle kata ton logon (cf section 2 above), which amounts to a way of seeing or considering reality mentally that is purely intelligible and that allows for contemplation. This mode of apprehending the world contrasts with a phenomenologically based one that forms the ultimate starting point of investigation.
Thus, I believe the type of priority Owens’ formulation will bear is one that is compatible with the order of explanation or of demonstration when full understanding has been attained: that is, when experience is explained with consistency by a governing principle, reason, or cause; or, again, when the logical account we give of things has attained both internal coherence and external coherence with the phenomena it explains. This is obviously a sense in which the form of a thing, considered as an arche of understanding may have a logical priority over the observable phenomena associated with it it is meant to explain. But this priority is of an entirely different order than a more ontological one that considers ousia as a component of things in the natural world. Nevertheless, despite the apparent incompatibility, there is a place within Aristotle’s metaphysics where the two orders merge: where ousia is identified in Metaphysics Book Z as the foundation of everyday being, and more especially, associated with the formal reality that is in things.
This is in fact, what I believe should provide the locus for a more architectonic understanding of to ti ên einai. It is in the context of Z that to ti ên einai is identified with the formal nature that is in things as a metaphysical principle. This is a metaphysical sense that is compatible with being in time as considered in the physical world. It may be applied to Aristotle’s analogy involving an axe: things come to have particular being, to be individual substances of a certain type when they can also be said to have a certain entelechy that is compatible with the way such things are ordinarily described. In the case of an axe, this ordinary description will involve its having a blade, and in a very everyday sense, just as a lump of iron will not be an axe until it has a blade, so a particular sort of body will not be living unless it has a soul, and so on for other cases in the natural world. When things become what is compatible with the way we ordinarily describe them they are what we say they are; an account of their essence clarifies just what it is that unifies such descriptions and explains the natural phenomena before us. Such an account is precisely what Aristotle intends by the phrase to ti ên einai which indicates what sort of attribute or attributes a thing must possess if it is to be a certain kind of thing. This being stands as the fulfillment of what a thing was-to-be.
(1) See The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, p. 181.
(2) See Philoponus’ Commentary on the De Anima, under the pages marked with the Bekker number corresponding to the text.
(3) Cf. the text of Aristotle’s de Anima, II.1, ll. 412a6ff.
(4) Owens esp. pp. 183-184.
(5) 413a12 of DA II.2.
(6) Owens, pp.184-185
(7) Owens, p. 188.
See Aristotle’s Metaphysics, V.13, 1020a29-33, where Aristotle relates time to space and movement
Owens, Joseph. The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (3rd ed.). (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978).
Ioannis Philoponi in Aristotelis De anima libros commentaria / consilio et auctoritate Academiae Litterarum Regiae Borussicae ; edidit Michael Hayduck. (Berolini: Typis et Impensis G. Reimeri, 1897).
Aristotle. de Anima (ed. W.D. Ross). (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).