[lit-ideas] Re: What is philosophy? Susan Langer writes....

  • From: wokshevs@xxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2006 13:05:30 -0330

Quoting John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>:

> One of the great pleasures of living with a library accumulated over forty
> or fifty years or so is browsing the books that have hidden themselves on
> the backs of shelves until, one day, they reveal themselves as we rummage
> through those that, normally, sit in front of them. Today the book that
> spoke up and said "Read me, again" is Susan Langer (1953) Feeling and Form:
> A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key. In it, on pages 4
> and 5, Langer writes,
> "There are certain misconceptions about philosophical thinking that have
> arisen, oddly enough, from the very concern of modern philosophers with
> method?from the acceptance of principles and ideals that sound impeccable as
> we avow them in conferences and symposia. One of these principles is that
> philosophy *deals with general notions......*
> "The immediate effect of the principle is to make people start their
> researches with attention to generalities: beauty, value, culture, and so
> forth. Such concepts, however, have no systematic virtue; they are not terms
> of description, as scientific concepts, e.g., mass, time, location, etc.,
> are. They have no unit, and cannot be combined in definite proportions. They
> are 'abstract qualities' like the elementary notions of Greek nature
> philosophy?wetness and dryness, heat and cold, lightness and heaviness. And
> just as no physics ever resulted from the classification of things by those
> attributes, so no art theory emerges from the contemplation of 'aesthetic
> values.' The desire to deal with general ideas from the outset, because that
> is supposed to be the business of philosophers, leads one into what may be
> termed 'the fallacy of obvious abstraction': the abstraction and
> schematization of properties most obvious to common sense, traditionally
> recognized and embodied in the 'material mode' of language."
> But how do we avoid the fallacy of obvious abstraction? One answer is that
> proposed by Clifford Geertz, whose death left anthropology bereft of one of
> its most prodigious minds. Plunging into 'thick description' of whatever we
> are trying to understand, working our way through detail piled on detail, we
> may come at last to Geertz' ideal, descriptions complex enough to capture
> something of the world's complexity, while retaining the clarity that makes
> simplistic ideas so appealing.

W: The passage from Langer as presented is quite ambiguous. It invites at least
2 different responses depending upon how "the desire to deal with general ideas
from the outset" is understood. 1) We hope that CG had a general idea of the
"whatever" he was trying to understand before plunging into the thickets of
empirical description, 2) No serious philosopher understands "the business of
philosophy" in the manner portrayed by SL.

Walter C. Okshevsky

> Geertz' essay on thick description begins with a citation from Langer. Now
> it is time, it seems to me, to revisit the philosopher herself.
> -- 
> John McCreery
> The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
> http://www.wordworks.jp/

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