‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

What Art Knows

Louis Arnaud Reid wrote an essay called 'Feeling and Aesthetic Knowing' in 1976, which begins:
The Exclusiveness of Propositional Claims. The Western world and its education have been dominated by a prejudice about the nature of knowledge so powerful that it is hard to know how to begin to question it with any effect. The prejudice is, briefly, that all that can genuinely and properly be called "knowledge" can be adequately stated or expressed in true propositions for which sufficient reasons can be given. The prejudice is not in the positive claim that knowledge can be so stated and justified, but in its denial, implied in "all that can properly be called 'knowledge' " is of that type—i.e., nothing else can. Of course any philosopher who assumes this common view does not deny that there are other words claiming to be knowledge words. One "knows" a person or a color; one "knows" mugging to be wrong; one "knows" this symphony or this picture. But, except as far as those can be translated or analyzed into true propositional statements, they tend to be dismissed as mere "intuitions," "hunches," or sayings which ex- press feelings or emotions. Some attention has been given in our own time to "knowing how," but it is knowledge like science and mathematics which remains the paradigm of genuine knowledge. And this for a plain reason: the unchallengeable development and success of science and mathematics since the seventeenth century, the development of systematic conceptual thinking coupled with understanding and cognitive and technological mastery of the world of fact, of "what is the case."
This doesn't seem so very radical. He goes on to argue that affect is a mode of knowing: that 'the intuitions and feelings we have in these matters are cognitive experiences, and that they make knowledge claims' [12]
Feeling is not of course the whole of this knowing; to say that would once again be to abstract and isolate it. But it is an intrinsic part of knowing. In a moral situation, for example, perhaps someone may be in need and in dire distress. Compassion and help seem to be called for. What it is wise and right to do in that situation may require in- vestigation and understanding. A moral problem may often require a great deal of cool impersonal analysis—though done within a context which requires a cognitively intuitive feeling for the whole situation. But on the other side, one cannot be truly compassionate, one can- not even know what compassion is, without at some stage feeling it. The wisdom of compassionate action, its rightness and appropriateness in that particular situation, its instrumental values—these are matters of a partly intellectual judgment that may be required to "prove" the action right, so far as the term "proof" can be relevant here. But the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be felt (at some stage) in order to be known; it can never be shown by purely intellectual means, by "knowing about" compassion and its uses, by being able to make correct propositions about it. (A moral psychopath can do that.) There is a sense in which the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be tested "upon the pulses."
Where things get stickier, I'd say, is when he moves to the aesthetic. A fatal vagueness enters, cloaked as necessary brevity:
It is impossible in a short paper to do any justice to how feeling operates in our knowledge of the arts—one reason being because different arts are so different from one another. In reading a good novel, for instance, our attention seems almost "transparently" directed towards the characters, ideas, and events depicted and imagined. Our cognitive feelings are the feelings mainly of all that; and although of course the scenes are conveyed in the medium of skillfully chosen words, focal attention to the feeling of the words can be distracting. In reading poetry it is very different. Poetry, of course, is about things as felt by the poet, but the feeling for the spoken, sounding, rhythmical, dynamically directional quality of the word pattern is central to the poetic meaning. Yeats's poem "Never Give All the Heart" is about its title, but every sounding word of the poem makes its contribution to the passion and the bitterness of the poetic meaning.
We need more, here. It's not enough to say that what King Lear 'knows' is that 'life is sometimes heartbreakingly sad'. Reid's example of the novel describes the empathy a reader feels for the characters about whom she is reading; but empathy is a very limited sort of knowledge. What separates out better art from lesser art is that the better art knows more; is wiser, is more effectively and potently demonstrative. One of the things that interests me about this is that this knowledge is very often a separate quality from the technical or formal accomplishment. Frankenstein is a very clumsily written novel, in many ways; gauche and melodramatic and lunkishly plotted. Yet Frankenstein 'knows' something eloquent and important about science: about the psychological logic of scientific discovery, about the balance of ambition and payoff, unintended consequence and violence. There are plenty of other examples: the Harry Potter novels are derivative, slackly written and sprawly; but they know something so significant that they connect, expressively and genuinely, with millions of people: they know that school, when you're of school age, is much more than a place you go to get educated, that it's the arena for all your most intense dramas, interpersonal and personal.

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