The Decline of Theology; the Growth of Aesthetics

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

I’m sure there are plenty of discussions about this, all I can remember right now is Carl Schmitt in Political Theology and Political Romanticism, which address different but relevant points.

As I suggested in yesterday’s post, Hume marks some kind of transition from a ‘Stoic’ belief in the sovereignty of reason overs the passions to a belief in the sovereignty of passion, to use a crude formulation I hope has a useful function in elucidation. The interest in ‘taste’ is tied up with this loss of sovereign reason, not that I’m suggesting that Hume is an irrationalist, but that some kinds of Reason are undermined by him.

One form of Reason that Hume undermines, famously, is metaphysical theology and its centrality to philosophy. While I don’t think there is a such a thing as an outright victory or defeat in arguments about religious and naturalist views of the universe, or the existence of God, Hume and then Kant’s arguments on this topic are nevertheless about as successful as any set of philosophical arguments have ever been in shifting the central pre-occupations of philosophy. This is not necessarily anything to do with abandoning God and religion: Hume avoids such an argument and has been taken up by Faith based thrological thinkers; Kant intended to strengthen a way of thinking about ethics which gives us a reason to believe in God. However, their arguments certainly make it easier to abandon God and religion, and shift philosophy away from putting God at its centre in metaphysics.

Very broadly, the arguments of Hume and Kant depend on making a separation between the evidence of our perceptions, and our knowledge of ultimate reality. There is no way tracing our perceptions back to a unified divine cause. There is also no basis for the argument that there is a kind of being that must exist, because it is perfect being, which means a whole shift away from any assumption that some kinds of beings are dependent on higher kinds of being, and so on until we reach Perfect Being as the source of all beings. That is, we move away from the idea of a hierarchy of being.

In Hume and Kant, aesthetics and taste enter into areas where God would have entered, in earlier philosophy. Ethics in Hume is linked with aesthetic taste, in the explanation of how it is formed and how it develops in human history. Kant harmonises ethics and knowledge with reference to an account of the power of judgement, the first half of which is taken up with aesthetic judgement. Understanding and sensibility are harmonised through beauty, coming into the role Descartes, Occasionalists and Leibniz attributed to God, of harmonising different substances. When Kant talks about harmonising understanding and sensibility he is approaching the issue of harmonising mental substance and physical substance in earlier philosophers. Beauty symbolises moral ideas for Kant, and that symbolism is the model for grasping God. The sublime is a way of grasping God, as what is greater than any force of nature. Agreement on taste is the basis for communicability between humans.

Reason is no longer sovereign over the passions, God is no longer sovereign over events. Taste emerges as a way of explaining how the passions organise and unify different people; the beautiful and the sublime emerge as ways of unifying the faculties of the mind, and grounding social communication. We are not necessarily talking about a total aestheticisation of philosophy here, but we are taking about its ineliminability from a less theological philosophy.

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