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John Armstrong

John Armstrong

Associate Professor John Armstrong is Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School and Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University. Born in Glasgow and educated at Oxford and London, he has lived in Australia since 2001. He is the author of several internationally acclaimed books on art, aesthetics and philosophy, including The Secret Power of Beauty, Conditions of Love and most recently, Love, Life, Goethe.

Find out how John’s obsession with buildings as a child inspired him to write a book on beauty as an adult, plus he talks about his perceptions of beauty and ultimately why beauty is so important to all of us.

What inspired you to write The Secret Power of Beauty?
Beauty was the first thing I ever wanted to write about. In childhood - from about the age of eleven - I became obsessed with buildings. I was always going over, in my head, verbal descriptions of what made certain buildings so appealing.

In my philosophical training I came across a great many ideas which I found helpful for understanding the nature and value of beauty. But I was struck by how inaccessible almost all of this material was. At a conversational level, there seemed to be almost no 'culture' of beauty - there was nothing to say except that one liked or disliked something. And yet there were - buried under the intellectual rubble (so to speak) many extremely helpful ideas.

How do you perceive beauty?
My engagement with beauty tends to follow two paths simultaneously (in fact it's not very easy to separate them). On the one hand, I'm very much drawn to the shape or structure of objects - to their form. On the other hand, I'm also attracted to what I see as the 'spirit' or 'character' of an object - that's really to do with the image of life that the object projects. I'm seduced by the visual aspect of an object more than by anything else. If the object doesn't please in its own right I find historical or sentimental associations rather annoying.

Who or what do you perceive to be beautiful?
I'm attracted to Corot's landscape sketches and to Claude's landscapes  - and I particularly love the northern artists who were influenced by Claude. I'm deeply drawn to the Swedish 'Gustavian' period; and this, in fact, is part of the same broad cultural phenomenon - the coming together of Italy and the north. To speak broadly, such artists retain a certain sobriety and reserve but their work is sweetened and warmed by an (idealized) experience of the south. In the reverse direction my favourite painter is Bellotto - particularly the paintings of Dresden.

To give this style a name I'd call it (roughly) Romantic Classicism. These objects have a formal structure: they are very carefully and elegantly composed; the mood is serene and contemplative. But they are also charming and warm in a rather quiet way.  I like objects which are lightly idealized and slightly melancholic  - and which project an aura of mature contentment.

One of the things about beauty, as far as I am concerned, is that the attachment to it is possessive - and I'm afraid that no beautiful person is very likely to want me as a friend. In theory I like the idea of beauty of character - what Goethe calls 'the beautiful soul'. But, in practice I'm not really very sure what this comes to - apart from general niceness and gentle intelligence.

Why is beauty important to us?
To continue a personal confession, there are two general reasons why I find beauty important to me. One is that I find in beautiful objects the embodiment of attractive qualities which I find difficult to hold onto in private life. The serenity of a Corot landscape represents how I'd like to feel - but don't usually. The coherence and harmony of a Schubert song captures the kind of existence I would love to have - but which I despair of in daily life. This can be put in a second way: beautiful objects provide a kind of 'spiritual home' for the best elements in one's own nature. These qualities are purified and amplified in beautiful objects. And since it is, in principle, such qualities which we love in other people (we love others for their kindness, tenderness, intelligence etc) it is not at all surprising that we love them in objects - especially in objects which have these qualities in a high degree and unmixed with any defects.

To answer this question properly one would need to elaborate on what makes anything important' to us. I tend to think of 'importance' as emerging in contrast to a rather bleak description of how things might go in life. The things which are important are the ones which allow us to make a life which reduces the scale of these problems. In addition, I am struck by the notion of 'bad company' - by which I mean people, situations and objects which bring out the worst in us. 'The 'worst' or the 'best' in us are hardly scientific notions, but I think most people would recognize these phrases. Beauty speaks to the best part of ourselves in the most encouraging and friendly and intimate manner.

What is the meaning of life, and can philosophy help you to find it?
What are we asking for when we ask for the meaning of life? Life cannot have a meaning in the sense that, for example, 'rouge' means 'red' in French. Life isn't a symbol of something else. The question really seeks two rather different things. One: an elucidation of the purpose of human existence - should there be such a purpose. Two: an account of what it is for an individual to make sense of his or her own life. The two questions can easily come apart. For example: suppose one agrees with certain genetic theorists who regard human life as essentially nothing more than a vehicle for the reproduction of genetic material. On such a view (which I am using just as an example, not endorsing) life has a meaning in the sense that it has a clear purpose. However this particular purpose doesn't make individual lives feel more meaningful to those who live them.

There have been philosophies in the past which have ascribed a particular meaning to the human situation. For example, St. Augustine argued (in the 4th century) that the principle concern of every individual life is to find the right thing to love. He believed that we have a profound tendency to love worldly goods (pleasure, wealth, power) but that these things are, in fact, incapable of making us happy. What we have to do is redirect our love towards eternal goods (God, the truth). Whether or not one is convinced by St. Augustine, this stands as a good example of what it would be like to think that life had a meaning; a meaning which could be transposed directly into individual experience.

I do not think, however, that any large scale ascription of over-arching purpose for life can be argued for successfully. Purpose is essentially an anthropomorphic category - it is a feature of experience. The universe as such does not have a purpose; the universe isn't there for anything. If we were to find a purpose it would have to be a projection of human concerns and goals. But this will not provide the basis for ascribing a single purpose to existence. The evidence of experience is simply too diverse.

We should not be dismayed by this. For it is, I believe, much more important to discover meaning in one's own life than to hit upon an overall purpose of human existence.

Meaning in life is a matter of interpretation. If I go to a party and don't meet anyone I like, overhear lots of conversations which strike me as banal, and get soaked waiting for a taxi to get home - I am likely to think that the evening was pointless - that it had no meaning. However, if the next evening I meet up with a friend and we get round to discussing what can go wrong with social life or the ways in which crowds can make one feel lonely, then I may come to take an interest in those rather dismal hours of the previous day. The boring party hasn't served a purpose but it has been taken up in a way that makes it interesting. At least interesting to reflect upon.

How meaningful one finds one's own life depends upon the resources one has for taking an interest in one's experience. In this way a superficially boring experience can be redeemed - in this case because one is interested in understanding it. By contrast what often look like the most exciting moments in life (visiting a new city, falling in love) can be rendered meaningless if one has no resources for thinking about them in an interesting way.

With respect to this question, philosophy can do two things. Firstly, it can help us clarify the question itself. This helps us see more clearly what it is we are actually concerned about. Secondly, philosophy - pursued in the wide sense of the term - generally helps us to see the connections, the interdependencies - of events within our lives and encourages us to be more subtle and more informed in the kinds of linkages we make as we think about our lives. This does not add up to a grand meaning of life in general, but it can help us take a greater interest in what we experience.

Do you agree with Socrates that the wise man is the man who admits he knows nothing?
Before agreeing or disagreeing one has to have a clearer sense of what is being claimed here. The point is not that the wise man knows nothing at all (that, for example, he is sceptical about whether the 24 bus goes to Pimlico, or that London is a city). The background to Socrates' claim is something like this: We use a large number of major concepts (justice, truth, happiness, beauty and so forth) to describe what we take to be important in life. There are many people who can speak plausibly upon these topics, but it is another matter whether they know what justice, beauty, truth and so on really are. Take for example a painter who can paint beautiful landscapes. We may assume that such a person knows what beauty is. But on investigation it may turn out that they cannot explain what beauty is - they cannot (that is) give a satisfactory general statement of what is essential to beauty (and hence common to all instances of beauty). Such people seem to know what beauty is - and may be taken to know what it is, and may take themselves to know. But they don't really know. With respect to justice we might imagine that a judge knows what justice is; that an honest man knows what truth is - and so forth. When we pursue the investigation, however (Socrates thinks) we will discover that they don't know the essence of truth, justice, etc. and therefore they do not really know that these things are.

Socrates held that the assumption you know what these things are inhibits investigation and critical analysis of the concepts. If you think you know what beauty is you are not going to start wondering about what really does hold together all the different instances of beauty. So, doubt is (potentially) a very productive intellectual capacity. It moves us away from error (holding to a mistaken assumption) and starts us on the process of discovery. Psychologically speaking, the Socratic statement is a good aphorism. It emphasises (by slightly exaggerating) the utility of doubt.

However, in the background is a very specific (and rather contentious) vision of knowledge. Socrates, in fact. is assuming an extremely elevated conception of knowledge. In Plato this is formalized by the assumption that to know something is to know everything about it - it is knowledge of essences. But, this assumes that when it comes to conceptions like justice or beauty that there is an essence - which is highly contentious. It is highly plausible to suggest, by contrast, that we simply have more or less interesting and perceptive ways of thinking about objects and actions. A good conception of justice or beauty is not (therefore) one which captures the essence of such things but which (rather) finds particularly subtle and powerful ways of drawing together our concerns in certain fields. There can, therefore, be a multiplicity of good conceptions of beauty and justice (although, of course, there will also be many poor conceptions of these).

Coming to a good conception (though not the final and essential conception) of our major terms of self understanding is therefore not as difficult a task as Socrates assumes. Thus, it would be a mistake to equate a confession of ignorance with a sign of wisdom.

Have you ever heard a tree fall in the middle of a forest?
This question derives from the thought-experiment which so intrigued Berkeley: suppose that no-one hears a tree falling in the forest - did the fall make a noise? This question invites us to reflect on the difference between the disturbance of air (which is causally connected with hearing) and sound as a feature of experience. In a sense the answer to the question is easy: the disturbance of air caused by the falling of the tree was such that, had it been heard by a normal person it would have sounded as a crash. However, since the disturbance of air didn't impact upon any person's hearing system, it occasioned no experience. We find it difficult to talk about such events because they contravene a tacit assumption of our vocabulary. 'Sound' means a conjunction of a disturbance of air and an experiential episode of hearing. 'Silent' normally means no disturbance of air - no disturbance that could be detected by the normal ear. Berkeley has picked a case which fits neither word. The fall wasn't silent (because it could have occasioned an episode of hearing) but nor did it make a sound (because part of what we mean by sound refers to an episode of hearing). In other words, it is plausible to regard this problem as deriving from a feature of language - the way we use the words 'sound' and 'silent'. But this isn't a real problem. Its not at all hard to understand what happens when the tree falls but no one hears it falling - its just hard to put that understanding into English - if we feel pressed to categorize it as either making a sound or as silent. If we had another word (say 'psound' which referred to occasions when someone could have heard a noise but actually no-one did) we could easily describe the case. There was a terrible psound in the forest last night. [This, I should add, is not at all the way Berkeley considers the case.]

To my mind, the exciting aspect of the issue is the difference it pin-points between the movement of air (which, in the right circumstances gives rise to hearing) and the experience of sound. When we hear a tree crashing to the ground the character of the experience is rich: we hear it as a crash, as the crash of a tree, as coming from a particular direction, happening at a specific time in conjunction with other things. It may be fearful or exhilarating and so on. Experience may be caused by the stimulation of sense, but the experience of hearing is cognitively complex.

A priori or A posteriori?
The terms 'a priori' and 'a posteriori' refer to kinds of justification which statements can have. Modern use of the terms derives from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (first edition 1781).

In Kant's use, knowledge is a priori if it is independent of all experience, we don't need to investigate how the world is in order to know that certain statements are true. What he means is that, when it comes to certain special statements, we don't need to consult experience to find out that they are true. We don't need to examine the private lives of bachelors to know that all bachelors are unmarried. We don't need to examine lots of squares to know that they always have four sides. Therefore, we can say that the statement 'all squares have four sides' is an a priori truth. By contrast, many truths are dependent upon how things happen to be - and we have to find those truths in experience.

Now, it can look as if a priori truths are always banal. After all to say that squares have four sides doesn't add to our knowledge of squares: its simply a statement of what you know when you know what 'square' means. As Kant like to put it, the idea of square already 'contains' the idea of having four sides. By contrast, a posteriori knowledge looks like a real extension of knowledge. You;re looking for a book on the shlf and someone mentions that the spine is acid geen - you find it striaght away. The idea of acid greenness isn't contained in the idea of the book. All factual discovery is a posteriori. He calls such statements 'synthetic' because they assert that two separate things (an object and a quality, of colour in this case) are conjoined in reality. Equally, "the battle of Hastings took place in 1066' is a synthetic claim in this sense: it asserts the conjunction of an event (a battle) with a particular year. This is also, of course, an a posteriori claim. We have to consult historical documents and records of experience in order to verify the claim.

Kant's dramatic move was to claim that some of the most important kinds of knowledge we can have are both a priori and genuine extensions of knowledge. That is, there could be statements - he argued - which genuinely tell us how the world is, but which we can know to be true without investigating the world. Thus, for example, Kant thought that we could be sure that all physical objects have a particular location in space and time and that every event has a cause. These claims are both true of reality and yet (he thinks) cna be shown to be true without an investigation of all objects and all events.

Some of the excitement which Kant's project generates surely comes from the appeal some people find in the idea that we can discover substantive truths about the world just by reflection and thinking. We don't need to go into laboratories or dig about in the archives. We can just sit at home, or in a cafe, and discover the fundamental truths about the constitution of the world.

However, it is obvious that Kant's a priori knowledge applies only to extremely general (and unsurprising) propositions. After all, you don't know very much about the world if you only know that it is composed of physical objects located in space and time which interact causally.

However, there is a another way of treating this issue. Consider a question a million miles away from Kant's abstractions. Take the question: Is opera an elitist interest? Much of the debate which surrounds this question exhibits certain kinds of defect. Typically, the notion of elitism is not clarified. What is it for an activity to be elitist? Is this a matter of just appealing to a particular socio-economic group? But the term carries a negative implication. And, logically speaking, there is no direct connection between an activity having a particular constituency and its being a bad thing. It is obvious that having a large garden, for example, is a condition largely confined to the affluent. Does that mean it is elitist to have a large garden?

All that one is doing here is examining the relationships which hold between ideas. In analyzing a concept (in this case the concept of elitism) I'm not going out into the world and measuring or quantifying or finding out what people think. In other words, analysis of a concept is an a priori undertaking.

But it is clearly a significant one. Many confusions and disagreements are actually produced by confusion about concepts - so it is a significant help to clarify concepts and to consider the relations between them. And this undertaking is basically a priori in character. For in thinking about a concept such as elitism we are reflecting upon what is contained within the concept (to use Kant's phrase) and attempting to make that explicit. This, of course, does not itself tell us whether opera (or any other interest or institution) is elitist. What is does it show much more clearly what we mean by the term - we have a much clear grasp of what is being claimed - and hence a clearer sense of what would have to be the case for the claim to be true or (conversely) what would show that the claim is false. This would be a huge improvement on the general current situation.

So, a priori discussion can sometimes be highly productive - but not in the way Kant thought (as giving the basic account of reality) but as clarifying the concepts we ordinarily use whenever we try to think about anything that matters to us.

Which do you think is more important for modern philosophy: to ask new questions, or to question the old answers?
Although it would be absurd to dismiss the importance of questioning, it is worth reflecting that not all questions are of equal importance; and that the point of asking a question is - if not to come quickly to a solution - to make some progress in understanding. Questioning, in today's parlance, has been distanced from the pursuit of understanding. Thus we hear - often enough - that Damien Hirst (for example) questions our ideas of death or society; but we hear very little about Damien's pursuit of answers to these questions. It is as if it is enough to challenge. But merely to challenge is a minor achievement.

Questioning tends to derive its glamour from the assumption that most people are devoted to hopelessly mistaken conceptions of life. Hence the glory of questioning is its promise of throwing off the shackles of entrenched but erroneous views. But is there really such an entrenched and invidious orthodoxy? If there isn't, if there is a large enough constituency of people who do wonder and reflect about life, then the mere act of challenging - or questioning - is less impressive than we are encouraged to believe.

The crucial factor is identifying what it is we really want to try to understand. One of the problems with academic institutions (which is not to suggest that they don't also have many virtues) is that they tend to fix the repertoire of acceptable interests. Thus, for example, there is a great deal of discussion of the sublime (as an aesthetic category) at present. This is certainly an interesting topic (it deals with the feelings we have when we are overwhelmed by the presence of immensity or power such as sometimes occurs when we gaze up at the 'starry heavens' - Kant again - and reflect that we are incomparably tiny in comparison with that vast immensity). However the attention given to this kind of experience tends to encourage people to think about it rather than about other kinds of equally interesting experiences which we might do well to try to understand. For example, the feeling of homeliness is - for many people - just as important as the sublime. But for various reasons it does not receive the same kind of attention. It would be good to see attention being directed to that kind of experience. Hitting upon such topics involves question ourselves: we have to wonder about what is important to us, what actually moves our own excitement and passion.

Questioning old answers is often just a way of trying to understand what is actually be claimed by the major writer's of the past. The attempt to follow through an argument, or to pin down exactly what is being said often - in itself - makes simple acquiescence impossible. For example, one can believe Hegel's view of history only if one regards it in an airy and vague way. To follow the arguments in detail involves asking things like - why does he think this claim follows from that, what evidence does he bring to support that contention, what exactly does he mean by such and such a term? Asking these questions - which are part of trying to grasp what a philosophical writer is saying - usually means that one ends up regarding the thesis as a more or less heroic exaggeration. (Hegel is merely an example here, I could have chosen Plato, or Aristotle, Kant or Wittgenstein). All of the great philosophers wrote work which, however brilliant, is flawed in serious ways. The benefit one gets from engaging with them is not that one is brought into the presence of the truth but that one is confronted by a series of highly interesting and suggestive moves of thought.

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