Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2014

Greeting From Incoming Faculty Dr. Christopher Yates

 Dr. Christopher Yates
Dr. Christopher Yates

I became aware of IDSVA in 2011 when I had the pleasure of traveling to New York City to meet with George Smith and others involved in the program. At the time I had recently completed my dissertation and larger doctoral work in philosophy at Boston College, focusing on the phenomenological tradition in European thought and its relevance for aesthetics. I had come to Boston after first completing a Masters degree in theological studies in Vancouver, British Columbia, then a Masters in philosophy at the University of Memphis (sometimes life has a way of moving us around). In any event, my head was full of specific lines of close-reading research in thinkers like Kant, Schelling, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Valéry, Benjamin, Foucault, and Derrida, and on my desk sat a stack of half-finished attempts at short-fiction and poetry (a creative dialogue, I wagered). IDSVA, I discovered, had found a way to embody the kind of focused, interdisciplinary, and altogether intuitive (yet profoundly rare) combination of foci that, to my mind, had a natural and at times historical affinity: art and philosophy, the artist-philosopher – indeed! I thought that this vision was neither romantic nor fanciful, but rather impressed upon academia and contemporary culture alike a way of thinking and practicing that harnessed the very best of both disciplines. I think so still. And so, while my work otherwise carried me from Boston to a college teaching post in Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to stay in touch with IDSVA and continue learning about the program. Now, I am happy to say that I have officially joined this community, and will learn from and contribute to its movement in whatever ways I can What follows are some remarks I was able to share at IDSVA’s 2014 Commencement in Manhattan.

The Artistry of Philosophy and the Wisdom of Art

IDSVA 2014 Commencement Speech
by Dr. Christopher Yates, Incoming Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Art Theory

It is very special for me to be here with all of you to honor and celebrate what these graduates have accomplished. I say this knowing that I myself have done nothing official to contribute to this day, but such is the generous hospitality of IDSVA. I do have some recent memories of what it is like to venture a PhD, and of what such a thing asks also of one’s family, friends, and teachers. So I tip my hat to all of you as well.

In a sense we are all underway in life. And it is in the name of this kind of shared pilgrimage that I want to speak briefly about restoring a kinship between two forms of concentration that are often treated discretely: theartistry of philosophy and the wisdom of art.

There is a brief story I came across a few years ago while losing myself for a spell in the writings of the first century Greco-Roman historian, Plutarch. It concerns the Greek poet, Euripides, and comes at a time when many of his fellow Athenians were beset by slavery, exile, and disease. Here is what Plutarch, for whatever reason, decided to log in his record:

Several [Athenians] were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose poetry, it appears, was in request among the Sicilians. . . [W]hen any travellers arrived that could tell them some passage, or give them any specimen of his verses, they were delighted to be able to communicate them to one another. Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgements to Euripides, relating how some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems, and others, when straggling after the fight, been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics.[1]

I like to imagine old Euripides, somewhere in a writer’s hut, receiving these liberated souls come to pay him homage. “I’d hoped it was good,” he might say, “but that good?” Sometimes artistic knowledge harbors a saving power. Poetic verse, in this case, was a kind of shibboleth (a word of safe passage). And we can infer that what the Sicilians so coveted, and what the Athenians had absorbed, was powerful not simply for its flourish, but for the ideas through which it spoke meaning to life.

My wife and I, and our children, recently spent the holidays at my parent’s small farm in Virginia. It sits on a hillside with the Appalachian Trail skirting the edges of our pasture and woods. There is a pond and a stream, sledding when the snow is deep, a barn full of hay and horse stalls, and an outdoor fireplace surrounded by a flagstone patio off the house. For me, it’s where my body and imagination feel most at home, and where I seem to land amid times of transition and reflection in life. It is sort of its own site of ‘topological’ studies. It is a grace to have a sense of place to which the flux of one’s life can be tethered.

Landscape, of course, is a natural way to think about ‘place.’ But I wonder if something similar is possible with forms of mental and material concentration. People sometimes mistake philosophy and art when they assume them to be enterprises in mere abstraction, expression, retreats from the ordinary. I think that the structures of the ‘ordinary’ in our culture are often themselves the site of abstraction. And I am caught up in this too. This fall, I flew from Pittsburgh to San Francisco to participate in a philosophy conference on the theme of Place. Hear the irony in that. And yet somehow the logic was necessary. Sometimes we have to subvert the momentum of life in order to establish a position from which to pay attention to life.

I think the wisdom of art and the artistry of philosophy do this very thing. They strive to measure out a place of urgent engagement by means of mental or material markers – not as an errand in the merely ‘esoteric’ or ‘expressive,’ but as a way to constitute the conditions for the possibility of thinking well, maybe even living well.

So let us consider the ‘place’ of imagination in a way somewhat parallel to the place of landscape. In the same way that I return periodically to Virginia I also return to three orienting insights from the philosophical tradition. They are not comprehensive or unproblematic. But they are footholds of a sort.

The first stop belongs to Friedrich Schelling, who around 1800 turned to the genius of the painter and what he termed ‘aesthetic intuition’ in order to explain and celebrate the vocation of human reason at its best. In art, says Schelling, there is a productive power, a “poetic gift” that arises as a raw but revealing intuition embodied concretely on the canvas. So too with thinking, in fact. He explains: “It is one and the same capacity that is active in both [painting and philosophy], the only one whereby we are able to think and to couple together even what is contradictory—and its name is imagination [Einbildungskraft].”[2] Imagination – the primacy of the aesthetic. That is not to elevate the self or the fantastic per se. Just as the artistic imagination is a gift that must be cultivated, practiced, and marked by humility, so too the philosophical imagination. To think like the painter paints, is not simply to pronounce judgments, express our slants, or win arguments, but to try and ‘bring forth’ good and honest and meaningful things.

The next stop belongs to Martin Heidegger, a 20th century thinker who favored Schelling and set in motion much of what we call Existentialism in philosophy. In the 1930s, as many of you know, he asks: What is at work in the work of art? He studies a Van Gogh. He visits the ruins of a Greek temple. And he asks: well, how do these wonders originate? What is afoot here that allows us to be affected or caught up in the artistry? Heidegger says there is an important difference between a ‘thing’ (object) and a ‘work’ (event). Van Gogh’s painting, for example, was of an old pair of shoes – nothing more than a study, it would seem. But the peculiar power of the painting, for Heidegger, lay in the ‘world’ evoked by the rendering. The character of the worn leather, for example, suggested not just an ‘object’ but a wearer, and not just a wearer but a history and a world of concerns, projects, tasks, possibilities. And so the real ‘work’ of the painting is not that it ‘represents’ the shoes. Rather, he explains: “The artwork lets us know what the shoes are intruth.”[3] Truth, in this sense, is what happens when something is uncovered, revealed. It is dynamic and eventful, not strictly static or aired. The work of art, belonging to Art, stays alive in its being. It does not harden immediately into a ‘commodity’, a thing among things. It gives us a world. Years later he says something similar about the work of philosophy itself. He says it amounts to a decision for reflective dwelling. ‘Dwelling’ is something of a dusty old word. But by it he means actually taking up a kind of residence in the ‘questions’ of our historical moment. Heidegger calls this a path of homewardness.[4] ‘Formulating the question,’ as we say around here.

If Schelling recalls us to the poetic essence of thought, and Heidegger focuses our concentration on the ongoing workof creative dwelling, Hannah Arendt helps us see how these things are, at bottom, forms of vital action – one could say, ‘care.’ I am thinking especially of her 1971 essay dedicated to W.H. Auden and titled, rather plainly: “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”[5] Following Heidegger, but with a bit more urgency, she calls for us to make space in our lives for what is by many measures ‘useless’ – thinking. If we do not think we will not become persons and we will in fact allow injustice and evil to take root. Philosophical reflection and moral action, that is, are fundamentally threaded to one another, but never in a way that one can simply assume. The problem, she notes, is that we have become knowersat the expense of being thinkers.[6] We have confused the ascendance of facts, information, scientific progress, economic-industrial growth and so on with something like wisdom. So artists and philosophers, says Arendt, need to be living interruptions that ask, for example: What really important needs am I overlooking even while trying to meet pretty important needs? Her point is that we must allow ourselves to become perplexed by worthy concerns. This is not easy. But otherwise, we become functionaries who trust others to do our thinking for us and we defer to things done in the name of principle.

Formulating the Question is not about ejecting from the world, but trying to engage it with greater care than is normally asked of us. It is about little interruptions, interventions of thoughtfulness and watchfulness. So then, wayfarers that we are, I give you these small bits of orientation from Schelling, Heidegger, and Arendt (three Germans it turns out, but don’t read into that too much). I suppose the message really comes back to the Greeks (and Sicilians). Some of you, in your creative work, may be forms of Euripides for our day, crafting works of promise and reckoning. And some of us may be more like the exiled Athenians who stowed his verses away like coveted truths in the cuffs of their sleeves or the longings of their memory, ready to share them with the world in which we dwell.

[1] Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives Vol. III, trans. John Dryden, ed. A.H. Clough (New York: A.L. Burt, 1864) 202-203.

[2] F.W.J Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978) 230.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Albert Hofstadter (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) 161.

[4]  See Heidegger, Introduction to Philosophy—Thinking and Poetizing, trans. Phillip Jacques Braunstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[5] See Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books: 2003).

[6] Arendt, 163f.

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