The X Factor and Dead Poets Society

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The X Factor and Dead Poets Society

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Jeffery LeMieux: Shades of Dead Poets Society when they rip out the chapter dealing with quantifying literature?

That was a nice moment in the movie, but I think there are two poles on that argument and that both are wrong. One says that no emotional involvement with art is valid and that simple numerical measures and explain everything there is to know about how good a work of art is. That's the view (well worth criticism) the movie was criticizing. Unfortunately the exact opposite is also wrong. That view says that art is intellectually incomprehensible, that no measures of it can be made, and that no principles can ever be applied to it, or its means understood. By that view, all one can do when experiencing art or creating it is mindlessly and emotionally burst forth with action or reaction and that nobody can plan or comprehend any of it.

I think that the identification of principles, the intellectual understanding of how everything works and why is absolutely essential in the making of art and very helpful in a deep appreciation of it as well. I also think that the end result of all of that knowledge and effort is a psychological, emotional, and personal experience. Without the prior art is formless and helpless (like Modernism). Without the latter it is dry and uninspiring like a bad habit. What we should strive for as artists and look for as consumers of art is to identify the principles, practices, and truths related to the ideas being expressed and the means of their expression AND to experience a deep, passionate, genuine, and personal reaction to them. These two principles fit together perfectly and are in no way contradictory with one another.

I think that the origin of the idea that these two principles are somehow at odds with one another and that one must rule over the other arises from the confusion I have written about many times before about the modernist (this time, modern philosophy) idea that means and ends are inherently incompatible with one another and that our only good alternatives are to have ends through no means (which is impossible) or means without ends (which is pointless). We can and should have both, using one to achieve the other.

JL: For my part, I believe that Good has no necessary or sufficient conditions, and is therefore not susceptible to quantitative or conventional philosophical analysis.

Are you saying that the good is something supernatural or impossible to comprehend or identify? That the good is not an objective fact, but rather a matter of opinion unfounded in the facts?

JL: Which is why we NEED artists.

I think that identifying and clarifying the good is something that artists could and should do, but I don't think that they have the only means to that end. A journalist, a philosopher, a policeman, or a little boy can see and know the good without the assistance of an artist. Each has his own way of learning about it and reacting to it, but although their methods and reactions are different, their capacity and methods to know the good is not inherently any better or worse than an artist's.

JL: I think learning about good is like an apprenticeship where you are shown in a variety of ways what the desired outcomes are, and left to your own understanding to piece it together and produce the result by which your understanding will be judged.

That's certainly true, though that is the case with any kind of complex human effort, whether it is building a house, designing an integrated circuit, or plowing a field.

JL: I'd define beauty as the image of wisdom, and wisdom as knowing good.

That all sounds nicely poetic, but I don't think that those are very useful (or true) formulations. One might know the good any number of different ways, for example by rote memorization. Wisdom is a particular kind of knowledge, which is more than just ordinary knowledge. In particular it implies a deep and complex understanding of the thing in question, and also a knowledge that is direct and personal. Someone who has read 100 books about a topic would not generally be considered wise about it even if he is quite knowledgeable.

As for beauty being the image of wisdom, any number of things can be beautiful. An attractive woman for example, the veins in a leaf, or a colorful sunset can have great beauty. These things have no particular relationship to beauty or the good other than that the generate pleasurable feelings. I think you would be a lot closer to the truth if you said that "Beauty in art is the image of wisdom", though I think that is still a little too narrow. One could make a work of art about any number of things that aren't particular about wisdom or the good (about corruption or disappointment for example). In a secondary sense of course such artistic statements have some relationship to the good (such as "Corruption/disappointment is bad, it is good to stay away from it.") but I don't think that is their defining characteristic. Don't get me wrong, I think that truth, goodness, and beauty are wonderful things that we ought to see more of in art, but I can't agree that they are as inherently tied into it as your formulation claims.

JL: I think it is the exercise of searching for good (excellence, arete') and a willingness to triangulate in that search with other sincere people that inspires real progress. In the end, we all have a view of good and our art (and life) is our best shot at articulating that understanding.

I would say that it is a good and important way of understanding it certainly. Is it the inherently superior to all others? I'm not so sure. It's certainly the most direct and emotional, but emotional understandings of the good untempered by more intellectual understandings of it can (and have) lead a great many people astray in disastrous ways. Various ways of knowing the good such as direct experience, journalism, a study of history, philosophical study, and so on are also important (in fact, I would say vital) aids in gaining a clear conception of the good and we should not make the mistake of claiming that they are less important or effective than they are. Would you really say that someone whose only conception of the good was absorbed from art was wise? Or that someone who had experienced all kinds of good and evil things in his life and had made a thorough study of history, current events, and abstract philosophy (of a good kind) was necessarily less wise than the other fellow? I wouldn't. Of course the ideal approach is to use each method of gaining a deeper understanding of the good for what it is good at, including the arts, and to compose a thorough and multi-faceted comprehension of the good from them. That is what I would call "wisdom".

-- Brian