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Reflective Equilibrium in the Aesthetics Classroom
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Theodore Gracyk

There was no sudden “Eureka!” moment when I realized that I faced a problem when teaching aesthetics. I felt less like a lobster thrown into boiling water than like the proverbial frog whose water temperature is slowly raised.

Let’s pause. I take it for granted that the majority of readers will grasp the metaphor of that last sentence. Lobsters are often prepared by lowering them into boiling water. Unlike the lobster, the proverbial frog has the power to jump, and so won’t sit still if dropped into boiling water. However, it’s said that frogs will sit still in cold or tepid water and will remain sitting there if the water is slowly raised to a boil; death eventually results. The frog is, of course, frequently invoked as a metaphor for the human tendency to ignore a problem until it’s too late to avoid an impending but slowly developing catastrophe.

So, if I assumed that most readers would understand the lobster and frog metaphor, why did I provide a gloss on it? In order to point out that the metaphor is less than one-fourth the length of the explanatory gloss. A well-chosen example saves a tremendous amount of time and energy. The other side of the coin – and yes, I am aware that I’ve just used a timesaving cliché – is that a poorly chosen example is the source of much confusion and, ultimately, wasted effort. Immanuel Kant famously notes in the original preface to the Critique of Pure Reason that he employs few examples because illustrations and examples are often self-defeating in their effects. Time spent working out the relevance of an example is mental energy wasted. The problem is compounded when the audience lacks prior familiarity with the example, for then attention is redirected toward mastering the example, deflecting all thought away from the philosophical point. Well into my third decade of teaching philosophy of art, I’ve come to think that Kant’s point is particularly apt for the aesthetics classroom.

Over time, experienced teachers discover that there’s an ever-widening generation gap between themselves and their students. In 2008, an American post-secondary teacher invites blank stares by explaining Aristotle’s thesis about the difference between historical and poetic tragedy by mentioning Princess Diana’s death. Her 1997 death seems very recent to me. In 1998 and 1999, the example was useful when teaching Aristotle. However, the average age of my students is about 20. Because most were eight or nine years old when Diana Spencer died, the example doesn’t resonate with most of them. In a few more years the example will require a complex gloss. Clearly, it’s always risky to use “current” events as a source of examples in a profession where the teacher ages while the average age of students remains the same. Good teachers learn to be on guard for it.

However, I’m intrigued by a more systemic problem regarding examples, as well as the proper diagnosis of the problem. The problem, put crudely, is that it no longer seems useful to cite any particular tragedies as examples when discussing Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s bad enough that only the theater majors seem to have heard of Sophocles or Oedipus Rex, but fewer and fewer of them seem to know Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, much less Hamlet. If I can’t presuppose that students know these texts, what example can I cite in order to discuss the text’s relevance to anything besides ancient Athenian theater? While some will say that this phenomenon is just more evidence of the cultural illiteracy that accompanies the decline of public education, or of the pluralism that accompanies robust multiculturalism, I don’t think that quite explains it. Their blank stares often signify a more profound generational shift. They can and do refer to a body of shared examples, but those examples may not strike an older generation as worth discussing when teaching philosophy of art – if, that is, we are aware of them at all. If there are to be well-chosen examples in my classroom, am I really the best person to select them?

As I suggested at the outset, my concern is pedagogical. After all, what are our pedagogical goals in citing examples when teaching aesthetics? There would seem to be two distinct ends, the same ends that get us to cite them in our research. First, they have an explanatory function. We think that students will understand subtle distinctions and abstract theoretical points more easily if they can link them to something familiar. Second, they have a justificatory function. We challenge various definitions and theoretical proposals by pointing out that they are either too inclusive or too exclusive. We take seriously only those definitions and proposals that account for a core body of examples, many of which are discussed over and over again once they’ve been introduced in an influential article or book. Discussions of “the artworld” invite reflection on Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, the film Triumph of the Will seems to make its way into most discussions of the interplay of the moral and the aesthetics, and so on. In short, we must share some prior intuitions about which things count as art if we’re going to debate the merits of competing definitions of art. One can’t motivate an argument by asking, with Arthur Danto, what accounts for the difference between Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the ordinary shipping cartons that they so closely resemble unless one already thinks that there’s an important difference that requires explanation. Our appeal to shared examples cannot be reduced to their value as short cuts in getting students to grasp theories. They are indispensable tools for evaluating those theories.

All of which suggests that the method of reflective equilibrium furnishes the standards of argumentation and justification for contemporary aesthetics. While reflective equilibrium has been much discussed by ethical and political philosophers since John Rawls introduced the phrase (if not the method itself) in 1971’s A Theory of Justice, it is arguably as central to aesthetics as to any other philosophical area.

Reflective equilibrium is both the goal and the method advocated in A Theory of Justice. As an end, it is achieved when participants in a philosophical debate have identified the maximum coherence that can be achieved among governing concepts, theoretical principles, and prior intuitions about cases. As a method, it requires community endorsement of those principles that survive a robust examination of the concrete implications of endorsing various versions of the candidate concepts and principles. While there may be residual divergence of opinion about matters on which reasonable people agree to disagree, reflective equilibrium is achieved when this divergence cannot be further reduced by continued discussion of the fit between our theoretical commitment and our intuitions about particular cases.

To paraphrase Rawls in broad terms, his method assumes that both the general principle of justice and our motivating intuitions about accepted practices are subject to revision. To the same degree that a principle of justice is suspect if it is too exclusive or inclusive with respect to prevailing intuitions, some of those intuitions may have to change in light of the principles that are adopted. But there is a further matter for reflection, Rawls insisted. There is also the important matter of the perspective that is applied to the principles and cases. In asking which principles of justice capture “justice as fairness,” Rawls famously proposed that the debate should be conducted from behind a veil of ignorance – justice involves matters of distribution, so participants in the debate should be ignorant of any facts about themselves that would affect their own sense of the desirability of principles based on how they would reward or harm them given their own standing in a particular society. “Reflective” equilibrium is not reflective if it simply codifies the existing interests of those who get to decide on the content of the principles in question.

My purpose is not to suggest that Rawls was right about everything. Nor is to make the important but relatively familiar point that intuitions about art often reflect Eurocentric, sexist, and classist prejudices. It is, rather, to call attention to deliberative procedures that many of us may take for granted, procedures that have the effect of limiting our discussion of cases that we ought to discuss. Where might we find our pedagogical equivalent of Rawls’ original position, the perspective that is most likely to help us to achieve reflective equilibrium when theorizing about art? For Rawls, the requisite “original” situation is fundamentally about achieving equity when choosing principles of justice. While there will be a few stubborn essentialists who may resist the idea, my argument is addressed to those who agree that the boundaries of art are an evolving social construct. Had European cultural history been a bit different, we would today have rather different intuitions about central examples and genres of fine art. We might, for example, discuss gardens more than paintings and dance more than literature. By our very participation in the twin projects of researching and teaching philosophy of art, we are active participants in the cultural project of deciding what art has been, is, and is to be.

For those of us who earn our livings as educators, the argumentation that we employ in that role might be the most significant aspect of how the next generation carries on the project of theorizing art. (I hope that we do not equate success with mere codification of the prevailing understanding of the concept of art.) More than a few moments of reflection on what non-philosophers say and write about art – or, better yet, one or two semesters in the classroom philosophizing about art with students who represent the various arts – will reveal that most people lack a coherent concept of art. Most people have fragmentary ideas about art, and the shards of various theories that they’ve assembled tend to contradict one another. And I think the situation is even more complicated when it comes to today’s twenty-somethings.

I offer these points as a prelude to thinking about Rawls’ subsequent attention to the realities of cultural pluralism. In Political Liberalism (1993), he acknowledges that reflective equilibrium as process might be incompatible with it is a goal. Sufficient variation in experience prior to the deliberative process will encourage a “reasonable pluralism” in which different participants will endorse some principles as ones they can support in common with others, yet their reasons for supporting those principles will be incompatible with the reasons given by others who agree to support them. Rather like a temporary alliance of voters who agree on a candidate without agreeing on which issues are most important, different people will choose the same principles of justice without sharing foundational intuitions. Hence, the equilibrium of a pluralistic society is an inherently unstable consensus. There is no good reason to suppose that theoretical equilibrium – minimal divergence of theoretical commitments – goes hand in hand with wide agreement about the concrete implications of the theory. Different parties can preserve many of the intuitions they started with. They might never endorse any of the intuitions held by others, dismissing them as foolish, pointless, or dead wrong.

Let us return to my slow realization of the generational shift that works against reflective equilibrium when teaching philosophy of art. I have gradually come to the conclusion that the goal and method are short-changed if we assume that a common body of intuitions can be referenced and endorsed by a classroom of undergraduate students. To put it crudely, we might as well be sharing our examples with wombats.

Today, most college students come to us knowing more about Aztec religious rituals than Renaissance painting. Knowing almost nothing about fine art, popular culture shapes most of their intuitions about the nature of art, expression, creativity, and pictorial representation. A small cluster of them will know some dubious “facts” about Leonardo da Vinci and his paintings, gleaned from Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the subsequent film. Most can discourse more readily about the aesthetics of website design than about poetic form. However, apart from the web layout of Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook, there are unlikely to be any websites they share in common for purposes of discussion. With respect to poetic form, more will know haiku pattern than anything else. If you want to discuss music, then Disney movies, the national anthem, and a few standard Christmas carols are the only music that a majority can be expected to have as common reference points. Moving beyond songs, I have found no instrumental music that more than a handful recognizes. The generational perspective that faces us in the classroom – blank faces, unfortunately, when I mention examples I used to take for granted – is unified by its reliance on digitalized experiences. But it is factionalized, too, by the haphazard organization of the digital world.

We can look for someone to blame, but that doesn’t help us solve the immediate pedagogical challenge. Reflective equilibrium is bogus unless we can achieve it in the face of robust pluralism. Hence, we must offer our students a trade. We must give our students compelling reasons, other than our mere say-so, for thinking about the examples that have dominated philosophy of art since Andy Warhol and the Brillo boxes. Personally, I now spend about a quarter of our classroom time providing capsule introductions to select periods of art history; an hour of background is often necessary to get students to see the point of a single example.

Conversely, we must respect their examples and provide time to explore them. In preparation for this, I now begin each semester by having them fill out questionnaires. They propose examples of literature, music, film, and works of visual art that we should discuss. As a result, I know that many of them have never seen a play or attended a jazz performance, that the sole novel that most of them have in common is To Kill A Mockingbird, and that music’s art status depends on who performs it, not who composed it. If it seems to me that their intuitions are bizarre (e.g. why do so many of them deny that anything humorous qualifies as art, and that music by Bach and Handel doesn’t qualify as art if they’ve heard it in church?), my imposition of the project and method of reflective equilibrium nonetheless requires me to take them seriously, for these are their intuitions. The price to pay, and it is a hefty one, is that no one is allowed to cite an example without being prepared to explain its relevance to the point under discussion. A commitment to reflective equilibrium requires an enormous amount of time spent thinking about examples that fall outside one’s comfort zone.

Which sentences me, I’m afraid, to renting this year’s most popular horror or monster film so that I’ll be ready to explain, when students cite it in class next year, precisely which aspects of its plot disqualify it from the category of Aristotelian tragedy.

Postscript: For those who’d like more information about the questionnaire that I give to students, here you are.

It’s imperative to give it immediately at the beginning of the semester, before one has a chance to influence their developing intuitions. It’s simple enough. There’s a space for their names at the top. The page is divided into two columns. One says “works of art” and the other says “NOT works of art.” Evenly spaced rows are created by a series of labels on the left. The labels are categories such as paintings, sculptures, films, novels, non-fiction books, music without words, songs, and photographs. The brief instructions say that they should name two or three items in both columns for each category. I warn them to be as specific as possible: tell me the name of a paining by a famous artist, not just the artist’s name. If they don’t have any examples (e.g., of a painting or novel that is not a work of art), they should leave it blank. They are not to answer by merely repeating names they know. They can expect to be asked to describe or discuss what they have named. Since they must have some personal familiarity with anything they name, it is better to leave a category blank rather than to name something simply because it’s famous.

A word of warning: this questionnaire takes far moretime than one might anticipate. Many students go blank for many of the categories, but then eventually think of examples if given sufficient time.

I collect and use the completed questionnaires in multiple ways. I use them immediately by asking the students to explain what distinguishes the items in one column from the other. I use them to choose examples that will be useful when discussing various theories and topics later in the term (giving me time to acquaint myself with examples that are new to me). I often require the students to discuss the examples they’ve supplied as the focus of their exam essays. (When I do this, I return photocopies of their completed forms to them so that they can’t claim to have forgotten what they initially proposed.) Finally, I use them as discussion-generators throughout the semester; at any time, I can call on a specific student, remind her of a particular example, and ask how it illustrates or challenges a philosophical position.

2008 © Theodore Gracyk

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