The aims of the course
- To explore a range of philosophical issues relating to mind, body, and art
- To discuss these in relation to works currently on display in Tate Modern
Week by Week Topics and Rooms:
25th Feb. Mind and Body in Philosophy (Transformed Visions)
4th March Bodily Communication (Lichtenstein)
11th March Form and Desire (Poetry and Dream)
18th March Bodies in Action (A Bigger Splash)
25th March Roles and Representation (A Bigger Splash)
Week One: Mind and Body in Philosophy
Throughout the history of philosophy there has been a great deal of philosophy of mind, but hardly any philosophy of the body.
An important starting point for modern philosophy was René Descartes' Meditations (first published 1641).
Descartes wanted to find something about which he could be certain. He had accepted many views on trust, and was aware that many of his beliefs were erroneous. His method of Cartesian Doubt involved subjecting every knowledge claim to very close scrutiny: if there was room for the slightest doubt then Descartes rejected it.
He recognised that although much of his knowledge came via the five senses, these senses sometimes mislaid him: a straight stick looks bent in water, a round tower in the distance can look square, and so on. Consequently he rejected sensory information as a wholly reliable source of knowledge. But surely he couldn't be mistaken that he was in a room, now? Descartes at this point remembered that he had had dreams in which he'd thought he was awake when in fact asleep in bed. How did he know he wasn't now dreaming? Well even in dreams 2+3 = 5, doesn't it? But what if there were an evil demon systematically deceiving him about this? Unlikely, but it might conceivably be having (or it could be that an evil scientist is manipulating the electrodes sticking in to your brain in a jar and that you are nothing more than this brain in liquid nutrient). This is Descartes' nadir: he seems to have argued himself into a whirlpool of doubt. But he extracts himself by means of his famous Cogito argument (from 'cogito ergo sum'): even if there is an evil demon, the fact that he, Descartes, is having some kind of thought or experience proves that he must exist...assuming that thoughts have thinkers).
The important point here is that Descartes is more certain of his own subjective experience even than the fact that he has a body (something that requires sense experience to ascertain). This prioritization of the subjective over any experience of the world was extremely important and influential (far more important and influential than Descartes' constructive phase in which he argues for God's existence and the notion that clear and distinct ideas must be true...and ends up more or less where he started in terms of his beliefs). Descartes believed that for human beings mind and body were distinct and interacted (he quaintly located the point of interaction as the pineal gland).
Listen to my overview of Descartes' Meditations (from Philosophy: The Classics)
For a related argument used by Avicenna many centuries before Descartes,
Although much 20th Century philosophy of mind assumed a physicalist standpoint and ridiculed Cartesianism as 'the myth of the ghost in the machine' (Gilbert Ryle's phrase), physicalism is not without difficulties. That doesn't mean that we need to adopt Descartes' approach, but the question of how consciousness arises out of physical matter (if indeed it does) is a tricky one. Thomas Nagel's famous paper 'What is it like to be a bat?' emphasized the difficulty of explaining 'qualia' the experiential nature of consciousness, as did Frank Jackson's famous thought experiment about Mary (who is brought up in a black and white world, is an expert on the neurophysiology of seeing, and then gets to see something red - does she learn something new? If yes, where does that come from on a physicalist account?).
Taking off obliquely from the discussion of subjectivity and conscious experience, we examined a number of works in Transformed Visions, asking questions about the weight given to the subjective viewpoint of the depicted individuals vs the viewer's viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the artist. So, for example, with Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947) there is an interesting question of whether the viewer is encouraged to identify with the viewpoint of the man pointing or see him as other from either the viewpoint of the actual viewer or an implied one who is part of the imagined scene. The fact that Giacometti originally conceived the work as having another figure, with the pointing man's left arm around his shoulder, suggests that we could see the implied viewpoint as the one of the absent person standing next to the pointing man, looking with him at the subject of his pointing, complicit with the judgement of the pointing man...
Part of the point of such activities in the gallery on this course is to look at perhaps familiar works from a fresh viewpoint and see them differently. For further examples of this approach applied to different topics/works of art, see my notes from a previous course 7 Ways of Thinking About Art or notes from a range of previous Tate Modern courses (you need to click on 'next' at the end of pages to scroll back through them all), and also an earlier post on my experience of teaching at Tate Modern.
Next week...Bodily Communication