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Kathleen Higgins interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Kathleen Higgins is always jiving on the big philosophical questions and so she thinks German Idealism is a golden age up there with Ancient Greece, thinks Kant invokes God as a moral not epistemological point, thinks Hegel lasts because he offers something to everybody, thinks Schopenhauer has a sense of humour, agrees with Danto that Nietsche shouldn’t be caged by systems, thinks erotic love is philosophically important, thinks non-Western philosophy should be taken more seriously by Western philosophers, and that Adorno is right in saying music can have positive political effects. Every which way, she’s there putting in her thoughts and so without doubt she’s all amped up and awesome.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always thinking big questions even as a child or was it something that happened? And does it help to have a partner to work with on many of your projects?

Kathleen Higgins: I think I was into big questions pretty early on. When I was still pretty little I wondered if you would necessarily like heaven if you got there. Maybe I was just morose: the first time I noticed clouds moving, I was convinced it was the sky that was moving and thought that perhaps Chicken Little had a point. In the early grades Dominican nuns were my teachers, and I perked up when they would talk about Aquinas and “the Philosopher” (Aristotle). When I was about eight, a Catholic comic book called Treasure Chest ran a series called ‘This Godless Communism’, which I read eagerly. Although it featured typical Cold War images of Soviet heartlessness, it also showed the young Karl Marx as he was formulating his ideas. I found it fascinating that these ideas had launched the whole saga of Russian communism. Then when I was a sophomore in high school, I turned in a paper that prompted my English teacher to say that it was philosophy that I was evidently interested in philosophy. He recommended a variety of philosophy texts, and that’s when my interest really took off. Yes, it was wonderful to have a partner involved in philosophy as well. We had many collaborative projects, but best of all was the on-going conversation. And since we both thought that philosophy is about life as a whole, conversations about all sorts of things were part of our philosophical interaction.

3:AM: In your book with your man, Robert Solomon, you’re focusing on German Idealism. You say that this is one of the ‘richest and most exciting explosions of philosophical energy and talent’’, up there with Ancient Greece. So for the uninitiated, what is German idealism in broad terms, what made this so important and who were the names we should be focusing on?

KH: German Idealism was a movement of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thinkers who sought to use reason and ideas as the basis for a systematic account of how everything fits together. What was so exciting about German Idealism was its ambitious scope; it sought to understand nothing short of the big picture, a complete account of reality. The Idealists also saw themselves as bringing long developments in philosophy to fruition, as well as resolving the issue of the place of contemporary science in human efforts to understand reality. “Idealism” means that the ideas of the mind (as opposed, most often, to sensory perceptions) are the basis for knowledge, and there were idealists long before the German Idealist movement. But a new impetus for idealistic thought came with the work of Immanuel Kant, who argued that the world as we come to know it is constructed through the activity of our minds. He traced the processes through which the mind through its own faculties and principles orients itself within the external world, imposing its own shape on the world as we know it. At the same time, he sought to demonstrate that human reason, through its own activity, could determine the moral law. While many of Kant’s successors questioned the particulars of his story, they were inspired by his work to formulate their own accounts of the way that the mind and its organically interconnected ideas operate in our efforts to know and act in the world. Besides Kant, some of the thinkers associated with this label include Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer.

3:AM: Kant was the starting figure then, and you say he was ‘an unabashed rationalist.’ His account of reason highlights its limits, doesn’t it? So he puts forward the idea that reason can’t actually grasp anything of things in themselves, and so we are necessarily shut out from ultimate reality. But he was also a Lutheran, and he argued that faith in God made everything okay because God would make sure what we knew didn’t deceive us. This seems a pretty desperate attempt to keep the idea of knowing the world doesn’t it, and seems to undermine the claims of rationality by claiming that only through faith can we be assured that we have a ready made world, doesn’t it?

KH: Kant certainly argues for the limitations of reason, but I think you are being unfair in your suggestion that he invoked religious faith to escape skepticism. I don’t think Kant ever seriously considered the idea that we were systematically deceived about reality, as Descartes did, at least methodically. In fact, his account of how our minds construct the phenomenal world might be seen as just the opposite of what you suggest. It is an explanation of how our minds can organise the various input from the external world into something coherent, something we can make sense of. We can’t be deceived about the structure of the phenomenal world, since our own minds construct it. As for the thing-in-itself, reality as it exists independent of our minds, by definition we don’t know it. But it is reality that we know phenomenally, albeit reality organised and structured in such a way that our minds can grasp it. The main rationale Kant gives for belief in God is a moral argument, not an epistemological one. In order to be able to persist in living morally in a world in which we see evil going unpunished and moral goodness often unrewarded, we have to believe that ultimately goodness and happiness coincide. This leads us to postulate the existence of God and an immortal soul. But Kant insisted on the independence of our insight into the moral law and religious belief. We can recognise right and wrong through reason, whether or not we believe in God. Descartes might be criticised on the grounds you suggest, but I don’t think Kant can.

3:AM: Hegel studies are booming at the moment it seems, what with the McDowelians in Pittsburg and Robert Stern and Zizek and a host of others all thinking about him. What do you think is significant about Hegel, and why do you think he is generating so much interest in contemporary thought given that he seems to use a vocabulary that mixes rationality with spookier terms like Spirit which you’d imagine might be anathema to secularists? Or is he anathema to secularists, and maybe we should detect a non-secular substrata in this new interest? What do you think?

KH: In general, Hegel has staying power because his systematic efforts encompass so much, including many critical analyses and insights, that he offers something for everybody. Hegel was not afraid to articulate strong positions, and these provoke discussion, both by enthusiasts and critics of his views. His Phenomenology of Spirit charts the reasoning leading to various metaphysical orientations as well as the reasoning showing their limitations and unsustainability (except in the case of his own metaphysical view). The challenges he offers to certain received views offer launching points for some thinkers. His Philosophy of Right takes strong stands on the organisation of society and the nation-state, certainly a timely topic for us today. Hegel’s analysis of the master and slave in the Phenomenology and his point that a sense of identity depends on recognition by others has been utilised by many political and moral thinkers. His suggestion that art in its “highest vocation” is a thing of the past is provocative, too, particularly at a time in which art’s ambitions are not clearly defined. Arthur Danto has pursued this line of Hegelian thought. One of the reasons that Hegel interests contemporary analyic philosophers is that he endeavors to systematically connect various basic concepts that we use to make sense of our world. In this respect, analytic philosophers, with their interest in concepts generally, can find common ground in Hegel. As for the “spookiness” of Hegel, Geist, the word translated “Spirit,” can also be translated as “mind.” And even rendered as “Spirit,” one need not see this in religious terms in a conventional sense, which is one of the reasons why Hegel’s philosophy has given both religious and secular readings. The fact that Hegel’s Absolute ultimately involves the end of any duality between God and humanity enables interpretation from either direction.

3:AM: You write about the ‘crankiest Kantian’, Schopenhauer. He was an early influence on Nietzsche wasn’t he, but what attracted you to him? And is he still saying something important?

KH: Schopenhauer was certainly a major influence on Nietzsche, and the latter’s philosophy engages with Schopenhauer throughout his career, not just early on. Schopenhauer’s ideas that I consider important is the idea that what he called the will, the dynamic, driven aspect of our nature. He considered all of reality to have something analogous to what we call the human will, and he uses the term “will,” by extension, for the true nature of everything. Will, according to Schopenhauer, is the single metaphysical reality, with everything else in the world as an illusory manifestation of this principle. Although most of us would not accept this metaphysical claim, the idea that we are fundamentally driven beings and the related claim that will directs our intellects, and not the other way around, are ideas that we have culturally accepted. Freud, who acknowledges Schopenhauer as an influence, has convinced most of the Western world (at least) that our psychologies are a function of drives, which in turn shape how we interpret our situations. We all are intellectual heirs of Schopenhauer, though most of us don’t realise it. Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Wagner, and Freud, among others, ran with ideas from Schopenhauer, but theirs are the names that are better known. One of the things that attracts me to Schopenhauer is his sense of humour. He may really have been a curmudgeon, but he was a funny one. I get the impression that he often takes a curmudgeonly tone for effect. Nietzsche was right, I think, when he said that Schopenhauer needed enemies to stay cheerful. He seems to genuinely enjoy his pessimism. And even though he presents lots of evidence for his grim views, one always has the impression that he savors life, even when he is telling some grizzly tale from nature. Nietzsche also suggested that Schopenhauer’s pessimism masked a real enthusiasm for life. Noting that Schopenhauer played the flute each evening, he asks, “Was that really a pessimist?”

3:AM: If Hegel’s stock is rising, Nietzsche’s has never fallen it seems. But what Nietzsche’s philosophy is about is hugely contested. Brian Leiter reads him as a naturalist philosopher, a precursor to Freudianism, denying freewill, with a modest metaphysics of anti-realism concerning morality and who sees the spectacle of the genius as salvation for civilisations. Jessica Berry sees him as a Pyrrhonian skeptic eschewing all metaphysics and recommending Homeric well being. But Heidegger saw him as the last metaphysician. Others see him as a dogmatic relativist and metaphysical nihilist. And of course, there are the different disciplines that have responded to him in various ways – philosophers, literary critics, theologians. Do you agree with Arthur Danto that scholars have tried to ‘cage him into a system of repressive categories, put his toxin on ice, slip the manacles of asceticism onto his wrists…locate him in the history of thought’ and that this is a bad thing, or do you think that good philosophy and scholarship obliges us to do this, contra Danto?

KH: I’m totally with Danto on this one. Sure, sometimes these terms and categories help us hone in on some aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking, especially if we ourselves tend to think in these terms. But Nietzsche is not aiming at defending any party line. As often as not, he presents a point that seems to locate him somewhere on the theoretical map, only to challenge it in the next sentence. I think Nietzsche tried always to think further whenever he reached some conclusion, and when he couldn’t, he at least viewed this as a limitation. Like everyone else, he had his relatively stable tendencies and relatively fixed ideas, but he tried not to be trapped by them. He has some consistent targets, and the labels that suit him best are probably those that are most antithetical to what his targets stood for (at least under the description that leads him to target them).

How we label Nietzsche says as much about us as it does about him, perhaps more. We label him according to our own interests. I tend to read him as a religious thinker, a religious desperado. But I find that every time I read one of his books, it has changed since I last read it, just as my interests have. Funny thing, that.

3:AM: The role of the artist in Nietzsche is very important, isn’t it? What is the role of art for Nietzsche?

KH: Nietzsche sees art as the celebration of humanity. It is a means of furthering culture, offering us hints as to how best to life, and restoring our sense of meaning in life when it is challenged. Art is the best model for life, as Nietzsche sees it. He talks about “giving style to one’s character” as an ideal. Instead of trying to conform to some universal standard of “a good person,” he thinks we would do best to try to work our individual, somewhat quirky traits into a character that is as coherent and pleasing as artists (traditionally) tray to make their artworks. Nietzsche also sees the point of view that art develops in us as valuable for seeing value in our lives. Taking a somewhat distanced point of view on ourselves, for example, enables us to idealise ourselves somewhat and to overcome self-loathing that might be inspired by too much awareness of our own imperfections. Theatre, in particular, helps us to see ourselves in a nobler light, and to see others in that way as well. The distancing perspective of art can help us to overcome both shame and a tendency to condemn, both of which Nietzsche frequently claims to want to help us move beyond. Art’s captivating power, particularly evident in music, is also a means of reminding us that we are powerfully in love with life. When faced with tragic horrors and recognizing our own vulnerabilities, we find challenges to a sense that life has meaning. Through music, we feel our connection with the powerful flow of life and recognise that we are deeply appreciative of being part of it. In this sense, art helps us to gain and maintain a sense that life is meaningful, despite the fact of suffering.

3:AM: Robert Solomon writes, ‘Nietzsche, like Sartre’s Proust, is no one other than the net effect of his writings’, but is that the limit of how to understand him as existentialist, because there seems to be a tension in Nietzsche between self-creation and his denial of freewill? What are we to make of this tension – is he an existentialist at all?

KH: I don’t think Bob was trying to sum up all that can be said about Nietzsche in that comment. This was likely an illustration of the Sartrean way of understanding anyone’s life, an orientation that Bob largely agreed with. We are what we do and what comes of those doings, according to Sartre. The apparent tension between Nietzsche’s themes of self-creation and his denial of free will is a major topic among Nietzsche scholars. My way of explaining this tension is as follows: Nietzsche saw the idea of free will as incoherently implying that even with the situation and the person’s own motivations geared to a person’s acting in one way, the person can nonetheless (seemingly for no reason) act in another. But Nietzsche seems to have been a compatibilist. Some of the causal determinants of our actions come from ourselves. We aren’t free to choose our drives, but Nietzsche often talks about ways that we can manage them. He often uses gardening metaphors for such self-cultivation. It takes time to rearrange our psychic landscapes, but it is certainly possible and desirable. That is what “giving style to our character” involves. And with enough cultivation, Nietzsche suggests, someone who is initially rather negative about life can become deeply life-affirming, though he isn’t too optimistic about most people’s doing this.

3:AM: Zarathustra is a strange parody of a sacred text isn’t it? What’s Nietzsche parodying? Is it Christianity, or Buddhism’s Three Baskets, or what?

KH: Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a parody with many predecessors. The New Testament is one basis for parody, but so are some of Plato’s dialogues. (The Last Supper and Plato’s Symposium are parodied simultaneously in Book IV, for example.) These are the bases that I notice particularly. But Wagner’s Ring Cycle is parodied, as Roger Hollinrake has demonstrated. Nietzsche makes extensive allusions, at least, to Goethe’s Faust, and there are allusions to the Zend-Avesta as well as some details from Buddhism. I don’t think Nietzsche was aware of the Three Baskets in great detail, but I don’t think he would have had any difficulty incorporating allusions to it. In any case, the work does the double work of parody with respect to the inherited tradition broadly characterised: it satirises but at the same time pays homage, suggesting that this work should be seen as serious in a similar way as these predecessors are.

3:AM: You’ve also edited a book on The Philosophy of Erotic Love. This sounds fab. What is the philosophy of erotic love – you have Spinoza, Hegel, Sartre, de Beauvoir in there – so is there a philosophy as such being developed, or is it more that philosophers take their philosophical position and then apply it to the erotic? Could you perhaps give an example of what you’re getting at?

KH: Our intention in the book is to present the accounts of various thinkers, both across the Western tradition and in contemporary times. We included psychoanalytic and literary writers as well as philosophers because we wanted a broad constellation of approaches to this timelessly interesting topics. The thinkers included approach the erotic along various lines. For some it is a central concern. According to Plato, eros is what draws us toward the Forms in the first place, and the starting point is love of the beauty of another person. Plato may have been interested in love as a starting point for philosophising, but many philosophers already had developed philosophical outlooks before they took up the topic of love. How erotic love relates to the broader philosophy is one of the themes we hoped to illuminate with the book. One question Bob and I were interested in as we organised the book was whether erotic love, as a concept, is constant, or whether those who discuss it are actually discussing different things. Is Freud’s “libidinal cathexis,” for instance, the same thing as “romantic love”? Even if the word “love” (in the erotic sense) is used by most of the thinkers we anthologise, we found their discussions inseparably bound to their immediate cultural context, with its specific mores and social practices. The connection of erotic love with a whole way of life is what leads some thinkers, like Sartre, to criticise love as inherently manipulative and a means of domination. And the connection of the idea of erotic love with a larger philosophical outlook on the world is evident in the writings of philosophers on the subject. In a sense, the history of the idea of erotic love offers an angle on the history of Western philosophy as well.

3:AM: Although you’ve done a lot of work with German philosophy, you’ve also pioneered work in world philosophy, haven’t you? Was this a conscious move to counter a Western bias in philosophy as taught in English speaking universities? And did this come about as you began working surveying philosophy’s history?

KH: Actually, I got interested in non-Western philosophy very early. The high school English teacher that told me that philosophy was what I was interested in read an excerpt from J. Krishnamurti in his class one day, and I insisted after class that he loan me the book. I also took a Chinese philosophy seminar my first semester in graduate school. Another motivation for my interest was that, having majored in music as an undergraduate, I’d been fascinated by a course I’d taken on Indian music. Indian music was tremendously sophisticated, but based on very different structural choices than the Western tonal tradition had made. I was quite interested in the philosophy of music, and I was rather disappointed, studying philosophy in grad school, to discover how much of Western tradition after the ancient Greeks more or less ignored music. When I was introduced to Chinese philosophy, I found just what I was looking for, a philosophical tradition that paid a lot of attention to music and its relation to the good life quite generally. I’ve pursued that interest more recently by participating in summer institutes on Chinese philosophy sponsored by the National Endowment on the Humanities. In any case, my conviction that non-Western philosophy was part of philosophical history preceded my writing books about that history.

3:AM: How far have we got with moving away from seeing non-Western philosophies as ‘alternatives’ and seeing them instead as partners in philosophical discourse. I suppose my worry here is that if the western tradition is always at the centre then by definition alternatives will be peripheral? I wonder if the huge explosion of university life in India and China has brought about greater connections between these traditions of philosophy?

KH: Unfortunately, Western philosophers have not, for the most part, taken a lot of interest in the rest of the world, although this is changing. One reason in the Anglophone world, I think, is the tendency to approach philosophy as a series of problems and puzzles and to conduct their philosophising by means of countering moves that have recently been made in (Western) philosophical journals. This does not allow much room for considering alternative perspectives on what the important problems might be, an interest that would naturally lead to consideration of how other traditions have formulated their philosophical inquiries. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that it is only a question of time. As interaction with other parts of the world becomes more and more a daily occurrence, interest in other cultures will follow naturally, even if it is motivated by perceived clashes in outlook. Once this interest becomes more common in the culture at large, I think philosophers in greater numbers will take an interest, too. I only wish more philosophers were leading the way in investigating what the rest of the world has to offer.

3:AM: I was impressed that you included African philosophy and Mesoamerican thought in your overview. I’m very ignorant of these traditions so I wonder if you could say something about these two areas and say what’s distinctive?

KH: African philosophy includes critical investigations of the wisdom traditions of Africa, and some African philosophers devote themselves to such work. One of the fascinating things about contemporary African philosophy is that it is so self-reflexive. A big issue being considered is whether there is such a thing as “African philosophy.” Of course, this depends on what is meant by “philosophy,” so recent African philosophy has engaged in a consideration of the nature of philosophy itself, as well as a comparative consideration of philosophical problems considered in the West and traditional African answers to these questions. African philosophers, in this respect, are paying more attention to comparative philosophy, on the whole, than are Western philosophers. Much of African thought in recent times, however, has been concerned with the impact of colonialism. This approach has also led to consideration of the relevance of Western thought to African issues, often in a critical way.

The pre-Columbian Meso-Americans were traditionally interested concerned about how best to relate to the supernatural beings who occupied a different plane in both time and space. Their elaborate calendar systems were devised in order to determine when these beings and other cosmic forces would cyclically influence this plane. They believed that the planes of reality were interconnected, and that human beings had the responsibility to provide sustenance to the gods, who had sacrificed some of their life energies in creating the terrestrial plane. Practices of blood-letting and human sacrifice reflected this belief that human beings should restore life energies to the gods. However, philosophical thinkers did offer critical alternatives to standard views within their society, though we have limited information about them because of the wholesale destruction of their records by the Spanish. The Aztec thinkers known as tlamatinime (“knowers of things”) engaged in reflection on the nature of reality. They sought to find ultimate truth, which they believed was attainable through artistic inspiration and the creation of poetry that was derived inspiration from the supernatural plane. In more recent times, Meso-American philosophers, along with their South American counterparts, have attempted to articulate a truly Latin American philosophy, not just a spin-off of European thought, in the wake of colonialism. Some have elaborated social critiques of power structures that have oppressed many in Latin America. Some have also emphasised the importance of the creative, aesthetic dimension for being fully in touch with reality, in keeping with the orientation of their pre-Columbian counterparts among the Aztecs.

3:AM: You’re also a philosopher of music and argue that music that is politically effective is music that is relatively transparent. You say music can lead to insights about the way in which human beings are related, even beyond sectarian boundaries. This sounds attractive. Can you say what you mean by ‘transparent’, and whether your argument means that avant garde music and experimental stuff is politically bad?

KH: What I mean by “transparent” is music whose conventions are already assimilated by the audience. Transparent music is easy to follow because it involves no surprises. I think that people are likely to be roused by this kind of music more than music that is more challenging. I don’t think avant-garde music and experimental stuff is politically bad at all. It just doesn’t speak to the masses. I think Adorno is right in his suggestion that music that challenges people can have positive political effects, in prompting them to go beyond their usual way of looking at things and in helping them to engage in appreciation of something beyond the latest commodity. But I also think that music that is within people’s comfort zone plays an important role in their lives, and that it is best to recognise this when attempting to use music in moving people politically.

3:AM: Adorno is considered a great philosopher of music but recently Roger Scruton has asked whether he is relevant any longer? What do you think?

KH: As I suggested in answer to the last question, I think Adorno makes important points about music that retain their relevance, even if I think he doesn’t appreciate the psychological, and hence political, value of music that makes people feel secure. He was critical of the commodification of music, and I don’t think that’s gone away. Even Scruton agrees that Adorno’s concern about the “regression of music” (dumbed-down music that offers little to the mind) has its point. I agree with Scruton that Adorno missed the mark when he analysed jazz as music of this sort, but I agree with both of them that there is much to be said for enjoying musical works that develop musical materials into interesting structures. (I don’t, however, think short and simple is necessarily bad in music – music can do lots of different things and be enjoyed for different reasons).

3:AM: And finally, for the philosophically intrigued here at 3:AM Magazine, can you recommend 5 books (not your own, which we’ll be running off to read straight after this) that will take us further into your philosophical world?

KH: It is hard to limit myself to five, and I’m not sure whether you have classics or contemporary books in mind, but here goes (with some of both):

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Chuang Tzu, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu
Robert C. Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life
Peter Goldie, The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind
Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 11th, 2013.