Review: The Sense of Beauty

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The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic TheoryGeorge Santayana. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally published 1896).

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty, grounding it in the pleasure of the perceiver with an object and its associations.

Classically, philosophy has spoken of three transcendentals: Truth (logic), Goodness (ethics), and Beauty (aesthetics). To satisfy the requirements of tenure at Harvard, George Santayana wrote this book, based on lectures, to offer his own outline of an aesthetic theory in what was his first book. Perhaps the most striking move of Santayana was to move beauty from the realm of the transcendental to that of human perception of value in the object perceived. He contrasts physical pleasure, focused on the organ of sensation, with aesthetic sensation, focused on the object from which pleasure arises. He defines beauty as “pleasure objectified.”

He then explores this sense of beauty under three headings: the materials of beauty, form, and expression. The materials of beauty focus on the  various human senses, chiefly sight, hearing, memory and imagination, through which perception and appreciation of objects occur. Form has to do with both external realities that give rise to sensation and their mental representation. He explores aspects of these that produce pleasure including symmetry, uniformity, and multiplicity, and also the idea of “indeterminate” forms such as landscapes that derive their beauty from the perceptive interpretation of the observe. Finally, Santayana explores the nature of expression which means the qualities one associates with an object. This suggests that one’s sense of beauty develops from immediate perception to a deeper perception where past experience, imagination, and other associations shape the kind of aesthetic pleasure one has in the object.

Santayana elaborates each of these elements in a discussion that is highly abstract, that I won’t attempt to outline or summarize here. What troubles me in his treatment, which seems to me a sophisticated way of saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is the elimination of the transcendent aspects of beauty. For those who sense beyond perceived beauty an author of beauty, Santayana would say this is simply one’s sense experience, and one’s sense of the sublime is simply ecstatic pleasure. There is nothing “beyond” to which beauty points. The sehnsucht or longing that C.S. Lewis writes of in Surprised by Joy when listening to Wagner, or glimpsing a scene in nature, to Santayana signifies nothing more than the interplay between object and sense eventuating in aesthetic pleasure. When Bono says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Santayana might reply, “and you never will. All you may find is what you are looking at.”

I find myself wondering how much Santayana’s aesthetic has shaped both the making of and the appreciation of art. How might artists pursue their work differently when they do not compose and paint, write and dance, with the object of “Soli Deo Gloria” and instead see their work as evoking aesthetic pleasure in those who partake of them. How are we changed as we are discouraged, when experiencing what we might call the “transcendent” in a work to think of it as nothing more than a confluence of the material of our senses, the form of a work, and its expressive associations. What happens when wonder is turned inward, rather than upward?

These were some of the questions I was left with on reading Santayana.

Review: In This World of Wonders

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In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015

Summary: This is a survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

Yes, this really is what you think it is, a one volume survey of Western philosophy and theology! It is a massive volume, coming in at over 800 pages, and yet to distill the material Frame covers even to this length is a not insignificant undertaking.

Here’s what you will find in this book if you decide to dig in. Frame begins with a discussion of philosophy and the Bible and reveals his own approach at the outset. Frame was deeply influenced by his association with Cornelius Van Til, his teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary, and writes as a presuppositionalist. In brief, he begins with the belief in a God who reveals God’s self, as basic to all else and a commitment to the authority of that revelation as found in the Bible. He contrasts this with philosophy, which he understands as a human endeavor of autonomous reason. This is not without worth but in his view exists in a rational-irrational tension that can only be resolved by divine revelation and he traces this idea throughout his survey. In the following twelve chapters he surveys the major philosophers and theologians beginning with Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, medieval philosophy, early modern thought, theology in the Enlightenment, Kant and his successors, nineteenth century theology, Nietzsche, pragmatism, phenomenology and existentialism, twentieth century liberal theology and language philosophy, and recent Christian philosophy.

His format is to outline the thought of the theologian or philosopher in question, situating them in the context of ideas of their time. Then, more briefly he gives a critique. Fundamentally, he will evaluate on the basis of the degree to which the philosopher or theologian in question roots his ideas in revelation versus autonomous reason. Yet I did not find this repetitive but nuanced to the specific thought of the person in question. In most chapters, he will cover the thought of several major thinkers, and then more briefly touch on others. Each chapter concludes with a glossary of terms, a bibliography for further study that includes print, online, and audio materials (the latter consisting of lectures by Frame available at iTunes).

In addition to this survey, the volume includes twenty appendices, consisting of a number scholarly articles and reviews Frame has written on subjects related to the book. I found a number of these quite illuminating and good resources for apologetic (Christian defense of the faith) discussions including essays on the ontological argument, self-refuting statements, and on God and biblical language. Of personal interest to me was his essay on certainty and his discussion of the work of Esther Lightcap Meek, an epistemologist teaching at Geneva College. She asserts that while we cannot hope for certainty, we can attain to a proper confidence in knowing. Frame would argue that if one presupposes revelation, then there are some things pertaining to God’s nature, our condition and salvation that we may know with certainty. This challenged my own thinking (I have tended toward Meek’s ideas) and actually is something I want to pursue further. One also glimpses some of the scholarly “battles” he has engaged in such as his dialogue with Gordon Clark.

This touches on what I thought was the value of Frame’s work. In addition to surveying the sweep of Western philosophical and theological thought, his discussions served to whet the appetite for pursuing some of these in further depth. I would not have know, for example, of Meek’s books (Longing to Know, Loving to Know are two of these). Along the way, I also found myself longing to read Anselm, to re-read Pascal, to dig into the common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. Frame even made me curious to explore some Van Til, who I’ve never read. Frame has a teacher’s ability to unravel complex ideas in a highly readable form.

I fully suspect that a number who do not share Frame’s perspective will take issue with his judgments on philosophers and theologians. He is less charitable, for example, to Barth, than many contemporary writers, although not uncharitable in his judgments of any. One has to understand the deep passion for truth as he understands it that under girds Frame’s writing.  And certainly, any specialist would probably take issue with his treatment of this or that figure. Yet that is always the challenge of undertaking a work like this.

For those sympathetic with a reformed, presuppositionalist perspective, this will provide a thoroughly engaging course on Western thought that will deeply inform one’s own intellectual life. For pastors, this is useful for understanding various currents of thought through history. For those working in university ministries or engaged in discussions at the philosophical level, this is an especially useful reference.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Faith and Reason: Three Views

Faith and ReasonThe question of the relation of faith and reason is a live question for any Christian seeking to live an integrated life in the world of higher education, where rigorous thought is a necessary part of the pursuit of truth in every discipline. It is also a vital question with regard to the proclamation of the Christian message. Is there a role for reason and apologetics as part of the process of sharing the Christian message with the hope of a person coming to saving faith? Or, is the knowledge of truth in Christianity something which may only be apprehended by grace through faith?

Christians through history have differed on these matters and this book, part of InterVarsity Press’s Spectrum Multiview Book series presents the three major approaches to this question in dialogue with each other. The format for the book is that each of the three approaches is presented in turn with a response by the representatives of the other two approaches.

The three views presented are:

1. Faith and Philosophy in Tension, presented by Carl A. Raschke. This view in brief minimizes the role reason and philosophy have in matters of faith, for which God’s revelation of Himself in his Son and recorded in scripture and believed by faith is sufficient. Pascal, Kierkegaard, some post-modern theologians and those from Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions tend to hold these views.

2. Faith Seeking Understanding, presented by Alan G. Padgett. This view holds that reason is insufficient to lead one to faith but that faith under the illumining work of God can “redeem reason”. Faith does not depend upon nor determine other disciplinary learning but may bring illumination of the ways such things may be pursued to the glory of God. Augustine, Anselm and Calvin would be representatives of this group.

3. The Synthesis of Reason and Faith, presented by Craig A. Boyd. This view considers reason to be an endowment of God not obliterated by the fall which may lead us to truth but by itself, apart from faith cannot save us. This approach is most closely identified with Thomas Aquinas, but also Richard Hooker, John Henry Newman and John Wesley.

The editor, Steve Wilkins provides a helpful overview of the three views and a conclusion that considers the Christian way in which these scholars engage, affirm, and disagree. And this is perhaps the books greatest value. Wilkins points out that all three agree on three important points:

1. They all reject the autonomy of reason, reason unaided by faith,
2. All recognize intellectual capacities as a gift of God, and
3. All affirm that faith has epistemic value, that faith leads to a kind of knowledge inaccessible to reason alone.

I found this discussion most helpful in coming to the realization that these three areas of agreement represent an “orthodox” position on faith and reason. The testimony of the differing positions seem, to me, to serve as healthy correctives to one another that save one another from unhealthy syncretism or excessive emphases on either faith or reason. The arguments and the interchange serve as an important witness and example of faith and reason in practice, and of the ability to disagree agreeably.

We could use more of that!