On Philisitinism

[Images from Julianna Swaney who has a lovely Etsy shop and website. The above print is on its way to my house now!]


It's been another day of bad news, but I'm going to turn my mind from that emotional cesspool to the topic of philistinism, as Gilson discusses it in The Arts of the Beautiful.

He begins by saying that 'common philistinism' is of no real interest, I assume because it is common --

the only philistinism worthy of the metaphysician's reflection is the one cultured minds derive from their intellectual culture itself.

He writes about 'noble philistinism,' the sort that reduces beauty and art to the role of 'Cinderella' in the family of transcendentals, but only because it prefers some other, worthier pursuit.

It may help to note that for Gilson, the experience of an artwork is something very different from the experience of a fact or a piece of knowledge. In his initial discussion of cognition and beauty, he writes that beauty is often erroneously associated with truth, to the extent that beauty is supposed to convey truth or be some form of knowledge.

Of itself, a work of art is neither true nor false. Art is such that the notion of truth does not arise in connection with it.

He does not deny that truth or goodness have a beauty of their own, he rather wants to make clear that the experience of something as a truth is very different from the experience of something as a beauty.

One can have understood something once and for all, but one cannot exhaust the pleasure of reading a poem, of seeing a statue, of hearing a musical masterpiece. It is true that sensibility wears out, and the too frequent repetition of esthetic experience results in taking the edge off the pleasure, but this does not mean that the esthetic experience in question has come to an end ... Beautiful verses are so far from having been read once for all that we would rather learn them by heart to free ourselves from the need of the book and always to have them with us. The presence of the beautiful is known by that sign. As an eighteenth-century critic, Abbé du Bois, aptly said it: 'The mind cannot enjoy twice the pleasure of learning the same thing; but the heart can enjoy twice the pleasure of feeling the same emotion.'

The authentic esthetic experience engages with an artwork as something that was created, not as an object outside of the process of making. I think that Gilson says that it is in the apperception of the process of making, or the process of creation, that one can find the motive power that art has over the person experiencing it. In discussing sacred art and the role of art in religion and especially Christianity, he eventuallyarrives at the interesting conclusion that authentic esthetic experience should 'transport' the engaged viewer/listener/etc to the realm of 'the divine.'

Without making the mistake of seeing in esthetic experience the summit of spiritual life, one cannot approach the beautiful in art or in nature and not experience the peculiar emotion one feels at the contact with that which transcends it in character dignity. One verse of Virgil, Racine or Blake is enough; one musical phrase of Haydn, surprising in the quasi-miraculous perfection of its formal necessity, moves our very body, thus witnessing to the presence, felt rather than known, within the very materiality of our world, of a higher order of reality. In the experience of art the senses relay to us messages from intellect and intelligible being. It is natural that those who have nothing else should at least have that in order to experience what a properly religious emotion can be, an indirect and fleeting contact with the divine.


If we follow him this far, and I'm inclined to at the moment, it's pretty easy to see that he's making the argument that beauty can be just as powerful in its ability to move someone as the well-respected transcendentals, truth and goodness.

And this is where his interesting discussion of philistinism is relevant. For Gilson, an authentic experience of art engages with the making process and not with the artwork's quiddity or thinghood. Philistinism, the noble sort, is viewing a work of art -- an object -- and mistaking its intelligibility, "which is but the matter of art, for what art intended to produce." It's the mistake of trying to make beauty result in truth.


The metaphysical root of philistinism is the elimination of making to the advantage of knowing, with its unavoidable consequence -- the contempt shown by philosophers for that Cinderella of the transcendentals which beauty has always been.

Where common philistinism denigrates the transcendentals as a whole, metaphysical philistinism denigrates beauty while lauding knowledge and intellect. But philistinism is not malicious in its application, or painful if one finds it in themselves. Rather, Gilson says it is a kind of 'weakness' which we are all susceptible to, even very great artists. He gives some very vivid examples of this sort of philistinism, choosing from the hallowed halls of art and philosophy. Goethe and Kant are called philistines with regard to music, and Gilson excerpts this passage from Kant's third Critique:

Those who have advocated the singing of hymns at family prayers, have not thought of the annoyance they cause to the public in general by such noisy, and usually for that very reason, pharisaical worship, for they compel their neighbours either to join the chorus or, at least, to give up their meditation.


Locke is a philistine as well, condemning poetry [in Some Thoughts on Education] instead of music:

Poetry and gaming, which usually go together, are alike in this too, that they seldom bring any advantage to those who have nothing else to live on. Men of estates almost constantly go away losers; and 'tis well if they escape at a cheaper rate than their whole estates, or the greatest part of them.

For Locke, verse-making is the worst sort of idleness, and nothing but a colossal waste of time.

We're in good company in our philistinism; artists may be incapable of appreciating certain forms of art, and philosophers may eschew art and beauty in favor of "something else which truly deserves to be loved for its own sake." As art is not about truth or knowledge, we cannot expect the philosopher to feel compelled to understand or experience it more thoroughly. I wonder if 'noble philistinism' is afraid of beauty in a way -- of its connection with emotion and sensation -- and the murkiness, obscurity, and vagueness that ruin most discussions of emotion.

So that's Gilson's little piece, at least the way I see it. I have to wonder what we would put opposite of his 'noble philistinism' -- Romanticism? In his later discussion, when Gilson speaks of the sacred and divine nature of art, and the ability of beauty to 'move' a man, it seems that he is leaning toward a sort of "noble romanticism," one which privileges the unifying experience of beauty [which, while not being about knowledge, seems to inspire it or at least lead toward it], over the less -- pleasing? -- experience of knowledge alone. And I have to say that this construction of beauty, as something standing outside of knowledge or intelligibility seem a bit -- frivolous -- as a subject of philosophical study, and also very difficult to speak of.

Gilson discusses this problem of language -- if we require sober, serious terms to analyze matters of knowledge and cognition, what are we to use when speaking of emotions or the soul-moving experience of art? We could perhaps use our toolbox of philosophical analysis when speaking of the process of artistic making and its metaphysical implications, but to speak of beauty itself? The best language for that purpose seems to be the language of religion. It's the same problem we see with criticism -- the critic can only respond to a work of musical art with words -- he is limited to sentences and paragraphs when trying to speak of a painting or a sculpture -- even when he's focusing on a poem the critic is out of his element -- the critic uses words in their "normal" way," he communicates facts, information, opinions and judgments" -- the poet, however, uses words primarily to create beauty, not to convey truth.

Perhaps our discussion of any of the transcendentals suffers from the shortcomings of our critical and analytical language. Yet any insertion of 'colorful' or 'rich' commentary seems like a fatal injection of irrationality and frivolously subjective emotion.
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I truly enjoyed this text and I think Gilson has some very important things to say about the process of making and the approach one should take when discussing the experience of art. He attempts to remind us of some very basic, yet easily-overlooked facts. And this endeavor is something which Valéry is concerned with in the short essay "Aesthetics" which I've just begun. He says to the distinguished men who have invited him to speak:

If gentlemen, it is indeed for the role of the ingenué that the Committee has selected me, I shall feel perfectly at ease. Then I know what I have come here to do: I have come to be ignorant out loud.