Sunday, June 24, 2007

Language, Theology, and Aesthetics

This entry includes three separate items; two of which are books and on of which involves some thoughts I have been having as a result of a recent debate.

The two books are Language and Theology by Gordon Clark and Lessing's Laocoön by David Wellbery. The debate was about the appropriate content (in this case, nudity was the issue) for artistic expression, thus aesthetics.

Wellbery's book continues my research into the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics. It is, according to my professor, an important book to read because of Lessing's contribution to aesthetic theory. Wellbery's book is an attempt to demonstrate that Lessing's conclusions about aesthetics depend upon an implicit theory of semoitics. The book is interesting, though it risks anachronism, and it does seem to show that empiricist theories of language undergird discussions of aesthetics. Reading Wellbery's assessment of Lessing led me to purchase and read Clark's book on language since the obvious point of interest is whether or not an empiricist theory of language can adequately explain aesthetics, or if Wellbery's assessment provides the best explanation not only for Lessing's thought (on which point the book seems strong) but also for Lessing's shortcomings (on which point the book seems lacking).

Clark's book is broken into two sections, the first dealing with secular theories of language, in particular the school of logical positivism, which I believe Wellbery connects to Lessing's work via semoitics. The second section addresses Christian theories of language, in particular the irrationalist forms. The latter half of the book is exceptional, but has less bearing on the topic of discussion for this post, so I'll have to unfortunately relegate it to silence for now. But Clark's discussion and critique of empirical theories of language (and therefore knowledge) is remarkable for its lucidity and for its (in my assessment) devestating arguments against any empirical theories of knowledge.

In connecting Lessing's work on aesthetics to a semiotics of language, Wellbery notes in particular that Lessing (and others of his time) saw language as an evolutionary development. It began in the basic needs of human beings who were just coming into consciousness and grew every more advanced and precise into the present age (that is, the age of Lessing and his contemporaries) and would eventually advance human beings to a point at which language would be unecessary for the understanding of knowledge. This is the expectation because Lessing had a sensationalist epistemology--not that it was outragious (though in a way it is that too)--but by sensationalist, I mean that he understood knowledge to be achieved through the use of our senses. Aesthetics is that field of production and reception whereby images in both art (including sculpture) and poetry (including prose) direct our senses to apprehend the full knowledge of beauty. Lessing believed that language was more adequate than art for accomplishing this end, which demonstrates his semiotic foundations, or so argues Wellbery.

Clark demonstrates that sensational epistemologies are untenable because sensation is inescapably solipsistic and that ideas are logically prior and therefore determinate of language, signs, and the propositions that seem to be drawn from our sense experiences. Sensation is solipsistic because no one has the same sense exprience as anyone else. There may be similarities granted upon the similarities of our sense faculties, but he gives several examples to show that sense information cannot be generalized into a universal conclusion--thus it is logically invalid in every case and therefore cannot provide any certainty, which is necessary for knowledge to be knowledge of anything at all. Some may quibble with this so-called restrictive view of knowledge, but without certainty anything one wishes to call "knowledge" is really nothing more than opinion, however well-tested that opinion is, because probable conclusions always have exceptions, and where exceptions exist only opinions can be concluded. Clark illustrates this limitation of the senses with the example of color sensation. Take any two colors, say, red and green, and paint them over a strip of grey. The color over the grey portion will not be the same in appearance to the color not over the grey portion. Thus, the background makes a difference in what is perceived. Similarly, optical illusions create distortions in our apprehension, as do hallucinations, etc. Sensation is untenable as a resource for knowledge on this point alone.

But that is not the only point at which sensation (and thus empicism) falters. There is no justification for the claim that from or senses we extrapolate ideas. This critique is aimed directly at the evolutionary theory of language. Some argue that language determines meaning, that our knowledge is constituted by the language we use rather than being constituted by the ideas we possess. This critique also aims at the irrationalists (and more directly so), but it also applies to Lessing and any empiricist theory of language. Rather than summarize his argument here, I suggest to readers that they read Clark himself.

As it relates to aesthetics and the Christian, we ought to ask: how does Scripture define and mark out the boundaries for aesthetic representation and consumption? Is it simply a matter of personal taste or are there certain limitations? What is the proper understanding of aesthetics?

Volumes could no doubt be written on this subject, but I think a few positive statements can be taken as premises:

1. The ultimate purpose of any activity whether productive or preventative is to bring glory to God and enjoy Him forever.
___a. Therefore any aesthetic theory must consider this chief end of man as its telos, or final purpose.

2. If aesthetics experience is chiefly a matter of the senses then we ought to define it in terms of pleasure rather than responsibility--for it seems that Scripture does not dictate any positive commands for aesthetic production.
___a. As a sense experience and therefore inherently subjective, a measure of liberty is afforded to Christian aesthetic production and consumption.
___b. Reservations to this liberty include those matters of production and consumption explicitly or indirectly condemned by Scripture as regards the pursuit of pleasure.

Where goes from these premises will chiefly depend upon one's understanding of how to deduce principles from God's Word and thereby recognize what injunctions it places upon our pursuit of pleasure. For example, it seems that nude depictions for whatever purpose in visual art are questionable at best and more likely condemnable on the face of it. Why? The Bible's descriptions of nakedness are directly connected to shame--note here that shame is not predominantly related to or limited to sexuality, but to the loss of innocence as a result of sinfulness. As fallen beings our wills are now dragged into bondage to the flesh, that is, the passions of our senses. When babies are hungry they cry. When we expect pain we may flee in fear. When we look at our own bodies we desire a certain standard of appearance. Qohelet calls these things vanity and Paul refers to his body as a body of death. Creation, all of Creation, including our bodies, have been affected by the curse of the Fall. This does not mean that all positive goods have been irradicated, but it does means that all positive goods are mediated through our sinful condition. The redemption of our spirit in the Lord Jesus Christ has occurred at the Cross, but we still await the redemption of our bodies at His return and our hope in this redemption of our bodies is based upon Christ's own resurrection and appearance in the incorruptable body in which he appeared to the disciples prior to His ascension.

Not only in aesthetics then ought we to be mindful of our "natural" desires and "basic" needs, for we know as Christians that the natural is tainted by the Fall and will not be fully restored until Christ has finished placing all of His enemies in subjection to His righteous reign and returns to finish for good what God had decreed from eternity past.

In this light it seems that a theology of art must submit itself to the theology of sin and of man, in particular the noetic effects of sin upon humanity.

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