Academic notes.

A few words on my current studies. The Hume quote earlier can be put down to the fact that I started the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals today. I’ve decided to take my second set of supervisions on Hume. One reason for this is that I was struck by just how many philosophers easily declared him their favourite in the Philosophy Bites survey. The guy won by a mile. But it’s also to do with the fact that I’ve slowly gathered the impression that the man is a stand-out genius, and yet I barely touched his thought as an undergraduate. His skepticism about practical reason came up when I did ethics, and his influence on modern metaphysical discussions of causation, but I had little other exposure. So, filling a gap. Discovering a legend. Finally dabbling in some purer philosophy, whilst still leaving open the door to some further work on his ethics or politics or thoughts on religion. It’s a win all round.

I’m reading the Enquiry now, though, because I’m writing this term on what a virtue is and whether creativity counts as a (non-moral) one. I got a tip from a tutor that Hume analyses virtues quite widely, and acknowledges the broad implications of his view. So he seemed like a good place to start.

Two things have struck me already, though, unrelated to that aim. First, just how much his approach now appeals to me. I know Hume basically pioneered the naturalisms and non-cognitivisms that dominate meta-ethics to this day, and in the past I’ve been far more attracted by realism and Kant’s ethics. But the deeper I got into Kant, the less appealing the transcendental aspects became. Hume’s project is so fantastically demystifying – to attempt to ground ethical life in basic, uncontroversial facts about human psychology – that nowadays I can’t help but be attracted to it, and be awestruck by the vision. How can we even begin to fathom the genius of a twenty-something living in the 18th century who decided to do moral philosophy without reference to God or reason? He really had no precedent.

Second, why is Mill’s name and moral thought so much better known, and much more often attributed to utilitarianism? Hume’s essay on justice is, content-wise, practically identical to Mill’s, and it preceded Utilitarianism by over a century. The two men even write the same way: convoluted but eloquent sentences, packed with commas. This twist in my interests should reap great rewards.

The same can be said for my decision to pursue some aesthetics. I’m taking a class on it led by Scruton, who made a hugely impressive first impression upon me. Then I read some worrying interviews with him (like this one), and now my feelings towards him are a mess. Still, he seems to have a disdain for photography as an art form, shows no apparent interest in film and openly despises rock music. Given I intend to think about these questions in the context of the Sopranos and Springsteen, that will provide quite a contrast.

But I’m already hooked on a dozen issues that I guess I’d already entertained when contemplating art at some point in the past, but reading about them in formal papers over the last few days has helped to bring the questions into focus.

For instance, I’ve started to realise just how odd the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ is. There do seem to be cases in which we ‘like’ and express a preference for a piece of art on some basic level, whilst simultaneously affirming that we know the art we are enjoying is actually awful and devoid of value. But how is this possible? Why would our likes not track our aesthetic judgements? And does this prove that we cannot understand aesthetic judgements simply in terms of likes and dislikes, because there are cases in which they diverge? Or should we deny the notion of a guilty pleasure as an untenable paradox? If you enjoy a song, perhaps you evidently do value it after all.

In a fortnight I’ll be presenting on the question of why art that depicts immorality is so valuable. One of my favourite films is GoodFellas, but it’s evidently a two and a half hour glorification of violence, theft, adultery – all the acts and character attributes that I wholly disapprove of amongst real people. But why does that disapproval not translate into a repulsion towards the art? Why, when we know it’s not real, are we attracted?

Similar questions arise about why we tend to enjoy horror and tragedy as genres. If the reading for this one goes well, I’ll probably turn it into an essay over Easter.

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