Aesthetic spontaneity: a theory of action based on affective responsiveness

Dissertation, University of Hawai'i (2004)
Abstract
The major claims of this dissertation are that there is a discrete mode of action that we can identify as spontaneity, that spontaneity in this sense is fundamentally based on affectivity, and that it is most accurately described as aesthetic spontaneity. Aesthetic spontaneity is a mode of action overlooked in Western philosophy but prized and cultivated in Far Eastern thought and lately described in detail by psychologists. The qualifier "aesthetic" is added to "spontaneity" to distinguish it from the spontaneity often referred to in Western metaphysics, particularly in reference to free will. In contemporary philosophy, action has most often been analyzed in relation to intention in an attempt to uncover its factors of incipience, with relatively little attention given to modes of action. This dissertation will address such issues as intention and free will but in a peripheral way as they pertain to particular historical topics under discussion. The focus instead will be on understanding the modality of spontaneity. The earliest extensive account of aesthetic spontaneity is found in the early Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, roughly contemporaneous with Plato. In order to understand Zhuangzi's account, however, on must first confront two outstanding issues in his work, both of which bear on his understanding of affectivity. Zhuangzi's terminology can often be opaque, and one of his most notoriously difficult terms is translated by A. C. Graham as "essential" and by Victor Mair as "emotion." The term in Chinese is qing 情, which in later Chinese thought unequivocally bears the meaning of emotion but at this early date means something more akin to an environmental affectivity. In Chapter 1, I delineate this meaning in some detail by looking at the uses of qing in a range of early Chinese works, with the aim of demonstrating definitively that the term does, contra Graham, have affective connotations and that they are essential to understanding Zhuangzi's notion of aesthetic spontaneity. On the whole, Zhuangzi's attitude toward affectivity appears ambiguous, which is the second issue I approach. On the one hand, he advocates an open acceptance, even an active fascination, with all natural transformations, including those of an individual's body, but on the other hand, he appears to suggest that affective transformations should be dampened or overcome. In order to speak authoritatively about Zhuangzi's notion of affectivity, this apparent contradiction requires elucidation. In the second chapter, I begin a fuller exploration of affectivity, beginning with a neglected side of Plato. First, drawing on the work of Suzanne Langer, Alfred North Whitehead, and Robert Solomon, I expand the notion of affectivity to include all cognitive activity in an attempt to reintegrate the Platonic body and mind. At first glance, this may appear to be an impossible task, but I find a significant amount of evidence in works other than the Republic (the work usually chosen for examination of his psychology) to support this claim, and by delineating a notion of aesthetic affectivity going back to the original meaning of aesthetics in Baumgarten that includes all sensibilities of the human being, I am able to reconstruct a notion of an integrated self in Plato that contradicts Charles Taylor's divided Platonic self. After coming to a physiological understanding of aesthetic affectivity in Plato, I turn to Aristotle for an understanding of the need for cultivated aesthetic affectivity. While the integrated body and mind is receiving quite a bit of attention in contemporary philosophy, the notion of self-cultivation is not. After reviewing the evidence for such a need in Aristotle, I turn to Richard Schusterman's pragmatic aesthetics to demonstrate how the notion of self-cultivation can still contribute to a robust contemporary philosophical anthropology, and this understanding will contribute to the notion of cultivating aesthetic spontaneity in Chapter 5. In Chapter 3, I undertake a nuanced definition of "spontaneity" by going back to Zhuangzi. I analyze a significant number of passages of Zhuangzi that center on descriptions of spontaneous activity and distill out aspects that may serve as a heuristic definition of "spontaneity", namely, holistic fluency. I identify wholeness as entailing processes of collection (calm focus) and shedding (of distractions, consideration of rewards, discursive knowledge, selfishness, the external form of an object, etc.). Fluency involves responsiveness and ease and is derivative of wholeness. The purpose of delineating a definition of spontaneity is to be able to work with it as a useful philosophical concept, something that has not been possible up to now. In this chapter, I engage the work of Angus Graham, who has done the most with the notion of spontaneity, and of Hans Georg Gadamer, comparing his work on ease with a Zhuangzian notion. After defining spontaneity, I canvass the history of Western philosophy in an attempt to find terms of our tradition that may be useful in incorporating a Zhuangzian notion of spontaneity into contemporary philosophy. There is also the need to clear the air of other uses of the term "spontaneity" that could create confusion. I begin with notions of automaton, physis, and hexis in Aristotle, move on to Chryssipus and Epicurus, then because talk of spontaneity is dominated by the free will vs. determinism debate for the next 1,500 or more years, I skip to Rousseau. With Rousseau, and later Mill, I demonstrate how an early paradox of spontaneity persists, suggesting that this paradox rests on certain metaphysical assumptions and how one cannot speak of Zhuangzian spontaneity under those assumptions. I also entertain Kant and McDowell's notions of cognitive spontaneity and a related notion in Sartre. Schiller's and Gadamer's notions of play are also considered. Most important in all these considerations, perhaps, is grasping the contemporary, scientific understanding of emergent order. By understanding spontaneity in thoroughly naturalistic terms and by clearing the air of the roadblock of free-will, I pave the way for a viable theoretic understanding of aesthetic spontaneity. Unlike popular notions of spontaneity, Daoist spontaneity involves more than impulsiveness. In Chapter 4, I explain that the aesthetic of spontaneity relies on a notion of experience that arises out of complex interaction with our environment that is conceptualized by Daoists as the chaos of the inchoate, a primal disorder that is the seat of potent creativity. Through the Daoists Laozi and Zhuangzi, and drawing on John Dewey's theory of experience, I show how aesthetic experience relies on a reservoir of inchoate potential in achieving spontaneous action. I also draw on John Dewey in formulating the role of habit in spontaneity. Habit can be conceived as a trigger or spring that releases spontaneous actions, but Dewey also says that there must be more to spontaneous action than habit. I clarify this issue and take preliminary steps to providing a resolution. Continuing with the issue the theory of spontaneous action from earlier chapters, in chapter 5, I offer a fully conceptualized account of spontaneous action. First, I reiterate the relationship of spontaneity to affectivity by explaining how affectivity understood as responsiveness culminates in an ideal that we call spontaneity. I then offer a new categorization of the arts into "active" and "non-active", a distinction that brings into focus the fact that the aesthetic value of some arts relies on the actions in the process of the creation or performance of a work. These works cannot be experienced apart from actions, and it is the spontaneity of the actions, I argue, that contributes to the success of the works.
Keywords Spontaneity  Action  Daoism  Zhuangzi  Aristotle  Schiller  Chaos  Action Syntax  Freedom  Qing
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