Immanuel Kant’s account of beauty

May 17, 2015




We have been asked to explain Kant’s account of beauty, so here goes.

Kant starts off from the idea that the sensation of beauty is both subjective and universal.  It is subjective because it belongs to the subject (perceiver) rather than the object.  In particular, there are no rules that will make the object beautiful to us if we do not perceive it to be so.  It is universal because the statement ‘X is beautiful’ carries the implication ‘I like X and you ought to like X’.  This is different from the normal situation of liking ice-cream for instance where there is no insistence that anyone else should like it.

So how can something–a kind of pleasure–be both subjective and universal.  In Kant’s thought, pleasure is seen as springing from meeting some need (like hunger for instance).  So what need are we talking about here?  Kant suggests that it is the need for understanding.  But beauty is not about understanding as such–Kant gives the example of an innkeeper’s son in a bush imitating a nightingale, which song ceases to be beautiful once he is found out.  Instead it is the promise of understanding that beauty provides.

So that explains how the sensation of beauty can be both subjective and universal.  By analogy with hunger, there is no particular difficulty with saying that the catalogue of things that are beautiful will be different in different times and places, since what will satisfy your hunger (which is surely something real) will depend on what you are used to and what you’ve eaten recently.

Ingenious, or what?



A 3 month Biblical Hebrew course in Israel

May 17, 2015

Gratuitous picture of Magdala


We have received the following query:

I’m wondering if you could recommend a 3 month Biblical Hebrew course in Israel…I have the time from  July to Sep available this year.

My first response would be that this may be confusing the end with the means–if you want to learn Biblical Hebrew or anything else the best thing is to get on with it here and now.  Do what you can, with what you have, where you are–a sentiment famously endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt.  If you are an undergraduate doing a year abroad, then the university will try to make you learn something just by being there, but in other circumstances it’s all a bit more uncertain.

As for answering the question as posed, I suspect that if you want a particular set period the best thing would be to find a private tutor.  You could look at craigslist for instance and there is a listing of Israeli free ads sites here. Even better–post an ad yourself saying what you’re looking for.

As to actually existing courses, you could try the Biblical Language Center–Randall Buth did inform me that they would be doing courses in Israel in 2015, so you could write and ask him about that.  There is also a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Again if I were you I would write to the coordinator, Steven Fassberg and ask if he had any suggestions.   The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a page about English programs in Israeli universities and you can also write to them.

So my advice would be:

i)  make sure that you are clear about the what and the how in your intentions;

ii)  ask around!

About learning Ancient Greek

May 4, 2015

That answers one question…

I have received the following query from Juan Coderch

Then, I feel curiosity about what you have done: how did you study Greek/Latin? As a university degree, or just for personal enjoyment And what books did you use, what methodologies, etc.? 

When I was a student studying Physics I took up Greek in my spare time.  I think the reasons for this were:

i)  curiosity as to what the Greek letters in maths really wanted to do;

ii)  the ‘real’ students of Russian (my first love, which I’d also studied independently while in the sixth form) could go to Russia, while I couldn’t–the same didn’t apply to Ancient Greece;

iii)  I’d got bored with doing the same kind of thing (maths, physics) all the time;

iv)  I was intrigued by the word ‘boustrophedon’, which I’d come across somewhere.

So I applied myself to the Reading Greek series, which had just come out.  After that, I spent something like 3 months sitting up at night reading the Greek text of the Iliad. And after that I stopped being a student and for a time I lived in Newcastle and honed my skills in living without apparent means of support and also went to some evening classes given by Janet Watson at the university.

Some years later my interest was rekindled when I came across a book about Heinrich Schliemann and I was struck by the idea that you could be both a practical person–in fact, a swindler on a titanic scale–and interested in Greek.  I went to some of the reading groups that City Lit used to have in the evenings, and certainly benefited from the helpful and supportive approach of Barbara Goward.  I also went to some Greek summer schools over the years and more recently I’ve been to some courses at Madingley Hall.

I’ve given some comments about teaching Ancient Greek here.  I think that I would add the following points from the learner side:

i)  the only real reason for doing it is because you can’t not do it–others will end in disappointment;

ii)  it shares the refractory nature of (for instance) physics–it never becomes easy, but with effort you can make progress and you’re all right;

iii)  it’s helpful to know something about modern linguistics and in particular phonetics;

iv)  it certainly helps if you can read/recite it so it sounds like an actual language used for communication;

iv)  I think it makes it less frightening if you start off by thinking of it as a European literature with some slightly complicated grammar–not some form of message from another star;

v)  at some stage you have to have it in your head rather than on the page, even if this can be frightening in a class;

vi)  as ever in language learning–do something every day!

About methodologies:  I have some sympathy with Lenin, who apparently said about learning foreign languages that you should first of all learn all the grammar and all the vocabulary, then worry about fripperies like idiom.  As I say elsewhere, there are good systematic reasons why Greek grammar (and words) are the way they are, and again it becomes less frightening if you know something about them.  If I was starting off knowing what I know now, I might well go for something more formal than Reading Greek, but it was fine at the time.

Greek Drama Work Experience

April 27, 2015


We have received the following query:

I’m looking for a theatre company that’s putting on a classical play to shadow and help out with (as a free stage-hand, for example) in August. I’ve adapted and directed a production of Aristophanes’ Frogs at Winchester, and I know how to use basic sound and light equipment. Would you by any chance know how I could get in touch with any of the directors on your list?

So let’s try to give an answer without doing too much work.  If it was me, I would try Theatro Technis or the More London crowd. Apart from those, the people who have emailed me about Greek drama productions they were promoting or producing are Tania Batzoglou, Kaitlin Argeaux, Niamh de Valera, Kris Hallett, Jessica Ruano, Briony Rawle.

This is the kind of thing that might have interested Cressida Ryan when she did Classics Outreach at Oxford; I don’t know about her successor Mai Musie.

The rest may well be silence at least from me, but a friend on Facebook has kindly suggested Try the Globe for the Oresteia – they will be rehearsing through August for first performance on 29th …  I would suggest making contact through the theatre – try twitter @The_Globe and include the hashtag #Oresteia.  Or go straight to the director:

I say:  the Globe makes extensive use of volunteer labour & sees itself as having a definite educational mission, so that’s pretty astute.

….as a long shot, he could contact this lot in Poland:  They have a ‘Summer Intensive’ which isn’t exactly what he is looking for but they have several Greek plays in their repertoire. My son went there one Summer and worked for them for a few years after …

I say: Dziękuję!

A further suggestion would be David Stuttardhe puts on lots of Greek plays.

If one was a postgrad, and if it was a couple of weeks ago and so before the closing date, there would also be a Summer School called  “Challenging Limits: Performances of Ancient Drama, Controversies and Debates”.

Aesthetics: Art and Anti-Art

April 22, 2015

We present below the outline of this course at City Lit.  It looks not unchallenging–we shall see…

Kant (1724-1804) wrote three books with’critique’in the title: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). His central problem is to explain our ability to act according to a moral assessment of a way of life. In short, how is enlightenment possible? The first Critique is a study of the limits of knowledge. The second is a study of the intelligibility of moral judgments. The third is a study of the relationship between science and morality. Oddly, Kant devotes the first part of the third Critique to what he calls pure aesthetic judgments. The influence of his analysis of them – of his ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ – extends well beyond the limits of academic philosophy.

In making our basic assumptions about art and beauty explicit, Kant sets some central problems not only for philosophical aesthetics, but also for the sociology and anthropology of art. Accordingly, we are going to be considering the ideas of four theorists: the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), the critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and the anthropologist Alfred Gell (1945-1997). All of them have used Kant to clarify their aims. So we need to begin with the basics: Kant’s
analysis of our ways of talking about objects of taste.

21 April

Unlike a person’s reasons for doing a course on something else, your reasons for doing a course on aesthetics are examples of what we’ll be talking about. This is bound to be confusing at times.

28 April

Kant draws a crucial distinction between agreeableness and beauty. To claim that an object is agreeable is just to claim that it gives me pleasure. To claim that an object is beautiful is to claim that it ought to give me pleasure
(regardless of whether it actually does). The point of Kant’s ‘critique’ of aesthetic judgment is to make sense of the distinction.

5 May

Kant regards the pleasure of aesthetic reflection as a kind of satisfaction. An object gives us pleasure if it allows us to do something we want to do. And a beautiful object gives us pleasure. The question, then, is what a beautiful allows us to do. Kant’s basic answer is that it allows us to exercise our imagination unrestricted by rules.

12 May

Kant’s aesthetics anticipates discussion in twentieth-century philosophy of the problem of practical understanding. The problem he sets himself is to explain the idea of an indeterminate norm of taste. It anticipates the problem
of Wittgenstein’s famous discussion of rules and rule-following.

19 May

Our tendency to regard to aesthetic judgments as merely subjective may be due to a misconception of the relationship between thought and language. Heidegger denies that the subject is first of all a kind of spectator and insists on the primacy of practical activity. His analysis of ‘being-inthe-world’ lays the ground for a different way of thinking about aesthetic judgments.

26 May

Gadamer denies that the objectivity of scientific method is the only kind there is. In the popular imagination, science puts everything to test. lt also seems to be the opposite of aesthetic reflection. There is no science of beauty. But there may still be another kind of objectivity, the objectivity of interpretations
of works of art.

2 June

Some of Adorno’s readers have accused him of elitism. He draws a distinction between authentic ad and the products of the culture industry. Authentic art reveals the truth about society. It does so not by representing
society, but by being impossible to represent. Unlike the products of the culture industry, it helps us think the unthinkable about the modern world.

9 June

There is culture – in the anthropological sense of the word – wherever there are human beings. There is as much of it in the practices of a so-called primitive society as there is in our own, and as much at a performance of
stand up comedy as there is at a performance of Swan Lake. This makes cultural refinement a possible topic of anthropological investigation.

16 June

Bourdieu takes aesthetics out of the hands of philosophers and puts it into the hands of sociologists. He offers “a scientific answer to the old questions of Kant’s critique of judgment, by seeking in the structure of the social
classes the basis of systems of classification which structure our perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment.”

23 June

Anthropologists have struggled to make sense of the idea of ethnographic art. Are museum exhibits artworks if, for the members of a so-called primitive society, there is no equivalent of our category of art? Gell reverses the
problem. Instead of contemplating the artefacts of an exotic culture as artworks, he considers uses to which artworks are put. His central idea is that artworks are agents.

30 June

In your opinion, is John Cage’s 4’33” worth taking seriously? ls it a piece of
music? ls it a work of art? ls it (or has a performance of it ever been)

7 July


Bypass, Peckham Multiplex 15 April

April 15, 2015



There were three diverting moments in this film.  To start off with, the manager declined to recognise it as a film he was showing and had to get out a flyer to check that it was indeed on.  Then, since the film started immediately and with no brightly-lit scenes, all three of us in the audience had a fun time trying to find a place to live in total darkness.  The third one came at the end of the film….

In theory the protagonist Tim went through a hundred minutes of misery (his father had already deserted the family) as his brother was banged up, his mother died of cancer, his attempts to make a living through petty crime fell further and further short, his sister skipped school and fell into bad company, his girlfriend fell pregnant when he didn’t want to be a dad, and he persisted in robbing houses while developing meningitis (bad move that one)…

But I was baffled more than anything because while the action was supposed to be set in Gateshead, the characters acted and sounded like would-be hard men and other inhabitants from a council estate in Oxfordshire (which is the background of director Duane Hopkins I think).  You could tell it actually was filmed in Gateshead because you enjoyed some views from the south bank of the Tyne and learned about the family’s history as steelworkers and would-be footballers.  More convincingly, it had to be Tyneside because all the colour was washed-out, as in I am Nasrine.

Leaving aside the facts that the characters were actor-beautiful and well-spoken, and that their material conditions of life looked rather comfortable, I was disappointed to be deprived of a spiritual return to the North-East.  But nostalgia was satisfied with a fine display of the cliches of 1970s Soviet cinematography, especially the departed beckoning meaningfully from behind net curtains at the edge of the screen or striding off silently into the distance, depending on gender.  In fact, the scene at the end where Tim decided not to die in Intensive Care but instead to witness the birth of his child was rather good, and would have been more effective if we’d been allowed some saturated colour for contrast as at the end of Andrei Rublev.


A Chaste Maid In Cheapside, Rose Bankside 5 March

March 6, 2015


The box office still had a poster up advertising ‘A Trick To Catch The Old One’ from about a year ago, and this production inhabited the same kind of territory with music and costumes suggesting a generic 1950s. Unfortunately, rather too much had been removed from the original text for the remainder to be viable–one kept on waiting for Yellowhammer’s son Tim and the Welsh ‘heiress’ to appear, and large amounts of satire on contemporary mores were omitted, along with the corresponding characters.  Rather than fitting into a range of satirical types, Allwit the professionally complaisant husband was left like a frozen minor planet vainly orbiting a remote and faded star.

It was not clear–at least to me–that Moll Yellowhammer fell ill after being drenched in the Thames; it seemed more like a nervous collapse due to thwarted elopement, and the trick by which the lovers overcame the opposition of their elders went by so rapidly–like a telegraph pole going past a train–that we didn’t realise that the play was ended until the cast stood around sheepishly waiting for applause.

The acting had a lot of ‘get into position–pause–act’ and our Touchwood Senior did wave his hands about a great deal. That could have been an ironic reference to Freud’s remark about male gesticulation being associated with impotence, but I don’t think it was.

The promised 90 minutes’ running time turned out to be 75 minutes, but even so one observed a certain amount of surreptitious consulting of watches in the audience.

Better luck next time!

Ukraine: The War for Truth

February 26, 2015
Awaiting the off

Awaiting the off

This lecture by Timothy Snyder, well-known as the author of Bloodlands, attracted a large and attentive audience.

Setting the historical background, Professor Snyder said there was no current of Europena history that had not affected Ukraine while Muscovy had gone its own way as the successor of the Tatar Khanate.  More recently, Ukrainians saw the Great Famine of 1933 as something directed against their country specifically, while for Russians it had been a common misfortune; and WWII had seen the whole of Ukraine occupied as against 5% of the territory of the present-day Russian Federation.

Since 2013, the Russian media had portrayed events in Ukraine in terms of WWII–for Russians, WWII had been something that largely happened elsewhere.

The present situation could be traced back to the events of 2011/12 in Russia.  Anti-regime protests had led to the Government turning away from the middle classes and appealing to the broader masses.  This had been accompanied by Eurasianism in foreign policy, comprising a combination of conservatism and hostility to the EU.  Yanukovych responding to pressure to turn away from the EU had led first of all to the Maidan, and then to a ‘bourgeois revolution’ among the Russian-speaking middle classes of Kiev, who saw their path obstructed by a glass ceiling of corruption.  Those killed had been representative of the mixed local population.

Russian tactics had been based on reversed asymmetrical warfare, where as the stronger side they had used approaches such as deliberately drawing fire onto populated areas so as to alienate the populace that were normally the province of the weaker.  But they portrayed themselves as heroic resisters of Fascism.

The Russian leadership had applied strategic relativism in for instance relativizing the existence of Ukraine as a state.  Since the EU was strong and Russia was weak, they had tried to bring it down to their level by breaking up the connections that held it together.  Edward Snowden had been employed at the Transatlantic level, but the heart of the strategy was to break up the EU.  This had involved seeking client states such as Cyprus and Hungary, supporting separatists like UKIP and calling for a recount in the Scottish referendum, supporting the far right, attempting to control access to hydrocarbons and to undermine a Common Energy Policy for the EU.

Addressing the question of whether civil society actually existed, professor Snyder asked his audience Were you paid off to be here?  The Russian authorities did not believe in the existence of civil society as a concept, which did not hinder them from preventing it in practice.

The philosophy of applied postmodernism had a number of elements.  Making up things that were not true hardly required further comment while liberation from context had been pioneered by Fox News.  Things they did especially well were political marketing and organised cacophony.  Political marketing meant that different audiences received tailored messages (‘Ukraine is gay/fascistic/anti-Semitic/part of worldwide Jewish conspiracy’).  Organised cacophony meant improvising a range of discourses in response to an event such as the shooting-down of MH17 so as to muddy the waters until the event had lost its impact. The motto was you can’t trust anybody because everybody lies equally. The consequence of this was that the Western powers had allowed themselves not to know what was going on in Ukraine and so, for instance, had failed to re-route civilian air traffic.

Certain types of truth were important to maintain. Aristotelian non-contradiction meant that Ukraine could not be both Jewish and anti-Semitic. Legal truth meant that a state had an existence as a legal entity–for instance, Canada certainly used the same language as the US but was a separate state on the basis of law. Existential truth meant that you could take a risk and get killed, your existence was authentic and not that of a hired extra. Social truth meant that you could try things out with people you trusted and form civil society.

Russian TV used the methods of British TV, one could not speak of different civilizations. Rather it was a question of what you thought existed: one the one hand you had the state with supra-national organisations above it and civil society below; on the other hand it was the state and a variety of charades.

Ukrainian propaganda was weak, while Russian propaganda was effective. While the war on Ukraine was going worse than expected (there had been no spontaneous uprisings in Donetsk or Lugansk) the war on the EU was going rather better than expected.

As  to What should we do? Europeans should beware of American-style optimism whereby democracy would effortlessly spring up everywhere.  The two or more generations of peace, prosperity and freedom they had enjoyed were a historical anomaly and needed to be carefully guarded.  Russian propaganda had no traction in the states that had been subject to the  Molotov-Ribbentrop pact:  Poland, Latvia, Lithuania,  Estonia.

Oligarchy and the rule of law did not sit well together, but the West needed to accept sovereignty and work with states like Ukraine as they were so as to make progress.

Another account of this lecture may be found here.

Try Books! read in 2014

February 20, 2015
Stoner 9 8 0
The Road 8.5 3 0
We Need New Names 8 0 0
This Boy 8 2 1
Under The Skin 8 1 1
Gone Girl 7 1 1
Old Filth 7 1 0
A Winter in the Hills 7 0 2
The Children Act 7 0 0
Telling Liddy 6.5 0 0
Almost English 6 0 3
Seizure 5 0 5

The table shows the books read by Try Books! in 2014 and their median scores, along with the number of times someone gave it their highest or lowest rating for the year (remember ties!)


John Williams and Stoner are the clear winners here, while Erica Wagner and Seizure were rather less successful.  But it was A Winter in the Hills  that caused the real excitement, of course.

Seizure Other
Stoner Howard, Jo Aruni, Christine, Dick, Heather, Judy, Linda
Other Jocelyn, Stephanie, Suzannah Vicky

The table above classifies people according to whether Stoner and Seizure were indeed their best and worst books respectively. As ever, this was complicated by not everyone having read (scored) every book, but Howard and Jo seem to be representing the mainstream with Vicky as the rebel.

Warwick University Ltd, 45 years on…

February 1, 2015


On a recent visit to Warwick University, I was told that it was now beholden to large employers in financial services and the students came from independent schools. And indeed, on the bus to Leamington Spa they were talking of Credit Suisse in reverential terms.

All of that reminded me of Warwick University Ltd by E P Thompson, which I pictured as condemning the domination of the university by the local motor industry.  A 2014 reissue has allowed me to check my impressions against the original, and it turns out I was broadly right.  Of course, nowadays something that provided large-scale employment for locals and non-graduates would nowadays be hailed as miraculous.  Thompson never really manages to overcome his patrician disdain for the process of making a living, which he manages to calumniate under the name of profiteering, while his doubts about the academic content of Business Studies would also apply to Medicine and Law for example.

It was interesting to see that the name ‘Warwick’ was chosen to extract funding from Warwickshire County Council and in those far-off days students who received a grant also felt that the world should be organised according to their wishes.

So in the end capitalism triumphed in spite of a couple of sit-ins at Warwick and the world where you had to be white, male, and a smoker disappeared too.


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