The Hand Experiment

hand-stop

So I’ve promised to talk about what matters to me in the study of the arts. My fundamental idea here is a simple one: what we experience is always more than we can put into words.

Place a hand on the table in front of you. (Go on, do it.) Feel the coolness or warmth of it, the texture, the feeling of heat transfer as your hand becomes cooler and the table surface becomes warmer. Do you feel the sensations of all five fingers? The ball of your thumb? The palm? Notice how your hand and arm feel in connection to the rest of your body. Widen your focus to all you hear, smell, and see. Do this for a minute or so, not thinking about what you’re doing but just focusing on what it feels like to be you for a while. Stop reading this and pay attention to your experience. I’ll wait.

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OK, now describe to yourself what it is you are doing. You probably just said something like “I am sitting here with my hand on a table.” At the moment you articulate this thought (out loud or just in your head), you have drawn a boundary between the time before utterance and the time after. What is the relationship between the time before and the time after? The time before swarms with the fractal complexity of lived and embodied processes, experienced at a particular place and in a particular time.[1] The utterance “I am sitting here with my hand on a table” extracts from that teeming moment a propositional meaning unbound to particular place and time.

There is a good news/bad news situation here. The good news is, a propositional meaning is something that can easily be communicated to another person. It can be taught. (A question for the test: what did Phil Ford ask you to do? A: put my hand on the table.) The bad news is that the propositional meaning is only a shrunken, bleached, desiccated husk of the experience that gave rise to it. Perhaps you enjoyed the feeling of your hand on the cool table surface, the moment of quiet when you could stop thinking and just be who you are—but the bald declaration of hand-on-table makes the whole enterprise seem a little silly. There are so many more important things we could be doing than putting our hands on tables! And while you might disagree with the tendentious way I just put it, if you did the hand experiment you know that these two things (call them “experience” and “propositional meaning”) are in no ways the same. Something is lost in the transition from the time before utterance to the time after.

In our present-day public discussion of education it is commonly assumed that this “something lost” is nothing very important. We are at a time when propositional knowledge of the testable sort is honored more than at any time in memory. Positivism, the long-discredited philosophy that seeks to understand the world only through empirically-derived facts verified by intersubjective inquiry (and to label all other kinds of knowledge as “nonsense” about which we should remain silent) has made a comeback. As my father liked to say, bad ideas never die.[2] When legislators, parents, and the Neoliberal concern trolls in the pages of The New Republic demand that their kids learn things with a measurable material value—going so far as to suggest that colleges be ranked by the salaries earned by their recent graduates—the arts and humanities don’t fare very well. What are they for? How do you measure it? Unless you can make a lot of money at the arts (and for the most part you can’t), the present-day neo-positivist can find no value in them.

Advocates for the arts are placed in the faintly ridiculous position of having to argue for the arts in neo-positivist terms—in terms of what measurable utility the arts might offer. So arts advocates will point to how music study leads to improved test scores, improved cognitive performance in certain laboratory situations, and so on. But when we advocates of the arts and humanities speak among ourselves, we acknowledge that such arguments miss the larger point. Look back at the previous paragraph and replace the hand on the table with an eye on a painting or an ear on a composition: the principle is the same. Aesthetic experience is never only the flat propositional meanings we can extract from it. And while that aesthetic experience can be conscripted in the service of politics, economy, good citizenship, test-taking, and so on, on its own it isn’t for anything, except itself.

At an earlier point in our history, aesthetic experience as such didn’t need to be defended; it was simply taken for granted that the arts are good for you, somehow. This good-faith assumption has now been withdrawn. In certain obvious ways, this is a disaster for the humanities, because it is becoming clear that whatever benefits are conferred by the study of the arts, they are not something that can be described in neopositivist terms. We are all in the position of little kids who have been running around and pretending to be dinosaurs (rarr! RAOWRRR!!) and having fun and suddenly we’re caught up short by a loud, harsh grownup voice—what do you think you’re doing?—and suddenly we don’t know how to say what it is we were doing, except that it was really fun. “Fun doesn’t put dinner on the table. Fun doesn’t get you a job. How is pretending to be a dinosaur going to get you a job? Answer me that.” We stand there, looking at our sneakers, vaguely ashamed to have been caught in the middle of our game, unable to look this stern adult in the eye and defend it in the terms on which he is insisting. Back to the classroom, then, back to drills and tests and measurable utility. Fun time’s over.


[1] Your time is not my time. I just did this in my living room at 7:14 on a Thursday morning, November 14, 2013. Where are you?

[2] My father was a philosopher specializing in Ryle, Ayer, Wittgenstein, Russell, and Quine, and if he were alive he would appreciate the irony of his artsy son appropriating his own expression to describe the ideas he worked on for most of his professional life. But my Dad, a good amateur clarinetist and gifted landscape photographer, would have been astonished and dismayed to see such ideas applied to the arts. He always had an eye for the follies of philosophy, the ways that philosophical ideas can work mischief when applied outside their proper orbit, which is why he liked to say that bad ideas never really die—an idea may be pretty enough on the page but become bad when it is set loose on the world.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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9 Responses to The Hand Experiment

  1. Benjamin Korstvedt says:

    Wow, thanks for this really brilliant post, Phil. Your hand experiment makes me think of the opening of Bloch’s “Spirit of Utopia” with its moments of aloneness: ” I am by the pitcher. Thus it leads inside, stands before the wall in the room. The wall is green, the mirror is golden, the window is black, the lamp burns brightly.” And like Bloch you are concerned with recuperating the nature of experience, now not in collapsing Wilhelmine Germany but in high neo-liberal America. And you both say quite literally: “we have unlearned to play”

    I have been thinking/feeling these things more and more strongly for the past couple of years, but cannot articulate them nearly a effectively as you have done here. You are surely correct that the value of the arts and the humanities necessarily involves the irreducible importance of aesthetic experience and that particular surplus of non-verbal meaning that can hardly be defined, let alone quantified, hardly even spoken about within the intellectual regime of neo-liberalism. Becoming sociology’s or poli sci’s kid brother or sister cannot sustain us. The answer offered recently in the New Republic by Leon Wieseltier (a despiser of Bloch, appropriately enough!), that the humanities are “the new counter-culture” and should proudly wave this freak flag, might appeal to the old hippies among us (and even more to those who missed out on being hippies since they were nerds), but is a dead end and probably means already living in Jurassic Park.

    I feel that the epochal questions that we humanists face now involve rethinking how we engage with those irreducible moments of aesthetic experience, which are now themselves rapidly changing before our very eye and ears, and how to articulate and cultivate them within this age of networked consciousness. Or at least this is much of what preoccupies me these days. . . .

    –Ben

  2. philphord says:

    Hi Ben! Thanks for your comment. Nice to know there’s someone who thinks about these things too! And thanks for that Bloch quote — I have to read him (I confess I have been put off by his formidable reputation for obscurity). There is probably a blog post in Wieseltier’s “new counterculture” argument. Like you, I have my suspicions about it, though I certainly welcomed it on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But at this point in history the ground is littered with the corpses of dead countercultures, and indeed the very idea of such a thing itself now conjures up what Jacobin magazine called the “fucking hipster show” — and therein lies another blog post.

  3. grahamlarkin says:

    Phil what a great beginning. I can’t wait to see what body part features in the next installment. In the meantime I made you (yes, really) this piece of pedagogical agitprop
    http://grahamlarkin.info/2013/11/20/bacon-on-aphorisms/
    to further round out your reading list. As ever, -G

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  5. Thank you for this wonderful post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but it is difficult to articulate, precisely because it’s impossible to translate the value of a work of art into words. Arts and humanities have become so undervalued. All I see in the papers are articles screaming about the importance of STEM. And every single one of the these articles talks about the future jobs and earning that STEM students will have, as though human experience revolves only around money and quantifiable things.

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