The Role of Epistemic Virtue in the Realization of Basic Goods

Preston Bradley Hall (Chicago). Photo by Chris Smith.



Note: Anne Baril was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life 2016 Summer Seminar. This post is an excerpt of a piece originally published June 6, 2017, on the blog Imperfect Cognitions, where Baril summarizes a paper she recently published in Episteme.

Click the above link to Imperfect Cognitions for the full post.

Getting clear about the nature of epistemic virtue is an important first step not only for empirical investigations, but for philosophical investigations as well. Is there some more-than- 
merely-instrumental relationship between epistemic virtue and well-being, or between epistemic virtue and some contributor to well-being, that can be uncovered through philosophical, rather than empirical, investigation?

This is one of the questions I seek to answer in my work. What I have found is that epistemic virtue–on at least one plausible interpretation–is importantly implicated in the realization of some of the goods that are widely believed to be instrumental to, or even constitutive of, well-being: goods such friendship, autonomy, and aesthetic experience. There is (what I call) a constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and many such goods.

Take, for example, aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, understood as a general type of good, is realized in token instances – for example, in viewing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It is not a passive experience that just ‘washes over one’; it consists in a certain kind 
of active engagement. It consists in charitably interpreting the work; transcending one’s 
familiar or default cognitive standpoint to open-mindedly engage with it (Baehr 2011: 
103); honestly assessing it; confronting the darker parts of human nature; not being overly 
influenced by others’ opinions about the work. What one is doing, in part, in the active experience that is aesthetic experience, is exercising epistemic virtue – for example, intellectual charity, open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual autonomy. In this sense there is constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and aesthetic experience.

What exactly the upshot of this is for well-being depends on one’s account of well-being. But finding extensive overlap between epistemic virtue and goods like aesthetic experience supports the view that that epistemic virtue is an integral part of the kind of personality that is well-suited to realize the most important goods in one’s life. And this, in turn, goes a long way towards showing that–despite the anecdotal and empirical evidence cited at the beginning of this entry–epistemic virtue’s net contribution to a person’s well-being is a positive one. Epistemic virtue makes us better off.


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Anne Baril is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.  She has research interests in ethics, epistemology, social and political philosophy, and their intersection.  In her current central research project, she argues that epistemic virtue is both integral to the development of moral character and a constitutive contributor to well-being. 

Kerry James Marshall’s School of Beauty

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“Bang”. Kerry James Marshall, 1994. Image from Artsy.

Can looking at art make us better people? Can art teach us to recognize in others and ourselves a humanity all too often constrained by narrow cultural definitions of beauty and social worth?

 

Painter Kerry James Marshall has long believed that art has an important social function, and that as a black artist, he should focus on black representation rather than abstraction. In his current retrospective exhibition MASTRY, here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 25, his decision to engage with European “Old Masters” provokes in viewers recognition that the absence of black figures from Western art history is a moral loss as well as an aesthetic one. By insisting upon black representation and putting figures in dialogue with the great works of European art that exclude them, he also challenges viewers—as the best artists do—to see art, and each other, differently.

 

In his paintings, black figures challenge viewers to see them. In stark contrast to the Old Masters, who rarely use black in their palettes, Marshall paints his figures with pure black paint, mostly unmixed with other colors except for some highlights where light softly contours foreheads, noses, and lips. Eyes and teeth are sometimes rendered in dazzling whites, or muted greys. Marshall’s engagement with seeing and being seen was sparked, he says in a video accompanying his show at MCA Chicago, by his reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Indeed, the painting that begins the exhibit is the aptly-named Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), where white eyes and jack-o-lantern teeth gleam in the black field of an indiscernible face.

 

Marshall’s project of revising what we think we see or know reminds viewers who experience America from outside mainstream culture what it feels like to read symbols of beauty and freedom from the vantage point of struggle and invisibility, and schools viewers used to seeing only from one vantage point what it might be like to see differently. Viewers are forced to acknowledge the subjects of the paintings, and such acknowledgment requires a regard for another that intrudes on the closed world of the individual viewer, in an event not unlike the substitution in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, where “In substitution my being that belongs to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me.” (Levinas, Otherwise than Being). Marshall asks viewers to enter a scene and reflect on the people there. His perspective, while flattened, opens out to viewers, who feel as if they are standing at the edge of the room or the side of the yard. Viewers must look closely to make out the details of his figures, often set against dark or dimly-lit backgrounds. It is necessary to stop, look, and engage with these subjects, many of whom look back, confronting viewers with a direct gaze. This confrontation demands a response, and in this proximity there is the possibility of ethics. “We see you,” the figures seem to say. “Can you see us?”

 

Marshall likes to complicate our collective sense of what we know by taking familiar holidays such as the Fourth of July and opening up a different way of looking at them by referencing art history. In Bang (1994), a picture that seems particularly timely now, as athletes supporting Black Lives Matter refrain from saluting the flag, and force many to consider the function of public displays of patriotism, a black girl stands in a backyard with her hand placed reverently across her chest, holding up an American flag in front of two boys who also salute with their hands on their hearts. Pink clouds in the foreground are strung together by a banner carrying words from the Great Seal of the United States, “We Are One.” The words on the clouds form the phrase “Happy July 4th Bang,” and overhead another banner carried by doves forcefully declares, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to god.” Here the promise of American prosperity suggested by these slogans seems realized in the gentle suburban landscape, one where black children safely play amid neat houses and trimmed lawns while their holiday dinner cooks on the grill.

 

But the painting also references medieval and renaissance religious paintings, lending the patriotic tableau both a holy and an ominous cast. The gentle curve of the girl’s neck as she holds out the flag—the symbol of her faith— is achingly vulnerable. Behind her, a patch of yellow on a garage door makes a halo over her head, and beams of light issue from her brow. She is a martyred saint, or the Virgin Mary, her head at the center of the painting, as it would be in a religious icon. The word “Bang” on the pink cloud just as easily suggests the sound of guns as it does fireworks. The boys look away in different directions, their faces innocent, as the barbeque grill issues a coil of smoke and a garden hose circles the girl like a snake. In the background large sunbeams echo the rays in the girl’s halo, but the sun appears to be setting, and the children are standing on a patch of darkness the shape of a grave. In the foreground, shadows enter the frame and angle towards them.

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“School of Beauty, School of Culture”, Kerry James Marshall, 2012. Image from Birmingham Museum of Art.

 

In another work, School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall “schools” viewers to see and understand how the beauty of black women is often haunted and constrained by mainstream culture’s white beauty standards. The scene seems to be a bustling celebration of black women’s beauty, where heart-shaped mirrors on the walls of a thriving black hair salon reflect the words “School of Beauty School of Culture” in backwards letters, and the words “Dark” and “Lovely” are repeated on posters dotting the walls. “It’s Your Hair!” emphasizes one, an encouragement to patrons to claim their style and resist acquiescing to dominant notions about how black hair should be worn. Black women with many different hairstyles move through the space; one looks directly out at us and strikes a classic pinup pose, as if to say, “I am beautiful.” A signed copy of the 1998 landmark album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with its cover image of a black woman with snaky hair, hangs over a doorway in the center of the painting, echoing the painting’s emphasis on black women’s beauty, lives and experiences, as well as the theme of education.

 

But something floats in the space between two young children in the foreground: an anamorphic image attenuated to resemble the similarly floating image in the foreground of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). In Holbein, two richly dressed men stand amidst their musical instruments, maps, books, and globes, symbols of their worldly accomplishments, while an anamorphic skull, stretched to the point of being nearly

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“The Ambassadors.” 1533, Hans Holbein the Younger. Image from the National Gallery.

unrecognizable, floats between them in the foreground. The skull foreshortens if the viewer moves to the far right of the painting and looks sideways at it, revealing the classic vanitas theme: death waits for all men, regardless of wealth, stature, or skill. In Marshall’s School of Beauty, the image that haunts the scene is Sleeping Beauty, and she also takes shape if the viewer moves to one side of the painting—the left side, in this case, in a mirror-like reversal of Holbein, hinted at by the reversed letters in the mirrors above the salon. Although the adult women in the picture seem unaware of Sleeping Beauty, the child at the center of the picture sees her clearly, and actually stoops to see past her to the little girl on the other side. Unlike Holbein’s skull, Sleeping Beauty casts a shadow in the picture, and her blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin shadow this scene celebrating black women’s beauty. School of Beauty, School of Culture teaches viewers to make the effort to look differently at the painting, much as Holbein teaches his viewers to move to one side, making the effort to look differently at his painting. In Marshall’s case, he is asking us to reverse the look we have learned from “Old Master,” to recognize that Sleeping Beauty haunts this scene, but to make the effort to see her, and look past her white beauty ideal, as the little child does, and see all the beautiful black women searching for their own reflections.

 

Kerry James Marshall asks viewers to recognize the ways in which Anglo-European culture has limited artistic representation and ideals of beauty to the images and experiences of white subjects. As a remedy to this, he offers ways of seeing that expand the notion of which bodies get to be represented as beautiful and inspiring. By insisting that black subjects belong in museums, galleries, and high art, he enlarges cultural assumptions of what constitutes the beautiful, the human, and the divine, and this is a supremely wonderful thing.

 

This video accompanies the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017, and at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2, 2017.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Covering nude statues in 2016: a burning question for ethics and aesthetics

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From the Viareggio Carnival Parade 2016: “Barbarians” float. Photo by Fabrizia Abbate.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was on an institutional visit to Rome a few weeks ago, where the Colosseum, the Capitoline Museum and the Vatican were included as part of his tour. After meeting with the Italian Prime Minister in the Capitol for a press conference, they walked together around wings of the Capitoline Museum.

 

We are less interested in the political and economic goals of their meeting than we are in something else that happened in those circumstances, something so serious that the international press has discussed it at length.
The fact is that at some point, an unknown “someone” decided to spare the Iranian President embarrassment by covering all the nude statues in the Museum, so that just wooden panels could be shown in those corridors. Someone unknown, because neither the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, nor the Italian Culture Minister, Dario Franceschini, said that the “incomprehensible” move had been authorized by them. It was confirmed by President Rouhani that Iran had not contacted Italian officials about the issue; however, he said he appreciated the welcome he had received.

 

More than one month has passed, and we still do not know who was effectively in charge of the official decision to cover statues. It is not institutional responsibilities that we are investigating and debating here. What we are interested in is even more serious and dangerous.

 
I would like to get past the most obvious and documented issues. For example: many Italians read this cover up as a form of cultural “submission”. Rouhani’s culture and religion doesn’t appreciate the portrayals of naked bodies (however, some Iranian intellectuals could deny this statement), so we cover our ancient Roman statues in order to respect his values and offer our hospitality. But what about our social identity? Having Italian identity does not simply involve citizenship, but also involves the history of the country, made by the Romans, shaped by the Middle Ages and by the Popes. All that is preserved in our artistic heritage still reveals its truth to us. Art is always the expression of the history to which we belong.

 
So, are we going to start covering statues with the purpose of clouding our nationality and our history? Politicians active in supporting patriotism use events like this as flags for their propaganda.

 

A second, less nationalist and more universal question can be asked: is it correct to take leave of the values of our classical western heritage in order to guarantee the best welcome to a different culture? It is surely one of the most disputable topics these days, and ethics and multiculturalism have much to say to each other. The effort of building healthy identities cannot overlook the comparison and the inclusion of differences, but the reverse is also true, that the effort of maintaining healthy differences cannot exclude solid identity awareness. From this point of view we can quite agree that something failed at the Capitoline Museum, and a good opportunity for dialectic reasoning was missed.

 

A third issue can be taken into consideration in addition to the previous ones: Firm religious beliefs always generate social representations of associated life.

 
When we believe differently, do we still have to to share a common social representation in order to respect each other? Is the disposition of respect as a moral essential attitude still valid when we decide to accept and keep alive different beliefs, even if we are not capable of sharing practices arising from those convictions?

 
Again, it seems to be a burning subject for moral philosophers. But as I wrote at the start, there is a substantial and basic issue I would like to point out. It is an aesthetic issue involved in our civilization. First of all, the idea of covering up those statues to not offend the religious perception and the moral values of the guest turned out to be a really dangerous and disastrous venture, no matter who the guests are and what they believe. It was a negative initiative by itself, because it neglected one of the greatest cultural achievements in the last two centuries.

 
I am talking about the autonomy of art and aesthetics.

 
Considering Kant’s Critique of Judgment, going through Hegel’s Aesthetics, mentioning Benedetto Croce’s The Essence of Aesthetics and his views on art and poetry (just to state relevant philosophers, but many others could be mentioned to support this debate), it becomes clear that our civilization has grown by developing a concept of freedom that is essential to art and its expression. Art has its own representations, reasons and knowledge, apart from ethics and religion, even though it always sits in a hermeneutical space shared with logic, ethics, economics and religion. If we “cover up” this freedom related to aesthetics, with such a quick unaware gesture, we must really take seriously the risk of slowly covering up a long (and eminent) history of struggle for freedom and democracy.


Fabrizia Abbate is Professor of Aesthetics in the Department of Education, at Roma Tre University of Rome. Qualified Associate Professor in Ethics in 2014. Her research studies are in Hermeneutics and Contemporary Continental Philosophy. In Fall 2014, she was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy.