Thursday, May 13, 2010

What's What from John Ruskin

The poor fellow really didn't have a happy love life. I'm sympathetic. But he was a genius. One of the really huge names of the 19th century, and I'm beginning to see that he was one of the last of the proponents of The Real, one of the last that cried out against the trends in thought and government, art and philosophy, education and business, that were then gaining strength and would end up destroying everything.

A good friend has kindly sent me two of his books, Elements of Design and Modern Painters. I also have a few books of literary criticism, one of which is a cute little thing from Oxford Press, that was first published in 1916 and survived no fewer than 18 reprintings until the End of the World put a stop to most intelligent discussion of art.

It includes an essay, an excerpt from Modern Painters, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy", in which he has a hearty kick at the philosophers who try to convince us that things have characteristics only inasmuch as we perceive them. Things are only what they are when they are being experienced.

German dullness and English affectation, have of late much multiplied among us the use of two of the most objectionable words that were ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians - namely, "objective" and "subjective".

No words can be more exquisitely and in all points useless

The word "blue," say certain philosophers, means the sensation of colour which the human eye receives in looking at the open sky, or at a bell gentian.

Now, say they farther, as this sensation can only be felt when the eye is turned to the object, and as therefore, no such sensation is produced by the object when no body looks at it, therefore the thing, when it is not looked at, is not blue; and thus (say they) there are many qualities of things which depend as much on somethng else as on themselves. To be sweet, a thing must have a taster; it is only sweet while it is being tasted, and if the tongue had not the capacity of taste, then the sugar would not have the quality of sweetness.

And then they agree that the qualities of things which thus depend upon our perception of them and upon our human nature as affected by them, shall be called Subjective; and the qualities of things which they always have, irrespective of any other nature, as roundness or squareness, shall be called Objective.

From these ingenious views the step is very easy to a farther opinion, that it does not much matter what things are in themselves, but only what they are to us; and that the only real truth of them is their appearance to, or effect upon, us. From which position, with a hearty desire for mystification, and much egotism, selfishness, shallowness, and impertinence, a philosopher may easily go so far as to believe, and say, that everything in the world depends upon his seeing or thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists but what he sees or thinks of. [Yep, thanks Descartes, you idiot].

...In like manner, a gentian does not produce the sensation of blueness if you don't look at it. But it has always the power of doing so; its particles being everlastingly so arranged by its Maker. And, therefore, the gentian and the sky are always verily blue, whatever philosophy may say to the contrary; and if you do not see then blue when you look at them, it is not their fault but yours.

Hence I would say to the philosophers: if, instead of using the sonorous phrase, "It is objectively so," you will use the plain old phrase "It is so," and if instead of the sonorous prhase, "it is subjectively so," you will say in plain old English, "It does so," or "It seems so to me," you will, on the whole, be more intelligible to your fellow-creatures: and besides, if you find that a thing which generally "does so" to other people, (as a gentian looks blue to most men), does not so to will not fall into the impertinence of saying, that the thing is not so, or did not so but you will say simply - what you will be all the better for speedily finding out - that something is the matter with you.

Only The Real counts.


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