Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Disinterested in Aesthetics

We live in times so partisan and biased that a major re-think is in order. I confess to being a curmudgeon of a certain vintage, but the upside of that is that I have internalized a set of values that seem to be in abeyance these days. One of these values is that of "disinterestedness." You can be interested in something which has the special connotation of being an advocate. That is, someone with an interest is someone with a dog in the fight. If your family attends one of your recitals they have an interest in seeing you do well. Well, not my family necessarily, they usually just wondered what the heck I was up to, but most families!

On the other hand, you might simply be uninterested, which means that you are indifferent to or unconcerned with something. I am uninterested in most polka music, for example.

But the most interesting category is that of disinterest, which means that you are not influenced by considerations of personal advantage. I think that I picked this up in a thousand different places as, if you go back fifty years or so, this was the benchmark standard of any serious intellectual, scholar or scientist. When I read now that the proportion of Democrats to Republicans in the social sciences is somewhere between 8 to 1 and 44 to 1 I am astonished, not that there is a bias that severe, but that any of these so-called scientists bring their political opinions into their workplace.

One of the places I encountered a laudable disinterest was in a place you might expect to find the contrary: Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy. Copleston is a Jesuit and the book was originally written for use in seminaries. So you would expect that he would be a strong advocate of, for example, the perennial philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and a severe critic of Karl Marx, among others. But frankly, while he does present Aquinas in a favorable light, he does the same for every philosopher insofar as it is possible. His is the very model of a neutral approach. In this he very much takes after the example of Thomas Aquinas, of course, whose methodology in approaching any question was to present the arguments both for and against as clearly and strongly as possible for it is only in that way that you have a hope of arriving at something close to the truth.

I delight in the fact that our comment section here at the Music Salon sometimes approaches this kind of disinterested debate.

I think that any person who understands the value of disinterestedness welcomes any argument that adds to knowledge and understanding, particularly if it corrects a previously held error or sheds light where previously there was only ignorance.

This kind of view owes a great deal to the Socratic dialogues of Plato, where the pursuit of knowledge and the defeat of ignorance is always the priority.

Mind you, the disinterested stance does not mean you need to give equal weight to every feather-headed vagary and wild-eyed conspiracy theory. But you very much need a policy that when you encounter a point of view that differs widely from your own, that you test, in a neutral manner, the two views against one another. This may at times be difficult, in which case the best policy is to suspend judgement until the support for each view becomes clear.

As is so often the case, the greatest danger to our disinterestedness is pseudo-disinterestedness! That is rather a mouthful, isn't it? What I mean is the kind of moral equivalency that the news media purvey in, for example, all news dealing with the Middle East. Don't assume a moral equivalency where none exists! On the other hand, beware as well of the biased assumption that in an instance of a genuine dispute, such as that surrounding anthropogenic climate change, the truth is 99% on one side.

(Just to give a little background to this, we used to be told that "97% of climate scientists agree on the issue of global warming." Recently I have heard this changed to "99%" and just the other day it had climbed to "99.9%"! Let me refer you to Forbes magazine for a refreshing examination of this claim:
Bottom line: What the 97% of climate scientists allegedly agree on is very mild and in no way justifies restricting the energy that billions need.
But it gets even worse. Because it turns out that 97% didn’t even say that.
The original 97% figure came from a study by John Cook:
Cook is able to demonstrate only that a relative handful endorse “the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” Cook calls this “explicit endorsement with quantification” (quantification meaning 50 percent or more). The problem is, only a small percentage of the papers fall into this category; Cook does not say what percentage, but when the study was publicly challenged by economist David Friedman, one observer calculated that only 1.6 percent explicitly stated that man-made greenhouse gases caused at least 50 percent of global warming.
In fact, quite a number of the scientists whose papers were included in the study protested that their view had been miscategorized. So that 97% statistic turns out to be a chimera.)

A great deal of other things we take for granted because we are told over and over that they are true are, simply, lies. And lies told for very "interested" reasons by people with a dog in the fight. You should always be on the lookout for what I call "special pleading", that is, argument with no pretensions to any objectivity whatsoever, but mere propaganda in favor of a particular point of view.

The trick is in being able to distinguish this from genuine advocacy of something without personal motives. I suspect that the key is in discerning the motives: are they clear and unambiguous? For example when I keep saying things like the symphonies of Joseph Haydn are wonderful and you should listen to them, it is because this is what I believe and not because I have partial ownership of a Haydn distributor.

On the other hand pretty much any argument with regards to tax policy, trade policy, government subsidies and so on, needs to be examined with extreme prejudice because it is rare that these sort of things are NOT governed entirely by hidden (or not so hidden) special interests.

Speaking of Joseph Haydn, let's listen to the Trio no. 44 in E major played by Robert Levin, Vera Beths & Anner Bylsma:

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