Two Philosophers, Two Critics

I’ve heard it said (though I can’t know remember from whom) that there are two kinds of philosophers; those who try to explain why a thing is so and those who try to explain that it is so. Aristotle, for instance, took it as a rule that the common understanding of mankind is itself a fact that must be taken into account. St. Thomas bent much of his huge intellect to seeking answers to difficulties raise by faith. On the other hand, David Hume provided a philosophy that no one, including himself, could actually live by and didn’t bother trying (not that this itself doesn’t have value: pointing out where difficulties lie is a legitimate contribution, even if your own answers won’t wash), while much of what is call ‘philosophy’ today consists largely in trying to convince people that their own lying eyes (and brains) are not to be trusted.

The same thing applies to critics. There are the kind who explain why something is good or why it is bad and the kind who try to explain that it is good. A critic of the first type will take a film like, say, Star Wars and explain to you the elements that make it good. A critic of the second type will take a film like The Last Jedi and explain to you why you should appreciate it despite its manifest repugnancy.

The thing is, though the former critic provides the real value, the latter tends to have more influence. This is because they tend to couch their views in context of a larger ideological framework: they talk, for instance, about how a given movie “asks hard questions about society” or the like (jumping off of yesterday’s post, an article I read about Brutalism enthused about its connection to the ‘working classes’), implying or outright stating that this is what the ‘right’ kind of person would like. Those for whom being the ‘right’ kind of person is important, therefore, pay attention, and since they tend to be the ones who are most interested in gaining power and influence, they elevate these latter critics as the arbiters of public taste.

Mixed up in this is the spirit of infidelity that St. John Henry Newman spoke about; the desire to feel that you have broken from the shackles of the commonplace, that you see through what others admire and admire what they are too dense to understand, and the angry wish to say that you admire a thing just because you know that those whom you despise think it’s junk. The whole reason why the works praised by critics tend to be so very ugly and unpleasant is precisely so that few people will admire them and those that do can enjoy the sensation of being in rebellion and with it sense of partaking exceptional wisdom.

At least, that is how I see these things.

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