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Metaphysics: notes for an artist

Mind and body

Minds and bodies

In his book, ‘Metaphysics’ Richard Taylor makes some observations on the fundamental characteristic of our thinking: he underlines the fact that, first of all, our thoughts and conduct are oriented towards the business of survival; then, once survival is ‘reasonably assured’, we move on to consider how to meet the need to exist as securely as possible. Taylor recognises that ‘all thought begins here’ – i.e. with addressing practical questions – and that most of it ‘ends there’. Of humanity in general he writes:

We are most at home when thinking of how to do this or that. Hence engineering, politics and industry are quite natural to people.’ (To which we might sensibly add: how to solve the basic problems of getting through the day, dealing with the challenges presented by one’s job (or getting a job), family, relationships, paying the bills, fixing leaking taps and so on.)

Then he goes on to contrast these usual modes of thought with metaphysical thinking: metaphysics is not concerned with the hows of life but instead only with ‘the whys‘, with ‘questions that it is perfectly easy never to ask in one’s whole lifetime.’ He tells us that to think metaphysically is to think, ‘without arbitrariness and dogmatism, on some of the most basic problems of existence.’ In addition to asking questions about ultimate reality (a reality that may, for example, underly our perceptions – the world of appearances) Richard Taylor identifies some of these most basic questions as: the relationship between mind and body, ideas about or beliefs in God, or fate – as well as notions of freedom as contrasted with determinism, causation – and, of course, death.

He thinks that, in addition to the human need for love and approbation – as well as the need for contact with nature (witness the sense that we lose our soul in the alienating built-up world of the city) – we have an underlying need for metaphysics. Why? Well because it helps us give meaning to our lives and it also serves as a liberation from the pursuit of purely material goals, social status and prestige. In other words, we are better off when we dwell on the unresolved problems that make up the subject matter of metaphysics. Metaphysics helps to develop beautiful minds.

On all these points I agree with Richard Taylor. And I very much like the way he introduces his readers to the distinction between persons on the one hand and the physical body on the other – to the ‘mind/body’ problem. I shall quote his introduction to one of the early chapters in his book, the chapter headed ‘Persons and bodies’. He writes:

‘Sometimes the simplest and most obvious distinctions give rise to the profoundest intellectual difficulties, and things most commonplace in our daily experience drive home to us the depths of our ignorance. People have fairly well fathomed the heavens so that perhaps nothing counts as surer knowledge than astronomy, the science of the things most distant from us, and yet the grass at our feet presents impenetrable mysteries. In like manner, our knowledge of human history, of cultures remote in time and distance, fills volumes, and yet we are all, each of us, bewildered by the one being that is closest to us, namely the self, as soon as we ask the most elementary questions. And oddly, it seems that the simplest question you can ask of yourself – namely “What am I” – is the very hardest to answer, and nonetheless, the most important. You can ask what many other things are, such as a tree, a drop of water, or a machine, and be quite certain that your answers, though incomplete, are nonetheless not wholly wrong. But when you ask what you yourself are, what you are in your innermost nature, when you ask what is that “I” with which you are so intimately concerned and which for you is the very centre of the universe, then you are bewildered, and must fall back on philosophical speculations of the most difficult sort.’

With this as his starting point Taylor goes on to explore the way various thinkers – such as Plato and Descartes – have tried to address the mysterious relationship between mind and body – the mental and the corporeal.

And not only does this relationship intrigue the metaphysician. It also lies at the heart of great art in general and portraiture in particular: with respect to the latter and put most simply, we can ask ‘How does the artist explore and express the observable physical presence as well as the personhood of his or her subject?

Footnote: This text forms part of a longer more detailed inquiry concerning the challenges and decisions made by contemporary artists as they confront some of the problems that are basic to portraiture. A part of this inquiry explores Aldous Huxley’s remark: “Every significant artist is a metaphysician, a propounder of beauty-truths and form-theories.

A portrait in yellow

The yellow car

The yellow car

When asked what was the difference between a carefully hand-made piece of porcelain for use and a piece of porcelain for decoration or for display as a work of art the man replied: ‘There is no difference.

One thing that the English used to do well was to build motor cars that were both objects for use and objects of charm or of beauty. Art and use were happily conjoined.

Just the other day someone placed such an object in cheerful yellow – as if it were a portrait – in the street outside my house. I (and a number of passers-by) stopped and smiled.