Ramble on art and logic

At the end of his list of various ways of proceeding rationally, St. Thomas notes:

At other times a mere fancy inclines one to one side of a contradiction because of some representation, much as a man turns in disgust from certain food if it is described to him in terms of something disgusting. And to this is ordained the Poetics. For the poet’s task is to lead us to something virtuous by some excellent description. And all these pertain to the philosophy of the reason, for it belongs to reason to pass from one thing to another.

The quotation is well known among Thomists, but it deserves to be brought out and defended more often when the question of “rational methods”or “logical methods” arises. The “philosophy of reason” that St. Thomas describes here is clearly one that gives us movies, novels, poems, TV shows, stained glass windows, music, dance, etc. Indeed, St. Thomas is claiming that the movie, the play, the concert, etc.  just is rational. As St. Thomas understands logic, the musician must be logical. This does not mean he must meditate like Spock while he strikes a chord: his very “self-expression” is something falling under the rules of logic.

It is a very old observation that human beings have both a rational part, and a part which is open to reason but in itself irrational. assume we all know what “rational part” means. What is a part open to reason but itself irrational? In the past, there is always the temptation to reduce this part to an appendage of reason, as though our goal is to make this part stop feeling and simply knock out syllogisms. This is, of course, to make this part all “openness to reason” and no “in itself irrational”, which is simply to pretend that it is not what, in fact, it is. This second part of man is not ruled by reason like an artisan rules a tool; it seems much more the case that the rational part and the irrational part must be integrated like a married couple is integrated. There are many pitfalls with this image, but one aspect that can’t be missed is that the irrational-part-open-to-reason has a contribution to make to the very function of the rational life as it exists in a human being. Anyone can see that moral life will involve some rule of the rational part, but a deeper look would show that there is also an interface and dialogue between the two parts, not such that the subrational part dominates, but nevertheless such that the subrational makes an invaluable and essential contribution to the rational.

Art- an in a special way images and music- strike immediately the irrational-part-open-to-reason. In so doing, they teach certain realities which, if they are lacking, will deeply harm our ability to reason. It is a very stunted kind of reasoner who has no awareness of the sublime or the mysterious, and both of these things are difficult to get apart from good art. The value of words is very difficult to cultivate in those who were never forced to interact with good literature. The sheer force of a word is difficult to understand to someone who does not love poetry. The length and simplicity that is required from an argument should really be modeled first from a melodic line, a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. It is very difficult to understand persons apart from idealisations of them in art, and we very often form very terrible ideas of what it is to be a human being by looking at art that shows them as they are not.


  1. Martin T. said,

    December 27, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    irrational-part-open-to-reason= intuition?

  2. AT said,

    December 28, 2009 at 2:48 am

    According to Josef Pieper anyway, Aquinas would say intuition is the highest part of the rational-part; “thinking” is the failure of intuition.

    Not sure what Mr. Chastek has in mind but the irrational-part-open-to-reason seems to be such things as the will, imagination, concupiscible and irascible appetites.

    A disordered imagination produces and is produced by a disordered art.

  3. December 28, 2009 at 7:19 am

    Intuition in its common use seems to be simply the act of a cognitive power had without reasoning. We “just get it”, even if we can’t exactly explain why. So taken, the highest part of the mind does give rise to an intuition. Its role is to “grasp the quiddity” of something, as St. Thomas says everywhere.

    But St. Thomas doesn’t say much about the tremendous amount of work that often goes into preparing the ground so that intellect can get its intuition. All definitions, for example, have to be “just seen”, but there is a good amount of reasoning, dialectic, and syllogism that goes into it (definition can never be properly the result of a demonstration, but the syllogism can be used in some sense.)

    Art prepares the ground for intelligence. To use an image: if you want to pick up something with the vacuum, sometimes you have to break it up into smaller pieces. The breaking up is a condition for it going up the tube, but it is not the cause of it going up (the cause is pressure differences between the different ends of the tube and the atmosphere) Art is like the breaking up, intelligence is the pressure differences. Art proportions- or is supposed to proportion- the world to our intelligence. The artist is supposed to say “here is a quick bridge that intelligence can take to reality: an image, a metaphor, a plot line, etc.” The artist’s gift is to see these bridges, even if he can’t explain what he is seeing (and he usually can’t) Logic enters into the process because the bridge must in fact go to reality: an artist who portrays an evil man as good, or a foolish person as wise, fails not as a moralist, but as an artist. I do not say that the artist needs moral insight since moral insight makes one good, and the artist does not to be a good man. He nevertheless needs some art that directs his intellectual act to truth- which is, for St. Thomas, proper to logic.

  4. Peter said,

    December 28, 2009 at 9:12 am

    It seems that bad art is like lying. It signifies something that isn’t.

  5. Niggardly Phil said,

    December 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    There’s really not a good word for the sensitive appetite and sensitive apprehension. Those seem to be demarcated from the rational by their lack of universality.

    But the will is rational (intellectual appetite), since it seeks the good universally and not this or that particular good. I think imagination can be grouped into sensitive apprehension.

    As the catechism says, “Moral perfection consists in man’s being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite, as in the words of the psalm: “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” #1770

  6. Niggardly Phil said,

    December 29, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    While I’m on a roll, interesting that #1771 uses ‘intuit’ as occuring by the emotions: The term “passions” refers to the affections or the feelings. By his emotions man intuits the good and suspects evil. Ablative of instrument?

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