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Mary Devereaux CAN ART SAVE US? A MEDITATION ON GADAMER It is A commonplace that Western culture is in moral crisis. One response to this crisis suggests we fill the role leftvacantby the collapse oftraditional morality by turning to the experience ofart. The aesthetic response differs from most other responses to the modern crisis by seeking to derive moral values from an extra-moral source. The claim is not that "aesthetic" values may be all we have, but, more positively, that the aesthetic itself may serve as a source of moral value. In different forms, this suggestion can be found in the work ofMartin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jean-François Lyotard. Heidegger, for example, appeals to poetry as a means of "recalling humankind from its nihilistic destiny."1 Claims on behalf of art's redemptive function can also be found in the AngloAmerican philosophical tradition. Stanley Cavell assigns movies the status of "spiritual parables." Arthur Danto characterizes literature as a mirror which transforms the self-consciousness of the reader.2 The suggestion that art and its attendant values can fill the role left vacant by the collapse of traditional morality is deeply paradoxical. Art has long fulfilled a variety of functional roles (pedagogical, social, political ). Since the rise of science in the seventeenth century, however, art's functional qualities have been downplayed in favor of its nonfunctional , purely formal qualities. Art's claims to knowledge and truth now appear increasingly anachronistic. Similarly,judgments ofaesthetic value, once rooted in a sensus communis, now find a foothold in nothing firmer than the quicksand of personal taste. Hence the paradox of appealing to art for the firmly rooted values morality used to give us. Ifwe have no grounds for agreement in moral matters, what grounds Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 59-73 60Philosophy and Literature for agreement can aesthetics furnish? Put differently, how can art, long associated with appearances, with mere "aesthetics," provide a solution to the ethical impasse described above? Can art save us, and if so, how? II Origins are notoriously difficult to fix. The onset of our present difficulties has been variously attributed to Copernicus, Descartes, Heisenberg , and others. Alasdair Maclntyre dates our recognition of the current crisis from Nietzsche. He credits Nietzsche with understanding more clearly than any other thinker that claims to objective moraljudgment constitute nothing more nor less than expressions of subjective will.3 For Nietzsche, morality and religion "merit consideration only as various forms oflies."4 This critique extends also to the beliefs of metaphysics and science. Hence, at a deeper level the crisis over the grounding of moral values results from an attack on truth itself. The Enlightenment emphasized human similarity. Our age, adopting Nietzsche's perspectivism, emphasizes difference: the differences of gender, ofrace, ofhistorical period, even of species. The Kantian image of a single, univocal criterion of truth or rationaljustification has splintered . For good or ill, truth has become multi-faceted, fluid, historically and culturally bound. I am not suggesting that the new, "postfoundationalist" epistemology is universally endorsed. But it has severely problematized the notions of truth, knowledge, and reason upon which morality "as it once was" found its footing. The optimistic belief that reason can solve all moral dilemmas has given way to an awareness of what Maclntyre calls the interminable character of contemporary moral debate. The situation in ethics now parallels the situation in aesthetics. Like judgments about artistic value, ethical judgments are equated with the vicissitudes of personal taste. In ethics, as in aesthetics, the post-Nietzschean collapse of foundationalism raises the spectre of relativism. In ethics, however, the cost of this foundationlessness is assumed higher. The acknowledgment that ourjudgments about human behavior have no transcendental or "objective" basis results in what Richard Bernstein calls a state of Cartesian anxiety. The fear is that we will be enveloped with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos.3 Attempts to meet and discharge this threat standardly fall into two categories. First, there are those who look to the past, often nostalgically, for means by which to revive our floundering sense of community and Mary Devereaux61 failed moral purpose. For these thinkers, the past offers what the present...


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