15 August 2012

Förster's examples of Idea, transitions, and individuals

Following on from where my previous post left off, here is Förster, in "The Twenty Five Years of Philosophy":

First example: Let's suppose we are watching a modern, 'experimental' film in which the scenes follow each other in a seemingly random, unconnected way: Times, places, and actors are constantly changing with no indication of how they are connected. It seems as if every scene constituted an independent and self-contained episode. Then comes the final scene, and suddenly everything that came before is illuminated in a flash. This final scene provides the key to understanding the film and allows us to recognize the idea that the director wanted to present. Now we might perhaps wish to see the film for a second time, and then something decisive occurs: Although we see exactly the same scenes again, this time we see every scene differently. When we watch the film again, the last scene or rather our knowledge of the film's underlying idea is now present in every single scene. And it now makes clear how the scenes which formerly appeared to be unconnected are in fact internally linked.
In this example we are at first, i.e., after seeing the film for the first time, given all the parts (scenes) of a whole as well as the underlying idea, but we are not yet given the internal link, the 'transitions' between the scenes. With the aid of the idea, however, we can produce or reconstruct these transitions for ourselves after a second viewing. This suggests that if a whole consists of these three elements and two of them are given, then I can infer the third element from them. We could put this to the test if for example, differently than in the case of the film, we imagine a case in which the idea and the transitions are given, but the parts still have to be found....(p.258-259)
Two things to immediately note about this example: Förster is explicit that whether a whole consists of an Idea and a series of individuals with Ideal transitions between them is posited, a mere "if", and not a given. And in the particular example, we are merely told that we "recognize the idea that the director wanted to present", which implies there was one in this case. It seems questionable whether even every "modern, 'experimental' film" has an Idea, a single "thing" which could illuminate every transition between scenes, and very doubtful that all films do. (What is the Idea manifested in Return of the Jedi?)

Now, even granting to Förster that the film he asks us to imagine does have an Idea present in it, his presentation seems optional. He needs us to think of the process as follows:

1. I first see each scene in sequence, and do not understand them.
2. I see the final scene, and now grasp the Idea of the film.
3. I watch the film again.
4. While doing this, I see each scene along with the transitions between it and its surrounding scenes, according to its Idea.

But why should we think of it that way, rather than as follows:

1. I first see each scene in sequence, and do not understand them.
2. I see the final scene, and now, in recollection, understand the scenes that preceded it.
3. I watch the film again.
4. While doing this, I confirm that my recollection was faithful to the film: the final scene did in fact allow me to understand how the earlier scenes hung together.

This seems to me more faithful to how watching that sort of movie actually works: the understanding of the whole comes in a flash, as Förster says -- but in his explication of this, he divides the "flash" into an initial moment of "grasping an Idea" and then later "understanding the transitions between scenes". Förster's own characterization betrays the artificiality of this divide: as he notes, "we might perhaps wish to see the film a second time", which makes sense if the second viewing is merely confirmatory.

To concretize this a bit: Memento seems like a decent example of the sort of film Förster has in mind. Although it's not as apparently incoherent as the film he describes, it is a film which is really understood only once its final scenes have been seen: before then, the viewer has a wildly false idea of the reality of the film. But I didn't need to see the film twice to get this effect: the correction of my view of the reality of the film came alongside the viewing of the final scenes themselves. It seems false, "phenomenologically", to say that my grasping of "the Idea of Memento" and my seeing how the earlier scenes hung together were two distinct acts of the mind. So I can't grant that this example shows what Förster wants it to show, that if two elements (of Idea/sequence/transitions) are given, I can "infer" the third. The example doesn't seem to have the sort of division he needs it to have between elements two and three, the Idea and the transitions.

And now on to the
Second example: A psychiatrist interested in philosophy delves ever more deeply into the intellectual world of Nietzsche. Because of his profession, he take a special interest in Nietzsche's insanity and its causes. Time and again he wonders how it might have been if Nietzsche could have undergone psychoanalysis. Since his illness took place in the period in which psychoanalysis was first developed, the thought is not unrealistic. It gradually grows into the idea for a novel: 'Nietzsche in Therapy'. However: everything we know about Nietzsche indicates that he himself would never have agreed to undergo therapy. How, then, is the idea to be realized? Our author conceives the following plan: In the story, Nietzsche, who was very proud of his deep psychological insights, has to be convinced that it is he himself who has to give therapy to someone since only he, Nietzsche, can help that person, whereas in reality and without Nietzsche's being aware of the fact, the 'patient' is the psychiatrist and Nietzsche himself is the object of the therapy. To this end, one of Nietzsche's friends (Lou Salome), who is deeply worried about his mental health, persuades a doctor with whom she is acquainted (Josef Breuer, Freud's mentor), to take part in the scheme and present himself as the 'patient'. With this a narrative framework is in place which connects the beginning, middle and end of the story and become a central thread, making transitions possible between the individual scenes. The only thing still missing are the scenes themselves -- the different parts of the narrative in which the idea is to be realized. But now they can be 'found' in light of what is already given: they have to be realistic scenes in the sense that they are not only to reflect the locality and the Viennese milieu in the period when psychoanalysis was originally developed, but also to draw on Nietzche's biography in such a way that a fictional narrative about Nietzsche comes about and not about someone who would bear no resemblance to the philosopher.
Whereas in the film example the parts and the idea were given and the transitions were to be discovered on their basis, in this second example the idea and the transitions (the 'central thread') are given and it is the parts which have to be found. Can we then also imagine a third case in which the parts and the transitions are given and the idea is to be discovered on their basis? Here I no longer need to construct an example, for this is exactly the case that Goethe seeks to solve with the help of his morphological method: all the parts ('the complete series') and the attentive observation of the transitions between them are to provide a basis for studying the idea underlying the whole. Here, too, I require two elements in order to find the third. (p.259-260)
Förster notes that this premise of the bestseller "When Nietzsche Wept", by Irvin Yalom.

This example I find implausible on its face. Förster needs this example to work as follows:

1. Yalom has the Idea of a novel about Nietzsche undergoing psychoanalysis.
2. Yalom thinks of the "central thread" of the novel, which connects the novel's beginning, middle, and end.
3. These suffice to provide Yalom with the individual scenes depicted in the novel.

But 3 is simply implausible: After one has an idea for a novel, and even has a fairly detailed idea about how the plot will go and what gets the reader from the beginning through the middle to the end, actually writing the novel is a lot of additional work. The scare-quotes Förster puts around "'found'" cannot be removed; there really is not a finding of the words, as they must be created. If the process was as simple as Förster here implies, there would be no need for drafting and editing this novel: the Idea and the transitions ("the guiding thread") were had before a single word was put on paper, and they are supposed to suffice for the finished product, so how can the composition itself be more than a mechanical affair? So I can't grant Förster that this example shows that you can go from the two elements of "Idea" and "transitions" to the sequence in which the Idea is manifested.

For such a transition to be plausible at all in this example, the "central thread" of the novel which is supposed to be in Yalom's mind before it is written would have to be so detailed as to lay out exactly how to write the novel, in a way sufficient to issue in a publishable result. But then Förster's point would still not follow, for then it would appear that the transitions and the scenes themselves were already had, and there is no transition from two elements to a third. More problematically, it would appear here that the transitions and the scenes meld into one another, as in the first example the transitions and the Idea melded into one another: to make the example realistic, the three elements dissolve into two.

So, neither of Förster's examples seems to me to show what he needs, that one can transition between two of the elements Idea/transitions/sequence to the third. Either the transition is impossible, or there is no real transition from two to three.

Extending these complaints to his third example (which he doesn't need to produce an example for), I find myself with the following suspicion/complaint: Rather than a transition from a sequence and the transitions between its members to knowledge of an Idea, Goethe presents us only with either

1) a man who surveys the members of a sequence as transitioning between moments of an Idea; or
2) a man who surveys members of a sequence and notes connections between them, and then (groundlessly) posits an Idea underlying them; or (most charitably)
3) a man who surveys members of a sequence and notes connections between them (rhapsodically, as it were), and then begins to survey them as transitioning between the moments of an Idea.

In the first case, Goethe is no help to we who wish to acquire scientia intuitiva: we are only assured that he has it, and are not helped to gain it by this assurance.

In the second case, the very possibility of scientia intuitiva is left doubtful, and Goethe's example is no help.

In the third case, we are given a model we can imitate (unlike the first), and which leads to scientia intuitiva (unlike the second), but not in sufficient detail to know how. Against Förster's desires, there is no transition from two elements to a third: there is a transition from two elements, not seen as elements of a triple, to seeing three elements as elements of a triple. What is needed for the transition is not the elements themselves, but the elements grasped correctly: and this is done only with all of the elements available for viewing.

So, regarding the question of the reality of the (absolute) Idea, I see no help for Förster in his examples.

On an unrelated note: My semester is starting again, so blogging will probably dry up for a while again. But at least this time I posted all I had meant to post on Förster's book -- which I still think very highly of, and recommend to all my readers.

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