Correspondence with Anthony O’Hear

In April 2011, Howard Gardner published Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for Virtues in the Twenty First Century. The book received positive reviews, the fullest one by Alan Ryan in the New York Review of Books. A paperback version of the book, with a new preface, and a new subtitle, “Educating for the Virtues in the Era of Truthiness and Twitter” was published in the fall of 2012.

In addition to reviews, Gardner has received provocative letters from colleagues. From time to time we will post these exchanges:

Anthony O’Hear is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham and served as the Head of the Department of Education. He is the editor of the journal Philosophy and Honorary Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is also co-editor of The Fortnightly Reviews new series. O’Hear was a Government special advisor on education under three administrations. 


AO: The book I warmed to considerably, and found most of it very sympathetic. While truth, beauty and goodness are all tricky – to put it mildly – they are all indispensable, as I think you show, while at the same time not minimising the problems. As a fallibilist myself, who nevertheless believes that truth is objective if not always clearly attainable (or certified), I found very little to disagree with in what you said about truth. On goodness, I do think that broad agreement throughout the world on what you call ‘neighbourly morality’, at least on many key ideas on how we should live together, is impressive and significant, and also forms the basis for reasonable people to discuss and develop these things, even where they start out holding different views. I also thought that what you said about goodness in the social sphere (and as magnified by problems arising from new media etc.,) thought-provoking and important to develop. To put it in another way, many of our concepts, including our moral/ethical concepts developed in response to conditions which, for better or worse, we have gone beyond – and which require moral and conceptual development, which is all rather uncertain. But at least we should recognise that this is the situation!

If I do have a disagreement with you, it may be on beauty. (May be; it may not be.) What I think is certainly true is that aesthetic judgment requires acquaintance with the object (unlike my assent to a scientific or historical truth). Following on from that aesthetic judgments are irreducibly particular – requiring acquaintance with the unique object in question, in its uniqueness. And while we can give general reasons for what we appreciate or deprecate aesthetically – as I think you advocate – it is always a case of applying the reasons to the unique object in question, where a slightly different proportion of, say, harmony and disharmony, or structure and detail, might have a quite different effect. And while I do agree with you that aesthetically we should always be open to new experiences (and revisit old ones – Tchaikovsky 1 !), I think I want more continuity than you… So while I do see Kiefer as a major artist, this is partly because I can see him as being in the same line of business as Turner and even more recent (British) painters like Bomberg and Auerbach, while at the same time adding his own vision; but still a painter… I have far more difficulty with Matthew Barney, and other post-Duchampian conceptualists – but inspired by you, maybe I should give him another try!

I very much agree with your reservations about Darwinism applied to human behaviour, and also (as a devotee of Ruskin) with your cavils on economics.


HG: Many thanks for your generous remarks about my book. I always send it with particular trepidation to a philosopher, since as a psychologist, I am clearly trespassing on a terrain where I am ignorant.  I’m relieved that you are largely in accord with my descriptions and proposals with respect to truth and goodness.

Let me expand a bit on the topic of beauty. You  make an excellent point when you indicate the importance of belonging to some kind of a tradition; even if it is, as Harold Rosenberg famously pointed out, a ‘tradition of the new.’  I received  new insights when I read Kirk Varnedoe’s treatise “Pictures of Nothing” a very clear exposition of Abstract Expressionism (the New York School of the 1950s). It turns out that not only were Rothko, Mothwell, Johns, etc. responding directly to the work of their predecessors; more important, they were in constant contact with one another and, in a manner reminiscent of Picasso and Braque, and, more distantly, of Picasso and Matisse, each work was, so to speak a response to recently seen work by other members of the school.

Long before Varnedoe’s book had appeared, in the middle 1980s, I took a group of Chinese educators to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. You won’t be surprised to know that they were totally bewildered by what they saw. I then realized, at least through a glass darkly, that unless you had some understanding of what was already called, at that time, ‘the great Modernist narrative’, there was no chance that you could relate to those works. And that narrative, created by Alfred Barr, goes roughly like this: Manet begats the Impressionists, they begat Cezanne, Cezanne gives rise to both Matisse and Picasso etc., etc.

As for Matthew Barney, I actually agree with you. I cannot make sense of “The Deportment of the Host” and I doubt that I’ll ever resonate to it. However, taking a leaf from my own teacher philosopher Nelson Goodman, I do think that one should pay attention when someone who is knowledgeable and whose judgment you respect, calls attention to a work that has left you untouched. Goodman called this ‘merit as means.’ However, that does not mean that one should cede one’s own judgment to others.

In my own educational work, I want to encourage persons, particularly young persons, to be reflective of what they treasure, and why, and how that might change over time. But whether Barney ever makes his way into that portfolio is of no concern of mine. In other writings, I also encourage young people to assemble ‘processfolios’, records of their own creative efforts as they unfold.  It’s interesting to note that, in the past, almost all well-known artists and scientists have kept some kind of a paper record (i.e. Notebook) of their starts and false starts. I wonder how that is being affected in the digital era.


AO: One thing I didn’t mention in the original response was religion, which you don’t say very much about. It might be opening too many doors at this stage, but my strong intuition (intuition, not argument) is that strong views on truth, goodness and beauty may all point in the direction of some transcendent reality. It is hard (for me anyway) to listen to Bach or Beethoven, say, without this sense – to say nothing of Dante or Chartres (Ruskin again!), and for me there is something unavoidable and categorical about the still small voice of conscience (though too often avoided in practice by all of us, which is partly why the exceptional and undeflectable moral leaders are so exceptional, and often so uncomfortable to the rest of us too). From my point of view this doesn’t support any particular dogmatic approach, beyond a general sympathy for parts of the great religious traditions in which people have striven to articulate this sense in ways which I have to have respect for, though there are other aspects of most religious traditions for which I have very little respect. No doubt a characteristically 21st century wishy-washy stance!


HG: My good friend, anthropologist, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco sat through all three of the lectures on which the book was based. When the ‘ordeal’ was over, he said to me, not without sympathy “Howard, you left out of your lectures the 800 pound gorilla—Religion!”

Marcelo was right, of course. In the book I skirt the issue of religion. So as not to look even more ignorant than I am, I state that fact a few times in the book, but you are right as well to point out that lack: Perhaps one could say that religion “sneaks” into the book in my opening example of Henry Adams and the cathedrals of the middle ages. For these architectural miracles would have been inconceivable with the hegemony of the Catholic Church; and for individuals of that era, as for Adams (at least most of the time), these virtues or values were indissociable from strong religious feelings.

I do think it is useful to distinguish between religion in two senses. From a historical and sociological point of view, no one can deny the vital contributions to human thought, feeling, and action of the various religious faiths, dating back to prehistoric times. I’m prepared to go further and to speculate that some kind of religion is necessary for the emergence of morality and for the creation of objects and experiences that are cherished for aesthetic reasons. The relation between truth and religion is more vexed. As you imply, much of what religions posit as true no longer speaks to the 21st century mind. Yet the belief that there are Truths, and that they are Important, may also be intertwined with religious origins. It’s just that nowadays, we believe in the importance of empirical evidence and the need for disproofs and refutations and here is where the established religions fall short.

I think that you are writing about religion in a second sense: a belief in the importance of transcendent experiences (whether or not they denote a transcendent reality). Like you, I have such experiences primarily in ‘conversation’ with works of art, and, in a very different sense, in my family ties, particularly now to my grandchildren. Freud was motivated to lambast these experiences, because he saw them as secondary to ‘an illusion’, but one only has to think about Freud’s own refusal to go to Rome, and his involvement, indeed enchantment, with works of art from ancient times, to know that he also had transcendent experiences, even if he was ashamed of them. Also, one does not by accident identify with Moses, the lawgiver!

My challenge, if not yours, is to recognize that this second sense of religion, ‘spirituality’ is probably a better word, is genuine, as important a part of human nature as humor or love, and there is no need to despise or reject it; while at the same time, not insisting that it be tied to any particular creed. As far as I am concerned, Messrs Dennett, Hitchens, Keen, Pinker feel the need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and I see no useful purpose in that pursuit. As you point out in other writings, Darwin himself was quite ambivalent on whether his evolutionary views had particular implications for religion in either sense of the term.


AO: I like what you say about there being a narrative taking us from the Impressionists and Cezanne to Matisse and Picasso and even on the abstract expressionists, but in a way Duchamp and Warhol have ruptured that narrative, and are highly influential, of course, in the art world of to-day. I feel that we should try to teach our young people the meaning of that narrative (their inheritance, in a way), so that they can appreciate its delights and profundities. I’m writing from Hong Kong, where they currently have a big Warhol exhibition in their Cultural Center. Crowds of Chinese school children were being solemnly lectured on the Warhols – where the galleries were crowded. Rooms full of exquisite Chinese calligraphy and landscape scrolls were completely empty, which I found rather sad: the most meretricious of western art was being held up for serious study, while their own heritage was being passed by. Is this what globalization means?

Then, secondly, on religion, I am, of course, interested in the transcendent aspects of religion. But I don’t think that these can exist in a total void. The myths and rituals of the great religions have much to teach us, as ways in, so to speak. Thus, for example, from my (Christian) perspective, I do feel that the doctrines of Creation, Original Sin and the Incarnation (to say no more) have much to teach us about our relation to the transcendent, and doubtless similar things could be said about aspects of other religions. I don’t think that this is a matter of empirical proof or disproof so much as a way of directing and focusing the mind (or spirit). But without this, and without the insights of people immersed in these doctrines and rituals, partial and limited as they all must be, I would find it hard to conceptualize the transcendent or to know how to approach its meaning.  


HG: You are rightly concerned that persons, and especially young persons, might be deprived of experiences that you greatly value. Specifically, the chance to encounter magnificent works of art and the experience of transcendency (otherwise put, transcendent experiences). I agree that these experiences are worth having and they may be elusive at the present.

At this point, I put on my hat as an educator. Put succinctly, I think that educators need to begin with where young people are, but of course, if we are responsible educators, we try to lead them in meaningful and productive directions. I don’t actually know how novices react to Duchamp or Warhol, but let’s assume that they start comfortably there. I can think of two possible educational approaches. 

One is to encourage the students to see similarities as well as differences between the traditionally-valued works and these modern (or, more technically, post-modern) works. My guess is that both Duchamp and Warhol were quite conversant with traditional artistic techniques and compositions and you can find echoes of the tradition in their works. I remember lessons where instructors pointed out the similarities between TS Eliot and Tennyson; and between Schoenberg and Bach/Haydn/Brahms. And once the parallels are discerned, and as Nelson Goodman reminded us, there are always uncountable similarities, then a productive educational experience can be launched. For these purposes, it does not matter if Warhol is meritorious or meretricious, only that people find him worth looking at, for whatever reason.

The other approach is to enter directly the world of Duchamp or of Warhol as the students perceive it, or, indeed, as a curator who values them sees them. Try to wear those lenses. (for example, What counts as fine art once photography has been invented? What is the relation between the world of advertising and powerful personal experiences?) That is what I wrote about with respect to Matthew Barney. It did not work for me, but at least I could see why others might value his work.

When it comes to religion, I feel on less firm ground. I had a conventional Jewish training but it did not affect me very much and I am not moved by the experiences that I had. I did read and remember the Bible stories but if anything, I was more moved by the ancient Greek myths and those are the materials that I told and read to my children, and also the picture books that they shared. 

My transcendent experiences originate almost entirely with works of art or in beholding infants or young children. Certain experiences in the natural world can also have that effect. I would use different language in describing love or sexual experiences. I don’t honestly know why these are the experiences that elicit that affective reaction. I suspect that the aesthetic experiences are the most powerful way of delineating my relation / our relation to the cosmos, to what I call existential issues. But others might encounter transcendence in other realms, ranging from sports to politics to any experience in which they enter a ‘flow state.’ Paradoxically, we cannot MAKE anyone have a transcendent experience. All one can do is to increase or decrease the likelihood by offering entry points ranging from Haydn’s “Creation” to the Himalayan Mountains. I am far less persuaded than you are, that the entry point of religion is going to work for many persons in the 21st century.

What ties these experiences together are ‘entry points;’ the discovery of experiences that are inviting initially and allow us to go deeper with respect to powerful phenomena.


Comments are closed.