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Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter
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Advance Praise for Howard Gardner’s
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
“This is a profound deepening of Gardner’s earlier work on the various forms of intelligence. He now sees our ways of understanding the world as operating in, as it were, symphonic relations to each other, yielding the rich diversity that characterizes human thought in different cultural settings. This new book has a stunning freshness about it, a real leap forward. Bravo!”
—Jerome Bruner, University Professor, New York University, and author of The Process of Education
“With this bravely imaginative book, fearlessly striking out in regularly contested terrain, Gardner has definitely established himself, along with his pantheon of mentors, Erikson, Bruner and Piaget, as one of the top social scientists of his age. Starting with his ground-breaking Frames of Mind, his genius has been marinating and is now fully manifest in this marvelous book.”
—Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business and University Professor, University of Southern California, and author of Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership
“This book is not merely informative, although it is surely that. It helps us understand and provokes us to think more deeply about some of the most important questions we face in trying to live a full and rewarding life.”
—Derek Bok, former president, Harvard University
ALSO BY HOWARD GARDNER
The Quest for Mind
The Arts and Human Development
The Shattered Mind
Art, Mind, and Brain
Frames of Mind
The Mind’s New Science
To Open Minds
Art Education and Human Development
The Unschooled Mind
Leading Minds (with Emma Laskin)
Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice
The Disciplined Mind
(with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon)
Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons
The Development and Education of the Mind
Five Minds for the Future
To my colleagues at the Museum of Modern Art
In 1904 Henry Adams, notable historian and member of arguably the most distinguished family in American history, published privately a lengthy (close to two-hundred-page), convoluted essay called Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres: A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity.* Adams felt inadequate to deal with the many transformations that had taken place since his birth in 1838—the growth of cities, the rise of mass transportation, the influx of immigrants, the political assassinations, scientific breakthroughs such as Darwinism, and, above all, the new technologies—X-rays, radio, the automobile. Unlike his contemporary, the novelist Henry James, Adams did not turn his back on these unwelcome developments and move to Europe. Instead, he looked with nostalgia to a much earlier time—indeed, to Europe of the medieval era.
As he saw it, life in France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries represented an ideal. And that ideal was most dramatically conveyed, indeed embodied, by the magnificent Gothic cathedrals—awe-inspiring buildings where individuals of various backgrounds and classes gathered to worship, to behold splendid works of art, to hear magnificent chorale works, and to be spiritually uplifted. These cathedrals testified to a precious unity in life. The abstract entity—the Church—and its physical realization—the cathedral—represented a world to which all should aspire. That world was true—directed by the word of God. It was beautiful—a magnificent construction made by man in the image of God. And it was good—with the inspiring light of the Church, and the examples of Christ and of the saints, people could and would live a good life. In a characteristic passage, Adams waxes rhapsodically:
The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe . . . God reconciles all. The World is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony. . . . One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed by other art.
And as if the comparison with his own age was not sufficiently clear, Adams puts it into words: “All the centuries can do is to express the idea differently: a miracle or a dynamo; a dome or a coal pit; a cathedral or a world’s fair.”
Nearly a century later, in 2010, novelist-turned-essayist David Shields published a book entitled Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. This book proves more difficult to describe than Adams’s. Presented in twenty-six chapters, each identified by an alphabet letter and a pithy title, the book actually consists of 618 squibs ranging from a few words to a page or so. The terrain of topics covered is very wide—from writing to memory to communication to politics—and the ordering of the squibs seems arbitrary, even random.
What makes the book unique is that nearly all of it consists of quotations from other writers. The careful or informed reader gradually infers that much of the text comes from others; but in most cases it is not clear who is the “I” or “we” that is penning the words or what is the book or other literary work being referenced. Only at the end of his book does the ascribed author Shields state what he has done and why—and then, reluctantly, at the advice of lawyers at Random House, he supplies dozens and dozens of footnotes, indicating the sources of nearly all of the quotations.
But by this time, readers like me have become suspicious. If we have been led along a deceptive path for two hundred pages, why should we suddenly believe the author? And indeed, nearly all of the quotations call into question what truth is, whether it can be achieved, whether it matters. Consider just a few:
“The life span of a fact is shrinking, I don’t think there’s time to save it.”
“All the best stories are true.”
“Something can be true and untrue at the same time.”
“It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.”
I am impelled to revisit Shields’s book in light of the trinity that inspired Henry Adams. As a student of reality, I have to ask: “What, if anything, in Shields’s book is true?” As a student of morality, I have to ask: “Is it good to publish a book that actually is a string of quotations, initially unacknowledged as such?” And as a student of the arts, I have to ask: “Is this work beautiful?”
In principle, David Shields’s book could have been written at any time—certainly at the time of Henry Adams and perhaps even during the Middle Ages. Yet, it is unimpeachably a work of our time. It represents the sentiments of postmodernism—the unflinching challenge to any notion of impeccable virtues. And it self-consciously embodies the practices of collaging, mashing, and pastiching that are enabled by the new digital media.
The two books—and these two authors—exemplify the problematic of the present volume. No longer, if ever, can we accept such terms as truth, beauty, and goodness without scrutiny, if not skepticism. And yet, at least some of us, and perhaps most of us, want to preserve them in a valid form.
And so my goal in this book is twofold: to define truth, beauty, and goodness for our time and to explicate how we might nurture these virtues going forward.
*All references can be found in the notes section, beginning on page 209.
The Virtues and
Here I am, sitting in my study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a lovely, chilly January morning, with the sunlight streaming through the window to my left. In a box above my desk is a set of cards, each bearing a reproduction of a well-known Impressionist painting. The book on which I am now working—and that you are now reading—has two purposes. First, it’s designed to help all of us think clearly about the current status of three crucial human virtues—truth, beauty, and goodness. In the light of this reframing, I offer suggestions to parents, teachers, and others, including ourselves, who ponder how we should educate across the generations.
I’ve just written a few sentences that would seem beyond objection, at least to anyone except a trained philosopher. Indeed, the sentences appear to exemplify what I’ll term the classical virtues. The statements are true—it really is January, I am actually seated in my study, etc. I refer to paintings by artists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, works of art that are widely considered to be beautiful. And I have cited the goals of my literary exercise—to discuss pivotal issues thoughtfully and to offer sound educational recommendations—both of which undertakings are widely considered to be good.
Let’s suppose that statements like these, and the sentiments that they capture, were actually as unproblematic as I’ve just claimed. This book would be easy to complete—indeed, it could stop right here. And indeed, most of us do live our lives taking these virtues largely for granted: We assume that most of what we hear from others, pick up in the media, perceive with our own senses, is true. We could scarcely function if we devoted real time to doubting each and every input to our senses and our psyche. Likewise, whether or not we invoke the word beauty, our choices reflect our aesthetic sensibilities: We value certain sights and sounds above others, gravitate toward certain scenes and experiences even as we avoid others, and attend to our own appearances, as well as the looks of those humans (and pets and gardens and dining rooms and meals) for whose presentation we feel responsible. And then, there’s the matter of our relations to other people, and our evaluations of the behaviors of others—those known to us personally as well as those drawn from the news, history, or literature. We rarely hesitate to judge some as good, some as bad, most others as an indeterminate amalgam. We could hardly survive—in fact we could scarcely make it through the day—if we did not, at least implicitly, navigate among the true (and what is not true), the beautiful (and what is not beautiful), and the good (and what is not good). Just try to do so!
Our classical virtues, however, have been pummeled by developments in our era. In the West, in recent decades, conceptions of the true, the beautiful, and the good have been subjected to considerable, perhaps unparalleled, strain from two unexpected quarters—both quite new: the ideas that we describe as postmodern and the ever-expanding, ever more powerful digital media.
From one angle—a philosophical one—postmodern critiques emanating from the humanities have questioned the legitimacy of this trio of concepts (hereafter, the trio). According to this skeptical account, assessments of what is true or beautiful or good reflect nothing more than the preferences of whoever holds power at a given moment; in a multicultural, relativistic world, the most to which we can aspire are civil conversations across often irreconcilable divides. And so, for example, the mild postmodernist might challenge my characterization of Impressionist art as beautiful, claiming that I am just yielding to an account of painting that, by an accidental set of circumstances, has come to dominate textbooks. The more aggressive postmodernists would throw out the term beautiful altogether—claiming either that the concept is meaningless or something even more venal: shorthand for stating that I have ascribed to myself the right to determine merit. So, too, my statements about truth and about goodness would be seen as arrogant, subjective, or meaningless.
From a quite different angle—a technological one—the new digital media have ushered in a chaotic state of affairs. Thanks to their predominance, we encounter a mélange of claims and counterclaims; an unparalleled mixture of creations, constantly being revised; and an ethical landscape that is unregulated, confusing, indeed largely unexamined. How to determine what is truth—when a statement on Wikipedia about who I am and what I am doing can be changed by anyone at any time? Or when we can all present ourselves on social network sites any way we want? Or when blogs can claim without evidence or consequence that the current American president was born in Kenya? How to ascertain what is beautiful—when a photograph by a once acknowledged master can be endlessly edited on Photoshop, or when judgments of works of art rendered by a majority vote are given more weight than those offered by experts? How to arrive at goodness—the right course of action—when it is so easy to circulate unsubstantiated rumors about another person’s private life, or when nearly everyone downloads pirated music even though it is technically illegal to do so.
The postmodern critiques and the digital media have independent origins and histories, and yet they make strong and powerful bedfellows. Either force alone should engender anxiety in those of us who value truth, beauty, and goodness; taken together, they should give pause even to the most confident among us. In this book, I unflinchingly defend the importance, indeed the essential vitality, of this trio. Without claiming that they are the sole unsettling agents, I seek to take seriously the threats posed by postmodernism and the digital media. I trust that the resulting analysis will tease out the “essential core” of these virtues, help us to preserve that core in our time, and suggest how best to pass these virtues on to succeeding generations.
Why should we care about the true, the beautiful, and the good? And why do we care? Why, indeed, do I care, so deeply? Such caring is fundamental to our condition as human beings, and has been so for thousands of years. Early humans displayed Machiavellian intelligence: They deceived one another through words or deeds, acts that are possible only if one person believes that a fellow member of the species does not have access to what the first person believes to be true. Such humans also decorated themselves, their graves, and, most dramatically, the interior walls of caves where they practiced rites—surely dawning (and perhaps crowning) manifestations of beauty. And even as statues were erected to commemorate human and divine heroes, swift and brutal punishments awaited those who blatantly violated the norms of the group—those who committed deeds deemed villainous. Indeed, since the dawn of history, every known civilization has developed a conception of which statements are true and which are false; which experiences are considered to be beautiful, ugly, or banal; and which human actions and relationships are deemed good, compromised, or frankly evil.
Human beings reached a crucial milestone when they began explicitly to speak and write about these virtues and their lack: In the founding texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Confucian Analects, the Vedic Upanishads we find telling references to important truths, examples of beautiful language and images, and clear identification of good and evil. And a high point arrived when the philosophers of Athens—preeminently Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—laid out explicitly their own definitions of truth, beauty, and goodness and what it means to lead lives guided by this set of virtues. (Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was within acceptable hyperbolic limits when he wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”)
At times, the definition and delineation of these virtues may not have been widely debated but rather simply dictated from on high. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes pose fundamental challenges to the ongoing exploration of the three virtues—because despots like Stalin, Mao, or Hitler declare that these matters have been settled and insist on silencing all those who might dare to dissent. Writer George Orwell had such societies in mind when, in his dystopian novel 1984, the Ministry of Truth declares, “War is peace, Freedom is slavery.”
While concern with the virtues is always looming, vigorous debate about them has permeated the most vital societies. Is knowledge of truth innate, as suggested by Socrates’ interrogation of a slave, or is it established by the kinds of observations and classifications arrived at by knowledgeable observers and detailed by Aristotle? Is beauty achieved by rigorous adherence to the golden mean and ratios, or is it a gift divinely offered by or seized from the gods or from God? Does goodness emerge from a single deity, from conflicts among those perched on the Olympian pantheon, or from laws chiseled on a tablet by a powerful leader or by representatives of the populace? Such discussion seems to have flourished during Hammurabi’s reign in Babylon, the Greece of the fourth century, Republican-era Rome, the Sung Dynasty in China, the Moorish caliphate in Syria and Egypt, the Italian Renaissance, and the founding of the great constitutional democracies of the modern age. Armed with historical hindsight, we clearly discern the threats posed when a spirit of debate and inquiry collides with narrow delineations: the medieval Cordoba of Maimonides is overwhelmed by the Spain of the Inquisition; the Confucian China of poets, painters, and sages gives way over the centuries to the human massacres and cultural destructions of Maoist China.
But when conceptions within a society conflict too stridently with one another, epochal upheavals are likely. Consider the last gasps of czarist Russia in the first decades of the twentieth century, or the waning years of the German Weimar Republic in the late 1920s. In each case, civil debate waned, armed camps arose; to paraphrase the poet Yeats’s phrase, “the center did not hold.” The ultimate results were Stalinist Russia of the gulag and Nazi Germany of the concentration camps—societies in which any open discourse about the virtues became taboo.
In our own society and in our own time, both nationally and over much of the planet, unfettered inquiry and debate are manifest—and this state of affairs is certainly preferable to the alternative. Consider some examples. For every pro-virtue statement from one authority, one finds an objection from another. Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus declared: “Only one thing on earth seems to be a greater good than justice—that is, if not truth itself, the pursuit of truth.” As if in response, Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter claimed that “[t]here are no hard distinctions between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” Writer Gustav Flaubert tried to have it both ways: “Of all lies, art is the least untrue.” A whole generation of artists and writers about art avoid discussions of beauty; and then, in short order, literary critic Elaine Scarry, philosopher Roger Scruton, and polymath Umberto Eco devote entire books to explorations of beauty. Clearly, these issues require, demand, reexamination. Conditions change, people change, and, in the absence of continuous dialogue, received wisdom evolves into unreflective orthodoxy. Still, we need constantly to steer a course between the papering over of differences, on the one hand, and outright hostility to those of contrasting viewpoints, on the other.
And so, we arrive at our current situation. Any society that hopes to endure must ensure that these concepts and values are passed on in viable form to succeeding generations. For, if we give up lives marked by truth, beauty, and goodness—or at least the perennial quest for them—to all intents and purposes, we resign ourselves to a world where nothing is of value, where anything goes. Lest we succumb to such a joyless or normless or pointless existence, it is vital to revisit the conceptions of the trio in clear light. Recalling the lively debates that marked earlier civilized eras, we need to determine what is essential, what cannot and should not be scuttled, what is no longer relevant or justifiable, and what ought to be reconceived going forward. Debate yes, dismissal no. Ultimately we must transcend the relativism and often concomitant cynicism of postmodernism; we must come to grips with the vast changes entailed in a digital universe; but we cannot simply revert to the simplicities or the absolutisms of past eras or of contemporary dictatorships. We also must reconsider how our young people should be introduced to these three virtues and how—and to what extent—older persons should periodically reconceptualize them.
Start with truth. Courtesy of the postmodern critique, we are insecure in stating that the truth is evident and consensual. Perhaps we are merely seeing the world through our own prejudices—be they those of Fox News or National Public Radio, of the BBC or Al Jazeera. Perhaps truth is too intertwined with power to have any validity at all—what, after all, was actually true in Orwellian Stalinist Russia or in Maoist China, or in the “truthiness” of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Washington? And if we consider the welter of information and misinformation available on any search engine, how can we possibly determine what is true, or even whether the search for the truth has become a fool’s errand?
Next, beauty. Perhaps we can gain universal assent—or at least a landslide majority of experts and art lovers—that a classical Greek vase or a Persian miniature or the seascape by Claude Monet above my desk are beautiful. But as you may remember from Art History 101, the works of Impressionist painters like Monet were widely repudiated by knowledgeable critics 140 years ago. And nowadays, in any comprehensive art museum, we see displayed numerous works that are valued and valuable, but that would not ordinarily merit the epithet beautiful (e.g., works by the British painters Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud). No wonder many writers about art now avoid altogether any assertions about beauty. Indeed, in much of the academy or among the chattering classes, it is considered unsophisticated to mention beauty because the purpose of art, as “enlightened opinion” now holds, is not to make stunning objects (that’s passé or kitsch) but rather to shock us or make us think anew.
Or consider the options available with the new digital media. One can endlessly make and remake works of art through Photoshop; one can execute countless mash-ups of musical passages; one can string together dozens of verses by poets known and obscure, rewording them as much or little as one wishes. In so doing, one substitutes for an authoritative judgment of “beautiful” the vagaries of individual taste or the cumulative efforts of legions of anonymous creators whose work is never done, or always undone. When any image or sound pattern is evanescent, and when anyone in possession of a mouse can become a creator of art, the term beauty seems on thin ground or, if you prefer, floating aimlessly in cyberspace. In a textbook example of postmodern thought, the late critic Susan Sontag opined: “In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad.”
And finally the good. Within a particular historical era or geographical area, one can with some confidence identify what is good and what is evil. For example, in ancient Athens, valor in war and kindness to slaves qualified as good. Refusal to participate in battle or to condone slavery was a dubious stance—if not grounds for a forced shot of hemlock. But with knowledge of the twists and turns of human history, and growing familiarity with disparate cultures across time and space, we become tentative, timid, about assertions of good and evil. One group’s terrorist is another group’s freedom fighter: Who embodies good or evil—Athens or Sparta, Hamas or the Jewish Defense League?
Again, our technologically saturated era poses profound challenges to once relatively uncontroversial assertions of what is good, moral, ethical and what is not. How, in a digital era, do we think about a sense of privacy, the rights of authorship, the trustworthiness of an electronic correspondent whom one cannot look in the eye and who may reappear at any moment under a wholly different guise in a social network or on a blog? What is “goodness” in the virtual reality of Second Life? In multiple-user games like World of Warcraft, is it okay to bully and cheat because, after all, such a game is not really real? Are the plausible but unconfirmed rumors that circulate at warp speed on the Internet welcome wake-up calls, spurs to further investigation, or pernicious lies? In our fragmented, polyphonic digital age, the ideal of shared moral standards seems ever more elusive.
In my view, the three virtues are conceptually distinct from one another—each must be considered on its own merits (and demerits). As an example, we realize that something can be true (the fact that over fifty-seven thousand Americans lost their lives in the Vietnam War) without being beautiful or good. By the same token, something can be good without being beautiful—consider a gruesome documentary about prison life intended to shock people into embracing prison reform. And a scene of the natural world, after the demise of all human beings, can be cinematically beautiful, even though it is neither true historically nor good, at least for the species that has been annihilated—that is to say, us.
Yet it is important to recognize that what appears self-evident to contemporary informed adults has not always been so. A character in Bernhard Schlink’s Homecoming
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2012
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Basic Books