Keats’ reasons, Williams’ reasons

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Or so it was with John Keats. For those of us at Williams College in 2009, Truth (or its first cousin, truth) is usually understood to be the valid interpretation of data. The shape of “validity,” of course, shifts by discipline. But here is a quick stab at three generalizations, not intended to be comprehensively accurate, but merely to offer a rough sketch with some “truth”: Validity in division one is primarily a function of “interestingness”; validity in division two is primarily a function of “coherence”; and validity in division three is primarily a function of “predictive power.” Like the divisions themselves, my sketch is, to an extent, arbitrary.

What all of these forms of validity certainly have in common, however, is a reliance on argumentation. In fact, while the Williams curriculum becomes ever more personally tailor-able, quantitative and writing intensive requirements explicitly justify themselves in our course catalogues on the basis of “reasoning” and “argumentation,” But these requirements are but the most explicit forms of a curriculum founded on rational argument. And this foundation, we are generally aware, reflects, in turn, a major shift in social values from even those of the late eighteenth century, when our dear college and dearer Keats were but babes. I wish to propose that our college has gone so far in this shift in its understanding of truth as to marginalize beauty as a central pursuit of scholarship. At Williams today,

‘Reason is truth, truth reason, – that is all
Ye show on earth, and all ye need to show.’

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, who spoke on “The Evolution of Reasons” to a packed house at Brooks-Rogers Auditorium last week, once described the shift this way: “There was the Galilean defeat and the Copernican defeat and the Darwinian defeat and the Einsteinian defeat. The domain of the supernatural has been shrinking.” The evolution of “truth” from primarily a function of beauty (wherein, as I intend the word here, the religious and the aesthetic senses are fused) to primarily a function of reason (wherein the rational and the argumentative modes are fused) is often referred to by Dennett and many across our community and culture as society’s “secularization.”

Two outcomes of this “secularization,” as I see it, are the deeply linked marginalization and capitalization of the arts. During the Renaissance, art and belief were joined socially at the hip (or, if the Sistine Chapel, at the fingertip). In regards to the direction of society, stories, paintings, songs and plays collectively forced society’s evolution in ways now dominated by logical reasoning in its various guises. Dennett and others like him think of this rationalization of life and living as simply a triumph of human freedom. To help make sense of this process as pure “triumph,” however, Dennett must argue, as he did recently to our college community, that “reasons” are not merely conceptual fragments of our cultural “secularization,” but that they also have empirical existence all around us in stuff subject to natural selection, like boats and bats.

What might Keats think of Dennett’s position? If we recall the poet’s famous proposition that the sign of the truly free mind is a negative capability (to be exact, Keats said that he is greatest who “ … is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) the answer seems clear enough. Rather than offering an undiluted sign of freedom, the clinging of the mind to reasons (and even more so, the proposition of what Dennett calls the “free-floating” objective reality of reasons) would seem to Keats to be the deepest evidence of a mind shackled by one of its most potentially beautiful tools: reason.

In three years at Williams I have never attended a religious service, never participated in the creative arts more than superficially and have become known to some, for good or ill, as an avid arguer of reasons. To some extent I now regret this past and the fact that I was not challenged more seriously to think about aesthetic issues as well as – and as equal to – rational ones. What I mean with this article, then, is not to sound a call for Williams’ reversion to 18th or eighth-century Western values.

I do propose, however, that we at Williams should make the truths of beauty equally central to our communities of study as the truths of the three forms of “validity” are today. The dogmatic religious ignorance that Dennett and other “secularists” so disdain, I too disdain. On the other hand, the rationalization of our society – its conversion into a giant marketplace wherein beauty (in its religious and aesthetic forms) has been endlessly remixed through and into neoliberalism and advertising – has shown us where the ethical limits of rationality lie. As dreamy as this might seem, I believe it’s well past time that Williams begins to make the production, contemplation and discussion of beauty a college-wide requirement across the divisions. Our motto then might be more Keatsian, more negatively capable, even than Keats’:

‘Reason is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Matt Furlong ’10 is a philosophy, English and sociology major from Newburyport, Mass.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *