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More on Beyoncé and Science: Aristotle Chimes In

by Adam Frank
Mar 3, 2013

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Adam Frank

So, last tuesday I explained why (in my humble opinion) the pop diva Beyonc provided us with a nice example of overlap between Science and Art. In particular, I was thinking that, even though Beyonc is not producing sonnets that will be read in 1000 years, she provides an example of a dedication to craft and excellence that is what scientists (at their best) also expect from themselves (minus the thumping beats — bummer).

In response, folks either got what I was saying or thought I was an idiot (or worse). Through my Facebook-author page, however, I received a really thoughtful riff on the idea from Matt Salas, who is working on his PhD and is an adjunct professor teaching philosophy at community colleges in the Louisville area. Mr. Salas' picked up on my line of reasoning and spun it into something much deeper (he even used terms from Aristoltian philosophy, which is way better than what I did). He has kindly allowed me to publish his entire essay. I hope you enjoy it.

I read your blog post concerning Beyonc and found some of the connections you were attempting to make between art and science interesting, particularly some of the language you used. One of my main areas of interest in Philosophy is a sub-field called Virtue Ethics. Virtue Ethics is most closely associated with the Philosophy of Aristotle, but its roots are spread throughout Ancient and Classical Philosophy. Its renascence was initiated in the late 20th century through Alasdair MacIntyre.

Virtue theory differs from other approaches to ethics in that its main focus is on the development of character more than on norms and standards of ethical behaviors. Therefore, rather than ask, "What is the right thing to do," Virtue Ethics asks, "What kind habits and skills do I need to acquire so that I can act well when the time comes?" It is good for someone to know what she needs to do at 'the moment of truth,' but this assumes things like the following:

1) the person will be physically capable of doing the right thing (e.g. strong enough, healthy enough, etc.)

2) a person has the ability to make a rational decision at the moment of decision (e.g. a person has the ability to temper powerful emotions, such as anger, passion, etc.)

3) a person has the ability to understand and interpret the situation well enough to not only know what to do but how to do it (e.g. someone who knows she should help a friend whose house caught fire but needs to know how to use resources to get that friend back on his feet)

These skills are not something that we learn by rules that we can follow, but they are much more like the practical skills we learn in sports. They require more than a pure intellectual capacity but also include the body, emotion, and the mind. For Virtue Ethics, the goal is not simply to do what is right but to develop skills that can enable us to know and act well. When these skills become habits, this is what the Ancient Greeks called arte, which means excellence. Arete was translated as virtus in Latin, the word that become "virtue."

Thus, the end goal is for a person to acquire virtue (excellence), not just the ability to act but also the skills to act well consistently through habituation. Aristotle divided the virtues into moral and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues regulate the appetitive parts of our brain, such as sex, sleep, hunger, and anger. As the name implies, the intellectual virtues regulate our intellectual skills. It is here where you can see a more interesting connection between your post and virtue ethics.

Aristotle understood the intellectual virtues as divided into four components:

1) Episteme: This is the capacity for us to gather data through our senses, such as sight and sound. This virtue requires our bodily sense to work properly, e.g. if one can't hear than it is difficult to gain data through sound.

2) Nous: This is our capacity to interpret and draw conclusions based on epistemic data. This includes our ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning.

3) Sophia: This capacity is the sort of wisdom of Philosophy (philosophia). It is a comprehensive and abstract kind of understanding, such as the difference between the ability to recognize particular expressions of justice verses having a understanding justice in a deeper sense where one can actually act justly in a new situation and context that one hasn't experienced.

4) Phronesis: This capacity is the ability to take knowledge, understanding, and theory and put it into action.

5) Techne: This capacity deals with the human ability to create and make things.

Your post concerned the relationship between art and science. You can see this connection in Aristotle in the relationship between episteme and techne.

Episteme came to be translated in Latin as scientia, the word from which we now have "science." Science deals with knowledge the can be justified through sensory data, thus the importance of the scientific method that insists on experimentation and observation. Techne is the word from which we get "technology." However, the word technology in the 21st century implies scientific advancement. To the Ancient Greeks, techne is the capacity to make something, but its use was strongly associated with crafting. In this way, techne is how we understand art. In fact, Aristotle even drew a connection between techne and crafting poetry.

Your connection between art and science with Beyonc was actually much deeper and more accurate than you articulated (and many of your followers understand). In fact, Beyonc is very much like a scientist in that she has developed a very keen epistemic skill. Consider the following:

1) She must hear herself sing and train her ear to know not only if she sounds good,

2) but she also had to develop phronesis in order to know how hard she has the ability to sing so that she can do it for years into the future.

3) She must make visual aesthetic judgments concerning her make up and apparel.

4) In order to make good judgments, she must needs to observe other people (celebrity and otherwise).

In order for her to be successful, she has crafted her senses in a way that might even be deeper than a scientist because not only must use her epistemic skills to gather knowledge, but she must also have a solid understanding of how other people experience her through their senses.

The fact that you mentioned that you find her physically attractive is a testament to the deep connection between episteme and techne. Artists gather knowledge and communicate that knowledge through their senses. In fact, ancient cultures made a direct connection between techne and sex. If you read Plato's Symposium, you can see this sort of connection that is made between eros (erotic love) and giving birth to ideas. Furthermore, in the Hebrew Bible, the word yadah means both knowledge and the act of sexual intercourse: Adam knew (yadah) Eve (Genesis 4.1).

Science is also very sensual discipline. Unfortunately, the contemporary assumption is that scientists are sexually apathetic, much like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory. This perception is likely due to the fact that, while scientists have keen epistemic skills in acquiring knowledge, their ability to acquire the other skills are generally not astounding. Beyonc uses techne to create music that makes us want to move and bounce. Scientists tend to use techne in order to create machines that we use to text friends more than talk with them.

Therefore, in the end, I think that you are completely correct that Beyonc would make a good scientist in the sense that she has develop a strong epistemic virtue and can use that virtue symphonically with the other virtues she has also clearly developed.

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