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Rob van Gerwen

September 11, 2014

Index Supervenience Agency Lanzmann's ban Propaganda Cave Gaze
Grammar Memory Schopenhauer Art practice Music Art's Morale Issues

Philosophical Directions
The effort of understanding

Facing the Gaze

Abstract of the argument on this page

I Narrativizing the tender
In narratives we structure the world of experience. This is why narrative art can be held to be helpful in court, or moral reasoning. I argue that narratives are unnecessarily reductive. (Examples come from Hollywood cinema and major crime writers, such as James Ellroy and Jim Thompson.)

II The gaze
Where are the limits of a face that should not be transgressed by our gaze? What type of intrusion is at stake? What happens, in contrast, when we let another person stare onto us; what, if we won't?
What do cell phone conversations do to these limits?

III Changing facial expression at will
The program behind luxurious, cosmetic surgery assumes that we can treat our faces as artefacts. What role is played by the metaphor of artistic expression? Which type of beauty is at stake?

1. Narrativizing the tender

Algirdas Julien Greimas' Actantial Analysis

"Nothing short of dismantling American thought will doIt is no coincidence that Greimas' Actantial Analysis fits Hollywood cinema so well. Greimas' Actantial Analysis, put in a nutshell, says that a story consists of the following elements. First, a subject receives a task in the beginning of the story. This task implies getting some object. What stands in the way of achieving this task is the anti-subject. Lastly, the story ends when the subject achieves his goal and retrieves the object.
American experience is so very narrative in nature, i.e. before it gets psychological.

Richard Wollheim's repsychologizing ethics holistic

Richard Wollheim wants to repsychologize ethics; see his The Thread of Life and On the Emotions.

The first chapters of Wollheim's The Thread of Life explain the concepts that, Wollheim thinks, are needed to answer major questions about how a person lives his life. Here, Wollheim lays out his conceptual framework, which he largely borrows from Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. The major questions addressed in the later chapters concern How a person's past haunts the person and how this can be dealt with in the light of one's projects for one's own future. Wollheim also argues how our moral sense can be understood as based in our psychology.
In short, Wollheim repsychologizes philosophical issues, most notably those of personal identity and (moral) motivation.

Counterfactuals atomistic

This repsychologization involves paying attention to the evidence of how people live their lives, as opposed to trying to answer counterfactuals that are devised to make us think about counter-intuitive theories, such as are espoused in the contemporary debate on personal identity (relational theories). Counterfactuals are set up atomistically.

Personal identity

One of the many counterfactuals used in the debates on personal identity involves one man, say mr. Jones, leaving hospital after major surgery, where unfortunately one has implanted the brains of another man (why not a little girl, one might ask?), say mr. Smith. Hence we are supposed to be boggled about, who is who? Is that Jones over there, that individual who has Jones's body but Smith's brains, or is it mr. Smith? The counterfactual is set up so as to makes us wonder what exactly is the connection between a person's brain and his body and which of the two accounts for the person's identity over time.

Wollheim argues that we should start from the evidence, not from conceptual constructions. In passing, he also addresses tenets and theses defended in other contemporary debates in the philosophy of psychology, such as behaviourism, functionalism, mind-body dualism, etc.

Extended Personhood

If we take a person's expression as identificatory for his personality, we can understand how, in reality, a person sometimes extends his personality beyond his bodily limits, expanding in the same move its character. Let us call persona such extended personality.
We can recognize the persona of a car on the highway: those who drive too close by, who drive too fast, those who drive way too slow, too timid, etc. We continuously assess the personalities involved in drivers' styles, in the exact same manner in which we do this on the street and in everyday situations in our confrontations with real-life persons.
While playing first-person computer games our avatars are the holders of another extended persona of ours.
What is in their psychology is determined by the limitations of the relevant moving space, and the typical actions that are possible in it. On the highway, we can only drive forward, on the right side of the road and double other drivers or have ourselves doubled by others. Yet, within this limited agential space we succeed in expressing ourselves. Avatars in game spaces have limited agential spaces at their disposal, the nature of which we haven't yet analysed sufficiently.
Which metaphor is best picked in this context? The metaphor of a car's driving style--which is clearly a morally assessable agency; or the psychological reality of an art work's individual style (Wollheim's terms, my use)?

Performances' personas

I argued that works of art present their audiences with an 'elsewhere'. The exemplary case is in films, pictures and novels, where absent worlds are represented.
In that particular instant, I also argued that even in cases where representation seems suspended, such as performances and installations, an elsewhere is presented: the work itself is to be perceived not as the thing or person it consists in, but as a transfigured counterpart: a persona. [I used the example of Marina Abramowicz' Rhythm 5.]
I used the analysis to oppose works of art to ritual events, but have come to doubt that analysis. In such cases as these, i.e. performances, installations, and ritual the 'absent' is an aspect of the present; it is not really an elsewhere.
I am not sure about the consequences (if any) of this position.

Repsychologization versus narrativization

It may appear to readers that this endeavour to steer away from fictional atomistic constructions involves a turn toward a narrative conception of personal identity. Yet, such an interpretation would do away with much of the strength of Wollheim's argument and would merely substitute one reduction for another. The task Wollheim is facing is a lot vaster than this reconceptualization of a singular philosophical methodology. Instead of looking at constructions and logically interesting counterfactuals, he has to reintroduce a person's awareness (either conscious or unconscious) as well as his expressiveness as a correction, against the mainstream thought that the given is a myth.
And maybe, no less is needed than a dismantling of American thought per se.
I cannot really argue my point; of course I cannot: what I just raised is an empirical claim and there is no way to establish its truth.
But we can look at some examples. Here are a few:

Stephen Söderbergh's The Limey (1999)

I had no real idea that memory was narrativized in American [and 'Americanish'] cinema, until I saw Stephen Söderbergh's The Limey. In this brilliant movie memories are shown as the associations they are. No narrative logic dominates the 'flash backs' that we get to see-we hardly notice any 'flashing back'. We experience a measure of awkwardness and this gets our imagination going. I am sure there is a narrative motivation behind this way of filming as well, but it has a deeper logic; a psychological logic, rather than a Greimassian actantial one.
Söderbergh also made Out of Sight (1998), after one of the many nice stories of Elmore Leonard. A marvellous film, great fun. Though, by far, less revolutionary than The Limey (or Traffic)

Stephen Söderbergh's Traffic (2000)

He won the Oscar for Best Director for Traffic (2000) at the 2001 Oscars. Deservedly so.
I only wonder about the criteria they applied. Traffic has great story-lines, quite a few, brilliantly interwoven. Maybe that did it.
I love this film for the psychological reality of its style.

James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere (1988)

I realized the American narrativization while reading James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere (1988). At first, I merely experienced too much plot complexity, what with an elaborate effort such as Ellroy's to tell a crime story intertwined with complex political issues of communist hatred and homo phobia in the 1950s U.S.A. After a while the plot lit up slightly and the story got more transparent.
Yet, the characters never come to life! I have no substantial, let alone affective, idea of what the characters are like. I know what they went through, sure, but who are they? What sort of persons are they? There isn't the slightest clue in this book (nor in Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand (2001), for that matter). Apparently, Ellroy thinks a story suffices, and maybe it does. As long as one is of a behaviourist enough mind.

James Ellroy's My Dark Places (1996)

"This character is all life!Things got a lot better, though, in Ellroy's brilliant novel, My Dark Places, which relates Ellroy's search for his own mother's killer. At least, that is how one might, in one sentence, sum up the plot.
In fact, half the novel presents us an author of great novels as the 'white trash' addict he apparently became after his mother was killed. We read a book written by a person we would not want to share a room with. Yet, the writing is intelligent and there seems no way to reconcile these contrasting facts.

James Ellroy's Black Dahlia (1987)

What can I say, really? I realize I keep picking up Ellroy novels, and liking the read. He happens to be on top of my crime fiction reading list (and what other reading lists do I have...?), next to Ellmore Leonard, and Francis Fyffield/Hegharty (The Play Room, oof, devastating!) and a bit lower than Jim Thompson.
In this particular novel, there is a scene I remember filmically, when Bucky Bleichert seeks and finds his partner, Blanchart, in Mexico, and how he flees the scene. Language turned into film, chapeau!


Then there is the issue of botox, a toxic used to lame facial musculature so as to prevent the skin from wrinkling. No doubt, this is an American invention. Where else would people so hastily and with so little reluctance give up their major means of expression of their psychology?

My dim lit understanding of it all

"Individuals are parochialLet me hint at an explanation:
Narrative is more universal than psychology. The U.S.A. are more of a melting pot of cultures than any other region in the world. So narrativization may be part of a good thing.
Also, the universal applicability of narrative logic explains why the Hollywood system is such a success worldwide.
In contrast, psychology in film is a parochialism.
Taking a leap from here to philosophy: in traditional ethics principles have priority over personal motivation, psychology, judgement, moral emotions etc. (except with Kant, but even there: in his categorical imperative). Individuals are parochial.
Paradoxically, Hollywood is also where directors (like Eliah Kazan and Lee Strasberg) developed Method Acting. What to think of this acting system in light of these considerations on narrativization? Why does Method Acting require an actor to seek his character, or better, the circumstances wherein this character is to find himself, and his responses to these, within themselves? Parochializing narrative?

2. The gaze

Trust and observation

For how long one can observe another person's face depends first of all on the relationship of mutual trust. When there is a large measure of mutual trust one can take his time while observing the other, before one feels the necessity to avert one's eyes. It can be like this with our own children or parents, or with the beloved partner.
Why would one ever avert one's eyes when observing a trusted other?
Because of a feeling of shame about transgressing the other's boundaries. [Which boundaries?]

Observing as an agency

To observe a person is an agency. It is not just a passive taking in of perceptual data. The agency is a question: How long will you allow my gaze to appreciate your face?
One who admits the other's gaze for a very long time, more or less tells the observer that he is highly trusted. Or one allows the other his gaze by madly reciprocating it with another gaze.
The acceptance of someone's gaze can turn into a (reciprocated) gaze.


Watching another person intently can also be a way to transgress his boundaries in an effort to establish a relationship of mutual trusting.
Infatuated gazing is a thrill.

Tender looks

One sometimes tenderly looks at another person, taking in that peculiar asymmetric aspect in the other's face, the little twitch in the nose, the tiny unfit movements, the cross-eyed looks.
Do people have their faces rebuilt surgically to reflect such minor deteriorations? Why not? Would it help to induce the other's tender looks?

Parents' gaze

Parents may dread the moment their children refuse to have themselves gazed upon. Is this the end of a relationship of mutual trusting or the beginning of a new challenge to regain one's trust? Probably it is both.

Licensed to watch

Why do we need some kind of permission to gaze at another's face?
[Beloved ones seem to provide each other with such a license to watch intently, bringing into existence that peculiar magic and chemistry of exchanged looks. This chemistry seems to be absent from the parent's gaze at his child: no need for a license here!]
[The voyeur's transgression consists in his intentional negligence of the need for a permission to watch.]
The license is for personal use only: it is handed out by an I to a you. And you cannot transfer it to others.

Why the license to gaze?

We show ourselves to those we trust. But what kind of trusting is assumed for handing out to others the license to watch? Any trust is a trust against the possibility of betrayal, but what type of betrayal is at stake? Surely, we cannot assume that each one of us has a bad conscience, which is about to be betrayed (to whom?) by the others, whom we therefore want to fend off by denying them the license to watch us? If not bad conscience, then what?

Guilt, Shame and the Gaze

Bernard Williams on the gaze: "[With shame,] the viewer's gaze draws the subject's attention not to the viewer, but to the subject himself. [With guilt,] the victim's anger, on the other hand, draws attention to the victim." (Williams, Endnote 1, 222).

In the mirror

Why is it easier to observe another person's face through a mirror, via a window in a nightly train?


DSM-IV & DSM-IV-TR: "Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Individuals with this Cluster B Personality Disorder have an excessive sense of how important they are. They demand and expect to be admired and praised by others and are limited in their capacity to appreciate others' perspectives."
And on narcissism: "A pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition. (with permission from Sam Vaknin, PhD)"
From BehaveNet®

Cell phones

Why is it easy to observe a person who is having a telephone conversation?
Perhaps someone talking through his cell phone thinks of himself as somehow absent from the space and time his body is in. He certainly wouldn't want to cut off his conversation to tell you to look "Any gaze requires empathyelsewhere. Moreover, he seems to realize this and seems therefore to not even consider having to judge your gaze (as intruding his authenticity).


In every mutual observation an hierarchy is established, or assessed: who shall be the first to avert his eyes: he shall be lowest in rank. Observing another person's face has a lot to do with aggression.

The duration

The major question is: how do we learn how long we are allowed to gaze at another's face? Has anyone ever told us we were trespassing or something remotely like that? Yet, it is exactly this duration of the gaze that defines the voyeur. A subtle play of temporality defines how we look at each other.

The voyeur

What is it with the voyeur?
Does the voyeur watch too long? Or does he watch without ever averting the eye? Does he even meet the other's gaze? Or does he watch without considering the possibility of having at some point in time to avert the eye?
Is his gaze his real fault? [DSM-IV TR, diagnostics: 302.82 Voyeurism]

The exhibitionist

And what does the exhibitionist's agency consist in: allowing other people's gaze (for too long; or allowing it to rest on parts that are to be hidden)? Or is his agency: demanding other people to gaze at spots where one does not at all want to look at?
By the way, does the exhibitionist gaze at that other person who he requires to gaze at him? Does he really require the other to look him in the eyes? [DSM-IV TR, diagnostics: 302.4 exhibitionism]

A comparison

The voyeur treats the other as an object, the exhibitionist wants to be looked upon as if he is an object. Neither is out to have eye contact with his victim. Both step outside social circulation. (Compare this with the cell phone).

Learning the duration of the gaze

The duration of the gaze is determined socially. We have learned by trial and error just how long we can look someone in the eyes. This can best be understood as a skill, a social skill. Why do we succeed in acquiring it? What role is played in this process by feelings of shame and guilt and aggressiveness? Or by feelings of self-esteem or of inferiority?
What role is played by empathetic powers of imagination?

Convention and habituation

To say that learning the duration of the gaze is like acquiring a convention is an overstatement. Yes, there are cultural differences, but, no, nothing remotely similar to a rule is at stake here.
[As to the cultural differences, think of Louis Malle's picture, Alamo Bay (1985), where a Vietnamese fisherman is confronted by an American sherif with his deeds, and the Vietnamese refuses to look into the sherif's eyes, which the sherif takes as an insult, etc. The Vietnamese, however, would take looking the sherif in his eyes as insulting him.]
Connected with the issue of our gazes' duration is that of the social characteristics of expression.

Gaze as a social signal

"While the primary purpose of gaze is to collect visual information, it has acquired meaning as a social signal--in the course of evolution for animals, but mainly by learning for humans." (Argyle, M. 'Eye-contact', 248.

Respect and Expression

Kant once formulated his categorical imperative in terms of respect for a person's humanity: "Act in such a way as to treat 'humanity' either in your own person or in someone else's person always at the same time as an aim and never merely as a means." (Grundlegung, p. 429).
He can be interpreted as having translated this 'practical imperative' into an 'ideal of beauty' in section 17 of his Critique of Judgement. [See my "On Exemplary Art as the Symbol of Morality. Making Sense of Kant's Ideal of Beauty."]

If gazing intrudes another person's humanity by disrespecting the manner in which the other wills to show his mental life to others, then perhaps we should also assess morally the manner in which people hide their humanity from others.
Consider the following cases.

Hiding one's person

How would one analyse these examples of hiding one's person from other people?

In what measure can each of these persons be held responsible for hiding his person for others?
Are we under any obligation to show ourselves to others?
If so, how do we justify that obligation?
Or do we, instead, hold that people have a right to hide their mental life from others?
Can actively hiding your mental life from others be a right--assuming that whether or not one expresses one's inner is not subject to the will (given the very essence of the inner as oozing out through all our pores, as Freud has it)?

No researching the gaze

Exline and Fehr argue that there is no researching the gaze. Not that it is not an important subject for research, it is. They argue tha it is impossible not to interfere with the gaze and other people's responses to it, as a researcher. Either the observer, or the camera, or the one-way mirror all make for intrusions in the intimacy of the exchange of looks.

3. Changing facial expression at will

Representation and expression

What we report to think, feel or want is not always what others perceive us to think, feel and want. What others perceive us like stems from our expressiveness.

Our faces and the metaphor of artistic expression

What role is played in our thinking about the human facial and gestural outlook by the metaphor of artistic expression? Do we think about the human face as if it is material to be moulded by aesthetic norms (taken from the magazines) at will? "Cosmetic surgery is for those only who are already at home with the way they look


Then there is the issue of botox, a toxic used to lame facial musculature so as to prevent the skin from wrinkling. No doubt, this is an American invention. Where else would people so hastily and with so little reluctance give up their major means of expression of their psychology? (And see Narrativizing the tender).

Reconstructive plastic surgery a blessing

Technological developments drag along with them the good old handiwork, and this goes as much for plastic surgery as for the digitalization of photography. Obviously, we must cherish our new powers to restore a socially acceptable outlook of victims of tragic accidents. To be able to reconstruct a face on a fire victim is a blessing.

Defining the types

One could extend this argument, and stipulate that plastic surgery is reconstructive if and only if the motivation for it is effected by accidental circumstances, and it is luxurious when not; we reserve the term "cosmetic surgery" for the latter variety.

When is an accident?

Apart form the clear-cut cases of car crashes and fires, it would also, today, count as an accident if one were born with a nose so big that it prevented people to detach their gaze from it, and look 'through the face into one's mind'. Might not the 'accident' in this stipulation be further defined as: a circumstance which prevents someone from straightforwardly expressing his inner life to others? [Think of the Elephant man, or other so-called 'freaks of nature'.]

The psychological element

This working definition acknowledges the gradual transgression from one into the other kind: when does one decide that other people are keeping their staring gaze fixed at a particular spot in one's outlook, and when does one decide that that is a substantial accident, sufficiently substantial to motivate one to undergo a surgical 'correction'? The way this is described suggests that whether or not an accident is at stake is a psychological matter, and maybe it is. [We must think this through thoroughly.]

Trauma and reconciliation

The last thing a plastic surgeon will want is cause a trauma in his patient. Surgeons who, for instance, choose to restrict operations to restoration of body parts damaged in accidents, are motivated in this exact manner: not only do they intend not to cause any traumas, what they want is remove them if possible, or at the least, reduce their effects. So it is probably not exaggerated if we assume that aesthetic surgeons do not want their patients to feel as if they were mutilated under surgery when they take of the bandages.
From this, we can, perhaps, derive a criterion, which can perhaps be of use for intake procedures in surgical institutes, and which, at the least, should help us to more adequately conceive of the relevant philosophical issues. The patient/client must be capable to reconcile the differences between his outlook 'before and after' (the surgery). Whether or not the patient is capable of such reconciliation is, however, a success-criterion, assessable only after the fact. We shall have to wait and see.
Put like this, again, this points to the risks involved in the lottery of aesthetic surgery. [The latter term I derive from patients crying out after rebuilt "It's like winning in the lottery!" As is the case with the lottery, it is not quite always a blessing to gain too much... Apart from that, there is also the element of risk looming largely.]
We can also use this criterion to further our understanding of how we relate to our outer appearances, and of which types of changes in that appearance we will experience as troubling, and why so. [Whether 'troubling changes' (or troubling properties generally) develop into stigmata---which may be taken to form a positive indication for the appropriateness of plastic surgery---is yet a further question.]

And a slippery slope

The distinction between these two types of motivation produces a sociological slippery slope, though. What would not count as an accident today, may begin to some to count as one after five years of spreading cosmetic surgery. This is a case of Munchhausen argument. Spreading corrections of a particular kind automatically turn into accidents those faces that did not undergo the 'correction'. Facial traits become 'a stigma' merely for not being 'corrected', like they should.

Reconstructive and luxurious plastic surgery

Yet, we must never forget that the 'restored' fire victim has a long way to go to make his new face a window onto his inner life. He must practice, in social surroundings and find confirmation before the mirror for years on end. We tend to forget that putting on a new face does not immediately produce the success anticipated upon. The catch, in all cases, comes afterward: a challenge that we are well accustomed to, because we experience it in our every day confrontations with mirrors.

'Expression' is a success term

Unlike 'emotion', 'expression' is a success term. Whether something is expressed depends on its being picked up correctly by others. One might object to another's interpretation of one's facial expression on account of what one feels one is really going through, but this is, in fact, wrongheaded. (See Feagin, 1997, p. 53.)
Emotions presuppose a history of psychological events, a disposition (Wollheim would say). They also involve beliefs about the world--present-day views of emotions (most notably Robert Solomon's) take emotions to be cognitive. Lastly, emotions are acquired events. We learn the norms of appropriateness from our peers and parents in a long process of socialization.
David Wiggins' argues that emotion-attributes involve <property-response>-pairs, the correctness of which is under permanent debate.

There is no debating the appropriateness of someone's expression. It is just there for all (or most) to be seen. (Whether you win a game is decided either whilst playing it or after the fact, depending on exactly what you think 'winning' means: whether you take it to be an activity or a success.)

The 'gaze' as a success term

Perhaps the gaze, too, is distinguished from empathy, its cognitive brother, as a success term. The gaze is the receiving counterpart of expression, empathy the receiving counterpart of emotion.

Success terms and activity terms

We can distinguish between terms which apply only after success and terms which refer to the activity leading to such success. Some terms are ambiguous in this respect, e.g. the Anglo-Saxon "aesthetic appreciation": one would think the term denotes a perceptive activity, but in the literature it is used as well to refer to the successful outcome of such activity.
Activity terms are empirical, and, hence, philosophically of less interest than are the corresponding success terms--such as Kant's notion of 'the free play of the cognitive faculties'--which are transcendental in nature, or, in Popper's terminology: they are non-falsifiable.
There seem to exist standards of correctness for success terms, but, as they apply transcendentally, i.e. logically and in retrospect only, these standards do little to help us predict or prescribe the relevant success.
How do we know which standards apply?
How does the empirical terms' empirical nature relate to the success terms' standards of correctness?
Do success terms and activity terms always come in pairs--like the two just mentioned?
Is there a way to circumvent the non-falsifiability of the success term--perhaps by reducing it to its activity counterpart?
Why do we have these regulative principles--such as are related to the success terms?
I have wrestled with these questions in relation to Kant's analysis of the judgement of taste in terms of a sensus communis, in my “Kant's Regulative Principle of Aesthetic Excellence: The Ideal Aesthetic Experience.”

Other people's responses

'Socially acceptable' means: adapting how one feels about one's outward appearance to what one thinks about other people's responses to it. There is a measure of adaptation involved in this, and that is how it should be. Adapting to social challenges is what makes one a member of the moral species; it is what it means to be a human being, a person. Other people's plastic operations, however, tell the world something quite different. They tell us that the psychological is subordinate to the technical, to artifactuality. Here, humanity is turned into craft.

The Free choice argument

Our national ambassador of cosmetic surgery, Marijke Helwegen, thinks that people should never be forced to undergo cosmetic surgery by friends or family, but should choose for it of their own free will. I fully agree.
The only question is: how do we establish whether the choice was free or determined?
The following seems to be a case of free choice: to stand in front of the mirror and decide whether to apply red or pink lipgloss.
Why is that a free choice?

  1. For one, because one can decide later, that, maybe, the other colour would have been better and make the necessary changes. That means that the stakes are not so high as to make one too nervous to really (objectively?) choose amongst the alternatives. [You cannot remove the effects of cosmetic surgery.]
  2. Secondly, what one is trying to achieve is a means to find a match between one's inner life (the way one feels) and one's outer appearance. This match can only be achieved ad hoc, and in actu, while adjusting. What is at stake is far too subtle to leave to some third-party, outward judgement. [i.e. the surgeon; pictures in magazines of persons who succeeded in finding that match, and in building their expression.]
  3. No pressure from other persons? That seems like the most curious thing to demand in the context of our cosmetic changing our outlook: it is the other persons and their gazes that we adhere to when applying cosmetics, or picking our clothes to wear. One is bound to be motivated by these gazes, as one is bound to put a high premium on the love and affection received from these others.
  4. Applying make-up cannot be motivated exclusively negatively to be successful, although, of course, negative thoughts about one's looks may form the primary motivation to do something about it. There are, in themselves, however, no good advisors.
  5. One has to have positive ideas about how the application will effect the outlook, and, like a painter before his canvas, one must have a second-chance. Only after years of practice can the artist 'decide' beforehand, i.e. whilst painting, what the effects of his next interference will be like--and yet, in his case too there will remain a measure of luck, a touch of genius.
  6. There is no predicting the loss of tenderness suffered on account of cosmetic surgery.
    [You will be the first to notice--and will you ever get over it?]

Only for the 'beautiful'

I guess, the only person who is really capable of making a free choice for cosmetic surgery is one who has no apparent need for any changes, but who chooses for it from absolutely luxurious considerations.
When someone in favour of cosmetic surgery tells you to be really sure not to act on the basis of other people's pressuring you, and to really decide of your free will, why does he or she tell you that?
Cosmetic surgery is for those only who are already at home with the way they look.

The Munchhausen effect

If and when people start tricking their faces for luxurious cosmetic reasons, they drag along people who are unmotivated to want to change the way they look. [See the note on 'accident', above.]
What appears to be an issue for individuals only (may, or should, she have her face 'corrected'?) is in reality a communal issue.

Facial cosmetic surgery epistemological

My interest is with facial cosmetic surgery. Reconstruction of any of the other parts of the body is neutral to our issue. Why?
[Can it be neutral to a person's appearance if he were to correct his limping? Apparently not. Yet, we find it unproblematic. Why? The answer seems to be: there is no epistemological dimension to non-facial 'malformations', because they do not tell us what goes on in the person. We are assuming that this is what a face does do.]
We 'know' what legs are for, so whether or not they should be reconstructed after an accident, is an easy problem. But we have no inkling, apparently, as to how the face relates to the person.


It is one thing to be jealous every now and then, of the success other people seem to have on account of their good looks (or so you feel).
Maybe, you desire the same things they are getting: the attention, and any other nice results.
Yet, is the route to get there: providing yourself with their looks? [How should we analyse the mechanism of success through merely being a particular person?]

Psychological catharsis

We are told, among others by Jacques Lacan in Écrits, that we conceive of ourselves in a response to the mirror image we get from others. This is a brilliant metaphor for present purposes. Cosmetic surgery is like the child's response to an image it abhors. Instead of setting out to get to grips with one's outlook -as one has to get to grips with one's fantasies, desires, emotions and insights- one decides to just take away that image in the mirror. Life does not have to be a long-term psychological suffering process of trying to get along with whoever one is. There is no need to accept who one happens to be, one can change oneself, just like that.

Eternal adolescence

Could we conceive of adolescence as the age in which we try to get to grips with the way we happen to look (on account of the body we happen to be born with)? If so, cosmetic surgery may (in some instances) be a case of someone failing to finish adolescence. Think of what might happen to such a person in the years after cosmetic surgery: would there ever come a moment where he might say to himself: "To hell. This is what I look like and it is what I am, I am quitting the surgery"? That would be the point he finally ended adolescence. I am not sure whether that final realisation is psychologically available to one who has started rebuilding his facial characteristics.

Old friends and new ones

Cosmetic surgery provides one with a set of new friends, but alienates one from one's old ones. Your friends and family can no longer see your moral mind expressed in your outlook. Instead, they see a person who resembles some beautiful other as known from television.
But does one really make new friends?
How better to characterize the gaze with which one's new friends look at one, as the often stereotyped (as objectifying) male gaze?
In cosmetic surgery too, psychology is overruled by medicine and technology.

Humanity is the tragic species

What is meant with this epiteth (that used to open my web-site) is not that, time and again, tragic experiences happen to individual persons, but that being a person means being a member of a species that has the constitutive ingredients necessary for tragedy, and that this is what makes us prone both to criminality and to morality.

Aristotle on tragedy

Among the many crucial things Aristotle has to say about tragedy is his idea that the core event in a tragedy is 'hamartia', which might be translated with 'tragic error or fallibility' which leads the antagonist to make the mistakes he makes, which leads to the final devastating acknowledgement (which led, e.g. Oedipus to out his eyes). According to Rorty (p. 10), Hamartia is not just a character flaw, but refers to the moment of insight that a tragic character bestows upon himself at the crucial stage of the play. E.g. when Oedipus finally realizes he has been sleeping with his mother and did kill his father, he realizes, as well, that he has been living a life by a strategy meant to prevent him from doing exactly these two things.


Hamartia involves the realization that one's own faults were one's own doing; yet, they were not caused by conscious decisions, but, so to speak, as a by-product of other conscious decisions (in the case of Oedipus: decisions to move away from where he thought his parents were living to avoid realizing the Delphi oracle). Tragedy is about self-inflicted incidents. The relevance of this for our debate? Probably the thought that actions do not exclusively depend on conscious decisions to do them, but also on how we conceive of ourselves and decide not to do certain things. Hamartia tells us that we are incapable to survey all the effects our decisions have. One of the reasons for this cognitive incapacity is in the fact that we also act through facial and gestural expression.

The human species

The human species is the moral species means it is the tragic species. Without the means and capacities to think about situations not present to one's senses neither morality nor tragedy is amongst the possibilities inherent in a species.

Psychological hamartia

In television programs on cosmetic surgery, patients appear to chose to have their faces changed on account of it looking like xyz, while failing to realize how their appearances are consequential as to how other people tend to look at them. The moment they shall realize this, will most certainly be hamartic. However, it will then be too late for them to turn back the tables. They will be looking at the result of a decision made with one set of considerations in mind under the exclusion of several relevant other considerations, such as those pertaining to the communication with their friends, family and colleagues.
By making aesthetic decisions (about the way you look) one will, in the same move, be making ethical choices.

'Cyborg' in fashion

It is more fashionable, in this context, to say that "the person has turned into a cyborg", than to be indignant about it.
Why am I disturbed by the fact that on top of the alienation just mentioned, cosmetic surgery also drags 'plain' persons with it on its road towards artificiality, I mean those who refuse to have their outlook rebuilt for no particular reasons?
Maybe it is because I love my own species for what it is. I am disturbed because cosmetic surgery stands in the way of people finding their selves in their lives, which, I guess, is their sole route to the good life.
Politics is the only agency that might put this slippery development to an end. Only politics can act in the name of the many. Unfortunately, politics has not found the right arguments yet. Has it even looked for any?

The face as a goodmanian symbol system

Juxtapose the latest faces of famous women and you'll find that there is no way to retrospectively connect them with their previous faces. The only thing to do is put a label under them and agree on their reference. We are creating a goodmanian symbol system. The next question is: what are its syntactic and semantic peculiarities and is it a generative system? Is it a notational system or is it adamitic (one on one)? Or, lastly, have we finally succeeded in turning all individual entities in the world into denotata of universal terms? (Adam apparantly had a proper name for each and every thing in the world; sometime during biblical evolution this changed into our present-day language system. Finally, now, we succeeded in killing the proper names of individuals.) And: the face now becomes a symbol of one's inner, instead of its symptom.



Aristotle: On the Art of Poetry. (tr. T.S. Dorsch). Harmondsworth, etc.: Penguin, 1965. Böhme, Gernot, 1999. 'Physiognomie als Begriff der Ästhetik.' In Perspektiven der Lebensphilosophie, edited by Michael Gro▀heim, Bonn: Bouvier, 44-56. 'Case against Pop & Rock' (Internet) Darwin, Charles, 1872. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton and Company. (Internet) Etcoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. London: Abacus Books, 2000. (review) Gerwen, Rob van, 'Performers' Personae and the Psychology of Musical Expressiveness' forthcoming: Garry Hagberg (ed.): Improvisation in the Arts. 2004. (Email me for a PDF-version) Gerwen, Rob van. 1995. “Kants Regulative Principle of Aesthetic Excellence: The Ideal Aesthetic Experience.” Kant-Studien86:331-45. Stephen Halliwell: Aristotle's Poetics. London: Duckworth, 2000 Lacan, Jacques, 'Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je telle quelle nous est révélée dans l'expérience psychanalytique.' Ecrits. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, pp. 93-100. _________. 1977. “The Mirror stage.” In Ecrits, English tr., 2-7. London: Tavistock. Lavater, Johann Caspar. c1844 (1775). Essays on Physiognomy, Designed to Promote the Knowledge and Love of Mankind. 19. Translated by Thomas Holcroft. London: Ward, Lock and Bowden/Gresham. (Internet) Kant, Immanuel. 1987 (1790). Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft). Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis and Cambridge (Berlin und Libau): Hackett Publishing Company (Lagarde und Friederich). [Check section 17 on the ideal of beauty [in German or English], and the argument of the disinterestedness of the judgement of taste, in section 2] Levinson, J. (1996) "Musical Expressiveness". The Pleasures of Aesthetics. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 90-128 Amélie Oksenberg Rorty: "The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy". Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.): Essays on Aristotle's Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, 1-22. Scruton, Roger. "Sound", chapter 1 in The Aesthetics of Music, pp. 1-18. Scruton, Roger. "The Decline of Musical Culture", in chapter 15 in The Aesthetics of Music, pp. 500-08.

The Gaze

Argyle, M. and M. Cook. Gaze and Mutual Gaze. Cambridge, 1975. Argyle, M. 'Eye-contact' in: R.L. Gregory (ed.) The Mind. Oxford: oxford University Press, 1997: 247-48. DSM-IV-TR (text revision) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000. Chandler, Daniel. "Notes on the gaze in media-theory" Exline, Ralp V., and B.J. Fehr. 1982. “The Assessment of Gaze and Mutual Gaze.” In Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research, edited by Klaus R. Scherer and Paul Ekman, 91-135. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. Kate Fox, 'Mirror, mirror. A summary of research findings on body image', Social Issues Research Centre, 1997: http://www.sirc.org/publik/mirror.html Gerwen, Rob van. "On Exemplary Art as the Symbol of Morality. Making Sense of Kant's Ideal of Beauty." In: Kant und die Berliner Aufklärung. Akten des IX. Kant Kongresses, Bd. 3, 553-62, Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2001. Kant, Immanuel (1900 (1786)). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. S. 61, Ak. IV, 429. Kant, Immanuel (1794). Critique of Judgement, section 17. (German or English) Williams, Bernard. 1993. “Endnote 1: Mechanisms of Shame and Guilt.” In Shame and Necessity, 219-224. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press.


James Ellroy. Black Dahlia (1987) ________ The Big Nowhere (1988) ________ My Dark PLaces 1996 ________ The Cold Six Thousand (2001) Algirdas Julien Greimas. Sémiotique et sciences sociales (1976) ________ Du Sens II (1983) ________ De l'imperfection, 1987 Perry, John (ed.). 1975. Personal Identity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: California University Press [You'll find here texts from John Locke, David Hume, Sydney Shoemaker, Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit, and Thomas Nagel] Wollheim The Thread of Life, Cambridge University Press, 1984 ________ On the Emotions, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

» Stephen Söderbergh. The Limey (1999) (IMDB)
» ________ Traffic (2000) (IMDB)

Emotion and Empathy

Carruthers, Peter, and Peter K. Smith, eds. 1996. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. Currie, Gregory. 1995. “Imagination and Simulation: Aesthetics Meets Cognitive Science.” In Mental Simulation, edited by Martin Davies and Tony Stone, 151-69. Oxford: Blackwell. _________. 1998. Image and Mind. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. Darwin, Charles. 1872a. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton and Company. Davies, Martin, and Tony Stone, eds. 1995a. Folk Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. _________, eds. 1995b. Mental Simulation. Oxford: Blackwell. Deigh, John. 1994. “Cognitivism in the Theory of Emotion: A Survey Article.” Ethics 104:824-54. Dennett, Daniel Clement. 1986. Content and Consciousness. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. _________. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. Elster, Jon. 1999d. Strong Feelings. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Susan L. Feagin. 1997a. “Imagining Emotions and Appreciating Fiction.” In Emotion and the Arts, edited by Mette Hjort and Sue Laver, 50-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gerwen, Rob van. 1996b. “Imaginativist Subjectivism.” Chapter 8 of Art and Experience, Volume XIV of Quaestiones Infinitae, 153-70. Utrecht: Dept. Philosophy. _________. 1996c. “Intimation and Tertiary Qualities.” Chapter 7 of Art and Experience, Volume XIV of Quaestiones Infinitae, 125-52. Utrecht: Dept. Philosophy. _________. 2002d. “De ontologische drogreden in de analytische esthetica.” Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte 94:109-123. (English version available) Gibson, J.J. 1986. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. London, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Goldie, Peter. 2000a. The Emotions. A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press. _________, ed. 2002b. Understanding Emotions. Mind and Morals. Aldershot, etc.: Ashgate. James, William. 1884. “What is an Emotion?” Mind 9:188-205. Lacan, Jacques. 1977. “The Mirror stage.” In Ecrits, English tr., 2-7. London: Tavistock. McDowell, John. 1998. “The content of perceptual experience.” In Mind, Value, & Reality, 341-58. Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press. Scruton, Roger. 1983. “Public Text and Common Reader.” In The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture, 14-33. London, New York: Methuen. Solomon, Robert C. 1976. The Passions. New York: Doubleday/Anchor. Taylor, Charles. 1971. “Interpretation and the Science of Man.” Review of Metaphysics 3:25-51. Wollheim, Richard. 1984i. The Thread of Life. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. _________. 1999. On the Emotions. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Zemach, Eddy M. 1993. “The Ontology of Aesthetic Properties.” Iyyun 42:49-66.


» Abramowicz, Marina
» abstract (this chapter)
» adamitic language
» American experience, idem, idem
» Aristotleon tragedyhamartía
» betrayal
» botox, idem
» cell phones, idem
» computer games
» cosmetic surgerybeautiful peopledefining typesepistemologicaleternal adolescencefree choicefriends, old and newjealousylotteryMunchhausen effectpsychological catharsisreconstructiveresultslippery slopestigmatatrauma
» cyborg
» Ellroy, James
» empathy
» ethics, idem
» exhibitionistcompared with voyeurist
» Feagin, Susan L.
» Freud, Sigmund

» gazeinfatuated gazingcell phonesdurationlearning the durationlicense to gaze, idemmirrorparentssocialas success termtender
» Goodman, Nelsonface as symbol system
» Greimas, Algirdas Julien , idem
» hamartía, psychological
» Hegharty, Francis / Francis Fyffield
» Hollywood, idem
» humanity tragichuman species
» individuals (are parochial)
» Kant, Immanuel, idem
» Kazan, Eliah
» Klein, Melanie
» Lacan, Jacques
» Malle, Louis (Alamo Bay)
» metaphor of artistic expression
» Method acting
» mirror, idem, idem
» narcissism
» narrativization vs. repsychologization, idem
» non-falsifiability
» observing (as agency)
» performance
» personavatarpersonal identityagential spaceextended personhoodhiding
» persona
» philosophy →repsychologizedcounterfactuals, idem
» representation and expression
» respect
» shame
» Söderbergh, StephenThe LimeyTrafficOut of Sight
» Strassberg, Lee
» success as criterionand activity termsexpressiongaze
» Thompson, Jim
» tragedy
» trust, idem
» voyeur, idemcompared with exhibitionist
» Wiggins, David
» Wollheim, Richard, idem, idem