On Form and Formalism

True formalist criticism searches for the form of judgment that is inseparable from the form of a work of art.

To be a formalist in life is not to be an aesthete; aestheticism is a perversion of formalism. Formalism concerns itself with a regard for the concept of form as a ground and guide for normativity, whether in the natural or human sciences. Formalism is, at its foundation, ethical.

Neuroticism is a disproportionate concern with one particular form, or with the forms inherent in one domain of life, society, or activity; it is an inability to move to consider other forms.

The most stale traditionalists and conservatives appeal to narrow notions of “form”—manners and thoughtless traditions. Where they are redeemed, manners and traditions are subject to formalist thought, in the context of other forms of life.

But how much work this word “form” is doing? What is this concept of form? Is it simply a discernment of related parts with limits? Is it the Platonic conception?

Herodotus’ story of Croesus, on his deathbed, judging the shape of his life is an ethical formalism.

Where disciplines of thought know themselves to be explorations of form they are most themselves, most alive to their limitations and possibilities—even where form is not central to an investigation, it must be a backdrop against which it proceeds.

Theology offers as powerful a formalist account as any discipline, in its discourse of the absolute, the eternal, the absent, the present, and the fallen.

In quotidian life, forms are most pronounced for some and least for others; one source of satisfaction is participating in forms, and in knowing oneself to be doing so. Hence the athlete can admire the perfection of a particular game or movement within a game. Others can enjoy the prospect of a successfully cooked meal. Either depends on appreciating not just a meal or a sport, but form itself, and the language to describe the rightness of either will be formalist.

But there are some for whom the forms of daily life are too small, or take in too little of what makes up life as life, and who seek instead either the extreme distillations of form itself (music or math) or else ways of thinking about forms that extend beyond particular, finite, rules-bound activities, and that are limited by principles from within (literature, history, philosophy). Not all intellectuals, scholars, and specialists, but those who seek out accounts of forms that extend beyond specific, rules-bound activities, who seek to analyze and account for forms that transcend, define, and are defined by entire domains of living, are apt to be dismissed as “intellectuals,” meaning that they cannot rest content with accepting, without thought or description, the forms that are routine, habitual, inherited, and given.

Something like happiness would seem to consist in admitting and admiring the variety of forms that are limited, occasional, quotidian, and also knowing them to be within forms that are “intellectual,” and that manifest in works of art, in philosophy, in the intense scrutiny of the past, and in the sciences.

Are we aware of when we impose forms that are not inherent, that harm and do violence to the forms of things as they are? Is it possible to discuss the forms of things as they are, present or past? The attraction of form may distort more than it discloses. Consider the historian seeking to elucidate the forms of politics, of society, of life in the past; teleology is a distortion but a natural distortion from the perspective of the present; and it may be the fate of history to find only a chaos of forms, whose ultimate relations cannot be recovered. Consider the philosopher or linguist who would account for literary form by the appeals of the structures of their disciplines, and so bypass or discount the form of judgment that is, by its nature as judgment, known only from within, from an imagined first-person account.

At times, the obtuse refusal to reckon with, draw out, and comprehend form makes works of history unreadable; at other times, the obtuse assumption that form is melodrama, narrative of a particular sort, or crass dramatization renders works of history useless. In a great biograph—David Herbert Donald on Lincoln, or MacCulloch on Thomas Cranmer—the biographer respects the form in a life enough to know it must be attended to in the form of the work, but not created by the form of the work. The same is true for historical accounts of eras, and of politics especially.

The formlessness and form of the archive needs to be in the form of the historian’s work—and the form of institutions needs to provide a ground or focus for the form of the work.

In a work of literature, form entails getting the conditions of judgments into the judgment. To think that the form is the judgment that is design, choice of word or structure, yields arid formalism, excluding the life, and the forms of life, that condition those judgments and inhere in them.

Literature discloses, and draws out, the forms of life, in lives, of lives. Literature not only exists as and in a variety of forms, but it can add to the available conceptions of form: the form of a life, or society, or mind, or history.

Forms may be collective and historical endeavors: the conventions that guide the forms of art, and the traditions of art, for example, span generations.

In political philosophy, the ambition of Rawls’ idealism is on one level, the form that is patterned distribution, but more profoundly, it is the form of agreement that permits it while respecting the self as a formal, self-conscious unity of interests, desires, and conceptions of the good; Nozick’s objection would retain only the form of property, defined in one way.

Intellectual history takes as a central subject the forms that error takes.

The attraction of form may too easily become the attraction of this form or that form, to the detriment of form itself.

Form is as basic a concept as good, truth, beauty, and perhaps inheres in all, being itself a vehicle for describing normative relation and limitations.

Boredom: the inability to participate in the form of what is at hand—not the inability to discern a form that is valuable, but the inability, incapacity, unwillingness to participate. In some theologies, this is a sin; the subsequent question for ethics is: what participation?

Not reduce to form; elevate to the form something already is.

In its negative capacity, moral and political thought often aspires to eliminate: pain, suffering, humiliation, inequality, arbitrary constraints. But in its positive capacity, moral and political thought attends to form, and to a life whose meaning is inseparable from the means and capacity to care for form. Hence education.

To be a formalist in life is not to be an aesthete; aestheticism is a perversion of formalism. Formalism concerns itself with a regard for the concept of form as a ground and guide for normativity, whether in the natural or human sciences. Formalism is, at its foundation, ethical.

Neuroticism is a disproportionate concern with one particular form, or with the forms inherent in one domain of life, society, or activity; it is an inability to move to consider other forms.

The most stale traditionalists and conservatives appeal to narrow notions of “form”—manners and thoughtless traditions. Where they are redeemed, manners and traditions are subject to formalist thought, in the context of other forms of life.

But how much work this word “form” is doing? What is this concept of form? Is it simply a discernment of related parts with limits? Is it the Platonic conception?

Herodotus’ story of Croesus, on his deathbed, judging the shape of his life is an ethical formalism.

Where disciplines of thought know themselves to be explorations of form they are most themselves, most alive to their limitations and possibilities—even where form is not central to an investigation, it must be a backdrop against which it proceeds.

Theology offers as powerful a formalist account as any discipline, in its discourse of the absolute, the eternal, the absent, the present, and the fallen.

In quotidian life, forms are most pronounced for some and least for others; one source of satisfaction is participating in forms, and in knowing oneself to be doing so. Hence the athlete can admire the perfection of a particular game or movement within a game. Others can enjoy the prospect of a successfully cooked meal. Either depends on appreciating not just a meal or a sport, but form itself, and the language to describe the rightness of either will be formalist.

But there are some for whom the forms of daily life are too small, or take in too little of what makes up life as life, and who seek instead either the extreme distillations of form itself (music or math) or else ways of thinking about forms that extend beyond particular, finite, rules-bound activities, and that are limited by principles from within (literature, history, philosophy). Not all intellectuals, scholars, and specialists, but those who seek out accounts of forms that extend beyond specific, rules-bound activities, who seek to analyze and account for forms that transcend, define, and are defined by entire domains of living, are apt to be dismissed as “intellectuals,” meaning that they cannot rest content with accepting, without thought or description, the forms that are routine, habitual, inherited, and given.

Something like happiness would seem to consist in admitting and admiring the variety of forms that are limited, occasional, quotidian, and also knowing them to be within forms that are “intellectual,” and that manifest in works of art, in philosophy, in the intense scrutiny of the past, and in the sciences.

Are we aware of when we impose forms that are not inherent, that harm and do violence to the forms of things as they are? Is it possible to discuss the forms of things as they are, present or past? The attraction of form may distort more than it discloses. Consider the historian seeking to elucidate the forms of politics, of society, of life in the past; teleology is a distortion but a natural distortion from the perspective of the present; and it may be the fate of history to find only a chaos of forms, whose ultimate relations cannot be recovered. Consider the philosopher or linguist who would account for literary form by the appeals of the structures of their disciplines, and so bypass or discount the form of judgment that is, by its nature as judgment, known only from within, from an imagined first-person account.

At times, the obtuse refusal to reckon with, draw out, and comprehend form makes works of history unreadable; at other times, the obtuse assumption that form is melodrama, narrative of a particular sort, or crass dramatization renders works of history useless. In a great biograph—David Herbert Donald on Lincoln, or MacCulloch on Thomas Cranmer—the biographer respects the form in a life enough to know it must be attended to in the form of the work, but not created by the form of the work. The same is true for historical accounts of eras, and of politics especially.

The formlessness and form of the archive needs to be in the form of the historian’s work—and the form of institutions needs to provide a ground or focus for the form of the work.

In a work of literature, form entails getting the conditions of judgments into the judgment. To think that the form is the judgment that is design, choice of word or structure, yields arid formalism, excluding the life, and the forms of life, that condition those judgments and inhere in them.

Literature discloses, and draws out, the forms of life, in lives, of lives. Literature not only exists as and in a variety of forms, but it can add to the available conceptions of form: the form of a life, or society, or mind, or history.

Forms may be collective and historical endeavors: the conventions that guide the forms of art, and the traditions of art, for example, span generations.

In political philosophy, the ambition of Rawls’ idealism is on one level, the form that is patterned distribution, but more profoundly, it is the form of agreement that permits it while respecting the self as a formal, self-conscious unity of interests, desires, and conceptions of the good; Nozick’s objection would retain only the form of property, defined in one way.

Intellectual history takes as a central subject the forms that error takes.

The attraction of form may too easily become the attraction of this form or that form, to the detriment of form itself.

Form is as basic a concept as good, truth, beauty, and perhaps inheres in all, being itself a vehicle for describing normative relation and limitations.

Boredom: the inability to participate in the form of what is at hand—not the inability to discern a form that is valuable, but the inability, incapacity, unwillingness to participate. In some theologies, this is a sin; the subsequent question for ethics is: what participation?

Not reduce to form; elevate to the form something already is.

In its negative capacity, moral and political thought often aspires to eliminate: pain, suffering, humiliation, inequality, arbitrary constraints. But in its positive capacity, moral and political thought attends to form, and to a life whose meaning is inseparable from the means and capacity to care for form. Hence education.