Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Sketchy Aesthetics

Currently physics background for another project is devouring most of my mind, but I had this kindof wacky idea for a big-picture theory of aesthetics.

Suppose we say: Naive intuitions about beauty correspond to a folk theory whereby people naturally would all like the same things, except for certain deceptive conditions like:

  • only liking something because you were told it's a great work of art
  • not liking something which you would otherwise like because you've seen
  • it so often
  • liking something only through ignorance of some of its descriptive
  • properties
  • liking something which you would easily get sick of etc.

These are platitudes about which causal influences on aesthetic judgement
are "misleading".

But now, pull a Kantian revolution, and say that it's not that these traits are misleading because they lead us to fail to track some antecedently natural and interesting category of the beautiful, but rather that `beautiful' refers to (roughly) "the kind of thing that people would like if not for the conditions indicated in the platitudes."

So far this sounds like familiar response-dependence theories. BUT there's one more wrinkle.

There might be enough natural variation between people for there to be no interesting class of objects which everyone is (ceterus paribus) disposed to like, when free from the deceptive conditions indicated by the platitudes above. It's a psychological matter whether getting more ideal in these respects would lead to convergence or divergence in aesthetic judgements.

So here's the complete view I want to propose (which, hopefully, handles this objection):

If there is a fairly definite class of things people (in our linguistic community) are inclined to like when free from the platiduinous bad influences then `beautiful' rigidly designates that class of objects.

If there is no such class, `beautiful' is implicitly speaker relative. In the latter case, we can think of arguments about beauty as involving the implicit assumption between both participants in the argument that their dispositions to like or dislike that objects would be the same if free from platitudinous bad influences.


  1. In my experience, most aesthetic arguments involve one person trying to shove some new deceptive condition into your list to explain why the other wrongly finds object X beautiful. I.e., aesthetic judgments involve prescribing that class of beautiful objects as much as identifying it.

  2. ooh that sounds plausible, especially in more theoretical arguments about beauty. Do you have any examples in easy reach?

    I was thinking that normal debates mostly involve things like: you didn't enjoy this because you didn't notice funny passage x, or know fact y about the history of the period, or think about general question z as it relates to the events in the story.

    In these cases, everyone agrees that failing to notice something, or think about some question, or know some background info is a "deceptive" condition under which to experience art.

    But are there other cases where we both agree about how something is causally relevant to my experience of a work of art, but disagree about whether this influence is a distorting one or not?

    nabokov says `you just liked story S because you identified strongly with the characters, and enjoyed their triumph, not because it's a good work of fiction'

    anti-nabokov says `yeah I did like story S because I identified with the characters, the fact that it has characters that are easy to identify with is part of what makes it a good work of fiction.

    is that the kind of thing you are thinking of?

    p.s. welcome to this blog and thanks for commenting! I'm very curious to hear what someone who has obviously thought about these issues so much more than I have thinks.