UCSB Philosophy Blog

Members of the UCSB Department of Philosophy and anyone else are welcome to talk philosophy with us. Bring your own brain.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Common-sense Aesthetics

I’ve been thinking about aesthetics as a philosophical and as a common-sense enterprise. It seems to me that current common-sense aesthetics is almost entirely vacuous. I say this because it doesn’t explain (arguably) the most basic data of aesthetics: we think some works of art are good/bad, or at least that some are better than others. Common-sense aesthetics is relativism at its baldest; its purported explanation of these data is that such evaluations are essentially statements of personal preference. This is patently a non-explanation—the question would remain why we have such personal preferences, but the common-sense theory merely takes it as a brute fact that we have them. This is why I say that common-sense aesthetics (CSA) is vacuous.
Why have many philosophers and other intelligent people bought into this theory? The answer may be that while there are (and always have been) socially accepted experts in aesthetic matters, the qualifications for becoming such an expert do not include knowing what one is talking about (to the extent that we could reasonably establish this). That is, people who are considered experts about art (mostly artists and critics, and especially the more “highbrow” among them) can be wrong, sometimes dead wrong, about art. It would appear that the burden of my argument is now to demonstrate that this is so. But I put it to the reader that this is certainly no less intuitively plausible (and perhaps, no more capable of demonstrative proof) than the thesis that these experts are basically infallible.
If an artist (e.g., someone of repute, like Picasso) states that good art has property F (say, increases political consciousness), we are generally inclined to take him seriously. If anyone has the authority to say such a thing, this guy does. This, I take it, is a standard attitude of laity toward experts, or at least scientific experts. (Perhaps the epistemic sociology (for lack of a better short expression) of aesthetics hasn’t always mirrored that of the sciences, and perhaps it was quite different in even the recent past, or is different in certain circles/cultures. But the similarity expressed seems to hold now, in my community.)
But we are soon confronted with a difficulty that defeats the analogy with the scientific epistemic sociology: those commonly accepted as aesthetic experts agree about very little (if anything), in general. In contrast, scientific experts in each field can generally agree on a large number of substantial claims. The explanation of this disanalogy is something I’ve been working on for a while now, but more important here is the fact that CSA’s purported explanation is weak. Its explanation is basically that these experts are right, but only “subjectively” speaking (whatever that means). This is supposed to explain the fact that distinct experts can say conflicting things; but evidently, if the experts can’t muster an “objective” truth about art, then surely a layperson’s aesthetic evaluations are equally “subjective”.
Why is this explanation weak? Because, if true, it undermines the epistemic social structure: we are all equally experts, regardless of training or eloquence. But if Joe Schmoe’s theory of art is necessarily as valid as Samuel Coleridge’s, then there’s no point in thinking about art. This view reinforces the thesis that there’s no explaining aesthetic preference—if we could explain it, then there would be real aesthetic experts, people who could say with some authority why some works are good, or preferred, or whatever. But what if there were some explaining to do? What if some people are better than others at explaining how art works? Surely this ability needn’t strictly track artistic abilities or the attributes that make one a respected critic. What if there is a host of aesthetic questions that are being ignored because we have been convinced by a roughly circular argument that there is no use looking?
I haven’t demonstrated that the argument for CSA (or anyway, one based closely on the above reconstruction of the view) is circular, but it probably could be done. Certainly the argument, “if the experts can’t agree, then aesthetics is bunk,” is void if the class of experts is established de facto and not de jure. But whether or not CSA can be refuted, what I hope I’ve done is motivate the view that a serious aesthetics (i.e., one that seeks substantial explanations for what people do and say about art) should be taken seriously. It seems almost silly that I should have to do so, to philosophers especially, but most people I talk to about art raise these kinds of considerations in response—seemingly as answers—to my questions. There may be some philosophical depth to relativist views in aesthetics (though I doubt there’s ultimately much motivation for them), but we shouldn’t consider the field moot simply because the common-sense theory does so. As philosophers, we should expect there to be some digging to do under any common-sense theory, and aesthetics is no exception.

Friday, September 23, 2005

New department blog

Welcome, fellow philosophers. This is the newly opened UCSB Philosophy Department blog, on which we hope to have some random discussion of philosophical (or other) issues. If you've got an issue that you're thinking about (and who doesn't?) write up a little something for other readers to respond to. I'll post some of my own concerns soon, but here are a few starter questions that I mostly don't know how to answer.
  1. What is the object of belief? I.e., when George believes that it is raining, is there a thing to which he is thereby related, and if so, what is that thing? E.g., is it a Russellian proposition, a neural state type, or what? Is there an answer that is satisfying from both a semantic and psychological point of view?
  2. Can I name anything anything? I.e., does a name have to be a linguistic entity, or could it be, e.g., a person or a tree or an event? Could I name something as the Battle of Trafalgar (not "The Battle of Trafalgar")? (MG's question)
  3. Does art have moral properties, as well as aesthetic properties? Are good works of art morally good, or is art morally neutral? What's the relation between these notions?
Have fun with that.