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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.


  • At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Luke,
    I agree with you about the merits of CSA but I'm not sure that it's vacuous. Evaluative judgments are puzzling because they threaten to introduce supposedly mysterious values into our ontology and epistemology. Explaining these judgments in terms of our preferences is supposed to be an advance because these preferences don't, on the face of it, require explanation in terms of values. (They might, of course, require explanation in psychological, sociological or evolutionary terms but such explanations won't be philosophically puzzling in the ways that values are supposed to be). I take it that's why subjectivist views like CSA are supposed to be informative.

  • At 10:32 AM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Good call Jonny. I wasn't really considering independent philosophical motivation for a CSA-like view, so much as trying to characterize CSA and the prima facie evidence for it. But you're right; ontological parsimony is probably the most commonly cited reason for being a subjectivist (or emotivist or something else vaguely anti-realist) about aesthetic values. As to whether that's a good reason to accept such views, I'll just say that while ontological parsimony is a laudable goal, there are too many other factors in this debate for it clearly to decide things. In my post I was trying to bring out some such factors that aren't often discussed. Thanks for the comment.

  • At 4:56 PM, Blogger mjgrady said…

    Not that I am any great proponent of CSA, I do think your characterization of the common-sense aesthetician is incorrect. Or, at least it needs to make room for a different view that has at least as big a claim to the name.
    In my experience, when evaluating an artwork as good or bad, the average person does not appeal to some notion of personal preference. Indeed, they have a reasonably clear idea of what exactly constitutes a work of art and which skills are necessary to create artworks of certain kinds. Whether or not their ideas about artworkhood and artisthood are correct, in general they do not buy into some subjective theory of aesthetics, as you claim many philosophers and other ivory tower inhabitants have.
    A more accurate representation of the common-sense aesthetician's beliefs is forthcoming when we tighten the screws. Whatever it is they do believe, I have found that, when pressed, the average person does not believe artwork evaluations to be mere ascriptions of personal preference. In fact, people will much more readily claim that the intelligentsia are just crazy than admit that they themselves hold some sort of subjectivist position. Often, what is meant by the average person to be an expression of their disinclination to argue ("That's art?") is taken by the more sophisticated as an admission of defeat. That said, I don't think it's right to say that the most common instances of CSA are even a hirsute manifestation of relativism, let alone relativism at its baldest.

  • At 1:48 PM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Thanks for the insightful comment, Mitch. You may be right about the commonality of subjectivist views of art among non-philosophers/intellectuals. Perhaps the view I was describing is considered to be common-sense (or is common-sense in the sense of being a theoretical starting-point) by many philosophers and (pseudo-)intellectuals, but is not common-sense in the sense of being the view of the laity. Perhaps some of the more theoretically inclined among us default to subjectivism, and nobody else does. I would like that to be the case, because then relatively few people would hold a view that I find shallow and silly.
    Of course, my original post could be taken as defusing what the subjectivist takes to be support for their view from what they take to be the common-sense view. In that case, the C- I get in Anthropology shouldn't affect the post's philosophical relevance. In other words, there are still people who hold this silly view, and independent of whether they or I are right about the common-sense views, some of my considerations should still be relevant to whether a subjectivist view of aesthetics can be supported.

    On another note, I'm not sure I'm reading your last paragraph correctly, but if the following reading is right then you may be on to something. You seem to be bringing up a type of dialectic in which an intellectual is asking a non-intellectual for a definition of art; weird examples are presented to which the intelligentsia ascribe arthood; the non-intellectual doesn't know what to say or doesn't feel like arguing about it; the intellectual (in reverance for the intelligentsia, who couldn't be wrong) takes this as a sign that his opponent is a subjectivist, though the conclusion hardly follows. I can see this happening as a sort of disfunctional elenchus, validating subjectivism in the intellectual's eyes. So maybe lots of us have been doing some bad Anthropology. This raises the general question: to what extent should philosophers care about the views of non-philosophers (especially non-intellectuals), and if we care about these views, how should we go about registering them? Non-philosophers generally aren't familiar with our theoretical aparati, nor can we expect them automatically to pick up on our hair-splitting maneuvers. This is worth thinking about.


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