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Aesthetics and Objectivity

For a few years now, I’ve been bugged by the issue of objectivity in aesthetic judgment. Today, I came across a notion (in an entirely distinct context) that has helped clarify my thinking on the topic. This post is my attempt to give voice to this newfound clarity, and to see if my new thought might not be that rare genuine insight.

My goal in thinking about objectivity and aesthetics has been to find a way to move between forms of objectivism and subjectivism that I find equally untenable. As such, a useful place to start will be with these views and their inadequacies. I’ll start with the objectivist side of things. For the objectivist, roughly speaking, there is a determinate right answer to questions about e.g. the value of a work of art (which probably requires there being determinate right answers to questions about how the work is to be interpreted). I do not know if many people really hold this view—most people with objectivist leanings stop somewhere short of it.

The problems with this view do not lurk far below the surface. Anyone who has ever been involved in a disagreement about the value or meaning of a work of art can probably recognize the untenability of this view. People disagree wildly about what works of art mean and what they are worth (and even if they agree about overall value, they’ll disagree about why they are valuable), and there seems to be no way of mediating these disagreements (particularly those about value) so that people can come to agree (as opposed to paradigmatically objective questions like “what is the charge of an electron?”). Why is this? One reason is that the appreciation of art depends substantially on subjective factors about the person experiencing it: their past experience, their values in other areas, and so on. To achieve objectivity of a strong sort would require eliminating or minimizing these subjective factors. In the face of such an imperialist strategy—could it even be made plausible (which no one has done, to my knowledge)—a question naturally arises: what’s the point? Subjective factors matter deeply to the experience of art, so to efface these factors is to miss out on the actual experience of art.

In response to these difficulties, people naturally move toward a subjectivist position, which emphasizes these subjective factors. What matters is the subject’s experience of the work of art. To say that a work of art is good amounts to saying that you like it, not to make a claim about its “objective” value. Endorsement of this view is also driven by a broadly scientific worldview (whether the results and success of scientific inquiry force this view on us is another question). Values are not objectively measurable; you cannot collect empirical evidence for a value judgment, so value judgments are subjective. This sort of view has debilitating consequences (one might think) for ethics, but the stakes of aesthetic relativism are rather lower, and so one can comfortably accept a subjectivist view about ethics. But, if anything, the problems for this view are more severe than those for the objectivist position.

I complained of the objectivist view that it has trouble handling the phenomenon of disagreement in a satisfactory manner. The subjectivist view of the matter finds itself in the rather more unfortunate position of being unable even to recognize that disagreement. If every value judgment about aesthetics amounts to a claim about how the person speaking values the work, then it is simply not possible to disagree. “I like this painting.” “I disagree, I dislike it.” But there is no incompatibility in my liking and your disliking the same work. The most the subjectivist view can recognize is that people have different value judgments. Without a claim to legitimacy that transcends one’s own perspective, disagreement cannot happen. Insofar as people think they disagree, they are deluding themselves. I do not think the phenomenon of apparent disagreement can be accounted for by denying that it is really disagreement. When people disagree, they give each other reasons for why they disagree, and they try to convince other people. These reasons may be good or they may not, but they nonetheless are reasons and they are expected to have a rational pull on the other person. To do so, they must transcend the perspective of the person offering them—precisely what the subjectivist disallows.

The problem runs deeper even than this, for the subjectivist must deny the possibility of another common phenomenon. Often, people will revisit a work of art they once disliked and come to the realization that they were wrong previously. In effect, this is a case of disagreeing with one’s past self, and as such it is no more recognizable for the subjectivist than interpersonal disagreement. Change of opinion can never amount to more than mere change of opinion; to think anything more is to suffer from a delusion. Nevertheless, people do have this experience, and I contend it is legitimate. Perhaps you notice some new, relevant factor that you had missed before: your prior judgment was wrong because it did not take this factor into account. Other cases of the sort are possible and prevalent.

Beyond being unable to recognize disagreement of either sort, the subjectivist view is also, I think, an excuse for laziness. One reason why I constantly am coming to find past judgments I’ve made about works of art inadequate is that, as I continue to experience and think about art, I continually become more sensitive to how they express and mean things. This takes hard work, and I have a long ways to go. Nevertheless, I am learning how to experience art in more nuanced ways, and as my sensitivity increases, the legitimacy of my judgments in some sense increases.

These inadequacies of both poles are sufficient that even in the absence of a good intermediate position I’ve been convinced that an adequate solution must somehow find a place between them. It must respect the importance of subjective factors while nonetheless making room for disagreement and recognizing the importance of training oneself to experience art. The general thought that I have tried to develop in the past is view on which people engage in the improvement of their own standpoints in response to internal and external criticism. Simply by becoming more sensitive to art, one can come to see one’s prior inadequacies—this is internal critique. Likewise, by paying attention to and evaluating the judgments and supporting reasons of others, one can come to be aware of problems with one’s own positions—this is external critique. In both cases, what is required is an openness to reasons that may transcend one’s perspective.

The reason this is distinct from objectivism is that it does not posit a determinate answer. I like to think of this in terms of a distinction between terminal state and creativity models. The objectivist picture is a terminal state model: there is a determinate right answer to questions of aesthetic value, and the goal of aesthetic inquiry would then be to find out and believe this answer. The view that I have toyed with is a creativity model. It involves progression from one’s current state, but not a progression to any determinate final state. The subjective factors mentioned above are allowed to play a role in determining what counts as a good reason for a person—but they are not above criticism. Rational reflection always occurs from within a perspective, but it always carries with it the risk of discovering inadequacies with that perspective—this is as true for aesthetic inquiry as any other. In this way, I believe I can respect subjectivity without excusing laziness.

Nevertheless, when I have tried to defend this view before, I’ve always found it difficult to make it clear just how objectivity is involved. My purported new insight, if it is worth anything, helps to make the matter somewhat more limpid. The source that sparked my thought was J.J. Gibson’s paper “New Reasons for Realism”. Gibson was a revolutionary psychologist, and that paper, published in the philosophy journal Synthese, saw him offering his ecological theory of perception up to philosophers for use in defending direct realism (roughly, the epistemological view that perception provides grounds for knowledge about the external world). That is not my concern here, though the philosopher John McDowell holds a broadly Gibsonian view in the philosophy of perception and has applied such thinking to aesthetic matters in his paper “Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the World”. (This is a good point to mention that my thinking on matters of aesthetic value has been deeply informed by McDowell’s work on reasoning and ethical judgment.)

My interest here is rather in a distinction Gibson raised toward the end of the paper, which I hope I may appropriate and pervert to my own ends. Gibson introduces the idea of a continuum of publicity and privacy of perspectives. Because his area of study is perception, he means specifically perceptual perspectives. Thus, if two people both walk around a tree, observing it from various angles, they can by and large share the same perspective of the tree. On the other hand, the view of my nose that I get by sight (not in a mirror) is uniquely my own; no one else every sees my nose from my perspective. In between these two are hands. To a substantial degree, I and another person may share a perspective of my hands, but not completely (consider that my hands are themselves part of my perceptual apparatus). So in moving from trees to hands to noses, we move from more public to more private perspectives. We can get still more private if we consider after-image effects that, even more than my view of my nose, are maximally private.

This notion of a continuum with maximal publicity and maximal privacy at its poles provides a way of reconsidering just what objectivism and subjectivism are in aesthetic judgment. In thinking about art, I think we can find a range of types of perspective, and we can arrange these along a continuum similar to Gibson’s. Objectivists and subjectivists promote different regions of this continuum. An example of a maximally public perspective of art is, I think, music theory. Anyone of sufficient drive and intelligence can learn music theory, and can learn to analyze music using its tools. At the opposite pole would be each person’s subjective experiences of a work of art: the pangs of joy, the tears of boredom, and so on. This is maximally private: no one else can share my sensation of listening to a Bach keyboard concerto, for instance. In between this are various other sorts of perspectives. Kierkegaard’s analysis of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Either/Or seems to me a good example of a middle ground perspective. On the one hand, it characterizes the opera in a way that is publicly accessible; on the other hand the analysis is clearly the result of a very particular way of thinking about life, what Kierkegaard later designates the “aesthetic stage”. So it is somewhere between maximal publicity and maximal privacy.

This opens up a possible way of characterizing my two bogeymen. The objectivist is someone who praises those value judgments that arise from a maximally public perspective on art, e.g. music theory for music. It is a questionable matter whether value judgments can arise within such a maximally public perspective, and worries of this sort are part of what drive people to reject objectivism. Nevertheless, it is true that an analysis from the perspective of music theory makes possible judgments of complexity, of technicality, and of innovation, among others, and these are to at least some extent connected to value judgments. This is the sort of source for objectivist value judgments. The subjectivist, on the other hand, emphasizes the maximally private: the private experience of engaging with a work of art.

I called these positions bogeymen because I think few people strictly hold either one. Objectivists rarely take positions so extreme as the one I’ve characterized, and subjectivists frequently allow for more than mere enjoyment to count. An example of this latter point is the phenomenon of guilty pleasures, in which one recognizes that, while one enjoys a particular work, it is nonetheless not good, and so they feel guilty. (To their credit, some subjectivists disavow the notion of a guilty pleasure altogether. These people are probably the closest to fully agreeing with either position that I’ve laid out that anyone comes.) I have introduced them mostly to provide a good frame in which to bring my position into better relief.

Indeed, I think I am now at a point where I can give my position a more robust exposition. I earlier characterized my view as emphasizing rational self-correction of one’s own standpoint, but I was not particularly clear about what a standpoint is supposed to be. I think it is not to be identified with any particular perspective. Rather, it is a mish-mash variously informed by all the various different perspectives one might adopt with regard to a work, whether more theoretical and public or more experiential and private. Improvement of one’s own standpoint is a matter of coordinating these various perspectives, of making the mish-mash reasonably coherent. There is no set formula for this: one goes by one’s own lights, with help from interaction with others. What matters is that no perspective is immune to criticism from any other.

With this picture in view, we can see how it is that I can respect the features of aesthetic judgment and aesthetic disagreement that gave objectivists and subjectivists alike such difficulties. Disagreement is possible because one’s standpoint is a mix of public and private factors. You cannot very well disagree with my enjoying a work of art on the grounds of your not enjoying it. But when I defend an aesthetic value judgment, I am not just making a claim about my own enjoyment: I am also drawing on interpretive and analytical claims that are much more public. Because subjective/private features still matter, there is no right position toward which one should strive. Because objective/public features matter, one can always improve one’s position. So, while there is more to be said, I think the way of thinking I have outlined here points toward the possibility for a happy and healthy pluralism about aesthetic judgment, one that allows for disagreement without excusing laziness.

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  1. 2013/04/21 at 18:49

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