The Beauty of Nature and Analytic Aesthetics
Derek Matravers is interviewed by Artis Svece
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Artis Svece: – The beauty is one of the classic themes of aesthetics, of course, but in a way it has lost some of its popularity in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. I wonder why. Or maybe I am mistaken?
Derek Matravers: – I agree that the study of beauty has been displaced somewhat recently. During the 1950s, the focus for defining art moved from concentrating on the visually discernible properties of objects, to concentrating on the role that objects might have within the broad social institution of the artworld. Writing a bit later, Arthur Danto discussed pairs of visually indiscernible objects, one of that was an artwork and the other of which was not. He argued that the difference is that the one that was an artwork had semantic properties: it was about something. What it was about was drawn from the broader background of art history/art theory. Hence, notions of beauty came to be seen as having no part in the definition of art. If definitions capture what is important about a type of object, then it follows that beauty is not important to art.
There are, however, signs of renewed interest in the property of beauty. There are two motivations for this. First, people seem quite interested in Kant at the moment, and trying to make sense of his account of beauty. It is a very intriguing property. It is neither objective (in the object) nor is it subjective (a property of responses). The second motivation is that people are, I think, starting to question whether we might not have had too narrow a view of beauty. If we consider beauty to be a wide notion, it might be that it still has a relevance to contemporary art.
A. S.: – What do you mean by a wide and narrow view of beauty? I can think of several possibilities, but maybe you could explain a bit.
D. M.: – By 'the narrow view', I mean the view that the beauty of an object depends only on its sensory appearance. This was Kant's view of 'free beauty'. On this conception, the beauty of an object is independent of the type of object that it is, and independent of moral and social considerations. This conception of beauty was used by Clement Greenberg during the height of his influence. There are stories about him standing with his back to a painting, having it unveiled, and then turning and
staring at it for a while to detect is 'quality'. Thus, when art theorists turned against Greenberg, they repudiated this conception. This is one reason, I think, why beauty and aesthetics generally are unpopular in contemporary art and art theory.
However, it might be that this is an unnecessarily narrow view. We might argue that we judge objects as beautiful as a piece of nature, or beautiful as a work of art. In this case, the nature of the object enters into our judgement. For example, we would not consider a silk flower beautiful as a piece of nature. The advantage with this broader view is that because the judgement draws on more than the sensory appearance, it can incorporate matters that the narrower view ignored. As a result, artists need not think it will favour a particular kind of art that appeals only to the eye.
The disadvantage, I think, is that the broader we make the concept, the less meaning it has. It starts to slide into the notion of simply being a good work of art, or a good piece of nature, rather than being a reason why something is good.
A. S.: – The notion of beauty is very complex, of course, and probably this is one of the reasons for difficulties philosophers encounter when they try to define the term. First, one notices the ancient problem of descriptive and prescriptive definitions that has to be solved even before we discuss the meaning of the term. Should we try to find the common features of the
things "people" "usually" call beautiful or should experts agree what is "truly" beautiful and discount all other applications of the term as mistaken, as the result of confused reasoning, or undeveloped capacity for aesthetic judgement. How do you see the fate of these two approaches in contemporary philosophy?
D. M.: – One of the big problems in the philosophy of art is explaining the prescriptive force of beauty. In Anglo-American philosophy, at least, it is the prescriptive concept that is of interest. Whatever their merits, I do not think that either Kant or Hume gave us a good answer to the question of what it is for someone to be wrong in judging something to be beautiful. To be honest, I do not think we have managed to do any better.
One of the tasks of philosophy, I think, is to tidy up our concepts. I do not think, therefore, that it should be dictated to by the way we ordinarily use words. Kant separated the beautiful from the agreeable. I think this is a good distinction, although, in ordinary language, we tend to use the term 'beautiful' to apply to both. If we were more accurate then, in English at least, we would separate the beautiful from the merely pretty. So, as a philosopher, I think most English speakers are probably confused in the way they use 'beauty', and, when they do use the word in its proper usage, are often wrong in the things they think are beautiful.
A. S.: – Is it possible to characterize somehow the way beauty has been analysed in Anglo-American philosophy? What are the major topics of interest, the most memorable discussions? And are there any aspects of beauty that, surprisingly, nobody talks about?
D. M.: – In Anglo-American philosophy there is a debate between realists and anti-realists about beauty. The former (people such as Budd and Levinson) argue that it is a real property of objects: some kind of capacity or disposition. That is, when we say an object is beautiful what we mean is that it has some property which causes us to experience it in some particular way. Opposed to them are anti-realists, who think that the
problem with this is that this underplays the link between the experience and the judgement. They argue that when we say an object is beautiful, we are expressing the way we are experiencing the object (that is, we are saying something like 'Wow!'). Both views have very serious problems to solve. In addition, people are looking at what we call attributive senses of 'beauty' (Kantian 'dependent' or 'accessory' beauty').
I think Anglo-American philosophers have problems accounting for the value of the beautiful. If we agree that being beautiful is a substantial value, we cannot explain it simply in terms of pleasure. It has to be cognitively loaded pleasure. However, it is difficult to give a good story about how the cognitions and the pleasure relate. So it is difficult to give a good story about the value.
A. S.: – Would Kant's "Critique of Judgement" be the major influence of Anglo-American aesthetics? If yes, what makes Kant so interesting for analytic philosophy? If no, which texts would be consider "classic" or "paradigmatic" in Anglo-American aesthetics?
D. M.: – Yes, The Critique of Judgement is a substantial influence. Most Anglo-American aestheticians would regard it as the most important contribution to aesthetics. Indeed, many of the young philosophers place it as the centre of their interest. I think this is because it is the best attempt to solve the antinomy between the claim to truth of an aesthetic judgement, and the fact that it is based in the pleasurable responses of an agent. It gives a logic for aesthetic judgements, as well as a phenomenology.
There are other substantial texts. Hume's “On the Standard of Taste”. Then, in modern times: Beardsley's “Aesthetics”, Dickie's “Art and the Aesthetic”, Wollheim's “Art and its Objects”, Goodman's “The Languages of Art” and Walton's “Mimesis as Make-Believe”.
A. S.: – I think you characterized the analytic philosophy for Ieva in her interview, but maybe you could give your understanding of the essence of analytic philosophy or rather aesthetics also here. Is there such thing as Anglo-American or analytic aesthetics at all? Is it correct to equate Anglo-American and analytic aesthetics?
D. M.: – Analytic philosophy, technically, is the philosophy in which complex concepts are defined in terms of simpler concepts. To take a classic example, knowledge is analysed as justified true belief. In the fifties, Quine showed this methodology to be flawed. Quine's work has been generally accepted, so there are probably no (or very few) analytic philosophers around any more. Instead we have their heirs, who generally describe themselves as Anglo-American, or 'analytic' in a broader non-technical sense. These people generally use the method of analysis, but chiefly as a tool for making things clear, rather than as the method of philosophy. As well as analysis, there has been somewhat of a return to metaphysics, as well as a substantial influence from the empirical sciences.
I think there is something distinctive about Anglo-American aesthetics. It is characterised by taking a piecemeal approach (avoiding large over-arching theories) and is interested in getting concepts clear. It is generally quite good at this, but less good at (for example) characterising experiences or accounting for value.
A. S.: – Philosophers often place great emphasis on the clarity of concepts. In a way, it seems natural, because it makes sense to wonder how one can talk about anything unless one understands the meaning of the words used. Nevertheless, the notion of beauty is an obvious example of a situation when philosophers cannot really agree about the meaning. What seems to be the result of the long discussion on beauty? Is there anything positive philosophers have been able to provide for those who spoke being ignorant of what they were saying and did not really bother to analyze the notion? Maybe the only result is the fact that the term "beauty" has almost disappeared from the discourse of art criticism?
D. M.: – I agree that 'beauty' is a complicated, and much contested, concept. I think, however, that there are two ways in which philosophy can influence the arts, and talk about the arts. The first is the distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful. The former simply gratifies the senses, and the second in some way (that is difficult to explain) appeals to the intellect. This enables critics to separate works that simply delight (some of Dufy) or works that simply shock (some of the younger British artists), from works that engage us at a deeper level. The better critics observe this distinction – for example, Robert Hughes' essay on Basquait. Secondly, the fact that philosophers have worked to make beauty respectable, provides one way art can escape from its current rather dire condition. I recently attended a conference at which all the speakers were from literature and art departments. It was called 'aesthetic positions', and mainly about the nature of the aesthetic experience and how useful it is in appreciating art. It would not surprise me if we saw a return of the notions of beauty and aesthetics in at least some of the arts.
A. S.: – I am not quite sure whether I understand the cognitive aspect of the beauty you mentioned and the difference between beauty as an abstract quality and beauty of particular thing. You seem to relate these two problems. I can think of two examples. One version of beauty presupposes some knowledge of what is good for those who can appreciate beauty and in some sense – what is good for the thing we consider to be beautiful or ugly. Probably, we should know what a healthy and productive cow should look like in order to tell that some particular cow is beautiful. Another version is that we can appreciate the beauty of anything only if we know some standard, convention, maybe ideal. So, the beauty of a sunset is different from the beauty of a ballet dancer’s pirouette, because each has its own culturally determined standard, and it is not enough to know what a beautiful sunset should look like in order to appreciate "Swan Lake". Is that what you mean by cognitive aspects of beauty and the difference between beauties of different phenomena? And what would be the task of aesthetics here – to describe the convention?
D. M.: – I think you are quite right. Let us stick to the Kantian division between free beauty, and dependent beauty. I shall take each in turn.
Kant draws a contrast between the pleasures of free beauty and the pleasures of the agreeable. The agreeable is fairly easy to grasp; it is simply pleasure through the gratification of sensation (so dogs and cats can feel it). Pleasure in free beauty involves cognition, but in a way that is very unclear. Thoughts can usually be separated from experiences. For example, if I see a cow I can have the thought 'that is a cow' after I have shut my eyes. The thought involved in free beauty is bound up with experience: I think Kant has a phrase 'thought embodied in sense'. I recognise the phenomenon, I see what he means, but I just cannot make sense of it.
Second, there is dependent beauty. Here we judge something a beautiful cow (for example) according to the standard of beauty for cows. Where does hat standard come from? Kant mentions perfection, which suggests a beautiful cow is a perfectly functioning cow. I agree with you that is not he only option. There might be other sources of the standard, which might e culturally variable. Judging something to be beautiful under the concept F does not necessarily mean judging it as a perfect F.
A. S.: – In a discussion we had with Mara Rubene for the same issue of Cahiers, he claimed that one of the interesting things that nowadays happen in aesthetics is its even closer relations with cultural studies. Do you detect this kind of movement? And again – is it worth to preserve the universalist approach in aesthetics, and does not interest in culture somehow undermine aesthetics?
D. M.: – I am less aware of the state of cultural studies than is Mara, but, from hat little I know, I think people are interested in aesthetics. Kant seems to get mentioned quite a lot, which suggests that somehow the universal and the culturally-specific can be combined. Of course, different cultures might find different things beautiful. Where I grew up n South Africa, the women of the local tribe used to amputate half the little finger on their left hands for aesthetic reasons. However, even saying that supposes something universal, as I am assuming that they recognised, and were motivated by, aesthetic reasons. I suppose, putting he point briefly and rather crudely, beauty might be universal although hat people find beautiful might be culturally specific.
A. S.: – You said you have been interested in the beauty of nature. Why? Do you see here some alternative to aesthetics as the philosophy of art? Or maybe you are interested in cultural determinants of the perception of beauty in nature? I recently read "Landscape and Western Art" by Malcolm Andrews which was a fascinating book and along with all the historical information, he also raises a question of relationship between culturally and "instinctively" determined reactions to nature.
D. M.: – I suppose my interest in the beauty of nature mainly lies in the philosophical problems it presents. One might put the point like this. Beauty in art involves some kind of cognitive content; we need to understand what we are looking at. That does not seem true of pristine (untouched) nature. Allan Carlson disagrees; he thinks that to appreciate the beauty in nature we need to understand it scientifically. However,
that simply seems false to the facts. From what you say, I guess your concern is whether there is now any such thing as pristine nature. If there is not, it makes the problem less relevant, although it is still philosophically interesting that the same word 'beauty' can mean different things depending on whether we are talking about art or nature.
A. S.: – I think the distinction between beauty and things that people consider to be beautiful leads us straight into the kind of difficulties Socrates loved so much. Because the natural reaction to your claim seems to be the question: "So, what is beauty?" And usually that is were the dialogue ends.