Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life

I realize I neglected to advertise my book, published earlier this year, on this blog.  The information made available by the publisher is given below.  But first I want to mention something strange.  There are a number of people offering this book on the web for outrageous sums of money.  This is funny and sad since you can purchase it through Broadview Press for under $30, and I just found out Google Play offers an ebook version for only $16.17!   Amazon.com, which used to offer it at the Broadview price, is now offering it for between $43 and $213!  Please do not buy it at those prices.

Also there is a good review of the book by Christopher Dowling at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  I have some disagreements with Dowling but overall I thought he was thorough and fair.

This book explores the aesthetics of the objects and environments we encounter in daily life. Thomas Leddy stresses the close relationship between everyday aesthetics and the aesthetics of art, but places special emphasis on neglected aesthetic terms such as 'neat,' 'messy,' 'pretty,' 'lovely,' 'cute,' and 'pleasant.' The author advances a general theory of aesthetic experience that can account for our appreciation of art, nature, and the everyday.

"Thomas Leddy offers a comprehensive and compelling treatment of everyday aesthetics, discussing a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources while putting forward an interesting new theory of what it is to have an aesthetic experience. This engaging book is suitable for students, scholars, and anyone wishing to enrich their experience of everyday life." - Sherri Irvin, University of Oklahoma
"The Extraordinary in the Ordinary is a significant contribution to the newly important field of everyday aesthetics. The book provides an excellent critical overview of work in this field to date, but more importantly breaks new ground by extending our understanding of aesthetic experience and of the properties we encounter in that experience." - Robert Stecker, Central Michigan University
"Discussion of everyday aesthetics has been gaining momentum in recent years, and as well as developing his own theory of everyday aesthetics and of aesthetic experience more broadly construed, Leddy has produced an invaluable reflective consolidation of the work of major contributors to the discipline, past and present." - Christopher Dowling, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Thomas Leddy is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University.
*Academics please note that this is a title classified as having a restricted allocation of complimentary copies; complimentary copies remain readily available to adopters and to academics very likely to adopt this title in the coming academic year. When adoption possibilities are less strong and/or further in the future, academics are requested to purchase the title at an academic discount, with the proviso that Broadview will happily refund the purchase price (with or without a receipt) if the book is indeed adopted.

Table of Contents:

Part I: The Domain of Everyday Aesthetics
Chapter 1: The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics
Chapter 2: Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Properties
Chapter 3: Everyday Aesthetics and the Environment
Part II: A Theory of Everyday Aesthetics
Chapter 4: Aesthetic Experience as Experience of Objects with Aura
Chapter 5: A Bestiary of Aesthetic Terms for Everyday Contexts
Chapter 6: Criticisms Actual and Possible
Chapter 7: Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities
Chapter 8: Everyday Aesthetics and the Sublime

Friday, September 7, 2012

Hume on Prejudice

Normally when we think of prejudice we simply think of certain negative preconceptions we may have about the object under consideration.  Hume, in "Of the Standard of Taste" insists that lack of prejudice is one of the characteristics of the good judge.  But what is this lack of prejudice?  It turns out to be something very positive and very specific.  We first learn that every work of art should be surveyed from the point of view that is required for the performance.  Lack of prejudice is taking this point of view.

Hume explains this rather oddly.  He speaks of how an orator must take into account the point of view of his audience, and especially needs to address any prejudices they might have against him:  he needs to acquire their good graces before he can convince them of anything.  So, are we to act like such an orator when we appreciate art without prejudice?  No.  Hume is simply bringing up the orator as preliminary to the main point.  Now, he turns to the "critic of a different age or nation" who, upon looking at the speech of the orator in question, needs to take all of this into account.  He must "place himself in the same situation as the audience in order to form a true judgment of the oration."  One might think that he should put himself in the place of the orator himself.  But, for Hume, lack of prejudice is a matter of trying to put oneself back into the time of first production or publication and trying to make oneself susceptible to the powers of the orator or author, as an audience member of the time might have been. 

It is only after this that Hume brings up the point that would normally come first to mind when thinking about prejudice, that if we are either a friend or enemy of an author (presumably a contemporary one) we should put these feelings aside and consider ourselves to be men in general.  "Don't be prejudiced" here means "don't think about your friendship with or enmity against the author" and don't let it influence you, even unconsciously.

What is odd here is that in the example regarding the past we are supposed to immerse ourselves in the particular situation of the audience, whereas in this example we are to detach ourselves from our own particular situation.

Hume tries, however, to combine the two when he says "A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his natural position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes."  The general idea, then, is lack of prejudice is placing oneself in the point of view supposed by the author (perhaps even with the prejudices the author's audience originally had and which the author is trying to overcome!) 

Although trying to put yourself into the position of the intended audience is a good idea I also think it valuable sometimes to switch to another position that is closer to one's own "natural position."  We can more strongly feel what is said when the work speaks to us as we are and not just as we would be if we lived in another country or time.  I think we need to toggle between the two positions (to use Peg Brand's term). 

Another oddity is that when Hume, at the end of his essay, begins to speak of innocent sources of variation he stresses our inability to enter into other times.  For example, an older man cannot enter into the sentiments of a younger man and hence, presumably, can no longer appreciate the erotic poetry of Ovid.  But isn't that what "lack of prejudice" was all about, i.e. overcoming one's natural position?  He says that we, here, cannot "divest ourselves of those propensities which are natural to us." But that is what he was requiring of us previously when he said that we should lack prejudice!  Of course we are going to be "more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs": but lack of prejudice is supposed to overcome this.  Also, isn't it hilarious that the example Hume uses for something extremely difficult to overcome is seeing a princess carrying water or a king cutting his own meat -- something that doesn't bother us egalitarians at all?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

David Hume's Problem with The Pretty

In David Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste" there is a distinction between lesser and greater beauties that intrigues me in relation to my current interest in the concept of the pretty.  Hume argues that the true standard of taste is the good judge.  In this entry I will assume that readers have a basic grasp of Hume's well known article.  What is interesting is that in at least two of his discussions of what goes into being a good judge he brings up the problem of a lesser form of beauty.  Although Hume does not mention the word "pretty" anywhere in his essay, these passages lead to a conviction that he is particularly concerned to keep people from confusing trivial with important beauties.  This is exactly the sort of distinction that is commonly made between the pretty and the beautiful. 

When discussing the value of comparison, he writes: "The coarsest daubing contains a certain lustre of colours and exactness of imitation, which are so far beauties, and would affect the mind of a peasant or Indian with the highest admiration. [Hume's racism is unfortunately on display here.] The most vulgar ballads are not entirely destitute of harmony or nature; and none but a person, familiarized to superior beauties, would pronounce their numbers harsh, or narration uninteresting. A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced [rightly so, according to Hume] a deformity.."  It appears that the coarse daubings with lusterous colors and exact imitation have a certain low-level beauty, as do "vulgar ballads," since they are "not destitute of harmony."  Hume observes that the person who knows "superior beauties" knows the distinction.  An interesting aspect of this is that this low level beauty can even involve "great inferiority of beauty" so much so that it gives pain to persons of taste.  One thinks of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.   The next time he mentions comparison Hume says "Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration."  So frivolous beauties are really defects, and we can see so through comparing. 

The criterion of practice also is related to avoiding these low-level beauties.  Hume says, when discussing practice, that  "there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value."  

Although delicacy of taste can be inherited, it is mainly gained through practice and comparison, and as we have seen, Hume recommends practice and comparison precisely to distinguish between superior beauties and such low-level beauties as the pretty.