Friday, February 7, 2014

Scruton on Judging Beauty

 Roger Scruton is a hero of mine.  His little book Beauty published in 2009 by Oxford University Press is a nice primer on aesthetics.  Moreover, Scruton was probably the first major philosopher to pay serious attention to everyday aesthetics and in this book he devotes one chapter to what he calls "everyday beauty."  I want here to make a few comments about his opening chapter on "judging beauty" which also deals with issues of everyday aesthetics while at the same time introducing his readers to issues surrounding the very concept of beauty.  He opens cleverly with the idea that in order to understand beauty we need to think about a series of truisms about it.  The first four these are truisms in my book too:  beauty pleases us, one thing can be more beautiful than another,  "beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it," and beauty is the subject matter of a judgment of taste.  (The fourth will turn out to be problematic not as stated but as interpreted.)  

The next two are a bit more controversial, however.  The first states that "the judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject's state of mind.  In describing the object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me."  Why can't it be both?  It makes more sense to me to say that a judgment of taste is both about the object and about the judger, although sometimes it may be more about one than the other.  The sixth truism is that "there are no second-hand judgments of beauty" and that a person cannot argue another into such a judgment.  One needs to experience and judge it for oneself.  I am inclined also to think this a truism, but then it would seem to contradict the fifth truism, although this is not a problem for me since I question that one.

Scruton, however, sees a paradox here.  He notes that the first three platitudes, and even the sixth, may be applied to that which is attractive and enjoyable.  It seems however that the judgment that something is enjoyable is about the person and not about the thing.  There is no distinction between what is really enjoyable and what is only apparently so.  I am not so sure of this since the phrase "that was only apparently enjoyable" is not total nonsense.  If the enjoyment of something was based on a falsehood that, upon discovery, put it in a very different light, we might well see it as no longer truly enjoyable, although we may admit that before the discovery it was in fact being enjoyed.  To say that something is enjoyable has something normative about it:   if I say to some friends that a particular street is enjoyable to walk down I hope and even expect that they will find it so too.  The contrast Scruton wants to make is between "beautiful" and "enjoyable," and it is true that there is a contrast, but is it as strong as he finds it to be?  For example he insists that we distinguish between true beauty and fake beauty, of which kitsch is an example.  True, we may say that something is a "fake beauty" but it is interesting that many would deny this of kitsch (most of my students do so even after they learn what "kitsch" means).

Scruton further observes that "the judgment of taste is a genuine judgment, one that is supported by reasons." (8)  This strikes me as probably false if taken universally.  (And it poses a problem for the fourth truism if that is what he takes it to mean.)  Surely many judgments of taste are not supported by any reasons at all.  A connoisseur might say that a painting is beautiful and be entirely uninterested in giving reasons for his or her judgment.  I do not see why taste needs to be connected necessarily with reasons given.  I suppose that his reply would be that the connoisseur could always give reasons and that implicitly his judgment is based on reasons.  But I do not think that this could be established empirically:  its just an assumption, and perhaps one that needs to be questioned.  The genuineness of a judgment is not dependent on reason-giving or ability to give reasons in support of that judgment.  A good judge of painting can just see that this is a good painting.  Sometimes curators have to judge hundreds of artworks in a very short period of time:  no time to give reasons.  This is not to say that the judgment must be irrational: it could be based on long experience and hence be rational because reasonable.  But being reasonable is not the same as being someone who gives reasons!

Scruton insists (following the sixth truism) that "these reasons can never amount to a deductive argument."  Well, that is a bit disingenuous.  If I say that A is a reason for B then aren't I saying that you can deduce B from A given the assumption that "If A then B"?   We often carry out our arguments assuming hidden premises of this sort.  (Most arguments are enthymemes.)  So, to speak of giving reasons for believing something is already to be in the realm of deductive argument. (To put it another way:  in most cases when we say something is a deductive argument we mean that it can be translated into a deductive argument by supplying the hidden premises.)  If I question whether A is sufficient reason for B is that not the same as questioning the hidden premise that "if A then B"?   So it seems to me that the claim that there can be no second-hand opinions about beauty is quite consonant with the claim that Scruton rejects, i.e. that beauty is something that has both an objective and a subjective dimension.

Here's how he states the paradox of beauty:  "The judgment of beauty makes a claim about its object, and can be supported by reasons for its claim.  But the reasons do not compel the judgment, and can be rejected without contradiction.  So are they reasons or aren't they?"  They are reasons, of course.  But reasons said to just refer to qualities of the object independent of any experience are not (and should not be!) compelling.  Reasons have to be contextualized (and given weight!) within experience, especially in aesthetics.  Here, the subjective side needs to be taken into consideration.  When this happens the paradox is resolved.

It is interesting that although Scruton refuses to countenance "enjoyable" as an aesthetic quality he nonetheless has no problem with what he calls "minimal beauty" i.e. what he calls the lowest degree of beauty. This idea brings in aspects of aesthetics that I have championed elsewhere (although I am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of "the lowest degree":  I would just say "lower degree").  Scruton is an everyday aesthetician when he says "There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems a first quite remote from [fine art]."  (Why would he consider these as exemplifying the lowest rather than just a lower degree of beauty?) He stresses that you want your room etc. to "look right" and this is a way that not only pleases the eye but also conveys meaning and value. (This is a profound point.)

Scruton illustrates the idea of the relation between great beauties and minimal beauties nicely by an architectural example:  how great buildings need to be set amongst more modest neighbors.  Most important is that there be an appropriate fit.  One could go so far as to say that the beauty of the great building is partly a function of its relations to the buildings surrounding it, and that the building of a minor building is also a function of its relation in a supporting role to that of the great building it frames.  Scruton is so right when he says "Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper...."  Moreover, "these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives...than the great works..." (12) 

All of this fine, with one exception.  To say that there are minimal beauties is one thing, but to say that things with great beauty and things with lesser beauty need each other is quite another thing, and to say that beauty is comparative is quite another thing again.   On the last point, it is one thing to rank works of art, but it is another thing to see them as parts of a larger ensemble that makes their comparative value a matter of interaction and mutual enhancement. 

Another statement in favor of everyday aesthetics is "for most of us it is far more important to achieve order in the things surrounding us, and to ensure that the eyes, the ears and the sense of fittingness are not offended" than to pursue absolute or ideal beauty.  Scruton follows this by noting that there are other aesthetic terms besides "beauty":  "we appreciate the pretty, the charming and the attractive" (14)  But wait!  Wasn't his big point in the preceding section that "attractive" was not an aesthetic property and was unrelated to beauty?  An easier way to resolve the problem is to admit that the enjoyable, the pretty and the attractive all emphasize the subjective dimension somewhat more than the beautiful, and that there is no strict dividing line between these.  When he ends the section by saying that "Delight is more important than the terms used to express it" he seems to be avoiding the issue since the delight of enjoyment was precisely what he was using as an example of something that was not beautiful previously. 






 

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