Friday, March 18, 2022

Unity in Diversity: A Critique of Jerrold Levinson's Pluralist Account of Beauty


This is the paper that provided the basis for my ten minutes of extemporaneous comments on a paper by Thomas Adajian attacking pluralist theories of beauty.  Delivered on March 18, 2022 at the Pacific Division of the American Society for Aesthetics in Berkeley, CA.  Comments are welcome.

Thomas Leddy, SJSU Department of Philosophy,

Beauty is Not One:  The Irreducible Variety of Visual Beauty.” Jerrold Levinson.  But beauty is one.[1]  This is not to say however that the variety of visual beauty is reducible.  So much for the title of his paper.  When looking at a variety of things, I may say "How beautiful" in very different cases.  Levinson wonders whether in each case I am attributing the same property.  He thinks the answer is NO. I think it is YES, although more has to be said about "same property."

Levinson's position is inspired by Clive Bell, which is refreshing in a way since Bell has been maligned too often.[2]  Unfortunately, the quote Levinson admires, to the effect that what the average man means by “beauty” is basically synonymous with “desirable,” and that the most beautiful things for such men are beautiful women and, secondarily, pictures of them, is, in my view, one of the most wrongheaded of Bell’s claims. On his view these two properties, both called “beauty,” are quite distinguishable.  Levinson and Bell seek, then, to radically distinguish two senses of "beauty" in regards to a beautiful woman.  The ordinary man simply means by it "desirable" in the sense of sexually attractive, or, more crudely in Levinson's case, someone who is sexually wanted for intercourse by a heterosexual male (more on this shocking move later), whereas the rare aesthete, like Bell himself, might apply it to something that gives a true “aesthetic emotion.” Levinson likes it when Bell says "the word 'beauty' is used to connote the objects of quite distinguishable emotions."  This is where we disagree.

According to Levinson, most theorists hold to the sameness of beauty, which opinion goes back to the pre-Socratics, who based aesthetics on proportion and number.   Certainly the Pythagoreans, with their central concepts of harmony and symmetry, had an objectivist account of beauty as unity, an account that dominated theory of beauty for centuries, and is still an important strand today.  I do not intend to support that theory here.  What I oppose is Levinson's idea “that the genus of beauty has only a superficial unity."  (191) There may well be different species of beauty, but this does not imply that the unity of the genus is only superficial. As I will show in this paper, the different species are only superficially different.  So one could say that my position is basically Platonist and thus traditional in Levinson’s sense. Spelling this out will require saying some things about Diotima’s theory of love and beauty in the last part her “ladder of love” passage in the speech of Socrates.  I will turn to that later in this paper.  That theory forms a model for my form of monism.

I understand that Levinson is interested not in general beauty, where beauty is the genus of all aesthetic properties, but in beauty in the sense traditionally associated with "harmony, order and pleasingness."  However, he misunderstands beauty in this sense since he finds it roughly equivalent to "charm, prettiness, loveliness [and] gorgeousness." As I argued in my entry in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics on "Pretty,”  “pretty” is not equivalent to, or just a lesser sister to "beautiful" in this sense.  Nor are the others so equated, generally speaking.  A general rule is: if two concepts are the same then there is no need for two different words in that language.   If there are two words then the two concepts represent two different, although related, realities. ,  It seems odd that Levinson conflates charm, prettiness, loveliness, gorgeousness and beauty as specific aesthetic quality, given he has no problem seeing the distinction between beauty and gracefulness, delicacy and elegance.  (191)

Levinson thinks that paradigms of visual beauty have in common an essential feature, a connection with pleasure in viewing, beholding or contemplating.  As he puts it, "visually beautiful things are things it is pleasurable to virtue of how they look or appear visually, and not, say, in virtue of their being instrumentally valuable or cognitively intriguing to us." (191) This seems a strange way to start an argument for pluralism in beauty since it starts from excluding an entire type of beauty, i.e. beauty in virtue of instrumental or cognitive value. More important, I do not see how instrumentally valuable and cognitively intriguing aspects of the pleasure of viewing beautiful objects can clearly be separated out from other aspects of the experience.  I do not mind talk of "things we derive pleasure merely from beholding" since other factors can be packed into whatever is meant by “beholding.”  The trouble is with the terms "merely," and "mere appearance."  What is "mere" about appearance? 

Levinson sees his approach as Kantian, which is not surprising given his adherence to Bell.  He then mentions another, non-Kantian, tradition that goes back to Plato and that makes beauty "a richer affair, or sets it for a higher standard," and holds that beauty is “that which inspires us, summons us to transcendence and offers us...a vivid" promise of happiness.  This is my tradition. But he denies that this tradition succeeds in characterizing "all objects or occasions of beholding," and he wants to downplay this perspective as severely narrow, or parochial.  He prefers the more “earthbound" Kantian line as "more apt for covering the full range of things that are found visually beautiful."  (192) Yet the full range of such things is precisely what is best handled by the Platonic line as it is traced back to the lessons of Diotima and Socrates in the Symposium, where Beauty itself, the Form of Beauty, represents the unity of beauty we are debating, and all other varieties of beauty participate in that. Levinson holds that there are "several fundamentally different species of visual beauty," which is okay except that the differences are not particularly important, or even “fundamental.”

Moreover, when Levinson talks about the power to give pleasure to viewers, the word "pleasure" is  problematic because ambiguous.  There are simple and complex forms of pleasure, and his definition is acceptable only if complex and rich forms of pleasure are implied.  He refers to the pleasure that characters in Ballard's novel Crash experience at the sight of car crashes as “perverse,” for they do not focus on the visual beauty of such crashes, their pleasure deriving from mere appearance per se here.  Yet, this is problematic since all pleasure, including perverse forms, are rooted in something more than appearance per se.  (192)  (I read the novel, being a Ballard fan, and it gave me pleasure.  Was I perverse?)

Levinson correctly observes our inclination to say that different beautiful things each have beauty in their own way and that "beauties in the different categories differ in how they strike us as beautiful, in a way that weighted things do not in respect of their weight." (192)  This is fine so far, but he ends the paragraph by saying, "Beautiful women, beautiful paintings, and beautiful bridges differ in the respective beautiful appearances they present; apart from all producing immediate visual pleasure in the viewer, their beautiful appearances seem to be of radically different sorts."  (193)  I argue that they are not radically different at all. Of course, to do this I can only appeal to my own experience, and the reader must look to their own. For me, the sense of intense pleasure I have in all beautiful women, paintings and bridges, is radically similar, indeed almost indistinguishable.  So maybe Levinson and Kantians experience the world in a radically different way than Platonists and myself.  We will see.

Levinson believes that there are, with surprising specificity, six fundamentally different properties or types of visual beauty:  the types are abstract, artistic, artifactual, natural, physical, and moral.  I however will argue that all of these are, although admittedly distinguishable, fundamentally quite similar and interactively engaged in ways that make them phenomenologically not very distinct.

Levinson stresses that formal beauty, or “configurations by themselves,” a type of abstract beauty, is distinct from the beauty of abstract art, say the work of Klee, the latter being a species of artistic beauty.  This is the way an Aristotelian, the originator of strict categories arranged according to logic, thinks, namely wanting and insisting on strict boundaries, as we find with those who seeks rigid definitions of properties in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  It is this methodological commitment that leads, I believe to most of the many errors I will find in Levinson’s thinking.

I do agree however that, in artworks, "patterns...are not appreciated merely for their geometric or spatial properties, but also for what they may represent, symbolize, exemplify or express." Levinson quotes Danto that "art has a content that must be grasped."  But things get problematic when he continues the quote: "in contrast with skies and flowers."  Here we disagree. I am a pretty good amateur photographer, who recently has been focusing on skies and flowers, and can then talk about their appearances with some authority.  When I take a photograph of a flower against sky or some other backdrop, I frame it first in my mind and then with the camera where everything I want is framed in the viewing screen of my iPhone.  The picture is practically taken even before I click the shutter.  I do not  need to look at it afterwards since I know what it will look like already.  I have captured a very specific appearance of sky or flower or both.  Now, the question is, is this appearance, and the consequent digital photograph, which I first see on my camera screen, importantly distinct in that the second has content and first has none.  No.  The CONTENT of the two appearances are virtually identical, and they both have just about the same amount of content.  Is there an important phenomenological difference between the aesthetic content of the sky or flower I experience in taking a shot of it and the art object which I produce by clicking that shutter? No.

Levinson thinks that a Barnett Newman painting "expresses oneness and infinity" in a way that the same object qua not artwork does not.  (193)  No again.  There isn't an object qua not artwork in Newman's studio or on the wall of the museum show.  This is a fictional object, favored before Levinson by Danto, that just does not exist.  What I see in the show expresses oneness and infinity, period.  It does not lose that quality if it is taken out of the show and out of the artworld and relegated to a dump, for example.  Art is not, contra Danto and Levinson, disenfranchised as art when it leaves the artworld.  If I discover the Newman being used by a hobo as a blanket I still discover something that expresses oneness and infinity.  Not to be too crude about it, but that is why it still has great monetary worth.    

Levinson writes, "[and] a stripe painting by Noland...has an import not found in the mere pattern it contains, bearing a message of streamlined cool and machinelike efficiency." (193-4) I agree that it bears that message.  But what can he mean by "import found in the mere pattern it contains"?  Can such a "mere pattern" be found "contained" in the painting by Noland. And can a specially different "import" be found in that?  I don’t think so.

He continues in the same vein:  "Thus, even if both the pure patterns or configurations and the paintings that contain them are all beautiful, the beauty of the latter seems a different property from the beauty of the former." (194) Not only is the notion of a painting containing patterns different from what it actually contains as part of it qua painting, absurd; but equally absurd is the notion that these two aspects of the same thing have different beauties.  The sentence continues by referring to art as a function of meanings, and stating that they are embodied in a supposedly different object than the one that resides in the artworld, different from its indistinguishable counterpart, which, in this case, actually inhabits THE SAME SPACE in the same gallery.  Such an object supposedly has embodied meanings, whereas its entirely made-up shadow object does not.  This obviously is a serious problem for Danto’s entire project, which Levinson endorses.

But Levinson insists he is simply taking the Kantian position that beauty of patterns in art is always “dependent” beauty, the beauty being perceived under some concept, i.e. as an artwork, which is to be distinguished from an abstract sensory presentation. When it is seen in this way it takes on properties based on that.  But, remember that when the good amateur photographer sees a rectangular sky appearance, frames it, and takes the shot (say with bits of trees and roofs in it, all carefully arranged by his or her eye) and, in doing so, is, phenomenologically, not just looking at, or capturing, an abstract sensory presentation, this something also has content.  This was a fundamental point for Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.  It follows that ALL beauty is dependent beauty, even in the case of flowers, contra Kant.  Of course this is not to say that, in moving from visualized to actual photograph displayed in a gallery, there is not a creative process in which meaning-content is enriched through subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, manipulations of the image.  Art, as Dewey taught us, intensifies and concentrates experience.  So it is okay to say, as Levinson does of an object of a certain kind seen under that category, "it takes on a different appearance, and displays properties it would otherwise lack." (193)  That is, it displays properties that are modifications of properties, and these modifications were lacking in the original visualized, or "framed," scene.  (194)  All of this leads me to be pleasantly surprised by Levinson's next paragraph, which begins, "[m]uch the same can be said when one considers patterns as found in works of craft..." (194) and hence the beauty of rug patterns are dependent rather than free: correct, although also inconsistent with what he said previously.   

Consider now formal beauty. Levinson writes that it “is normally not conceptually mediated ...and may hence be considered more or less free beauty....thus distinguishing it ...from all other varieties of visual beauty..."  (194) His point relies on Kant's strict Aristotle-like distinction between free and dependent beauty.  But his own examples, including an interesting discussion here of cycloids and catenaries (194) undercuts the distinction, hence his entire theory. 

Levinson then turns to much neglected topic, namely the physical beauty of humans and animals.  He begins with humans, which for reasons we will come to question, he limits to adults.  He claims that physical beauty is almost equal to sexual beauty, which is, at least, on his view, the core of physical beauty.  He says that this, too, is a form of dependent beauty, which is acceptable since all beauty is dependent beauty.  He thinks, however, that this means that the beauty is “perceived as such only when its possessor is seen as a human being.”  (195)  That part is too limited.  Human beauty can be dependent on any number of different concepts.  Think of how actors portray different things using their bodies on stage.  You can perceive a human as a monster, for example, if the actor and the costumier have done a good job.  Some actors are particularly good at portraying monsters seen as beautiful, not qua human, but qua that kind of monster.  Levinson quotes Zangwill as saying that a person “is beautiful not as an abstract sculpture, but as a human being.”  (195)  But this is not universally true.  People can be beautiful as abstract sculptures, as, for example, when they portray them in plays or at street fairs painted in silver.  Admittedly it is hard to portray an abstract sculpture on stage, but not impossible.  I agree, though, that human beauty usually involves a concept of “human” deployed by the beholder.  However this concept is also brought in when appreciating the beauty of a monster on stage insofar as it is depicted by an actor who is him or herself doing so qua human. 

Levinson says that “the perception of human physical beauty impels us toward the beautiful object. We are drawn to it, transfixed by it, and long to possess it.”  This is clarified somewhat by a quote from Etcoff that, when one sees human beauty, one “can’t breath,” and by Higgins when she says that such is not a “spiritual radiance, but a sexual magnetism that pulls the enchanted viewer off course.” (195)  I reject all of these as universal characterizations of physical beauty, although each can and does apply sometimes.  Before going on, I wish to stress that, unlike Levinson, I do not distinguish, except in rare cases, between physical and moral beauty in humans.  Moreover, being anti-anthropocentrist, I also attribute moral qualities to some animals.  If someone, human or animal, strikes me as being morally beautiful, they take on an aura that intensifies their so-called physical beauty.  By “moral beauty” here I do not mean simply the beauty of altruism but that of any human or animal excellence. Likewise, if I am struck by someone’s physical beauty I will automatically assume (and this seems true in psychological studies) that there is some human excellence being manifested that leads me to this judgment of beauty.  So, phenomenologically, I have trouble distinguishing between what Levinson calls moral and physical beauty.  Perhaps that is why I see his account of physical beauty as degrading and reprehensible (as we shall see) and his notion of moral beauty as disturbingly dualistic in a way that would be fiercely opposed by Nietzsche, Marx and Dewey, although not by Aquinas, Descartes and Kant. 

Further, although I am drawn to beauty, and “transfixed by its vision,” I seldom “long to possess it.”  There are many ways in which this idea of possession can be interpreted in this case, few of which are attractive.  Certainly I do not long to enslave or legally own any beauty I see.  Although l consider my wife beautiful I do not see myself as “possessing” her except in the sense that she is my wife and therefore, by mutual agreement, not available to other men.  But l do not “long to” possess her in any way other than what we agreed to when we first became a couple.  I do not yearn to possess any other woman whom I consider beautiful, except as a matter of temporary fantasy.  I agree that the intensity of personal beauty of both men and women is such that, on rare occasions, I hold my breath in awe, finding the glamorous body’s allure to be very much a spiritual radiance. However this radiance is also due to sexual magnetism that, as Higgins nicely puts it, “pulls the enchanted viewer.” Well yes, sometimes the magnetism does pull us off course, for example if one is tempted by the beauty of someone to whom is outside of moral availability.  The very idea of radically separating spiritual radiance and sexual magnetism, in the way Levinson likes, is dualistic in the bad sense.  There are, of course, people who strike one visually more with sexual than spiritual radiance, and vice versa; but this is a matter of degree, not kind.   Marilyn Monroe brilliantly combined both the spiritual (in the sense of human excellence) and the sexual in one visual display that made, and still makes, her truly a star. 

Levinson reduces physical beauty unfortunately to the desire to have sexual intercourse.  As he puts it, “[not] to put too fine a point on it, we want, if only subconsciously, to mate with, have intercourse with, or make love with, the person who displays it.”  (195)  I admit I have felt that way a few times, especially in my twenties, but it is not true for me genuinely.  The reader has to look into his or her own experience to check its validity as a claim.  I may be singularly innocent in this regard, although I must say I am shocked by Levinson’s attitude, which seems stuck at very first stage of the “ladder of love” in Diotima’s famous story.  It’s a good starting point, but one does try to move beyond it.

Levinson justifies his position by appeal to evolutionary theory.  Of course, sexual attraction for the purpose of creating babies does play an important role in our experience of human beauty, but, as Levinson himself admits, there are many kinds of human beauty that are not reduced to this, for example the beauty of a baby or of a great-grandparent, neither of whom are normally objects of sexual attraction.  The beauty of an infant does invoke pleasure and rivet attention and impel action, for example, in the mother’s breastfeeding it, and this does have an evolutionary advantage. But that goes against limiting physical beauty to the beauty of an object of lust, where, as Etcoff say, Levinson approving, “[we] love to look at smooth skin, thick shiny hair, curved waists, and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success.” (195)  Ironically, babies have all of these features and yet, although this has importance for selection and survival, it does not entail their being sexual objects.  We do look at the smooth skin, shiny hair, and symmetrical bodies of babies as beautiful.  Interestingly, most babies are seen as beautiful by someone, and practically all by everyone. 

I have no problem with beauty here being connected with “desire” if that includes all sorts of desire including the desire to nurse a baby, or cuddle with one’s own child, or to be close to an elderly parent in a physical way through hugging or even, when they are senile, through feeding and helping to shower.  These are all appropriate desires in addition to the desire to have intercourse whether for the purpose of reproduction, or, as is usual, not (strangely this last behavior seems not to be sanctioned by evolutionary theory as described here.)

Levinson stresses that saying someone may be physically beautiful without being sexually attractive is “not a little sanctimonious”  (196) which is a strange thing to say since a considerably older married copy might find each other quite physically beautiful although not having any desire to have intercourse.  I don’t know whether Levinson would consider the desire to cuddle with one’s lifetime mate of seventy years counts as sexual attraction. 

So, who, on Levinson’s view “are the appropriate viewers for a subcategory of human sexual beauty”?  (I cannot see how some viewers of beauty can be seen as more appropriate than others.) He answers that, “[for] the beauty of women the default answer, one might suggest, albeit with trepidation, is adult heterosexual men, and perhaps within that class, the subclass that is of the same race as the woman in question.”  (196) !! The trepidation, unfortunately, was/is warranted.  I cannot agree that women cannot be attracted appropriately to women, or whites to blacks.  Levinson tries to recover by saying that the point is “not who is capable of judging of such beauty, but rather whose pleasurable reaction of desire or attraction should be taken as criterial of the species of human beauty in question.” (196)  I cannot see what good this does. 

Actually Levinson and I have some areas of agreement with respect to human beauty.  I am, for instance perfectly happy when he notes the social construction of sexual beauty admitting the role of cultural context and tradition in the norms of beauty.  And I agree that, nonetheless, certain features “such as symmetry, smoothness, youthfulness” in womanly beauty “occupy a non-negotiable place in what makes for human physical beauty…” (197) except for one problem. 

Being 72, my ideas of womanly beauty have changed with my years and commitments.  I am devoted to my wife, but if I became single again I would, after initially being tempted by younger women, naturally gravitate to someone in the above-60 range, for even now I prefer the beauty of such women, and would especially do so if thinking of a life partner, even though their physical features are far from perfect.  I would not ignore these features but would (and do now) find them sexy if the woman is intelligent, knowledgeable, interesting, sympathetic, emotionally available, attractive, a good dresser, virtuous, has good taste both in the arts and in everyday life, and loves nature. If an older woman has these features then all of the features that may seem decrepit on first glance are enhanced as well. They take on an aura of beauty.  I can live without Levinson’s touted values of symmetry, smoothness and youthfulness that characterize women in their twenties if all my other criteria are met, since if they are, then these criteria will be met as well. I will see my beloved’s skin as smooth, I will see her manner as youthful, and I will see her as symmetrical even if she is not so, mathematically. 

Levinson says that resistance to his idea of typing physical beauty with sexual desirability might go away if we distinguish judging beauty and experiencing physical beauty, the latter only requiring seeing the person as sexually alluring, (197) although he hedges that view, saying that even judging presupposes feelings of sexual attraction to “the appropriate reference class for human beauty in question, even if the judger does not himself have such sexual feelings.” (197)  Yet I believe that no man in my position in life should be required to limit his feelings of attraction to white heterosexual women of child-bearing age.  I find many older lesbian women fascinatingly beautiful, for example, contrary to Levinson’s requirement of appropriateness, even though I have no interest in having sex with them, and that goes  for older homosexual men as well.  When I judge a woman of my age, of whatever sexual persuasion, race, ethnicity, or disability status, as sexually attractive in the sense of being beautiful, it is because their physical features present themselves as manifestations of their excellent non-physical features.  I am not just speaking abstractly, and I am certain that I am not unique in this.  Many of the women I currently find attractive are philosophers, scientists, artists, and politicians.  It is not merely that I find them exemplars of virtue:  I am not talking about moral beauty alone here.  As Levinson notes, other kinds of beauty, including moral, come into my perception. But, again, I do not concede that beauty is plural in the way he sees it.  No: the package is one.  There is no moral beauty without physical beauty, and no physical beauty without moral beauty.  So I do not accept the language he favors of “mixed nature of beauty” or “proportion that narrowly concerns physical beauty.”  (197)

Levinson and I agree that physical beauty cannot be detached from sexual attractiveness, except of course in the cases of children and the very aged, where thoughts of sexual attraction are entirely inappropriate and impermissible.  Almost everyone is grossed out by the dressing up of little girls or great grandmothers to look like sexy glamour queens.  So, for people sexually “of age,” physical, sexual, and moral beauty are necessarily combined so that there no mere mixture but one beauty with (at least) three manifestations. 

Levinson admits the beauty of young children.  But he assimilates it to “natural beauty of an animate sort, such as that exhibited by swans or gazelles.” (198)  That is, he thinks that the beauty of young children is not at all like human beauty but more like swan beauty. Interestingly, he does not mention   monkey, cat, snake, crab or cockroach beauty.  Swans and gazelles fit a very peculiar category of animal beauty given that we find those two species to be very specially graceful and elegant and often think of them in conjunction with thoughts of ballerinas. I cannot imagine what it would be like to see the beauty of children as being essentially like swan beauty, or the “swan beauty” of the “swan” in Swan Lake.   Of course human infant beauty is very much like cat or gazelle infant beauty. We use the word “cute” to describe this type of beauty, but that is not the point at issue. 

Levinson also admits the beauty of the “wizened sage” and the “kindly grandmother.”  This is humorous in light of my previous self-revelatory comments, I being of the age traditionally associated with the wizened sage, and the women I currently find sexually attractive being associated with the kindly grandmother age. In fact, many of these women are both kindly and grandmothers…and…by the way…. “hot.”  I insist on the possibility of kindly sexually interesting grandmothers.  Take Laurie Anderson in her recent videos, or Joan Didion in the documentary of her in very old age, or Joan Mitchell in documentaries of her near the end of her life.  They are attractive women.  As mentioned above, Levinson thinks “moral beauty” comes in here.  (198)  But my point has been that it comes in everywhere at every age, as does erotic, sexual, and physical beauty.  There is no plurality of beauty, if I,  Diotima, Socrates, and Plato are right.

So when Levinson says “for moral beauty to count as a species of visual beauty…the pleasure must derive from beholding such traits as seemingly manifest in a person’s appearance,” he gets it all backwards, although, strangely, not too horribly wrong.   The problem here is with the word “seemingly.”  But, it turns out, that is the central word in his analysis, for he says “nor is it a matter of whether the person presenting such traits in appearance actually possesses them as personal qualities, that is, is in fact a virtuous, noble, or soulful person.”  (198-9)  No!  The minute one of my attractive kindly grandmas turns out not to be actually noble or soulful then she becomes instantly, in my perception, much less attractive.   So when Levinson says, “moral beauty…is no guarantee of moral worth, though part of its appeal is no doubt the suggestion that such worth obtains,” the opposite is true.  A mere “suggestion” is a fake, is fake beauty, is ugly.

Levinson says, “we have seen some reasons that formal beauty and artistic beauty are not the same thing, that formal beauty and physical beauty are not the same, and that physical beauty and artistic beauty are not the same.”  (199)  But I have shown quite the opposite in each case.  It is actually fun to write about someone with whom one disagrees so thoroughly!  (Of course I am very fond of Levinson as a person and philosopher.  I have a sweet picture of him lazing in his formal clothes on a beach at Asilomar in, probably, 1983.  My measure of respect for him, of course, is measured by how seriously I take his thinking and by how much it informs my own so much by being so wrong.  I can just picture him chuckling at this with his characteristic chuckle.)   Levinson backs up this claim which I consider very wrong with a number of points about differences which I do not at all object to.  So my problem is more with the validity of his argument.  I accept the premises for the most part but find that the conclusion wildly off and certainly is not supported by the premises.  Yes, there are differences between each kind of beauty, but they are minor.  He speaks of differences between the responsible bases of beauty, and yet these are, on my account, mind.  He speaks of differences in what viewers attend to, but these are subtle at best.   

But its seems that it is nearly impossible to distinguish natural in any important way from human beauty.  For example, I may appreciate the beauty of a kitten in much the same way I appreciate the beauty of a human baby.  I use the same cooing language, for example: “You are so cute!”  Similarly I may be stunned by the beauty of an elegant, stately, tree ornamented by flowers and subtle leafing of spring in much the same way as I am with a beautiful and elegant woman ornamented by flowers and by the subtle movements of her hair in spring.  The differences are so little that poets throughout history have described human beauty in terms of natural beauty and vice versa.  Think of the Song of Solomon. 

Levinson quotes, with approval, Malcolm Budd’s saying that “we delight in the seemingly endless and effortless variety of” thrush’s song “but not as the product of artistry.” (199)  So, let’s compare my delight in the thrush song (we have one going on right now in our garden), and that of Rene Fleming (on a CD I’m afraid).   I find it hard to tell the difference, except that Rene is more complicated.  Perhaps Levinson cannot get beyond the thought that the first is “effortless” (how would he know) in its variety whereas the second achieves the same beautiful affect through “artistry.”   But this just begs the question.  Fleming has enormous talent.  For her singing with great beauty IS effortless when her singing is going well.  Artistry surely went into her training, but it is that point at issue whether you can hear THAT in the beauty of her performance, although perhaps some can.  We know less about bird song because, as complicated as their songs are, we tend, with our anthropocentric bias, to downplay it as without “artistry” and as “mere instinct.” 

The quote from Budd also stresses that “the object of aesthetic delight is the sounds as issuing naturally from a living, sentient creature, more specifically, a bird.” (199)  But what is the point of saying that?  Clearly Fleming is also a living, sentient creature, more specifically, a simian, who issues sounds that give aesthetic delight.  The only difference is that she is of one genus, whereas the thrush is of another, one that is much more closely related to us humans, by the way, than a sponge, worm, or bacterium.  So, again, there is no important difference here.

But l begin to see where Levinson goes wrong when he says that, by “the response to natural beauty I mean the beauty response proper to nature as nature, where the thought of the object of perception as natural permeates and regulates the response…”  (200)  This, on my view, is wrong-headed dualism and anthropocentrism.  There is no “nature as nature” in contrast to products “of human qua human,” as though humans were in some way completely separate from nature.  Indeed, I find the appreciation of nature, where “the thought of the object of perception as natural permeates…” a bit perverse, even though aestheticians of nature are often attracted to it as a kind of ideal. Elsewhere I have argued for an alternative view of the proper appreciation of nature which stresses multiple aspects or perspectives while avoiding what I consider the “nature as nature” fetish. I take this fetishized perception to be a narrow and romanticized idealism that, in a strange way, treats nature as a kind of pre-human Eden, and humans as a kind of post apple-eating alienated group needing salvation.  I am not saying that Levinson consciously believes in this Christian mythology, but that his thought, and that of other “nature as nature” enthusiasts seems subtly infected by it, as by dualism.

Once again, with respect to crossing over from one type of beauty to another, Levinson writes, “a portion of nature, such as [a mountain scene] might be regarded as if it were just an abstract array of colors and shapes, or…as if it were some sort of monumental artwork.” So it requires a somewhat artificial operation of the imagination, on his view.  But it doesn’t.  The “as if” is totally redundant.

I do not deny that mountain scenes can be regarded as abstract arrays of colors and shapes (the “as” being different from “as if.”)  However, again using my own experience as a serious amateur photography as my intuition touchstone, when I take photographs of natural scenes, usually I am in the urban environment of my city, and so, usually, whatever appears in my frame is partly natural and partly not, for example partly trees and flowers and creek water, but also partly houses and people (are people nature or not nature? Levinson only allows children to partake of natural beauty…another wrong aspect of his theory)

I just can’t regard all of this as if “just an abstract array of color and shapes.” The “just” is what galls.  However, giving credit where credit is due, I do regard what I see in formal terms, that is, in the sense that I select the rectangular scene in my viewfinder to capture an image based on such things as a  harmonious relations of lines and colors.  I do not see this as a matter of “as if” at all.  I am photographing trees, houses, people, etc. being fully aware that that is what they are. Yet this is done with attention to the composition of a picture in the two-dimensional space that is the locus of my creative activity of choosing and framing; this resulting in a digital photograph that I might share with friends as a work of amateur photographic art.  I admit that, in the creative process, imagination plays a role. I might even think, “how like a monumental artwork,” when taking a photograph, which, in fact, I have done frequently.  Yet, for me, the interaction of art and nature appreciation is close.  I often do not think about these comparisons consciously, but, if asked, I might say: “This shot is inspired by Altoon Sultan and Richard Diebenkorn, with a touch of Bierstadt in the corner, and even some Andy Warhol in the display of children’s toys in the other corner.”  I believe that that enhances my artwork, and also my experience of nature, since I do not bother with the mythical and distorting notion of “nature as nature”  Levinson, however, says that, although regarding a natural scene in this way might cause one to see it as beautiful, “that would not be a perception or registering of the scene’s properly natural beauty.” (200)  But there is no such thing as “properly natural beauty.”

Levinson also thinks there is a thing called “athletic beauty,” found in both humans and animals and involving “suppleness, grace, speed, and assurance.” But he thinks it “distinct from the physical beauty of face and body,” which he discussed earlier in terms of the desire to have sexual intercourse through possession of the appropriate sexual and racial other.  (I still find it shocking to recount this.)  This is deeply wrong.   There is no facial or bodily beauty that can be disconnected from the features discussed here under the misleading term of “athletic” beauty, i.e. beauty of movement.  The Greeks discovered, and such enlightenment writers as Herder in his great book on sculptural beauty, recognized, that these two things cannot be divorced without ruining each.  Human beauty is a matter of faces, arms, and other body parts in graceful motion.  This is exemplified not only in athletic beauty, as described by Hans Gumbrecht in his book on the topic and with that title, but also in great sculptures throughout  history, and in great paintings by such figures as Perlstein, da Vinci, Rembrandt, and van der Weyden, as well as great ones nonwestern traditions.  Just think of van der Weyden’s “Deposition.”  Here, even the body of a dead Christ has this quality of totally synthesized moral, “athletic,” erotic, personal, social-historical, mystical, non-sexual intercourse-related, religious, human, artistic, beauty.”

Non-art artifacts such as oriental rugs do not raise significantly different issues, again, contra Levinson and a number of other philosophers working on this issue, including Carlson, Parsons, and Forsey.  Levinson observes “assessments of intention and purpose and of the adjustments of means to ends” in artwork beauty and not in non-art artifacts.  I can only think that he has not paid much attention to non-art artifacts.  The prejudice this exemplifies can be found for example in Collingwood.  It is widespread.  And yet, to use Levinson’s own example, the rug created in the early 20th century in Afghanistan, for instance, is worthy of much thought about intention and purpose (are the two distinct?) and adjustments of means to ends. We might not know the names of the creators of this hypothesized rug, although in many instances, contemporary collectors and curators make a point of finding out, since, as with any other artform, the style of the individual master will inevitably be unique, and this will give rise to a kind of sense of humanity we find in more accepted forms of “fine art.”  The truth is that the distinction between “fine art” and not is mainly based on classist, sexist, racist, colonialist, ageist, and other similar disagreeable assumptions.  There is, as curators and theoreticians are now at last well aware, no interesting or non-oppressive of note here. 

Levinson thinks that unique to non-art artifacts is not “a dimension of content, and a sense of the fittingness of such content to the form in which it has been embodied” and yet I just cannot see this in Navajo, Mayan, Afghani, Chinese, or any other kind of finely worked run from any part of the world or from any class, sex, or race.  Levinson says “viewed as art, the perceivable form of an artwork is apprehended, not in relation to the fulfillment of basic human needs, nor in relation to the satisfaction of utilitarian ends, nor again as merely abstract painting, but as something which potentially has something to say through such form.”  All of this would cover perfectly any and all of the finely crafted rugs from throughout the world we have been discussing unless Levinson has a meaning for “say” that includes a work by say Joan Mitchells, but not one by a specific Indian master of rug design.  I just don’t think there is any such meaning that is not just something really subtle and specific to historical context.  In order words, “fine art” does not really “say” anything significantly different in kind from “craft,” although there is certainly a range of less to more content in any artform and any two art practices might be placed in different spots on that range in general.  I just do not know enough about it to be able to say.  But I am willing to talk about specific works from each form to see whether one actually “says” more, or says something rather than the nothing of the other.  Levinson ties the distinction to basic vs. nonbasic human needs, and yet I just cannot see how an Indian Mughal rug, for example, from the 18th century, fulfills more or less basic human needs that the Venus de Milo. I very much doubt that ANY human needs are “basic” in Levinson’s sense or that this idea of “basic” can help distinguish various kinds of beauty or art.  The same goes for “utilitarian ends” since utilitarian is just a fancy word for useful, and there is no reason to think that fine art objects are any more or less useful than so-called merely utilitarian objects if we are talking about such things as richly conceived and constructed rugs as opposed to very cheap hammers, which no-one, by the way, thinks are beautiful in any way, even though they are sometimes useful, hence utilitarian in that narrow sense.  But perhaps Levinson is forgetting here the distinction between pushpin and poetry, where the latter is MORE utilitarian on the account of Mill.  But Levinson does admit (200) that something like a rug can say something and hence be beautiful as an artwork and not as an artifact.  So why am I complaining?  Well, that admission simply destroys his theory which depends on not allowing artifacts to save the unity beauty by migrating to art whenever they are actually good as artifacts.   So the beauty of an artwork is not at all “something different from, if related to, the beauty of a non-art artifact, such as an automobile, wardrobe, hammock, or hammer.”  (201) (It is funny that he tacks on hammer at the end as if, all of these beauties are functionally the same, as if the beauty of a Jaguar Sedan is functionally the same as the beauty of the hammer I just bought for five dollars at the hardware store and functionally different from the beauty of a Rembrandt portrait which itself is functionally the same as the beauty of the Thomas Kincaid artifacts my neighbor loves to use to decorate her house.)

Levinson thinks that a set of silverware “might be considered less beautiful because….the pieces simply appear too heavy, and thus likely to be unwieldly in practice.” (201)  Yes, that sounds right, although I am not sure it supports any of his points about beauty.  It might be related to the question he asks whether works of architecture are artefactual or art beauty.  This is not a problem for me since I do not see an important distinction here, nor is the question “whether all works of architecture works of art” (201) useful or even meaningful.  No architect or architecture historian I know would find it interesting.  So perhaps philosophers shouldn’t either. Levinson thinks that “some architecture is simply artifact” and so only capable of “at most artefactual beauty.”  (201)  This nonsense is just based on previously criticized distinctions.  Thankfully, Levinson does say that the original Brillo boxes as artifact did have content, i.e. they were “designed for commercial purposes.”  But no, they were designed for far more than that.  They were designed to persuade people to buy something as part of a vision of a lifestyle that itself incorporates aspects of “high culture” which makes it not surprising that the original designer was himself a “failed” New York artist (I would not accept that he was a failure).  The design is sophisticated and has tons of content.  Of course Danto, Levinson’s master in this, saw it just as a “mere real thing,” which meant that it was in the mere world of ordinary objects and not the transcendent artworld that Warhol (who Danto completely misunderstood) transfigured it up into, in a kind of holy Platonistic apotheosis. (This is not my Symposium-based Platonism in which dualism is overcome by a continuum much more like the later emanation theory of Plotinus.)  So, no, I will stick with Nietzsche who says we should be “true to the earth” and reject such baloney.  Of course, Levinson just creates a new category to satisfy himself about such a “borderline case.”  You guessed it…its “commercial art.” (201)  And of course it has its own unique beauty, on his account. But returning to natural beauty, Levinson notes there is something he calls “accidental beauty” which in my view is not more accidental, or less, than any other “kind” of beauty he has described.  His example certainly is beautiful, and this is indeed an area of agreement between us.

Despite our theoretical difference, Levinson and I actually tend to find the same things beautiful.  So maybe our differences are just those typical academic differences.  One close nonacademic friends says my writings always look like legal briefs.  On one level, that was friendly, as it showed that he actually read some of it, and on another level, not so much, since people are generally wary of lawyers, seeing them as hired guns with no morality whatsoever.  I said in reply that we can do that but, in my view, true philosophy is more like an art, in fact IS an art, and that it requires judgment, taste, creativity, and imagination.  He responded with skepticism.  It seems these days that whenever I further develop a position in response to counterarguments I am accused of “backtracking” as though being careful and covering your tracks backwards like a 18th century scout is a bad thing!

Accidental beauty examples are, says Levinson, “accidental arrangements of elements, man-made or natural, that one just comes across and finds somehow absorbing and compelling.” (201)  Well, I take literally scores of photographs of what I consider beautiful and interesting in my neighborhood every day, or at least week, and on Levinson’s account, the objects of these photos are ALL accidental beauties (most are BOTH man-made AND natural, as in both a house and a tree.)  None of these arrangements were designed by anyone, and yet I found them all both absorbing and compelling.  The truth is I just do not see any non-accidental beauties.  Of course each of the beauties I see has elements of a number of things Levinson saw as separate and distinct.  And there is an element of intentionality in all of these, even in the trees, which, in the urban world, have almost all be planted by someone for some aesthetic effect.  So, there is intentionality everywhere in the biosphere, especially if, as modern ecology indicates, there is some form of plant intentionality.  Moreover, each one of my photographs exhibits tons of intentionality since I intended to frame them in this way and I intended to snap the picture and I intended to save these images -- and I intended sometimes to show them as pieces of amateur art.   Although Levinson and I both think beautiful “the look of a city from on high, as from the roof of a skyscraper” (201) I don’t understand why he believes something so politically naïve (in terms of community politics) that this cityscape “though the byproduct of numerous individual creative acts was not envisaged or designed by anyone, and yet is often visually arresting.”  Has he not heard of Robert Moses or Louis XVI or Napoleon or the heroes who defended the Western Addition and the Haight in San Francisco in the 1960s, or the heroes who kept a freeway from coming into Santa Cruz in same period, or those who defended the natural-looking farmland of Marin County, or, the list of intentional designers of urban landscapes goes on and on. The same goes for seemingly accidental arrangements that are “redolent of some hidden meaning,” for in truth every arrangement of front yards and neighborhoods involve complex aesthetic negotiations both within families and between families.  I could give a myriad of examples.  What seems to be accidental hidden meaning is almost always intentionally negotiated meaning.  So, to nail his mistake into the board of his argument Levinson says, quite wrongly in stunningly ignorant way (ignorant that is of community interactions:  I know this because I have been a community organizer and leader for twenty years and have seen tons of these aesthetic negotiations, and have participated in most of those, some of them, I must say, almost leading to fisticuffs in terms of “that is ugly” vs. “that is beautiful” about the same arrangement of elements.  I would go so far as to say that this kind of engagement forms the essence of concerned community life.  I think the members of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, and other such nearly associations, for this insight.)  He says that “such phenomena…are neither artistically beautiful, nor artifactually beautiful, nor naturally beautiful; that is, they are not beautiful in the way of art, or artifact, or nature.”  Yet in fact such phenomena are inclusively and non-exclusively artistically, artifactually, and naturally beautiful, no one kind being clearly distinguishable from any of the others, or from any other kind of beauty Levinson has mentioned.  Again, the unity theory of beauty, going back to Plato, and further to Parmenides and further again to Thales, and maybe even to Homer, wins.


But it might be argued that I have missed the forest for the trees, that Levinson’s overall theory, as summarized at the end of his article is far more sophisticated than I have let on.  I agree with this criticism.   I have not for example dwelt on Levinson’s tripartite structure of differentiation of types of beauty  “the features of the object on which the given response is directed…the properties causally responsible for…the given response…the phenomenology of the given response…[in short] the intentional, structural and phenomenological grounds for distinguishing beauty responses.”  (204)  This seems, of the face of it, formidable.  All I can do is focus on the specifics.

Levinson turns to bilateral symmetry to start with.  Remember that he believes this is a necessary condition of human beauty.  Ever since I read this I have been looking at humans who I consider to have some beauty to see whether they always have bilateral symmetry. I admit that it is relatively rare.  However, I found myself thinking about a newsreporter who as eyebrows that are asymmetrical. One is clearly higher than the other.  She looks a bit peculiar,  and I don’t personally find her beautiful, and yet some executive at a news organization hired her. And no one said “we can’t show her:  she is just too ugly.”  Another example is some beauty marks.  Some women are considered more beautiful if they have a small mole on one side of their face.  This can also be true for tattoos, which do not always follow principles of bilateral beauty in humans.  Some people of both sexes have long hair that does not part in the middle or that falls at different lengths onto both shoulders. Some people with genetic defects that entailed breaking of bilateral symmetry in body or face are considered beautiful by some people.  In some sports muscles on one side are developed more profoundly than on the other side, and yet few complain that these people are ugly as a result, and some probably see this feature itself as conducive to beauty.  Also, as I said earlier in this paper, on my view bilateral symmetry is by no means necessary for beauty when one considers the way we see such individuals under concepts of moral or intellectual virtue.  So much for the idea that it is the “since qua non of…human beauty” (204)  He holds this to distinguish human from other beauties, but since it is not true, then there is no basis for a strict distinction.  (Of course I have held throughout that there are distinctions between types of beauty, but they are relatively minor and not of great importance in our question for understanding beauty itself.)  But Levinson also argues that human beauty is much different from artistic beauty phenomenologically since the “former necessarily involves desire….while the response to the latter necessarily includes thoughts about meaning.” (204)  Both of these claims are, as I have shown, patently false.  It should go without even saying that parents find their babies beautiful without any implication of sexual desire, especially in Levinson’s sense of that term, i.e. in terms of having the “possession” of penetrating intercourse.  The second is also false since art lovers who enjoy a later abstraction by Jackson Pollock need not be concerned at all about meaning.  Contra Levinson and Danto, the title of Pollock’s late abstractions is of little or no importance.

Levinson also insists that, with regards to intentional focus, the response to physical and artistic beauty is quite different from the response to abstract beauty since it focuses “more on visual form as such.”  “In the case of physical beauty such form is normally seen past unreflectingly, giving way immediately to an image of the desirable person, while in the case of artistic beauty such form is not rightly seen past, but is rather dwelt on in relation to any figurative or expressive meaning that results.”  (204-5)  One is reminded here of the rather puritanical denial of sexual interest in beauty found in the writings of Clive Bell.  As I have argued earlier, this position is infected by dualism, which I join Nietzsche and Dewey in seeing as the worst of the philosophic maladies with which we must continue to contend.  The phrase “giving way immediately to an image of the desirable person” seems strangely coy for someone who has previously made perfectly clar that this immediacy involves the perceptual of possibility of immediate sexual possession in the manner of sexual intercourse.  But even if we think less concretely, as this sentence implies, it is false that appreciation of beauty in humans requires picturing to oneself with that person as desirable or having an image of someone considered objectively desirable by the world.  There is such a thing as appreciating beauty in a Platonic way with the immediate interest simply being in the aura of beauty that person gives off and only the possibility of a secondary interest of a sexualf nature.  If this were not true I can attest that I would find walking across my university campus sexually unbearable.  Instead I delight in both the female and male beauties that constantly surround me, the beauties of youth so unrelated to the beauties of maturity which I consider, at this stage in my life, the more appropriate objects of sexual desire.  And please don’t condescendingly say that I am just deluding myself or trying to hide my true prurient nature!  I know my own desire better than those who would impose their narrative on me. 

Levinson sums up everything with a chart of the distinctness of the seven species of beauty that itself induces my closing comments.  (a) “apprehension of the beauty presupposes a conception of the object as a thing of a particular kind, and not simply attention to the object’s visual form.”  This doesn’t fit anything distinctive since all apprehensions presuppose conceptions, as Kant taught us, and also the all involve attention to the visual form of the object.  (b) “involves estimation of purpose or use in relation to form”  This does not seriously distinguish anything since anything made has both an intended purpose and perhaps several functional purposes that shift and change over time, just as true for a painting that originated as an altarpiece as a house that originated as a church or a human body formerly an object of loving gaze but now seen as a stimulate for autoerotic behavior.  (c) “estimation of meaning or content in relation to form.” This is not of any crucial importance since, as Husserl teaches us, everything has meaning content in relation to form. (d)  “involves estimate of moral character.”  This does obviously distinguish human from non-human, non-animal beauty, since we cannot for example consider the moral character of a sunset.  However the distinction is not particularly importance.  For example, in every art form and in every craft form we keep in the mind both the moral character of the artist/artisan and the effect the object might have on moral character in the culture.  These considerations go back to Plato’s Republic.(e) “involves desire for and attraction to the object.”  This distinction is of little importance since humans can desire and desire to possess anything:  stamps, paintings, knives, to have a baby, sexual intercourse with other humans,  to see visual human beauty again, clean water, cool sunglasses, the death of an enemy, answers to one’s prayers, enlightenment, and so forth. And anything one desires one is attracted to.  (f) “depends on a relatively narrow range of underlying properties.”  To be honest, I do not know what this means.

“Abstract beauty exhibits none of the above marks, thus emerging as in some sense the purest of beauties.”  (205)  On my contrary view, if “abstract beauty” is defined as such, there is just no such thing.  Levinson goes to talk about the various ways in which the various touted “seven kinds of beauty” partake of each of these lettered properties.  The path my critique of this should be obvious by now so that I do not have to spell it out in each case.

What about distinctive properties for each kind of beauty?  Levinson notes that the same property may supervene on different bases.   So maybe “visual beauty is the same property in all cases despite supervening on different subvenient bases” to which he replies that “if the base properties are really quite different, as between physical and natural beauty” then the beauty properties are distinct. 

[1] Levinson, Jerry.  “Beauty is Not One:  The Irreducible Variety of Visual Beauty.”  In The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology.  Ed. Elizabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie.  Oxford University Press.  2011.  190-207.  All internal citations refer to this unless otherwise state.  

[2]  Bell, Clive.  Art.  London:  Chatto and Windus, 1914. 

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