Thursday, August 30, 2012

Francis Hutcheson against Scientific Cognitivism

Francis Hutcheson, commonly considered one of the founders of aesthetics, raises in his An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue an issue that would go against contemporary scientific cognitivists in the aesthetics of nature.  Scientific cognitivists, such as Allen Carlson and Glen Parsons, hold that in order to appreciate nature appropriately we need to have scientific knowledge.   However Hutcheson asks us to consider "how different we must suppose the perception to be with which a poet is transported upon the prospect of any of those objects of natural beauty which ravish us even in his description, from that cold lifeless conception which we image in a dull critic, or one of the virtuosos, without what we call a fine taste."  We quickly discover that the "virtuoso" is the person who has scientific knowledge.  "This latter class of men may have greater perfection in that knowledge which is derived from external sensation."  Hutcheson distinguishes between external sensation, which is the ordinary kind of sensation we experience immediately through our senses, and internal sensation, which is the kind of thing we refer to when we say that a music critic has "a good ear" or a visual artist "a good eye" or when someone appreciates something aesthetically without any organs of sense involved (for example, in appreciating a theorem).  The scientific virtuosos "can tell all the specific differences of trees, herbs...about which the poet is often very ignorant...And yet the poet shall have a vastly more delightful perception of the whole - and not only the poet, but any man of a fine taste."  So, argues Hutcheson, even if you are a person who knows the proportions of a building to the inch you are not a complete master of architecture or even a "tolerable judge" unless you have internal sense.  This does not, of course, prove the case against scientific cognitivism,  but it does seem that someone could perceive a building very accurately or a tree with a lot of scientific knowledge and still have no taste, i.e. not have a "good eye."    

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Edmund Burke thought that smoothness was essential to beauty.  He couldn’t even recall anything that was beautiful and not smooth.  His examples included smooth leaves, smooth slopes in gardens, smooth streams, smooth coats in animals, smooth skin in women, and smooth surfaces in furniture.  He thinks smoothness to produce the “most considerable” effect of beauty and that making a surface unsmooth takes beauty away. Uvedale Price was influenced by Burke on the matter of smoothness.  He writes "One principal effect of smoothness, and to which perhaps it owes its so general power of pleasing, is, that it gives an appearance of quiet and repose to all objects; roughness, on the contrary, a spirit and animation. These seem to me likewise the most prevailing effects of the beautiful and the picturesque.”  Townsend observes that for Price smoothness is not only sufficient for beauty but also necessary, saying “where there is a want of smoothness there is a want of repose.”  (Dabney Townsend “The Picturesque,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 365-376 1997, 374)  (Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful; and, On the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpouse of Improving Real Landscape (London: Printed for J. Robson, New Bond Street, 1794)  Price further writes “But among all the objects of nature, there is none in which roughness and smoothness more strongly mark the distinction between the two characters, than in water. A calm, clear lake, with the reflections of all that surrounds it, viewed under the influence of a setting sun, at the close of an evening clear and serene as its own surface, is perhaps, of all scenes, the most congenial to our ideas of beauty in its strictest, and in its most general acceptation.” (1794 #56)  But Price also adds quickly  “On the other hand, all water of which the surface is broken, and the motion abrupt and irregular, as universally accords with our ideas of the picturesque; and whenever the word is mentioned, rapid and stony torrents and waterfalls, and waves dashing against rocks, are among the first objects that present themselves to our imagination.”  So, smoothness is not necessary for all aesthetic qualities, only for beauty.  Also, he seems to hold a higher ideal in which both the beautiful and the picturesque are combined:  “The two characters also approach and balance each other, as roughness or smoothness, as gentle undulation or abruptness prevail.” Price also makes the distinction between the beautiful and the picturesque with regard to birds “Nothing is more truly consonant to our ideas of beauty, than their plumage when smooth and undisturbed, and when the eye glides over it without interruption: nothing, on the other hand, has so picturesque an appearance as their feathers, when ruffled by any accidental circumstance, or by any sudden passion in the animal.” (61)   And with respect to painting he says that Albano (Francesco Albani 1578-1660) s works are beautiful because smooth. 

Stewart disagreed with Burke about smoothness.  He thought that there was not one thing that all examples of beauty had in common.  Walter J. Hipple observes that, for Stewart, “there is, of course, association among the senses, so that smoothness may become beautiful.” (Walter J. Hipple Jr., "The Aesthetics of Dugald Stewart: Culmination of a Tradition” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 14:1, 1955, . 77-96). Quoting from Stewart “That the smoothness of many objects is one constituent of their beauty, cannot be disputed. In consequence of that intimate association which is formed in the mind between the perceptions of sight and those of touch, it is reasonable to expect that those qualities which give pleasure to the latter sense, should also be agreeable to the former.” But, as Hipple observes, this “effect is limited to objects destined to be handled, and the principle is inapplicable to objects which we characteristically do not think of touching because of their magnitude or situation. The beauty of smoothness is traced equally, moreover, to other kinds of associations-to the reflecting properties of smooth surfaces, to sexual associations, to associations of utility or design, and to custom.”  Stewart actually finds inspiration in Price’s concept of the picturesque in opposing the notion that beauty has the essential characteristic of smoothness (even though Price did not use this for this purpose as we saw above).

It should also be observed that smoothness is something that we can see as well as touch.  (Merleau-Ponty mentions this in “Cezanne’s Doubt.”)  Some have argued that although smoothness is valuable for beauty perfect smoothness would need some contrast to be beautiful. 

Price is mostly known for his views on the aesthetics of gardens.  As Stephanie Ross observes, Price was critical of Capability Brown for his over-reliance on the concept of smoothness.  She writes “Price criticized Brown's gardens in terms of the picturesque principles just deduced. Thus, he argued that smoothness and verdure cannot make amends for want of variety…, but instead become insipid and monotonous. And, in his chapter on water, he argued that water's most striking property is its ability to produce mirror-like reflections, yet the smooth banks of Brown's artificial lakes lacked those objects (trees, bushes, roots, tufts, tussocks, stones, lichens, mosses, etc.) which would make their reflections varied and interesting.” (274) (Stephanie Ross  “The Picturesque: An Eighteenth-Century Debate” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,  46:2 (1987) 271-279.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Paradoxes of Art: A Phenomenological Investigation

Alan Paskow managed to give us philosophical "page-turner" shortly before his untimely recent death. The question is, "what is a painting" not in the sense of searching for a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but in terms of asking what it means to us (when it means a lot to us, that is). Included in the text are four full-color illustrations, three of which he discusses at length (all by Vermeer). Paskow gives us a phenomenological analysis of our experience of a painting (and of many other kinds of art, for example literature) in the tradition of Heidegger. However, unlike books by many Heidegger followers, this one is very clearly written. It also does a good job of responding to central analytic philosophers in the field, thus crossing boundaries between these two schools of thought that are seldom crossed. (I must also say that Paskow provides a broad analysis of analytic philosophy's dependence on Cartesian dualism which shows his motive for choosing against that school of thought.)

Paskow's bold, and exciting, thesis is that fictional objects are quasi-real, or rather the distinction between the merely fictional and the actually real is not as sharp as we normally think. Moreover, we experience things that are depicted in paintings, for example chairs, as people-like. They have personalities, and they seem to speak to us (at least some of the time).

A classic question in aesthetic is why we seem to feel real emotions in response to fictional characters. Paskow argues for what he calls "realist theory" which says that the response is not to something that is simply "in one's head" even though the character is not directly perceived. Anna Karenina, like his own daughter, is an intentional object towards which he has real feelings. Similarly, if engaged in a fictional person in a film, you feel as if you are watching a real person. This is quite contrary to the most famous view in analytic philosophy, that of Kendall Walton, who holds that a fictional entity (such as Anna) is a prop in a game of make-believe. His view implies that when I fear for Anna it is just a make-believe, or on another reading, a quasi-fear. Walton's view has always seemed implausible to me: I know how to distinguish between pretending to feel fear for a character and actually feeling such fear. A person who was incapable of emotionally responding to novels might well engage regularly in the pretending that Walton describes, but this is not what most of us do when we are wrapped up in a good novel. So I agree with Paskow that at some level we really believe in fictional beings (and at another level, we do not): we have "dual consciousness" with respect to fictional beings. Paskow also recognizes that there is at least one difference between fictional and real entities: we cannot interact with the former (we cannot, for example, try to save Anna). As far as I can tell, Paskow's solution to the problem is correct.

The last part of his book is directed to how to appreciate a painting with special focus on Vermeer examples. I found his phenomenological approach to appreciating paintings helpful, although sometimes he seems to over-interpret, for example when he dwells on the existential meaning of what appears to me to be just a rug-covered table placed in shadow in the lower left hand corner of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. However, Paskow is wholly aware of the possibility of disagreement in such matters.

Sarah Worth, in her thoughtful on-line critique of Paskow's book (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) claims that he fails to recognize the big distinction between our response when we believe something and when we do not. However, Worth herself fails to recognize that Paskow has answered this objection by distinguishing between belief in conciousness1 and belief in consciousness2: we can believe on one level and not on another. Walton's idea that we quasi-feat the green slime in a film (which Worth defends) fails to capture the idea that we half believe in the green slime, so that in that part of us covered by consciousness1, there is real fear, whereas in the other, more critical part, there is not. (Worth does a good job of pointing out what I consider some minor weaknesses in a book which is otherwise quite brilliant.)