Monday, May 2, 2022

Is Metamodernism the answer?

 It seems that since the 1980s we have been looking for the answer to the question, what comes after postmodernism.  The most recently published effort in this direction is an impressive book by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, a religious studies professor, titled Metamodernism:  The Future of Theory.  The University of Chicago Press, 2021.  I very much enjoyed reading this challenging book which I originally ordered because of my ongoing interest in Weitz's anti-essentialism.  Storm shows a great deal of wisdom about ongoing debates both in philosophy and in the social sciences.  However, as with all other writers on the topic, he missed Weitz's main point and principle discovery, namely that the history of defining art is a history of successes, not failures, as long as we take the proposed real definitions to actually be honorific re-definitions.  Unlike Weitz I hold these honorific re-definitions to be descriptions/constitutions of the emerging and always changing essences they define.  So my solution to this classical problem mediates between essentialism and anti-essentialism.   Storm rightly sees that we cannot stick with traditional essentialism and hence cannot define such key terms as "religion" and "art" in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  He also raises excellent objections to the family-resemblance approach (which he wrongly, along with everyone else, attributes to Weitz).  However he believes that the solution to the "legitimation crisis" of our time is a "process social ontology" which replaces the idea of "natural kinds" with that of "social kinds."  He believes that this gets beyond anti-essentialism.  He sees social kinds a "homeostatic property-cluster kinds" and a similar approach has been followed in aesthetics.  However, this approach drains any discussion of essentially contested concepts of their dynamic energy.  We just end of up with what was once called "descriptive metaphysics."  Dialectic is lost.

Some of the things that he says about social kinds do capture what I mean by "essences."  But they miss the Socratic question and the Socratic quest which I take to be foundational of philosophy and the paradigmatic philosophy language-game.  Such theories are merely descriptive and do not recognize the ideal aspect of essences.  As I have said (although mainly in unpublished writing), the ideal aspect is empty in content but is eternal and unchanging.  One might say that the "social kind approach" to essences fails to see and deal with the ladder of love in Diotima’s sense. In doing so, it fails to capture the best of idealism.  On my view, the essences (of social kinds) are emergent from the dialectic between the ideal aspect of essences and the processual social kind.  Without this dynamic there is no possibility of creativity in the analysis of, and constitution of essences.  I worked out my views on this way back in the 90s in -  “The Socratic Quest in Art and Philosophy,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51:3 (1993) 399-410. and “Metaphor and Metaphysics,” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Special Issue on Metaphor and Philosophy) 10:3 (1995) 205-222.   

I do like the term "metamodernism" and I would say that metamodernism is the answer, but not Storm's version. 


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Objections to Epicurus on Death

  1.  It is argued by Epicureans that death is necessary and inevitable and once one sees this one will realize fear of death is irrational.  (Jeffrie R. Murphy.  "Rationality and the Fear of Death."  The Monist 59 1976 187-203.  I will refer to the version in Fischer.  The Metaphysics of Death.)    I think that fear of death is irrational.  However this argument, by itself, is not sufficient.  (See my other recent posts on death.)
  2.  I started thinking about death when I was eleven.   I was horrified to realize that I would die.  I came to philosophy by this path.  What is death?  Why do we die?  Religion did not seem to offer a solution to the problem of death.  I do not remember much about my thoughts then, just that I was obsessed with death.  When my grandmother died, about that time, I did not feel grief.  I am not sure why.  But I did think that grief was irrational.  Since then I have felt my fair share of grief.  But the problem of death remains a living thing for me.  Now, at 72, I am surely much closer to my own death than I was at 11.  But, then, anything can happen, and surely I could not know when 11 that i would live to at least 72.  I was was once walking across campus and a tree fell on me (probably when I was sixty).  People usually die when that happens.  I didn't.  But the experience led me to think again about death.
  3. Fear of death is pointless because it cannot help us to avoid death.  (Murphy 52)  This seems true.  It is part of the Epicurean argument.
  4. Mary Mothersill "Death is the deadline of all of my assignments."    
  5.  "a prudent fear of death is perfectly rational.  By a prudent fear of death I mean simply (a) one that provokes people into maintaining a reasonable (though not neurotically compulsive) diligence with respect to living the kind of life they regard as proper or meaningful....and (b) one that is kept in its proper place (i.e., does not sour all the good things in one's life"  Murphy 56.  Murphy says this while affirming the truth of Spinoza's claim. Seems reasonable to me.
  6. "Fear of death is irrational and properly extinguished, then, when it can serve no legitimate purpose in our lives - when it cannot aid us in avoiding bad a way that is consistent with the successful and satisfying integration and functioning of our person."  Murphy 56.   But we have those who oppose the Epicurean/Spinozistic approach to death.
  7. Nagel is one.  "life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we sustain"  Nagel  61.  There is a lot of confusion here.  Life is the condition of having things.  It is not really something we "have."  Or perhaps there is a different sense of "have" operative here.  Is the loss of one's life the greatest loss?  Does every life end in the greatest of all possible losses?  The answer is not obviously yes. I am not sure you can even lose your life, although we say that.  You just die. 
  8.    First you are not dead.  Then you are dead.  Is it the same "you" that is featured in each of these sentences?
  9.    "death is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains."  Nagel 62.  Really?  Is there an "end" to these goods?  Could we define that end?  
  10.   "it is good simply to be alive."  Nagel 62    That seems obviously true.  Is it implied that it is therefore evil to simply be dead?
  11.   "life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful..."  62  This might be a good argument against suicide.
  12.   "If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the grounds that life is good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, but not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes." 64
  13.   Most of Nagel's argument assumes that death is an unfortunate state or condition.  But the Epicurean claim is that it is not a state at all.  Nagel hypothesizes that, like an adult who has somehow become infant-like, a dead person "does not mind his condition."  (66)  But a dead person is not in the position to mind anything.  A dead person is dead.  
  14.   Most important though is that although Nagel makes some true claims, they do not refute Epicurus.  For example, he says, truly:  "There are goods and evils that are irrevocably relational; they are features of the relations between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances that may not coincide with him either in space or in time.  A man's life includes much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life.  These boundaries are commonly crossed by the misfortunes of being deceived, or despised, or betrayed."  (66)
  15.   Nagel's argument comes down to, of the dead man, "if he had not died, he would have continued to live...and to possess whatever good there is in living" (67) and therefore death is a great harm to a person.  Let's assume that it is possible to be harmed after you die.  This does not mean that there is someone who is actually harmed and therefore is harmed by being in the condition of being dead which is the condition of having lost all of the goods of life.  
  16. Nagel writes:  "Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man's sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods."  (69)  Perhaps this shows the source of Nagel's mistake.  A human's sense of their own life DOES include the fact that we are going to die.  We all know this, or at least all after a certain age.  This is not not just from the outside.  We KNOW that our lives are not essentially open-ended.   There is no "indeterminate and not essentially limited future."  We KNOW that our future is essentially limited.  So it is absurd to think of death as "an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods."  
  17.  Williams  notes that for Lucretius "for oneself at least, it is all the same whenever one dies, that a long life is no better than a short one.  That is to say, death is never an evil in the sense not merely that there is no one for whom dying is an evil, but that there is no time at which dying is an evil - sooner or later, it is all the same."  (75)  Williams seems to think this implies "one might aw well die earlier as later."  This is actually inconsistent with the first position.   I also think this second issue is handled by Murphy.  But is there something irrational about Lucretius' overall position.  
  18.  For Williams more life is, per se, better than less life. (81)  Therefore death cannot be nothing to us since we always want more life.  
  19.  For Williams, it is "not necessarily the prospect of pleasant times that creates the motive against dying, but the existence of categorical desire" (92)  of the sort that is described by Unamuno when he says "I do not want to die ...I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this 'I' to live - this poor 'I' that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now...."  (91)
  20.  "we are naturally inclined to feel sorrow for the very person who has died, to continue to talk about him (or her), and to continue to adopt attitudes such as love and honor towards him."  Yourgrau.  138  These things are true, although when I feel sorrow for the loss of a friend I do not feel sorrow for his loss since I do not really think he has lost anything (although conventionally we say he lost his life, he dis not lose his life...he had his life.)  
  21.  How can one say that Socrates is dead?  (138)
  22.  How can one continue to love Socrates after he died"  (138)  I can continue to love Socrates since Socrates continues as an entity although not as an agent.  Socrates still has being, but has no experiences and no ability to act.  I love all the things Socrates was.  I love Socrates.  But he is dead.  I would still love Socrates even if it turned out he was a fiction of Plato.
  23.  "Death is an evil, a misfortune, and one that befalls the nonexistent themselves."  Yourgrau 138.  This I think is false.
  24.   "death is not a misfortune because it gives rise to so many unhappy grievers"  Yourgrau 140  That seems quite obviously false to me.
  25.  Dead people simply do not exist.  Yourgrau 141.  Socrates does not exist.  "Socrates" continues to exist.  Socrates continues in avatar form.  But he has no agency.  He cannot change or become.  But "Socrates" although he has no agency, can change or become.  As can any concept.  I can love "Socrates" as I can also love any fictional character.  "Socrates" cannot love me back.
  26.   "We should distinguish ...between being something, being an object...and being an existing object.  Existence is that property, delicate as an eyelid, which separates the living from the dead."  (142)   He agrees with Wittgenstein that Socrates death is not an event in his life.  So do I.  It is a genuine even but it does not befall Socrates.  So we can discuss Socrates even though he is dead.  "If the bad news is that you are going to die, the good news is that you will not 'disappear' -- i.e., become nothing."  (143)

Death is Nothing to Us: Drawing on Epicurus and Parmenides

Death is Nothing to Us:  Drawing on Epicurus and Parmenides

Thomas Leddy

San Jose State University


The Epicurean theory of death is that it is nothing to us.  In this paper I adapt and expand on this view of death.  Upon death, one achieves nonexistence.  And yet, one could argue, paradoxically, that no one actually dies since just as you cannot get something from nothing you cannot get nothing from something.  "death is nothing to us" has a double meaning:  first that it involves becoming nothing (or rather, ceasing to become), and second, it is of no concern to us.  Yet the death of a close friend IS something to us, since we grieve his or her loss.  But even here, we cannot get nothing from something.  The dead one does not become nothing.  The dead one is no more.  And yet the dead one continues, and not just in memory.  The dead have being but no longer a being that is a becoming.  In sum, the Epicurean approach to death combined with the insight of Parmenides offers consolation within the context of atheism. 

 “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.”  Epicurus.  Principle Doctrines  

Death is nothing to us, for while we exist it is not our concern, and when it comes, we are not.  We cannot experience death.  Yet, to say “I am dead” or “I will be dead” implies that there is an I that is or will be dead.  But when I am dead I no longer exist.  So, there is, then, no “I” who is dead.  It is not that when I die I become nothing.  It is that, after I die, I am not.   After death there is no being to have feeling.  If there is no feeling, no experience, then there is nothing for me to feel.  And so there is nothing for me to fear. Death is nothing to me in that an Epicurean does not care about death.  Death is not a big issue.  There is nothing to worry about after death.  To be sure, projects I was working on will never be finished by me, plans I had never actualized, after I am dead.  Yet since death is inevitable, this too cannot be avoided, and what cannot be avoided is nothing to us.

How can I care if I am dead if there is no “I” when I am dead? There is no “I” to be dead. 

Further, you cannot get nothing from something.  As Parmenides argues, What is is, and cannot not be. But Parmenides also argued that change is not possible, which goes too far since obviously false. 

The interesting thing about death is that it seems that it violates fundamental principle.  It seems that in death a thing has become nothing.  We have to realize that this is an illusion.  You cannot get nothing from something.  Death is nothing to us does not mean that in death one becomes nothing.  In death, one ceases to become.

But how can you combine Parmenides and Epicurus?  This would seem to combine idealism and materialism. 

Further, I fear death even though Parmenides and Epicurus have shown this is irrational.  Why is this?  Evolution has designed me do so.  If you die you do not maximize your genetic heritage either as a parent or as a nurturing elder.  When you die you cease to contribute.  And so nature makes us fear death. Yet reason tells us there is no reason to fear death.  

Epicurus writes, “The body receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end and limit of the body is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless it does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstances, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”  Epicurus.  Principle Doctrines

The first sentence here is difficult to understand.  How can anything received as unlimited have any limits?  What is the body providing?  The point begins to make sense when we get to idea that once we have accepted the Epicurean truth, one we accept that we do not need unlimited time, then we can have a complete and perfect life.  The idea of perfection is difficult here.  

If death is nothing to us, we can banish the terrors of beyond death.  If death is nothing then there is no afterlife, no heaven and no hell.   We no longer need unlimited time to live a good life.  Heaven is not needed by an Epicurean.  Even in the hour of death “the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”   Death is nothing to us since we can have pleasure in life, and pleasure is even available in the last hour, although this is obviously the most difficult of pleasures.  We do say, however, It is not over till it is over. Pleasure can come in the form of a sense of completion, of fulfilment of promise. 

The death of others, however, is not nothing.  The death of my friend causes me great suffering.  So how can I say that death is nothing to me?  Here, Parmenides can help.  My friend cannot become nothing.  He did not become nothing.  He simply ceased to exist.  He ceased to be something that becomes.  Moreover, he has completed something.  His life has become an organic whole.  It now has a beginning, middle and end. 

My suffering is that he is no longer here.  But he is not elsewhere.  He is not gone in the sense of being elsewhere.  He is still here in my mind and my mind.  I read his letters and I cry.  He is present to me in his letters.

Nature compels me to mourn.  So I must mourn.  And yet you cannot get nothing from something.  My friend did not cease to exist. I mourn him because he is still there. He froze in time.  He can no longer do anything.  It is as though he had left the room.  He just won’t come back.  And yet if, per impossible, he did come back we could resume our conversation. And I can imagine that conversation.  When I read dead people it is as as if I were in conversation with them. My friend does not simply exist in my memories.  He exists in my entire world, except as dead.  People believe in religious solutions to this problem because it seems so hard to accept death.  The alternative would be to accept that nothing came from something:  that my friend became nothing.  Yet there is no other case where nothing comes from something. 

Epicurus further writes “It would be impossible to banish fear on matters of the highest importance, if a person did not know the nature of the whole universe, but lived in dread of what the legends tell us. Hence without the study of nature there was no enjoyment of unmixed pleasures.”  “There would be no advantage in providing security against our fellow humans, so long as we were alarmed by occurrences over our heads or beneath the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.”

And in a the Letter to Menoeceus:

Take the habit of thinking that death is nothing for us. For all good and evil lie in sensation: but death is deprivation of any sensitivity. Therefore, knowledge of the truth that death is nothing to us, enables us to enjoy this mortal life, not by adding the prospect of infinite duration, but by taking away the desire of the immortality. For there is nothing left to fear in life, who really understood that out of life there is nothing terrible. So pronounced empty words when it is argued that death is feared, not because it is painful being made, but because of the wait is painful. It would indeed be a futile and pointless fear than would be produced by the expectation of something that does not cause any trouble with his presence.

And that of all the evils that gives us more horror, death is nothing to us, since we exist as ourselves, death is not, and when death exists, we are not. So death is neither the living nor the dead, since it has nothing to do with the former and the latter are not.

But the multitude sometimes flees death as the worst of evils, sometimes called as the term of the ills of life. The wise, however, does not ignore life and did not afraid of no longer living, for life he is not dependent, and it does not consider that there the lesser evil not to live “

Death is nothing to us because Epicurean truth “takes away the desire of immortality.”  We don’t need immortality because of completeness.  This factor needs to be considered.  Taking away the desire of immortality allows us to enjoy this mortal life.  That death is nothing to us intensifies our pleasure in life. 

So when we exist “as ourselves” death is not.  Death has “nothing to do with” the living. 

But what if there is a soul that exists after we die?  On this view our body dies, but the soul continues to live.  I do not believe this.  There is no sound evidence that there are souls that survive death.  There is no soul independent of the body.  Death is nothing to us.

There are some contemporary arguments against Epicurus, as we can see in the SEP article on death.  Here is one:  “we are harmed by what makes our lives as wholes worse than they otherwise would be, and benefitted by what makes our lives as wholes better than they otherwise would be” and death makes our lives worse, and therefore our own death is a harm to us….  According to comparativism, when a death is bad for us despite not making us accrue intrinsic evils such as pain, it is bad for us because it precludes our coming to have various intrinsic goods which we would have had if we had not died. We might say that death is bad for us because of the goods it deprives us of, and not, or at least not always, because of any intrinsic evils for which it is responsible….”

The last point in the Principle Doctrines is “40.  Those who were best able to provide themselves with the means of security against their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee, passed the most agreeable life in each other's society; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy was such that, if one of them died before his time, the survivors did not mourn his death as if it called for sympathy.”  


“Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience ; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an illimitable time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. [125] For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly apprehended that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.133 But in the world, at one time men shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. [126] The wise man does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offence to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirableness of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades.134 [127] For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life ? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.”

Note “when we are, death has not come.”  One reason why death is nothing to us is that it is no concern to us now.  We exist.  We are not dead.  When death comes, we no longer are.

But it is thought that “Death is a harm to the person who dies because it deprives him of certain goods- the goods he would have enjoyed if he had not died.”  (Li  2002  44)  Who is being deprived of goods?  When you are dead you are no longer a person.  You cannot be deprived of goods if you are dead.  There seems to be a trick of language in here.  What sense can be made of “deprived of goods he would have enjoyed if he had not died”?  It is true that I have interest in certain things happening and not happening after I die. 



Fischer, John Martin  ed.  The Metaphysics of Death.  Stanford University Press, 1993.  

Konstan, David, "Epicurus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Li, Jack. Can Death Be a Harm to the Person Who Dies? Dordrecht ;: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.

Luper, Steven, "Death", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Rosenbaum, Stephen E. “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus.” American Philosophical Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1986): 217–25.

Tim, "Death is nothing to us – Epicurus, February 1, 2022, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, February 1, 2022,

Death and Aesthetics

 Spinoza writes, “A free man, that is to say, a man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone, is not led by fear of death, but directly desires the good, that is to say, desires to act, and to preserve his being in accordance with the principle of seeking his own profit. He thinks, therefore, of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a meditation upon life.”  Ethics 4 68.

Death is nothing to us, says Epicurus.  For Spinoza, a free man is someone who lives according to reason and does not therefore fear death.  He follows the "principle of seeking his own profit" which seems like a kind of egoism, but really, in the end, is not.  The free man has a wisdom that is "a meditation upon life."  We meditate on the joys of life, on the pleasures of life, on the goods of life.  Many, perhaps most, of those goods are aesthetic.  The Epicurean sees this.  Death is nothing to us means meditate on the goods of life, which is to say the goods of us as sensuous embodied beings.  These goods are, mainly, aesthetic goods.  Death is nothing to us and thus we should follow the philosophy of Pater.  Maximize the moments of aesthetic perfection in life.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Everyday Aesthetics

 An important event in the life of Andy Warhol was when he was shot.  In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he imagines how a close friend (called “B”) might describe this event to him.  However we need to understand that whatever a B says (an B stands for any close friend) throughout this work it is just as likely an expression of Warhol’s own views (Warhol uses A for himself): 

"The founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men [the shooter] wanted you to produce a script she'd written and you weren't interested and she just came up to your work studio one afternoon. There were a lot of people there and you were talking on the telephone. You didn't know her too well and she just walked in off the elevator and started shooting. Your mother was really upset. You thought she'd die of it. Your brother was really fabulous, the one who's a priest. He came up to your room and showed you how to do needlepoint. I'd taught him how in the lobby!"

As with many of his vignettes this one is quite funny.  The first four sentences are straightforward.  But, as with Nietzsche’s aphorisms, the twist comes at the end.  The next two sentences make sense since Warhol was close to his mother, although they are written in a deadpan way.  The last two sentences are more philosophically interesting.  His brother is typecast…he is a priest.  But he is not “fabulous” in the way priests are supposed to be.  Instead, he shows Andy how to do needlepoint, an everyday life skill used as a hobby more often by women than men in our society. The priest does the opposite of what he is supposed to do qua priest, i.e. directing Andy to God, especially at this moment when, according to his mother, he might die.  He learns this skill from B just before coming up to Andy’s room.  Divine salvation is rejected in favor of everyday life.

In this paper I will interpret The Philosophy of Andy Warhol as an important contribution to the aesthetics of everyday life, and, more broadly, to "life aesthetics" in general. (I have been influenced by several contemporary Chinese aestheticians in stressing the latter.)  But first we must deal with a possible confusion.  When most philosophers hear the name "Andy Warhol" in relation to aesthetics they immediately think of Arthur Danto.  Throughout his life, Danto frequently referred to the moment he walked into the Stable Gallery in New York City and saw Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as the moment in which he discovered the essence of art.  He first wrote about this in in his famous "The Artworld" in 1964.  But in 1975 Warhol writes this book which, I shall argue, basically refutes Danto’s entire philosophy of art.  Danto’s point was that Warhol provided him with an insight that gave him his definition of art.  That definition changed over the years, but basically, as in 1964, it was that something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge.  In being seen as art it has the “is” of artistic identification.  Danto had asked what makes the Brillo Boxes art and their indiscernible counterparts in a warehouse owned by the Brillo Corporation not art. The answer is that because Warhol’s boxes are in an art gallery at a particular time in art history they are appropriately seen as art, i.e. appropriately seen under the artist’s interpretation, i.e. under Warhol's interpretation.  Brillo Boxes had been “transfigured” into the world of art.  

Danto shows himself to be essentially a dualist in that he holds that there are two realms:  the realm of art and the realm of “mere things.”  Of course this does not make him a dualist in the classical sense, for he does not hold that the realm of art is a realm of souls or a spiritual realm.  But his use of the term “transfiguration” should be taken seriously.  Just as Jesus is transfigured into the realm of heaven, so too the boxes are transfigured into the realm of art.   As Danto says later, the Brillo Boxes in the gallery have “aboutness” whereas brillo boxes, as "mere things," do not.  Thus even if we assumed that Danto did not literally believe in anything supernatural we can also assume that the structure of his theory is dualist.  

As a result, it would make no sense to Danto for us to talk about the aesthetics of everyday life.  Aesthetics has been reduced to the Philosophy of Art, and Philosophy of Art to Danto's own definition of art.  Moreover, for Danto, aesthetics isn’t important anyway since Brillo Boxes and the brillo boxes on the factory floor have the same look and hence the same “aesthetics.”  What distinguishes them is something the eye cannot descry!  The art work is a physical object plus its interpretation.  It is its interpretation that makes it art, just as, for a Christian, a person is a body plus a soul, and it is the soul that makes a person a person.

Warhol, writing nine years later, pretty much refutes Danto, and retroactively, since what Warhol really meant had nothing ever to do with the apotheosis of objects into the art world or the creation of art as a two-sided thing, mere material object as body, and meaning as soul.  This idea, which Danto, none-too-originally, shared with earlier writers such as R. G. Collingwood, is deconstructed by Warhol's book.  The point of Warhol, even back in 1964, was deconstruction the world/artworld dichotomy, NOT setting up a wall between the two or a situation in which one is privileged and the other is only "mere."   

One cannot read TPAW as a normal book.  It is more like an aphoristic work by Nietzsche.  What readers have not generally recognized however is that it has a complexity of structure, and considerable depth.  It consists of fifteen chapters:  Love (Puberty), Love (Prime), Love (Senility), Beauty, Fame, Work, Time, Death, Economics, Atmosphere, Success, Art, Titles, The Tingle, Underwear Power.  The chapters most relevant to the concerns of aestheticians are Beauty, Atmosphere, and the last four.  The Tingle is worth an article on everyday aesthetics of its own since it is an obsessive dialogue between B and A about cleaning one’s apartment where it can be seen that cleaning can transcend mere cleaning and can take on an aura of its own, perhaps even of the sublime.  Underwear Power does something similar in relation to the activity of shopping.  However I will focus here on the early chapters and their relation to the aesthetics of everyday life and more broadly the aesthetics of life.

I say “life aesthetics” or "aesthetics of life" since in part I want to forestall those who would say that the art and work of Andy Warhol is as far from “the everyday” as one can get.  He seemed the apostle of fame and glamour.  Although he was fascinated by fame and glamour he was equally fascinated with the everyday.  One could say that he devoted his life to making the extraordinary seem ordinary and the ordinary seem extraordinary. 


It is significant that Warhol said “I believed in bluejeans too” in the context of talking about the value of uniforms.  Jeans were treated as uniforms in the early 1970s.  They were essential to everyday life.  Everyone wore them as a symbol of solidarity with the cultural left (the hippie movement) and the political left.  But Warhol treats them as objects of aesthetic delight. 

"The ones made by Levi Strauss are the best-cut, best-looking pair of pants that have ever been designed by anybody. Nobody will ever top the original bluejeans. They can't be bought old, they have to be bought new and they have to be worn in by the person. To get that look. And they can't be phoney bleached or phoney anything. You know that little pocket? It's so crazy to have that little little pocket, like for a twenty-dollar gold piece."

Bluejeans are not aesthetically simple.  There are levels of quality, for example Levi Strauss being at the top for a variety of reasons, including cut.  One aspect of their aesthetic excellence is that they are the originals.  However, there are those who intrude a phoney aesthetic onto jeans, where they think that the jeans have to look worn and that this is best effected inauthentically by various means that do not actually involve the owner wearing them for a long time.  Authentic beauty in jeans requires that something about the history of the jeans must obtain.  Another example of the phoneyness is the  bleaching of the jeans.  But an example of charming authenticity is the little pocket, which was more likely there for a small watch then for a gold piece.  

We realize that Warhol must have done thorough research on them, say in an encyclopedia, since the information and the set of aesthetic issues are essentially the same as those found in the wikipedia article.

he dialogue continues, when B says "French bluejeans?" and A replies "No, American are the best. Levi Strauss. With the little copper buttons. Studded for evening wear." "How do you keep them clean, B?" "You wash them." "Do you iron them?"

As observed in the anonymous Wikipedia article, the little copper buttons, which were put in for structural support, also had a secondary aesthetic function.  Thus, having the buttons which look  nonfunctional, yet are not, is enhancing.  

The talk about American being the best again has to do with authenticity, in this case cultural authenticity, even though that authenticity has its own inauthenticity in that one might think that jeans arose in cultural consciousness because of construction workers or cowboys, but it was really movie stars, westerns, and youth rebellion, all distinctly American that gave jeans their meaning.  Another sign of inauthenticity would be ironing:   "No, I put fabric softener. The only person who irons them is Geraldo Rivera." Ironing them would be inauthentic in the very way that Geraldo Rivera, with his fake hair and manner, was notoriously inauthentic, possibly the paradigm of inauthenticity.

A says "This talk of bluejeans was making me very jealous. Of Levi and Strauss. I wish I could invent something like bluejeans. Something to be remembered for. Something mass." It may strike one as odd that Andy Warhol envied anyone, and yet from his perspective, having this kind of impact on the aesthetics of everyday life would be massive, hence the reference to “mass.”  Of course he is remembered by us for his art.  It would be inventing jeans or something like that in the way Levi and Strauss did, something both tasteful and nearly universal, that he would consider truly memorable.  

On the Aesthetic Republic under a Warhol Presidency

"Oh, A," B said impulsively, "you should be President! If you were President, you would have somebody else be President for you, right?" This riff on being President is related to the idea of cultural importance.  Warhol would make a good President because he would delegate responsibility in a radically democratic way.

B says:  "You'd be just right for the Presidency. You would videotape everything. You would have a nightly talk show—your own talk show as President. You'd have somebody else come on, the other President that's the President for you, and he would talk your diary out to the people, every night for half an hour. And that would come before the news, What the President Did Today. So there would be no flack about the President does nothing or the President just sits around. Every day he'd have to tell us what he did, if he had sex with his wife . . . You'd have to say you played with your dog Archie—it's the perfect name for the President's pet—and what bills you had to sign and why you didn't want to sign them, who was rotten to you in Congress . . . You'd have to say how many long-distance phone calls you made that day. You'd have to tell what you ate in the private dining room, and you'd show on the television screen the receipts you paid for private food for yourself. For your Cabinet you would have people who were not politicians. Robert Scull would be head of Economics because he would know how to buy early and sell big. You wouldn't have any politicians around at all. You'd take all the trips and tape them. You'd play back all the tapes with foreign people on TV. And when you wrote a letter to anyone in Congress you would have it Xeroxed and sent to every paper."

At this time in his life Warhol was obsessed with a tape recorder he had.  He took it with him everywhere and taped every conversation he could.  He referred to the tape recorder ironically as his wife.  

Warhol realizes, as we found with Trump, that the Presidency is the ultimate platform for popularity and fame.  Unlike Trump, who was, after all, not a talk show host but a Reality TV host (a very different, less intellectual thing) Warhol would make his Presidency a nightly talk show, thus raising the level of intellectual discourse on a daily basis for the entire country.

My philosophy of everyday aesthetics has to do not just with description but also with serious thinking about the ideals of everyday life, as for example was engaged in by such thinkers as William Morris and Le Corbusier.   

Note that Warhol as President would not consume a great deal of time and space:  his show would be half an hour every night, and it would involve talking out his diary, which would be the same sort of stuff we are getting in this book, that is, reflections on the aesthetics of everyday life.  That is why it would come before the News.  News, in an important way, is NOT about everyday life, or ordinary things.  It is about murder and wars and other such things.  If it were everyday stuff it would not be “news.”  So although we may see the news every day, and although that is part, then, of our everyday experience, the news itself is precisely NOT a window onto anyone’s everyday world qua everyday. 

What is everyday includes such mundane, but probably immensely important, stuff as having sex with your wife or playing with your dog, and the work of actually signing bill, and the worries over moments of disrespect from colleagues, and what and where you age, including how you financed that eating.  So Warhol as President would be a hero of returning to the everyday.  The rest of the aphorism, if I may call it that, is influenced by Plato probably.  We are talking here about an ideal aesthetic republic here.  So instead of politicians Warhol would hire experts to, for example, buy and sell properly. And unlike Nixon or Trump or multiple other politicians, Warhol would tape but never hide his tapes.  So too with letters.  Total transparency.  Of course he would not agree with Plato’s idea of the noble lie.  So his politics would combine expertise and democratic openness in a way much more conducive to harmony, which was after all Plato’s own goal, then Plato’s own Republic.

B says:  "You'd be a nice President. You wouldn't take up too much space, you'd have a tiny office like you have now. You'd change the law so you could keep anything anybody gave you while you were in office, because you're a Collector. And you'd be the first nonmarried President. And in the end you'd be famous because you'd write a book: 'How I Ran the Country Without Even Trying.' Or if that sounded wrong, 'How I Ran the Country with Your Help.' That might sell better. Just think, if you were President right now, there'd be no more First Lady. Only a First Man."

 This relates not only to politics but also to ethics, one based on aesthetics.  So niceness is more important than duty since niceness demands empathy and sympathy, which require imagination, which is the aesthetic faculty.  This faculty would compel him to be an aesthetic minimalist President in his tiny office.  He would not take up airs.  He would not let ego take over.  Also, along an aesthetic dimension, Warhol allows for primacy given to collecting of loveable objects.  And of course he is a Taoist, trying to achieve goodness in the state through action through non-action, i.e. through aesthetic simplicity.   The Taoist says you can run the country best when you follow the Way and do not even try.  You do not make being the ruler a matter of power and glory but a matter of elegant action that achieves harmony as in the work of a master craftsman.  And then it is no surprise that the alternative version of his book entails a great democratic modesty, more appropriate to the true spirit of America.  So, the title of “First” is moved from the pathetic secondary position of the first lady to the primary position of a man of excellence who follows the Tao and actualizes will to power in an authentic way, to paraphrase Nietzsche. 

 “You'd have no live-in maid at the White House. A B would come in a little early to clean up. And then the other Bs would file down to Washington to see you just like they file in to see you at the Factory. It would be just like the Factory, all bulletproof. Visitors would have to get past your hairdressers. And you'd take your extra-private hairdresser with you. Can't you see her in her inflatable jacket, ready for war at any moment? Do you realize there's no reason you couldn't be President of the United States? You know all the bigwigs who could get you in, all of society, all the rich people, and that's all anyone's ever needed to get to be President. I don't know why you don't declare yourself in the running right away. Then people would know you weren't just a big joke. I want you to say every time you look at yourself in the mirror, 'Politics: Washington, D.C.' I mean, quit fooling around with the Rothschilds. Forget about those long trips to Montauk in the Rollses. Think about a little helicopter to Camp David. What a camp it would be. You'd have such a camp. Do you realize the opportunity of the White House? A, you've been into Politics since the day I met you. You do everything in a political way. Politics can mean doing a poster that has Nixon's face on it, and says 'Vote Mc-Govern.'"

Warhol recognizes the inevitable hypocrisy of everyday life when one hires maids.  In our household we learned this I think per necessity during the pandemic.  Previously we had cleaners who came in once every two weeks.  We prided ourselves in our democratic treatment of them.  But that was false in a way.  After he had to lay them off because we were in partial quarantine, we had to clean everything as the same level of perfection once per week.  We achieved this, and by doing so we avoided the hypocrisy of false smug appeals to democratic sentiments.  We also became much more mindful, along the lines of Thich Nhat Hanh of the minutiae of dirt and grime, and ofthe subtle joys of cleanliness. 

His Factory and His Business

It is wonderful the way Warhol conceived his own studio workplace as something everyday by calling it a factory and treating it as such.  We are just a business, he implied.  We on the outside always saw the setup as one of glamour.  But it was quite the opposite, just as it was the opposite of Danto’s idea of an isolated Artworld.  To repeat my introduction, Warhol was the non-Danto.  So, instead of the Presidential world being like Plato’s world of Forms or Kant’s transcendent or transcendental domain, Warhol’s Presidency would not involve a President-World (Danto being himself just another Platonist with dualist assumptions and thin surface of anti-dualism) or an Artworld, but just another factory making things for the people.


Warhol insists “I've never met a person I couldn't call a beauty.” (61)  He sees beauty everywhere.  This makes him like one of my ideals in the aesthetics of everyday life:  Plato’s Diotima, who speaks of the ladder of love in which the rung next to the top is one in which we see a vast sea of beauty.  As Warhol puts it, “Every person has beauty at some point in their lifetime.” (61)  He does not share the common belief that personal beauty is stable and exclusive.  As he says, “Sometimes they have the looks when they're a baby and they don't have it when they're grown up, but then they could get it back again when they're older. Or they might be fat but have a beautiful face. Or have bow-legs but a beautiful body.”  (61)  Neither beauty nor ugliness is permanently attached to any person.  I know a woman who is obese, and yet she spends a couple hours day attending to her face.  She is perhaps beautiful in that one area.   

Experience of personal beauty and evaluation of it is part of the aesthetics of everyday life.  Like an ordinary language philosopher, Warhol thinks about what we say when we use the word “beauty”: 

“I always hear myself saying, "She's a beauty!" or "He's a beauty!" or "What a beauty!" but I never know what I'm talking about. I honestly don't know what beauty is, not to speak of what "a" beauty is. So that leaves me in a strange position, because I'm noted for how much I talk about "this one's a beauty" and "that one's a beauty." For a year once it was in all the magazines that my next movie was going to be The Beauties. The publicity for it was great, but then I could never decide who should be in it. If everybody's not a beauty, then nobody is, so I didn't want to imply that the kids in The Beauties were beauties but the kids in my other movies weren't so I had to back out on the basis of the title. It was all wrong.”

In short, everybody is a beauty.  Warhol is quite aware that he is doing philosophy.  He even pins down the difference between beauty and “a beauty.”  He can judge it, but cannot define it.  He further says: “I really don't care that much about "Beauties." What I really like are Talkers. To me, good talkers are beautiful because good talk is what I love.”

This could be straight out of the Symposium.  Diotima places love of the soul of the interlocutor at a higher stage of the ladder of love than mere physical beauty.

Unlike Plato, however, Warhol prioritizes fun.  He just thinks it more fun to be with talkers, and generally, with people who are doing things, than with beauties, who are just being something.  “Fun,” we might also observe, is a primary category in the aesthetics of everyday life.

Warhol’s Platonism extends to his handling of portraiture. He observes that, “[w]hen I did my self-portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don't have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes—they're not part of the good picture you want.” This must have been how the idealistic Greek sculptors saw it too.

Returning to the question of relativism, Warhol says “When a person is the beauty of their day, and their looks are really in style, and then the times change and tastes change, and ten years go by, if they keep exactly their same look and don't change anything and if they take care of themselves, they'll still be a beauty.”  This seems to imply there can be a kind of permanence even in a world dominated by fashion.

For Warhol, there are certain looks and styles that are eternal in a way in that they are right as long as authentic: “Schrafft's restaurants were the beauties of their day, and then they tried to keep up with the times and they modified and modified until they lost all their charm and were bought by a big company. But if they could just have kept their same look and style, and held on through the lean years when they weren't in style, today they'd be the best thing around. You have to hang on in periods when your style isn't popular, because if it's good, it'll come back, and you'll be a recognized beauty once again.”

Warhol spends considerable time thinking about what does and does not make one a beauty.  It might be a matter of lighting, as good lighting can make all the difference.  He makes a big difference between a temporary beauty problem and a permanent one.  "Being clean is so important. Well-groomed people are the real beauties. It doesn't matter what they're wearing or who they're with or how much their jewelry costs or how much their clothes cost or how perfect their makeup is: if they're not clean, they're not beautiful. The most plain or unfashionable person in the world can still be beautiful if they're very well-groomed."  Previously I had written about cleanliness, but in fact it is very important to beauty.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

The first draft of my comments on Adajian was very different in style and content to my final draft: much more conventional. I still hold by it.


Pacific Division comments on Tom Adajian’s paper.  This was the first draft of my comments.  But I decided to do something different in the session.  I gave an extemporaneous talk critiquing Jerrold Levinson’s theory of beauty.  This talk was based on the paper on Levinson’s theory which I just posted on this blog.


I entirely agree with Tom. That makes for an unusual, although not unique, conference commentary.  In these comments I will raise one or two additional points against his opponents from my own, slightly different, perspective. I will also show why and how we agree through a brief discussion of our mutual Platonism.  This will require saying a couple words about my somewhat unorthodox interpretation of Plato.

In a review of Lopes’s book, Stephen Davies has argued, in relation to art pluralism, that he “sets out to dismantle the currently orthodox approach to art's definition and to replace this with his preferred alternative, which he calls the buck-passing theory. The orthodox approach sets out to define art by asking why something is a work of art.” Yet as far as I can see today it is the buck-passing theory that is orthodox, although admittedly Tom and I are returning to an older theory widely considered, not too long ago, to be orthodox. Our version of course is different from that one. Well, one person’s orthodoxy is another’s radical departure. 

Lopes says “there is no characteristically artistic value… artistic value is the aggregate of pictorial value, musical value, and other such values; it need not be their common denominator… [Further] [t]here is no ‘substantive unity’ to the values realized by works in the different arts. Artistic value is a disjunction of the values that works have as members of specific art kinds.”  I will set my own contrary view here by simply rewriting Lopes: “Artistic value is not a mere aggregate of pictorial, musical, and other such values.  It is supervenient on those values under the concept of ‘art.’ This does not mean that it is or has some sort of common denominator, but simply that there is a substantive unity to the values realized by works in the different arts. There is, as Tom and Plato would say, a real determinable here. Moreover, contra Lopes and other pluralists, artistic value is hardly a mere disjunction of the values that works have as members of specific art kinds.” [To be clear:  this is my own view and is only quoting Lopes in a slightly satirical way.  These are my words.  This quote is not a quote from any other text.]

Tom says that “Determinates are ways of being determinables. [For example] Blue and red are determinates of color.”  A determinate is like a species under a genus, as blue is to color, where a determinable is like a genus to a species.  However there is one difference: the species/genus relation is simply one of classification, the kind of thing Aristotle did with his logic; whereas in the view I share with Tom, the determinate “participates,” to use Plato’s terminology, in the determinable.  Tom also says that, for Levinson, another pluralist, “beauty has only a superficial unity….beauty is not one,” whereas our view posits no superficial unity because beauty really is one.

For Tom, “Levinson’s pluralism about beauty amounts to saying that artifactual beauty, natural beauty, artistic beauty, formal beauty, human beauty, moral beauty are, as determinates of the determinable (visual) beauty, more fundamental than the determinable beauty.”  Now Tom says, “Whether determinable properties are real, or are reducible to determinates, is a controversial metaphysical question.”  This implies that he is not taking a position, perhaps not wanting to stray into perilous territory.  But I am happy to insist that they both determinates, and that determinables are real …. and that none are reducible.  Moreover, I suspect that any determinate can be a determinable in relation to another determinate, and any determinable can be a determinate in relation as well.

Tom says: “Lopes’s pluralism about artistic value holds that painting value, musical value, poetic value, etc., as determinates of the determinable artistic value are ways of being artistically valuable that are more fundamental than the latter, which is nothing over and above the former.”  He also notes that Lopes’ buck-passing theory of art is similar in that “works of art are nothing more than poems, sculptures, and the like.” As I have said above, I agree with all of this.

Tom also spells out the space of possible positions in this way: “Anti-realism about determinables says there are no determinables. Reductionism takes determinables to be identical to classes or broadly logical constructions of determinates.  Disjunctivist reductionism says determinables are identical to disjunctions of determinates.”  All of these positions, Tom and  I hold, are false.  Beauty, contra Levinson and Lopes, is not a matter of either reduction or assimilation.  Tom then says that “Non-reductionism about determinables holds that determinables are both real and fundamental.”  He says this is a controversial metaphysical question, which implies that he is not taking a position. 

He also says: “An extreme non-reductionist would hold that beauty and artistic value are one, but not many – that is, that only determinables are real and fundamental.”  I find this position tempting, but I will not pursue that thought here.  Tom gives what I take to be his own theory of moderate non-reductionism when he says such a theory “holds that beauty and artistic value are both one and many, and that those determinables are no less fundamental or real than their determinates.”  I agree with this theory.

Plato is a monist.  However he does integrate elements of the pluralist position, which further gives reason to abandon it.  One might describe the position of Plato, Adajian and Leddy as “unity in diversity.”  We recognize diversity even though unity rules overall.  Plato synthesizes these by way of Socrates and Diotima’s theory of philosophical friendship, love and beauty in the Symposium.  .

Tom considers a possible paradox in Aristotle where pluralist claims are inconsistent with  comparisons claim, viz.

Pluralism:  F-ness is not one.                       

(UNICOMP): Things can be compared in respect to F-ness only if F-ness is one across the comparables.

Comparisons: Some comparisons with respect to F-ness are possible.


Our Platonism escapes the paradox. Tom writes, “Consider sonic beauty pluralism, a view parallel to Levinson’s pluralism about visual beauty. On this view, sonic beauty is not one: there is only sonic natural beauty, sonic artistic beauty, sonic human beauty, etc.”  But, he continues,  “What’s all this about funniness, triangles, length, mass, redness? Those determinables are entirely different from beauty and its determinates.”  Our Platonism rejects that they are different.

To the objection, Even if philosophers of science are willing to talk loosely about relations  between determinables, determinables can be neither real nor fundamental. For what is real and fundamental must be maximally determinate, or more determinate,” Tom replies, “Maybe.  But it is or should be an open question whether reality is vague – especially in its aesthetic dimensions.” 

I agree also with Tom that Levinson is wrong that formal, artifactual, artistic, human, and moral beauty are “fundamentally different properties of visual beauty.”  Levinson’s argument, as Tom construes it, is invalid because it depends on the problematic concept, “radically different kinds.”  There are no such things.  The concept doesn’t even make sense.   Levinson says “If any two beauty responses have radically different causes/subvenient bases, or radically different intentional objects, or radically different phenomenologies, then they are of radically different kinds.”  I don’t see how any of these conditions can be met, again, largely because I do not see “radically different” as having coherent meaning.

Tom ends with analysis of an argument by Lopes that features the idea that “All art-making acts involve manipulating inert materials belonging to specific art-forms.”  Since I cannot imagine what materials being “inert” might mean, and I cannot imagine that there is any one-to-one exclusive pairing of materials and art-forms, since art-forms, in my view, are always hybrid in some way, I cannot see how this argument can get off the ground.

Pluralism in aesthetic value and in definition of art, exemplified by Levinson and Lopez, was and is a wrong turn in recent philosophy.  An in-between position that involves synthesis of both sides will work better.  Tom and I call this a Platonic moderate pluralism, or perhaps “moderate essentialism.” It is moderate pluralism by way of moderate essentialism.  What I owe you, the Pacific Division audience, is an explication of the exact nature of my version of Platonism, so different from the one that we were taught at out mother’s knees that Carroll called it “quirky” when I first introduced it to this group.  That will have to be for another occasion. I have a manuscript on that, but so far no one has wanted to read it. 

I will post it on my blog.

Comments on Adajian on Pluralism: Final Draft Presented to the ASA Pacific Division


Unity in Diversity:  Comments on Adajian’s Unity of Beauty

Thomas Leddy, San Jose,

ASA Pacific Division, March 18, 2022


Abstract:  Adajian is entirely right.

My own non-pluralist theory of beauty is to be found in Chapter 4 of my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.

More about me:  my extended comments on Tom’s paper and on Levinson’s will be posted today on my blog Aesthetics Today

I may also comment there on Dom’s pluralism and on some of the other papers in this conference on my blog soon.

I have some other related projects.

My SJSU page gives links:

My project of photographing my neighborhood in San Jose.  This involves thousands of art photographs most of which are on my phone.  I post some on my FB page.

I am very involved in various FB groups.  I would be happy to be a FB friend with anyone here today.

I have formed a new FB group you would probably all enjoy.  Philosophical Song Lyrics.  113 members.






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 na├»ve (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.