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.

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