Scruton on Beauty: Six Platitudes (Part 1 of 3)

I’ve been thinking a bit about beauty, partly because I’m anticipating its return with the advent of spring, partly by reflection on Matt Faherty’s recent aesthetic musings on India here at PoT, but mostly because I’ve been teaching it in my Phil 260 aesthetics class via Roger Scruton’s stimulating little book, Beauty: A Very Short IntroductionScruton opens the book with the recommendation that we “take a lesson from the philosophy of truth,” and apply it to the study of beauty:

…philosophers have suggested that a theory of truth [and by implication, a theory of beauty] must conform to certain logical platitudes, and that these platitudes–innocuous though they may seem to the untheoretical eye–provide the ultimate test of any philosophical theory. …

Philosophers say profound-seeming things about truth [and beauty]. But often the air of profundity comes at the cost of denying one or other of those elementary platitudes.

It would help to define our subject, therefore, if we were to begin from a list of comparable platitudes about beauty, against which our theories might be tested. (pp. 4-5)

As someone with a theoretical eye, I don’t (with one exception) find Scruton’s platitudes innocuous; I find them either ambiguous or question-begging. And though something like Scruton’s platitude-based method seems almost inevitable at the outset of an inquiry like his, I still find it problematic. In this post I want to work through the first three of the platitudes. In a second post, I’ll work through the second three. If I can manage it, I’ll try to write a third post on platitudes and method.

Scruton’s platitudes about beauty

Here are Scruton’s six platitudes about beauty. I’ve reworded them very slightly for clarity, but I’ve taken them essentially verbatim from p. 5 of the book:

(1) Beauty pleases us.

(2) One thing can be more beautiful than another.

(3) Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that has it.

(4) Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment, a judgment of taste.

(5) The judgment of taste referred to in (4) is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me (or my reaction to it).

(6) Despite (5), there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself.

Two preliminary points:

First, Scruton takes for granted that we all know what a “platitude” is, or what counts as one. Part of the problem I have with platitudes as starting point for inquiry is that it’s not clear to me what counts as one, or what epistemic/methodological role they’re supposed to play in theorizing. For purposes of this post, I’ll take a platitude to be a self-evident or at least obvious truth that is taken as a datum and whose truth is explained by the theory. By that criterion, a platitude fails if it’s either (a) false, or (b) true but neither self-evident nor in any plausible sense obvious. I’m not sure that Scruton would agree with this characterization, but I’ll rely on it for now, and return to the issue when (or if) I discuss method.

Second, I find Scruton’s platitudes excessively vague as stated. One systematic ambiguity is whether each platitude is to be asserted–or is assertible–in the first person. Claim (6) seems (to me) to entail a “yes” answer to that question. In other words, platitude (1), “Beauty pleases us,” should more precisely (but more awkwardly) be read:

For any “I” under the relevant conditions: “What I regard as beautiful pleases me.”

Platitude (2), “One thing can be more beautiful than another” should be read:

For any agent: “My verdicts on beauty regularly take a comparative form such that I regard one thing as more beautiful than another.”

Given the tediousness of going through the whole list and translating each of the platitudes into the first-person, I’m inclined to say, “And so on down the list, mutatis mutandis.” But if you actually do the exercise, it’s not entirely clear that that “mutatis mutandis” can cleanly be carried out. Where platitude (6) seems to demand translatability into the first-person, platitude (5) seems to cut against it. This is an interesting problem; it suggests that Scruton’s list is not entirely coherent. This may not come as news to Scruton, since he intends the list to produce a paradox or apparent paradox.

Anyway, the issues here are too nit-picky for a blog post, so I won’t belabor them here. For present purposes, I’ll treat Scruton’s versions of the platitudes as equivalent to first-personal translations of the platitudes, and use them interchangeably. That said, the discussion of platitudes (5) and (6) may ultimately suggest that that was a mistake.

With those preliminaries out of the way, let me move to the platitudes themselves.

Platitude 1: “Beauty pleases us.”

I’m not sure whether Scruton intends (1) to hold “always and for the most part” (hos epi to polu) in Aristotle’s sense, or whether he means it to be an indefeasible conceptual truth about beauty. Taken in the first sense, I suppose it has a certain plausibility to it, but since we don’t know how defeasible a generalization it is at the outset, we can’t know whether or not the defeaters are of theoretical significance. Taken in the second sense, I don’t think (1) is true. Sometimes beauty doesn’t please “us,” but produces envy, resentment, and apprehension. The cases in which beauty doesn’t please us are psychologically unsavory, but my point is that they’re possible, and their sheer psychological strangeness draws attention to ways in which our response to beauty is shaped by our nature as perceivers of beauty, and not just by the beautiful properties of the the beautiful objects themselves.

Jen and Jane. Consider two women, Jen and Jane, who are friends (or frenemies). Assume that Jen is undeniably beautiful. Assume that Jane is (in her own eyes) “plain.” Jane fully recognizes that Jen is beautiful, but gets no pleasure whatsoever out of the recognition. What she feels instead is overwhelming envy and resentment.* Jen’s beauty strikes Jane down in the way that Kant took the voice of duty to strike all of us down: it cuts at her sense of self-esteem, and leaves a residue of humiliation in its place. If Jane’s reaction to Jen is merely possible, we have a first counter-example to (1): Jane cannot sincerely assert a first-personal version of “beauty pleases us” for this instance of beauty. Actually, I think the reaction-type is more than merely possible, but fairly common. But its frequency or infrequency doesn’t affect my point, one way or the other. Neither does the admittedly stereotypical character of the counter-example, which (I realize) comes straight out of the Grimm Brothers’ version of Snow White (or the latest issue of People magazine).

To respond in advance to a couple of potential objections:

(a) You might think that it’s cheating to drag human beauty into the analysis, because doing so can be expected to drag problematic psychological tendencies like envy into what ought to be an inquiry into aesthetics (understood as an inquiry into the nature of art, or perhaps art and nature). But Scruton himself insists on offering an analysis of beauty that includes human beauty, so that can’t be a legitimate objection, at least for him. And anyway, if an aesthetic inquiry into beauty includes natural beauty, it would be ad hoc to exclude human beauty from consideration.

(b) Scruton might insist that my example is simply impossible. It’s a conceptual truth (he might say) that if (or to the extent that) Jane feels envy and resentment in the presence of Jen’s beauty, she doesn’t genuinely or sincerely recognize Jen’s beauty. If Jane feels envy at the perception of Jen’s beauty, Jane must merely be acknowledging that beauty pro forma, but not being fully receptive to it. If she was fully receptive to it, Scruton might say, she would of necessity feel pleasure.

Here I would respond that while the conceptual truth in question may or may not be true, if it turns out to be true, (1) has turned out to be a complex and controversial thesis in moral psychology requiring extensive argument, rather than a platitude.

(c) We might imagine a variation on (b). Scruton might respond that while envy and resentment are possible responses to Jen’s beauty, their presence in Jane doesn’t really contradict his platitude. The platitude merely says that Jane must feel pleasure at the apprehension of Jen’s beauty; it doesn’t say that she can’t feel other things as well. So while Jane may ex hypothesi feel envy at the apprehension of Jen’s beauty, that envy can sit side by side with a residue or tincture of pleasure. In fact, conceiving of the envy as compatible with the pleasure makes the scenario more plausible than it might otherwise be, because it explains why Jane’s envy is so perverse: the envy that Jen elicits in Jane has to fight the pleasure Jane naturally feels. In other words, Jane has to work at being envious of Jen, and work at extinguishing the pleasure she feels at Jen’s beauty. Since she does feel pleasure, however, the platitude remains in tact.

I take this response to be a more complex form of the preceding one, and my own response to it is correspondingly similar: it may or may not be true, but if true, claim (1) is no longer a platitude.

(d) Scruton might insist that where someone feels envy instead of pleasure at beauty, the envy is directed at the person, but the pleasure is directed at the beauty, in which case platitude (1) is left in tact.

This move certainly saves the thesis, but it seems ad hoc to me. It seems more plausible to me to think that the envy is a reaction to the beauty-as-exemplified-by-the-person, and since all human beauty is beauty-exemplified-by-a-particular-person, it seems implausible to detach the beauty and reify it into an object of pleasure simply to escape the commonplace observation that beautiful people sometimes provoke negative reactions qua beautiful.

So I conclude for now that the counter-example works. It might seem like overkill to offer another counter-example, but I think the number and variety of possible counter-examples to (1) suggests that it really cannot be a platitude at all.

Straight Joe, for whom beauty = threat. So let’s keep Jen in place, get rid of Jane, and introduce Joe. Joe is one of Jen’s co-workers. He’s in the tenth year of a loveless and sexless marriage; he fears the possibility of divorce (which he can’t bear to seek) and the possibility of (his own) infidelity (which he’s vigilant about acting on). His first response, on seeing Jen, is not the natural one that Scruton envisions, “She’s beautiful, how pleasurable an experience it is to see her,” but the more defensive one you might expect of a deeply repressed person: “She’s beautiful, she’s a threat; in fact, her very beauty is threatening and anxiety-producing.” Give Joe long enough in his situation, and he may well habituate and generalize the “beauty = threat” reaction. If so, Joe would be another counter-example to Scruton’s thesis.

Closeted Joe, for whom beauty = threat. Change the Straight Joe example, so that Straight Joe becomes Closeted Joe. In this version, Joe is gay. Unfortunately, he doesn’t accept his sexual identity; he’s not just in the closet, but in denial about it. Though he feels no attraction to women, he feels, as a matter of duty, that he ought to be attracted to them. Since he’s perfectly capable of distinguishing beautiful from non-beautiful women,** he decides to sail the seven seas in search of a truly beautiful woman, on the premise that his best shot for feeling genuine attraction to a woman is to try to date the most beautiful woman around. Assume that he’s good-looking enough himself to be confident of his prospects in this respect. Lo and behold, he meets the beautiful Jen at work. Given her beauty, she seems the perfect candidate for Joe’s project. Yet he feels no pleasure in the presence of her beauty. He feels dread.

Sadhu. If none of the preceding work counterexamples work for you, go back and read Matt Faherty’s account of Sadhu, the celibate Hindu priest whose vows prevent him from talking to women. It’s plausible to think that if Jen crossed Sadhu’s path, and Sadhu regarded her as beautiful, he might regard her as even more deeply threatening than either of the preceding Joe’s would. Feel free to substitute Jewish, Christian, or Islamic examples for Sadhu. Or feel free to change the genders or sexual orientations of the relevant parties. Any combination should work, as long as the repressed party regards the other party as beautiful.

It’s possible that what my counter-examples show is that a given person’s reaction to beauty can be blocked in one domain while producing pleasure in all other domains. In other words, Jane, the two Joes, and Sadhu might all react negatively to female beauty of the Jen variety, but still find pleasure in other sorts of beauty. That’s certainly possible, and compatible with some version of (1), but not obviously compatible with the version Scruton actually states in the book.

Aesthetic envy. All of the preceding counter-examples focus on human beauty. It’s natural to infer, then, that platitude (1) is vulnerable only from that direction. But I think the underlying point of the counter-examples can be generalized past human beauty to beauty quite generally.

I adapt the idea from a 1971 essay of Ayn Rand’s, “The Age of Envy.” In it, Rand suggests that envy is a form of resentment that consists in hating the good for being good–in effectof hating the qua good. Rand’s suggestion may or may not be coherent; it may or may not be possible to hate what you take to be the good for being what you take to be the good, whether under that description or even under some opaque one. But suppose ex hypothesi that it is possible. If so, it’s equally possible that envy has an aesthetic counterpart–hatred of the beautiful for being beautiful, or hating beauty qua beautiful.*** Call this attitude aesthetic envy. If it existed, aesthetic envy would be a more globally nihilistic response to beauty than that depicted in the preceding examples. If aesthetic envy existed, then, it would be a clear counter-example to platitude (1). I’m not sure whether it does exist, but the very fact of puzzlement about its existence suggests that (1) cannot be a platitude.

Platitude 2: One thing can be more beautiful than another.

This platitude seems just right. I can’t think of a counter-example to it. I found myself wondering whether Scruton’s use of it was meant to parallel Aquinas’s Fourth Way.


Platitude 3: Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that has it. 

It’s tempting to infer that (1) entails (3): if beauty pleases us, and we always have a reason to attend to what pleases us, then we always have a reason to attend to beauty. That’s the gloss that Scruton seems to offer in his book, but plausible as the entailment seems, (1) doesn’t strictly speaking entail (1) unless we assume that we always have a reason to attend to what pleases us. Claim (3) doesn’t entail (1), either. Even if beauty were always a reason for attending to the thing having it, we might always have a reason that was detached from the pleasure afforded by beauty.

Ultimately, though, neither entailment really matters for the point I want to make. Since I don’t think that (1) is true as stated, it’s entailing (3) is irrelevant. And claim (3) involves a problem similar to claim (1). It’s not clear whether in offering (3), Scruton wants to offer a strong, indefeasible claim, or a weaker, defeasible one. The phrase “always a reason” pushes in both directions at once.

Consider two conceptions of reasons. On one view, which I’ll call the optimization view, an agent S faces a set of options at a given time (A, B, C, D, E), and one of those options, (say, A) is all things considered best under the circumstances, and therefore rational for S. When the agent chooses A over the others, A fully overrides the others without residue, so to speak. In other words, S has reason to perform A at t, and no reason whatsoever to perform any other action within the set (or obviously, outside of the set). In other words, the agent always has reason to take the best action, and only the best action provides (any) reason for action. Every other option simply drops out without residue as normatively irrelevant. On this view, to say that S “always has reason to attend to the beauty of what has it” is to say that every action without exception ought to be devoted to the beauty of something–possibly true, but very far from being a platitude. I find it very unlikely that this is the view Scruton wanted to adopt.

On another view, the weighted reasons view, an agent S faces a set of options (A, B, C, D, and E) at t. But S‘s having sufficient reason to perform A is on this compatible with his having some reason to perform B. It’s just that S‘s reason for A outweighs his reason for B at t. On this view, S “always has reason to attend to the beauty of what has it” means that if S has the option of attending to something beautiful, it’s always the case that S has some reason to attend to the beauty in that beautiful thing, even if the reason to attend to it is outweighed by a reason to attend to something else.

The preceding reasoning has two implications, both of them incompatible with the platitude status of (3). First, (3)’s status as a platitude mostly likely presupposes the weighted view of reasons. But a platitude about beauty cannot presuppose a controversial theory of reasons, and the choice between the optimizing and the weighted reasons conceptions is controversial if anything is.

Second, even if one adopts the weighted reasons view, though that view is compatible with (3), it is–I think–unclear how it applies to (3) in any particular case, because it is radically unclear what (3) really means. Right now, I’m sitting in an office that contains a few arguably beautiful artifacts with easy access to many more: there are two calendars on the wall (one displaying the art of Edward Hopper, the other of Tom Thomson), a framed piece of brasswork from Pakistan containing a calligraphic inscription of the “Throne Verse” from the Qur’an, a sleek Jensen computer speaker, a beautiful black Gibson SG guitar (in its case, but I know that it’s there), and a computer hooked up to the Internet affording nearly unlimited access to beautiful objects online. What does it mean to say that the beauty of these things is always a reason to attend to them if I spend most of my time in the office not attending to them but still (dispositionally) thinking them beautiful? I don’t understand (3) well enough to know how it applies to this mundane case, mostly because I don’t think it’s clear enough to apply to such cases–in which case it’s not a platitude.

Let me leave things there for now, and return to platitudes (4)-(6) in a later post.


*I actually regard the phrase “envy and resentment” as redundant, but use it to underscore the fact that I take S‘s being envious to entail S‘s having resentment toward the object of envy. Not everyone interprets envy in this strongly malign way, but I distinguish envy (which implies resentment) from jealousy (which need not), taking envy to be the “darker” emotion. Here I follow Ayn Rand’s insightful analysis of envy in her 1971 essay, “The Age of Envy,” in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (second edition).

**I’ve tortured a long series of gay men with the question, “Can you distinguish degrees of attractiveness in women?” and their answer is always a weary “yes,” though the answers they give in elaboration of the point (as well as the examples they offer) are interestingly different from one another.

***It’s tempting here to think of the character of Salieri as depicted in the film Amadeus as expressing aesthetic envy, but that’s a mistake. Salieri doesn’t hate Mozart’s music for being beautiful; he hates Mozart for producing such beautiful music. The hatred for Mozart presupposes pleasure in the beauty of Mozart’s music.

A better example might be the implicit aesthetic of Marilyn Manson’s song, “The Beautiful People.” Insofar as the song contains a coherent thought, the thought seems to mock “the beautiful people” for being beautiful. But it’s not clear that the song is even minimally coherent or meaningful.

One example I’ve encountered comes from people critical of environmentalism to the point of repressing their own reactions to natural beauty. In cases like that, however, it’s not clear whether the people in question recognize natural beauty and resent it qua beautiful, or have come to cultivate attitudes that require them to repress the recognition of natural beauty altogether.

A last example: the iconoclasm of fundamentalist religious groups like ISIS or the Taliban might seem to express aesthetic envy, but it’s probably more plausible to interpret iconoclasm as a denial of the beauty of images rather than hatred for beauty acknowledged to exist in them. (Interestingly, though, Alejandro Amenabar’s film “Agora” depicts one of its characters’ iconoclasm in terms that at least approximate aesthetic envy. See 8:40 and just following.)

It remains unclear to me whether the aesthetic envy I describe in the text is psychologically possible.

One thought on “Scruton on Beauty: Six Platitudes (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Scruton on Beauty: Six Platitudes (Part 2 of 3) | Policy of Truth

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