Scruton on Beauty: Six Platitudes (Part 2 of 3)

Back to Scruton’s platitudes. This post focuses on (4)-(6).

Platitude 4: Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment, the judgment of taste.

Simple and innocuous as it looks, I’m not entirely sure what (4) says. I may be overthinking this one, but I find it confusing.

One possibility is that (4) is a claim about the etiology of our first-personal sense of beauty. In other words, it says: when S finds something X beautiful, he does so because his faculty of taste produces the judgment “X is beautiful,” whereupon S finds X beautiful. This view seems modeled on a cognitivist theory of the emotions. On a cognitivist theory, my experience of an emotion is produced by emotion-relevant judgments. My experience of (say) grief presupposes prior judgments of loss, my experience of anger presupposes prior judgments about justice (and grievance), my experience of guilt presupposes prior standards of right and wrong and beliefs about when I’ve violated them. I come to the scene, to speak, with these various judgments in place. When the occasion calls for them, the judgments trigger emotions. So: I attach a high value to friendship with a certain friend; the friend dies; I judge that I’ve suffered a great loss; I feel intense grief. I feel great pride in my work; someone casually insults it; I feel a sense of grievance at the person; I feel anger. And so on. The relevant point is in some complex way, the judgment has asymmetric causal priority to the feeling. The judgment causes the feeling, but not vice versa.

By parity of reasoning, the claim about beauty might go something like this: I come to the scene with various beauty-relevant judgments in place. When the occasion calls for them, the judgments trigger the apprehension of beauty. It isn’t entirely clear what judgments produce what apprehensions, but we might say that when I judge that X is symmetrical, harmonious, or in some sense fitting, I come to regard X as beautiful. I’m not really sure that this is what Scruton has in mind, but if it is, whether or not it’s true, it’s obviously not a platitude but a complex claim arising from an analogy to a highly theoretical claim about the emotions.

Another possibility is that (4) is just a trivial claim intended as a preface to platitude (5). Platitude (5) discusses the nature of our judgments of taste, and all that (4) does is to set up (5) by asserting that we make such judgments. That we make judgments about beauty (full stop) obviously is a platitude, and something I’d never deny, but I think Scruton wants (4) to say more than that. And I strongly suspect that he wants it to say something I would deny.

I think (4) is ambiguous as between describing the etiology of the apprehension of beauty in the naive perceiver, and describing what theorists do when they theorize about beauty. So the “trivial claim intended as a preface to (5)” is really saying: when we turn beauty into a topic of theoretical discussion or inquiry, the inquiry concerns the judgments we make about beauty, not, e.g., how we feel about beautiful objects or any other passive-affective response we have to the beautiful. That may sound trivial to some, but taken literally, I don’t think it’s true. The emphasis on judgment seems to presuppose that our experience of beauty–including our experience as theorists about it–is reducible to the judgments we form about it. The suggestion seems to be that when we theorize about beauty, our theorizing concerns the truth and falsity of our judgments about beautiful things–full stop. Granted, Scruton doesn’t say this, but I think (4) implies it.

I take the following thought to be true and incompatible with (4): Part of the “subject-matter of beauty” is our passive-affective response to it. It’s essential to our experience of beauty that at some level, we are held by and surrender to it; in some cases, we’re in thrall to it (or more decorously, “enthralled by” it). Since our response to beauty takes that partly passive form, passive response is part of the subject matter of beauty–but judgment is not a passive response in the relevant sense. There is, in other words, something more to the subject matter of beauty than judgments of taste, however important they may be.  The sense of awe, pleasure, excitement, and catharsis or envy, resentment, guilt, and apprehension elicited by beauty may all be related to our judgments, but those reactions aren’t reducible to judgments. They’re experiential reactions to beauty. Once we conceive of the subject-matter of beauty in this way, however, it becomes impossible to accept Scruton’s platitude (5) at face value, for reasons I’ll describe when I get to it.

Botticelli’s Venus

Incidentally, it’s not clear to me what the word “taste” adds to this platitude. If the reader knows something about the history of aesthetics, the word “taste” will probably call to mind the long history of philosophical discussions of that term in Hume, Burke, Kant, and so on. If readers know nothing about the history of aesthetics, the word “taste” will probably call to mind the sense of “taste” involved when we discuss food (in the crudest sense: “This tastes good,” “This tastes terrible,” “This is salty,” “This is sweet,” etc.). I’m guessing (from things Scruton says in the text of the book) that what he really intends is a use of “taste” that calls on the colloquial English meaning of the word, where it means “refinement” or “a cultivated sense of discrimination,” such as when we refer to a “tasteful arrangement of flowers” or a “person of good taste.”  I’m guessing that this third sense of taste is in some sense intermediate between the high theoretical and low culinary.

I’m inclined to say that the introduction of such a loaded and equivocal term nullifies (4)’s claim to being a platitude, unless the platitude itself specifies which of the three intepretations Scruton intends. It would obviously beg the question to begin with a platitude about “taste” and then bait-and-switch the reader into the suggestion that in accepting a platitude about that innocuous idea, taste, he had actually just signed on to a contentious version of the theory of aesthetic judgment advanced in Kant’s Third Critique. That’s what I think Scruton eventually ends up doing.

Platitude 5: The judgment of taste referred to in (4) is about the beautiful object, and 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).

This is where the action is. Part of what makes (5) seem like a platitude, I think, is that Scruton has front-loaded (4) so that (5) becomes a platitude–or rather, so that he relies on the reader to turn it into one. Platitude (4) is so thin that one doesn’t at first know how to read it. Once one gets to (5), however, one then realizes what Scruton had packed into (4), so that (4) becomes determinate and intelligible–but ceases to be a platitude.

It’s a commonplace of metaphysics and meta-ethics that the face-value grammar of our discourse about universals, colors, and moral values seems to entail a strong form of realism about all three. “My desk is rectangular” seems to imply that rectangularity is a feature of the desk and that a qualitatively identical feature of rectangularity is “exemplified” in my office-mate’s desk. There’s no need to introduce consciousness (concepts, relative similarity, etc.) to explain the face value realist account of rectangularity. “My computer is black” seems at face value to suggest that blackness is an intrinsic feature of the computer, and not a disposition or relation that makes any reference to me as the percipient. “Genocide is wrong” seems at face value to predicate “wrongness” of a certain act, and not of the consequences of (extrinsic to) the act. So, we conclude, the act is “intrinsically wrong,” in the sense that its wrongness is contained within it without our having to consider the act’s relation to anything else, like the agent’s well-being. Wrongness is a property of the act, and of nothing but the act. There’s no reason to invent or imagine a further relation to anything else.

I take Scruton to be saying something similar about beauty. When I say that “Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is beautiful,” the face value grammar of the sentence suggests that beauty is being predicated of the symphony, full stop. And the face value grammar often mirrors the face value phenomenology. When I listen to the symphony and judge it beautiful, it doesn’t (or doesn’t have to) feel like I’m talking about myself, or reporting on my own mental states. People typically say, “It’s beautiful,” or “How beautiful that performance was,” not “The first movement of the Brahms feels exceptionally beautiful,” much less, “How beautifully I reacted to this evening’s Brahms!” (On the other hand, we do say, “I was moved to rapture by the Brahms tonight,” etc. Lexicography tends to prove less than philosophers think it does, partly because philosophy isn’t lexicography, and partly because philosophers aren’t lexicographers.)

Without disputing anything in the preceding paragraph, I would just flatly insist that none of it really serves to make Scruton’s point or to make a platitude of (5) any more than the face value grammar of “My desk is rectangular” makes a platitude about metaphysical realism, or “The sky is blue” proves that color has to be attributed to the sky and not to a complex relation between us and the sky, or “Genocide is wrong” proves that the wrongness predicated of genocide is a feature of of the “act itself” rather than any relation the act bears, say, to our well-being.# Yes, if you define the “subject matter of beauty” as consisting in judgments of taste that involve the ascription of “beauty” to objects, and you insist that the face value grammar of “X is beautiful” settles the matter, and (habituated by that thought) you then habitually experience beautiful things with those assumptions in mind, then of course (5) will seem like a platitude. But ironically, it will only seem that way in virtue of idiosyncratic facts about your psychology. That’s not how it seems to everyone.

Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

The real platitude, I think, is something closer to the denial of (5). (I owe that observation to one of my Phil 260 students.) We find things beautiful. We find some things more beautiful than others. We have powerful reactions of some kind, whether intensely positive or intensely negative, to what we find beautiful. But we cannot, at the outset, justify our judgments about beauty, whether to ourselves or to others. Put almost anyone on a justificatory regress about their aesthetic judgments and they will fail–and I mean abjectly fail–after a few steps, no matter how obviously beautiful the object under discussion. Here’s a crude sample of such a discussion, but feel free to try it on anything you like.

“Why is Brahms’s Fourth Symphony beautiful?”

“Well, there’s that gorgeous, romantic, dissonant opening movement.”

“That’s circular. “Gorgeous” and “beautiful” are synonyms. Try again.”

“Well, it’s the chromaticism that just pervades the piece.”

“Why does chromaticism make it beautiful? If I just went up the piano keys, that would be chromaticism, too. Would it be beautiful?”

“No, but just going up the piano keys is an artless form of chromaticism. When Brahms does it…”

“When Brahms does what? That’s what I’m asking.”

“Come on. Don’t be an ass. Just listen to the damn symphony, it’s there if you open your ears!”

Etc. It’s much easier to pick out features of a beautiful object that one likes than to explain why it is beautiful, and that in fact is what we do when we apprehend beauty. We respond intensely to it, and part of our response is simply a passive experience that we can barely put into words. Once we do put it into words, the words involve some straightforward predications of the “X is beautiful” variety. But in their naive form, these predications blur the distinction between description, evaluation, and purely expressive utterance. “X is beautiful” is equivocal at the outset as between “Beauty is a feature of X,” “X satisfies certain criteria to such a degree that a conclusive verdict of beauty can be rendered on it,” and “Oh my God, the beauty of X!” which in extreme cases resembles the gibberish one utters in the throes of passion rather than any calm predication of a property to an object existing independently of one’s cognitive faculties.  That’s the real platitude concealed by (5), and the platitude makes essential reference to the very thing that Scruton throws out.

Another aspect of the same platitude (my platitude, not Scruton’s): There are two fundamental categories of people: those who dogmatically make judgments of beauty without being able to justify them, and those who make such judgments but are self-conscious about their inability to justify them. One platitude here is that the first group is dogmatic; its members are willing to take their face value judgments of beauty as knowledge without asking many questions about how those judgments are to be justified, much less actively seeking a justification. Another platitude is that insofar as the non-dogmatic lack justification, they sacrifice Scruton-like aesthetic realism to epistemic virtue by the device of aesthetic subjectivization. In other words, they hedge their aesthetic judgments so that the judgments are (partly) about their own subjective reactions to beautiful objects, not objects-out-of-relation-to-their-subjective-reactions. Put yet differently, they model their aesthetic judgments on judgments of taste in food. It’s a platitude that our reactions to food are partly about the food and partly about us. Some people like baingan bhartha, some like sushi, some like pizza, some like fried catfish, some like okra; some don’t. It’s a platitude that culinary taste is partly in the eye of the taster. Similarly, I think it’s a platitude that beauty is partly in the eye of the beholder. (I don’t see what non-arbitrary way Scruton has for distinguishing the culinary from the aesthetic cases.)

I suppose my point could be put in yet a different way, if it helps. I suppose that the real platitude here is a disjunctive and aporetic one. It is not, as Scruton supposes, that our judgments of beauty are all about the object and not about us. Nor is it that our judgments of beauty are about us and not about the objects. It’s that in some complex way, our judgments of beauty are about both, but that most of us don’t know how to reconcile the two facts, so that we slide from the Scrutonian realism to extreme subjectivism without being able to find the mean between them. One and the same person will tell you that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and tell you that Botticelli’s “Venus” or Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” are objectively more beautiful than de Kooning’s “Woman.” (Sometimes the same person will say it to himself.) All three or four claims might in principle be true. It’s just not clear how to reconcile them. So we’re stuck with the aporetic platitude that we tend to believe all three or four sorts of things at once.

Bottom line: No matter how you slice it, (5) isn’t a platitude.

Platitude (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 judgment for myself.

I agree with a great deal of this platitude, but find one aspect of it puzzling. I agree that there are no second-hand judgments of beauty, and that there is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself. I also agree that I can’t form judgments of beauty without experiencing the beautiful objects for myself. What I find puzzling (ironically, given the discussion of [5] above) is how much scope Scruton is willing to grant to rational argumentation when it comes to belief-formation and belief-revision about aesthetic matters. The discussion in the book leads me to think that he gives too little.

People argue all the time about the aesthetic merits of all kinds of works of art. Music is perhaps the hardest to argue about, literature perhaps the easiest (not that it’s easy). So let me take the easiest case for myself, literature.

Suppose that two people, A and B, disagree about the beauty of a work of literature. Suppose that they decide to argue the issue. Suppose that A is right, and B is wrong, but suppose that B isn’t culpably wrong, and is open to argument. And suppose that A is sincere about arguing to the best of her abilities rather than wanting simply to win points or express some priggish or self-righteous attitude, etc. So they have an argument whether X is beautiful. How does (6) bear on what they can say to one another?

De Kooning, Two Women in the Country

Scruton almost sounds as though he means that given (6), A and B have nothing to say to one another. But that’s very implausible. It may be a platitude that there are limits to what one person can convince another of in the domain of aesthetics, but that claim (though true and a platitude) is far weaker than the claim that rational persuasion is literally impossible. Surely A can say something that induces B to change her mind.

Scruton might mean that A cannot literally force B through argument to accept A’s judgment about the beauty of the object under discussion. There are, so to speak, no “coercive” arguments in aesthetics. I’d grant that, but not only does it seem weaker than (6), it doesn’t seem specific to aesthetics. No one can literally force anyone to believe anything. A’s convincing B of something requires self-initiated cognitive activity by B, whether we’re talking about aesthetics or mathematics. You can force a child to recite her multiplication tables, but the result is not belief. You can torture someone into believing that 2 + 2 = 5, or that he loves Big Brother, but that isn’t belief, either. So one puzzle about (6) on this interpretation is why Scruton thinks it’s a platitude about beauty rather than about belief.

I think Scruton really wants to make the Aristotelian (or Wittgensteinian) point about the relation of direct experience to justified belief. You don’t need directly to have experienced one million objects to know that 500,000 + 500,000 = one million, but you need to have experienced Brahms’s Fourth or Constable’s landscapes or the Taj Mahal (or whatever) to be in a position to believe anything about their beauty. If you regard me as a trustworthy and reliable science reporter, you’re justified in believing me when I tell you that the most recent psychiatric research indicates that there is no established causal connection between overseas deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and the rate of suicide in American military personnel. I can just tell you that it was reported last Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, and that ought to be enough.* But there is no expertise in me that warrants your believing my claim that the most recent aesthetic research proves that Beethoven’s Ninth is the greatest symphony of all time, that Vermeer is a sublime painter, or that Megadeth’s “Rust in Peace” is surely one of the greatest speed metal albums of all time.** Put simply, testimonial evidence counts for nothing when it comes to judgments of beauty.

If that’s what Scruton means (the interpretation I’ve ascribed to him in the preceding paragraph), I’m willing to sign on. I would just say two things. First, this interpretation of aesthetics isn’t specific to aesthetics, either. The same might be said of ethical knowledge. Suppose that you’re a miser who refuses to give a dime or devote a minute of your time, to charity. Suppose I offer you an argument to the conclusion that charity is a virtuous activity, and that everyone should be virtuous. Suppose that the argument is sound and cogent. Grasping its soundness and cogency might still require you to grasp the concepts embedded in each of the premises, and part of grasping them might be experiential. You might, for instance, have to grasp the concepts of “misfortune” and “suffering,” where grasping them required your experiencing misfortune and suffering. A non-experiential grasp of morally relevant concepts might be the cognitive equivalent of a color blind person’s grasp of claims about color. I don’t know that that rebuts (6), except insofar as Scruton meant (6) to be unique to aesthetics. (He may not have.)

Second, Scruton’s Aristotelian-Wittgensteinian point can’t be construed to imply a ban on belief-transformative arguments about aesthetics. Imagine that A and B from above are arguing about Nabokov’s Lolita. A finds Lolita beautiful; B is disgusted by it. Let’s imagine that A is right and B is wrong (with all the other stipulations from above). Suppose they argue about the novel for years, carefully tracking the reasons for their various disagreements. Eventually A could come to realize that B’s reactions were a function of certain cognitive defects or mistakes in B. Perhaps B thinks that acknowledging the beauty of Lolita commits B to denying the moral depravity of Humbert Humbert’s rape-seduction of a twelve year old girl. Perhaps B was herself a victim of abuse, and can’t easily appreciate a novel that triggers memories of that abuse. Etc. Suppose, however, that A recognizes B’s debility and offers the magic argument that side-steps it. Scruton cannot plausibly deny that such a move might induce B to revise her beliefs in A’s direction. But (6) seems formulated to lead one to that conclusion.

Enough for now. At some point, I’d like to address some issues of method involving the use of platitudes in philosophical theorizing.

# I re-wrote this sentence after posting. The first version was miserably verbose.

*”Ought to be enough” to believe that the finding was made and is probably significant, not enough to believe that the findings are conclusively true.

**Can speed metal be “beautiful”?

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