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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M014-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved April 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Article Summary

The resumption of serious and sustained analysis of the concept of aesthetic value in the twentieth century which was described in Section 5 of the article ‘Beauty’ in the 1998 edition of the Encyclopedia (hereafter ‘Beauty1998§5’) broke new ground but failed to solve the problems that stand in the way of a credibly unified theory.

For instance, Guy Sircello provides a keen analysis of beauty-making properties, which he takes to be ‘properties of qualitative degree’ (‘PQDs’) such as the vividness or softness of colour, the brilliance or harshness of sound, the melancholy or joviality of a mood. These admit of no quantitative analysis and range over a wide swath of domains. They are not in themselves positively or negatively value-laden, which is essential to avoid circularity. Their aesthetic value is determined by their being intense, non-defective, and non-defective seeming on a nonaesthetic basis (again, to avoid circularity). By intensity is meant that the PQD exists to a high degree. Thus the seeming suede-softness of hills as seen from a distance in a certain light is intensely suede-soft. In a different context the softness might be drab. But he finds little to tell us about the ontological and epistemological standing of these properties or about the rank properly assigned to the overall value of the complex ensembles of properties of a thing.

A second standout is the reflection of Kendall Walton (see Walton, K. (1939–)) on what we can call secondary appreciation aroused by awe or wonder at the capacity of things to elicit pleasurable admiration even when they have little claim to direct aesthetic appeal but impress us for their practical, moral, intellectual, or natural value, or for their radically avant-garde strangeness. The virtue of this is to expand the reach of aesthetic admiration beyond traditional limits without losing connection with more paradigmatic beauties. But it raises deep questions about how far we should extend our vision of aesthetic appreciation and how to understand the ontology and epistemology of beauty. What criterion of accuracy will apply to wonder and awe? (Aside from that question there is an important connection between it and aesthetic evaluation. Awe heightens a person’s disinterestedness: ‘Awe basically shuts down self-interest and self-representation and the nagging voice of the self,’ said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘two- to three-minute “micro awe” experiences (like gazing at a reflection on the water or visiting a nostalgic playground). … Both can have a profound impact on one’s quality of life.’

If we scan the scene of philosophical aesthetics honestly, we can hardly fail to be impressed by how much disarray it presents, ranging from presumption to disinclination to take a position. Consider the presumption of Mary Mothersill’s claim that the aesthetic properties of a work depend on literally every feature being what it is. This is certainly not true for the wavelike contour she cites in El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz. Much detail could be altered without affecting that contour. If this were not so then all changes in the work, even its aging, would affect the aesthetic properties we confidently ascribe to it.

The opposite of presumption is evasion, as when philosophers refuse to engage with the issue of how aesthetic value can be a single species of evaluation, doubtless wide but still possessed of unity. A case can also be made for the evasiveness saturating the prevalence of studies of what a historical philosopher may or may not have meant in this or that work, rather than direct confrontation with the central theoretical issues. The conclusion one comes to is that philosophical aesthetics is at present a strikingly undercultivated domain. We have much work to do.

At the same time our aesthetic commerce with the things that move us (positively or negatively) is a source of major satisfaction. That is a deeply important truism. The oddity is that our passion does not come with deep understanding. It is to this mismatch that the best twenty-first century contributors are devoting themselves. To their contributions we now turn.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Beauty, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M014-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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