Monday, September 24, 2012

Aesthetics: Hume, Part 3

We are just about done with David Hume. But first we need to look at what he says about critics, whom he considers similar to 'expert witnesses'. One of the odd corollaries of our relativistic way of looking at things is that we assume that prejudice and bias are ubiquitous and unavoidable. But at the same time, we require unbiased analysis in all parts of our society: judges, juries, environmental reports, political polling, and so on. This also extends to things that we might consider aesthetic. Companies that market blended Scotch whiskey  or fine sherry employ highly trained and experienced tasters to ensure that the blends are consistent year to year. If all taste were relative, they really wouldn't bother. But it is not. Taste is not only something that the sensory apparatus of humans gives a universal base to, it is also something that can be developed. It can be free from personal bias, what used to be called 'disinterested'. Let's hear from Hume now.

But to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination.
Oh yes, this is very much the crux of it! We seem to have the odd policy of assuming everyone is unavoidably biased in their aesthetic taste (while requiring at the same time that they show not a trace of prejudice in other areas--race and gender, for example). Anyone that writes about music or the arts is assumed to be hopelessly personally biased. This can often be the case, of course, but aren't those people inherently less worth listening to? This is the problem I keep constantly running into in writing on music. Everyone assumes everyone is biased and no-one makes the attempt not to be. Objectivity is impossible, so why bother? But this means so much of what you read about music is just half-baked nonsense.
 It is well known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty. It belongs to good sense to check its influence in both cases; and in this respect, as well as in many others, reason, if not an essential part of taste, is at least requisite to the operations of this latter faculty. In all the nobler productions of genius, there is a mutual relation and correspondence of parts; nor can either the beauties or blemishes be perceived by him, whose thought is not capacious enough to comprehend all those parts, and compare then with each other, in order to perceive the consistence and uniformity of the whole. Every work of art has also a certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated; and is to be deemed more or less perfect, as it is more or less fitted to attain this end. The object of eloquence is to persuade, of history to instruct, of poetry to please by means of the passions and the imagination. These ends we must carry constantly in our view, when we peruse any performance; and we must be able to judge how far the means employed are adapted to their respective purposes.
Hard to disagree with any of this as it is pure common sense. I have my prejudices, which I try to examine and analyse so that I don't allow them to corrupt my judgment. You will note that I rarely write about jazz. The reason is that I don't entirely trust my judgment in that area. On the few occasions I have written about it, I have put forth my opinions boldly and tried to give a justification for them. Most genres of classical music I have enough experience with to make objective judgments--at least, that's the plan! I am able to distinguish in my mind a piece that has greater or lesser aesthetic value generally from one which I personally would rate higher or lower. Take Mozart, for example. He is a composer that any reliable critic would put in the absolute first rank of composers. His music is widely enjoyed and much of it is very profound. But with the exception of a couple of pieces, I personally find his music to be a bit lightweight. I recognize this as being a bias in my judgment, so I'm careful, when talking about Mozart, to compensate for it. In other words, I use my reason to compensate for a bias. Hume is also pointing out some other uses of reason in the guidance of taste. It can be used to overlook the design and consistency of a piece and evaluate it according to its purpose.
Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles. They either labour under some defect, or are vitiated by some disorder; and by that means, excite a sentiment, which may be pronounced erroneous. When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects., are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character; Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.
Again, this is so clear and so soundly reasoned that it hardly needs comment! That the principles of taste are universal (given, perhaps a couple of caveats), but that most of us labor under some defect, or lack delicacy or experience, surely this is just ordinary common sense? The academic and intellectual worlds have been over-specializing in UNcommon sense for so long, that I'm sure this is shocking to many readers. But really, "when a critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction" should hardly be controversial. In this blog I am constantly using the device of comparison to point out 'frivolous beauties'. It could scarcely be put better than Hume does: "Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty."
But where are such critics to be found? By what marks are they to be known? How distinguish them from pretenders? These questions are embarrassing; and seem to throw us back into the same uncertainty, from which, during the course of this essay, we have endeavoured to extricate ourselves.
My immediate response is by their fruits ye shall know them. I don't find it impossible to give credence to a critic I don't know based on the quality of his argument--even if I am unfamiliar with the piece under consideration.
But if we consider the matter aright, these are questions of fact, not of sentiment. Whether any particular person be endowed with good sense and a delicate imagination, free from prejudice, may often be the subject of dispute, and be liable to great discussion and enquiry: but that such a character is valuable and estimable will be agreed in by all mankind. Where these doubts occur, men can do no more than in other disputable questions, which are submitted to the understanding: They must produce the best arguments, that their invention suggests to them; they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard. It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.
This is another nice crux that Hume presents. Perhaps the best argument against the irrational, individual relativism of all aesthetic judgment is that it takes away our grounds for having the discussion. Why bother? But if matters of taste can be universal and can be objective, then we can discuss them to mutual profit. We "must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact."

Now let's listen to some Mozart and see if we can hear some of those "finer touches". Here is Friedrich Gulda playing and conducting (the way it would have originally been performed) the slow movement of the piano concerto K. 466:


10 comments:

RG said...

Maybe your perception is distorted in seeing that "we [North Americans of the 21st C] require unbiased analysis in all parts of our society: judges, juries, environmental reports, political polling, and so on." I doubt it. Certainly, no one is providing it. Judges (e.g. currently in Wisconsin) are expected to participate in political wrangling by delaying/confirming partisan legislation. Juries and OJ. EP reports? ROFLMAO! Po po po phooey! and so on. Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. You watch CNN for the left, Fox for the right, PBS for the fringe. There is no attempt at finding perspectives that transcend the crazes of the moment, because who would buy? The closest we come to "objectivity" is the fallacy of false equivalence -- an absurdity on CNN today "What a pair George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden made!". Why is that we [etc.] have given up on unbiased anything? Maybe the whole idea of objective values grounded in human nature was an illusion. Maybe all there is is personal perspective and preference. The Deconstructionists were right? Recently, a friend (discussing the failure of Obama's bailout binge) suggested that there is no reason to think that free market forces (if tried instead) would have done any better at restoring a sound economy... so nothing is what it is. Gould was a "partisan" of Bach. That all there is, folks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, of course you are correct. I think I was counting on the irony. Perhaps my phrase should have read that "our system requires unbiased analysis in [the following areas]" and the irony is that, while required, it is rarely received.

I am calling for a return to the principle of objective analysis while knowing full well that it has largely disappeared EVEN THOUGH, in areas such as the law, it is urgently necessary.

Just because we are a bit crazy, doesn't mean Hume was!

Marc Puckett said...

I've just read the three parts of your enquiry into Hume's views. I should admit that I tend to become more vague than usual when discussing actual philosophers writing about their philosophising ('my eyes glaze over', if we were having a conversation over coffee); such education that I have in philosophy was centered on Plato/Aristotle/Plotinus and their traditions received through Augustine and the scholastics. Anyway....

I can't immediately square the notion that beauty lies exclusively in the eye of the beholder ("beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty") with what Hume also asserts i.e. that "the principles of taste [are] universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty"-- which seems, on my admittedly feeble reading, to mean that if people are sufficiently well educated and disposed etc they can all perceive N or A in its beauty (which exists whether or not they are indeed well disposed and educated). Hmm. I suspect I'm missing one or many of Hume's insights.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hume isn't necessarily right about everything, of course, but his views are certainly worth our attention. As far as the "beauty in the eye of the beholder" I have wrestled with that a bit myself. I think that it is the case that certain kinds of things in the world can cause us to perceive beauty. That is, beauty is something that is perceived, given certain sorts of stimulus. It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the origin or ground of the stimulus that is the moment of beauty. The sunset is beautiful IF there is a human being sitting in the right spot to see it with his eyes open and awake. Otherwise it is just a bunch of light and reflections, maybe some clouds. A piece of music can be beautiful if it is performed well and there are people there to hear it. The moment of performance and hearing is the moment of beauty. The printed notes on the page are not "beauty". This is how I think it works. Or is this too scholastic?

Marc Puckett said...

I'm interested to begin thinking about this question of aesthetics again! But it is (as I pointed out) not the easiest thing for me to think with much agility about these notions, so as I try to express what I think I think, am bound to get it wrong. :-)

I think I would argue, without having the sources and authorities immediately at my fingertips, that the sunset is beautiful in itself and perceptible ('beautiful-in-itself-and-perceptible')-- although we can intellectually distinguish the beautiful thing/event from its perceptibility-- to any who look toward it willing to see, to perceive. That sunset that is happening now is beautiful whether one or one thousand pairs of eyes are following it, or none. Put in another way, this the problem of the tree falling in the woods: I think the ancients (although not all the ancients), and people up until perhaps what some call the early modern age would say, yes, of course the tree falling makes a sound. Modern people say, no, if there is nobody to hear, there's no sound.

The beautiful, I would go on to say, contrary to what looks to be your position, shares, by its nature, in the transcendental attributes of being in a way that is perceptible to the senses and intellect. 'It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the ground that is the moment of beauty'-- I think the 'reception of the stimulus' is, oh I don't know how to describe this, an epiphenomenon that is consequent (not so much in time but as an intellectual concept) to the beautiful object/event. Oh, my! I think I will stop before I truly embarrass myself.

Copied your aesthetics posts into the notebook and will refer to 'em as I meander through the sources. Next stop is those IEP/SEP essays on aesthetics and mediaeval aesthetics... we shall see.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that this discussion is one of the truly important ones. Certainly I have only thought about it in a fairly superficial way. But, just to take up one thread, I think that the "sound of the tree falling in the forest" as opposed to my sunset example, is a very indicative one. Yes, I would argue that the tree falling in the forest certainly makes a sound even if there is no-one there to hear it. We could find a tree about to fall and set up a recorder nearby to record the sound when it falls. Or, if it were a large tree, we might go back later and take note of the physical damage, effect on nearby trees and bushes and estimate the sound it made much as scientists have estimated the magnitude of earthquakes long after the fact from physical evidence. BUT, and here is where the rubber meets the road, I would argue that Beauty, while certainly objectively existent, is not of the same order of being as, say, the sound of a tree falling. Beauty is something that can only be experienced by a human being, much like the Good and the True. We can't make a recording of Beauty any more than we can of the Good or the True. Now, let me hasten to say, it seems as if we can. We can record a fine musical performance and, upon listening to it later, experience the beauty of it. But I still want to say that the Beauty is in the experience, not in all those little zeros and ones on the CD. What the recording does is freeze the efficient causes of Beauty so that they can be imbibed at a later date.

I am just roughing out this theory now. What I will do next is have a look at what Beardsley might say about it in his book on Aesthetics.

But one conundrum that I think my theory solves is the eternal debate about whether beauty is subjective or objective: the answer is that it is both, but that has caused a lot of confusion in the past.

Marc Puckett said...

Beauty is something that can only be experienced by a human being.... I agree.

We can't make a recording of Beauty any more than we can of the Good or the True. Indeed, this is so, but surely we can make a recording of a beautiful thing/event, just as we know when someone does something good or when we see/learn/experience something that is true. The way we apprehend Being, Truth, Good, Beauty is a very complex discussion, I think.

Now, let me hasten to say, it seems as if we can. We can record a fine musical performance and, upon listening to it later, experience the beauty of it. As I suggested just now, we do experience that beauty, which is an instance in some mode of our participating in the Beautiful, in Beauty strictly so called.

But I still want to say that the Beauty is in the experience, not in all those little zeros and ones on the CD. While I would repeat what I said above about Beauty and our participation in the beautiful things/events we experience, certainly I think you're right that the zeros and ones are simply mediating our senses' apprehension of the beautiful; efficient causes, sure.

What the recording does is freeze the efficient causes of Beauty so that they can be imbibed at a later date. The performance itself is (all the necessary elements being present i.e. that it is a 'beautiful' [the apostrophes because this begs the question viz. how does one decide if a composition is beautiful?] work to begin with, that the instruments are well played by competent players, etc etc) is beautiful and the audience present for that performance are the immediate and direct perceivers of its beauty. The audience of the recording is also perceiving the beautiful performance although it is doing this in a mediated way and indirectly. I would say that both the original audience and subsequent audiences of the recording are, in their different ways, perceiving beautiful music [one has to remember that no composition, from LaMonte's Well-Travelled Highway or whatever it is, or Alkan's Grande Sonate, or even Bach's Variations are absolute Beauty], thereby participating in their own limited way in the Beautiful.

And I totally agree with you that the phenomenon of beauty is both objective and subjective! the devil is in trying to figure out how that can be so. I'll try to read the Beardsley essay at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see if I can keep up with your next post about it. Am well aware of course that the Aristotelian-Scholastic theses on the transcendentals and beauty etc etc are no longer held by many outside of Catholic faculties of philosophy and theology and by those of us who tend to be... countercultural in our choices etc etc. The 'analytical philsophers', as I understand it, don't think that there are such things as truth or goodness, e.g., certainly not Truth or Goodness, and insofar as that is the case their appeal to believers is not particularly great.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm an Aristotelian in a lot of ways (a Humean just on the weekends) so I have no problem with the transcendentals. But these are tricky problems, of course. I don't think that I want to deny that perceptual objects have Beauty in themselves, but that beauty needs to be experienced by someone. I suppose that I think of aesthetic objects as being sites for the potential communication of Beauty. But until that communication is received by someone, the experience of Beauty has not occurred. Is this incoherent or a flawed metaphor? I think of the aesthetic experience as a kind of communication. Until the "message" is received, the act of communication is not complete.

Marc Puckett said...

Tricky problems, indeed.

A beautiful thing/event is by its nature ready to communicate itself to, to be perceived by, those who are willing to receive/perceive it, but until that communication is received by someone the experience of Beauty/beauty has not occurred. The beautiful thing/event none the less exists whether it is perceived by any specific individual or not.

That's how I'd re-write that; does it seem intelligible, or confused, or just different than what you wrote-- I mean, I know it's different, but does it alter your intended meaning? It is that second sentence wherein the crux may be; I think the metaphor is fine, so far as it goes, hence I'd add the 'none the less exists whether...' sentence.

Thank you for engaging in this exchange! I have the distinct impression that I'm about at the end of my ability to contribute much more to it just now, given my clumsiness with the philosophical concepts and terms involved etc etc, even at the half-coherent level that I've managed thus far. Haven't yet done more than glance at the Beardsley experience-of-beauty post yesterday....

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that your version just alters the emphasis. You don't want to dilute the existence of the aesthetic object, which is perfectly right, whereas I was emphasizing the reception of the aesthetic object. So I am fine with the way you have re-stated it. Not that this solves all the problems, but it's a good place to start.

I think that a certain amount of philosophizing can be useful and help us not to go down too many blind alleys. But it is not the most interesting thing to me. The actual music itself is the exciting part!

If you have any comments on my post on The Experience of Beauty, they would be welcome, of course.