Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aesthetic Facts and Opinions

I got thinking about this after reading this piece in the New York Times on "moral facts". Very good discussion by a philosophy professor on why students today graduate believing that there are no such things as moral facts:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
The reason I want to talk about this here is that moral reasoning and aesthetic reasoning, as was pointed out by David Hume, have a lot in common. But before I get to aesthetic reasoning, let me quote a passage from the essay showing just what is wrong with this simplistic distinction:
The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.
Any value judgments or moral claims are merely opinions and therefore subjective. But on the other hand, you have all sorts of moral rights and responsibilities that are NOT merely subjective, but active imperatives. As Bertrand Russell famously said,
"I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it."
There is a similar sort of confusion in the field of aesthetics: on the one hand, we profess to believe that all aesthetic judgments are mere subjective opinions, and everyone's musical taste, for example, is equally valid or worthy. But we individually find that our musical tastes develop with age and experience. Even if you make the small leap from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga, that is still an aesthetic progression and implies the existence of all other aesthetic progressions. I journeyed from Eric Burden and the Animals to Bach in a few years of listening and I find it hard to believe that no-one would agree with me that that is a progression. I think it is a fairly obvious aesthetic fact that Bach has rather more musical value than Justin Bieber. The fractious disputes that lead us to throw up our hands and declare all aesthetics mere subjective maundering usually come about when you compare things that are much closer: different interpretations of Bach, say, or Prokofiev vs Shostakovich. We also run into the problem of incommensurables. There truly are things that are incommensurable and regarding which, therefore, it is hard if not impossible to assign a value hierarchy.

We might speculate a bit about why the belief in the utter subjectivity of aesthetic judgments is so widespread. There might even be a clue in the New York Times essay. The author, Justin P. McBrayer, attributes the faulty reasoning to the Common Core standards that demand the distinction between fact and opinion, obviously flawed, be taught in just this way. This reminds me of another quote from Bertrand Russell that goes:
There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.
We seem to be plagued by an awful lot of this sort of thing these days.

But while widespread moral relativism seems to be a current government project, I think that aesthetic relativism is rather older. David Hume was attempting to deal with it in his writings on aesthetics that I talked about in these posts. If we look at the music of the 18th century, for example, we see a high standard of quality and a high level of patronage stemming mostly from the aristocracy. The primary source of financial support for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven was members of the aristocracy. With the French and other revolutions and the general lowering of the prestige of the aristocracy throughout the 19th century, support for musicians shifted from a small group of cultivated individuals to the middle class who, for a while, were content to emulate aristocratic taste to some extent. But towards the end of the century and certainly by the middle of the 20th century, the prevailing public taste had become much more populist. Beginning with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, popular music began to dwarf classical music economically.

It was rather inconvenient for classical music to retain all the prestige while popular music earns most of the money so a deep ideological shift took place. Turns out that there is no such thing as objective aesthetic standards--it's all just what you like. And most of you are listening to pop music with great enjoyment. Therefore, given the egalitarian democratic ideals that are the ideological substrate of modern societies, we simply must not permit anyone to think that their aesthetic judgement can be more true than anyone else's.

So that's that!

It is really imperative that we think Ke$ha is just as good as Bach.

And why wouldn't we?


Marc said...

Careful! You will be recalling the transcendentals-- unum, verum, bonum (or veritas, bonitas, pulchritudo, if you prefer)-- if you don't watch yourself: the culture of the atomized masses can't allow that.

Ken Fasano said...

Bach > Bieber. This seems obvious, but how can an aesthetic proposition be proven? I would be very interested to read more from you on aesthetics and philosophy. Do you think Foucault, for example (a favorite of Boulez, by the way), has anything of relevance that would prove Bach > Bieber. Historically, there may be an important fork in the road around the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, where the Reformation went for music that accommodates the popular, and the Counter-reformation opposed that tendency with artistic gigantism which led to the Baroque. Just throwing out some ideas...

Bryan Townsend said...

Aha, we have a philosopher in the house! Yes, Marc, guilty as charged. I am somewhat of a closet Aristotelian.

Ken, I am not a professional philosopher (though I have had many discussions with philosophers) but I think that we have to understand that there are different kinds and standards of proof. Mathematical proofs have a kind of standard that statistical probabilities lack. The reasoning used in moral philosophy is different from that used in metaphysics or epistemology. I think that McBrayer's reasoning in the NYT essay is an excellent example of moral reasoning, which is why I linked to it. Any talk of rights and responsibilities involves moral reasoning, which is not the same as scientific or mathematical reasoning. It does involve logic as we see when McBrayer points out the inconsistency between demanding that the students accept certain responsibilities while at the same time denying the existence of moral "facts" (or truths).

Aesthetic reasoning, as Hume pointed out, shares some characteristics with moral reasoning. I have written a great deal about aesthetics on the blog as you will see if you do a search.

While I have read Foucault, I don't recall what he has said about aesthetics. I am very intrigued by your idea about the Reformation. Have to look into that!