Monday, July 31, 2017

Aesthetics, part 3

This series on aesthetics has gotten off to a good start in terms of provoking lots of interesting comments, but my sense is that I have not managed to put us on the right track yet. Let me restate an important point: virtually none of what we read in the mass media contains any aesthetic discussion. All the articles that keep popping up (and that I sometimes write about) deal with things peripheral to aesthetics. The most common "experts" consulted, psychologists, neurophysiologists, other kinds of scientists, even people closer to the topic like music theorists and historians, do not actually deal with aesthetics directly. I remember when I was a graduate student in musicology, one of the professors mentioned that she was thinking about offering a course in aesthetics sometime. The general reaction was "wow, that sounds really interesting," but we were also thinking that it was a topic far outside of what we usually did.

What the experts I listed above look at and think about instead of aesthetics, are the normal objects of study of their disciplines: psychologists study the psychology of people, neurophysiologists study brain waves (and other similar stuff, I guess), other kinds of scientists study whatever their objects are, music theorists study how music is structured, music historians study the history of music and so on. Both music theorists and music historians can venture into aesthetics as it is a field that can overlap their own, but they usually don't.

I think that aesthetics, a branch of philosophy, was banished to the wilderness sometime in the last few decades because it seemed too abstract for scholars who were more interested in non-aesthetic issues like diversity, oppression, equity and so on. Aesthetics has a long history as it was one of the many fields of philosophy that was born out of the intellectual ferment of Athens in the 4th century BC. The locus classicus of aesthetics is usually considered to be the Poetics of Aristotle which is described as follows:
The Poetics is in part Aristotle's response to his teacher, Plato, who argues in The Republic that poetry is representation of mere appearances and is thus misleading and morally suspect. Aristotle's approach to the phenomenon of poetry is quite different from Plato's. Fascinated by the intellectual challenge of forming categories and organizing them into coherent systems, Aristotle approaches literary texts as a natural scientist, carefully accounting for the features of each "species" of text. Rather than concluding that poets should be banished from the perfect society, as does Plato, Aristotle attempts to describe the social function, and the ethical utility, of art.
 The only real difference between what Aristotle was doing and what a music theorist would be doing today is that the contemporary theorist draws strict lines around what counts as music theory and they do not include things like historic or social context (which are left to musicologists) or criticism or examination of the reception of musical works. The last two things take us into aesthetics. I suppose that you could argue that all music theory is really a kind of sub-branch of aesthetics, as it involves a close examination of the musical work, which is an aesthetic object. But I think that theorists don't like to think in those terms. They want to stick to the internal mechanics of the composition and avoid the broader picture.

The kinds of questions aesthetics poses and attempts to answer include:

  • what was the intention of the artist (composer)?
  • what is the relation between the artist's intention and the aesthetic object?
  • how can you account for the variation in taste between people?
  • how can you account for the consistency in aesthetic valuation?
  • what is the ontological status of the aesthetic object? (By this I am referring to the question of what is, exactly, the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven? Is it the score? If so, is it the autograph score or the one in the Beethoven Edition? Is it the disco arrangement? Is it a particular performance? Is it all the performances? Is it only the "correct" performances? Does one where half the notes were wrongly played count? And so on.)
  • do aesthetic objects have ethical content? do they make us "better" persons? The answer to this is usually "no", but is that true? How do we know?
  • is there a causal relationship between the mood of the composer when he was writing it and the mood of the musical work? what about the mood of the performer(s)?
  • are judgements of value about artworks possible?
These are characteristic aesthetic questions and while they might seem to be a bit abstract, they do all focus on the nature of the artwork which makes them aesthetic questions and not scientific ones.

For our envoi, here is Walter Murphy's disco arrangement of passages from the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven. If you say that this is NOT the Symphony No. 5 and we argue about it, that would be an aesthetic discussion.


Christopher Culver said...

Surely aesthetics was a more viable field back when substance dualism was the mainstream. By claiming that human beings had some non-physical quality to them that was not subject to scientific investigation, the experience of the arts could be ascribed to that side of them and thus aesthetics as a purely abstract philosophical field came about.

However, in an era that rejects dualism, human beings’ experience of art is entirely down to neuroscience, so it makes more sense to discuss the arts in the context of brain responses than to baselessly speculate that the arts have some ethereal quality to them separate from how the human brain perceives them.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good lord, you don't need to be a substance dualist to entertain that list of aesthetic questions I posed. But surely only a crude materialist would refuse to acknowledge the existence of aesthetic objects and human response to them? A piece of music is actually a pretty brilliant example of something whose existence is rather ethereal, wouldn't you say? Compression waves in the void?

Christopher Culver said...

You complain that writers today are writing about e.g. neuroscience, not aesthetics. However, in the absence of dualism, most of the questions you ask are distinctly neuroscience ones, there is no longer room for a separate field, "aesthetics", to ask them.

"How can you account for the variation in taste between people?" Brain responses. "How can you account for the consistency in aesthetic valuation?" Brain responses. "Do aesthetic objects have ethical content?" Ethics is increasingly subsumed under neuroscience and evolutionary biology. "Is there a causal relationship between the mood of the composer when he was writing it and the mood of the musical work?" The 'mood' of a composer and the 'mood' of a musical work are a manner of brain responses, any attempt to answer this question must be founded in neuroscience. "Are judgements of value about artworks possible?" If reception of an artwork is down to an ultimately arbitrary brain response, then probably not.

As for the first two questions, "What was the intention of the artist (composer)?" and
"What is the relation between the artist's intention and the aesthetic object?", there may be room for those two subjects to be discussed separately from neuroscience, but they are still very often discussed. I know here on this blog you like to complain that musicology has been taken over by identity politics or whatever, but both of those questions are still commonly discussed in monographs or collections on a particular composer that appear from academic presses.

Will Wilkin said...

Neuroscience will never explain the ghost in the machine, for our aesthetic sensibilities, like our other values and impulses, are not just molecular reactions but have a spiritual essence that has its own dynamic and logic and set of premises that can never be reduced to material or quantities. Don't mistake the letters on the page for the essence of the literature.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher, for bringing some serious philosophical questions to the table. You state that "brain responses" are the answer to aesthetic questions. How do we know about these brain responses? Aren't they only measured through the use of an MRI or a similar device? But don't I already know my aesthetic experiences and judgements directly? We are all aware of our own experience of music, but hardly anyone is aware of their brain responses. Your argument runs solidly aground on the problem of consciousness, I think. People have been trying to reduce consciousness to brain chemistry for quite a while now, but I don't think they have succeeded.