Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Philosophy and Aesthetics

I was almost going to title this one "The Uses of Philosophy" but I hate to oversell a post! A post on the uses of philosophy would have to be a couple of hundred thousand words! But I do want to talk about one use of philosophy. In modern times, one fruitful approach in philosophy has been to examine how we talk about things for a clue as to what we mean and what the truth might be. Sometimes this is called "ordinary language philosophy." Ludwig Wittgenstein is sometimes viewed as an ordinary language philosopher. But we can see some similar methods used in Aristotle who, in his Nichomachean Ethics, for example, looked at what people usually meant by ethical language.

In any case, I am going to pick out an application of this method, or a version of it, to the never-ending dispute about quality in music or what we mean when we talk about "good" music or "bad" music. The first thing to note is that a very large number of people who write about music, like Alex Ross at the New Yorker, avoid using those terms at all. I once wrote, after reading some Alex Ross, that he would likely prefer to stab himself in the ears with knitting needles rather than call a piece of music good or bad!

For a while now I have been working my way through a brilliant book on aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley. It is the best survey of the whole field I am aware of. One of the most interesting chapters, after a great number of preliminary questions have been discussed in previous chapters, is titled "Aesthetic Value" which is, of course, one of the ongoing themes in this blog.

There are many different kinds of philosophical methods, indeed, sometimes it seems as if philosophy is nothing but methodology and the examination of methodology. But one of the central methods is the crafting of questions--what are the right questions to ask? An intriguing twist on this is to look at a theory and see if it prohibits asking certain kinds of questions and whether that is appropriate. Let me give an example: we are aware of certain kinds of things when we listen to music, such as does it seem beautiful to us, is it enjoyable or the reverse, does it soothe or agitate and so on. We are also aware of other facts pertaining to the music: what medium is it presented in, mp3, vinyl, CD? There is also the question of cost: is it a free download, an inexpensive CD, a very expensive collected edition? It might be a live performance we are thinking of attending: is it free admission, are the tickets $10 or will it cost us $300 for a box seat?

I divided these questions up into categories to make the point that these categories are separate and easy to distinguish. The implication of this is that there may or may not be causal relationships between these categories. Just because we are listening to an mp3 of the Bach B minor Mass does not mean that the aesthetic value is low. Nor does paying for the most expensive seat at the opera guarantee that we receive high aesthetic value--the soprano may have a head cold that night! So the question of whether or not paying more guarantees higher aesthetic value is certainly an appropriate one. But if you look at the way pop music is covered in the mass media you might almost get the impression that higher record sales are somehow connected to higher musical worth (aesthetic value).

We live in the Age of Psychology so a lot of writers avoid any discussion of objective aesthetic value because they believe in a psychological or subjective definition of aesthetics: "X has aesthetic value" means "Someone likes X in a certain way, i.e. aesthetically." [From p. 513 in Beardsley's book.] One advantage of this sort of definition is that it is testable empirically. We can determine who the greatest composers or pop musicians are by simply polling people to see how many like them because "like" is the same as "aesthetically valuable." Of course there are those who will immediately start objecting that there are cultural and group differences. Elgar is a great English composer because most English people like his music. This what Beardsley calls an Impersonal definition because it does not refer to the speaker. A Personal definition would be "Elgar is a great composer because I like him!" We might even claim that "all red-blooded Americans would like the music of Charles Ives."

But here is where it gets interesting. This equation of aesthetic value with the likes of people, whether individual or en masse, has a problem. As Beardsley puts it:
All of the Subjectivist definitions render unaskable certain questions that people do ask, and that are perfectly good questions, and this shows that the definitions do not correspond to actual usage.
If aesthetic value is defined in terms of the speaker's sensibility and that of his time, then when he says "This is good" he can only mean "I and most critics of my own time like this." He then may wonder if indeed the work is good. But in the Subjectivist definition, this question can only amount to:
"I see that I and most critics of my own time like this, but do I and most critics of my own time like this?"
The Subjectivist definition renders this question unaskable because it becomes nonsensical. But it is not nonsensical to question our own tastes. We can indeed wonder if the tastes of our time do indeed recognize aesthetic value or not. In fact, this is pretty much what I do here on a regular basis.

The next time you are reading some writing on music, see if you can uncover what the hidden assumptions are and if the writer is asking good questions or just trying to avoid certain questions.

Time for some music! Our envoi today is  the entirely suitable piece by Joseph Haydn. The Symphony No. 22 in E flat major is nicknamed "The Philosopher" from a manuscript dating from the composer's lifetime. The scoring is uniquely two English Horns, two horns and strings. The name might come from the question and answer kind of texture that begins the work. The performers are the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.


Patrick said...

Bryan - Patrick again. Trying to get a handle (not pun intended) on what you mean by 'objective aesthetic value'. I'm currently taking university scientific classes (chemistry, biology). Scientists live and die by repeatable, testable hypothesis using observable metrics. Is that the sort of 'objective' you mean? If that is the case, I could imagine a machine or function being devised. The input would be the recording or score. It would be evaluated based on previously determined objective standards. Output would be binary Yes or No answer to question 'Is this piece of music good' or, perhaps a sliding scale (again, no pun intended) 0-10. This would totally remove any 'subjective' bias.
But I wonder what the point would be? Humans are quirky. The best music breaks rules IMHO. Didn't Stravinsky say "Music expresses nothing". (not sure if that is relevant.)
Would you go around to musicians and friends with your new machine and evaluate the music they produce or consume? "I'm so sorry, but the music I just heard you play, and that you have labored over for months, has been determined by my objective evaluation machine to be total CRAP!" This may cause the diameter of your circle of friends to substantially decrease. Or would they say, 'Thank you so much, I just wish I had known this earlier...'.
So I guess my questions are (1) Is it even possible to, in a rigorous scientific way, to construct objective evaluation measures?, (2) if not scientific objectivity, what sort are you referring to? and (3) even if you could come to objective evaluations, independent of personal bias, of what use would they be?
best, Patrick

Christine Lacroix said...

That was a great comment, Patrick. I particularly enjoyed....."I'm so sorry, but the music I just heard you play, and that you have labored over for months, has been determined by my objective evaluation machine to be total CRAP!" This may cause the diameter of your circle of friends to substantially decrease. Or would they say, 'Thank you so much, I just wish I had known this earlier...'. Very funny! Sadly I had to google IMHO.

Bryan Townsend said...

Patrick, great comment. The first thing to note is that not everything "objective" is necessarily a scientific datum. A mother's love or an act of kindness are certainly objectively real, but they are not susceptible to being measured by a machine. Aesthetics is a rather subtle area and aesthetic value can be rather a subtle thing. So, no, a machine or algorithm giving a yes or no answer would not be suitable. The arguments for and against classifying all aesthetic value as subjective are long and complex, I gave just a small example. Any theory of aesthetic value that terms it purely subjective renders certain perfectly reasonable questions unaskable. So that seems a serious flaw in the theory.

I have talked about this a lot on the blog and you might try searching under "aesthetics" to get a sense of it. One of the most telling arguments against objective aesthetic value is that of the variability of taste. Basically it goes, everyone has different taste in music, each person thinking what they like is good and what others like is bad, therefore, there is no such thing as objective aesthetic value in music. But stated baldly like that, I suspect most people would be uncomfortable with it. Mind you, they will probably present this argument anyway because it tends to be the conventional wisdom. I like to make an analogy with ethics because it tends to resemble aesthetics. Bertrand Russell had a great rejoinder to people advocating relativism in ethics: "I cannot necessarily construct an argument to the contrary, but I refuse to believe that the only thing wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it!"

I do have some arguments for objective aesthetic value, the post above is one of them. But you could also put it this way: "I am unsure of how to construct an argument to the contrary, but I refuse the believe that the only difference in aesthetic quality between Justin Bieber and J. S. Bach is that I like the latter and dislike the former."

But you make a very funny point, as Christine points out! The idea that there might be objective aesthetic value conflicts deeply with some views we hold about artistic expression. Every kind of artistic expression is a kind of individual "truth" and as such is not open to any kind of criticism whatsoever. But then you find yourself in the extremely awkward situation of having to accept as "artistic expression" whatever horrible piece of crap is presented. It's a dilemma!

I resolve it by asserting that there is objective aesthetic value. That enables you to say some things are good and others less so. I think that we need our capacities of discernment even more when it comes to aesthetics. Every time you make a decision of whether to go to a concert or not, or whether to purchase this CD or the other, you are making essentially aesthetic judgments. I think we all do this. I just want to additionally assert that aesthetic judgments can be objective.

Jives said...

great discussion. this is a slippery idea. People make aesthetic judgments all the time. What is it that our judgments have in common? I keep coming back to the idea of balance, the golden mean, sonata-allegro form, the perfect pop song.