Fitting beauty into an expressivist theory of value
I believe that expressivism is the correct theory of value. However, I think it gets aesthetic value (that is beauty) exactly wrong. In this paper, I am going to give a brief account of expressivism, argue that it gets aesthetics wrong, and then see what can be done about this.
What, then, is expressivism? Let us start with some undeniable claims (or, at least, claims that would only be denied in some other branch of philosophy): that we live on the earth and there are things we care about. Expressivism (and I shall deal only with the version provided by
Simon Blackburn) is essentially very simple. Sometime, our caring about things amounts to no more than preferences. The examples that spring to mind are food and drink, pop music, trashy novels and so on. It is characteristic of these that we can accommodate disagreement: if
I find out you do not like sprouts, I do not think any better or worse of you. On the other hand, as Blackburn points out, there are probably fewer ‘mere preferences’ than we think.
Someone might (for example) be suspicious of those who drink coffee for breakfast, rather than tea (or, worse still, diet coke). This suspicion could have a number of sources. First, it might be as simple as thinking that a failure to develop taste is some sort of fault. People should move on from instant coffee, from Liebfraumilch; they should grow out of not liking anchovies, or olives. Second, it might be thought that some preferences are evidence of a broader failing: if someone is insensitive to subtlety of taste, to what else are they insensitive?
Third, certain tastes might display a rejection of (or disrespect for) the ritual or tradition of eating. There are things to be learned from food, which simply combining them in ways that give immediate gratification ignore. Although lending an importance to gustatory preferences might sound rather camp, I am inclined (for reasons I go into below) to think that they are more important than they are generally taken to be.
Elsewhere our caring about things amounts to more than mere preferences. Blackburn describes an ‘emotional ascent’ from the kinds of preferences that can accommodate disagreement, to matters where disagreement is intolerable. Moving up from mere preferences, we might get things that make me angry (you mistreat a library book) and then things that I get angry about, and encourage other people to get angry about (you defraud the poor). At the top are actions which I find I simply cannot condone; on which I will not compromise, or would refuse to give up in any circumstance that I envisage. Somewhere in this ascent, we move from things about which we have mere preferences, to things that we value. As Blackburn puts it: ‘to hold a value is to have a relatively fixed attitude to some aspect of things, an attitude with which one identifies in the sense of being set to resist change, or set to feel pain when concerns are not met’ (Blackburn 2000: 68). Nothing has yet has been said about what we value, or why we value it. The only claim so far is that there are some things human beings care about, and that these fall on a continuum between mere preferences, and those we think are important. No claim is made yet about whether all humans value the same things (clearly they do not), whether all humans ought to value the same things, or whether humans ought to value any thing at all.
The key claim for our purposes is that this account takes seriously the kinds of animal that we are. We have been struggling to find
to value things, to find the world enchanting.
Expressivism claims that this difficulty comes from our starting in the wrong place. We should not begin with reasons. Instead, we should begin with the fact that human beings are the kind of creature that has concerns; that cares about things. Because of this, we have evolved a way of talking: a way by which we communicates ‘our certainties, insistences and doubts’ about those things about which we care (Blackburn 2000: 50). In summary, the view is this. There are certain inputs: basically, our awareness of objects, and states of affairs in the world. We take certain attitudes to some of these states of affairs. Sometimes, we need to
object, sometimes to praise, sometimes simply to clarify our attitudes. The language that we use to do this is our discourse about value.
There are some respects in which expressivism is similar to what T.M. Scanlon has called a
‘buck-passing’ account of value which I shall take a small detour to explore. Once again, the target here is an account of value which maintains that for us to value something, that something must have some distinctive (and as we have seen) potentially dubious property (of
‘being of value’). This is what Scanlon says.
We value many different kinds of things, including at least the following: objects and their properties (such as beauty), persons, skills and talents, state of character, actions, accomplishments, activities and pursuits, relationships, and ideals. To value something is to take oneself to have reasons for holding certain positive attitudes toward it and for acting in certain ways in regard to it. Exactly what these reasons are, and what actions and attitudes they support, will be different in different cases. (Scanlon 2000: 95)
In summary, Scanlon’s view is this. To say that we find something valuable is not to attribute some dubious metaphysical property of value to it. Rather, we pass the buck: instead, we say that there are a number of things about it that provide reasons for us to have a positive attitude towards us. There are some important differences between Scanlon’s and Blackburn’s accounts. In particular, Scanlon says that we have reasons for holding positive attitudes, whilst for Blackburn, what is at the bottom of his account is our having positive attitudes
(which then do, or do not, become deeply embedded in our ways of thought). This difference will be important later. However, before we get to that, I want to explore Scanlon’s account and show that it raises a problem that will take us on a digression to explore a difficult, and comparatively neglected, aspect of value.
I have claimed that the advantage in Scanlon’s account is that it does not involve us in any metaphysically dubious value properties. Instead of an object (or whatever) having a value property, what we have are reasons to take a positive attitude to that object. This will only get us out of the realms of the metaphysically dubious if those reasons themselves are in the clear.
In his book, this indeed seems to me one of Scanlon’s motivations; he emphasises his contrast with Moore, and talks of the properties to which the buck is passed as ‘natural properties’
(Scanlon 2000: 96-97). The problem I want to explore is whether Scanlon can be sure that the properties to which the buck is passed have a metaphysical clean bill of health. If not, if they themselves look metaphysically suspect, then we still have some explaining to do.
If you look at the quotation from Scanlon above, you will notice that amongst the things to which the buck is passed is the property of beauty: that something is beautiful gives us reason hold a certain positive attitude towards it. Allowing beauty to be one of the properties to which the buck is passed raises two problems for Scanlon. First, beauty is a notoriously problematic notion, and it might turn out, to the detriment of our campaign for metaphysical cleanliness, that our account of what it is for an object to be beautiful is inherently valueladen. If that is so, the buck will not have been passed from something problematic (value) to something unproblematic (natural properties), it will have been passed from something problematic to something equally problematic. Second, try to bring to mind a painting that you find beautiful, or feast your eyes on a good reproduction of a painting you find beautiful.
It is, to borrow a phrase from Jerrold Levinson, a way that the painting appears – the beauty seems visually present to us (Levinson 2005). This is a problem; Scanlon’s account is that the value is not really there – instead, there are natural properties which bring with them reasons for our having a positive attitude toward them. However, beauty is (apparently) really there – we cannot make disappear by passing the buck.
This criticism of Scanlon has been made by Roger Crisp.
When I look at Piero della Francesca’s Madonna, I see it as a good or beautiful painting. I recognize that it has certain natural, non-evaluative properties, and that its beauty depends on its having those properties. And, of course, I see it as an artefact to be admired. But the reason for admiration lies not in the natural properties – these could be understood by someone with no aesthetic sense – but in the beauty. (Crisp 2005: 82)
Crisp’s point is that when we look at the painting we see it as beautiful; a value-laden property that is there in our experience. Hence, no buck has been passed – we are still stuck with a metaphysically problematic value. The fact that Scanlon listed ‘beauty’ amongst the properties to which the buck could be passed might suggest that he thinks an account could be given of this property that is not metaphysically problematic. However, he does not discuss beauty any further in his book, nor have I been able to find it in any of his other writings.
The digression I referred to above is that of coming up with a metaphysically respectable notion of beauty. Although you might – if you have found something to look at – seem to have a clear example of something beautiful, the concept is notoriously slippery. There are many distinctions we could make. For example, there is the distinction between the beautiful and the merely pretty. There is also the distinction between the beautiful in art, and the beautiful in nature (which some hold not to be properly beautiful at all). I shall not discuss these. However, I shall discuss the distinction that some make between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ concepts of beauty. Some people use the term ‘beautiful’ as a general term of aesthetic approbation. For them, all works of art that are good qua art are beautiful; that is, the term is taken to mean something like ‘has aesthetic merit’. In this sense of the word, works of art that are not in any simple sense visually delightful (such as Picasso’s
) are beautiful
(Mothersill 1986: 3). Others tie beauty more closely to visual delight: hence
is not beautiful, although the
certainly is. I refer to the former as the ‘thin’ concept of beauty because it does not carry much descriptive information as to what the object looks like, and the latter as the ‘thick’ concept because it tells us that the object is visually delightful.
The buck-passing account of value can cope quite well with the thin concept of beauty. There are reasons why an object has aesthetic merit; for example, one can say that
has merit because it forcefully asserts a proposition without being crassly didactic, there is perfect interaction between form and content, it is vividly expressive, and so on. In other words,
‘possessing aesthetic merit’ is not a value over and above all these other values; the buck can be passed downward. I shall leave, for the moment, the question of whether it is passed downward to exclusively natural properties.
The thick concept of beauty is more problematic. To say that on object is beautiful is not to say something else about it: it is to say that it (apparently) possesses a discernible, visual property of beauty. One option for the buck-passer is to deny that there is such a property; that there is only the thin concept of beauty. This appearance we have been talking about is not really beauty, but some other property like ‘luminosity’ or ‘visual delightfulness’ and then hope that such a property will pose fewer metaphysical problems than beauty. This seems a paltry evasion, however; the property is there before our eyes and will pose a problem whatever we choose to call it. (Having said that, it does seem to me good critical practice to be as specific as we can about the properties possessed by works of art – the claim that something is beautiful can often be better expressed in some other terms).
Is this problem for the buck-passing account also a problem for expressivism? Remember, there were two problems: the first whether the properties to which the buck was passed were
themselves metaphysically dubious, and the second that as the beauty of objects is there to be seen, we cannot make it disappear by passing the buck. The first is not a problem for the expressivist. Remember, for the expressivist our talk about value emerges out of our positive attitudes to various states of affairs in the world. Usually, those positive attitudes will be grounded in various properties of those states of affairs – as it says in one of the quotations above, ‘My attitudes ought to be formed from qualities I admire’. However, especially with simple states of affairs, we might not be able to find reasons: there are no qualities I admire that ground my positive attitude to sitting in the sun. At least, I do not feel any better informed about myself if I try to find them (we could always find them). I am content with the claim that I like (and I value) sitting in the sun. However, whether we can find reasons for our attitudes or not, all we have are states of affairs and attitudes. There is nothing in the account that corresponds to passing the buck from something metaphysically dubious to some things which are not, as there was nothing metaphysically dubious to start with.
The second problem should, however, give us pause. If there are only states of affairs and attitudes, and our value talk is talk that is consequent on our doubting and refining those attitudes, then what place is there for this apparently real property of beauty? What, then, is the relation between our attitudes to the world, and beauty?
We saw, in our discussion of Blackburn’s account of the relevant attitudes, that he links them to motivation. Here is another quotation, in which he reveals his conception of them as very dynamic:
We locate a person’s values in the light of a number of manifestations: what they say, what they do, what they regret in themselves, what they encourage in others, what they forbid or what they insist upon. (Blackburn 2000: 59)
Consonant with this, Blackburn locates aesthetic taste and judgement relatively low down his scale of emotional ascent. It lies ‘a little beyond’ the tastes of the palate (which, in most cases, are mere preferences) and, when it does become a worth matter for dispute, ‘blends seamlessly’ into moral judgement (Blackburn 2000: 10-12). This is part of Blackburn’s
Humean take on matters; it is not that he has a conception of aesthetics and a conception of morality, weighs them against each other and decides that the latter deserves to be higher up the scale of emotional ascent than the former. It is more the case that whatever is higher up the scale of emotional ascent simply is the content of morality. However, there is a substantial judgement here. Blackburn is happy to accept that fact that those activities that we associate with aesthetics (quiet contemplation of beautiful artefacts) are less likely to be those to which we have a relatively fixed attitude, those about which we will resist change, than those activities we characteristically associate with morality.
We can now see the outlines of the expressivist’s account of beauty. We have some attitudes that are not that firmly entrenched; more entrenched than mere gustatory attitudes, but not as entrenched as some other of our attitudes (that that get classed as moral). They are values, but they are not very deep values. Furthermore, as we saw in the last chapter, the expressivist need not deny some phenomenological upshot. We can be an expressivist about ethics and still admit that ‘someone may clearly just “see” a situation in value-laden terms’ (Blackburn
2000: 6). Analogously, we can claim that someone who has a positive attitude to an artefact (a
Bronzino painting) might ‘see’ it in value-laden terms: that is, see it as beautiful.
There are a number of aspects of this account that I do not think are adequate. First, there is more to be said about the characteristic attitude associated with aesthetics. It does not seem connected to motivation in the same way as does ethical evaluation; the first chapter of
Blackburn’s book is called ‘Organizing Practice: The Elements of Ethics’ and the first section called ‘A Practical Subject’. This stress or organizing and on practicality seems a while away from aesthetics. Second, the placing of aesthetics on a seamless continuum, somewhere above
taste but somewhere below the traditional concerns of morality does not seem right. There is a good question as to how aesthetic value relates to moral value, but this seems an overly simple way of construing it (although, having said that, simplicity is an appealing quality in philosophical theories and most (at least) would think the relative importance assigned to the two categories was correct). Finally, more needs to be said about beauty itself. Expressionists are (unsurprisingly) fond of quoting Hume:
Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in manner a new creation.
(Hume 1902: 294)
However, ‘gilding or staining’ is only a metaphor, and it would be good to be able to make more literal sense of the claims that are being made here.
Fortunately, I think we can do much to satisfy ourselves on these three points without repudiating the substance of the expressivist account. Indeed, in some (but not all) ways the account I am going to draw on merely spells out some of the links in the expressivist account.
It is natural to interpret Hume’s talk of ‘gilding or staining’ as a matter of our ‘projecting’ our mental state on the world, and, indeed (as we have seen) ‘projectivism’ is one of the names that Blackburn gives to his philosophical position. ‘Projection’ is also a term in psychoanalysis, which is where the account I from which I am going to borrow has its source.
However, I hope to borrow just enough to solve our problems, without committing ourselves to the truth of any large-scale controversial theory.
The account I am going to bring in here is that of Richard Wollheim. Wollheim starts by outlining the ‘simple form’ of projection which, he says, ‘is exemplified very clearly in the formation of paranoia’. Whether we agree with the mechanism that is being posited, I hope you can recognise the phenomenon.
A person, let us say, finds himself unable to tolerate his hostile impulses towards another: the feeling generates excessive anxiety in him: in consequence, as a defence against the anxiety, he imputes to the other the very feelings that he himself has. Momentarily, at any rate, the anxiety lifts. On the level of judgment, projection (in this form) can be represented by the speaker’s applying to someone or something else a predicate that he himself satisfies. When he projects his hostility on to someone else, he asserts that this person is hostile, which is just what he is himself. ‘I hate him’ becomes ‘He hates me’. (Wollheim
Wollheim then describes a different phenomenon, which he takes to be underpinned by the same mechanism.
Looking out over an estuary and the salt-marshes through which it winds its way to the sea and a broken tower on some high grounds, or looking at Constable’s
, which depicts a landscape with much this character, and in each case touched by melancholy, I respond by judging the scene itself to be melancholy – that is, metaphorically melancholy. (Wollheim 1986: 215)
In this case, I am ‘touched by melancholy’, and project this on to the world. Such projection,
Wollheim goes on to say, is ‘constrained by the look of the landscape’ in the case of nature, and, in the case of art, ‘the achievement…of the artist’.
Wollheim then moves on to describe a phenomenon similar to that of our projecting our emotions on to the world, but where we have no ready emotional vocabulary for describing the result. That is, in the case of the estuary and the broken tower, we projected our melancholy and described the result at ‘melancholy’. However, sometimes, as the result of projection, the world takes on a look for which we do not have an emotion term. I such cases we reach for a new vocabulary: ‘This is what the assignment of value is – projection of a complex form, which on the level of judgement is represented by the application of a new predicate introduced for this very purpose’ (Wollheim 1986: 215).
In summary, the claim I am making is this. There are phenomena (the case of the paranoid, and the case of the estuary and broken tower) in which the world seems to take on an aspect of human mental states: the person is perceived as hostile, and the landscape is perceived as melancholy. It is a stretch, but perhaps not that much of a stretch, to see the visual appearance of the beauty of objects as being an instance of the same sort of phenomenon: the bit of the world we are looking at takes on a certain appearance – an appearance of value. To describe this appearance we have to reach to a certain vocabulary: our value vocabulary (which, of course, will include terms such as ‘beautiful’).
The explanation on which I am insisting is comparatively weak. That is, I am using
Wollheim’s work to appeal to some familiar phenomena, and pointing out that our seeing objects in the world as beautiful share some characteristics with those phenomena. I am also offering, but not insisting, on a mechanism to explain all three phenomena: namely, the mechanism of expression as it is used in psychoanalysis. It may be that you are more willing to accept the reality of the phenomena than the proffered mechanism. It may even be that you doubt that the three phenomena described have the links that Wollheim claims; that is, you might be willing to admit that case of the landscape looking melancholy, but have doubts about the projection of hostility. Wollheim himself admits this – being more secure about the phenomena than about his particular explanation of it (Wollheim 2001: 255).
How does this help solve the three problems for expressivism? The third problem, to expand on what is meant by ‘projection’ so as to give an account of beauty has already been covered
(which was also the remaining problem for the ‘buck-passing’ account). What of the other two? The first was that our attitude to aesthetic value seems less bound up with action that our attitude to moral value. It is not part of expressivism that state of affairs that prompts us into positive or negative feelings take on a certain look: my moral disapproval of the kicking of dogs might, in the main, come down to my acting so as to prevent dogs being kicked.
However, if what it is for an object to be beautiful is for it to be such that my attitude results in it taking on a certain way of appearing for me, the link with action is less imperative.
Indeed, it taking on such a way of appearing might result in my will to action disappearing, replaced by my simply contemplating it. As Kant says, ‘we linger in our contemplation of the beautiful, because the contemplation reinforces and reproduces itself’ (Kant 1987: 222). Why should we do that? Why should we be so enraptured by the world reflecting back at us our own mental state? Expressivism (and the buck-passing account) at least sought to ground our interest in the world in things that we could plausibly find interesting. What is so interesting about the world as a reflection of ourselves?
However, when we think about it, several candidates present themselves. First, there is the mere fact that certain objects (particularly artefacts) can reflect complex conditions of the mind. As Wollheim says,
mere fit…between the inner and the outer is something to which in itself we are inclined to assign value: value, moreover, which we think of as related to significance or meaning. The inclination rests, I take it, upon the thought that fit humanizes nature, or that through fit we make ourselves at home within the world. (Wollheim 1979: 8)
This value is irrespective of whatever value we might place on the mental state itself.
However, that too will have value. Some projections onto the world might repel us. If projection can result is seeing the world as valuable, that is, beautiful, then it could also result in us seeing the world as ugly. Hence, the mere fact that we are able to contemplate these projections at all is valuable. Once again Wollheim has a neat way of putting matters: we expose our inner life to the light of day, ‘and it is no small matter…whether what is exposed can stand up to the test’ (Wollheim 1979: 9). Hence, there is on this refined expressivist view, much that can fill the place of an orientation to action with which the expressivist characterises our moral value.
The second issue with which I was not convinced about expressivist account was it placing aesthetic value on a continuum, somewhere above taste and somewhere below morality. This is because we had only one way into such values: whether we approved or disapproved of various bits of the world, and a continuum of importance (the emotional ascent) on which to place them. However, once we allow that the relation between the world and our attitudes can be of different sorts, there is the possibility of making different distinctions. Putting the matter in its simplest form (which is almost certainly too simple) we would have one set of attitudes that sprung from us having to cope with interacting with the world, and was closely connected to action, and another set of attitudes that sprung from us externalising our emotional attitudes and was not particularly connected to action. Thus different kinds of value could be distinguished in terms of their psychological histories (Wollheim 1986: 199-200). If we, rather too hastily, label the first set of values ‘moral’ and the second set ‘aesthetic’, this gives us an opportunity to compare them, and even ponder their relative importance.
We now have our account of value. Our talk of value is, at bottom, talk that emerges out of the human capacity to approve and disapprove, to find important or to not find important. In addition, some sense can be given to the claim that we find values in the world. We can take the ‘projectivist’ metaphor more seriously than expressivists usually take it, and add to our account that we do, indeed, project our mental states upon the world and then, when we look, that is where we find them. That too is something that we find important.
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