The Explanation of Aesthetic Phenomena

Draft of comments on 2009 APA Eastern Session on Art and Metaphysics
The Explanation of Aesthetic Phenomena
Comments on Nanay and Kraut
General Introduction
Despite the session's title, I don't think it's really metaphysics that connects these two
papers in philosophical aesthetics. To my mind, the most important recurring theme in
the contributions by Robert and Bence has to do with the robust case they both make
for explanatory role of philosophical theories in aesthetics. That is, both Robert and
Bence seem to see the job of the aesthetician as centrally concerned, not with
analyzing and/or reconfiguring our aesthetic concepts, but, rather, with the
explanation of aesthetic phenomena; in particular, artworld phenomena. In Robert's
case, there is explicit statement of a methodological principle as well as the
exploration of the consequences of that principle: ontological theorizing about art
"must be construed as an effort to provide adequate explanation of customary
artworld practices" and some (perhaps many) extant theories of the ontology of art fail
to meet this demand. Bence takes his task to be explaining (ultimately largely in
psychological terms rather than metaphysical terms) the appeal of uniqueness claims
among critics, philosophers and perhaps artists.
Both papers then happily exemplify what in an earlier paper Jonathan
Weinberg and I characterized as a shift in aesthetic methodology "from the traditional
paradox-and-analysis model to a more empirically-oriented phenomena-andexplanation model." So although I have some questions and complaints about some of
what is said in the papers (what did you expect?), I am sympathetic with the general
strategy they exemplify. Let me first say a bit about Bence's essay; after that, I'll
address Robert's.
Comments on Bence Nanay "Uniqueness"
Bence’s paper begins with a question: “[I]n what sense is uniqueness an important
feature of the aesthetic domain?” His ingenious answer is that uniqueness in an
interesting sense is neither an ontological feature of artworks (i.e., it is not that they
are unrepeatable nor that they fail to be intersubstitutable) nor a characteristic of the
epistemology of artwork evaluation (i.e., it is not that aesthetic judgment cannot be
based on aesthetic principles). Rather, uniqueness is broadly psychological matter—it
is significant in the aesthetic domain because aesthetic appraisal involves selfconscious attribution of unique properties (i.e., abstract particulars or tropes).
Obviously such a view involves serious commitments—to the existence of tropes, to
the capacity of all aesthetic appraisers to self-consciously attribute them as tropes.
And even if we grant these assumptions to Bence, there are serious questions to be
asked about whether treating aesthetic appraisal in this way would (1) really explain
the uniqueness intuition, and (2) accord with reasonable views of the aesthetic. But
before I address his proposal let us consider two answers to his initial question that
Bence does not seriously consider.
(1) The first answer goes like this: “In no sense. For uniqueness is not an important
feature of the aesthetic domain.” What evidence, after all, is offered that uniqueness is
important? Bence mentions philosophical discussion that explicitly discusses the
uniqueness of art (e.g., McDonald, Hampshire) although it must be admitted that
some of that discussion is sceptical (e.g., see Mothersill). He mentions Sibleyan
particularism but argues that the question of aesthetic principles is orthogonal to the
question of uniqueness. (It is true, however, that Sibley himself connected
particularism and uniqueness: “the features which make something delicate or
graceful and so on, are combined in a peculiar and unique way... [T]he aesthetic
quality depends upon exactly this individual or unique combination of just these
specific colors and shapes.”) He offers a quote from Robert Musil that seems to
vacuously assert the uniqueness of every token experience of an artwork. And he
suggests that there has been a "recurrence of the experience that there is something
unique in our interaction with artworks"(8). Note that Bence does not point to
anything beyond phenomenology and the claims of various philosophers and critics.
So it is not clear what role or roles uniqueness plays in the aesthetic sphere. What
artistic or aesthetic phenomena (other than those mentioned already) look to require
explanation in terms of uniqueness?
I confess that I do not have the recurring experience that there is something unique in
my interaction with artworks (at least nothing unique that is not present in my
interaction with non-artworks), but I suppose my appreciation of art may be debased
or I may simply lack self-knowledge. (Given my extremely high valuation of Lady
GaGa, the first option looks extremely plausible.) Can more be said in favour of the
view that uniqueness is aesthetically important? I suppose if there really were a
longstanding tradition in which uniqueness were seen as important to the arts that
might give us some (very defeasible) reason to think that uniqueness is a significant
feature of art. And in her sceptical discussion of uniqueness, Mary Mothersill tells us
that the claim that every work of art is unique “was a commonplace by the middle of
the eighteenth century, was reaffirmed by the Romantic critics and appears verbatim
in the pages of Dewey, Santayana, Croce, Prall, and countless literary critics” (422).
But I am not so sure about this. In fact, I am quite suspicious of the assertion that the
uniqueness claim was a commonplace by the middle of the eighteenth century. It was
certainly not a commonplace in the eighteenth century British tradition in aesthetics.
Ruth Lorand seems to argue that Kant's theory of judgements of free beauty involves
a commitment to the uniqueness of the object of judgment (Lorand 1989, 39), but
singularity is not uniqueness, and it is the singular nature of judgments of taste for
which Kant argues. ("In their logical quantity all judgments of taste are singular
judgments" (CJ8). See also Lord (1991).) Moreover, we have been given little reason
to think that uniqueness does much work in explaining (as Robert Kraut puts it in his
paper) “customary artworld practice.” So it is at least an open possibility that the
belief that uniqueness is important to our experience of art is simply a mistaken view
common to one particular era.
If this were right, what would we need to explain? What data we need to make sense
of? We would not need to explain the significance of uniqueness in the aesthetic
domain. Rather, what looks to call for explanation is that at least in some periods
(under some historical/art-historical conditions) the claim that works of art are unique
in some significant way has been widely accepted among critics and theorists of the
arts. Of course we might also want to explain why at other times uniqueness has not
been treated as an especially important aspect of the aesthetic domain (e.g., there are
no entries for ‘unique’ or ‘uniqueness’ in the second editions of The Routledge
Companion to Aesthetics and Blackwell’s A Companion to Aesthetics, and there are
only two citations—to very brief passages—in the index of The Oxford Handbook of
There are, of course, tempting cultural and social explanations for the appeal of the
uniqueness view, especially in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the
twentieth century. The rise of mass-produced artefacts in the nineteenth century
plausibly generated a felt need--among those invested in the production and
consumption of art--for a way of distinguishing the work of skilled artists from that
produced by the factory. Perhaps very straightforward economic concerns underwrote
this felt need. And it is certainly understandable why someone concerned to
distinguish art from mass-produced artefacts might think that uniqueness of some sort
or other is the key to doing so.
In short, I am tempted by the view that uniqueness is simply not a significant feature
of the aesthetic domain. And I think Bence is too quick to assume that it is and that
we need to explain uniqueness rather than the fact that uniqueness has—at certain
times and under certain historical and art-historical conditions—seemed important to
some people involved in/with the arts.
(2) On the other hand, it is surely true that the uniqueness claim has been something
of a commonplace for a while.
Here's Oscar Wilde from “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:
A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes
from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that
other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice
of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an
artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest
tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.
And here's Francis Ford Coppola in an interview with Time Magazine:
The movie industry is interested in films that can have sequels--"tent poles," they
call them. But theoretically, every work of art is unique. My generation wanted to
make personal films. A Fellini film was a Fellini film, and no one else could have
made it. In wine, we call it terroir--wine speaks of the earth it comes from.
Perhaps the recurrence of the claim that there is something unique in our interaction
with artworks is best explained by positing uniqueness of some sort or other as a
significant feature of the aesthetic domain. If so, we are off and running. But of course
we can’t be so sure how central and significant aesthetic uniqueness is even if it is a
real phenomenon. So, for example, even if uniqueness is significant feature of the
aesthetic domain it might not be an essential feature of the aesthetic domain. After all,
the claim that every work of art is representational was also a commonplace earlier in
our history as was the claim that there was an essential connection between art and
beauty. Perhaps—like the connection between art and representation (as well as
between art and beauty)—the connection between uniqueness and the aesthetic
domain is a contingent one, and the commonplace stems from a mistaken reification
of this contingent connection.
Bence’s argument for his view seems to proceed by means of process of elimination
(i.e., roughly disjunctive syllogism). Uniqueness in the aesthetic realm is either a
matter of ontology (i.e., it is about the unrepeatability of artworks) or epistemology
broadly speaking (i.e., it is about the non-existence of aesthetic principles) or it is
psychological (i.e., it is about the mental mechanisms and processes involved in
aesthetic attribution.). Arguments are offered against the ontological and epistemic
readings leaving the psychological reading the only option available.
But arguments by elimination only work if all the relevant possibilities have been
enumerated. Has Bence considered all the plausible accounts of uniqueness in the
aesthetic sphere? I don’t think so. Here are two alternative accounts (there are
others—see, e.g.,. Levinson (1980)):
(A) Works of art are unique insofar the value of works is unique and irreplaceable. “A
second motivation for saying that artworks are valued for their own sake is the idea
that the value they provide is unique and irreplaceable” (Stecker “Value in Art” in
Levinson (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, 309). Now it strikes me that this
notion of uniqueness (i.e., uniqueness as—or as underwriting— irreplaceability) is
fairly common (though far from dominant) in the contemporary literature. I was
surprised that Bence did not address it. Perhaps it is best understood as a version of
the ontological uniqueness claim (which, after all, is sometimes sketched in terms of
substitutability) but I would need help on this. Bence considers the view that what is
unique (in the case of multiple works of art) is the type or set, but suggests that “[i]t is
not at all clear how we could make sense of the original claims and arguments about
the uniqueness of works of art if we take works of art to be types (or set)” [3]. But I
don’t see anything incoherent in the idea that a type or set is irreplaceable. So this
looks to me to be at least an option worth considering for those fans of uniqueness.
(B) Works of art are unique insofar as they (typically) exhibit highly distinctive or
very unusual clusters of features. (Here’s a relevant definition from The MerriamWebster Dictionary “unique adj….2: very unusual: NOTABLE.”)
Myself, I’m somewhat partial to a version of this second (rather deflationary) reading
of uniqueness claims about art. (I admit I'm also partial to the legitimacy of a gradable
usage of 'unique' so you may think my judgment on this matter deeply compromised.)
Although it is implausible that that every work of art exhibits a very unusual or
notable cluster of features since some bad art is simply generic, and (considering the
vast number of artworks that are in existence) implausible that artworks even typically
exhibit this, it strikes me as entirely reasonable to think that good artworks typically
exhibit notable clusters of properties. If so, the generic “Good artworks are unique” is
plausibly true. And this deflationary notion of uniqueness does seem to play an
important role in artworld practices—it is plausible that artists standardly aim to
imbue their products with highly distinctive or very unusual clusters of features, it is
plausible that a central aim of criticism is to describe and explain those highly
distinctive or unusual clusters of features, etc.
So this is a version of the second answer to Bence’s question which goes something
like this: “Uniqueness – in a rather deflationary sense— is somewhat important in the
aesthetic sphere. But its importance should not be overstated and the kind of
uniqueness at issue is, well, not that unique.”
(3) What about Bence’s actual proposal? Here are a few thoughts about it.
Bence suggests that aesthetic appraisal consists of the attribution of tropes. More
carefully, he suggests that aesthetic appraisal consists of the conscious attribution of
tropes. Clearly he means this to be a necessary condition. I'd like to hear a bit more
about why he thinks this is a necessary condition. What about the attribution of
aesthetic property types? As Bence points out, the question of which properties are
aesthetic is a thorny one, but I take it that most of us would agree that the property of
being beautiful falls into that category. So what about the attribution of the property
of being beautiful (i.e., the repeatable property--not the trope) to an object? Why does
that not count as aesthetic appraisal? I wonder if Bence has in mind the distinction
(invoked by Alan Tormey and more recently by Dominic Lopes) between aesthetic
belief and aesthetic judgment, where the key difference between those two mental acts
is that the former but not the latter may admit of testimony (i.e., testimony may
underwrite warranted aesthetic belief but not aesthetic judgment). If this is Bence
what has in mind, I'd like to hear about it and (in particular) whether he thinks that his
account of aesthetic appraisal can explain the putative failures of aesthetic testimony.
I think it would explain that if we add the suggestion made in the final section that
aesthetic attribution is a perceptual process--that, as Bence puts it, "when we are
engaging in aesthetic appraisal, we must [be] in a perceptual (or at least quasiperceptual) state". For surely mere testimony cannot put us in the requisite
perceptual/quasi-perceptual state. But although such a view has its attractions, I am
concerned that it would not allow for non-perceptual aesthetic appraisal of literature,
conceptual art, proofs, theories, etc. Recognizing this, Bence suggests that his view
might be "restricted to perceptual instances of aesthetic evaluations", but then it seems
he wouldn't be able to offer a general story about the failure of aesthetic testimony
(i.e., in both perceptual and non-perceptual cases).
The ‘consists’ talk Bence used in initially sketching his position suggested to me that
he might mean to be proposing a sufficient condition too. And there's the final line of
the essay I received: “Although perception is always the perception of tropes, we are
rarely aware of this and these rare moments of awareness are exactly those moments
when we are engaged in aesthetic appraisal.” But Bence has told me he does not
believe that the self-conscious attribution of tropes is sufficient for aesthetic appraisal,
and this is for the best since such a view (although it would have its attractions--as a
way of refuting autonomism in particular) is implausible.
This leads to me a question about whether Bence's proposal really does what it sets
out to do. Bence aims to explain the distinctive role uniqueness plays in the aesthetic
domain. His trope-attribution story purports to do this. But note that he is tempted by
the view that perception always involves the attribution of tropes. And then
uniqueness might not seem to play a distinctive role in the aesthetic domain. As he
puts it: "if the attribution of tropes is such a widespread phenomenon, then wouldn't
we lose sight of why uniqueness is so important in aesthetics, as opposed to other
domains of life?" Bence's reply to this is that it is only the awareness of propertyinstance uniqueness that distinguishes aesthetic appreciation from all other forms of
perception. But it turns out that even this awareness is not enough to distinguish
aesthetic assessment from other mental/perceptual states since self-conscious trope
attribution is not sufficient for aesthetic assessment. That is, there are instances in
which we are aware that we are perceiving tropes that are not cases of aesthetic
assessment. Has then the account really provided us an explanation of the allegedly
distinctive role uniqueness plays in the aesthetic sphere?
Comments on Robert Kraut "What is Artworld Ontology?"
As mentioned above, Robert's paper largely focuses on the relation between artworld
explanation (i.e., explanations in that part of the aesthetic domain that is art-related)
and the ontology of art. He sketches a range of ways in which explanation may be of
aesthetic interest, sketches some sorts of explanation that might be relevant in the
artworld case, argues that the ontology of art must be seen as in the business of
explaining (and/or) justifying or legitimizing artworld practices, and then (and I
initially assumed this to be his central point) argues that much extant theorizing about
the ontology art fails to live up to these explanatory/justificatory demands. But then in
section three he articulates what he says is "the central point" he wants "to raise about
artwork ontology"(17). The point seems to be that ontological questions about works
of art (in particular questions about what is and is not essential to works of art) are
only answerable in a "discursive context" and with "additional background
assumptions". The invocation of Davidson and Quine, I take it, is supposed to point to
what Robert refers to as the "context-relativity" of our modal intuitions and
essentiality claims. If I follow him, Robert is here invoking a traditional complaint
against essentialism and de re modality and pointing to the relevance of that
complaint to theorizing about the ontology of art. Nothing special about art or its
ontology is going on. But more on this issue below. A few questions about some other
parts of the paper first.
(1) In the first part of his paper, Robert argues that the enterprise of ontology of art
"must be construed as an effort to provide adequate explanation of customary
artworld practices--creation, interpretation, evaluation, and commodification--by
adverting to the sorts of things artworks are: their ontological status explains why they
are, or ought to be treated, in one way rather than another" (2). Now later on in the
paper he tells us that "a theory might be invoked not to explain, but to justify or
legitimize some aspect of our practice"(10, italics mine)--and he goes on to endorse
this as a legitimate and important aim of philosophical theorizing--so I confess I don't
fully understand the force of the "must" in that earlier statement. Be that as it may, I
have a few questions about the methodological proposal.
How does this claim about the explanatory role of the ontology of art relate to the
now-standard invocation of what David Davies calls 'the pragmatic constraint' on the
ontology of art?
Artworks must be entities that can bear the sorts of properties rightly ascribed
to what are termed "works" in our reflective critical and appreciative practice;
that are individuated in the way such "works" are or would be individuated,
and that have the modal properties that re are reasonably ascribed to "works,"
in that practice. (Davies 2004, 18).
The pragmatic constraint is central to contemporary ontological theorizing about art.
I'd like to ask Robert to clarify whether and to what extent his claim about the
enterprise of ontology of art should be understood as a version of (or opposed to) the
pragmatic constraint. Here are two related questions.
Davies considers objections to the pragmatic constraint based on (1) the apparent
diversity and inconsistency of artworld practices, and (2) the possibility that features
of our practices may be misguided or mistaken. In response, he argues that rather than
the norms that govern actual artworld practices, the ontology of art is accountable to
"those norms governing that practice that would survive 'rational reflection'" (ibid,
20). On the other hand, Robert talks about "customary artworld practices". So does he
think that actual practices are what need to be explained/justified? Or, like Davies,
does he think that we should look at practices that would survive rational reflection?
If the former, what does he think about the diversity of practices and the possibility of
mistaken or misguided practices?
Here's another question. To what extent does Robert think that the job of explaining
and/or justifying artworld practices exhausts the constraints on the ontology of art? He
doesn't mention anything other than the explanation of customary artworld practices
as a constraint on art ontology. But what about art-related phenomena that we find
outside of what would be typically taken to be artworld practices? I have in mind, in
particular, the outcome of scientific theorizing about the arts (e.g., data about the
cognitive processing of art). Are artworld ontologies properly construed as an effort to
explain those phenomena too? I would think the answer is 'yes', but I'd like to hear
what others (Robert in particular) think. (See Stecker's recent JAAC article for a
similar point.) Second, how isolated does he take artworld ontology to be from the
rest of ontology? Sometimes the picture (I admit this is more clear in other recent
work on the ontology of art) seems to be that the ontology of art must be ONLY
answerable to artworld practices. But that, I think, would be a crazy way to do
ontology. Surely what we want is our entire ontology to do its job explaining, well,
everything that needs explaining. But there's no need that the ontology of art should
have to do all the work in explaining our artworld practices. (If Bence is right, for
example, the ontology of art does not explain the significance of uniqueness in the
artworld; rather, it is psychological facts that do the work. Although I am suspicious
of the particular explanation Bence offers, the form of it is surely acceptable.) There
should be room, after all, for eliminativism or fictionalism about artworks. I guess I
think Robert would be ok with this, but I'd like to hear a bit more from him about
what other than artworld practices provide constraint on ontologies of art.
(2) Following up on the point about scientific theorizing about the arts--Robert
suggests (and he is surely right) that much artworld explanation will be psychological
in nature. He focuses on the artwork and its production to make this point. I would
emphasize that much that needs to be explained about artwork reception can surely
only be done in psychological terms too. But at times Robert seems to suggest that
artworld phenomena may not admit of scientific explanations. He writes: "If artworld
interpretive questions are indeed questions about human actions, interpretive
explanations in the arts might not, after all, conform to customary models of
explanation in the sciences." But I don't think this is a serious worry. Psychology and
cognitive science are, well, sciences. Artistic explanation (particularly if we focus on
issues of artwork reception) does not (pace Robert) seem typically directed to singular
states of affairs. We want to know why people respond emotionally to fictions, why
they experience music as expressive, how culture and training influences aesthetic
preference, what explains the troubles with aesthetic testimony, what psychological
processes underlie creativity, and so on. These are general phenomena, and they look
like they are well-suited for scientific (psychological) explanation. Or if science
cannot fully explain the phenomenon, it surely looks like it can help.
(3) Robert complains that Goodman's description of the autographic/allographic
distinction will not satisfy Walter who wants to know whether his attitude towards art
reproductions is warranted. "The most he can get from Goodman is solace in the
thought that he's going with the communal flow. Walter wants more: he wants to go
with the object himself." It is tempting to say here that Walter may want precisely
something that it is not possible to have, but rather than going down that route, let me
just remind Robert and the audience that the mere distinction between the autographic
and allographic is not all that Goodman provides. After all, Goodman goes on to give
an account (an explanation of a sort) of the autographic/allographic distinction in
terms of whether a given artform allows for a notation, where that notation must be
broadly consistent with previous practice, the history of the artform, and classification
of works of that kind. In short, I think it is a bit misleading to say that the
Goodmanian story is simply one about communal flow.
(4) What about Robert's central point about artwork ontology? The point, remember,
has to do with the context-relativity of modal and essentiality claims about artworks.
The thought, I take it, is that our modal intuitions and, in fact, the truth conditions of
our modal claims about artworks may vary depending on background assumptions
and relevant interests (i.e., they are sensitive to context). And as goes modality so
goes essentiality. I take it two things follow according to Robert: (1) we ought to be
skeptical of ontological claims that are driven by such intuitions and considerations,
and (2) we need to make clear what background assumptions are in play when we
engage in ontological theorizing about the arts.
Robert gestures at very general arguments by Davidson and Quine to make the case
for this. But here's how the worry applies to ontological theorizing about artworks.
Much ontological theorizing about art, after all, has rested on appeal to various modal
intuitions. Could a given musical work have been composed by a different person?
Could it have been composed at a different time or in a different musical context?
Could it have differed structurally (i.e., could one or more notes have differed, could
instrumentation have varied)? Is it possible for two identical literary texts to embody
distinct literary works? Is it possible for one and the same work to be embodied in two
texts that differ by one or more words? And so on. And theories of musical works
and/or literary works are designed to accord with these intuitions.
I take it the problem that Robert is pointing to is that our relevant modal judgments
may vary depending on context and background assumptions. If we focus on some
properties of the musical work (or if some set of those properties are salient in a
context) then it might not seem possible that it could be composed by anyone other
than its actual composer. But if we focus on other properties, then it might seem
possible that it could be composed by someone different. The former intuition will
lead us to very different conclusions about what the musical work is and what is
essential to it than the latter.
What to do? Well, I agree with Robert that we should be skeptical of theories in the
ontology of art that take as their sole (or dominant) evidence various modal intuitions
about artworks. Such intuitions are, pretty plausibly, interpersonally and
intrapersonally unstable. But the instability of such intuitions is not enough to make
us give up a traditional essentialist project since the context-sensitivity or relativity at
issue is, in the first instance, a semantic or representational phenomenon from which
metaphysical conclusions can be drawn only with care. And we do have data other
than those modal intuitions to go by (actual, past and reflective practice, scientific
theorizing, the rest of ontology, etc). In short, Robert has pointed to a serious issue
here, but I do not think it is one that forces us to through the ontological baby out with
the bathwater. On the other hand, he is right that the ontology of art might do with a
bit more meta-ontological reflection.
Related flashcards
Indian philosophy

13 Cards

Karl Marx

18 Cards


33 Cards

Create flashcards