My ph. D. thesis (a "short" summary):
It is said to be useless to dispute over the question of "taste", but nevertheless there is a lot of argument concerning contrary aesthetic evaluations and the participants usually claim a lot of objectivity for their special point of view. The aim of my thesis is to investigate how it is possible to justify such judgements and which level of objectivity can be reached - for example in comparison to everyday judgements and scientific theories.
During the following explanations aesthetic judgement means such statements that describe the content of an aesthetic experience. It is useful to discriminate between (A) descriptive and (B) valuative on the one hand and (1) spontaneous and (2) reflected judgements on the other. My investigation focusses on the aesthetic judgements in the sense of (B2), meaning those which are valuative and reflected. I define them as judgements that valuate an object of perception for its own sake, in regard to the (aesthetic) pleasure it provides. "Object of perception" is meant here in the widest sense of the word, covering physical objects as well as sunsets, beings, situations and units of experience with no regard as to whether they came to mind through the eyes, the ears, the tongue or the sense of touch. And "for its own sake" means to refrain from all external uses the object could be good for. Kant called this "interesseloses Wohlgefallen" in the sense of a pleasure that derives only from the object itself and not from any other purpose the judging person has in mind.
Other aesthetic judgements than the afore mentioned are treated only insofar as they are relevant for the latter ones.
(1) Reflected aesthetic valuations are about aesthetic objects and the way they are experienced. Aesthetic objects, especially artworks are not autonomous but relational. Like every other object of perception, they are the perceiver's mental constructions. But unlike other objects the recipient''s very subjective way of perception is constitutive for them. Therefore the recipient's interpretation is a necessary part of them.
(2) Aesthetic judgement is based on this interpretation and on the judging person's preferences. Therefore they are per se subjective and hypothetic. But they are not arbitrary or unproblematic like, for example, statements about the speaker's own mental states. There are several limits raised by the perceived object for an aesthetic interpretation, its relations in time and space and the subject's knowledge. If an interpretation goes beyond these limits it can not be plausible and neither can the valuation that is based on it.
(3) According to the perceiver's experiences every object is perceived as expressive. It is preconsciously judged as more or less relevant by the emotional system. Emotions can consequently be regarded as the pre-conscious foundation of every aesthetic phenomenon. This point of view offers an insight to the area of aesthetics which is adequate for both the arts and the aesthetic experiences of every day life.
(4) The justification of an aesthetic valuation does not prove its objective truth, which is binding for every subject, but justifies its adequacy on the basis described above - the recipient's (plausible) interpretation and his preferences. What criterion are useful for a special aesthetic valuation depends on the judging subject and the judged object and can not be fixed a priori in a finite catalogue of aesthetic criteria.
(5) Despite these limitations reflecting aesthetic valuations can be proved as true or false in principle and can be justified in a deductive way. The major difference between aesthetic and scientific judgements is another: Aesthetic truth is not objective in the sense of inter-subjective provability, but is always related to the judging subject. It is, for example, impossible to define a standard observer, as is usual in the sciences, especially the natural sciences. Aesthetic valuations can only become objective in a very limited way on the basis of commonly shared abilities (qua evolution or enculturation) and by making the subjective assumptions and preferences public.
In short I consider the following arguments necessary to justify my theses.
ad 1 - First of all I would like to define
the term "cognition" which is very popular nowadays and used with
differing meanings. J. Ritter defines cognition in the "Woerterbuch der
Philosophie" (Basel 1971) as the collective term for all operations which
"... Orientierung des Organismus in seiner Umgebung als der hauptsächlichen Grundlage für angepaßtes Verhalten ..."
I will use this definition in this paper too. Every perception in everyday life contains an pre-conscious, but active processe of interpretation and construction. To perceive is no passive representation of a given real world object, but a complex activity which every human being has to learn in their childhood. In perception, cognitive and emotional processes work hand in hand with the senses to enable the percipient to orient himself in his environment. The consequence of this insight is that no perceived object is neutral, but always already expressive and meaningful if it comes to our mind.
For becoming aesthetic a perceived object must be experienced aesthetically. "Aesthetic experience" is the major term for my investigation and to clarify its meaning is a central task for it will be used to define the term "aesthetic" in general. Aesthetic experience is characterized on the one hand by its lack of any functional perspective. It is procedural, based on the conscious experience of those qualities of expression and meaning that stay unconscious in everyday perception. On the other hand it is crucial for aesthetic experience to strictly ignore everything but the object itself. That means that the aesthetic experience is focussed on the object and not on any other possible use or purpose. Experiencing something aesthetically is at the same time tied to the recipient's interpretation - it may be conscious or pre-conscious - and his or her knowledge, expectations, preferences and experiences. Therefore no object can be aesthetic for its own sake, that means without a subject experiencing it in an adequate manner. At the same time really every perceived object can be experienced aesthetically and consequently constitute an aesthetic object, a point that seems to be trivial if one looks at the arts or the changes in fashion in this century. Most important is the role the recipient's interpretation plays - without it no object is an aesthetic object or an artwork. It is the reason why those entities are much more construed by the subject and thus related to the special individual than "usual" objects are.
ad 2 - If you look closer at the term "interpretation" then it becomes obvious that it denotes several quite different things. Every act of perception is partly an interpretation. Pre-consciously the subject that sees an object interprets the raw-data of the senses using his experiences, expectations, wishes and so on. This kind of interpretation I will call the subject's "way of perception". Another form is the very conscious interpretation of an artwork like that an art historian would use. In the German version of this text I called this the "Auslegung" and failing an adequate english word I will use it here too. Every Auslegung is based on a certain way of perception and at the same time the Auslegung is able to change the way an aesthetic object is perceived. Both kinds of interpretation are not at all arbitrary. They are limited by the relations of the aesthetic object in time and space. To clarify these relations it is useful to discriminate between the internal and external structure of a given aesthetic object. The first is the perceived object itself, hypothetically constructed by the pre-conscious processes in the senses and the brain. The second consists of the spatial and temporal relations of the objects, like its origin, the things it symbolizes, the artistic conception on which it is maybe based (if it is an artwork) and many more. To (re-)construct the external structure of a given aesthetic object is the task of the Auslegung. This discrimination is not really sharp and exact; it is much more a question of more or less. The object of perception is already a construction, it is based on a certain way of perceiving. The latter itself is influenced by the perceiver's Auslegung. Both forms of interpretation are not independent of each other and nor are the internal and external structure of the aesthetic object.
Aesthetic judgements are statements about the content and the process of aesthetic experiences. The deal with aesthetic qualities like forms, colours, composition, sounds, meanings and contents. The reflected aesthetic valuations this paper is focussed on are judgements about what degree of aesthetic "pleasure" an aesthetic object produces. "Pleasure" does not mean in this context something like a pure hedonistic form of joy, but is meant in the widest sense of the word as a positively valued experience. It has not necessarily anything to do with formal beauty, nice and sweet things or the happy end of a movie. If you value an aesthetic object, you judge how aesthetically suitable it is, as for example, concentrating on perceiving the object for its own sake. It is worth while not only if it provides pleasure in the sense of joy of beauty but also if regarding the object may cause new experiences and insights or change your preferences. There can be no doubt that often aesthetic objects must also serve external uses, as in architecture where this is absolutely necessary. But I value a house, for example, not aesthetically, if I check how good it is insulated and if its roof is weatherproofed. On the contrary it is an aesthetic criterion to look how comfortable the house is and that it offers the feeling of being sheltered. The latter depends on the first; a house where the rain can drip into the living room and is draughty will never be a comforting experience. But the quality of heat conductance and waterproofing can be measured, the feeling of of comfort and being sheltered cannot, because it depends on preferences, the prejudices of what I have learned to call comfortable. Shall the rooms be high and white or better smaller and coloured, the windows big or small, the furniture made of dark wood or glass and chrome? Aesthetic valuation therefore is always tied to the judging subject and their interpretation of the object or situation.
ad 3 - Aesthetic valuations are based essentially upon the recipient's interpretation. Following the definition of cognition given above, interpreting an object or a situation is a cognitive act, even if it is only at the pre-conscious level of a certain way of perception. If I get the impression that a room is comfortable this judgement is already an insight - and it can be wrong too, that means, it is possible to fail and, therefore, aesthetic valuations are not unproblematic in the way that statements about one's own mental states are. We are orientated essentially on such aesthetic realizations in our daily life. They are based upon the quality of expression and meaningfulness that every perceived object possesses if it comes to mind (see ad.1) They are necessary for us so that we are able to orientate fast enough in the world in which we are living in. In this context the functional role of emotions is important; the emotional centre in our brain is the organ that values every action and perception - mostly preconsciously. A. Damasio formulated a theory of somatic markers based on this function of emotions. The emotional areas in our brain (the limbic system and others) are regarded neurophysiologically as being closely tied with the "higher" centres of the neocortex - and they are functionally primary. Every event, every new experience is valued with regard to its relevance for the survival of the organism. This valuation itself is based on the subject's knowledge, experiences and expectations. That is exactly why every object we perceive is always meaningful to us. This leads to highly complex bodily states, which Damasio called "somatic markers". People with brain damage in the corresponding areas have enormous problems reacting and deciding fast enough and in an adequate enough way, especially in socially relevant situations. Some of them are even completely unable to learn from experience - they lack "the strange feeling in their stomach" before a potentially dangerous decision. Aesthetic experiences are founded upon those somatic markers. An experience becomes an aesthetic one if these expressive and meaningful qualities are brought to mind. Consequently, in my ph. D. thesis I discuss in detail the different kinds of mental representation, especially nonverbal, and also the functional roles of association, analogies and metaphors for understanding the world. Above all the results of the cognitive sciences are important here.
ad 4 - The adequacy of a criterion for valuing an aesthetic object in a reasonable way depends on my preferences as well as on my interpretation (that means the way of perceiving and the Auslegung) of the object. The question of how far the interpretation is plausible again depends on the underlying object and its temporal and spatial relations. Therefore the object itself and my knowledge both determine the adequacy of the used criterion for the justification of an aesthetic valuation. Several empirical investigations of Jungkunz (Braunschweig) prove this theoretical insight to be true. But without this support it seems to be quite odd if somebody values a painting only by judging the objects that are represented or condemns a story because of the typing errors. Even whether something is a piece of art at all, and, if it is, to which genre it belongs is not obvious at all in our time. An Auslegung is often needed to decide the question if the work is a graphic, a sculpture, a musical score, an environment or a painting and consequently the answer depends not least on the recipient's knowledge and their way of perceiving the given object. Even his preferences and his bodily states might change his Auslegung (see ad 3). But interpretation is also essential for our "usual" aesthetic experience in everyday life. D. Ronte and H. Bonne show this in detail in the example of a simple crucifix made of brass. It has hardly any material value and is not an excellent piece of craftsmanship but for some people it is very valuable and beautiful because it is an old heirloom - as long as it is not unmasked as a falsification.
Empirically the justifications of aesthetic valuations are based on reasons in the sense of indications that justify the adequacy of the judgement. Such a justification is successful if the addressee is afterwards convinced that the valuation is evident. This changes his way of perceiving the object. Nevertheless such aesthetic argumentation is not only an instruction to a better perception as many authors believe (among them even Wittgenstein). It can also refer to the speaker's preferences or to elements that belong to the external structure of the object, as its temporal and spatial relations.
This might probably be the reason why many attempts have failed to tie aesthetic and especially artistic qualities to limited criteria. This is a problematic point for any philosophy of art and the fixing of its area of scope by defining what is meant by the term "art" and what objects it denotes. On the one hand introducing an object as an artwork (or "only" an aesthetic object) is not only an act of classification but also, at least implicitely, a valuation - "artwork" is a kind of honorary title. Overlooking this is the major mistake of many agents of the analytical philosophy of art. On the other hand the term "art" (and "aesthetic object" in general) has no fixed field of denotation - at least not in the same way as natural terms. Every true artwork is at least partially an attempt of demarcation against already existing artwork. Even as "anti-art" intended objects like Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades" have been integrated into the history of art as artworks - it took decades at the beginning of the century but nowadays it is accomplished almost immediately. Both qualities have the necessary consequence that every a priori definition of art must fail. Either they lead to a theory that is too permissive, according to which anything at all is already an artwork (see for example that of Morris Weitz) or the resulting theory is much too narrow because it is based on a definition that implicitely declares the author's preferences for objective (as it is the case with Franz von Kutschera's theory, which denies any abstract painting or sculpture to be an artwork).
ad 5 - In my thesis I show that aesthetic valuations can be true or false in a deductive sense. On the basis of Tarski's definition of truth as a correspondence between facts and sentences and by using the formal methods of intentional semantics it is technically possible to define something like "aesthetic truth". Consequently aesthetic valuations can be deductively proved to be true or false. Remembering what was said about perception, as the subject's construction, this sounds odd - but, only if you think of truth as objective per se. It can be shown that the truth of aesthetic judgements, as is possible to define in the above way, is essentially bound to the judging subject.
In the preceding paragraph (ad 4) I showed that aesthetic valuations are necessarily tied to the valuing subject. Now we see that they can nevertheless be true. And this fact is not an extraordinary quality but is also valid for judgements in the natural sciences as the relativistic theories of the philosophy of science proves. There is nevertheless a difference: For aesthetic valuations there can be no standardized conditions and no normal observer as they exit in the sciences. The line between the relevant facts and those that can be neglected can not be drawn as precisely in the field of aesthetic phenomena as in the sciences, or even in everyday life. The reasons for this are the different ways of experiencing in the different areas. Franz von Kutschera discriminates in a very useful way between "Beobachten" and "Erleben" (English: Observing and experiencing). The first is methodical and factual - emotions are only accompaniments whereas they have a constitutional function for the latter. "Erleben" is based on the somatic markers (as explained in the paragraph ad 3) and is always tied to the experiencing subject; objects are consciously perceived as meaningful. Consequently Beobachten is an abstraction which tends to be objective in the sense of inter-subjective provability. "Erleben" takes place in the subject's "Lebenswelt". In principle it therefore is in large parts a matter only for the respective subject.
The position I take towards the justification of aesthetic judgements can be described as an aesthetic "semi-cognitivism". R. Trapp used this term to characterize his ethical theory. It affirms the question if aesthetic valuations can be proved to be true in a deductive sense but it denies that this truth is in the same way inter-subjectively provable as it is the truth of scientific theories. As a consequence of what was said in the preceding paragraphs there is only a limited possibility of objectivating aesthetic valuations by referring not only to every relevant aspect of the object but also to the judging subject's preferences. If the latter is done sincerely the aesthetic valuation is objectivated insofar as it becomes understandable for the addressee of the justification.
There can be no doubt that summarizing a complete Thesis produces a text that is not only difficult to understand but also provides inadequate justifications for a lot of statements. If you do not share my points of view without the full argumentation given, there is only one thing I can ask you to do and that is to read the whole thesis, which unfortunately only exists in German. It will be published in January 2002 in the mentis-Verlag GmbH in Paderborn.
© Alexander Piecha in January 1999