Tuesday, January 19, 2016

On beauty

In an essay entitled 'Facts and values', recently published at The Electric Agora, I distinguished between, on the one hand, ordinary factual and scientific claims the truth of which can (at least potentially) be objectively assessed and, on the other, value-based claims. I looked briefly at both aesthetic and moral claims – and here is what I said about the former...

In contrast to making factual and scientific claims, expressing aesthetic judgments typically entails making claims that cannot be objectively assessed. Claims about what certain individuals or groups find beautiful can be checked against empirical reality, but actual claims to the effect that this or that action or thing just is aesthetically appealing can always be denied, whatever the arguments and however many people claim otherwise.

The counterclaim will simply be that the characteristics or features valued by others happen not to be characteristics or features which are valued by this particular individual (in general or in respect of a particular case). A slightly upturned nose (thought to be attractive in a woman) doesn’t appeal to everybody. Likewise skin colour preferences. Similar points can be made about natural objects and landscapes, etc..

Perceptions of physical beauty need to be understood in the the light of our evolutionary history as well as our individual developmental histories. With respect to perceptions of the human body, clearly sexual urges and instincts are involved, but the interplay between biology and environment can produce quite divergent outcomes.

Lorenz Hart summed it up in his lyrics for the song My Funny Valentine (“… Your looks are laughable, unphotographable…”). On the one hand, there is a clear awareness of common standards of beauty (“Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?”); on the other, a statement of idiosyncratic personal preference (“Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me…”).

The fact that this sort of thing is real (and pervasive) is reflected in the common use of expressions like “There’s no accounting for taste”, or talk about people being “wired differently” etc.. (There isn’t and they are.)

People also have strong and highly divergent preferences in entertainment and the arts. But judgments about individual works need to be seen in a broader context of judgments about which general categories (movies, games, fiction, music, etc.) may or may not be of interest and, within these categories, which particular genres or styles or eras might be favoured by a given individual.

Sure, there can be a fair degree of agreement in scholarly circles: literary or musical scholars can rank certain works above others on the basis of technique and relative levels of complexity and sophistication (as well as other factors) but in the end subjective preferences do count, both in terms of judging works of comparable sophistication and in terms of the pleasure the works in question give. No argument, no matter how good, can make someone like a writer or composer they really hate, or hate one they like, though persuasion could raise doubts and questions, and, of course, increased exposure to the work of a given artist will often precipitate a reassessment.

Many divergences of taste clearly relate to individual developmental histories. Musical taste depends in large part on the kinds of music and other basic sound patterns that individuals have been exposed to in the past. For example, I am not musically trained and just like what I like. Avant-garde music doesn’t appeal at all. And yet I see others seeming to enjoy it, presumably hearing harmonies which I (with my more undeveloped set of expectations, etc.) am unable to perceive.

Scientific approaches to aesthetic questions – including attempts to interpret perceptions of beauty or ugliness in the light of our evolutionary history, individual developmental histories, or in more general terms of symmetries and expectations – will inevitably leave a lot out, but certain basic aesthetic perceptions and judgments are at least partially explainable in biological and psychological terms. Our perceptions are subjective but not arbitrary: certain constraints apply. And, while this is most clearly the case in respect of perceptions of the human body and physical objects, it is arguably applicable to all kinds of aesthetic judgment.

[...] We cannot demonstrate [however] that someone making value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.