George A. Blair
George A. Blair
0.1. Being scientific about art
If philosophy is, as I think it is, a science, and is therefore based on factual data, then it is no small problem how one is to approach esthetics. How do you get scientific about art and beauty? It may well be a fact that Michelangelo's David is beautiful; but if it is, this fact is not the kind of fact that science can handle.
The beauty of the statue is not an observable datum for scientific investigation, certainly, whether it is there in the work of art itself, or is "in the eye of the beholder," as the saying goes. It could even be argued that beauty is thought to be in the beholder's eyes just because there is no scientific sense in which you can say it is there in the work of art.
On the other hand, it seems silly to say that just because some people don't find the David beautiful it isn't "really" beautiful (for them), while it really is beautiful for those who find it so. This makes the trash that you find on the front of greeting cards "as much" real art as a painting by Rembrandt, and the verses inside "as good" as Shakespeare's sonnets.
No, that way lies madness. It cannot be that the stuff on the Tube ranks with Sophocles, any more than the fact that some people think that evolution is nonsense makes them "as right" as the biologists who have studied the subject.
We must beware of the closed-mindedness that goes by the name of "open-mindedness": the opinion that "everyone has a right to their own opinion." What this view is really saying is, "You hold your opinion, and I'll hold mine; but don't you go trying to change my mind by talking to me about facts."
As you can see, that's really closed-mindedness. Real open-mindedness is the willingness to let evidence govern one's views--so that a person will hold a view because he has evidence for it, and will change that view when new evidence indicates that he was wrong. Such a person cares about facts, and does not say that one opinion is as good as another; and he is even dubious about whether anyone has a "right" to hold an obviously false opinion. He might even--horror of horrors!--try to persuade others who hold opposing views that they are wrong.
And who is he, the others say, to tell them that they are wrong and he is right? It isn't who he is, but the evidence he has, that matters.
Now we are going on the assumption, in this book, that it is at least possible to find evidence on matters of beauty and art, evidence that can show that the Philistine is objectively wrong and that certain things are really beautiful and can be known to be so.
Those who are so locked into the opinion that there is no objectivity about beauty and art had better read no further, then; what will be said from now on will simply annoy them.
0.2. Preliminary definition of beauty
But this still leaves us with the problem of how to approach beauty scientifically. Granted, we can't directly investigate it scientifically; but people do experience it, and experiencing is something that psychologists deal with, and so do philosophers. The experience itself might be able to be approached scientifically; and so indirectly we may be able to get at what the experience is an experience of, through the experience itself.
PRELIMINARY DEFINITION: Beauty is whatever can produce an esthetic experience.
This is not a terribly helpful definition at this point, because in the first place, we don't know what sort of experience an esthetic experience is, or even if it is a distinct type of experience (as opposed to being just a name for several different sorts of experiences); and in the second place, we don't know whether esthetic experiences are actually "produced" by anything or not.
That sounds as if I am actually subscribing to the "eye of the beholder" theory of beauty, which I just got through castigating. Actually, I am not. What I am saying is that, if the investigation is to be scientific, we can't start with the conclusion and then try to find data to prove our prejudice; we start with some admitted fact, and let the chips fall where they may.
What the definition does for us, then, is simply provide a starting-point. Instead of riding around on our philosophical steeds looking for the Holy Grail of "beauty," we can take out our philosophical scalpels and go into the laboratory and start dissecting experiences until we find the esthetic type or types of experiences; and then we will investigate that to find out if it is spontaneous or not--and if it isn't, then we know where to look to find beauty.
0.3. Plan of the book
So the plan of this book is this: First, we will investigate experience in general, to find out if any experience is objective, and if so, what makes an experience objective.
In doing this, we will discover that some of our experiences are not objective, and do not refer to anything outside themselves--as, for instance, when we imagine a unicorn, there is no actual unicorn which we imagine. But other experiences refer beyond themselves to reality; these are objective experiences, and their object is actually something existing independently of the experience itself.
Next, we will have to investigate how we know the characteristics of this "reality" that causes us to have an objective experience. It is one thing to know that there is something-or-other "out there" that I am responding to, and another thing to know what it is; but we can't really have any objective experience that means something unless we can say more about the object than that there is one.
This investigation will lead us into an examination of what facts are, and what truth is; and, interestingly enough, we will find that truth is not the same as reality (nor are facts the same as realities), though it is through facts and truth that we get at reality, and can say something objective about it.
The discussion of truth will lead to a discussion of falseness, and this, interestingly enough, will allow us to define "good" and "bad"; it will turn out that "good" is just "true" looked at from a different point of view, and "bad" is "false" considered backwards.
Once we have considered experience in general and its relation to facts and objectivity, we will then look at emotional experiences, because in them the esthetic experience is hidden.
First, we will consider what emotions and perceptions have in common, and in what respects they differ. This will allow us to see that there can be an objective component in an emotional experience, which can then be used--analogously to perceptions--in getting at facts based on it.
The esthetic experience, then, will be the experience that learns facts based on emotional data rather than perceptions; and the reality which gives rise to these facts will then turn out to be beauty.
There will then follow an analysis of what beauty is, based on what it must be in order to be able to produce the esthetic experience; and this will include how esthetic facts are like perceptive facts (i.e. "scientific" facts), and how they are unlike them; why you do understand something factual about the world through the esthetic experience, but why the fact you learn this way cannot be translated into a "scientific" fact or set of facts; why the scientist cannot as a scientist even be aware that there are esthetic facts about the world.
In the course of the discussion on beauty, we will be able to get at a definition of ugliness which is different from the opposite of "prettiness"; we will find that some unpretty things are beautiful, and some pretty things are ugly.
We will then take up the subject of art, which is the production of something beautiful (in the sense we will have discovered)--or is the making of an esthetically meaningful statement. Art will then be investigated by analogy to perceptive statements ("scientific" ones), showing the similarities and differences; and while we discuss this, we will have occasion to give some objective meaning to inspiration, genius, style, and so on, which are recognized to have some application to artists, but which are pretty fuzzy terms.
The results of this investigation will also allow us to have some objective grounds on which to distinguish good art from bad art; we should not only be able to discover why bad art is bad, but the various ways in which it can be bad; and we should be able to do this in a scientific way, and not merely make dogmatic statments about it.
0.4. Dogma and science
As long as I have mentioned the terms, let me distinguish dogma from science. It is often thought that statements are "dogmatic" when they are asserted as facts, or as true, and not as "well, this is my opinion." But that's due to the dogma that "everyone has a right to their own opinion," which I mentioned earlier on; you're supposed to be wise if you think that the fact is that we can't really know what the facts are.
DEFINITION: A dogmatic statement is one that is asserted as a fact without evidence to support it. It is to be accepted as true simply on the authority of the person who makes it.
The term came into being because of the Dogmas (the "things taught") of the Catholic Church. Since Catholics believe that God has revealed certain facts, and that these facts are "mysteries"--unable to be established by observable evidence--then these mysteries are to be accepted by Catholics as facts simply because God said that they are facts (and the presumption for the Catholic is that the Church is transmitting them without falsifying them). To ask "prove it" of a Dogma of the Church is to miss the point; you accept it or you don't.
DEFINITION: A Scientific statement is a statement that is to be accepted as a fact based on the evidence that supports it.
The evidence might be absolutely compelling (so that the statment cannot actually be doubted) or it might be more or less cogent (so that it is possible that the statement might be in error). But the point is that, absent evidence to the contrary, the reasonable person will accept the scientific statement as a fact.
An example of a scientific statement that cannot be doubted is "There is something."
Try to consider this as false. That would mean that you would be thinking that there is nothing at all. But you are aware that you are thinking--and that is something. So you can't doubt that there is something, because if you do, there is the doubt, and that is something.
So, you see, the statement that there is something is not a dogma, even though it has to be accepted as a fact; it is absolutely certain, not because someone says you have to accept it, but because of the evidence you have that a doubt is not nothing, and your little experiment of what is implied in your trying to doubt it.
There are, of course, scientific statements that it is possible to doubt. Einstein's theory that bodies fall because of a warping of space-time has, at the moment, no real evidence to indicate that it is false; but it is quite possible that (like Newton's theory of gravity before it) some new evidence will come to light which will show that space-time is not really something that can be warped by massive objects.
But until such evidence comes to light, it is not up for grabs what space and time are really like. Why? Because Einstein's view has a lot of evidence to support it, and other views do not; you have reason to say that Einstein is right, and no reason to say that he is wrong; and so a reasonable person would not "disbelieve" him simply because it can't be proved that he can't be wrong.
Our object in this book is to formulate a scientific theory of the esthetic experience and of what produces it. This is a rather formidable task, and will involve some pretty abstract thinking, and a good deal of concentrated effort. But the rewards are, I think, worth it; it will give us a reason for studying works of art beyond simply that they are nice to look at. The artist has something true to say about the world, and something which cannot be discovered any other way than through his art--and by approaching his art properly.
0.5. Scientific method
Basically, the way we are going to treat things scientifically will be to use a generalization of scientific method, which tries to make sense out of situations that don't seem to make sense in themselves. I have treated the method elsewhere in some detail, as well as why it is scientific; so let me give here only the most basic things that a person will need to know in order to follow the arguments in this book.
Science is looking for the causes of effects.
DEFINITION: An effect is a set of facts which, taken by themselves, form a contradiction. That is, it is something that happens and yet seems impossible, because we know of some fact that says it can't happen the way it actually happened.
DEFINITION: A cause is the fact which makes sense out of the effect. That is, it is the "missing" fact which, when added to the effect, lets us know that there wasn't really a contradiction there. It is, in other words, the fact we didn't know--and our not knowing it made it seem as if the impossible had happened.
Thus, a person whose pocket has been picked might reach into his pocket for his wallet, and find the pocket empty. "That's funny;" he says, "I thought I had my wallet in there." The effect he has noticed (why he thinks the situation "funny") is that he seems to remember putting the wallet into his pocket, and he knows that once it gets there, it stays there--so it should still be there. But it isn't. Based on the information he has, a contradiction has occurred.
He thinks of various explanations: possible causes, possibilities that could make sense out of the effect. He considers that he might not have put his wallet into his pocket (and his faulty recollection then makes sense out of the effect); but he tests this and finds that his wallet is not where he would have left it if that explanation were true, so he rules it out as false.
He then hears someone say, "I saw someone reach into your pocket," and so he formulates the explanation that his pocket was picked. This, the true explanation, is the cause; and if he can find the one who picked his pocket, he can assure himself that he has found the cause.
Now since this study of esthetics is an exposition of a theory (a detailed statement of an explanation that I think is the cause of various effects dealing with the subject of esthetics), I am not going to go into great detail formulating various explanations that turn out on investigation to be false. What this book is about is the result of a scientific investigation into esthetics, not a description of the investigation itself. Hence, it will be a statement of the basic cause of the esthetic experience, and a description of what the effects are that lead to this cause, as well as why this particular cause explains the effects in question.
To go through an analysis of why this theory is more likely than others to be a description of the cause of esthetic experience would be to write a treatise on esthetics, and make the book much, much longer than it already is; The subject is, I think, complex enough already that a rather brief treatment of the positive position it comes to is in order, rather than going down and rejecting all the blind alleys that have been historically traveled.
[For a detailed look at scientific method as applied to philosophy see Modes of the Finite, Part One]Next