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					                               What is Philosophy: Aesthetics
                                   by Richard Thompson

                             (Altered on Monday, 19 November 2007)

     My interest in Aesthetics is almost entirely of the second order. I feel little or no
curiosity about any so called „aesthetic‟ questions, but I do feel moderate curiosity about the
subject called „aesthetics‟. Just what is it about, and why do people want to talk about it?

      When people say that are discussing aesthetics they are usually are talking about
their response to visual or performing arts, music, or literature. They are not just describing
works of art to people who do not know about them, or even just comparing notes about
their own impressions or appreciation, they seem to be trying to justify their response, or to
be telling others what in some sense they ought to enjoy. That seems odd to me, since I
regard the appropriate response to a work of art as an emotion or feeling, possibly linked to
a memory or a day dream or a train of fantasy. Music may stimulate an urge to sing or
dance. I can understand people wanting to tell others what they feel, and I can understand
publishers and producers wanting to predict the reactions of people at large to help them
judge what is likely to be a commercial success, but in all those cases what is primarily
discussed is people‟s reactions to a work, and only secondarily the work itself. An
experienced artist may explain techniques to a pupil, but that too is not talking directly about
the resulting work of art.

      Philosophers have sometimes suggested that aesthetics is a branch of morality and
there does indeed seem to be some similarity between the two. Aesthetic judgements do
express our likes and dislikes, and may also be used to encourage others to cultivate
similar preferences. However the parallel is weak, for morality encourages people to act as
we would have them act, while aesthetic judgements are not usually intended to encourage
people to do anything - whether to create a work of art or to buy one.

     Psychologists have investigated the features of objects that incline us to find them
beautiful, reaching the conclusion that we are attracted by symmetry, confirming a
suggestion made by some the Greek Philosophers, but although that has a bearing on
aesthetic talk, it by no means answers all the questions that have been asked about beauty.
Nor is beauty the only term of approbation used in aesthetics; we must also contend with
the sublime.

      Aesthetics is sometimes said to be concerned with experience in itself, abstracted
from its causes or physiological basis, because those aspects of experience belong to
Biology or Psychology. The same train of thought proceeds to deny that aesthetics is
concerned primarily with the appreciation of works of art, because that is the business of
the art critic or the literary critic. Instead aesthetics is supposed to be the study of
experience in general, considering how it may be enjoyed just for its own sake. Thus we
seem to be left only with a second order subject matter, the discussion of the various ways
of discussing experience.

    Many prominent philosophers have had little or nothing to say about Aesthetics. An
exception was:

      Plato Of all the „greats‟ he seems to have written the most on the subject, and
much subsequent discussion has been devoted to expounding, amplifying, qualifying or
arguing against what he said.

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      Plato was primarily interested in the social and political effects of the arts and paid
rather less attention to the nature of the aesthetic experience and the factors influencing it.
However his concern about the effects of certain forms of music and drama presuppose
that we can predict both what people will like, and what effect it will have on them if their
preferences are indulged. Plato approved of the enjoyment of beauty, because it provides
pleasure with no unpleasant side effects, but he was suspicious of literature and drama.
Even when it comes closest to reality, art is only an imitation of the world of appearances,
and since appearances are themselves only a confused reflection of the world of the forms,
art is always at least two steps removed from reality. Often the position is a good deal
worse. Plays, poems and stories usually consist largely of falsehoods and, even worse,
they often portray immoral or ignoble actions. Where such material appears in the
performing arts actors are required to simulate the commission of unworthy deeds and to
speak the words attributed to those who commit such deeds, thus placing themselves in
danger of corruption. Music also can be subversive. Plato thought that music should evoke
manly emotions - soldiers marching songs would appear to have been his ideal. The music
of a society embodies its traditions, so the composition of new music and the invention of
new musical instruments are both subversive; Plato thought that both forms of musical
innovation should be prohibited.

      In the Ion Plato considered the creation of poetry, maintaining that it must be inspired
by the gods, since it could not be created by the art of the poet. Poetry can deal with any
aspect of human life, and a poet will frequently rhapsodise about matters of which others
are better qualified to speak. His own knowledge and experience as a poet cannot make
him as well qualified to discuss war as a general, or as well qualified to discuss illness as a
doctor. Of course an individual poet will usually have other skills too, but his versifying will
rarely be confined to the matters in which he is skilled, and even where he does write of a
subject of which he possesses a special skill, it will not be that skill that enables him to write
better poetry than the many others who are at least equally skilled. He writes by divine
           “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has
        been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to
        this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.” (the Ion)

          and later,

           “Tynnichus the Chalcidian affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote nothing that
        any one would care to remember but the famous paean which; in every one's mouth, one of the
        finest poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way, the
        God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not
        human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the
        interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the
        Gods intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs?” (the

     I have been unable to find anything more about either Tynnichus the Chalcidian or his

      In the Phaedrus Plato seems at one stage to suggest that when we see beauty in a
lover, it is a confused reflection of our dimly remembered past vision of the Forms. The
Phaedrus was primarily concerned with love, of which Plato distinguished several kinds,
ranging from animal lust, which he considered the lowest form, to the love of beauty itself,
which is the highest form. In our unhappy embodied state that love usually takes the form of
mainly spiritual love for someone interested in things of the mind.

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          “Every one chooses his love from the ranks of beauty according to his character, and this he
       makes his god, and fashions and adorns as a sort of image which he is to fall down and worship. The
       followers of Zeus desire that their beloved should have a soul like him; and therefore they seek out
       some one of a philosophical and imperial nature, and when they have found him and loved him, they
       do all they can to confirm such a nature in him, and if they have no experience of such a disposition
       hitherto, they learn of any one who can teach them, and themselves follow in the same way.”

      Although this indicates what Plato saw as the place of beauty in the scheme of things,
it does not explain what he thought it was in itself.

     There is another oblique approach to aesthetics in the Symposium, in which Plato was
concerned primarily with love, but the discussion eventually moved from love itself to its
object, which was at first said to be beauty. The best example of beauty being that exhibited
by wisdom. (op. cit p 83).

      That position was then modified “The object of love is not beauty...[but] procreate
and bring forth beauty” Procreation is important to us because it is the way mortal beings
can achieve a sort of immortality. Procreation can take place “only in beauty and never in
ugliness....the process cannot take place in disharmony, and ugliness is out of harmony
with everything divine, whereas beauty is in harmony with it”

      Love is usually first awakened by an encounter with a beautiful person, and it is
usually the physical beauty that first attracts us, but that first attraction can leads us to love
all physical beauty and to see that love of just one person is “beneath” us “and of small
account” (op cit p 92). The perceptive may progress further “the next stage is to reckon
beauty of soul more valuable than beauty of body” then we progress beyond the beauty of
people to contemplate “beauty as it exists in activities and institutions” finally some may
reach “the final goal”, of having suddenly revealed to them “a beauty whose nature is
marvellous indeed” It is eternal, and unqualified, in that it does not depend on which part of
the object we consider, or on when or how we view it. It is not like the beauty of any
physical object or thought, but is absolute beauty. Plato is clearly thinking of the abstract
form of beauty.

     Some may progress no further than the first stage, and if the object of their love is a
woman (Plato takes it for granted that the individual seeking enlightenment is a man), they
may achieve immortality by producing children. However a higher immortality is achieved by
those whose love inspires them to create some work of art; such people are usually those
who are inspired by love for a young man, and who resist the urge to express that love
physically, allowing it to lead them to higher things.

      Nowhere in the Symposium does Plato say what beauty is, apart from a hint when he
mentioned harmony and disharmony; otherwise he just takes the idea for granted. The
closest approach to a systematic discussion of the nature of beauty in any of the works
attributed to Plato is that in the Hippias Major, which is unfortunately a dialogue of doubtful
authenticity. However, whoever actually composed it, it discusses beauty within the
framework of Plato‟s theory of forms, and what is said seems consistent with what Plato
says elsewhere, so I shall discuss it here as if it were Plato‟s, and, having noted the doubt
about its authorship I shall henceforth refer to its author as „Plato‟ without further

    In the Hippias Major Plato considers first the possibility of explaining beauty by giving
examples of beautiful things, such as a beautiful woman. He quickly rejects that suggestion
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on the ground that something that appears beautiful in one context might appear ugly in
another. While a particular woman may be the most beautiful creature we ourselves have
encountered, if she were set beside a Goddess she might appear ugly in comparison.

      Next examined are answers of the form: something is beautiful if it contains some
component that bestows beauty. Plato discussed the thesis that Gold is the source of
beauty, refuting it by giving examples of things that are best not made from gold. A similar
argument could be developed against variants of the thesis in which some other commodity
is substituted for gold.

      Hippias is then made to say “for every man and everywhere it is most beautiful to be
rich and healthy, and honoured by the Greeks, to reach old age, and, after providing a
beautiful funeral for his deceased parents, to be beautifully and splendidly buried by his
own offspring”, to which Socrates replied that what is beautiful should be beautiful to all
men always, yet opinions differ widely about what constitutes a dignified way to live and die.

      They next consider the thesis that it is the appropriate that is beautiful. Socrates
judged that inadequate because he thought it incapable of doing justice to a distinction he
wished to draw between something‟s really being beautiful, and merely appearing to be
beautiful. He was anxious to preserve that distinction so that he could say that, through
ignorance, many people do not recognise true beauty. (an example of the function of
aesthetics as an excuse for some to assert what they consider to be the superiority of their
own aesthetic discrimination). Considering the case of a man who was made more beautiful
by a good choice of clothes, he said that the man would not really have become more
beautiful, but would only be made to appear so. Socrates did not consider the possibility
that the composite entity (man+clothes) might have a beauty as a whole distinct from the
separate beauty of the man and of the clothes, in which case it would be possible for that
beauty to be greater if the clothes suited the man.

     Socrates then considered replacing „appropriate‟ by „useful‟ remarking that however
beautiful an eye might appear, it would not really be beautiful unless it were capable of
seeing. However, something may be useful either for doing good, or for doing bad, and
while the former may appear beautiful, the latter does not.

      Shifting from „useful‟ to „beneficial‟, Socrates remarked that the beneficial is the cause
of the good, so that if the beautiful is the beneficial it must cause the good. However since
a cause and its consequence are distinct, there follows the counter-intuitive conclusion that
the beautiful is not good, and the good is not beautiful.

      The next attempt was “the beautiful is that which is pleasing through hearing and
sight”. But if the capacity to produce pleasure through those senses constitutes beauty,
should be not say the same of the capacity to produce pleasure through the other senses?
It would indeed be odd to say that the tastes or odours are beautiful, but that cannot be a
conclusive reason for not doing so; we are, after all, considering not what just appears
beautiful, but what really is so.

     There followed a tortured argument which seems to me to amount to the following: If
we single out for privileged status those pleasant experiences obtained through sight and
through hearing, that cannot just be on the ground that they are pleasures. On the other
hand nor can it just be because they involve sight, or because they involve hearing. For if it
were visibility that conferred the status of beauty, that would not explain the beauty we
experience through hearing, and if it were audibility that conferred beauty, that would not
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explain visible beauty. Some common property is needed to explain why the visible and
audible pleasures may be beautiful. Socrates seems to have thought that there cannot be
such a common property, holding that the supposition that there is is like holding “that if we
are both two, then each of us is inevitably two, and if each is one, then both are inevitably

      However I can think of two common properties of sight and hearing. The easy one is
„either audible or visible‟ The more obviously relevant common property is that sight and
hearing are the two senses that can convey the greatest detail, which are capable of
precision, and can express ideas and emotions.

      The dialogue ends inconclusively “So I think, Hippias, that I have been benefited by
conversation with both of you: for I think I know the meaning of the proverb 'beautiful things
are difficult'.” It was rather a lame ending for a Platonic dialogue, a point that may support
the thesis that the Hippias Major is not authentic.

      In The Laws Plato remarked that works of art are to be judged by the pleasure they
provide, but denied that all forms of pleasure are of equal value. Pleasure is only a reliable
measure of artistic merit when it reflects the moral value of the work, which is the case with
the pleasure felt by an educated and virtuous man who has the courage of his convictions
and does not defer to the inferior preferences of the vulgar and depraved. (op cit pp 94-95)
Formal, disciplined music, and also informal music, are both capable of giving pleasure to
those brought up to appreciate music of that particular kind. However disciplined music is
„invariably a good influence‟ and the undisciplined is invariably bad for us, so it is the former
that people should be brought up to enjoy. Styles of music and dance also reinforce the
instinctive characteristics of men and women.

          “ elevated manner and courageous instincts must be regarded as characteristics of the male,
       while a tendency to modesty and restraint must be presented - in theory and law alike - as a
       peculiarly feminine trait.” (op cit p 291)

     Works of art that are not edifying should be strongly discouraged.

           “...a poet should compose nothing that conflicts with society‟s conventional notions of justice,
        goodness and beauty. No one should be allowed to show his work to any private person without first
        submitting it to the appointed assessors and the Guardians of the Laws, and getting their approval”
        (op cit p 289)

     Humans are the toys of the gods, which control us through our emotions as a
puppeteer controls puppets by pulling their strings. The whole point of life is therefore the
proper enjoyment of leisure

      Aristotle treated the arts as forms of imitation. Painting and sculpture imitate visual
appearance, while poetry imitates human actions through verse, dance, and song. Such
arts are enjoyable because imitation is natural human behaviour, and recognising the point
of a passage of poetry is a form of learning, and is pleasant because learning is pleasant.
We also enjoy the melody and rhythm of poetry.

    Poetry, Aristotle divided into Drama and Epic poetry, subdividing drama into the
comic, which is the less serious, and the tragic which is serious.

     Tragedy can be beneficial in purging our emotions (catharsis)
           “a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only
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       have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends
       on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is
       confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of
       vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is
       lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the
       case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which
       may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which
       can be easily embraced by the memory.” (Poetics chapter vii)

     The important part of a play is the action, and the characters are subsidiary to that. A
play should posses „unity‟ in the sense that there should be a single plot, of no greater
length than can be encompassed by our understanding. The plot should not portray the
wicked as prospering, or the virtuous suffering undeservedly.

      There later came to be attributed to Aristotle the doctrine that a work of art should
conform to the „three unities‟ of place, time and action, although Aristotle himself specified
only unity of action. Some French dramatists developed the doctrine of the three unities so
far as to say that a play should tell of only a single action, all happening at one place,
within a single day.

    The Stoics believed that beauty consists in symmetry, and that the enjoyment of
beauty is related to the pleasure provided by an ordered life.

     Augustine thought that beauty arises from the contemplation of parts ordered into a
whole to achieve some end, and that our seeing such an arrangement as beautiful is a
consequence of realising that it is as it ought to be, so for him aesthetic judgements could
be objectively valid.

      Aquinas thought that beauty is what pleases when sensed; the perception of beauty
is a type of knowing, so beauty depends on the form of the beautiful object. There are three
aspects of the form that contribute to beauty.

     (1) Integrity of perfection - what is damaged or incomplete is ugly

      (2) Due proportion or harmony, partly the relation between the parts, but mainly the
relation of the beautiful object to the perceiver.

     (3) Brightness, clarity, and brilliance

      In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there developed the idea that the purpose
of art is to imitate nature, a view espoused by Samuel Johnson. In drama that imitation was
held to require adherence to the three unities - of space, time, and action.

      Hobbes discussed imagination, saying that simple imagination is decaying sensation,
but that there is also a compound imagination, which is the re-arrangement of images, a
view later taken up by the Empiricists.

      Shaftesbury, sought to explain taste by attributing it to an „inner eye‟ that he called
„moral sense‟, and through which he thought we appreciate harmony, which can be either
moral or aesthetic. He stressed „disinterestedness‟ as an important condition for forming a
reliable aesthetic judgement. He was also an early proponent of the extension of aesthetics
from considering just the beautiful, to taking in the sublime as well.

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    Addison held that taste is the ability to discern the qualities of greatness, novelty and
beauty which, he thought, jointly give rise to the „pleasures of imagination‟

     Hutcheson thought that neither moral nor aesthetic qualities can be discovered by
reason, since reason deals only with relations. Hence there must be distinct moral and
aesthetic senses. Each produces „ideas of reflection‟ that arise from our perceptions. The
moral sense produces both „amiable‟ and „disagreeable‟ ideas; the former are dispositions
to be pleased, the later to be displeased or disgusted.

       We also have a sense of beauty, since beauty, like morality, is not reached by
reasoning, and neither is it based on the perception of other virtues of the admired object,
such as its usefulness. We just sense beauty when confronted by „a compound ratio of
uniformity and variety‟. Harmony, grandeur uniformity and novelty also stimulate the sense
of beauty. Where those factors are absent we feel disappointment, which is the source of
our dissatisfaction when confronted with ugliness, but our reaction to ugliness has none of
the „pain or disgust‟ with which we recoil from moral evil. The sense of beauty does not
include an automatic approval of the beautiful, in the way that the moral sense includes
approval of virtue. The variations in individual tastes result from different people having
different expectations of the object assessed.

     Hume discussed aesthetics in the light of his version of the doctrine of the association
of ideas. Locke originally cited the association of ideas as a source of error, because
metaphors and similes are liable to obscure the truth, but Hume made it the central idea of
his psychology, and the key to our ability to learn. He thought that experience and
„observation of the common sentiments of human nature‟ reveal some „general rules of art.‟

          “When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or
       deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable
       situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the
       object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be
       unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between
       the form and the sentiment, will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace
       and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence, not so much from the operation of each
       particular beauty, as from the durable admiration which attends those works that have survived all
       the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy.
          The same HOMER who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired
       at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not
       been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or
       orator; but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by
       posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated...“(Essays P 139)

          “Though it be certain that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in
       objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external, it must be allowed, that there are
       certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. Now, as
       these qualities may be found in a small degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it
       often happens that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all
       the particular flavours, amidst the disorder in which they are presented. Where the organs are so fine
       as to allow nothing to escape them, and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in
       the composition, this we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or
       metaphorical sense. Here then the general rules of beauty are of use, being drawn from established
       models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases, when presented singly and in a high
       degree;” (Essays P 141)

     Some people are more sensitive than others so that they can detect subtle difference
in aesthetic qualities that escape the notice of people of coarser sensibility who are affected
only by the stronger stimulus of gross differences.
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      Practice improves our skill in aesthetic discrimination, so that we progress from being
able merely to judge something as beautiful or ugly viewed as an undifferentiated whole, to
discerning the various qualities that contribute to that impression. Our first impressions of
an object are usually a confused awareness of a general feeling of approbation or
disapprobation, but after a period of calm reflection that confusion is replaced by a more
detailed and more accurate assessment.

     To be reliable aesthetic judgement must be free from prejudice. In the case of a
dramatic performance we should preferably be in a situation „conformable to that which is
required by the performance‟, or failing that we should at least imagine ourselves to be in
such a situation. Hume thought that we can recognise superior judgement by its ability to
recognise easily the works that are eventually acclaimed universally. Good judgement is a
matter of predicting other people‟s preferences.
            “But, in reality, the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as
       it is represented. Though in speculation we may readily avow a certain criterion in science, and deny
       it in sentiment, the matter is found in practice to be much more hard to ascertain in the former case
       than in the latter. Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed
       during one age: in a successive period these have been universally exploded: their absurdity has
       been detected: other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave place to their
       successors: and nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion
       than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence
       and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public
       applause, which they maintain for ever. ARISTOTLE, and PLATO, and EPICURUS, and
       DESCARTES, may successively yield to each other: but TERENCE and VIRGIL maintain an
       universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of CICERO has lost its
       credit: the vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration. (Essays pp 148-9, common

     Hume‟s point seems to be that when they take a calm detached unprejudiced view, all
people form broadly the same aesthetic judgement, so for him aesthetics was a branch of
psychology. A similar view was taken by Hans Eysenck, (see discussion later), although he
seemed to think he was saying something previously unthought of in philosophical circles.

    Hume qualified his view by conceding that not all differences in taste can be overcome
by calm reflection, and suggested that those that cannot may be attributed to some
combination of:
    (1) „the different humours of particular men‟ and
    (2) „the particular manners and opinions of our age and country.‟
          “But notwithstanding all our endeavours to fix a standard of taste, and reconcile the discordant
       apprehensions of men, there still remain two sources of variation, which are not sufficient indeed to
       confound all the boundaries of beauty and deformity, but will often serve to produce a difference in
       the degrees of our approbation or blame. The one is the different humours of particular men; the
       other, the particular manners and opinions of our age and country. The general principles of taste are
       uniform in human nature: where men vary in their judgements, some defect or perversion in the
       faculties may commonly be remarked; proceeding either from prejudice, from want of practice, or
       want of delicacy: and there is just reason for approving one taste, and condemning another. But
       where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on
       both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain
       degree of diversity in judgement is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can
       reconcile the contrary sentiments” (Essays pp 149-150)

       I‟m not sure precisely what Hume meant by (1), though he did give the example of a
person‟s taste changing with age, but something I should want to include under that head is
that, even when people may agree about the various aspects of an object that contribute to
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its artistic merit, they may not agree about the relative importance of those factors so that
they may judge the object differently.

      Burke said that the appreciation of beauty is love without desire, while the
appreciation of sublimity is astonishment, in the sense of terror, without actual danger. An
example of the experience of the sublime is the controlled horror in which the mind is filled
by what is presented to it. Anything that can induce us to think of pain and danger is
capable of appearing sublime, examples are power, emptiness and vastness. Objects that
evoke an aesthetic response do so by stimulating physiological changes similar to those
involved in lust or terror.

     Burke held that, since it is the form of the human female that excites lust, things
appear beautiful by virtue of being in some ways reminiscent of woman, and tend to be
small, smooth and delicate. That suggests that Burke had very restricted views both on lust
and on beauty. His theory could hardly deal with the aesthetic experiences of heterosexual
women or homosexual men.

     Kant considered aesthetics to be one of three components in his critical philosophy,
one component corresponding to each of three mental faculties, those of cognition, the
experience of pleasure or pain, and desire, and linking each to one of his three
subdivisions of cognition in which he distinguished the sub-faculties of understanding,
judgement, and reason.

      The Critique of Pure Reason expounded the principles underlying empirical
knowledge by exhibiting the a priori principles governing our perception of phenomena. The
Critique of Practical Reason provided a foundation for morality by displaying the a priori
principles of reason governing desire. By analogy Kant thought that there should be a priori
principles of Judgement to govern our feelings. He hoped to show that the principles of
judgement provided a link between Pure Reason and Practical Reason.

      Kant therefore considered the Critique of Judgement to be much more than just an
extension of his system to include matters of taste. He thought it also completed the work of
the first two critiques, which was to explain the relation between our respective knowledge
of the Phenomenal and of the Nouomenal worlds. The Critique of Pure Reason showed that
although knowledge of the world of phenomena assumes that they can be fitted into an
orderly, apparently deterministic, pattern, that does not require that any such pattern should
apply to the underlying nouomenal world outside our minds. That analysis left room for the
Critique of Practical Reason to base morality on freedom of the will, by locating freedom
beyond phenomena, in the Nouomenal world. The freedom required by morality and the
determinism required by science were thus shown to be consistent, but at the expense of
being apparently quite unconnected. Kant thought that the Critique of Judgement
completed his system by establishing such a connection.

      He thought that the key was the „act of reflective judgement‟, in which we derive a
general principle from a particular case. Our knowledge of the world depends on our
making such judgements, or inductive inferences as they later came to be called. The
possibility of our making reliable judgements of that kind depends on our minds being in
some way in harmony with nature, so that we see as similar things that resemble each
other in many other ways as well as those that attract our attention. The world has to
appear to us to follow a set of inter-connected principles, not just to be governed by a set of
isolated and unconnected empirical generalisations. A good example of such a set of
interconnected principles is a purposive object. Such an object need not actually be made
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for any purpose, but is at least such that we can make sense of it by attributing a purpose to

      I find it very hard to follow the arguments by which Kant sought to weld all his thought
into a single system, and suspect that he was trying to make things appear tidier than they
are. That does not invalidate all his observations on particular questions, but one has to be
on the lookout for attempts to distort whatever subject matter is under discussion to make it
fit neatly into his system

      When he considered beauty Kant was interested not in judgements that record just
one person‟s appreciation of something, but rather in aesthetic judgements that claim some
sort of general validity. However, he considered that no aesthetic judgement can be valid in
the same way that a factual judgement can, or even in the way that a moral judgement can.
Beauty is pleasure in the harmony of imagination and understanding.

     He considered that beauty arises from:

     (1) The form of purposiveness, perceived independently of any actual purpose the
admired object may, or may not, have. An aesthetic object is the collection into an ordered
whole of many perceptions, admired independently of the question as to whether or not the
whole has any reality outside our perceptions.

     (2) Recognition of something as „the object of necessary pleasure‟ - such objects are
those that we suppose everyone admires. That subjective universality arises because
aesthetic pleasure is independent of any intentions we may have for the object concerned,
so the feeling appears to be independent of our individual circumstances, making it easy to
imagine that all will share it.

     (3) The object of disinterested pleasure - pleasure just in the way the object is
presented to us, independently of its existence.

     (4) What pleases universally „without a concept‟ Free beauty is the beauty we
appreciate independently of any beliefs we may have about the purpose of the object
admired. Adherent beauty is what we appreciate by admiring the way an object fulfils its
purpose. A botanist appreciates both types of beauty in the same flower, but a layman who
does not understand the functions of the various flower parts can appreciate only its free

     Kant explained the sublime by contrasting it to the beautiful. They differ in that:

     (1) The beautiful is limited because it arises from form, which is limiting, while the
sublime is perceived in a formless object when that is presented as limitless, although
reason requires it to be completed.

     (2) Beauty is in harmony with our judgement because it involves the appearance of
purpose, but the sublime seems to oppose our judgement by challenging our capacity to
represent it.

     (3) The beautiful involves indeterminate concepts whereas the sublime involves
indeterminate ideas.

     For Kant the distinction between Ideas and concepts is that Ideas are neither derived
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from experience nor applicable to experience, while Concepts can be applied to experience
and a posteriori concepts are also derived from experience. Examples of Ideas are God,
Freedom, Immortality

      Mathematical Sublimity is produced by an interplay of imagination and cognition,
and involves something „great beyond all comparison‟. Dynamical Sublimity involves an
interplay between imagination and desire, for instance when nature is judged as power.

     Aesthetics provides a symbolism for morality. Beauty symbolises the morally good.

     Hegel said that in art the idea takes physical shape. He thought that beauty is one of
the ways we encounter Absolute Mind - which may also be encountered in Philosophy and
in Religion. Beauty is the way the rational may be apprehended through the senses, which
can happen in three ways depending on the type of art involved.

     Symbolic Art symbolises its object without providing a precise or detailed
representation. An example is the use of a temple to symbolise a god, or an owl to
symbolise wisdom. Viewed as art, Architecture is usually symbolic.

      Classical Art, unlike symbolic art, adequately represents its object, an example is a
realistic sculpture. Indeed the classical model is the one most appropriate to Sculpture.

     Classical art is superior to symbolic art, but is still not adequate to represent the
Christian ideas of freedom and infinite worth of the individual; for that we require:

       Romantic Art which allows scope for subjectivity and self-consciousness. Painting,
music and poetry, at their best, usually follow the romantic ideal. Hegel seemed to regard
music as more spiritual than painting, because it is not embodied in a material object, but it
is still dependent on physical processes. making it inferior to poetry which offers complete
freedom from the physical world, since the words of a poem represent ideas, which, Hegel
thought, require no physical medium for their expression.

      Schopenhauer said that works of art present to us timeless universals analogous to
Plato‟s forms, and contemplation of those timeless ideas frees us from the principle of
sufficient reason.

       Tolstoy thought that the function of art is to express emotion, so that art is only
worthwhile if that emotion is capable of being shared by men in general, otherwise the
supposed art is either bad, or is not art at all. We should judge art by „the highest religious
criteria of the age‟ which he considered to be according to the contribution made to the
sense of human brotherhood.

      Bernadetto Croce (1866 - 1952) considered aesthetics to be the science of images,
related to intuitive knowledge as logic is related to the knowledge of concepts.

       He held that we start with raw sense data and clarify it into intuitions. To express an
intuition is to create art.

      Marx held that art is a „reflection of social reality‟ but Marxists have had difficulty
finding any sense in which that asserts any truth not commonplace. For any activity at all
will reflect the social conditions in which it takes place to the extent that, in different
circumstances, it would either not have taken place at all, or would at least not have
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happened in precisely the same way.

     Hans Eysenck in Sense and Nonsense in Psychology (Penguin 1957) summarised
experimental work intended to elucidate people‟s preferences for visual stimuli.

       The first stage was to invite people to select single colours. From a selection of
colours of the same intensity and saturation, people tended to select colours near the blue
end of the spectrum. Offered a choice of different intensities of the same hue and
saturation, they tended to prefer the brighter, and when invited to chose between colour
differing only in saturation people tended to choose the colour of higher saturation.

      When people were ranked according to the consistency with which their preferences
agree with the general consensus, it was found that those ranked highly on one test, were
also ranked highly on the others - something that was maintained through a series of further
tests of steadily increasing complexity.

     Following tests with single colours, people were invited to select pairs of colours. Here
they tended to prefer pairs in which the two were complementary, and the closer a pair
were to being complementary, the more the general run of people liked it.

      Proceeding to actual pictures, people were invited to choose between different
pictures in the same style. To reduce the extent to which preferences would be affected by
the associations of the pictures, the alternatives were usually pictures of similar subjects.
Once again there was a consensus, and those whose preferences most closely reflected
the consensus, were the same people who had shown similar prescience in the tests
involving single colours and pairs of colours.

      However things were quite different when people were asked to choose between
pictures in different styles. Here there was frequently disagreement between people who
had agreed in the other tests. Choice of style seemed to correlate with temperament,
extroverts preferring modern art, and introverts preferring classical works.

      It is important to stress a point that Eysenck did not seem to appreciate. Even though
the judgement of one person, A, may be generally closer to the consensus than that of
another person, B, that does not imply that A‟s judgement reveals some aesthetic truth
about the beauty of objects that is concealed from B, but it does suggest that A may be
better than B at predicting the preferences of third persons.

        What is Art? is one of the questions often considered to belong to aesthetics.
Sometimes it is a matter of public controversy, especially when an exhibition of „modern art‟
contains some particularly bizarre exhibit that appears to have been thrown together with
little use of craftsmanship.

     An amusing example was provided by a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 teatime news
program (from 5 to 6 pm) on Thursday, 30 June 2005. A self styled artist called McGowan
described a proposed artistic venture in which he proposed to turn on a tap and leave it
running for a whole year. That was to bring attention to the waste of water, particularly by
the water company - I gather because the company devoted less attention that he would
have liked to repairing leaks in water mains. When it was put to him that he too would be
wasting water he said that he wouldn‟t be wasting it, because his venture would be art.

     A friend once reported to me a conversation with a colleague who was an academic
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artist. Rejecting all attempts to define „art‟ in terms of the intrinsic properties of the
supposed work of art, the artist took the extreme Nominalist position of saying that art is
anything we call „art‟, [or possibly anything that is exhibited in an art gallery]. The second
version would be more restrictive since it would exclude anything too large, or too
inflammable, or too smelly to be put in a gallery, so I‟ll consider the first definition.

       Does something become a work of art on the strength of just one person‟s calling it
„art‟, or must there be a consensus, or the judgement of some sort of expert? The question
is not usually of pressing importance, but it could be if either money or the law were
involved. Suppose someone makes a bequest for the promotion of art, or for the purchase
of works of art for the City Art Gallery. If people object to the way that money is spent, the
question might eventually have to be decided in court.

      Copyright is another legal issue. If a heap of bricks is accepted to be a work of art,
does that create a copyright that could be infringed whenever a bricklayer makes a similar
heap of bricks, or would the copyright only apply to heaps possessing the aesthetic
qualities of the original? Answering the latter question in the affirmative would require a
specification of what those aesthetic qualities were.

     I think one can produce a rough definition of a work of art: It is something man made
with the primary purpose of affecting people aesthetically. Supplemented by a diverse
selection of examples, that should suffice.

       Fatuous though it is to ask of some object 'Is it art?' the question adds some interest
to objects that might otherwise arouse little.

       I was intrigued by this strange story:

          Art gallery displays plinth by mistake

    London, June 17: One of Britain‟s most prestigious art galleries put a block of slate on display, topped by
        a small piece of wood, in the mistaken belief it was a work of art.

    The Royal Academy included the chunk of stone and the small bone-shaped wooden stick in its summer
        exhibition in London.

    But the slate was actually a plinth -- a slab on which a pedestal is placed -- and the stick was designed to
         prop up a sculpture. The sculpture itself -- of a human head -- was nowhere to be seen.

    "I think the things got separated in the selection process and the selectors presented the plinth as a
          complete sculpture," the work‟s artist David Hensel told.

    The academy explained the error by saying the plinth and the head were sent to the exhibitors

    "Given their separate submission, the two parts were judged independently," it said in a
    statement. "The head was rejected. The base was thought to have merit and accepted.”

    "The head has been safely stored ready to be collected by the artist," it added. "It is accepted that works
        may not be displayed in the way that the artist might have intended."

     Privileged senses Discussions of aesthetics usually concentrate on examples from
the visual arts, or from music and it has been suggested, for instance in some of the
Platonic dialogues, that in so far as beauty appertains to the senses at all, it should be

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restricted to what is perceptible by those two senses.

      Most of the information obtained from human sensory input is indeed visual, and most
of the rest auditory, yet we do obtain considerable pleasure through the other senses, and
the pleasure so obtained is not in any obvious way of a different kind from the pleasure we
take in what we see or hear.

       To restrict aesthetics to sensory pleasures, would exclude the pleasure we derived
from reading, from making plans and seeing them come to fruition, and from solving
puzzles. To treat those pleasures as radically different from sensory pleasures would be to
propose an untenable distinction, for plays and poems which provide sensory pleasure
when performed, read aloud, or set to music, can also be enjoyed as reading matter, so
that it would be most odd to include one way of enjoying them in aesthetics while excluding
the other. There are also some intellectual pleasures, like those provided by mathematics
and Philosophy, that are not even tied to any particular form of words, but arise from the
contemplation of ideas.

      I can think o one distinction that would separate the contemplation of art from the
other sources of pleasure just listed, but it is not a distinction that would justify according
the former source of pleasure a privileged status. The contemplation is passive, while the
reading is active. I am not sure whether it makes sense to distinguish types of pleasure
corresponding to types of pleasurable experience, but even if it did. I‟m be inclined to rate
the pleasure derived from an activity higher than the pleasure of being a spectator because
the latter has the capacity to please in more ways at the same time.

     Truth and Meaning in the Arts People often talk about the „meaning‟ of a work of art,
without making it at all clear what they have in mind. While a work of art may sometimes be
designed to deliver a particular message or to express a particular point of view, examples
are political cartoons and the works of George Orwell and Ayn Rand, such cases are

      Formalism Clive Bell held that no knowledge of the external world should be
necessary for the appreciation of visual art, except that to appreciate some paintings one
needs to realise how the two dimensional canvass is used to represent three dimensional
physical space. I find it difficult to believe that he could have made that assertion after
careful consideration of its consequences. For instance, if confronted by a picture of a lion
with its mouth wide open standing on top of a cowering man, it is surely relevant to our
response that we know that a lion is a fierce carnivore, and not a cuddly toy. Without that
knowledge we should be unable to understand the man‟s feelings and therefore unable to
imagine ourselves in his place.

       Formalism just doesn‟t make sense if applied to literature, as Bell realised; he was
therefore inclined to the counter-intuitive position of denying that the appreciation of
literature is aesthetic.

      Bell‟s theory is an extreme form of the more commonly held view that that our
aesthetic response of a work of art is determined only by the intrinsic qualities of the object,
uninfluenced by any associations it may have for us. I doubt whether it is possible actually
to appreciate anything in that detached way, for almost everything will remind us of
something else, leading to a train of thought that will eventually reach something highly
significant to us. We can of course try to separate our response to the object itself from our
response to its associations, and say something like „I love this picture; not only is it very
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beautiful, but it also reminds me of that wonderful holiday in Scotland where I first met
Andrew‟ Recognising the association, we realise that we might like the picture less without
it, but how much less? If there is no actual disinterested aesthetic appreciation free from all
associations, in which the pure aesthetic properties of a work of art may be experienced, all
we are left with is a hypothetical quality, based on a statistical analysis of the responses of
different people, supported by some dubious introspection. The hypothetical „intrinsic
beauty‟ seems to be at best a theoretical abstraction; one can imagine that it just might
provide a basis for a theory capable of predicting the responses of different people in
different circumstances, but it would not itself be the subject of experience.

     Aesthetics and Evolution

      In the New Humanist for March 1999. Prof. G. A. Wells proposed an „evolutionary
basis of aesthetic pleasure‟. He suggested that the process of identifying a promising mate
would be helped if people could recognise a healthy member of the opposite sex at a
distance before commencing physical contact. It is therefore likely that we should find
attractive anyone with a physical appearance resembling that of a suitable mate. The
feeling appropriate to the person themselves can also be stimulated by a picture.

      It is not only pictures of people we find attractive. We also admire landscapes. Those
most admired depict terrain that would have been favourable to primitive man, for whom it
would have been important to be able to see, without being seen. That explains why we are
attracted to pictures showing fairly open rolling countryside, with copses of trees providing
some cover, but not so densely forested that it would be hard to see or pursue game, and
with small hills from which one would have a good view of the surrounding countryside.

      Such evolutionary explanations are generally highly speculative, and I doubt if this
particular theory will ever be more than speculation, though it sounds quite plausible to me.
However, if it is true, the germs of aesthetic appreciation should be present in some of the
other animals. Is there any evidence of that?

      The evolutionary theory does suggest a way of making some sense of Clive Bell‟s
otherwise most implausible theory. For if we have evolved to be attracted by certain visual
patterns, that suggests it might just be possible for us to admire a picture or sculpture
independently of our thoughts about the subject matter. I still find it very hard to imagine
how one could separate the appreciation of a picture as a collection of lines and colour
patches from appreciation of it as representing a person or a scene, but at least it makes
sense to imagine that the first might just be independent of the second, so that the subject
matter of a picture can be relevant to our appreciation independently of our being aware of
that content. Perhaps there is a class of brain damaged people who cannot recognise the
subject matter of pictures, but still find beautiful the same pictures admired by people who
do understand them.

       Expressionism is the view that art expresses feelings, but it is not clear whose
feelings are appropriate. The feelings of the artist are doubtless in some way reflected in
the finished work, but it does not follow that anyone else can find what those feelings were
by looking at the work. The aesthetic properties of a work must be closely related to the
feelings it evokes in those who view it, but those feelings might be quite different from the
artist‟s. John Hospers observed 1 [In his article Problems of Aesthetics in the Paul Edwards

       In his article Problems of Aesthetics in the Paul Edwards Encyclopaedia of
Philosophy voln 1, p. 48
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                                     that talk of expression is redundant because, in a
Encyclopaedia of Philosophy voln 1, p. 48]
sense, works of art can actually embody emotions even if they do not always invoke them,
for instance slow music is sad.

      Symbolism Works of art are sometimes seen as icons for psychological processes or
states, and some artists have thought that their work symbolised their insights into a
non-material reality accessed through their imagination - Yeats wrote of his visions.
However the fact that aspects of a work of art resemble aspects of a psychological state
does not imply that the contemplation of the work of art will produce any insight into that
psychological state on the part of people who have never themselves experienced it. Nor
would the fact that a spectator saw such a simulation in an work of art imply that the artist
either experienced such a psychological state when composing the work, or intended to
convey that psychological state.

     Assessing a work of art
     It sometimes seems to be taken for granted that it is primarily the aesthetic qualities of
a work of art that should decide our preferences, but I do not think that need be so.

      I suspect that different people attach different weights to the various factors. When
judging a novel or short story it is the plot and its development that weigh most heavily with
me. If the phraseology is confused, obscure or extremely inelegant that may prevent my
enjoying even a story with an exciting plot, but provided that the English is at least clear, the
plot is more important than elegant phraseology, even though I do appreciate that.

      In 2006 a friend and I started to make monthly visits to London to look at the
galleries, museums and other places of note. We decided that there is far too much in the
National Gallery to deal with it all on one visit and are working through it one period at a
time start with the oldest paintings and moving forward chronologically. On our first visit we
looked at paintings up to the early sixteenth century, and on the second with material from
the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

        With only a few exceptions I found looking at the pictures rather boring, though
reflecting afterwards on what I have seen is interesting in two ways. First the subject matter
and style of painting is an interesting reflection on the societies in which they were
painted. A high proportion of Mediaeval European painting seemed to have been of biblical
or classical scenes, in which the people painted were models pretending to be someone
else. Second I'm intrigued by the behaviour of visitors to galleries. Most visitors the linger
over pictures, while I walk briskly past most of the exhibits, only occasionally pausing
briefly. I wonder why they most people gaze for so long? If they are artists, they may be
analyzing technique, but I doubt if they are all artists.

       If a picture shows a busy street or market scene, or some mechanical contrivance,
one may need to pause to work out what is going on, but few of the older pictures provide
such information or pose such puzzles. Typically they show either models self consciously
showing off their good looks in scenes inspired by Classical mythology or the history of
Christianity, or family groups such as would today be photographed. The later, in particular,
wuld not be regarded as of general interest if produced today.

       Many of the pictures exhibited were indeed produced with great skill, but however
much one may admire such a picture, there is no need to stand and stare at it, for after a
quick look one should have it imprinted on one's mind where it will be available for leisurely
contemplation in surroundings more comfortable and less crowded than the gallery.
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       I was struck by how primitive the early mediaeval paintings were. More than a
millennium after the Greeks had produced lifelike sculptures, European painters were still
painting clichés. The themes were in almost all cases religious, which may explain the poor
standard of the material. I expect that those pictured would originally have been viewed in
poor light and that when people saw a brightly coloured picture of a figure with a halo round
its head they were so awestruck that they didn't look carefully to assess it critically.

        The martyrdom of St. Sebastian seems to have been a popular theme, and I was
particularly struck by one representation which showed the saint, pierced with a number of
arrows but looking upwards with a self satisfied smirk appropriate to a rather vain model in
an advertisement for men's underpants, and he was indeed wearing the medieval
equivalent of underpants. The placing of the arrows was quite implausible. In such
circumstances the executioners would have been concerned to have fun and make the pain
last as long as possible. They would therefore have avoided chest and head, and aimed at
wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and especially at bollocks, so one would expect arrows to be
clustered around those inviting targets, yet they were not.

     To me most of the older pictures are of interest almost entirely as historical evidence;
they show us what talented artists used to produce, and their rich patrons used to admire.

      In the course of a visit to the Tate Modern (on 23 rd August 2006) I was so intrigued
by the notice in a room devoted to 'The Readymade' that I copied some of it into my
          "a work of art created from an everyday object that bears no trace of modification other then the
         artist's signature”

      One of the exhibits was an unmodified Brillo Pad box, that had originally contained
several dozen packets of those useful objects. Whether it still contained them, or was
empty, I do not know. I'd have expected to copyright to be held by the Brillo Pad company,
which could legitimately also claim credit for any beauty that might reside in the box.

        I was most disappointed by the celebrated pile of bricks. I can imagine bricks being
arranged in many interesting shapes, though I realised it was unreasonably optimistic to
expect that in the Tate Modern. What I expected to see was a heap of bricks piled up
higgledy piggledy in interesting confusion. Such an exhibit would not be without interest. It
would stimulate the imagination, as I imagined small snakes and mice living in the smaller
crannies, and cats lying in wait for them in more the larger interstices. One could even
imagine a basilisk lurking inside, ready to create new sculptures from over inquisitive
spectators. The more prosaic imagination could occupy itself by devising the easiest way
for the bricklayer‟s labourer to remove the bricks from the heap. Alas there as no stimulus
for the imagination. The Labourer, masquerading as a sculptor, had already arranged the
bricks in a dull tidy rectangle.

      Trying to set aside the associations of Brillo pads and bricks, I did not find either of
those exhibits visually displeasing. I found them of little intrinsic interest though their
presence in the gallery was an interesting fact. Aesthetically I found them neutral rather
than displeasing, and in that respect I found them no worse than many of the less
unorthodox exhibits. I suppose they might have been exhibited to make that point. However
that would not deal with the question of originality. The individual exhibiting the bricks and
the box had made little contribution to the exhibits.

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        Another exhibit looked like a urinal. I suppose there had to be one of those, and
next to it was a full scale model WC made in urine coloured plastic. I don't think that
qualified as Readymade because its outlet pipe was solid plastic, so that output through the
conventional channel would have been impossible. It is not clear what the exhibitor had
contributed to the exhibit. Had he sealed in a plastic block the product of one of his own
bowel motions, there would have been much more of himself in the exhibit, though possibly
more than many would have wished to see.

        I plan to continue my chronological progression through the National Gallery in a
series of further visits and then, when I've worked through all the rooms to have a brisk final
trot through the whole gallery in one go.

       The experience is already helping to clarify my views of aesthetics and my
understanding of my own aesthetic response. I find that, even when something strikes me
as beautiful in the sense of aesthetically pleasing I son tire of looking at it, unless it is in
some other way interesting. As I usually enjoy observing things I find interesting whatever
their aesthetic qualities, beauty has little impact on me.

         Beautiful things make an agreeable background against which to do something
interesting, but are often not at all interesting in themselves. I think that is why sightseeing
often bores me, unless conducted in the company of someone whose conversation
interests me, because the sights that sightseers seek are usually beautiful rather than
interesting. However gardens seem to be an exception to my lack of interest. That may be
because there is some mystery about a garden - one wonders what is round the corner. A
garden also sets of a train of thought in which I imagine it is mine and think what I‟d do with
it if it were. More introspection is required.

      Some people, when they find something beautiful, want to linger over it for what
seems to me like hours, while I am content to look, admire and pass on. When occasionally
I do linger, it will be subject, not the presentation, that holds my attention. In fact for me to
dwell on anything, there must be an idea involved, either in the object of my attention, or in
some train of thought stimulated by it. Thus my approach is quite the antithesis of Clive
Bell‟s; what would appeal to him is hardly relevant to me. Beautiful things would be
acceptable as part of the background to my life, hanging on the wall or even perched on the
mantelpiece, but they could never be the focus of my life.

      A machine, or a picture of a machine could hold my attention for quite a while as I
puzzled out how it works. A picture of a market, a harbour or a factory could also hold my
interest while I worked out what was going on. To arouse my interest, and especially to hold
my attention a putative work of art must have something more than beauty in Bell‟s sense.

      Music is different, because it neither completely occupies my mind, nor allows me to
think profitably about anything else since it interferes with my train of thought if I try; for that
reason I rarely listen to music, except when it is an accompaniment to a song or to some
sort of action Although I appreciate the aesthetic qualities of much classical music, that
pleasure is usually outweighed by my displeasure at the shattering of my train of thought. I
suspect that people often listen to music to prevent themselves from thinking. I prefer to
think in silence rather than listen to music with my thought processes disabled.

       I am irritated when other people impose music on me, which seems to me the
intellectual equivalent of sexual assault. Music usually contains a rhythm and probably
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developed as the accompaniment for stylised movement such as dancing or marching, and
is thus a way of uniting many potentially independent minds into one hive mind. That is
attractive to the majority of human beings who are primarily domestic animals and enjoy
belonging to the group mind of the pack. I think I am more like a wild animal, living among
domesticated animals, but not quite one of them.

     People often remark that it is hard to tell the difference between poetry and prose
these days, and I share their perplexity.

     The paradigm cases of poetry use rhyme and rhythm, and verse is most effective
when the sounds of the spoken words in some way support the meaning of the poem. The
sounds on individual words can also reinforce their meaning (onomatopoeia). Even the
arrangement of the words on the page has been used - not only to mark the rhythm, or
sometimes to assert poetic credentials where there is no rhythm, but occasionally to outline
some shape relevant to the subject of the poem.

     Uses of metaphor ad analogy are also common in poetry, and although they were
probably originally used just to reinforce the meanings of the words, they are sometimes
made to bear the full weight of the meaning. Reliance on them has therefore sometimes
been regarded as sufficient to establish to poetic credentials of a piece of writing.

     Some poems attempt to convey feelings and emotions by mentioning sights and
sounds that have been associated with them in the poet‟s experience. For instance my old
school friend the late Bernard Harrison wrote the following poem to accompany his
Christmas card for 2004.

                  Country Voices

                  In the early hours of Christmas
                  Morning, the gossip of frogs
                  Vibrates on a liquid

                  Mirror, where the slim moon’s image
                  Quickens, quivering between thick
                  Fingers, in the knuckles

                  Of a silver tree. On the Across
                  Australia radio call-in
                  Ann talks of her Christmas

                  Rose, and orange fires of Christmas
                  Trees by the Margaret River.
                  Bill tells how their mum downed

                  Tools on a high forties scorcher
                  Of a day in the wheatfields
                  (Left them baked beans and

                  Cold rice pudding for lunch). After that,
                  They took turns to cook the roast.

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                   Eve invites us to share

                   The scrap next door, that starts each year
                   When they get back from midnight
                   Mass - it’s still going strong.

                   The muffled bangs blend with Eve’s quiet
                   Chuckles, coil round frog chatter &
                   Bush scents, on the night air.

     My understanding of that is limited by my not having experienced some of the sights
and sounds alluded to, and allusion is all almost all there is; Bernard didn‟t describe the
bush scents, or the chatter of the frogs. Yet even for someone familiar with them all, those
things might not have precisely the associations they did for Bernard, so that even to such a
person the poem might not communicate precisely what he felt.

     The division into lines is strange. The lines, and even the stanzas, break sentences,
so any rhythm the arrangement is supposed to induce, is a rhythm that interferes with the
meaning instead of reinforcing it.

     The SOED says of poetry:

      “†1 gen. Imaginative or creative literature; fable, fiction. me–e17.

      2     The art or work of a poet; composition in verse or metrical language, or in some equivalent
            patterned arrangement of language; the product of this as a form of literature, poems
            collectively; the expression or embodiment of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination,
            or feeling, in language and a form adapted to stir the imagination and emotions. lme.”

      and of prose:

            “me. [(O)Fr. f. L prosa (sc. oratio) straightforward (discourse) use as n. of fem. of
            prosus f. earlier prorsus straightforward, direct.]
      1     The ordinary form of written or spoken language, without metrical structure, esp. as a
            literary form as distinct from poetry or verse. me.

      †b    A (prose) story, a narrative. Only in lme.


      3     fig. Plain matter-of-fact expression; dull or commonplace expression, quality, etc. m16.

      4 a   A dull or tedious discourse or written passage; a dull or tedious person. colloq.”

     It interestingly quoted Wordsworth as writing “The only strict antithesis to Prose is

     The definition of poetry could be stretched to include all works of fiction, while that of
prose seems to include all blank verse, especially when that definition is supplemented by
the quotation from Wordsworth.

    A serious problem arises with putative poetry that has neither rhyme nor metre. I
remember being taught at school various patterns of rhyme and rhythm that defined various

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                               What is Philosophy: Aesthetics
                                   by Richard Thompson

forms of verse. Each line had a certain number of syllables, and certain pairs of lines
rhymed. Material constructed according to such a pattern is easily identified, but it is much
harder to distinguish blank verse from prose. Is it just the way it is set out on the page, or
does material have to be hard to understand to qualify as blank verse?

      Sometimes people say that poetry is marked by metaphors and similes that are not
specifically identified as such. Thus Shakespeare wrote „lilies that fester smell far worse
than weeds‟. He left the reader, or hearer, to work out that that was not a tip for gardeners
but was intended to say „when the good are corrupted they behave far worse than those
who have always been wicked‟ However prose need not be dull and pedestrian, as the
words prosaic may suggest. When Swinburne said „Sweet lips, Men touch them and
change in a trice, The lilies and languors of virtue For the raptures and roses of vice‟ his
words could be rendered prosaically as „A short time in your company suffices to corrupt
anyone unable to resists your charms‟ but it could also be expressed in more colourful and
less literal prose as „One sniff of your cunt and you‟d have the Vicar himself robbing the
bank for you‟. What stops the latter from being poetry ?

      The article on Poetry in the 2001 Encyclopaedia Britannica links poetry to religion and
mentions experiments in which people are invited to read passages aloud. It is often the
way the words are set out on the page that determines whether people read in their
everyday voice, or assume their special poetry voice. Britannica suggests that poetry may
be defined in terms of that typographical arrangement but considers the question academic,
on the ground that poetry is in practice easily recognised. While that is true if the criterion is
typographic, in the case of some blank verse it is not at all clear to me and some of my
friends that there is any reliable non-typographical criterion for poetry.

     Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets left behind in translation.

     Often I find myself enjoying poetry that I don‟t understand at all, some of T.S. Eliot,
and parts of Shakespeare‟s sonnets for example.

     When poetry has rhythm it may sometimes play the same part as music in helping
people who are insecure in their individuality to submerge it in a confused miasma of

    The question „What is poetry?‟ is superficially similar to „What is a game?‟ but differs
because there is often more at stake than the convenience of a neat classification.

     Any fuzzy distinction may need to have precision forced upon it in certain
circumstances, notably those of the competition, and those of the examination. If there is a
competition to choose a prize winning picture or poem, the judges must decide what to
accept as a valid entry, and if examinations are conducted to determine candidates
knowledge of art poetry or music, someone must decide what examples to examine, and
what is acceptable coursework. However, in the case of poetry there are also other
circumstances that may need adjudication, because sometimes the claim „It‟s poetry‟ is
urged in support of a claim for exemption from critical logical scrutiny.

      Such claims for exemption can be made to seem plausible, because much of poetry,
including many of the central cases of the genre do not make claims that are subject to
rational scrutiny, but we must guard against the extension of so called „poetic license‟ to
material presented as poetry that is used to make a case for some proposition or cause.

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                               What is Philosophy: Aesthetics
                                   by Richard Thompson

      A poem may not have any precise meaning in the sense of that any thoughtful reader
can be expected to find in it the same meaning as any other. When the poems are intended
just to convey emotions or feelings that is understandable, but we must be careful not to
allow confused discussions of questions that are accessible to rational scrutiny, to excuse
their incoherence by claiming poetic licence. Some material presented as poetry looks to
me more like ineptly written prose.

      It is a truism that people differ in aesthetic taste, but there is another difference of a
different kind that is less often remarked upon. People may also differ in the weight they
attach to aesthetic appreciation. Some people, when they find something beautiful want to
linger over it for a long time. Others look, admire briefly, and then pass on. I am in the
second category.

     Poetry written to convey emotions is often an misguided attempt to intellectualize our

     I found writing this chapter very hard. That was partly because much of the material to
be reviewed bored me. Discussions of aesthetics seem often to be mainly a matter of the
professionally pompous stimulating their feelings of self importance by pontification about
the beautiful.

      Another factor is that, whatever people say about it, the beautiful has little impact on
me. Even if I find a picture or sculpture very attractive, that would not make me want to
spend very long looking at it. When I walk round a town, the attractiveness or otherwise of
the architecture will affect me for a minute or two, and then I shall become absorbed in my
train of thought and it will make very little difference to me whether my surrounding
resemble Bath or Scunthorpe.

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