MWP 1.4.f Aesthetic Objectivity

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Aesthetic objectivity is perhaps the most immediately available to experience of the different aspects of objectivity. By aesthetic objectivity I mean the capacity to experience beauty.

To give an idea of aesthetic objectivity in experience, compare two scenarios. In scenario one you are walking through a garden in the sunshine. You are relaxed, alert, and contented. You are suddenly struck by the beauty of a flower, and spend several minutes just looking at it with gathering enjoyment. In scenario two you are again walking through a garden in the sunshine, and the flower is still there, in a very similar physical condition to how it was before. However, you are feeling anxious, harassed and preoccupied. This time you walk straight past the flower. Even if you had stopped and looked at it, you would not have taken in what was beautiful about it.

There are two metaphysical extremes of explanation for the difference in your apprehension of beauty between these two scenarios. One just puts beauty down to ‘subjectivity’, saying that you appreciated beauty on one day and not the other, showing that beauty is not ‘really there’. The other extreme would be to say that the beauty was ‘really there’ all the time, but in the second scenario – perhaps due to your sinful or imperfect human nature – you failed to experience it.

Both of these explanations are metaphysical because they involve big assumptions about a beauty that does or does not ‘really exist’, beyond our experience of beauty. A Middle Way approach, however, would avoid both these sets of limiting assumption and suggest that in the first scenario you had more objectivity than in the second. In the first case your experience was more capable of appreciating beauty, perhaps because it was available to your experience, whereas in the second it was not.

Your experience of beauty does not necessarily relate to the object, in the sense that you could conceivably have had this experience of beauty (or lack of it) with any possible object. A dead frog, a pile of drunkard’s vomit, or a piece of corrugated iron fence may not seem like obvious objects for an experience of beauty, but if you were to deliberately look for beauty in these things, in the right mood, you would probably find them. The strongest demonstration of this is to be found in forms of meditation which involve the aesthetic concentration on a simple object, such as one’s experience of the breath. If one can find experience of the breath beautiful, it is relatively easy to transfer that experience to other objects.

In practice, of course, we tend to find some things more beautiful than others: flowers, strong contrasts, healthy young women with clear complexions, and colourful sunsets are more likely to seem beautiful to us because we have an egoistic identification of some kind to start with. They draw our attention and attract us, for a complex range of possible reasons which I will not spend time going into here[1]. Whatever our starting point, however, I argue that it is our experiential adequacy that enables us to develop our sense of the beauty of the object from that point.

On the other hand, it is not the case that any experience is as beautiful as any other experience, because our experiential adequacy enables some experiences to be more beautiful than others. It is thus not just a ‘subjective’ sentiment attached to an experience that makes it beautiful, as relativists would have us believe.

In terms of the brain, it is the right hemisphere that maintains awareness of all immediate sensual experience[2], experiences sensual objects as a whole[3], and makes fine discriminations in what it perceives[4]. The right hemisphere is thus the aesthetic hemisphere, yet it is the left hemisphere that creates conscious, rational judgments. The conscious belief that an object is beautiful, or that it is more or less beautiful than another, for instance, must be arrived at by the left hemisphere. However, as in all types of objectivity, it is when the various judgements of the left hemisphere are most effectively integrated by the right hemisphere that greater objectivity can result through experiential adequacy. Due to the left hemisphere’s will and judgement I may look more closely, or apply a structure of reasoning (for example, awareness of a musical structure such as key modulations) in a way that helps me to more adequately appreciate beauty, using the abilities that the right hemisphere offers. As a result of closer examination using the right hemisphere my left hemisphere judgement may change to become more adequate. The left hemisphere’s role will not be any the less even if it is the right hemisphere that unconsciously reaches judgement in a given case, as it is the left hemisphere that drives the direction of both attention and judgement over the longer term.

Another important part of the case, however, is to show that aesthetic objectivity is a different aspect of what is conceptually the same objectivity as factual and moral objectivity. We can experience examples which appear to show a stronger distinction between the three types of objectivity. For example, the Nazis often seemed to demonstrate both factual and aesthetic objectivity without moral objectivity, experimenting on Jewish prisoners in the interests of science, and playing string quartets in the midst of the death camps. However, I would suggest that these show an asymmetry of objectivity rather than an absolute distinction.

Generally speaking, and assuming no specific disabilities,  the experiential adequacy that enables us to investigate facts more effectively or to develop more adequate values also allows us to appreciate beauty to roughly the same degree. However, we might apply that experiential adequacy far more effectively in one sphere than in another, because metaphysical beliefs intervene to block our experiential adequacy in some areas, and also lead us to habitually exercise one kind of objectivity more than another.  There may be strong pressure from groups to maintain metaphysical beliefs that do this. In the Nazi context the interposing metaphysical belief was a strong distinction between those who were or were not thought worthy to be treated as persons and given human rights. This was a specific blockage in the way that these educated, intelligent Nazi officers could develop and display their objectivity rather than a distinction between types of objectivity. As historical sources also record, the same blockage caused Nazis to develop very odd theories on the subject of race, and also regard the beauty of Jewish women as somehow illusory or deceitful[5]. Their aesthetic and factual types of awareness were also affected within the sphere where their objectivity was constrained by metaphysical pressure.

More on the topic of asymmetrical integration can be found in II.5.d, III.7.b and IV.6.b. For the moment, however, the main point is that aesthetic integration contributes to overall integration, and thus that, while our aesthetic objectivity may run ahead of or lag behind other aspects of objectivity, a lack of aesthetic objectivity remains a handicap to our total objectivity in the end. Brilliant scientists or saints may be very objective in certain ways, but if they cannot appreciate beauty where it occurs in their experience, they are less objective than they might be, and their engagement with the world will be less intense for it. Similarly, the cultivation of aesthetic objectivity to the exclusion of factual or moral objectivity will limit us. The brilliant artist who beats up his wife in drunken rages may get away with it, and we may not necessarily be able to discern any immediate effect on his art, but his total engagement with conditions will nevertheless be more limited for it.


[1] See Ellis (2011b) chapter 11 for a fuller discussion

[2] McGilchrist (2009) p.38

[3] Ibid. p.46-9

[4] Ibid p.52

[5] Bradley (2011) seems to sympathise with this Nazi view.

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