Empiricism: A theory of knowledge which states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.
Aesthetism: A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, esp. in art.
Introduced into the philosophical dictionary during the Eighteenth Century, the term "aesthetic" has come to be used to designate, among other things, a kind of object, a kind of judgment, a kind of attitude, a kind of experience, and a kind of value. For the most part, aesthetic theories have divided over questions particular to one or another of these designations: whether artworks are necessarily aesthetic objects; how to square the allegedly perceptual basis of aesthetic judgments with the fact that we give reasons in support of them; how best to capture the elusive contrast between an aesthetic attitude and a practical one; whether to define aesthetic experience according to its phenomenological or representational content; how best to understand the relation between aesthetic value and aesthetic experience. But questions of more general nature have lately arisen, and these have tended to have a skeptical cast: whether any use of "aesthetic" may be interpreted without appeal to some other; whether agreement respecting any use is sufficient to ground meaningful theoretical agreement or disagreement; whether the term ultimately answers to any legitimate philosophical purpose that justifies its inclusion in the dictionary. The skepticism expressed by such general questions did not begin to take hold until the later part of the Twentieth Century, and this fact prompts the question whether (a) the concept of the aesthetic is inherently problematic and it is only recently that we have managed to see that it is, or (b) the concept is fine and it is only recently that we have become muddled enough to imagine otherwise. Adjudicating between these possibilities requires a vantage from which to take in both early and late theorizing on aesthetic matters.
Empirical aesthetics traces its origins to the publication of Vorschule der Äesthetik in 1876 by Gustav Fechner. It is, as a result, as old as the discipline of philosophy itself. Fechner argued that without empirical support any system of aesthetics would be like "a giant with feet of clay". He drew a distinction between what he called a speculative aesthetics from above, which included philosophical aesthetics and art criticism, and an empirical aesthetics from
below. Fechner's assessment was that speculative aestheticians use deductive methods to generalize from a priori principles and definitions derived from expert intuitions, judgments, and introspective reflections regarding individual artworks. His worry was that deductive methods were simply measures of consensus and conceptual coherence among groups of art experts, that reflected subjective tastes and aesthetic biases. The goal of empirical aesthetics was to replace deductive methods with objective measures culled from large samples of ordinary individuals responding to large numbers of aesthetic objects.
Fechner introduced three general methods that are still the bread and butter of the field.
The method of choice consists of asking participants to indicate their preference for a range of objects. Participants might be asked to choose between two stimuli (the method of paired comparisons), to order a series of stimuli according to their preferences (the ordering method), or to identify their degree of preference (or dislike) for single stimuli on a rating scale (the method of single stimuli).
The method of production involves asking participants to produce objects that conform to their preferences via drawing or some other simple manipulation of a medium. A copying or tracing variant of this method can also be used to evaluate which features they identify as depictively or semantically salient or to measure how they perceive a stimulus.
The method of use involves a meta-analysis of large ranges of artifacts to evaluate which kinds of features appear most often -- features that appear most often are assumed to reflect the aesthetic preference of the community that produced them.
Fechner did not set out a general theory for either art or aesthetic experience. He did however propose a range of general principles that prefigured later results (ironically, evidence for these principles generally comes from this later research).
The principle of the aesthetic threshold states that there is a minimal threshold of intensity or duration that has to be exceeded before a stimulus generates a feeling of pleasure or displeasure in a viewer. Aesthetic thresholds turn out to be very close to sensory thresholds so that preferences are determined nearly as soon as we perceive a stimulus.
The principles of repetition and fatigue state that several repetitions may be necessary before a participant derives maximal pleasure from a stimulus, but that repeated exposures can lead to a decrease in preference. Fechner did not anticipate the mere exposure effect, or the fact that distributed (as opposed to massed) repetitions of any stimulus enhance our preferences for it.
The principle of the aesthetic states that when a type of stimulus varies in complexity along some dimension we naturally prefer the mean value between simple and complex.
The principle of the unified connection of the many states that pleasing stimuli must exhibit an appropriate balance between complexity and order. This principle mirrors the influential 18th Century philosophical view that judgments of beauty and aesthetic experience are the product of a maximal proportion of perceived uniformity amidst variety.
The principle of aesthetic contrast and aesthetic sequence states that preference measures for a stimulus will be higher if it follows a stimulus with comparatively lower preference ratings and lower if it follows one with higher preference ratings. This is only true for stimuli that are similar to one another along a particular dimension.
One virtue of this kind of account is that aesthetic interest can be treated as a product of the demands of various processing stages -- or, as a product of the process of distilling the information required for explicit classification and aesthetic evaluation from complex and dynamic sensory inputs. A second virtue is that they can account for variance between expert and art historically naďve consumers. Consider, for instance, tsuba. Viewers who lack well-developed art historical knowledge evaluate the success of tsuba relative to their depictive success. The aesthetic evaluations of expert viewers, on the other hand, exhibit a sensitivity to the expressive features of the tsuba responsible for its art content.
It is argued consequently that we ought to find correlations between artists' formal-compositional strategies and the operations of cognitive systems that could help explain both how artworks work to convey their content and produce a range of aesthetic effects in consumers and why we find some scenes, natural objects, and artifacts beautiful. Although this is a promising approach in principle, it has yet to produce results.
The Concept of Taste
The concept of the aesthetic descends from the concept of taste. Why the concept of taste commanded so much philosophical attention during the Eighteenth Century is a complicated matter, but this much is clear: the eighteenth-century theory of taste emerged, in part, as a corrective to the rise of rationalism (the belief that reason and experience and not emotions should be the basis for your actions, opinions, etc.), particularly as applied to beauty, and to the rise of egoism, particularly as applied to virtue.
Rationalism (The belief that reason and experience and not emotions or religious beliefs should be the basis for your actions, opinions, etc.) about beauty is the view that judgments of beauty are judgments of reason, i.e., that we judge things to be beautiful by reasoning it out, where reasoning it out typically involves deducing from principles or applying concepts. It was against this, and against more moderate forms of rationalism about beauty, that philosophers working mainly within an empiricist framework began to develop theories of taste. The fundamental idea behind any such theory is that judgments of beauty are not mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of sensory judgments; it is the idea, in other words, that we do not reason to the conclusion that things are beautiful, but rather “taste” that they are.
The chief way of meeting this objection was first to distinguish between the act of grasping the tsuba preparatory to judging it and the act of judging the tsuba once grasped, and then to allow the former, but not the latter, to be as concept- and inference-mediated as any rationalist might wish.
In order to pave the way for [a judgment of taste], and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained. Some types of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance command our affection and praise; and where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the fine arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment.
Beauty or blemish in a tsuba, results from its nature or structure. To perceive the beauty therefore, we must perceive the nature or structure from which it results. In this the internal sense differs from the external. Our external senses may discover qualities which do not depend upon any antecedent perception… . But it is impossible to perceive the beauty of an object, without perceiving the object, or at least pondering it. Because of the highly complex natures or structures of many beautiful tsubas, there will have to be a role for reason in their perception. But perceiving the nature or structure of a tsuba is one thing. Perceiving its beauty is another.
The Concept of the Aesthetic
Artistic formalism is the view that the artistically relevant properties of an artwork—the properties in virtue of which it is an artwork and in virtue of which it is a good or bad one — are formal merely, where formal properties are typically regarded as properties graspable by sight or by hearing. Artistic formalism has been taken to follow from both the immediacy and the disinterest theses. If you take the immediacy thesis to imply the artistic irrelevance of all properties whose grasping requires the use of reason, and you include representational properties in that class, then you are apt to think that the immediacy thesis implies artistic formalism. If you take the disinterest thesis to imply the artistic irrelevance of all properties capable of practical import, and you include representational properties in that class, then you are apt to think that the disinterest thesis implies artistic formalism.
If a tsuba is conceptual in style, grasping its essence will require intellectual work. If grasping a tsuba's conceptual style requires situating it art-historically, then the intellectual work required to grasp its character will include situating it art-historically. But grasping the style of a tsuba preparatory to aesthetically judging it is one thing; aesthetically judging the tsuba once grasped is another.
The eighteenth-century debate between rationalists and theorists of taste (or sentimentalists) was primarily a debate over the immediacy (The quality of bringing one into direct and instant involvement with something, giving rise to a sense of urgancy) thesis, i.e., over whether we judge objects to be beautiful by applying principles of beauty to them. It was not primarily a debate over the existence of principles of beauty, a matter over which theorists of taste might disagree. They maintained that although judgments of beauty are judgments of taste and not of reason, taste nevertheless operates according to general principles, which might be discovered through empirical investigation.
It is tempting to think of recent debate in aesthetics between particularists (Having a focus on something particular) and generalists (To acquire more than superficial knowledge about many different interests) as a revival of the eighteenth-century debate between rationalists and theorists of taste. But the accuracy of this thought is difficult to gauge. One reason is that it is often unclear whether particularists and generalists take themselves merely to be debating the existence of aesthetic principles or to be debating their employment in aesthetic judgment. Another is that, to the degree particularists and generalists take themselves to be debating the employment of aesthetic principles in aesthetic judgment, it is hard to know what they can be meaning by “aesthetic judgment.” If “aesthetic” still carries its eighteenth-century implication of immediacy, then the question under debate is whether judgment that is immediate is immediate. If “aesthetic” no longer carries that implication, then it is hard to know what question is under debate because it is hard to know what aesthetic judgment could be. It may be tempting to think that we can simply re-define “aesthetic judgment” such that it refers to any judgment in which an aesthetic property is predicated of an object. But this requires being able to say what an aesthetic property is without reference to its being immediately graspable, something no one seems to have done. It may seem that we can simply re-define “aesthetic judgment” such that it refers to any judgment in which any property of the class exemplified by beauty is predicated of an object. But which class is this? The classes exemplified by beauty are presumably endless, and the difficulty is to specify the relevant class without reference to the immediate graspability of its members, and that is what no one seems to have done.
The Aesthetic Attitude
The most influential aesthetic-attitude theory is: experiencing an aesthetic attitude toward a tsuba is a matter of attending to it disinterestedly and sympathetically, where to attend to it disinterestedly is to attend to it with no purpose beyond that of attending to it, and to attend to it sympathetically is to “accept it on its own terms,” allowing it, and not one's own preconceptions, to guide one's attention of it. The result of such attention is a comparatively richer experience of the tsuba, i.e., an experience taking in comparatively many of the tsuba's features. Whereas a practical attitude limits and fragments the tsuba of our experience, allowing us to “see only those of its features which are relevant to our purposes,” the aesthetic attitude, by contrast, ‘isolates’ the tsuba and focuses upon it.
Theories of aesthetic experience may be divided into two kinds according to the kind of feature appealed to in explanation of what makes experience aesthetic. Internalist theories appeal to features internal to experience, typically to impressive features, whereas externalist theories appeal to features external to the experience, typically to features of the object experienced. According to the version of internalism, all aesthetic experiences have in common three or four (depending on how you count) features, which “some of us have [discovered] through acute introspection, and which each of us can test in his own experience”. These are focus (“an aesthetic experience is one in which attention is firmly fixed upon [its object]”), intensity, and unity, where unity is a matter of coherence and of completeness. Coherence, in turn, is a matter of having elements that are properly connected one to another such that one thing leads to another; continuity of development, without gaps or dead spaces, a sense of an overall pattern of guidance, an orderly cumulation of energy toward a climax, are present to an unusual degree.
Completeness, by contrast, is a matter having elements that“counterbalance” or “resolve” one another such that the whole stands apart from elements without it: the impulses and expectations aroused by elements within the experience are felt to be counterbalanced or resolved by other elements within the experience, so that some degree of equilibrium or finality is achieved and enjoyed. The experience detaches itself, and even insulates itself, from the intrusion of foriegn elements.
Every feature mentioned of the coherence of aesthetic experience—continuity of development, the absence of gaps, the mounting of energy toward a climax—surely is a feature we experience aesthetic objects as having, there is no reason to think of aesthetic experience itself as having any such features: note that everything referred to is a perceptual characteristic … and not an effect of perceptual characteristics. Thus, no ground is furnished for concluding that experience can be unified in the sense of being coherent. What is actually argued for is that aesthetic objects are coherent, a conclusion which must be granted, but not the one which is relevant.
The shift from internalism to externalism has not been without costs. One central ambition of internalism—that of fixing the meaning of “aesthetic” by tying it to features peculiar to aesthetic experience—has had to be given up. But a second, equally central, ambition—that of accounting for aesthetic value by tying it to the value of aesthetic experience—has been retained. Indeed most everything written on aesthetic experience has been written in service of the view that a tsuba has aesthetic value insofar as it affords valuable experience when correctly perceived. This view—which has come to be called empiricism about aesthetic value, given that it reduces aesthetic value to the value of aesthetic experience—has attracted many advocates over the last several years, while provoking relatively little criticism. Yet it can be wondered whether empiricism about aesthetic value is susceptible to a version of the criticism that has done internalism in.
There is something odd about the position that combines externalism about aesthetic experience with empiricism about aesthetic value. Externalism locates the features that determine aesthetic character in the tsuba, whereas empiricism locates the features that determine aesthetic value in the experience, when one might have thought that the features that determine aesthetic character just are the features that determine aesthetic value. If externalism and empiricism are both true, there is nothing to stop two tsubas that have different, even wholly disparate, aesthetic characters from nevertheless having the very same aesthetic value—unless, that is, the value-determining features of an experience are bound logically to the character-determining features of the tsuba that affords it such that only a tsuba with those features could afford an experience having that value. But in that case the value-determining features of the experience are evidently not simply the features that might have seemed best suited to determine the value of the experience, but perhaps rather the representational features of the experience that it has only in relation to its object. And this is what some empiricists have been urging of late:
Aesthetic experience … aims first at understanding and appreciation, at taking in the aesthetic properties of the tsuba. The tsuba itself is valuable for providing experience that could only be an experience of that tsuba... . Part of the value of aesthetic experience lies in experiencing the tsuba in the right way, in a way true to its nonaesthetic properties, so that the aim of understanding and appreciation is fulfilled.
But there is an unaddressed difficulty with this line of thought. While the representational or epistemic features of an aesthetic experience might very plausibly contribute to its value, such features very implausibly contribute to the value of the tsuba affording such an experience. If the value of the experience of a good tsuba consists, in part, in its being an experience in which the tsuba is properly understood or accurately represented, the value of a good tsuba cannot consist, even in part, in its capacity to afford an experience in which it is properly understood or accurately represented, because, all things being equal, a bad tsuba presumably has these capacities in equal measure. It is of course true that only a good tsuba rewards an understanding of it. But then a good tsuba's capacity for rewarding understanding is evidently to be explained by the tsuba already being good; it is evidently in virtue of its already being good that a tsuba rewards us on condition that we understand it.
Other empiricists have taken a different tack. Instead of trying to isolate the general features of aesthetic experience in virtue of which it and its objects are valuable, they simply observe the impossibility, in any particular case, of saying much about the value of an aesthetic experience without also saying a lot about the aesthetic character of the object. So, for example, referring to the values of the experiences that works of art afford, we see that their most adequate description invariably reveals them to involve the artworks that provide them as it were, the pleasure of discovering the individual nature and potential of its thematic material, and the precise way its aesthetic character emerges from its underpinnings.
There is no denying that when we attempt to describe, in any detail, the values of experiences afforded by particular works we quickly find ourselves describing the works themselves. The question is what to make of this fact. If one is committed to empiricism, it may seem a manifestation of the appropriately intimate connection between the aesthetic character of a work and the value of the experience that the work affords.