Roger Scruton is currently Research Professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences where he teaches philosophy at their graduate school in both Washington and Oxford.
He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. He has specialized in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues.
From his website
A theory of truth must conform to certain logical platitudes and that these seemingly innocuous platitudes provide the ultimate test of such theories. Here is a list of six that Scruton provides to help narrow his subject and to which he refers to later in the reading selection I have made here.
(i) Beauty pleases us
(ii) One thing can be more beautiful than another.
(iii) Beauty Is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
(iv) Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgement of taste.
(v) The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
(vi) Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself.
Earlier essays on Kant and Kantian aesthetics are here and here.
Two Concepts Of Beauty
The judgment of beauty, it emerges, is not merely a statement of preference. It demands an act of attention (there is that pesky “paying attention” again). And it may be expressed in many different ways. Less important than the final verdict is the attempt to show what is right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive in the object: in other words, to identify the aspect of the thing that claims our attention.
The word ‘beauty’ may very well not figure in our attempts to articulate and to harmonize our tastes. And this suggests a distinction between the judgment of beauty, considered as a justification of taste, and the emphasis on beauty, as a distinctive way of appealing to that judgment. There is no contradiction in saying that Bartok’s score for The Miraculous Mandarin is harsh, rebarbative [vocab: Tending to irritate; repellent), even ugly, and at the same time praising the work as one of the triumphs of early modern music. Its aesthetic virtues are of a different order from those of Fauré’s Pavane, which aims only to be exquisitely beautiful, and succeeds.
Another way of putting the point is to distinguish two concepts of beauty. In one sense ‘beauty’ means aesthetic success, in another sense it means only a certain kind of aesthetic success. There are works of art which we regard as set apart by their pure beauty — works that ‘take our breath away’, like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale or Susanna’s aria in the garden in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
Such works are sometimes described as ‘ravishing’, meaning that they demand wonder and reverence, and fill us with an untroubled and consoling delight. And because words, in the context of aesthetic judgment, are loose and slippery, we often reserve the term ‘beautiful’ for works of this kind, meaning to lay special emphasis on their kind of enrapturing appeal. Likewise with landscapes and people we encounter the pure and breathtaking examples, which render us speechless, content merely to bathe in their glow. And we praise such things for their ‘sheer’ beauty — implying that, should we attempt to analyze their effect on us, words would fail.
We might even go so far as to say, of certain works of art, that they are too beautiful: that they ravish when they should disturb, or provide dreamy intoxication when what is needed is a gesture of harsh despair. This could be said, I think, of Tennyson’s In Memoriam and maybe of Fauré’s Requiem too — even though both are, in their ways, supreme artistic achievements.
All this suggests that we should he wary of paying too much attention to words, even to the word that defines the subject-matter of this book [Beauty]. What matters, first and foremost, is a certain kind of judgment, for which the technical term ‘aesthetic’ is now in common use. The suggestion that there might be a supreme aesthetic value, for which the term beauty’ should be more properly reserved, is one that we must bear in mind. For the moment, however, it is more important to understand beauty in its general sense, as the subject-matter of aesthetic judgment.
Means, Ends And Contemplation
There is a widespread view, which is less a platitude than a first shot at a theory, which distinguishes the interest in beauty from the interest in getting things done. We appreciate beautiful things not for their utility only, but also for what they are in themselves — or more plausibly, for how they appear in themselves. ‘With the good, the true and the useful,’ wrote Schiller, ‘man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays.’ When our interest is entirely taken up by a thing, as it appears in our perception, and independently of any use to which it might be put, then do we begin to speak of its beauty.
The thought here gave rise in the eighteenth century to an important distinction between the fine and the useful arts. Useful arts, like architecture, carpet-weaving and carpentry, have a function, and can be judged according to how well they fulfill it. But a functional building or carpet is not, for that reason, beautiful. In referring to architecture as a useful art we are emphasizing another aspect of it — the aspect that lies beyond utility We are implying that a work of architecture can be appreciated not only as a means to some goal, but also as an end in itself, as a thing intrinsically meaningful.
In wrestling with the distinction between the fine and useful arts (les beaux arts et les arts utiles) Enlightenment thinkers made the first steps towards our modern conception of the work of art, as a thing whose value resides in it and not in its purpose. ‘All art is quite useless,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, not wishing to deny, however, that art has very powerful effects, his own drama of Salomé being one lurid instance.
That said, we should recognize that the distinction between aesthetic and utilitarian interests is no more clear than the language used to define it. What exactly is meant by those who say we are interested in a work of art for its own sake, on account of its intrinsic value, as an end in itself? These terms are philosophical technicalities, which indicate no clear contrast between aesthetic interest and the utilitarian approach that is imposed on us by the needs of everyday decision making. Other epochs did not recognize the distinction that we now so frequently make between art and craft.
Our word ‘poetry’ comes from Greek poiēsis, the skill of making things; the Roman artes comprised every kind of practical endeavor. And to take our second platitude about beauty (One thing can be more beautiful than another) seriously is to be skeptical towards the whole idea of the beautiful as a realm apart, untainted by mundane practicalities.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too troubled by that commonsensical skepticism, however. Even if it is not yet clear what is meant by intrinsic value, we have no difficulty in understanding someone who says, of a picture or a piece of music that appeals to him, that he could look at it or listen to it forever, and that it has, for him, no other purpose than itself.
Wanting the Individual
Suppose Rachel points to a peach in a bowl and says ‘I want that peach’. And suppose you hand her another peach from the same bowl and she responds: ‘No, it is that peach I wanted.’ You would be puzzled by this. Surely, any ripe peach would do just as well, if the purpose is to eat it. ‘But that’s just it,’ she says: ‘I don’t want to eat it. I want it, that particular peach. No other peach will do.’ What is it that attracts Rachel to this peach? What explains her claim that it is just this peach and no other that she wants?
One thing that would explain this state of mind is the judgment of beauty: ‘I want that peach because it is so beautiful.’ Wanting something for its beauty is wanting it, not wanting to do something with it. Nor, having obtained the peach, held it, turned it around, studied it from every angle, would it be open to Rachel to say ‘good, that’s it, I’m satisfied’.
If she had wanted it for its beauty then there is no point at which her desire could be satisfied, nor is there any action, process or whatever, following which the desire is over and done with. She can want to inspect the peach for all sorts of reasons, even for no reason at all. But wanting it for its beauty is not wanting to inspect it: it is wanting to contemplate it — and that is something more than a search for information or an expression of appetite. Here is a want without a goal: a desire that cannot be fulfilled since there is nothing that would count as its fulfillment.
Suppose someone now offers Rachel another peach from the bowl, saying ‘Take this, it will do just as well’. Would this not show a failure to understand her motive? She is interested in this: the particular fruit that she finds so beautiful. No substitute can satisfy her interest, since it is an interest in the individual thing, as the thing that it is. If Rachel wants the fruit for some further purpose — to eat it, say, or to throw it at the man who is bothering her — then some other object might have served her purpose. In such a case, her desire is not for the individual peach but for any member of a functionally equivalent class.
The example resembles one given by Wittgenstein in his Lectures on Aesthetics. I sit down to listen to a Mozart quartet; my friend Rachel enters the room, takes out the disk and replaces it with another — say a quartet by Haydn — saying ‘try this, it will do just as well’. Rachel has shown that she does not understand my state of mind. There is no way in which my interest in the Mozart could be satisfied by the Haydn: although of course it can be eclipsed by it.
The point here is not easy to state exactly. I might have chosen the Mozart as therapy, knowing that it had always helped me to relax. The Haydn might be every bit as therapeutic, and in that sense an appropriate substitute for the Mozart. But then it is a substitute as therapy, and not as music. In that sense I could have substituted a warm bath for the Mozart, or a ride out on my horse — equally effective therapies for tension. But the Haydn cannot satisfy my interest in the Mozart, for the simple reason that my interest in the Mozart is an interest in it, for the particular thing that it is, and not for any purpose that it serves.
There is a danger involved in taking the eighteenth-century distinction between the fine and the useful arts too seriously. On one reading it might seem to imply that the utility of something — a building, a tool, a car — must be entirely discounted in any judgment of its beauty. To experience beauty, it might seem to imply, we should concentrate on pure form, detached from utility.
But this ignores the fact that knowledge of function is a vital preliminary to the experience of form. Suppose someone places in your hand an unusual object, which could be a knife, a hoof-pick, a surgeon’s scalpel, an ornament or any one of a number of other things. And suppose that he asks you to pronounce on its beauty. You might reasonably say that, until you know what the thing is supposed to do, you can have no view in the matter. Learning that it is a boot-pull, you might then respond: yes, as boot pulls go, it really is rather beautiful, but how shapeless and clumsy as a knife.
The architect Louis Sullivan went further, arguing that beauty in architecture (and by implication in the other useful arts) arises when form follows function. In other words, we experience beauty when we see how the function of a thing generates and is expressed in its observable features. The slogan ‘form follows function’ thereafter became a kind of manifesto, persuading a whole generation of architects to treat beauty as a by-product of functionality, rather than (what it had been for the Beaux-Arts school against which Sullivan was in rebellion) the defining goal.
There is a deep controversy here, whose contours will become clear only as our arguments unfold. But let us add a caveat to the caveat, by pointing out that, pace Sullivan, when it comes to beautiful architecture function follows form. Beautiful buildings change their uses; merely functional buildings get torn down. Sancta Sophia in Istanbul was built as a church, became a barracks, then a stable, then a mosque and then a museum. The lofts of Lower Manhattan changed from warehouses to apartments to shops and (in some cases) back to warehouses –retaining their charm meanwhile and surviving precisely because of that charm.
Of course knowledge of architectural function is important to the judgment of beauty; but architectural function is bound up with the aesthetic goal: the column is there to add dignity, to support the architrave (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architrave), to raise the building high above its own entrance and so to give it a distinguished place in the street, and so on. In other words, when we take beauty seriously, function ceases to be an independent variable, and becomes absorbed into the aesthetic goal. This is another way of emphasizing the impossibility of approaching beauty from a purely instrumental viewpoint. Always there is the demand that we approach beauty for its own sake, as a goal that qualifies and limits whatever other purposes we might have.
Beauty And The Senses
There is an ancient view that beauty is the object of a sensory rather than an intellectual delight, and that the senses must always be involved in appreciating it. Hence, when the philosophy of art became conscious of itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it called itself ‘aesthetics’, after the Greek aisthēsis, sensation. When Kant wrote that the beautiful is that which pleases immediately, and without concepts he was providing a rich philosophical embellishment to this tradition of thinking.
Aquinas too seems to have endorsed the idea, defining the beautiful in the first part of the Summa as that which is pleasing to sight (pulchra sunt quae visa placent). However he modifies this statement in the second part, writing that ‘the beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all the senses, since these are the most cognitive (maxirne cognoscitive) among them’. And this suggests, not only that he did not confine the study of beauty to the sense of sight, but that he was less concerned with the sensory impact of the beautiful than with its intellectual significance — even if it is a significance that can be appreciated only through seeing or hearing.
The issue here might seem to be simple: is the pleasure in beauty a sensory or an intellectual pleasure? But then, what is the difference between the two? The pleasure of a hot bath is sensory; the pleasure of a mathematical puzzle intellectual. But between those two there are a thousand intermediary positions, so that the question of where aesthetic pleasure lies on the spectrum has become one of the most vexed issues in aesthetics. Ruskin, in a famous passage of Modern Painters, distinguished merely sensuous interest, which he called aethesis, from the true interest in art, which he called theoria, after the Greek for contemplation — not wishing, however, to assimilate art to science, or to deny that the senses are intimately involved in the appreciation of beauty. Most thinkers have avoided Ruskin’s linguistic innovation and retained the term aesthesis, recognizing, however, that this does not denote a purely sensory frame of mind.
A beautiful face, a beautiful flower, a beautiful melody, a beautiful colour — all these are indeed objects of a kind of sensory enjoyment, a relishing of the sight or sound of a thing. But what about a beautiful novel, a beautiful sermon, a beautiful theory in physics or a beautiful mathematical proof? If we tie the beauty of a novel too closely to the sound of it, then we must consider a novel in translation to be a completely different work of art from the same novel in its original tongue. And this is surely to deny what is really interesting in the art of the novel — which is the unfolding of a story, the controlled release of information about an imaginary world, and the reflections that accompany the plot and reinforce its significance.
Moreover, if we tie beauty too closely to the senses, we might find ourselves wondering why so many philosophers, from Plato to Hegel, have chosen to exclude the senses of taste, touch and smell from the experience of beauty. Are not wine-buffs and gourmets devoted to their own kind of beauty? Are there not beautiful scents and flavors as well as beautiful sights and sounds? Does not the vast critical literature devoted to the assessment of food and wine suggest a close parallel between the arts of the stomach and the arts of the soul?
Here, very briefly, is how I would respond to those thoughts. In appreciating a story we certainly are more interested in what is being said than in the sensory character of the sounds used to say it. Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favorite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot. The order in which a story unfolds, the suspense, the balance between narrative and dialogue and between both and commentary — all these are sensory features, in that they depend upon anticipation and release, and the orderly unfolding of a narrative in our perception. To that extent a novel is directed to the senses — but not as an object of sensory delight, like a luxurious chocolate or a fine old wine. Rather as something presented through the senses, to the mind.
Take any short story by Chekhov. It does not matter that the sentences in translation sound nothing like the Russian original. Still they present the same images and events in the same suggestive sequence. Still they imply as much as they say, and withhold as much as they reveal. Still they follow each other with the logic of things observed rather than things summarized. Chekhov’s art captures life as it is lived and distils it into images that contain a drama, as a drop of dew contains the sky. Following such a story we are constructing a world whose interpretation is at every point controlled by the sights and sounds that we imagine.
As for taste and smell, it seems to me that philosophers have been right to set these on the margins of our interest in beauty. Tastes and smells are not capable of the kind of systematic organization that turns sounds into words and tones. We can relish them, but only in a sensual way that barely engages our imagination or our thought. They are, so to speak, insufficiently intellectual to prompt the interest in beauty.
Those are only brief hints towards conclusions that demand far more argument than I can here afford to them. I propose that, rather than emphasize the ‘immediate’, ‘sensory’, ‘intuitive’ character of the experience of beauty, we consider instead the way in which an object comes before us, in the experience of beauty. When we refer to the ‘aesthetic’ nature of our pleasure in beauty it is presentation, rather than sensation, that we have in mind.
Setting those observations side by side with our six platitudes (see beginning of post) we can draw a tentative conclusion, which is that we call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form. This is so even of those objects like landscapes and streets which are, properly speaking, not individuals, but unbounded collections of odds and ends. Such complex entities are framed by aesthetic interest, held together, as it were, under a unified and unifying gaze.
It is difficult to date the rise of modern aesthetics precisely. But it is undeniable that the subject took a great step forward with the Characteristics (1711), of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, a pupil of Locke and one of the most influential essayists of the eighteenth century. In that work Shaftesbury explained the peculiar features of the judgment of beauty in terms of the disinterested attitude of the judge. To be interested in beauty is to set all interests aside, so as to attend to the thing itself. Kant (The Critique of Judgment, 1795) took up the point, building from the idea of disinterest a highly charged aesthetic theory.
According to Kant we take an ‘interested’ approach to things or people whenever we use them as means to satisfy one of our interests: for example, when we use a hammer to drive in a nail or a person to carry a message. Animals have only ‘interested’ attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat objects and other animals as instruments to fulfill those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behavior, between those things that are means to us, and those which are also ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest but which is, so to speak, entirely devoted to the object.
That way of putting things is controversial, not least because — as in all his writings — Kant is subtly coaxing us towards the endorsement of a system, with far-reaching implications for everything that we think. Nevertheless we can understand what he is getting at through a homely example. Imagine a mother cradling her baby, looking down on it with love and delight. We don’t say that she has an interest that this baby satisfies, as though some other baby might have done just the same job for her.
There is no interest of the mother’s that the baby serves, nor does she have an end to which the baby is a means. The baby itself is her interest — meaning, it is the object of interest for its own sake. If the woman were motivated by an interest that she has — say, an interest in persuading someone to employ her as a baby-minder — then the baby itself would cease to he the full and final focus of her state of mind. Any other baby that enabled her to make the right noises and the right expressions would have done just as well. One sign of a disinterested attitude is that it does not regard its object as one among many possible substitutes. Clearly no other baby would ‘do just as well’ for the mother doting on the creature that she holds in her arms.
To be disinterested towards something is not necessarily to be uninterested in it, but to be interested in a certain way. We often say of people who generously extend their help to others in times of trouble, that they act disinterestedly — meaning that they are not motivated by self-interest or by any interest other than the interest in doing just this, namely helping their neighbors. They have a disinterested interest. How is that possible? Kant’s answer was that it is not possible if all our interests are determined by our desires: for an interest that stems from my desire aims at the fulfillment of that desire, which is an interest of mine. Interests can he disinterested, however, if they are determined by (spring from) reason alone.
From this — already controversial — way of putting it, Kant went on to draw a striking conclusion. There is a certain kind of disinterested interest, he argued, which is an interest of reason: not an interest of mine, but an interest of reason in me. This is how Kant explains the moral motive. When I ask myself not what I want to do, but what I ought to do, then I stand back from myself, and put myself in the position of an impartial judge. The moral motive comes from setting all my interests aside, and addressing the question before me by appealing to reason alone — and that means appealing to considerations that any rational being would be equally able to accept. From that posture of disinterested enquiry we are led inexorably, Kant thought, to the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on that maxim which we can will as a law for all rational beings.
In another sense, however, the moral motive is interested: the interest of reason is also the determining principle of my will. I am making up my mind to do something, and to do what reason requires — that is what the word ‘ought’ implies. In the case of the judgment of beauty, however, I am purely disinterested, abstracting from practical considerations and attending to the object before me with all desires, interests and goals suspended.
This stringent idea of disinterest seems to jeopardize the first of our platitudes: the connection between beauty and pleasure. When an experience pleases me I have a desire to repeat it, and that desire is an interest of mine. So what could we possibly mean by a disinterested pleasure? How can reason have a pleasure ‘in me’, and whose pleasure is it anyway? Surely we are drawn to beautiful things as we are drawn to other sources of enjoyment, by the pleasure that they bring. Beauty is not the source of disinterested pleasure, hut simply the object of a universal interest: the interest that we have in beauty, and in the pleasure that beauty brings.
We can approach Kant’s thought more sympathetically, however, if we distinguish among pleasures. These are of many kinds, as we can see by comparing the pleasure that comes from a drug, the pleasure taken in a glass of wine, the pleasure that your son has passed his exam and pleasure in a painting or a work of music. When my son tells me he has won the mathematics prize at school I feel pleasure: but my pleasure is an interested pleasure, since it arises from the satisfaction of an interest of mine — my parental interest in my son’s success.
When I read a poem, my pleasure depends upon no interest other than my interest in this, the very object that is before my mind. Of course, other interests feed into my interest in the poem: my interest in military strategy draws me to the Iliad, my interest in gardens to Paradise Lost. But the pleasure in a poem’s beauty is the result of an interest in it, for the very thing that it is.
I may have been obliged to read the poem in order to pass an exam. In such a case I feel pleasure at having read it. Such a pleasure is again an interested pleasure, one that stems from my interest in having read the poem. I am pleased that I have read the poem: the word ‘that’ here playing a critical role in defining the nature of my pleasure. Our language partly reflects this complexity in the concept of pleasure: we distinguish pleasure from, pleasure in, and pleasure that. As Malcolm Budd has expressed it: disinterested pleasure is never pleasure in a fact. Nor — as I argued earlier — is the pleasure in beauty purely sensory, like the pleasure of a warm bath, even though we take pleasure in a warm bath. And it is certainly not like the pleasure that follows a snort of cocaine: which is not pleasure in the cocaine but merely pleasure from it.
Disinterested pleasure is a kind of pleasure in. But it is focused on its object and dependent on thought: it has a specific ‘intentionality’, to use the technical term. Pleasure in a hot bath does not depend upon any thought about the bath, and therefore can never be mistaken. Intentional pleasures, by contrast, are part of the cognitive life: my pleasure in the sight of my son winning the long-jump vanishes when I discover It was not my son but a look-alike who triumphed.
My initial pleasure was a mistake, and such mistakes can run deep, like Lucretia’s mistaken pleasure at the embrace of the man whom she takes to be her husband, but whom she discovers to be the rapist Tarquin.
Intentional pleasures therefore form a fascinating subclass of pleasures. They are fully integrated into the life of the mind. They can be neutralized by argument and amplified by attention. They do not arise, as the pleasures of eating and drinking arise, from pleasurable sensations, but play a vital part in the exercise of our cognitive and emotional powers. The pleasure in beauty is similar, But it is not just intentional: it is contemplative, feeding upon the presented form of its object, and constantly renewing itself from that source.
My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift offered to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me. In this respect it resembles the pleasure that people experience in the company of their friends. Like the pleasure of friendship, the pleasure in beauty is curious: it aims to understand its object, and to value what it finds. Hence it tends towards a judgment of its own validity. And like every rational judgment this one makes implicit appeal to the community of rational beings. That is what Kant meant when he argued that, in the judgment of taste, I am a suitor for agreement’, expressing my judgment not as a private opinion but as a binding verdict that would be agreed to by all rational beings just so long as they did what I am doing, and put their own interests aside.
Kant’s claim is not that the judgment of taste is binding on everyone, but that it is presented as such, by the one who makes it. That is a very striking suggestion, but it is borne out by the platitudes that I earlier rehearsed. When I describe something as beautiful I am describing it, not my feelings towards it — I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things aught, would agree with me. Moreover, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgment, a verdict, and one for which I can reasonably be asked for a justification. I may not be able to give any cogent reasons for my judgment; but if I cannot, that is a fact about me, not about the judgment. Maybe someone else, better practiced in the art of criticism, could justify the verdict.
It is a highly controversial question, as I earlier remarked, whether critical reasons are really reasons. Kant’s position was that aesthetic judgments are universal but subjective: they are grounded in the immediate experience of the one who makes them, rather than in any rational argument. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that people are constantly disputing over matters of aesthetic judgment, and constantly trying to achieve some kind of agreement. Aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements, like disagreements over tastes in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences). When it comes to the built environment, for example, aesthetic disagreements are the subject of fierce litigation and legislative enforcement.
We began from certain platitudes about beauty, and moved towards a theory — that of Kant — which is far from platitudinous, and indeed inherently controversial, with its attempt to define aesthetic judgment and to give it a central role in the life of a rational being. I don’t say that Kant’s theory is right. But it provides an interesting starting point to a subject that remains as controversial today as it was when Kant wrote his third Critique.
And one thing is surely right in Kant’s argument, which is that the experience of beauty, like the judgment in which it issues, is the prerogative of rational beings. Only creatures like us — with language, self-consciousness, practical reason, and moral judgment — can look on the world in this alert and disinterested way, so as to seize on the presented object and take pleasure in it.