An article entitled ‘Psychology vs. philosophy: Beauty requires thought’ in Medical News Today reports that:
'In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant laid out a couple of theories on beauty - in fact, he is still considered the preeminent authority on the topic. He theorized that beauty requires thought, but that sensuous pleasure can never be beautiful. Although the claims, at face value, appear challenging to approach scientifically, a study published in Current Biology goes some way toward testing them.'
Given the framing of the issue as a confrontation, a response from the other side seems in order. In a culture where scientific claims of almost any kind can generate widespread, often uncritical attention, and where the humanities are under increasing attack, it is worth considering an exemplary case of what happens if you ignore the humanities.
The history of the relationship between psychology and philosophy is illuminating but highly contentious. The reason is in one respect quite straightforward: psychology, unlike physics and chemistry in particular, is inescapably confronted with questions concerning how the notional line between nature and culture is drawn, a line often investigated these days in terms of the ‘natural’ and the ‘normative’. This line is a major philosophical concern, especially from Kant onwards. Whereas the physical sciences deal with what Charles Taylor refers to as ‘independent objects’, psychology cannot avoid issues to do with human meaning. (Sartre’s Sketch of a Theory of the Emotions shows this very effectively.) Experiments concerning physical objects often successfully isolate key phenomena and come up with warranted explanations of these phenomena, because the objects in question can be seen independently of their possible human meanings and evaluations. When the object in question is inseparable from human meanings, as is the case with ‘beauty’, a whole series of other issues come into play. It would seem vital in this case, then, that careful attention to the meaning of the term being investigated be part of the investigation.
"We may often use ‘beauty’ in a loose sense, for certain kinds of pleasure with respect to objects, but if the aim of a scientific investigation is to find out about one of the crucial aspects of how the world can make sense to us, using appropriate discriminations is important."
Putting it crudely, there is no such ‘thing’ as beauty that we can isolate and observe in the way we can isolate copper, the brain, or whatever. The whole point about beauty, which is why it became so important in Kant’s later philosophy, is that it poses questions about the relationship between what is subjective and what is objective. Scientists are often rightly lauded for their precision, but consider how the term ‘beauty’ is used in the article (and, it seems, by the investigators in the experiment). Kant supposedly ‘claimed that sensual pleasures could never be beautiful, but around 30 percent of participants said that they experienced beauty when eating candy or feeling a soft teddy bear’. While the conjunction of Kant and a soft teddy bear is quite endearing, something is pretty wrong here. I’m not concerned with a precise reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, but this characterisation of Kant’s claim is simply wrong. Even leaving Kant to one side, just relying on the fact that people will use the term ‘beauty’ in relation to anything that looks, tastes, or feels nice is not really good enough to counter the idea that the word ‘beauty’ may not best be used to designate arbitrary sensuous pleasure. One is reminded of English comedian Harry Enfield’s rather classist sketch in the early 1990s with a couple called ‘the Slobs’, who, when asked for the definition of good taste, answered ‘Pizza’. We may often use ‘beauty’ in a loose sense, for certain kinds of pleasure with respect to objects, but if the aim of a scientific investigation is to find out about one of the crucial aspects of how the world can make sense to us, using appropriate discriminations is important.
Kant makes a distinction between what he terms the ‘agreeable’, and the ‘beautiful’, and much of the importance of what he says derives from this. (He also separates pleasure that involves an interest in appropriating the object of pleasure from that which does not: only the latter involves beauty in his sense.) Kant argues that it is contingent whether you like a kind of wine and I don’t, and this means the wine is merely ‘agreeable’, or not. In contrast, the claim that something is ‘beautiful’ involves an appeal to other people’s capacity for evaluation which goes beyond mere personal preference. If you like, he wants to establish that the claim that Beethoven produced better music than The Backstreet Boys has a kind of objectivity. The word ‘beauty’ is not decisive here: the distinction between kinds of judgement is.
The first experiment cited by the article supposedly establishes that ‘beauty does require thought’ by having people look at pictures, rating them for beauty, then looking at them again while being distracted by another mental task involving numbers, which reduces the beauty rating for the same pictures. If you did the same experiment on people having sex they would, though, probably rate the distracted sex lower than the sex to which they were able to give their full attention. Establishing the role of ‘thought’ in beauty might be important, but this may not be the way to do it. In the Critique of Judgement Kant wants to argue that the aim of gaining universal assent to judgements about something’s aesthetic value can reveal something metaphysical about what rational beings may all share, despite the empirical differences between them. There are grounds for questioning such a strong conclusion, but Kant’s aim is important. A whole list of commonplaces that are the currency of everyday discussion of aesthetic issues are put in question by what he says.
The ideas that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that thinking Beethoven is better than The Backstreet Boys is merely a ‘subjective’ preference, and the like, are not as self-evident as one major current in our culture sometimes makes it seem by its adherence to the idea that only science is ‘objective’. If it were really the case that all aesthetic judgement is merely subjective, why would we bother to get so heated in arguments about, for example, the new architecture in our home town, or why we are so convinced of the value of our favourite music? These things occur in a shared space, and discriminations concerning that space matter to us in ways which are not merely ‘subjective’ in the sense of pertaining just to the individual. You wouldn’t normally get agitated arguing that a soft teddy bear feels nice to someone who doesn’t think it does, because it is simply not worth it. But you might well get agitated persuading people that Beethoven might enduringly transform aspects of how they experience the world, in a way The Backstreet Boys probably wouldn’t. In the latter case we would give reasons to justify our evaluations. Reasons are formed in shared social space, and this makes possible a kind of objectivity, of the sort which is indispensable if we think culture matters at all. It can be argued that, in one sense, giving reasons is what the natural sciences do as well, but reasons in aesthetic evaluations can’t be given by citing evidence about ‘independent objects’, because the relationship of the object to a subject is fundamental to aesthetics.
"The ideas that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that thinking Beethoven is better than The Backstreet Boys is merely a ‘subjective’ preference, are not as self-evident as our culture sometimes makes it seem"
As Stanley Cavell argued in his essay on ‘Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy’, this does not mean that aesthetic judgements are not ‘subjective’, but this is because they relate to how we experience sense in the world in affective and other terms, not because they are merely arbitrary. The crucial point is that such experience can be shared: if it couldn’t there would be nothing to argue about, and, by extension, no debate about arts funding, no arts education and research, and, in the last analysis, no modern self-critical culture. This is basically what is wrong with experiments like the one in the article: they work on a model of people as isolated entities functioning according to internal causal mechanisms, when the meaning of what happens in people is inseparable from the culture they inhabit, which influences how they evaluate things. This influence, which itself can be termed ‘objective’ because it is often beyond the control of the individual subject, is also what makes what is at issue here a political issue. People can be educated in terms of cultural possibilities developed by societies over long periods of time: one crucial part of that education involves giving people more resources to evaluate things, including in terms of their ‘beauty’. Such education has important links to issues concerning freedom, conceived of, for example, in terms of liberation from uncritically received ideas. The model assumed by the experiment in the article excludes such considerations, presumably in the name of making the experiment ‘scientific’, in the manner of experiments on independent objects that work so well in physics and chemistry by isolating and analysing only the phenomena the theory seeks to explain. But people are not independent objects.
The article concludes that ‘Plenty more investigation will be needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about a topic as nebulous as beauty’. Having presupposed the meaning of beauty as just pleasure in sensations for the purposes of the experiment, we are now told that beauty is ‘nebulous’. In a classic example of the mind-set for which only independent perceivable objects are real, the whole history of conceptions of beauty, and the development of cultures of evaluation, is thereby consigned to the dustbin. So how does what I am saying here help us respond to questions about the nature of beauty? One obvious point is that without subjects who can feel pleasure and displeasure the notion of beauty makes little sense, but nor does it without objects that can elicit such pleasure. Which objects elicit in which people the kind of response suggested by Kant is in many respects a historical, social, and political issue, which obviously involves psychology, but not the kind of psychology which seeks to do experiments that exclude cultural contexts.
"We should resist the temptation to extend some of the assumptions governing scientific research even into areas where they may not belong."
How would the latter psychology explain the widespread shift in the sense of beauty in Europe, especially in the second half of the 18th century, when wild nature moves from being generally perceived as a threat, or even as ugly, to being a new source of meaning and pleasure? This move is suggested in Kant’s citing the remark of the local farmer to Herr de Saussure that people like him who love ‘icy mountains’ (the reference is to Mont Blanc, which Saussure was the third person to climb) were ‘madmen’, and is testified to in Romantic landscape painting, poetry, and music like Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony – there had been storms in music before, but the one in the ‘Pastoral’ brings a new kind of wildness into music. (See also Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World.) It makes no sense to think that such beauty is a ‘property’ of wild nature, because it did not seem to possess that property before this period. But neither does it make sense to say it is just the individual’s projection (let alone something that happens in the brain), because the change in the status of wild nature is a supra-individual occurrence that changes art (and is in turn changed by art), helps inaugurate modern tourism, etc. As I suggested above, Kant realises that the issue of beauty is a good place to pose questions about how we conceive of the relationship between the subjective and the objective, and this philosophical question clearly cannot be ignored in psychological research.
There is a further issue here: the historical nature of what is taken as beautiful points to a dimension missing from some discussion of questions about the scope of the sciences’ capacity to explain things. The fact is that the development of art in modernity is probably not best characterised in terms of the notion of beauty anyway. One alternative here is to see art in terms of the kind of sense it makes of the world, only one mode of which is enabling things to appear beautiful. Art in the modern period is often driven by the demand for novelty, because if it does not bring about new sense it can become merely a reflection of a questionable status quo. As such, art can be constitutively resistant to having ‘firm conclusions’ drawn about it, not least because it can transform what was seen as ugly into something that is seen as beautiful: think, for example, of the history of dissonance in music. The kind of philosophy I am advocating here to question one manifestation of psychology’s employment of a natural science model seeks to trace how and why the ways in which we make sense of the world are continually being transformed. Such philosophy may in fact come closer to doing what art does than to what the sciences do. It can pose important questions about why so much thinking in the contemporary world is beholden to a scientific model which, when used inappropriately, can actually obscure some of the most important ways in which we make sense of things. As a means of problem-solving and explanation in very many domains the modern natural sciences have been an unparalleled success, for which we should all be grateful. But we should resist the temptation to extend some of the assumptions governing scientific research even into areas where they may not belong. Indeed, ignorance of key ideas in the humanities can, as we have seen here, itself produce questionable scientific results.
Andrew Bowie is Professor of Philosophy and German, Royal Holloway University of London, and a jazz saxophonist