Enjoyment and Beauty
Beauty is powerful. It compels our attention and appreciation, unites us in shared visions and divides us with different ones. Our goal is to describe beauty in a way that illuminates its power. The description consists of arguments for three claims. First, one enjoys the items one judges to be beautiful. Second, the enjoyment is a special kind; one does not enjoy in that way items one does not find beautiful. Third, to believe that something is beautiful is to believe, on the basis of the special kind of enjoyment, that others will, other things being equal, enjoy the item in that special way. The arguments for the second characterize beauty’s power to compel attention and appreciation; the arguments for the third claim address its power to unite and divide. The first claim is an essential preliminary. The inspiration for this approach is Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which Kant (arguably) advances all three claims. Our concern, however, is with the truth of the claims, not with Kantian exegesis, and our arguments will not, for the most part, be the same as Kant’s.
I. Must One Enjoy What One Believes Is Beautiful?
The question requires two clarifications. First, to enjoy is to enjoy an experience or activity φ under an array A; what are the relevant φ and A? Second, there are two ways to read “believes is beautiful”; on one, the claim is false; on the other, true.
A. The φ and the A
Our claim is that when one believes (in the sense to be specified) that some item x is beautiful, one enjoys (or has enjoyed, or expects to enjoy) φ under an array of features A, where φ is the experience of an item’s appearing to have the features in A. Examples: the colored squares in the abstract painting appear to dance; the (real or painted) ship’s gently full sails appear to mirror the tranquility of the sea; the washerwoman appears to have the face and bearing of a Madonna; the statue of Aphrodite presents the goddess’s flesh as at once marble-hard and humanly soft; the strong diagonal elements in a painting, building, face, or body are broken up to just the right degree to appear just short of being mechanical. We use “appear” as it is used in “Objects in the mirror will appear more distant than they are”; that is, under normal conditions, objects will appear more distant. Our reference to normal conditions assumes that, in a variety of contexts, one can identify factors which alter the way things appear, and that there is widespread agreement that these factors qualify as abnormal.
The above examples are examples of sensuous appearances. We will not provide any definition or account of the notion of a sensuous appearance; we rely on the above examples to indicate what we mean. The point to emphasize here is that the appearance need not be sensuous. When Stephan first encounters Cantor’s diagonal proof of the existence of uncountable sets, understanding dawns simultaneously with the apprehension of beauty as the elements of the proof appear to organize themselves with an astonishing simplicity and clarity, a clarity and simplicity that appears to Stephan to invest him with the power to tame the infinite. The appearance, although non-sensuous, has a force and immediacy analogous to a sensuous appearance. We will call such appearances non-sensuous appearances, and again we rely on examples to indicate what we mean. We offer one more. Sarah reads the following lines from Wallace Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:
Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies, the body’s beauty lives.
Sarah finds the lines beautiful as she sees in the image of immortality in the flesh a simultaneous rejection and endorsement of a Platonic conception of beauty as a Form that shines through physical appearances. This is not to say that she formulates to herself the thought, “The image of immortality in the flesh is a simultaneous rejection and endorsement of a Platonic conception of beauty as a Form that shines through physical appearances”; rather, the image encapsulates this idea with a force and immediacy analogous to Stephan’s experience of Cantor’s argument.
Three further points are in order. First, one can be mistaken about the way things appear. Imagine that, as you turn a corner, you suddenly see a modern interpretation of a traditional church constructed entirely out of concrete; you think that the strong diagonal elements appear just short of mechanical. However, when you return the next day, it is plain to you that the elements appear quite mechanical. You attribute your earlier belief to your surprise and consequent unexpected enjoyment at discovering the structure; your sudden enjoyment made you see the building in a more favorable light than you do on your return. When you see the building under more normal conditions, it appears differently. Similar remarks are possible in the case of all the examples. It is indeed typical for us to change our minds about the way things appear on ground that conditions were not normal.
Second, the way things appear may vary from person to person even under normal conditions. When you look at the statue, Aphrodite’s body may appear to you to be covered with flesh at once marble-hard and humanly soft, but when Jones looks, the statute may not appear as having flesh at all, but simply as a marble rendition of a human form. Neither you nor Jones need be mistaken about how the statue appears. Under normal conditions, it just appears differently to you than it does to Jones.
B. Derivative Versus Non-Derivative Judgments of Beauty
Imagine that you and Jones are looking that the Taj Mahal. Your enjoyment leads you to exclaim, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jones agrees, thereby expressing his own judgment that the Taj is beautiful. Jones, however, does not enjoy looking at the Taj; he never has, and does not ever expect to. He agrees with you because he knows that the received opinion is that the Taj is beautiful, and his agreement acknowledges that the Taj belongs with that diverse collection of items that people generally take to be beautiful. One can in this way judge something beautiful even if has never enjoyed the item and never expects to. Our response rests on a distinction between derivative and non-derivative judgments of beauty.
A. Non-Derivative Judgments
Our claim is that one must enjoy what one non-derivatively judges to be beautiful. When Jones judges the Taj beautiful, his judgment is derivative. A judgment of beauty is derivative if and only if it is based solely on the reports of others. We intend the “solely” to exclude cases in which the reports of others provide one with reason to think one will enjoy something, and in which one judges it beautiful on the basis of one’s own possible future enjoyment. Suppose, for example, that, Arthur sends the following text message to Gwen, “At Taj. Beautiful! Must see to appreciate.” Gwen, who regards as Arthur as a competent judge whose tastes she shares, assumes that if she were to see the Taj, she would enjoy it and would, on that basis, judge it beautiful. Her post-text-message assertion that the Taj is beautiful is not—in the sense we intend—based solely on Arthur’s report, but on her expectation of her enjoyment and consequent judgment.
Not all judgments of beauty are derivative. Our argument for this claim assumes that one typically has reasons for a judgment of beauty. Some support for this assumption is in order. To this end, compare the Taj and chocolate. One does not treat the “Taj is beautiful” like “Chocolate tastes good.” If, after a good faith tasting of chocolate under appropriate conditions, you and Jones disagree over whether chocolate tastes good, you will not try to change Jones’ mind. Chocolate tastes good to you but not to Jones, and that is the end of the matter. In contrast, if, after a good faith viewing of the Taj Mahal, you think the Taj is beautiful, and Jones does not, it would neither be out of place nor unusual for you to try to change Jones’s mind by offering him reasons to think the Taj is beautiful. This is not to say that, when one gives reasons for a judgment of beauty, one expects others to infer on the basis of these reasons that the item is beautiful. We defer our discussion of the purpose of reason-giving to Chapter IV.
Your “Beautiful, isn’t it?” in response to the Taj is an example of a non-derivative judgment. We contend that, typically, when one non-derivatively judges that something is beautiful, (1) one enjoys an experience φ under an array of features A, where φ is the experience of the items’ looking to one to have the features in A, and (2) at least part of one’s reason for the judgment that the item looks to one to have the features in A. In support, suppose you were required to defend your judgment, you would you would describe the aspects of it that you enjoy. It is your belief that you enjoy the Taj in the way you, not the reports of others, that constitutes your reason for your judgment that the Taj is beautiful. This is typical; one gives reasons for one’s judgment that, for example, a face, painting, statue, or poem is beautiful by indicating the features one enjoys. Typically, when one non-derivatively judges that something is beautiful, one’s reason for the judgment is, at least in part, that one enjoys (has enjoyed, or expects to enjoy) the item in a certain way. It is sufficient for our current purposes simply to note that this is typically true. We defer to Chapter V the discussion of whether this typical truth is also a necessary one; it is only in the context of that chapter that we can fully clarify the relation between judgment, reasons, and enjoyment and thus adequately explain why it matters that one enjoy the item one judges beautiful.
Since we will be exclusively concerned with non-derivative judgments, we will for the most part drop the qualification “non-derivative.” We will argue that the enjoyment which serves as the reason for a (non-derivative) judgment of beauty is a special kind of enjoyment. Let us call the enjoyment which plays this role b-enjoyment. In Section II, we argue in this section that b-enjoyment is an instance of first-person-reason enjoyment. In Section III, we argue that this instance is a distinctive special case of value-enjoyment.
II. B-Enjoyment As A First-Person-Reason Enjoyment
x b-enjoys y only if φ is an experience of y’s looking to x to have the features in the array A, and x first-person-reason enjoys φ under A.
x b-enjoys y only if φ is an experience of y’s looking to x to have the features in the array A, and
(1) x φ’s, and x's φing causes (2) – (3):
(2) (a) x occurrently believes, of φ, under A, that it occurs; (b) and has the felt desire, of φ, under A, that it should occur for its own sake;
(3) the belief/desire pair in (2) is a first-person reason under A for x to φ.
There are two questions. Is (3) characteristic of those cases in which one’s reasons for a non-derivative judgment of beauty are that the item appears to one to have an enjoyed array of features A? And, if so, why require that the experience cause the relevant belief/desire pair to play the role of a first-person reason?
Reflection on examples shows the plausibility of the claim that the pair serves as a first-person reason. Consider Kandinsky’s famous conversion to abstract painting. Kandinsky writes that
It was the hour of approaching dusk. I came home with my paintbox after making a study, still dreaming and wrapped up in the work I had completed, when suddenly I saw an indescribably beautiful picture drenched with an inner glow. At first I hesitated, then I rushed toward this mysterious picture, of which I saw nothing but forms and colors, and whose content was incomprehensible. Immediately I found the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, leaning against the wall, standing on its side. The next day I attempted to get the same effect by daylight. I was only half-successful: even on its side I always recognized the objects, and the fine finish of dusk was missing. Now I knew for certain that the object harmed my paintings.
Let φ be Kandinsky’s experience of the painting looking to have an array of features A, the features Kandinsky characterizes as “nothing but forms and colors . . . whose content was incomprehensible.” Kandinsky enjoys φ under A. That is, φ causes him to believe, of φ, under A, that it is occurring, and to desire, of φ, under A, that it should occur for it own sake. The belief desire pair also serves as a first-person reason. He “rushed toward this mysterious picture” in part because he had a reason to experience the way it looked. The role of the pair as a first-person reason also forms part of the explanation why he attempted to reproduce the effect the next day; he generalized to the conclusion that similar belief/desire pairs would be first-person reason to have similar experiences.
There are, however, examples that suggest that (3) is not a requirement. Recall Gouge. Gouge’s intensely religious upbringing instilled in him the conviction that a man should not feel erotic desire for another man. In his adolescence, he nonetheless finds himself sexually attracted to his best male friend, but he regards desire as the work of Satan, who is placing temptations before him, and he resists the desire and attempted to rid himself of it. He would never have offered his erotic desires in regard to his friend, and his belief that his friend would welcome his advances, as a justification for making advances. Gouge may nonetheless enjoy looking at his friend under an array of features A that includes features depicting his Gouge’s perception of his friend’s looks and personality. Gouge may, that is, satisfy these conditions:
(1) he looks at his friend, and that experience φ causes him
(2) (a) to occurrently believe, of φ, under A, that it occurs; (b) and to have the felt desire, of φ, under A, that it should occur for its own sake.
Gouge does not personally-reason enjoy looking at his friend because that requires that he regard the belief/desire pair as providing a justification for looking at his friend. Can’t one imagine Gouge thinking, “He is beautiful”?
Suppose Gouge does claim the friend is beautiful. How is he to answer the questions, “Why do you find him beautiful”? As we noted earlier, one does indeed have reasons for a judgment of beauty, and those reasons, in Gouge’s case will consist in the features in A. When one judges something beautiful, one is willing to offer the enjoyed features as a justification for the judgment. Can he do so without regarding the belief/desire pair as providing a justification for looking at his friend? To assert that something is beautiful is to recommend it as something for both oneself and others to experience, and to so recommend it is surely to regard the belief/desire pair as providing a justification. As we argued earlier, to judge that something is beautiful is to be prepared, on the basis of one’s enjoyment to recommend it as something for both oneself and others to experience.
Why require that the experience of the item’s looking to have the features in the array A cause the belief/desire pair to serve as a first-person reason? The reason parallels the reason for including the requirement in the definition of first-person reason generally. The reason is that requirement partially explains the power beauty can exercise. It explains in part why, for example, one continues to read the novel even though it is late at night and one must be up early in the morning, and why one cannot tear oneself away from Michelangelo’s David. The power of the enjoyment of what one finds beautiful consists in part in invoking the authority of reason by making one think, “This is justified.” The experience testifies to its own justification. In doing so, the enjoyment of what one finds beautiful shares with first-person reason enjoyment generally the power to capture one in a feedback loop.
To illustrate these themes, consider an example in which the causal relation fails to obtain. An elderly museum curator is enjoying looking at his favorite Gauguin. The relevant belief/desire pair functions as a first-person reason to look at the painting, but the experience of looking does not causally sustain that reason. It used to; in his youth, one look at the painting would rivet his attention on it. But now to look at the painting is to be reminded of his youth and of the comparative shortness of the rest of his life. The painting is powerless to hold these thoughts at bay; indeed, power the painting now has is the power to spark unpleasant reflections, and the curator turns away from the painting in the hope that the reflections will more quickly run their course. Far from causally sustaining his first-person reason to look at the painting, the experience of looking at the painting gives him first-person reason to turn away. The curator’s experience is far removed from what Keats describes at the beginning of Endymion: