Beauty is Not (Entirely) in the Eye of the Beholder

by Dwight Furrow

SunsetIn philosophy the most important development in the last 300 years has been the idea that what can be intelligibly said about reality is constructed out of our subjective responses, suitably constrained by social norms and intersubjective communication. This is the essence of Immanuel Kant's so-called Copernican Revolution in philosophy which converted us from naïve realists who took reality at face value to sophisticated anti-realists constructing reality via the structures of consciousness and language.

Kant's argument is sound but preposterous. One would have thought that reality's stubborn resistance to our ideas and expectations and the fact we are often surprised by this resistance might lead us to take the idea of a real world more seriously. The performative contradiction of claiming all reality is a social construction while traipsing off to the doctor when ill renders truth and knowledge the exclusive purview of scientists who have never shown much inclination toward anti-realism. But once these "naïve" realist thoughts are cast out in favor of Kant's fastidious, critical skepticism, common sense can't find a way back in. And so for 300 years we have been denying what to non-philosophers seems obvious—there is a real world out there with which our senses put us into contact.

In light of this revolution in thought we were, by now, supposed to be basking in the friendly solidarities of intersubjective agreement, a consequence that unfortunately appears to be increasingly remote. This idea that reality is a social construction ebbs and flows outside the philosophy class but in today's "post-truth" society it seems ascendant. Perhaps a new way must be found to anchor truth in something more substantial than contingent, collective agreements.

Yet the one area that everyone agrees is subjective and seems the least amenable to a realist treatment is aesthetics. That beauty is in the eye of the bolder is taken to be so obvious it's barely worth mentioning. However, for those of us who think reality is getting short shrift, this easy comfort with the subjectivity of aesthetic judgment is puzzling. After all, aesthetic judgment involves our sensibility and perception, the fundamental way we feel and perceive reality, the critical interface on which that contact with reality rests. Aesthetics would seem to be the arena in which we discover the hard, resistant surfaces of reality and feel them most acutely. If we are to make the case for realism it will likely be through a better understanding of sensibility, and so aesthetics seems crucially relevant.

Regarding aesthetics, Kant insisted that an aesthetic judgment is one "whose determining basis cannot be other than subjective". But beauty doesn't seem to be merely subjective. When impressed by the beauty of a sunset, we are not aware of projecting our attitudes onto the sunset. Rather, the attribution of beauty is a response to the sunset, a recognition of something there in the brilliant sky. Furthermore, if a painting is beautiful it remains beautiful even when locked away in a closet unobserved. The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder does a poor job of explaining the stability and persistence of those features of objects we judge to be beautiful. In fact, Kant surreptitiously admits this. When I judge a flower to be beautiful, Kant writes, the beauty is not in the flower. Rather, the flower is beautiful "only by virtue of that characteristic in which it adapts itself to the way we apprehend it". But that formulation contains an implicit reference to some characteristic in virtue of which it adapts to us. Thus, there is something in the object that plays some explanatory role.

The standard picture of our judgments of beauty is that they begin with subjective feelings of pleasure and from those feelings of pleasure we judge an object beautiful. But this ignores the fact that there is something causing that feeling of pleasure. Alfred North Whitehead called the beauty of a flower "a lure for feeling." We're lured, drawn in, captivated by the flower, which is a better way of capturing the phenomenology of beauty as more response than projection. But if beauty is a lure for feeling it can't be the result of that feeling. The pleasure I get is a by-product of this allure. The judgment that a flower is beautiful might depend on pleasure but the attraction has already taken place. The thing and its allure is not constructed by us, it constructs and guides our experience. The attention to the flower is not response dependent; it is the response. It is Whitehead not Kant, who gets this relationship right.

And so Whitehead, trying to reverse Kant's revolution, argues that the subject arises from objectivity:

For Kant the process whereby there is experience is a passage from subjectivity to apparent objectivity. The philosophy of organism inverts this analysis, and explains the process as proceeding from objectivity to subjectivity, namely, from the objectivity whereby the external world is a datum, to the subjectivity, whereby there is one individual experience (Process and Reality, 156)

Kant's mistake was to see subjectivity as prior to and thus unmoored from its rootedness in the object, a stance he could not maintain even in his own formulations. Of course, Kant does not deny that reality impresses itself on us. But for him reality, the so called "thing-in-itself", can only be posited, not known, a mere logical requirement about which we can say nothing. By contrast, Whitehead's radical empiricism asserts that nothing comes into existence on its own; there is always an actual entity that explains all emergence. And it is by means of causality, real objects pressing upon us, that we come to experience beauty.

However, the problem with a straightforward realism about beauty, of the sort Whitehead seems at times to advocate, is that no straightforward causal account of beauty seems plausible. Causality operates according to laws, generalizations about what sorts of things cause other sorts of things. And the realm of aesthetics seems not to have such laws or general principles. Just as there is no law that connects a song slow of tempo in a minor key to our feelings of sadness, there is no law that connects symmetry and vivid color to beauty. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions that enable us to infer beauty from a set of objective properties. What is beautiful in one object may be ugly in another.

But this problem arises because the causal account connecting aesthetic properties with our responses to them is not straightforward. Recent work by theorists such as George Molnar on powers and dispositions as objective properties of reality helps make the case that beauty is at least in part in the object although we experience it indirectly.

Beautiful objects are not merely beautiful. The judgment of beauty rests, in part, on more substantive properties such as delicacy, symmetry, vibrancy, elegance, etc. Like beauty, we often experience these more fully descriptive properties as real properties of objects, not as projections. Yet we disagree about them as vehemently as we do judgments about beauty. It is this disagreement that lends support to the claim that aesthetic judgments are subjective. How can competent perceivers disagree if aesthetic properties are in the object, just there to be perceived?

The answer is that aesthetic properties such as elegance or delicacy are dispositional properties, objective properties of objects in the external world, which under the right conditions, cause us to have an aesthetic experience. These dispositional properties are identified only via their manifestations, the way they show themselves, but are nevertheless properties of the object rather than the observer and thus explain why we see the object as beautiful and justify that attribution.

To see this, consider a non-aesthetic property such as the red color of a rose. A rose is red because we see it as red. But if we are normally sighted, we do so because of the reflective properties of rose petals. These reflective properties of the rose provide the foundation for the rose's disposition to cause our experience of red if we are standard human perceivers under normal viewing conditions. The redness of the rose is presented to us in a manifestation event, an experience, under appropriate manifestation conditions. The physical features of the rose dispose it to be perceived as red, just as the physical features of a glass bowl dispose it to break when dropped.

The property "looking red" is of course relative to a perceiver, i.e. those perceivers who are equipped to view the rose as red and are thus disposed to do so under the appropriate conditions. But although "redness" here is defined in terms of its subjective manifestation, the existence of the property being manifested is not relative. The appearance of the property "red" is relative to human perceivers, but that does not entail that the existence of the property "red" is response dependent. The disposition to appear red is in the rose; the manifestation of the disposition is in the observer.

The key move that a metaphysics of powers makes is to view dispositions, which are causal powers, as objective features of an independently existing reality .There is a causal relationship between the properties of an object and a perceiver's response. But on a dispositional analysis, those properties are not mere properties but are causal powers which aim at bringing about particular responses in observers. This relationship is only a potential relationship until a manifestation event occurs, and we only perceive the disposition, the causal power, via the manifestation event, making the relationship between the objective property and the perceiver indirect. Yet, these causal powers in no way depend on the observers for their existence. The power to produce a response exists independently of its manifestation. A fragile glass bowl remains fragile even if it never crashes to the floor; a red rose remains red even when there is no one around to perceive it.

A similar analysis is available for aesthetic properties. We experience a painting exhibiting dynamic motion, an aesthetic property, because the artist employed strong directional lines along with a variety of irregular shapes and sizes forcing the eye to move about the painting. The perception of dynamism is response dependent, relative to a properly situated observer who has been trained to look for it. But the quality of dynamic motion is also a disposition of the painting, an arrangement of lines and shapes directed toward their manifestation as dynamic motion for an appropriately disposed observer.

These dispositional properties, the arrangement of lines and shapes that explain our recognition of dynamic motion, exist independently of their observation and do not depend on an observer for their existence. Rather, they depend on the objects in the external world of which they are properties. The aesthetic disposition is distinct from the aesthetic response it causes and from the conditions under which it can be observed. Thus, the dynamic painting when locked away in the closet unobserved does not lose its dynamic motion; the dynamic motion is latent, unmanifested, yet still very much part of the painting. On a dispositional analysis, the properties of objects have a stability that they lack on a subjectivist view.

How then can there be disagreements among competent judges if these properties are simply there to be observed. Some disagreements can be attributed to differences in the background of observers or the conditions of observation. But on this realist conception of aesthetic properties, some aesthetic dispositions may be manifest to some observers and not others. And no particular observer is likely to be disposed to experience all of a work's dispositions. In fact, it is possible for the very same object to produce contradictory responses in different observers despite the fact that these properties are genuine features of objects in the world. A rose may appear red to humans and not-red to alien creatures with different perceptual mechanisms, because the manifestation conditions are different for each group. Similarly, a painting may appear vivid and ebullient to one observer and garish to another because the manifestation conditions differ. The painting is disposed to exhibit either manifestation because its features cause such responses in competent observers.

What then about beauty? The recognition of beauty involves apprehensions of complex relations between properties that are experienced together as strikingly harmonious. But there is no reason to think complex arrangements of aesthetic properties that we perceive as harmonious are any less the product of causal powers that exist in the object than simpler properties. No doubt beauty only shows itself when we experience it under the appropriate conditions, but it is, for that, no less a dispositional property of real objects.

The next time someone tells you beauty is in the eye of the beholder just point out that it depends on whether the beholder has an eye for beauty.

For more on aesthetics as it applies to food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution