Aesthetic Judgment

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In recent analytic aesthetics, there have been two prominent questions about aesthetic judgments. One is how to distinguish aesthetic judgments from other judgments. Answering this question seems particularly urgent when an aesthetic judgment and a nonaesthetic judgment about the same object are incongruent. In such a case it seems that an object might be judged to have aesthetic value but also to be negatively judged, say ethically or in terms of its practical use. A corollary question is whether the negative value of a nonaesthetic judgment should affect the allegedly purely aesthetic judgment.

The other prominent question, a question present at least since the eighteenth century, is actually two questions: first, whether aesthetic judgments are objective or subjective, and second, whether aesthetic judgments can be verified or otherwise substantiated. Somewhat curiously, perhaps, some philosophers have thought that even though such judgments are subjective, they are still capable of being supported. David Hume is an example. In contrast, other philosophers have thought that even though such judgments are genuinely objective, they are nonetheless incapable of being verified by customary procedures. Frank Sibley has been the leading exponent of this opinion. A more obvious thesis is Immanuel Kant's, namely that aesthetic judgments are both subjective and impossible to support by any interpersonal means.

Hume (1987) believed that it is possible to identify certain judges as having especially reliable taste and then to take their subjective responses to objects as a standard in evaluating the objects. When such judges deliver what Hume called "a joint verdict," meaning, presumably, that they concur in taking pleasure in an object, taking pleasure in the object is then established as correct, in a sense, with at least customary probability, and any judge who fails to realize this pleasure is defective in his taste.

Kant, in contrast, thought that no corroboration of one's judgment is possible because a concurrence with or difference from the responses of other judges is logically irrelevant.

The idea of something explicitly called an aesthetic judgment seems first to have appeared in the eighteenth century and was formulated in detail by Kant (2000). By "aesthetic judgment" Kant meant a judgment based on a feeling. He was especially concerned to describe those feeling-based judgments in which an object is found beautiful, and then to show that we are entitled to make such judgments despite being unable to verify them. In his conviction that these judgments are essentially subjective (that is, derived from or based on the subject's feeling), Kant is in line with an earlier tradition. The most notable exponent of this tradition was Hume, though it remains unsettled just how much, if any, of Hume's writings on this topic were known to Kant. Yet Kant probably did know the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson, work in the spirit of Hume even if less compelling philosophically. In later developments of the idea of an aesthetic judgment, however, this feeling-based subjectivity has been less important than Kant's description of how an aesthetic judge attends to the object of his judgment.

The subjective character of judgments of beauty seemed obvious in the eighteenth century, especially to Hume and Kant, so obvious that neither of them argued for this notion but simply assumed it. Indeed, the etymology of the word "aesthetic" indicates that an aesthetic judgment must be essentially related to a feeling. The Greek term refers to sense perception, usually, but it has now come to refer to feelings in general, and in particular to feelings of pleasure. Hume does not use the term "aesthetic," and he speaks only of the exercise of taste in the discernment of beauty, but like Kant he takes it for granted that all judgments of beauty arise from feelings of pleasure experienced by the judge.

According to Hume, the term "beauty" does not correspond to any objective property of things, and so judgments of beauty cannot be correct or incorrect in any straightforward manner. Yet such judgments can be vindicated, he thought, by agreement with the judgments of especially well suited judges of the object. These exemplars of taste (whose responses, he said, constitute a "standard of taste") are identified by their stellar discernment, without prejudice, of all the properties of the objects being judged. There is no way to inspect an object for its beauty, Hume thought, because "beauty" does not mark any property of an object, but it is possible, as a matter of empirical investigation, to determine whether any particular judge is an exemplary judge.

Kant, in describing what he calls "a pure judgment of taste," had a different idea. He thought that the judge must pay no attention to any use to which the object might be put, to any concept that applies to the object, or to any interest that the judge might have in the object. The judgment must thus be entirely disinterested and free of any thought that relates the object to anything else. It is a judgment about the object purely and simply in itself.

Kant first described aesthetic judgments made about natural objects (his leading example being a beautiful rose), and then extended such judgments to works of art. He thus effectively regarded successful works of art (which for him meant artificial beautiful objects) as loci for such judgments.

The idea that aesthetic judgment requires a detached state of mind has sometimes been developed as the idea that aesthetic judgments require an aesthetic attitude, a distinct mode of addressing objects. An early exponent of this idea was Arthur Schopenhauer, although he does not use the term "aesthetic attitude." Pursuing a line different from Kant's, Schopenhauer thought that contemplation of works of art was an activity in which one could escape the usual constraints on one's will.

In the early twentieth century, the idea of an aesthetic attitude was developed further, given this particular name, and given more detailed treatment, though it eventually became a problematic notion. An early formulation is Edward Bullough's (1957), although his interests were somewhat more psychological than philosophical. A later, more sophisticated treatment is to be found in the works of Jerome Stolnitz (1978). A useful canvass of the idea is in George Dickie's "The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude" (1964), where Dickie seeks to do away with the idea.

Although continuing conceptions of aesthetic judgment in many respects derive from the early work of Hume and Kant, these conceptions have taken at least two noteworthy turns. In philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the term "aesthetics" has become a virtual synonym for "philosophy of art." This assimilation sometimes draws attention to a question, but at other times tends to cover it upthe question of which is basic, the idea of art or the idea of the aesthetic. In Kant and many of his followers, the idea of the aesthetic is basic, and the idea of art is, so to speak, constructed out of the idea of the aesthetic. Kant thus first characterizes aesthetic judgments and then essentially describes works of fine art as objects about which such judgments can be made. Richard Wollheim (1980), in contrast, reverses this dependence, declaring that to make an aesthetic judgment is to regard something as a work of art.

A radically different thesis is that of Frank Sibley (1959, 1965). Sibley takes aesthetic judgments to be judgments that apply aesthetic concepts to objects through the use of aesthetic terms. Rather than understand taste as Hume and Kant did, as the ability to take pleasure in the judgment of objects, Sibley takes taste to be the ability to use aesthetic terms and concepts. Furthermore, in view of his conviction that aesthetic judgments are objective, Sibley treats the term "beautiful" quite differently from his eighteenth-century predecessors. For Hume and Kant, the term "beauty" has very little semantic content, it indicating only that the object produces a particular feeling of pleasure in the judge. Sibley, in contrast, insists that the term refers to a property of the object being judged. Thus, for Sibley, "beautiful," "elegant," "graceful," and other terms indicated mainly by example are all aesthetic terms, and as such they all refer to objective properties, although only judges exercising what Sibley calls "taste" can detect these properties and hence correctly apply the terms. Thus, quite apart from the tradition of Hume and Kant, Sibley's thesis is that aesthetic judgments are perfectly objective, meaning that their terms refer to properties objectively present in the objects being judged. Yet Sibley's thesis, at least in one respect, is more like Hume's and Kant's than it is like Wollheim's. For Wollheim, to regard an object aesthetically is to regard it as a work of art. For Hume, Kant, and Sibley, aesthetic judgments are freely made of works of art but also of other objects, and in the latter case there is no need to treat these objects as works of art.

Even among those who regard the concept of art as more basic than the concept of the aesthetic, many such thinkers continue to insist, with Kant, that an aesthetic judgment must be disinterested and must not attend to anything besides the object itself. Those who believe aesthetic judgments to be a unique kind of judgment have been eager to distinguish aesthetic judgments from ethical judgments, in particular, and also from practical concerns. Others have wondered whether it is possible to make such a clear logical separation. When the question of design is raised, it becomes increasingly difficult to suppose that an aesthetic judgment about an object is entirely divorced from other considerationsan issue that is perhaps most acute in the case of architecture. If a building is beautiful to behold but ill suited to whatever activities it is meant to house, can one keep the building's evident disutility from contaminating one's sense of the aesthetic value of the building? The same question arises, obviously, in many other cases of artistic design, ranging from automobiles to writing instruments to time-keeping devices. It seems clear that a genuinely ugly object might be a perfectly serviceable automobile or watch. It is less clear that that a poorly performing object can still be beautiful. On this matter, Kant's opinion is clear. He thought that it is one thing to judge a watch, say, to be a good watch because of its perspicuous time display and reliable time keeping, this being to judge the watch in terms relying on the concept of a watch; it is another thing to offer a pure judgment of taste. To other authors, this is not obvious, because for them, questions of utility are difficult to separate from questions of the aesthetic value of an object.

Recently much attention has been given to the separation of ethical concerns from aesthetic concerns (Levinson 2001), and in 2005 it is a much debated question whether the dubious moral character of an art work can be kept separate from its artistic or aesthetic value. There has thus been a renewal of interest in the question of the relations of ethics and aesthetics to one another.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetic Qualities; Aesthetics, History of; Art, Interpretation of; Beauty; Sublime, The; Ugliness.


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Guyer, Paul. "History of Modern Aesthetics." In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Ted Cohen (2005)