Saturday, April 23, 2011


I was moved to write this blog entry by the title to the Notes, to Lecture 59 in the Philosophy series of The Teaching Company, 2004. The title read

"AESTHETICS - Beauty Without Observers."

How could beauty exist without someone to see it? Why would anyone deem such a philosophical position necessary?

So, first (to please Gerry), a definition –

Aesthetics – a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty. That branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste. (The New Oxford English Dictionary)

Beauty, it seems, is a little hard to define, hence the need for a discipline - aesthetics - to do the job for us. Is beauty then even real, or is it some figment of our imagination? It cannot be touched, tasted, or smelled. It has no mass, extension, or velocity. By these measures, says science, it has no objective existence. However, according to the philosophy of realism a thing exists if the world cannot function normally without it. So, what might our world be like without beauty? Well, I thought at first it might look like a cross between Manila and the industrial north of England in 1900 on a rainy day – you know, colorless, disjointed, dispiriting and grimy, with flaking paint and broken windows. But actually that’s not so much an absence of beauty as a description of its opposite, ugliness, caused by overcrowding, poverty and neglect – the other end of the aesthetic scale, but still part of it.

A world without any aesthetic scale would be something slightly different. Such a world would, I imagine, be entirely utilitarian, a sort of Communist or maybe Fascist utopia dedicated to the efficiency of production, and to nothing else. It would be run by dull-suited bureaucrats who never smiled. All buildings would be rectangular, all city layouts rectilinear, and everything would be painted an institutional grey. All would dress identically, with just two hairstyles – one for men and one for women. Makeup – an unnecessary adornment - would be unknown, as would jewelry and indeed any kind of fashion, or fashion accessory. There would be no art, no music, and no pageantry. Sculpture would exist, but only in the form of grey monuments to leadership, conquest, and production. What festivals there were would be military in nature and precision, completely lacking in color or variety, consisting rather of interminable marches with rhythmic percussion as accompaniment – the only form of music and “dancing” deemed sensible. Food would be nutritious, but bland, the diet rotating on a fixed schedule, and invariably served in rectangular, polystyrene containers with recyclable plastic cutlery, plastic being the most ubiquitous material next to concrete. People would be ciphers, identified by numbers (their Maximum Leader would, I suspect, secretly refer to them as “digits”) and work nine to five without exception in grey cubicles in featureless, grey, office tower blocks. Private cars would come in three models – Small, Medium, and Large. All would be painted black. Efficiencies of scale would be maximized. All domestic animals would be confined to factory farms, and farming, like industry, would be in the control of massive machines. The countryside would be covered with large, rectangular fields for growing staple grains. Mountaintops would be flattened, and valleys filled, to regularize the flow of water, the planting of crops, and the straightness of roads. Forests would all be of the plantation type, with trees planted equidistantly, in rows. Gardens would be devoted exclusively to the growing of vegetables.

Yes, I think that’s more like it. Whew! Sounds a lot more like grim reality than I had expected. Still, man cannot live by bread alone, and perhaps I have made my point; if it ever needed making, that beauty is real enough.

But what is it? Because the troublesome point is, if beauty is undefined, or undefinable, merely whatever you personally happen to like, then it lacks that essential element of objective agreement that science needs to pronounce something real; something we can all point our finger at and say “that is what we mean by beauty”; i.e. something that exists independently of the observer; something that’s out there. If an assertion – “That vase is beautiful.” – is to be rationally justifiable to the logical positivists among us, it must be scientifically verifiable, or amenable to logical or mathematical proof. Failing that, beauty is held to be a mere figment of each person’s disconnected fancy.

Thus, to preserve beauty, whose existence none of us doubts, Plato insisted its essence must not depend on any percipient, but on a higher, disembodied ideal (Diotima, in the Symposium), and 2300 years later G. E. Moore found it necessary to make the similar claim that if “the beautiful world is in itself better than the ugly” (and he too agreed it is) then beauty must be at least to some degree independent of human existence (Principia Ethica, 1903 - both quoted in those Notes).

The principles of aesthetics, then, aim to rescue beauty – undeniable as it is – from the illusory world of the merely mental and subjective by putting it on a firm, objective footing, by making it measurable, and thereby accessible to science, which, by its own estimate, is the study of what is real. Beauty then becomes a property of certain two-dimensional surfaces (e.g. paintings), three-dimensional objects (e.g. sculptures), and wavelengths and forms (e.g. music and light shows) and everybody can breathe freely again.

On one thing I think we all agree: beauty, like truth, is unequivocally a species of good (“the beautiful world is better than the ugly”), while in the medieval conception of things there is beauty in goodness. Either way, beauty is on a scale, or hierarchy of value.

But hang on a moment! Our subject-object metaphysics - the dualistic cornerstone of Western thought - holds firmly to a scientific tradition of value neutrality. Values, being indefinable, are quite explicitly illegal in the hallowed halls of science. So, having safely installed the essence of beauty in the domain of the really real, the question then becomes, can any hierarchy of values, of quality – of goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness – be inferred from a purely objective world, a world without observers, a world which science unequivocally declares is “value free”? What does it mean, from within a strictly subject-object metaphysics, to say that the universe, or even part of it, is intrinsically beautiful?

I would submit that it means, literally, nothing whatever. If we accept a primary division of the world into subjects and objects, value cannot be thereafter derived from a disinterested observation of “facts”. Facts are always selected on the basis of some preexisting hierarchy of values supplied by us, and never the other way around. Facts cannot be appreciated – i.e. noticed - without the imposition of these preconceived qualities. Beauty is value through and through, and value cannot be defined without killing it.

Put another way, “value” and “object” are contradictory terms. The latter is definable, and therefore scientific, the former is neither. If beauty is objective it disappears into the flatland of value-neutral science, which can’t tell the difference between babies and bathwater. If beauty is subjective it retains its value – but thereby ceases scientifically to exist.

We are forced into this paradox by the demands of our dualistic reason, which insists that only that is real which can be measured. If beauty doesn’t inhere in objects, then it doesn’t exist outside our minds, which is to say, according to science, it doesn’t exist period. To be considered real, our mythos says, truth must be independent of what anyone thinks about it. And this must apply to beauty, or beauty is a chimera.

But is it not the case that a world shorn of observers (subjects) is, by definition, a world without quality? What do terms like “better” and “worse” mean apart from our needs and desires? What might an objective world look like? Could one even conceive of such a world?

Well, I suppose it might look a bit like the second description I wrote at the top. Sort of colorless and flat. To drive home the impossibility, or at least the insanity of such a world I want to quote from Robert Pirsig. He begins by making the point that at any given moment there is an infinity of data, like a whole beachful of sand, impinging on our senses, …

From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it… We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.

The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles – sizes in different piles – grain shapes in different piles – subtypes of grain shapes in different piles – grades of opacity in different piles – and so on, and on, and on.

…it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing the figure is not to see the landscape at all. [Last italics mine – PH]

(Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pp 75-76. Corgi 1976)

Pirsig is saying that objects cannot exist without subjects. What this means for aesthetics, the philosophy of beauty, is that – contrary to what Plato and Moore assert – beauty cannot exist apart from the one who appreciates it. The two are indivisible. (To make this earth-shaking point clear Pirsig goes a great deal further than I have space for here.)

One thing that emerges from our review of the history of the aesthetic is the unsurprising discovery that the standard of what constitutes beauty varies from culture to culture, and evolves over time. The aesthetics of ancient Greece reflect their preoccupation with all things classical and intellectual, their need to analyze and categorize according to form and proportion, while those of medieval Europe (as yet ignorant of ancient Greece) reflect their preoccupation with morality, their need to conform to rigorous standards of ethical behavior. In other times and places standards of beauty have varied to a similar or even greater degree – viz the piercing and plugging of the lower lip of the women of certain African tribes, originally to make them unattractive to the slave traders, but eventually as a sign of beauty. I also recall Jacob Bronovski scoffing at the “passionless painting” of the East, in his The Ascent of Man. William Blake, the mystic, wrote that “Exuberance is Beauty”. All this points in a very different direction from that of an immutable standard of the beautiful, namely, that, au contrair, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

There is, then, a large social component to the appreciation of beauty which the Greeks seem to have missed, and we along with them, and we don’t have to venture far to learn why.

They said that Athena was the daughter of Zeus not from intercourse, but when the god had in mind the making of a world through a word (logos) his first thought was Athena.

(Justin Martyr, 2nd century)

Not so. The Greek logos - reason - evolved out of the Greek mythos. It did not spring, fully formed, from the brow of Zeus. What the Greeks (and we) accept as hard, objective reality is actually a hierarchy of values built on eons of shared cultural experience, and this includes science (Quiet please. Screams of dissention noted). The world we see is not objective. Never was. Never will be. We select what to believe in based on the values we already hold, and call that the real world, and indeed that world is real. It’s just not the only real world.

No man is an island. We are social beings. That’s part of our reality. It’s language that makes thought possible, and language is a product of social interaction. Social values are hard-wired into the world as we perceive it. Reality must be shared, or it’s counted insanity. Are you still with me? A very convenient science fiction though it may be, there is no objective world; no world “out there” that’s the same for everyone. There is only value, most of which is shared, giving the illusion of objectivity because everyone we trust agrees with us about it. It’s the social agreement on what is real – and what is beautiful – that gives the illusion of objectivity, an illusion outside of which lies infinity in every direction. The absolutes we assign to the experiences we deem important are in fact everywhere, in everything.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake)

To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.

(Auguries of Innocence, William Blake)

But of course we can’t handle that. We have to narrow it down, as Pirsig notes. And so we create a mythos, a world view that unites our group – a tiny fragment of all that’s possible, all that’s going on - and we call it reality, and defend it tooth and nail against all who question it.

Beauty, first, is about perceived value. Aesthetics cannot be reduced to a science. It's appreciation. It is simply meaningless to talk (as Moore does) about something beautiful but as yet unappreciated, and possibly never to be appreciated. Beauty, precisely, must have an audience, a beholder, or it is mere nothingness.

Oh dear, here come the protests: “but what of the girl, shielded from society by her parents until presented to the world at the age of eighteen and pronounced a stunner? What of the long-lost Renaissance painting? What of Yosemite before Lewis and Clark? Did they only become beautiful when human eyes beheld them?

Of course they did! Hello? Man is the measure of all things. We have to be! Beauty is neither to be found in the object alone, nor in the subject alone. Beauty is a relationship between the subject and the object. It occurs between the subject and the object, at the point at which they meet. Beauty is not a thing. It is an event.

Maybe it’s infinity that we have intimations of in the “danger and power” of the sublime remarked on by Edmund Burke. Great beauty is transcendent. It takes us out of ourselves, makes us forget who we are. But all that is not to say that great beauty is objective. It is we who appreciate it, depending on our capacity, transcending ourselves in ever more widely-encompassing embrace (to use one of Ken Wilber’s favorite words), enfolding and augmenting all that has gone before in our culture to experience wider and wider vistas of aesthetic awareness. In this interpretation we are not mere observers, cut off from the beauty we encounter; rather, we’re participants in its expression, lighting rods for the value which illuminates our world.



With humble apologies to Robert Pirsig, whose philosophy – the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) – inspired this blog (and most of the preceding). It’s a radically different way of seeing which yet leaves the world as it finds it. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes. Subjects and objects still exist, but as different levels of value. It clears up a lot of paradoxes (which perhaps we can take up another time) that the subject-object dichotomy generates and can never resolve.

Rereading his two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Lila, to prepare this blog, as well as his notes to Lila’s Child, I jotted down many quotes which in the end I didn’t use. Here are a few of them –

Scientifically speaking, in the real world nothing is better than anything else.

Scientific laws without people to write them are a scientific impossibility.

All scientific knowledge, including knowledge of objects, is subjective knowledge. This knowledge is confirmed by experience in such a way as to allow the scientist to generate a supremely high quality intellectual belief that external objects exist. But that belief itself is still subjective.

The observation itself creates the intellectual patterns called “observed” and “observer” (object and subject). How could subjects and objects exist in a world where there was no observation?

There seems to be a materialist assumption… that there’s a huge world out there that has nothing to do with people. This is a high quality assumption – but it needs people to make it! We have never heard of, nor will we ever hear of anything that is not human specific.

The idea that something existed before we became sentient did not exist before we became sentient. Thus, although “common sense” dictates that inorganic nature preceded ideas, this “common sense” conclusion is itself a set of ideas. This “common sense” is arrived at through a huge web of evaluations of various alternatives. To evaluate is to prioritize values. The fundamental reality is not the common sense or the objects and laws approved of by common sense, but the approval itself and the quality that leads to it.

Subjects and objects are different levels of value, not expressions of independent scientific reality.

Quality can be recognized, but never defined.

Quality is apprehended by direct experience only, and not by reasoning of any kind.