The Aesthetic Relevance of Empirical Findings

Kongress-Akten der Deutschen Gesellschaft Für Ästhetik 2:1-21 (2011)
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Empirical findings may be relevant for aesthetic evaluation in at least two ways. First — within criticism — they may help us to identify the aesthetic value of objects. Second— whithin philosophy — they may help us to decide which theory of aesthetic value and evaluation to prefer. In this paper, I address both kinds of relevance. My focus is thereby on empirical evidence gathered, not by means of first-personal experiences, but by means of third-personal scientific investigations of individual artworks or, more generally, our interaction with art. The main thesis to be defended is that third-personal empirical findings are of limited significance for both critical and philosophical aesthetics. Indeed, they matter only to the extent to which they draw our attention to features or facts that we then iden- tify, from our first-personal perspective, as aesthetically relevant — for instance, as reasons counting for or against certain ascriptions of aesthetic value, or as factors that causally influence our actual as- sessments and thus render them partly inadequate or irrational. This limited significance of empirical findings is in line with the rationalist approach to the formation and justification of aesthetic judgements, that I have already started to defend elsewhere. With respect to critical aesthetics, one problem is that empirical investigations cannot capture the normativity of the aesthetic relevance of lower-level features or facts: the respective studies can tell us what we take to be reason-giving or valuable, but not what is reason-giving or valuable. Furthermore, we cannot use empirically knowable principles to infer the presence of aesthetic values or reasons on the basis of recognising measurable lower-level features because the only available principles are too specific to allow for their actual application to more than one existing object, or even for their actual formulation. For their antecedents make reference to a large number of very determinate properties, as well as sometimes to particular events of creation. The only exception are conceptual principles (such as ‘something symmetrical is balanced’) or default principles (such as ‘something elegant is, by default, beautiful’). But knowledge of these principles is of little inferential use due to the holistic character of the justificatory power of aesthetic reasons and, moreover, does not allow for empirical acquisition. With respect to philosophical aesthetics, I start with considering the limits of evolutionary accounts of aesthetic value. Even if it is true that humans originally came to value artworks because they recognised that artworks reveal certain skills or features of artists (such as imaginativeness or resourcefulness) that are desirable in sexual partners, it does not value that our reasons for valuing art have not changed, or at least not become much more complex. In addition, the answer to the question of why we value art from an evolutionary perspective has no obvious bearing on the issue of how we should appreciate art from an aesthetic perspective, or what such aesthetic appreciation would consist in. On the other hand, experimental studies showing that our actual aesthetic evaluations are influenced by factors (such as exposure e ects, or knowledge of the prices of objects), that undermine the good standing of our responses, just reveal that it is more difficult than perhaps expected to form sound aesthetic judgements; and that we need to improve our future aesthetic judgements by diminishing as much as possible the impact of those factors.

Author's Profile

Fabian Dorsch
PhD: University College London; Last affiliation: Université de Fribourg


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