The Judgement of Beauty

‘A beautiful symphony’, ‘a beautiful landscape’, ‘a beautiful woman’, ‘a beautiful soul’, ‘a beautiful machine’, ‘a beautiful proof’, ‘a beautiful article’ – are these expressions all to be understood in the same way, as dealing with a single quality, impression or experience? If there is a single quality called beauty, displayed in so many ways, then what kind of a quality is it, and why is it important to notice it? If, however, beauty is not a quality in the object, but an impression ‘in the eye of the beholder’, what kind of impression can it be, that has so many things, from so many contrasting categories, as its object? We discern beauty in concrete objects and abstract ideas, in works of nature and works of art, in things, animals and people, in objects, qualities and actions – and, as the list expands to take in just about every logical and ontological category (are there not beautiful prepositions as well as beautiful worlds, beautiful rules of inference as well as beautiful snails?), it becomes more and more obvious that we are not describing a property, in any normal sense of the word. For how could there be a single property exhibited by so many disparate entities? To suggest such a thing is like suggesting that a proof, an elephant, an idea, a symphony, a landscape, an adverb, a soul could all be blue in just the way that a coat might be blue. Sure, we know what it is for someone to be blue, and for a piece of music to be blue, but we also know that we are dealing with metaphors here, which may be anchored in the word for a colour, but which are not referring to colours. When an adjective expands to cover every conceivable category of substantive we are more likely to understand its meaning if, instead of asking what property it expresses, we change the question, and ask what a person might be doing, in making such a judgement. Why do we call things beautiful? What point are we making, and what is the state of mind that is required of us, if our judgement is to be sincere?

        I have used the word ‘judgement’ there, since it spontaneously suggests itself. We judge something to be beautiful. We don’t, in the same way, judge something to be blue, wooden or a dog. Of course, there are difficult cases where we might, as it were, strain towards the conclusion that this before me is wooden or a dog. And here we might speak of judgement, meaning that the matter is to a certain measure undecided, and there is room for more than one view. It might well be a dog, or a sheep or a professor of philosophy. In the case of the ‘judgement of beauty’, as it has come to be known, the word ‘judgement’ seems appropriate in every case, however normal and central. And that seems to imply that there is always a certain room for disagreement, that in making the judgement we are going beyond the literal evidence in a way that we do not go beyond it in our normal descriptions. We speak of judgement here because the attribution of beauty is in the nature of a verdict, like the evaluation of an action as morally good. What kind of verdict, and what is our interest in making it?

        There is a peculiar problem about beauty, however, which makes it difficult to answer that question in any simple way. It is a problem brought to the fore by Plato, in the Phaedo and the Symposium, and which is acknowledged in many works of poetry written under Plato’s direct or indirect influence. The problem is this: beauty is an object of contemplation, and in describing something as beautiful we are, in the normal case, standing back from it, endorsing its existence, acknowledging its deep self-sufficiency and its right to be. However, there is a form of beauty – the form that exerts the greatest power over us and to which our intensest labours are devoted – which is an object not of contemplation but of desire, and that is human beauty. We describe the object of sexual desire as beautiful, and the object of desire is not contemplated but pursued. And the purpose of this pursuit is to possess the object of desire, to unite with him or her in the sexual act. Does this mean that there are two kinds of beauty? Or does it rather mean that the desire to possess is some kind of mistake that we tend to make, when beauty is perceived in a human form rather than in a work of art or an abstract idea? Or does it mean that there is one and the same principle that manifests itself, on the one hand in sexual desire, and on the other hand in the contemplation of beauty in all its many forms?

        Plato was drawn to the third of those responses. He identified a divine principle, eros, as the origin both of sexual desire and the love of beauty. Eros is a form of love which seeks to unite with its object, and to make copies of it – as men and women make copies of themselves through sexual reproduction. In addition to that base form of erotic love, however, there is also a higher form, in which the object of love is not possessed but contemplated, and in which the process of copying occurs not in the realm of concrete particulars but in the realm of abstract ideas – the realm of the ‘forms’ as Plato described them. By contemplating the beautiful object the soul rises from its immersion in merely sensuous and concrete things, and ascends to a higher sphere, where it is not the beautiful boy who is studied, but the form of the beautiful itself, which enters the soul as a true possession, in the way that Ideas generally reproduce themselves in the souls of those who understand them. This higher form of reproduction belongs to the aspiration towards immortality, which is the soul’s highest longing in this world. But it is impeded by too great a fixation on the lower kind of reproduction, which is a form of imprisonment in the here and now. Sexual desire, in its common form (aphrodite pandemos) involves a desire to possess what is mortal and transient, and a consequent enslavement to the lower aspect of the soul, the aspect that is immersed in sensuous immediacy and the things of this world. The love of beauty is really a signal to free ourselves from that sensory attachment, and to begin the ascent of the soul towards the world of the forms, there to participate in the divine version of reproduction, which is the understanding and the passing on of abstract ideas. That is the true kind of erotic love (aphrodite ouraneia), and is manifest in the chaste attachment between man and boy, in which the man takes the role of teacher, and in which the boy’s beauty is seen, not as an object of desire, but as an object of contemplation.

        That potent collection of ideas has of course had a long subsequent history. Its intoxicating way of mixing homoerotic love, the career of the teacher, and the redemption of the soul, has touched the hearts of teachers (especially of male teachers) down the centuries. And the heterosexual version of the Platonic myth had an enormous influence on medieval poetry and on Christian visions of women and how women should be understood. But it doesn’t require more than a normal dose of scepticism to feel that there is more wishful thinking than truth in the Platonic vision. How can one and the same state of mind be both sexual love for a boy and (after a bit of self-discipline) delighted contemplation of an abstract idea?

        Any philosophical account of beauty should begin, it seems to me, by comparing the object of aesthetic judgement and the object of sexual desire. Both are described as beautiful. But they arouse radically different interests in the one who so describes them. Someone, looking at the face of an old man, with many interesting creases and wrinkles, with a fine and placid eye and a wise and welcoming expression, might describe the face as beautiful. Someone who knows the man might refer to his beauty. But we instinctively understand these judgements in another way from the way in which we understand ‘She’s beautiful!’, said by an eager youth of the girl who has captured his attention. The youth is going after the girl; he desires her, not just in the sense of wanting to look at her, but in that he wants to hold her, kiss her and so on. The sexual act is described as the ‘consummation’ of this kind of desire – though we should not think that the sexual act is the thing intended, or that it brings the desire to an end, in the way that drinking a cup of water brings the desire for water to an end. There is a serious mystery about sexual desire, which I will come to in a moment. The important point is to recognize that, in the case of the beautiful old man, there is no ‘going after’ of this kind: no agenda, no desire to possess, or in any other way to gain something from the beautiful object. The old man’s face is full of meaning for us, and if we are looking for satisfaction we find it there, in the thing that we contemplate, and in the act of contemplation. It is surely absurd to think that this is the same state of mind as that of the youth in hot pursuit. When, in the course of sexual desire, you sit back to contemplate the beauty of the object, to look in the wanted face for meaning, and to study it as you would a painting or a landscape, this is a temporary retreat from the overriding project – a way of standing back from one’s own desire, and trying to disallow its motivating force. To think, as Plato did, that this is somehow the real essence of sexual desire is to mistake retreat for victory, and musing for possessing.

        But this returns me to the mystery of sexual desire. Suppose you want a glass of water. There is, in such a case, no particular glass of water that you want. Any glass of water would do – nor does it have to be a glass. And there is something that you want to do with the water – namely, to drink it. After which your desire is satisfied , and belongs in the past. That is the normal nature of our sensuous desires: they are indeterminate, they are directed to a specific action, and they are satisfied by that action and brought to an end by it. None of those things is true of sexual desire. Sexual desire is determinate: there is a particular person that you want. People are not interchangeable as objects of desire, even if they are equally attractive. You can desire one person, and then another – you can even desire both at the same time. But your desire for John or Mary cannot be satisfied by Alfred or Jane: each desire is specific to its object, since it is a desire for that person as the individual that he is, and not as an instance of a general kind. My desire for this glass of water could be satisfied by that one, since it is not focused on this individual mass of water, but on the kind of stuff that water is.

        Nor is there a specific thing that you want to do with the object of desire and which is the full content of your desiring him or her. Of course, there is the sexual act: but there can be desire without the desire for that, and the act does not satisfy the desire or bring it to a conclusion, in the way that drinking satisfies and concludes the desire for water. There is a famous description of this paradox in Lucretius. Dryden’s translation of the passage was singled out by Yeats as the best description of the sexual act in English. (Quote here.) The important point is that, in all the pleasure and turmoil of the sexual act, there is no single goal that is being sought and achieved, and no satisfaction that completes the process: all goals are provisional, temporary, and leave things fundamentally unchanged. And lovers are always struck by the mis-match between the desire and its fulfilment, which is not a fulfilment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.

        One way of expressing the points that I have just hinted at, is to say that, while desire for a glass of water is a desire to do something with it, the desire of one person for another is simply that – a desire for that person. It is a desire for an individual, which is expressed in, but not fulfilled, still less cancelled, by any particular action. And this has something to do with the use of the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the object of sexual desire – for it implies a kind of focussing on the object, a relishing of his or her presence, which fills the mind and perceptions of the one who desires. That is why eros seemed to Plato to be so very different from the reproductive urges of animals which, however superficially similar to human desire, have the appetitive structure of hunger and thirst – as we might put it, they are the expression of fundamental drives, in which species need, rather than individual choice, is in charge.

        Suppose someone pointed to a glass of water and said ‘I want that glass of water’. And suppose you offer him water in another glass and he responds: ‘no, it is that glass I wanted’. You would be puzzled by this. Surely, any glass of water would do just as well, if your purpose is to drink it. ‘But that’s just it,’ he says: ‘I don’t want to drink it. I want it, that particular glass. No other glass of water would do just as well, precisely because there is nothing that I want to do with it.’ You would want to know what it is that this man finds in the glass of water that attracts him: what explains the claim that it is just this glass and no other that he wants. One thing that would explain this strange state of mind is the judgement of beauty. ‘I want that glass of water because it is so singularly beautiful’ would explain, even if it does not yet justify, his state of mind. And wanting the glass for its beauty is not just compatible with, but also implies, not drinking it – indeed, not doing anything in particular with it. Nor, having obtained the glass, held it, turned it around, studied it from every angle, would it be open to the person to say ‘good, that’s it, my desire is satisfied, and I no longer want the glass’. If he had wanted it for its beauty then there is no point at which his desire could be satisfied, nor is there any action, process or whatever, which implies that the desire is over and done with. You can want to inspect the glass for all sorts of reasons, even for no reason at all. But wanting the glass for its beauty is not wanting to inspect it: it is wanting to contemplate it – and that is a very different state of mind, one that does not have a goal, and is something more than a search for information or an expression of appetite.

        This returns me to sexual desire and sexual interest. It is obviously the case that when a man pursues a woman, describing her as beautiful, he has something else in mind than the disinterested contemplation of her features. Or if he doesn’t have anything else in mind, then it would be strange to describe his interest as sexual. What makes it sexual is precisely its connection with a particular goal – which is that of sexual possession. Of course, this goal is a complex and multifaceted one: it may or may not involve the sexual act; it is not satisfied by the sexual act; nor is it extinguished by any single sequence of events, but is omnipresent in the mind of the person who pursues it. Nevertheless, it is a goal, and defines the direction of desire, and the strategies needed to accomplish it. When a man contemplates an old woman – Mother Teresa, for example – and describes her face as beautiful, then you can be fairly certain that his interest is not sexual. He does not want to possess this woman sexually, but to contemplate her features – why? We can easily come up with answers to that question. He sees things expressed in, reflected in, symbolized in, this face – virtue of character, for example, experience, compassion, suffering. He is not interested in finding out about those things. He is interested in their human expression, in the lines, textures, an animation of a fine old face. He is contemplating their ‘sensuous embodiment’, to use a philosophical idiom. And that is entirely unlike the man who looks with desire on the fresh, appealing and life-filled face of a girl. Her features too offer the sensuous embodiment of character and experience: and they may, as such, influence her pursuer’s emotions towards her. But his interest and his purpose go beyond that of contemplating this sensuous embodiment.

        The point that this discussion seems to establish is this: the idea of the beautiful has something to do with both the individuality, and sensuous presence of an object of interest. We call something beautiful when it interests us as an individual, for its own sake, and in its presented sensory form. (Examples: the presented sensory form in landscape, in architecture, in music, in poetry and in prose. The difficulties presented by the latter: is translation possible, and so on.) But there are two radically different underlying motives that express themselves in this interested in the presented sensory form. The Platonic attempt to assimilate these motives, to represent sexual desire and disinterested contemplation as separate episodes in a single psychic process, so that the one is transformed into the other without losing its essential force, is a failure. Sexual desire and disinterested contemplation are distinct operations of the human psyche, and their meaning and value cannot be assessed by the attempt to reduce them to a single psychic force.

        I want to concentrate now on the judgement of beauty in its disinterested form. And this prompts the obvious question, whether it is really disinterested in any form, and what is meant by ‘disinterested’, in this context. It was Kant who made this concept fundamental to the study of beauty, and he had his own highly charged way of explaining it. We have interests, and we pursue them, using objects and people as a means to achieve our goals. We take an ‘interested’ approach to something or someone, whenever we use it or him as a means to satisfy one of our interests: for example, when we use a hammer to drive in a nail or a person to carry a message. Animals have only ‘interested’ attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat the world as a repository of the means needed to fulfil those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behaviour, between those things that are means to us, and those which are also ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest.

        That sounds very paradoxical, but an example will help. Imagine a mother cradling her baby, looking down on it, brimful of interest, full of love and delight. We don’t say that she has an interest that this baby satisfies, as though some other baby might have done just the same job for her. There is no interest of the mother’s to which the baby is a means. The baby itself is her interest – meaning, it is the object of interest, for its own sake, and – as Kant would put it – as an end in itself. If the woman was motivated by an interest that she has – say, an interest in persuading someone to take her on as a baby-minder – then the baby itself ceases to be the full and final focus of her state of mind. Any other baby that enabled her to make the right noises and the right expression would have done just as well. In general interested attitudes regard their objects as substitutable. And one sign of a disinterested attitude is that it does not regard its object as one among many possible substitutes.

        (In sexual desire the object is not regarded as substitutable, even though desire is not exactly disinterested: this is because sexual desire is desire for an individual, and is controlled by the idea of the person as irreplaceable. But the principal form of sexual corruption involves treating the sexual experience as detachable from its individualising focus, so that the one from whom sexual stimulation is obtained is regarded, in the act itself, as one of a class of substitutes. This kind of corruption is associated with pornography, and the addictive attitude to sexual stimulation that pornography promotes. It is a major cause of the collapse of sexual relations in the West today.)

        There is a contrast drawn in English (though often ignored by Americans) between ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’. A person who is uninterested in something that is going on in his field of attention is someone who is not interested in it – he is attending to it neither as a means to some interest that he has nor for its own sake. To be disinterested towards something is not to be uninterested in it; on the contrary it is to be interested in it, but interested in a certain way. We often say of people who generously extend their help to others in times of trouble, that they act disinterestedly – meaning that they are not motivated by self-interest or by any other interest than the interest in helping their neighbours. They have a disinterested interest. How is that possible? Kant’s answer was that it is not possible if all our interests are merely determined by our desires: for an interest that stems from my desire aims at the fulfilment of that desire, which is an interest of mine. Interests can be disinterested, Kant thought, only if they are determined by (spring from) reason alone. A disinterested interest, as he put it, is an interest of reason: not an interest of mine, but an interest of reason in me. When I take a disinterested interest in something, it is as though I am standing back from myself, taking the attitude of an impartial spectator, appealing to reason alone, and so putting myself in some way in the position of a judge. This is how Kant explains the moral motive: it comes from setting all my interests aside, and addressing the question before me by appealing to reason alone – and that means appealing to considerations that any rational being would be equally able to accept. From that posture of disinterested enquiry we are led inexorably, Kant thought, to the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on that maxim which we can will as a law for all rational beings.

        Kant believed that the same idea of an ‘interest of reason’ could be applied to the philosophy of beauty. When I contemplate a beautiful object my interest is again disinterested: I am contemplating the object for its own sake, as it is in itself. I am not referring it to some prior interest of mine, which might equally have been satisfied by a substitute. My interest is like a gift offered to the object, which is in its turn a gift offered to me. Such an interest, Kant thought, must be an interest of reason, precisely because it has abstracted from all other interests that I might have. I am addressing the object of my interest in the posture of an impartial judge. And that is why I express my interest in the form of a judgement: I am passing judgement in the very act of aesthetic attention. And, like every interest of reason, this one makes implicit appeal to the community of rational beings: in the judgement of beauty, Kant argued, I am ‘a suitor for agreement’, expressing my judgement not as a private opinion but as an objectively binding verdict that would be agreed to be any rational being just so long as he did what I am doing, and put his own interests to one side.

        That is a very striking claim, but it is born out in several ways. First, when I describe something as beautiful I am describing it, not my feelings towards it: I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things aright, would agree with me. Secondly, as I have already said, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgement, a verdict, and one for which I can be reasonably asked for a justifiction. I may not be able to give any cogent reasons for my judgement; but if I cannot, that is a fact about me, not about the judgement. Maybe someone else, better practised in the art of criticism, could justify the verdict. It is, however, a highly controversial question, whether critical reasons are reasons in anything like the sense that moral reasons are reasons, or scientific reasons are reasons. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that people are constantly disputing over matters of aesthetic judgement, and constantly trying to achieve some kind of agreement. Aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements, like disagreements over taste in food.

        Now there is a whole school of thought that denies what I have just said, which – while admitting the existence of aesthetic judgement – insist that aesthetic judgements are all ‘subjective’, meaning incapable of rational foundation, and of no authority beyond the individual who makes them. The reason for this was pointed out also by Kant, namely that the judgement of beauty is essentially tied to the experience of the one who makes it. Suppose I tell you that Michelangelo’s Rondini Piet? is a beautiful sculpture. There is one conclusion that you could immediately draw from this, which is that I have seen the Rondini Piet?. If I had not see it, I would not be entitled to make the judgement – it could not have been a sincere judgement of mine. I would have had to say ‘it is apparently beautiful’, or ‘they say that it is beautiful’, neither of which sentences expresses a judgement of mine. This is an extremely odd and interesting feature of the judgement of beauty. My mind is full of second-hand opinions about matters of science, religion, morality and history, all of which I have absorbed without first-hand acquaintance with their subject-matter. But these opinions are genuine opinions of mine – for example, that there are pandas in China, or that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. But I have no second-hand opinions in aesthetics, since there are no such things. I know that Beethoven’s late quartets are beautiful because I have heard them. But I don’t know whether any of Zemlinsky’s quartets are beautiful because I have never heard one of them. I could hazard a guess: but I could not form an opinion, not even on the basis of the judgement of someone whose musical ear and critical taste I respect.

        In this sense, Kant argued, judgements of the beautiful are subjective – namely, that they arise from, depend upon and express, our immediate perceptual apprehension of their object. In talking of the beautiful I am not telling you how the world is independently of my perception: I am expressing and rationalising that very perception. Aesthetic judgements concern the way the world seems – and indeed, that is contained in their name ( aesthesis, in Greek, is the capacity for perceiving or feeling). And from this observation it is tempting to draw the conclusion that they are therefore subjective in another sense – of being without objective authority, mere impressions, saying nothing about their object even if they say a lot about the person who makes them.

        Here we reach the heart of the philosophical problem, and again it is Kant who saw it most clearly. On the one hand, aesthetic judgements are rooted in subjective experience, with an essential reference to how things seem to the person who makes them. Therefore they have no claim to objective authority. On the other hand, they proceed from an interest of reason, from a stepping back from all interests and an appeal to our shared nature as rational beings. Therefore they have a claim to rational authority. There seems to be a contradiction in the very idea of aesthetic judgement, a contradiction which Kant referred to as the ‘antinomy of taste’.

        Some people dismiss that kind of argument by saying that the idea of an ‘interest of reason’, and an implicit appeal to a rational consensus is a mere illusion – maybe a product of the 18 th century idea of taste, with no real power to outlast the culture that suggested it. Judgements of beauty are just expressions of approval, and that is all there is to it.

        But here we should pause to consider the facts. In a democratic culture it is true that people are inclined to the view that it is presumptuous to claim to have better taste than your neighbour. By doing so you are implicitly denying his right to be the thing that he is. You like Bach, he likes U2; you like Leonardo, he likes Mucha; you like Jane Austen, he likes Daniele Steele. Each of you exists in his own enclosed aesthetic world, and so long as neither harms the other, and each says good morning over the fence, there is nothing further to be said.

        But things are not so simple, as the democratic argument already implicitly admits. If it is so offensive to look down on another’s taste, it is, as the democrat recognizes, because taste is intimately bound up with our personal life and moral identity. As the 18 th century moralists recognized, it is part of our rational nature to strive for a community of judgement, a shared conception of value, since that is what reason and the moral life require. And this desire for a reasoned consensus spills over into the sense of beauty. This we discover as soon as we take into account the public impact of private tastes. He fills his garden with kitsch mermaids and Disneyland gnomes, polluting the view from your window; he designs his house in a ludicrous Costa Brava style, in loud primary colours that utterly ruin the tranquil atmosphere of the street, and so on. Now his taste has ceased to be a private matter and inflicted itself on the public realm. We begin to argue: I appeal to the town council, arguing that his house and garden are not in keeping with the street, that this particular part of town is scheduled to retain a Georgian serenity, that his house clashes with the classical facades of adjacent buildings, and so on. We know from experience that there is much to argue about here, and that argument does not aim to win by whatever means, but rather to generate a consensus. Implicit in our sense of beauty is the thought of community – of the agreement in judgements that makes social life possible and worthwhile. Nor is this desire for consensus confined to the public realm of architecture and garden design. Think of clothes, interior decor, and so on: here too we can be put on edge, excluded or included, made to feel inside or outside the implied community, and we strive by comparison and discussion to achieve a consensus within which we can feel at home.

        And then there are the private arts like music and literature. Why are we so concerned that our children should learn to like the things that we regard as beautiful? Why do we worry when children like literature that is, in our eyes, ugly, stupefying, sentimental or obscene?

        All those questions suggest that once we admit the judgement of beauty into our worldview, we admit along with it the idea of taste. We are committed to a distinction between good and bad taste, and we give a place to that distinction in our lives which is of the first importance to us. Is this all founded on wishful thinking, or are the foundations for the judgement of beauty which will justify our pursuit of consensus? This is the topic that I shall broach next week.

Read Lecture 2: Taste and Order