Daan Evers

"Aesthetic Non-naturalism and Positive Affect"

The idea that some aesthetic judgements are typically based on a pleasurable experience is widespread. It is especially plausible in the case of beauty. Setting aside cases of testimony, it is unclear how you might acquire beliefs about beauty without being positively affected. It is also hard to imagine hedonically challenged communities who either develop a concept of beauty or readily apply it.

I will consider whether nonnaturalists about beauty can explain this phenomenon. Nonnaturalism is a form of realism according to which beauty is an irreducible property unlike those studied by the natural and social sciences. The fact that judgements of beauty appear to be based on a pleasurable experience is a problem for nonnaturalists. After all, we do not typically base judgements about abstract objects on pleasure either, and abstract objects appear to be essentially non-natural.

Nick Zangwill (2005) suggests that the problem can be solved:

‘we can see that in general there is nothing suspect about a range of judgements that are grounded on experiences, since we make judgements about the external world on the basis of perceptual experience. Perceptual experience is experience with representational content, and our beliefs about physical reality are grounded in or rationally caused by such experiences. A realist view of aesthetics would be analogous in that we judge on the basis of experience.’ (p. 66)

In order to assess this idea, we need to make some distinctions. We can either say that the hedonic tone of the experience is itself the representation of something as, for instance, beautiful. Or we can say that aesthetic pleasure involves a representation of beauty, but that this representation does not consist in the hedonic tone of the experience. I will argue that either option is problematic.

If hedonic tone is itself the representation of something as beautiful, then we can ask how it gets to do this. We don’t seem to represent any other abstract features through hedonic aspects of experience and, in general, it seems reasonable to ask how it is possible that some mode of experience involves representations of particular things. In the case of sense perception, an answer is available: sense perception involves representations of objects in our environment at least in part because those objects causally affect our senses. But non-naturalists do not believe that aesthetic properties are causally effective. So they cannot say that hedonic tone represents beauty because of a causal link between the two. Nor would the causal efficacy of beauty explain why hedonic tone in particular should be the vehicle through which we end up representing it. So this does not seem promising.

Let us then turn to the idea that aesthetic pleasure involves a representation of aesthetic properties, but that hedonic tone is not what does the representing. In that case, unless there is some link between hedonic tone and whatever is the representation of beauty in aesthetic pleasure, it remains mysterious why judgements of beauty would typically be based on aesthetic pleasure (rather than some other mode of experience or thought process).

In addition to this dilemma, the paper considers a few other options for aesthetic nonnaturalists. It concludes that nonnaturalists have difficulty explaining why judgements of beauty appear to be based on aesthetic pleasure. The content of the paper is most closely related to the question whether affect is indeed central to aesthetic judgement. It explores some implications of this idea for a certain form of realism about aesthetic judgement.