Kris Goffin

"The Teleosemantics of Aesthetic Emotions"

Aesthetic emotions give rise to a particular puzzle. Emotions are said to depend on one's interests, goals, desires, and cares. Aesthetic pleasure, on the other hand, is said to be “disinterested”, which on some interpretations implies that aesthetic pleasure does not depend on one”s interests, goals, desires, and cares. If one understands aesthetic pleasure as a kind of emotion, then one has to face this contradiction. I want to focus on aesthetic emotions which represent aesthetic properties. Recently, some have argued that the experience of aesthetic properties such as elegance, beauty and gracefulness have an emotional or affective component (Bergqvist & Cowan 2018, Goffin 2019). The experiential representation of aesthetic properties would thus be similar to the experiential representation of emotive properties. Experiencing elegance, for instance, is said to be similar to fearfully experiencing the frightening.

One can criticise these emotional theories of aesthetic property representation by putting forward the aforementioned contradiction. Emotions depend on one's interests, goals, desires, and cares. Aesthetic pleasure is supposed to be disinterested. If aesthetic pleasure is constitutive of the experience of aesthetic properties, then it becomes hard to understand aesthetic pleasure as a kind of emotion. The aforementioned emotional account of aesthetic property representation seemingly leads to a contradiction. One possible response to this worry would be to simply reject the notion of disinterestedness. Dewey (1934), for instance, rejects the notion of disinterestedness and argues that aesthetic pleasure involves a kind of desire satisfaction. However, this account is unattractive as it is unclear which desire would be satisfied. There is no satisfactory account of what the aesthetic desire would entail. Since it is such a controversial statement the burden of proof lies with the one who rejects disinterestedness. I will propose two alternative solutions. Consequently, I will argue that the second solution is more informative and thus preferable.

The first proposal is inspired by Gorodeisky’s (2019, 2021) recent series of articles in which she defends a specific version of the fitting attitude theory of aesthetic value. One can apply this idea to aesthetic properties. One can think of aesthetic properties as “fitting” or “meriting” a certain emotional attitude. Instead of thinking that some kind of desire is satisfied, one can think of the normativity of aesthetic emotions in terms of fittingness. One can thus define aesthetic emotions without reference to goals, desires, cares or interests. I propose a different solution. It is said that emotions are based on “goals”. These goals, I will argue, should not be understood as desire-like states. One can think of these goals as describing biological functions. For instance, “staying safe” is the goal on which fear is based. This is, however, not to be understood as a desire but rather as the biological function of fear. I am inspired by Matthen (2017) in specifying the relevant “function” here. Matthen argues that the function of aesthetic pleasure is motivating, facilitating and optimising the contemplation of a particular object. I will develop a teleosemantic account of mental representation, inspired by Dretske (1986), to specify the link between function and mental representation. I can thus provide a teleosemantic account of experiential aesthetic property representation. This teleosemantic account is compatible with the idea of disinterestedness, as aesthetic emotion is, according to this theory, not based on “desires”. Consequently, it is outside of the realm of “reasons”, so I will argue. The teleosemantic account, I will argu, is more plausible than Dewey’s radical rejection of disinterestedness and it is also more informative than the fitting attitude account. The fitting attitude account is circular: experiences are defined as those mental states that fit aesthetic properties, while aesthetic properties are defined as those properties that fit certain experiences. One can argue that this is still an informative circularity. The teleosemantic account, however, provides a more detailed description of the experience and of the aesthetic properties. Both are described as grounded in a particular function. Aesthetic emotion is that which tracks those objects that satisfy this function. Aesthetic properties are defined as functional properties: they describe a functional role.