Uriah Kriegel

"A Fitting-Attitude Approach to Aesthetic Value?"

It is a noteworthy disanalogy between contemporary ethics and aesthetics that the fitting-attitude account of value, so prominent in contemporary ethics, sees very little play in aesthetics. The aim of this paper is to articulate what a fitting-attitude-style account of aesthetic value would look like, by way of preparing the ground for a proper evaluation of the approach’s theoretical merit. In the bulk of the paper, I sketch possible fitting-attitude-style accounts of four putative aesthetic values – the beautiful, the sublime, the powerful, and the compelling – in terms of the fittingness of four corresponding affective experiences, which I call delight, awe, being moved, and fascination. I close with preliminary discussion of how the notion of fittingness might be understood in the present context.

In contemporary ethical theory, one of the most prominent approaches to value is the so-called fitting-attitude account. Roughly, the idea is that for x to be (ethically) valuable is for it to be fitting to have a pro attitude toward x (and for y to be disvaluable is for it to be fitting to have a con attitude toward y). It is natural to suppose that for most accounts of ethical value a structurally parallel account of aesthetic value is available (even if the dialectical pressures in each field surely differ, resulting in different distributions of plausibility across logical space). Interestingly, however, there is to my knowledge no sustained development of a fitting-attitude-style approach to aesthetic value in contemporary aesthetics. In this paper, I propose to explore what such an account would look like.

It is not the paper’s primary aim to argue for the fitting attitude account of aesthetic value. Before we can evaluate a given account of aesthetic value, we first have to clearly articulate what the account is. Since the kind of account of aesthetic value I have in mind has not received a sustained articulation in the extant literature, the primary aim of the paper is to get clear on what such an account would might look like. Thus this paper proposes to advance our understanding, primarily, not by convincing us of a particular thesis, but by shedding light on an otherwise ill-lit neighborhood of logical space. Still, our discussion will suggest that an account of aesthetic value patterned after the fitting-attitude account of value in ethics could provide a unified and stable account of aesthetic value, an account which might therefore merit closer critical attention.

Historically, discussions of aesthetic value have centered on the notion of beauty. And beauty is surely a paradigmatic aesthetic value. However, a central theme of contemporary aesthetics, especially following Sibley, is an almost dizzying pluralism about aesthetic values, sometimes joined to a de-emphasis on beauty. There is no need for us to take a stance on the question of pluralism vs. monism about aesthetic value. A fitting-attitude-style account of aesthetic value should be able to roll with either view, and it would be a dialectical strike against it if it were compatible only with one. Accordingly, in this paper I start by sketching a fitting-attitude-style account of beauty, but then proceed to present possible such accounts of three other aesthetic values – the sublime, the powerful, and the compelling (I explain what I have in mind in each case) – while leaving it open how they relate to beauty, ultimately so to speak.

In each case, I identify a specific affective experience undergoing which could plausibly seen as the fitting reaction to objects we want to designate as aesthetically valuable. More specifically, I argue for the following four theses: the beautiful is that by which it is fitting to be delighted; the sublime is that by which it is fitting to be awed; the powerful is that by which it is fitting to be moved; the compelling is that by which it is fitting to be fascinated. In each case, I offer a phenomenological portrait of the relevant affect. The portrait is not supposed to be exhaustive, but only to be sufficiently textured to focus the reader’s mind on the right experience.

I close with a discussion of the linchpin notion of fittingness as it plays out in the present theoretical context. The hope is that by the end of the paper we would have a reasonably clear grasp of the general shape of a fitting-attitude-style approach to aesthetic value, enabling two types of subsequent inquiry: first, the elaboration of the general framework, both through refinement of the accounts sketched here of beauty, sublimity, etc. and through application to further aesthetic values beyond the ones discussed here; second, the critical evaluation of the plausibility of the resulting individual accounts, and the framework as a whole.