Tuesday, April 16, 2013


89. Aesthetic judgement

Is aesthetic experience purely subjective, or is it also objective, somehow, or inter-subjective? Can we give arguments for our aesthetic appreciation, trying to get others to agree? And what kind of agreement could that be? How rational could it be? The philosopher Kant posed this question. Rather than elaborating his view I offer my own, which resembles Kant’s but goes its own way.

For this, I continue the analysis of meaning in connection with art that I started in item 80 of this blog. In my earlier discussion of meaning (in items 32-34) I proposed that rational understanding of something entails that we categorize it, i.e. assign it to a concept. We do this by picking out perceived features of it, depending on the context, to see if they fit the concept. We do this by comparing features to a prototype or a script that represents the concept. That is how we make sense of the world. The process depends partly on shared linguistic practice and partly on our personal cognitive make-up with its repertoires of connotations that we attach to things, developed along the course of our lives.

In item 81 I proposed that art upsets or bypasses this process: observed features do not fit into established categories. In that sense art is not representational, embodies what cannot yet be thought. The flower in a painting does not quite fit our notion of a flower. In abstract art it is not even clear what the corresponding concept might be. Art is a way of world making, as Heidegger said. Art explores or suggests new scripts, in new connections between old and new features. In some arts that yields a static structure, as in painting and sculpture, in others it is sequential, in a new connection between elements in time, as in music, film and theatre,

Since scripts are part of cognition, in script making art touches upon cognition, but rather than script usage it is script building, cognition on the move. There lies a connection between art and discovery.

However, script building is not a solipsistic affair. Existing scripts are widely shared, more or less, between people, as part of language and culture, and from such shared scripts and their usage we infer principles and elements of script building that are likely to also be shared more or less between people to the extent that they belong to the same culture. Our ways of world making can thus be recognizable to others. On that basis one can try to objectify aesthetic experience, in pointing at shared principles of script architecture and construction. In avant-garde art even those principles are set aside.

In the way described, art lifts us beyond conceptual understanding and ordinary experience. In that sense it is transcendent, going beyond the world or ourselves. It can be ecstatic, lifting the self out of itself, or sublime, rising above existing concepts, rules or standards. And there, as Kant said, art can touch upon religion, and it can serve to engender religious experience.