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Rob van Gerwen

May 21, 2016

Index Supervenience Agency Lanzmann's ban Propaganda Cave Gaze
Grammar Memory Schopenhauer Art practice Music Art's Morale Issues

Philosophical Directions
The effort of understanding

Aesthetic supervenience

Abstract of the argument on this page


Aesthetic Properties and tertiary qualities

Traditional empiricism (starting with John Locke) distinguished between primary and secondary qualities, arguing that only primary qualities really pertain to reality, and that they entail, somehow, a disposition to be perceived in certain ways. The way in which primary qualities appear to us, i.e. the way we perceive them is: as secondary qualities. Examples of secondary qualities are qualities that are perceived by one of our senses only, such as colours, sounds, tastes, smells. Primary qualities are form and movement; these can be perceived by more than one of our senses. Because they are perceivable to only one of the senses, we cannot explain the phenomenal quality of secondary qualities ('what it is to have them; what they look like) without referring to how other examples look. (We explain 'green' by referring to 'the colour of grass', etc.).

It has been argued that whereas the phenomenality of secondary qualities is a problem their reality really isn't. We can make use of scientific techniques or apparatuses to establish that we are confronted in a particular context with a particular quality, e.g. by measuring light or sound waves, or holding a sample next to it. (Mind you, this does not take away their phenomenal peculiarity).

Philosophers like Roger Scruton and Eddy Zemach have argued that aesthetic properties are tertiary qualities! With this, they refer, among other things, to the fact that with aesthetic properties we cannot even make use of scientific instruments to prove that they are there! Why would this be the case? is the relevant question.

These authors argue that the peculiarity of tertiary qualities (aesthetic properties) stems from the role played in our perception of them by imagination (Scruton) or desire (Zemach). [If you're interested, you can discuss their positions in one of your papers.]

Why are aesthetic properties a problem? To put it in common sense terms: one cannot point at them. You point at the roof of the farm or the wheels of the bicycle in a landscape painting, but where resides its melancholy expression? Yet, though we cannot easily ascertain its presence, we might agree that the painting certainly is not gay or joyful. [You can see how referring to 'what the culture deems worthy of attention' is not going to solve a case like this.]


What is this supervenience Eaton goes through so much trouble to argue against? How is distinguished from emergence, another candidate mentioned in passing?
To begin with emergence: Joseph Margolis argues that people are bodies and persons at the same time but in different contexts. He argues that we are bodies which have, in human, cultural contexts, a person emerging on it. The person and the body are one but they show different faces, so to speak, in different contexts. There is much to be said for the idea that--according to this theory--there are all types of intersections and interactions between these two aspects of a singular individual. Such intersections and interactions do not seem to exist among aesthetic properties and the properties of a work that can be pointed at (however one wants to conceive of these). Emergence as an explication of aesthetic properties, in short, assumes too much in terms of a relation with non-aesthetic properties. (It would be even worse to argue that aesthetic properties can be reduced to non-aesthetic properties, or that the latter cause them. These options are not seriously discussed, apparently rightly so).

Supervenience jumps in this theoretical hole. It claims no more than that wherever a certain basic property is, the supervenient property will be too. It merely states this regular acting together of types of properties and denies further lawlike relations between them. [Of course, there are all kinds of varieties of supervenience claims, but basically --and this is Eaton's criticism, rightly I guess-- it says it does not want to say anything about certain regularities. Why, then say it anyway (or so Eaton criticizes)?]

Eaton has to discuss supervenience, because she has already argued against the alternatives I just gave (of taking aesthetic properties to be tertiary qualities), which relate the difference to how the relevant properties relate to the psychology of the beholder.

Frank Sibley

One more theory I think should be mentioned: Frank Sibley's. He presented lists of properties and analysed their differences in terms of the mental faculties needed for their perception.
Examples of non-aesthetic properties are: red, noisy, brackish, clammy, square, docile, curved, evanescent, intelligent, faithful, derelict, tardy, freakish.
Some aesthetic properties are used exclusively in aesthetic manner: graceful, delicate, dainty, handsome, comely, elegant, garish.
Then there are terms that we use interchangeably aesthetically and non-aesthetically, such as: unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless, serene, somber, dynamic, powerful, vivid, delicate, moving, trite, sentimental, tragic.
Sibley argues that for the application of non-aesthetic terms we merely need correctly working senses, whereas for the aesthetic terms we also need taste.
Of course, this is only the first step, the next being: 'What is taste'. Yet, the importance of Sibley's approach is that he distinguishes between the types of properties on account of our cognitive powers.

Problem of entailment

Simon Blackburn's problem of entailment in lay terms, is: you cannot describe events in mere physiological (causal) terms such that it entails the moral value of the events.

This is traditionally called the fact-value distinction, which says that mere facts are quite something different than the (moral) value they have for one. Events and actions derive their moral value from the choice that is made in bringing them about between all the relevant alternatives.

Aesthetic properties and aesthetic values

Sibley seems to mark a shift in the philosophy of art fromaesthetic values to aesthetic properties. From 18th century onwards the core issue was the justifiability of aesthetic judgements, more precisely: of the application of aesthetic value terms like beauty and the sublime. 1950s Philosophy of art can be characterized as an effort to analyse critical language instead, i.e. the language used by art critics. As you won't find references to beauty or the sublime in art criticism, hence the shift toward an analysis of aesthetic property terms that we find with Sibley.
Yet, this shift in focus does not do away with what seems to be a crucial difference between the two types of terms. The value terms seem not only more general, and, therefore, more generally applicable [both paintings and aeroplanes can be beautiful---for different reasons; both elegant and disharmonious works can be beautiful, etc.]. Aesthetic property terms seem to be applicable to properties that can be pointed at: the elegance of a line can be followed by one's pointing finger.

What the distinction between value and property terms is most important for is the acknowledgement that pointing at the elegance of a line does not yet tell us that we should value it positively, whereas if one states that some thing is beautiful the positive nature of this valuing remark is evident.
Apparently, aesthetic property terms can be used merely descriptive, as well as evaluative, whereas the more general value terms express value exclusively. One might devise the distinction as that between the descriptive and the evaluative aspects of certain terms. This is the core of Sibley's remark that for the discernment of aesthetic properties we need our taste, next to our senses.

In contrast with Sibley's boldest intentions, he did not do away with the need for a further analysis of particularly aesthetic evaluative component in art criticism. For this, several candidates are available (this list is not exhaustive): Kant's subjectivism (transcendental approach of aesthetic experience); Zemach's introduction of a person's economy of desire; Scruton on the role of the imagination; Van Gerwen on the role of empathy; Wollheim on the role of psychology (in individual style),etc.


In the past I dubbed the type of representation [through modal ellipsis] that we saw in the coffee cup scene from Robert Bresson's L'argent, 'intimation'. The point about intimation is that it makes events intimate by representing them, though not in all the sense modalities an audience expects. There was visual representing in the scene: we saw the coffee cup and the spilled coffee caused by the slap; we heard the slap, but didn't see it.
Intimation standardly means suggestion, but I 'woke up' a meaning inherent in the word itself: that of making intimate.
Why would a representation through modal ellipsis make events more intimate than straightforward depiction might? Zooming in to the slapping and the effected tears has, more often than not, the debilitating effect of informing the audience of what events are happening, without particularly engaging the audience with these events. This engaging seems to be part of intimation.
Making events intimate, engaging the audience, why? My analysis suggests that intimation induces the beholder's imagination to come up with his own memories of similar aspects of events and to, on way or the other, incorporate these into what is represented. Experiences of slaps, of humiliation, of indignity, disrespect, whatever: as long as that history fits the events and brings them to life.

Why discuss intimation in the present context?

I introduced the example of intimation in the present stage of our discussion because it is one of the ways in which an aesthetic property is an expressive property rather than a merely perceptual (intrinsic) one that can be pointed at. It is also an example of an aesthetic event (rather than 'property') that involves a reference to the personal contribution of the beholder--next to a reference to what cultures deem worthy of attention through direct inspection.

Norms of correctness

The example of the coffee cup, however, also illustrates that the personal contribution on behalf of the audience does not require one to take up a subjectivist relativist position. One who were to conclude that, in the eyes of the director, Bresson, the slapping apparently was not as important as the spilled coffee, would have misunderstood the scene.
Put differently, intimation too answers to norms of correctness--which is not saying that the exact expressive quality that is being intimated is an objective property!

Intimation and supervenience

Intimation, also, seems a case in point against the relevance and applicability of the notion of supervenience. What would be the relation between the basic properties of coffee spilling over a shaking coffee cup, and the intimated nature of the slapping as a major event in the lives of these two people? Surely, no other spilling coffee cup is going to relate exactly these meanings.
So supervenientists would have to identify more and more elements of the scene as its basic properties having no other stopping point this expansion than a thought like: "now we have identified enough basic properties to explain why audiences feel that this event is important in the lives of these two people".
This, however, 'begs the question'. We would want the basic properties to be identifiable on their own terms lest they don't explain what supervenes on them, but merely repeat that.
The term 'intimation' suggests that we need a psychologically more complex theory to account for the nature of expressive properties. [Whether that account is expandable to aesthetic properties in general, is another matter.]