Thursday, May 04, 2023

Philosophy and Beauty and Beautiful Philosophy

guest post by Nick Riggle

One of the things I love about philosophy is its beauty. Philosophical works contain beautiful ideas, arguments, systems, and essays. And beautiful minds are expressed via these—beautifully creative, thoughtful, sensitive, powerful, insightful minds. For me it’s the wonderful oeuvre of Barry Stroud. It’s Kit Fine’s essay “Essence and Modality”. It’s Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good and Frege’s Grundlagen. Plato’s Symposium and Apology. Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. Jorge Portilla’s “Fenomenolog√≠a del relajo”. It’s J. David Velleman’s Self to Self, Richard Moran’s The Philosophical Imagination, and Sarah Broadie’s work on Aristotle and Plato. Even when I don’t agree, or don’t know whether I agree, I love being attuned to a wonderful system, a beautiful idea, a stunning essay, a philosophically brilliant mind.

When I try to understand why I find some philosophy beautiful, I think about the way these works are constructed, the insight they contain, the big-picture views or systems they develop, the care, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness they embody, the soaring affirmation of intellectual life, the creative and transformative perspectives they offer up. As a philosopher, they inspire me, I want to share these works, understand them better and better, and talk about them. I want them to animate and inform the work I develop and share.

[Dall-E (left) and Midjourney (right) outputs for the prompt "beautiful philosophy"]


What is the beauty of philosophy? I want that question to have an obvious answer: the beauty of philosophy is just that, beauty, aesthetic goodness. But philosophers have a penchant for making that obvious answer unavailable. By far the most influential theory of aesthetic value is aesthetic hedonism: aesthetic value is the capacity to cause pleasure (or valuable experience more generally) in an appropriately situated individual.

I have had a lot of complaints about aesthetic hedonism, but one of the things that bugs me the most about it is the difficulty it has accounting for the beauty of philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t smell nice, and it doesn’t look like anything. But aesthetic hedonism weds aesthetic value to experience, and even the latest attempts to defend the view tie aesthetic experience to sensory properties. So if a thing cannot be sensed, perceived, intuito-perceived, or whatever, then it cannot be beautiful.

Some philosophers embrace the implication and deny that philosophy (and math, proofs, theories, logic, etc.) can be beautiful. But to me, denying the beauty of mathematics and logic is a nonstarter. And what’s to recommend a philosophical theory of beauty incapable of capturing the beauty of philosophy? I guess you’d have to think that there was nothing aesthetically special about philosophy to shrug your shoulders at that question. But to me the question sticks, and the answer is obvious.


Philosophers know that it is easier to tollens a ponens than it is to come up with a whole new premise. Is there a way of understanding the nature of aesthetic value that can capture the beauty of philosophy? The idea that philosophy and aesthetic value are both sources of pleasure barely touches the surface of their parallels. I think it helps to appreciate how deep the parallels run. I’ll look at three: viewpoint convergence, self-expression, and community.

Viewpoint Convergence: Here’s a lesson we just learned (yet again) about philosophy: convergence among philosophers about their various views and positions is hard to come by. Some philosophers even argue that (at least some) ideal philosophical communities are incompatible with significant viewpoint convergence. If philosophers tended to converge, then we would tend to miss argumentative nuances, overlook subtle distinctions, and ignore alternative ideas and perspectives. In other words, tending to converge tends to mean being bad at philosophy.

Something similar can be said about aesthetic valuing, the proud paradigm of the failure to converge. We generally value rather different things in our aesthetic lives, and our aesthetic disagreements often persist, even to happy effect. Aesthetic divergence is widespread, and while many have argued that convergence is the aim of aesthetic discourse, I doubt that’s right. If artists tended to make and adore the same stuff, or if lovers of beauty all tended to love the same things, they would tend to be bad at aesthetic valuing.

Self-expression: One reason for this is surely that our aesthetic lives are self-expressive. I mean three things by this. First, at the core of our aesthetic lives are beloved aesthetic attachments—to certain novels, bands, poems, comedians, films, styles of dress, cuisines. These attachments are personally significant. They capture something about who we are as individuals and what matters to us. Second, beyond this core of aesthetic attachment lies myriad discretionary choices we make to value one thing rather than other in our aesthetic lives. And in making these choices we cultivate our individualities, our sense of humor, our eye for design, our particular connection to music—our sense of taste in the varied realm of aesthetic value. Third, we use aesthetic media to make our individualities known, to express ourselves. We design out our living spaces. We share a good novel. We wear our favorite band’s t-shirt (or emulate our favorite influencer). Given the self-expressiveness of aesthetic life, it should be no surprise that viewpoint convergence is not a big concern.

Philosophy can also be self-expressive, and for many philosophers I suspect it is. Where one philosopher is drawn to ruly and rigorous analytic metaphysics, another is drawn to playful and creative aesthetics, introspective and subtle phenomenology, or to the idea of doing good by doing ethics. Something deep and variable in each of us can color and tweak our tendencies to do the many things we do in philosophy: read, think, explore, inquire, imagine, write, articulate, share, speak, reason, revise, and respond. Divergence in philosophical views also spurs these activities further. We encounter another thinker who has developed their views on a similar topic in a very different direction. We are driven to engage, and we read, think, explore, inquire, imagine, write, articulate, share, speak, reason, revise, and respond. As Kieran Setiya puts it: “I don’t need to agree with [philosophers] to love the worlds they have made for themselves.”

Community: Pursuits that call for the development and expression of an individual point of view face the obvious threat that the “worlds we make for ourselves” will be nothing more than that—some single person’s favored point of view with no claim on or connection to anyone else. The problem is exacerbated in practices that also exhibit a lack of viewpoint convergence. In the everyday work of philosophy and aesthetic life there is always a background hum whose tone is captured by the desperate voice of Rilke’s “First Elegy”: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies? Or who, if I published this, would care? This background hum is an ever-present threat of loneliness or misunderstanding, of lacking a sympathetic interlocutor or audience, as if all our efforts might be met with the perfect indifference of The Dude: Well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion man.

The practice of aesthetic valuing solves this problem by encouraging and rewarding social aesthetic valuing. It is a practice that enjoins us to share with others, imitate their products and styles, invite them to appreciate our views and inventions. Hey, check this out. We reach the heights of aesthetic goodness by reaching together. And to do all of this well, we need to cultivate an openness to other aesthetic worlds—to the people and products of other sensibilities. In flourishing aesthetic life, there is a lively cadence of invitation and uptake. Aesthetic goods keep this pulse thumping because aesthetic value is what is worthy of the social practice of aesthetic valuing. But aesthetic valuing is not simply a matter of having special experiences of pleasure. It is a social practice wherein we imitate aesthetic agents and goods, share aesthetic goods with each other, and express ourselves in ways that spur us to imitate, express, and share in turn.

Isn’t philosophy similar? From Socrates provoking his willing Athenian peers in the agora to a current-day professor testing their thesis at the colloquium talk. Even the solo thinker in an armchair imagines their audience (an intrigued, mildly dickish opponent, for me at least). In philosophy we need each other. Together we lurch toward understanding answers to deep and difficult questions about reality, knowledge, morality, and beauty. The goodness of philosophy is marked by this communal effort—I can “love your world” whether or not I agree. Among the best philosophy is the stuff that propels the practice and engages the group—deepening insights, spurring helpful distinctions, meriting responses, and generating ideas that deepen, spur, merit, and generate in turn.


With these similarities in mind we can say this about both: philosophy and aesthetic life involve people cultivating their discretionary perspective and expressing it to other practitioners doing the same in way aimed to elicit engagement and keep the practice going.

In this light, it shouldn’t be too surprising if one and the same thing that helps one participatory practice flourish also helps another. To value something both as philosophy and as beautiful is to value it as both promoting the kind of understanding and engagement philosophers seek and, at the same time, as worthy of aesthetic valuing: as promoting aesthetic community by expressing an individual style, a wonderfully shareable point of view, opening our valuing selves up to each other and helping us see new avenues of thought and action. Surely pleasure flits around in there, doing its thing, but we needn’t hitch our ride to it.


Tim Smith said...

Nick's claim here is personally and subjectively valid. There is little evidence to back this up, and none is needed. What is needed is a plan to generalize this theory and a roadmap for others to think about philosophy as worthy of aesthetic value. The toleration underscored here is not expressed in human nature, and there is more "Do what you want to do" than "Respect", or outright "Endorsement". These are different ideas. The ultimate concern is, what does this beauty do?

What if people find repugnant philosophy beautiful? There is plenty of that to go around. What if people find false philosophy attractive? Super Symmetry and String Theory are beautiful to some physicists but not as valid as the standard theory to anyone. Akan philosophy is tolerant of miscarriage. Is that beautiful? The more I think of this, the odder it gets. More needs to be said.

Beauty has consequences, and so does philosophy. Imbuing philosophy with aesthetic value is not required to appreciate its utility.

Philosopher Eric said...

I’ve come to not only tolerate the notion of philosophy as an art to potentially appreciate, but to advocate this as an end purpose. There is much more to my perspective as well however that professional philosophers in general may find repugnant. Regardless I’d love your thoughts on the following Nick.

It seems to me that philosophy today presides over three domains — metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Though I agree that philosophers needn’t ever decide anything amongst themselves in these regards, I must also observe that this puts scientists in a tough spot. In order to do science better than it’s done today, scientists should need various generally accepted metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological principles from which to work. I suspect that harder forms of science have simply done reasonably well anyway because they’re somewhat less susceptible. Essentially the soft science of psychology should be far more in need of axiological guidance than the hard science of physics.

Though I don’t think traditional philosophers should take it upon themselves to derive effective principles from which to better found science, I do believe that the problem must be addressed. Thus I advocate the creation of a new community which has the sole purpose of providing scientists with various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to work. And who would decide which principles are best? In the end I think science would arbitrate this on the basis of what seems to help it progress the most. And what would be a good name for this new field? I like the sound of “meta science”.

So Nick, would you say that modern science should be challenged without a respected community providing it with various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology? And if so, should a new community of “meta scientists” be built which has the sole purpose of providing science with such founding principles?

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I too love the study. Expression is the soul of it all. The only times I am disappointed are when excessive verbiage gets in the way of clarity (like just then...). And when discussion becomes unduly heated over misuse or misunderstanding.

Suresh said...

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chinaphil said...

This is an interesting set of comparisons, in part because it seems to be comparing two different categories of thing. Philosophy is an activity and a discipline; aesthetic value is a quality and an objective. It's interesting that there doesn't seem to be an activity or discipline directed specifically and solely towards aesthetic beauty.
Cookery, perhaps? Cookery is almost solely concerned with making things that taste nice. The importance of getting the right foods into people is hived off into a seperate discipline, nutrition. So if you wanted to compare philosophy with a discipline that takes pleasure seriously, cooking might be a valid comparator.