Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ideality and Relativity in Aesthetics

[Yet another essay draft! This time for my aesthetics course. Note that it's missing the necessary footnotes. Feedback is welcome, as always.]


The question of objectivity in aesthetics is beset by paradox. On the one hand, it is something of a truism that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so that tastes may differ without either party being mistaken. Yet many of us would also insist that there is a difference between good taste and bad, and that there is something defective about the aesthetic sensibilities of one who claims that the music of Britney Spears is better than Beethoven. At the very least, we must concede the possibility of aesthetic progress, or improvement in one’s taste, in light of experience. No doubt we have all had the experience of newly appreciating aesthetic qualities to which we were previously blind. “Practice makes perfect,” for the audience as much as the performer. But progress implies an ideal; not just any old change will do, it must be change in the right direction. So doesn’t this contradict our starting truism?

I wish to propose a way out of this quandary: a reconciliation of relativism with ideality. Drawing on Hume’s ideal agent theory, we can clarify precisely what’s at stake in the relativism debate. I will use the ideal agent framework to state what conditions would need to be satisfied in order for aesthetic values to be absolute, or non-relative. These conditions, we will find, are ones that might be satisfied in some cases but not others, thus yielding a combination of absolute and relative values, with variation in degrees of relativity. Importantly, it will be shown that relativism need not preclude ideality. But first, some definitions…

What is relativism?

I take relativism to be the view that the truth-value of a token claim varies depending on who assesses it. This should be distinguished from contextualism, according to which different tokens of a sentence type may have different contents, say depending on the speaker. Indexical content, for instance, is context-dependent in this way. But the resulting claims are typically not relative, because any token utterance will be absolutely true or false, no matter who assesses it. “I am RC” may be true when spoken by me but not you, yet even you must agree that my token utterance is a true one. So it is not 'relative' in the above sense. Similarly, whether bright colours (for example) enhance an artwork may depend on context, i.e. the rest of the work. But this aesthetic quality will only count as a relative value if a token instance of it varies in value across viewers – say, if two critics can, without error, disagree over the qualities of a single painting.

Relativism is sometimes understood in contrast to the claim that aesthetic judgments are based on general principles. But in fact the two issues are orthogonal. One could be an absolutist particularist, holding that there are no general principles that can be usefully applied in aesthetics, but nevertheless there is one universally correct answer for each particular case. Alternatively, a relativist could accept a principle-based aesthetic epistemology, whilst insisting that the right principles will vary from person to person.

Relativism should also be distinguished from subjectivism, according to which there is no gap between truth and opinion. On one form of subjectivism, an assertion is true just in case the speaker believes it. So defined, subjectivism is a species of contextualism rather than relativism. (Your believing-that-p is an objective fact about your psychology. If this fact provides the truth conditions for your utterance, then your utterance is absolutely true. I can hardly dispute that you hold the opinion you do.) But suppose that we instead define the truth as being determined by the evaluator’s opinion. This will then be a genuinely relativistic form of subjectivism. (Your assertion that p – while true for you – could, by my lights, be false.) It is important to note that relativism does not necessarily imply such subjectivism. After all, some aspect of the evaluator other than their actual opinions might serve as relative truth-makers. So, in general, relativism is consistent with objectivism, understood as positing a gap between truth and opinion. The ideal agent framework demonstrates this result in the case of aesthetic relativism.

Ideal Agent Theory

We must acknowledge that our judgments emerge from a limited, imperfect perspective. We can thus make sense of the suggestion that our actual judgments might diverge from our better judgments, i.e. those that we would make from an improved perspective. As Hume wrote: “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.” We need not take this to be an exhaustive specification of the ideal position, so long as it conveys the general point. By contrasting defective states of mind with relative improvements – for example, intoxication with sober clarity – we can discern an element of ideality that normatively governs our judgments, without any recourse to dubious metaphysical claims. If we would change our mind upon more careful reflection, this alone suggests that our past conclusions were in error. It is no mere arbitrary change of mind. The fact that the later state is recognizably superior in formal terms (more discerning, reliable, etc.) establishes a normative telos. To move in this direction is progress. To reach the ideal conclusion – from which no further improvements could be made – is to finally grasp the truth of the matter.

Hume thus develops a form of ideal agent theory for aesthetics:
“In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty: in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their truth and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.”

Hume relies upon a convergence (“entire or considerable”) in judgment among men of “sound organ”. But we might want to relax this assumption, in order to obtain a more widely applicable theory. Suppose that, upon idealization, you held a minority view, opposed to the tastes of the idealized majority. Why should their opinions have any authority over you, when there is (ex hypothesi) no defect in your aesthetic appreciation? There would seem no unique “idea of the perfect beauty” in this case. Any ideal opinion, incapable of further improvement, would seem as 'valid' as any other. Nevertheless, when considering this scenario from your present, imperfect state, it may seem that your idealized self has a special authority over you, such that their conclusions provide the normative standard to which your present opinions aspire. They are the opinions you would have upon obtaining an improved perspective. They are the 'better' judgments, at least for you. So even in the absence of universal aesthetic values, there can still be agent-relative ideals that are 'objective' in the sense of potentially diverging from one’s actual opinions.

So far, I have assumed that there is a unique process of idealization that would yield unique results for any given individual. But what if this is not so? There may be various incompatible and incommensurable ways for one’s perspective to be improved. Or, even if there is a uniquely ideal perspective, it might not be determinate what judgments would flow from it. In either case, we should say that it is indeterminate what the ideal aesthetic judgment is for this agent. Whereas relaxing our earlier assumption led to agent-relative aesthetic truths, relaxing the present assumption leads to indeterminacy, or no truth at all.

Of course, we need not assume uniformity across all aesthetic questions here. Some may see universal convergence, yielding absolute (non-relative) aesthetic values; the rest will involve relative values – or, for some agents, perhaps no determinate value at all. The relative values could themselves come in degrees: we might find convergence within a culture or sub-culture on some issues, for instance, whilst others lead to completely unpredictable individual differences. It all depends on the patterns of convergence and divergence that would emerge under idealization.

Direction of Explanation

Let us distinguish two related charges that might be leveled against this theory, one epistemic, the other metaphysical. On the epistemic side, it might be objected that the only way for us to identify ideal critics is according to their judgments – e.g. prefering Beethoven to Britney – in which case we require an antecedent grasp of what good art is. It isn’t clear that this is true; it seems possible to identify at least some formal qualities, such as brute discriminatory capacity, that we would expect of an ideal critic. More importantly, however, the present framework need not commit us to any particular views in the epistemology of aesthetics. What I seek to clarify here is the metaphysical question of what makes an aesthetic judgment true in fact. Whether we are in any position to grasp such truths is a question that goes beyond the scope of this essay.

A metaphysical analogue of this objection could be raised, as follows: supposing that our idealized selves would prefer Beethoven to Britney, what is the reason for this? Presumably it is because they would appreciate the aesthetic qualities that make the one superior to the other. But then isn’t it those qualities of the artworks, rather than anything fundamentally about the responding agent, that ultimately explains why Beethoven is the superior artist? That does seem plausible; fortunately, the core of my argument need not commit me to claiming that the ideal agent theory is fundamental to the metaphysics of aesthetics. I am happy to settle for the more modest claim that facts about idealization track the metaphysical facts about aesthetic value. So long as the two coincide, it does not matter for our purposes which collection of facts underwrites the other.


Some – e.g. indexical – statements are not so much about the world as about your location in it. By asserting, “I am in Canberra,” you locate yourself as one of the in-Canberra people. The claim is not about which possible world is actual, but rather where (or who) you are within the actual world. Note that a world, objectively considered, lacks such indexical data. You and I occupy two different locations within one and the same world. So if we want to capture indexical or agent-relative facts, it does not suffice to establish which world is actual. One must go further and identify a centered world, i.e. a possible world supplemented with a metaphorical flag, or “you are here” sign, to fix the indexical facts for you. This is traditionally achieved by analyzing a centered world as a triple <w,t,i>, where t and i respectively pick out a time and individual in world w.

So, whereas a typical contingent belief may be analyzed in terms of the set of possible worlds in which it is true, indexical or relative statements are better analyzed in terms of centered possible worlds. To assert that RC is in Canberra is to exclude any non-RC-in-Canberra worlds from your doxastic possibilities. In contrast, to assert, “I am in Canberra,” is to exclude from your doxastic sphere any centered worlds in which the centered individual (who may or may not be RC) is not in Canberra. The difference reflects the fact that we might not always know who we are. There is a possible world in which an evil demon deludes Descartes into believing that he is RC. It is epistemically possible (in the broadest sense) that I am that deluded Descartes; a possibility that is represented by including such a centered world in my epistemic space. But even if we remain neutral on the question of which objective individual we are, we may identify ourselves indirectly, according to the various properties that we – the centers of our worlds – exemplify.

Now, one interesting way to explicate relativism is to treat value claims as aspiring to locate oneself according to attitudes that would be held under idealization. The effect of asserting “Beethoven beats Britney,” is to locate yourself as one of those people whose idealized selves would share that aesthetic attitude. (Though this particular example arguably doesn’t narrow the field down at all!) Much as I can locate myself as an in-Canberra person, so I can locate myself as ideally-a-Beethoven-fan. And in either case, I could be mistaken. Perhaps I am not, in fact, one of the in-Canberra people. Perhaps my actual centered world is one that is centered on a deluded Descartes in Demonland. Similarly, though I take myself to be one of the people whose idealized selves would like Beethoven, perhaps I am not. (Perhaps, incomprehensibly, there are no such people.) Either way, it is an objective fact who I actually am, so my opinions may fail to reflect the truth of the matter.

It’s unclear how far this picture can be pushed, however. Presumably, most aesthetic errors are not due to an ignorance of who one actually is, in the most literal sense. The self-ignorance involved is ignorance about how one is, rather than who one is. It is an ignorance of properties, not identities. For instance, if I am wrong about what my idealized self would endorse, this is presumably because I am wrong about what RC’s idealized self would endorse – not because I am wrong in taking myself to be RC. So framing aesthetic relativism in terms of abstract self-location may be an idea that offers but limited illumination. Nevertheless, it remains true that it’s an objective question what my idealized self would endorse – and a question that I might presently be mistaken about. So if aesthetic claims commit one to a particular answer to this question, this makes it clear how we could be mistaken about them too.


I have shown how an ideal agent framework can be utilized to clarify the metaphysical status of aesthetic values, in a way that reconciles agent-relativism with opinion-transcending objectivity. In order to avoid subjectivism, it need only be the case that some perspectives are formally superior to others, thus paving the way for idealization. We may thereafter secure objectivity simply by noting that our actual opinions may fall short of those we would hold under idealization. We need not insist that idealization would lead to convergence across all agents, as would be the case if value absolutism were correct. If reality instead grants individual ideality without convergence, this means that aesthetic values are both objective (opinion-transcending) and agent-relative. I have not tried to settle the final question of which of these metaphysical positions is correct – that would go well beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I have mapped out the logical terrain, and shown how you can get to various destinations – including the attractive yet elusive Isle of Objective Relativism, whose very existence was once in question.


Blackburn, S. (1993) Essays in quasi-realism. New York: OUP.

Cohen, T. (2004) ‘The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on the Idea’ PHIL4005 Course Reader.

Egan, A. (forthcoming) ‘Secondary Qualities and Self-Location’. [accessed 1/10/06]

Lewis, D. (1986) On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

Hume, D. (1757) ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ PHIL4005 Course Reader.

Misak, C. (1991) Truth and the End of Inquiry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, M. (1994) The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. To find the Isle of Objective Relativism, do I first need to travel to the Isle of Objective Ideality?

    I agree that a relativist has have a sense of progress, like a sense of knowing which way is uphill. Yet, this procedure could take her to any of a multitude of mountaintops. How does she usefully establish an ideal mountaintop if altitude is subjective?

    I suppose that if she could ascend each mountaintop multiple times, in every possible permutation, she might gain a sense of which one is highest. However, it's not clear that this leads to an ideal agent. If you have to listen to the complete works of Beethoven and Britney Spears numerous times in all possible permutions, you might be pretty sick of them both before you get an answer (hardly ideal)! (If we were considering moral relativism, we would be in an even more difficult position.)


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