Reinterpreting beautiful for me.
CSA2019 presentation.

John Brown

Traditionally “for me” has been derided as evasive or conceptually confused. Often those who use it are charged with equivocating between “beautiful in my opinion” on the one side and “liked by me (aesthetically or otherwise).” When used clearheadedly the first is a stalwart or deferential statement of aesthetic value – the qualifier “for me” being proffered in the spirit of “in my opinion,” which can either express conviction (I’m letting you know!) or else contrariwise to disown subjective certainty (well, it’s what I think, anyway). In both (clearheaded) versions of this side, “beautiful” is substantive.

The second side of the equivocation retreats into the purely psychological, which is not substantively aesthetic about the object in question.  Here use of “beautiful” reports or expresses ardor, enthusiasm (aesthetic or other). Sometimes the use is rhetorical, hortatory, aiming to persuade the listener, in the old “do so too” of emotivism. (Remember Stevenson?).

Yet often speakers who use the phrase are neither realists about beauty nor expressivists, but intend something subtler. They are trying to convey something substantial about beauty – something like yes, it’s real, but also, somehow, not universal -- it's cultural or even personal.  Your beauty may not be mine, European beauty may not be Nigerian beauty, but both, the speaker wants to say, are somehow perfectly real.
Confronted with such muddle-headedness we clear-headed thinkers are apt to counsel students to undo the equivocation and choose between the only real possibilities, namely subjectivism and realism, and give up any wish-fulfilling notion of different beauties, of a fragmented beauty, beauty as real “for me,” or “for us.” We censorious spirits deride any such notion as illusory, driven by wishes, not reason -- a consumer’s beauty, a proprietary beauty, etc. Forget it!

I used to take this tack. But now I think this interpretation fails to do justice to an essential aspect of the “for me” expression. I now think there is a genuinely aesthetic meaning that suits that phrase and has been overlooked. At least I don’t recall ever seeing any recognition of it in the literature. Not only is it legitimate, but it is indeed tied to a particular setting. Further, it plays a vital role in people’s aesthetic life, however naïve or sophisticated they may be.

Kant famously associates “beautiful to me” with the agreeable, not the beautiful: “It would ... be ridiculous if someone who prided himself on his taste thought of justifying himself by saying: this thing … is beautiful for me.” He must demand universal agreement, which is also quite different from merely affirming that the thing in question satisfies most of humankind – that last is an empirical generalization, not a judgment of beauty.

Before giving my interpretation, I want to point out that it's antecedently probable that the persistence of that phrase among earnest folk stems from some sort of real connection with actual, genuinely aesthetic phenomena. [Here I confess to sympathy with Sircello’s view that there is some beauty – aesthetic positive – whenever a person thinks she experiences beauty -- I think that's wise and deep.] Both sides of that equivocation must have some tie to actualities. Some beauty is likely to be experienced whenever a person avers that the external object is beautiful to her even when she insists that the beauty is somehow personal. It’s not “objective” or "impersonal," yet somehow warranted. The latter part of the person’s avowal, I suggest, is likely to be true and yet somehow culturally or personally limited.

O.K. Enough preliminaries! Here’s my thesis. I contend that our problem phrase often (not always) aims unwittingly at a different aesthetic object than the object in the subject position. In these cases it’s not really the sunset or flower or artwork or music that is being qualified by the predicate phrase. It is, in a word, the speaker’s state of being. The phrase expresses an aesthetic judgment of the impact of the nominal subject on the speaker’s state. It claims that this state is aesthetically good. The degree is left vague but the claim is that it is well above the threshold where “beautiful” is the appropriate epithet.

The content of such claims may vary considerably. For instance, the state of being may be a momentary one, as in momentary harmony, OR a recurring one, one that serves to qualify one’s life in general. It may be more or less pervasive in one’s aesthetic economy of the life of a culture. Only further specification by the speaker, or analysis of her life or the life of the culture, can answer these questions of range or aesthetic potency. For me the essential point is that, contra Kant, the phrase doesn't apply only to the agreeableness, i.e., to the egocentric sensory or other pleasantness, of the state, but to its aesthetic quality as a state of being. And indeed some such states do merit the term “beautiful” just as much as do the external objects that are by far the subjects of our normal aesthetic discourse.

This leads us straight to a larger point, to wit, that the unwitting subject who clings to the for me phrase should be taken seriously. For the beauty of one’s state of being, under the impact of external stimulus, is a fundamental part of the lives of all of us, including the most aesthetically savvy souls. More of this in a moment. Further, the reason why it is essential to give full acknowledgement to such beauty is that so very many aesthetic claims are wrongly taken to be about external objects and events. All too often what is thought to be a claim about the beauty of an object or event is in fact, wholly or in significant part, a claim about the state of being of the claimant. This is part of a much larger phenomenon in our aesthetic life, the misidentification of the true subject of aesthetic verdictives – i.e., an error about the subjects that drive the claim and are truly qualified by the judgment. Notable among errors of this sort are those that ascribe aesthetic value to an external object when the value in fact belongs only to an appearance of the object. What this means is that the current misconception is part of a field of misconceptions calling for a sophisticated error theory as part of any viable theory of aesthetic value (of beauty, used as a term of art). Failure to develop an adequate error theory is a main reason for the seeming hopelessness of arriving at a viable non-subjectivist theory of beauty. So the tip of the iceberg I am taking as my main subject is far from incidental. It is not a mere wrinkle!
On the handout you will find a list of advantages to the state of being interpretation of the for me locution.


*explains the persistence of the locution as expressing a class of genuinely aesthetic judgments
*calls attention to a highly significant aesthetic domain typically overlooked
*many of our most intense aesthetic pleasures and displeasures fall within this domain
*supports the intuition that there some beauty closely connected with simple sensory pleasures
*supports the plausible thesis that positive aesthetic judgments have some truth in them (Sircello thesis)
*studying this domain brings home the dizzying variety of aesthetic objects and of the difficulty of assessing their relative value.
*avoids any equivocation or incoherence; the same beauty criteria apply to this domain as to others
*makes room for the variability of beauty-claims and the prevalence of error in them
*does not prejudge the question of whether beauty is a real property

Now let's proceed to examples...

Beautiful states of being are legion. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s spiritual calm after his stay in the monastery is an example of stellar beauty. “Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness.”

Down-to-earth middling but still clearly positive cases are such as the diner’s condition after a satisfying meal. Here purists will object that the satisfaction is not disinterested but self-regarding. Sure, but its being so doesn’t keep it from being harmonious and that means beautiful (aesthetically positive) in that respect. It need not be aesthetically positive in other respects, such as ministering to my personal interests. It may be benighted. If so, that diminishes its overall beauty but not the harmony of elements within it.

Ugly states of being are equally numerous. If "ugly" strikes you as infelicitous, try radically unbeautiful. Jealous distress is a classic case of disharmony, inner conflict, etc. Definitely unbeautiful. Nervousness in general is negative, as when trying to justify a lie. Startled states of apparent peril, panic, states of depression, and countless others similarly qualify. States of resentment, outrage, offence; states of boredom, purposelessness, ennui. Life is rife with such states.

A paradigm of ugliness is offered by Jean Valjean's tortured nightlong agony trying to decide what to reveal of his criminal past after Cosette's upperclass wedding has been celebrated.  “He stayed there till daybreak, in the same position, bent double over his bed, prostrate under the enormity of fate, perhaps crushed, alas! His fists clenched, his arms stretched out at tight angles like a crucified man taken down from the cross and cast facedown on the ground. Heroic, in a way, but hideous – and heroic because it is hideous.
Back to theoretical issues: the question of criteria.

States of being constitute a special class of objects of aesthetic regard, distinct from the objects traditionally privileged in philosophical discussions. But (and this the essential thing) the criteria of aesthetic value they are propertly judged by are the same. Showing this in full detail is beyond me in the present context and what I would say if put on the spot is too complex and controversial to convince you even in a fuller hearing.
However, I will venture to persuade you of one impediment to correct understanding of the criteria. This impediment is the idea that no pleasure can be genuinely disinterested. The tradition answer to the question, what makes a pleasure aesthetic is that it is a disinterested pleasure, as opposed to a self-interested (or “practical”) one. Many have doubted that a clear and correct explication can be given of this qualifier. But two things seem to me to dissolve the grounds for such doubt. First, it’s easy to define the concept: a disinterested pleasure is simply one which is not taken in the person’s stake in the object. That is, a complete statement of what I call the proximate object of the pleasure makes no reference to the fact that it is the person’s.

Second, the pleasure thus derived need not suffer any dilution or adulteration or amplification by the co-presence of self-interested pleasures or emotions or desires or aversions. There need be no interference of the one with the other. Of course there may be, as is true of all mental phenomena. A personal interest may lead to exaggeration of the aesthetic worth, as in the case of pride in ownership, or undervaluing because of cultural disapproval. No pleasure or displeasure, whether disinterested or self-interested, taken by itself, is self-validating as to the aesthetic or practical worth of its object. So one mustn’t confuse an emotion being aesthetic with its being warranted. Its epistemic status is beside the point.

Thus, the object being a state of mind and its being beautiful being a matter of the aesthetic pleasure properly derived from it, is in no way compromised by the co-presence of self-interested pleasure taken in the state of mind. Indeed, being self-interestedly pleased by being disinterestedly pleased is completely consistent and completely reasonable!

Now let’s return to examples and collect what we can from them. A point worth making is that the impact may be aesthetically positive yet the external occasion be either far less aesthetically positive or downright negative (defective). The latter might be schadenfreude that relieves deep frustration. The relief could be a positive aspect of the state of being even if the glee is petty, carping, ugly. The less fraught case is where the excitement of a rave may be aesthetically positive even if the music itself is not. Kitsch reliably arouses enthusiasm in many viewers. The pleasure given is excessive if taken in the music or even in the music+context (light show, roar of the crowd, etc.). The excited state of the participants may in large part be self-interested but it’s likely to be in part disinterestedly aesthetic, and the whole state may be positive. It (the state) is plausibly not just sensuously delightful but pleasingly admirable. The cold truth is that the life of enthusiasts is often more harmonious than the life of more discriminating folk. Not more insightful but more integrated, glued together by shallowness. Still, this does not negate the superiority of the aesthetic high-brow highs: the overall condition of the rave enthusiast is not as beautiful as that of the equally elevated condition of a person enjoying good music for the right reasons – e.g. the best of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

Extreme cases stare us in the face: Hannibal Lector’s resourcefulness is aesthetically positive even if his deadly action as a whole is not just abominable but hideous.

States of being also include regions of aesthetic value that are rather middling or pedestrian though still better than utterly plain (the region between positive and negative value). Many of the undistinguished things that form a large part of everyday beauty are appreciated as neat, well-designed, easy on the eyes. So also the states of being that occur in response to the ordinary are appreciated. But are they beautiful? Are these states of being beautiful? Well, our initial response is that they are not very beautiful though they are still aesthetically positive. The OK-looking, the cute, the amusing, the interesting, both objects and states of feeling.

However, deeper reflection forces upon us when we look more closely into the challenging connection of the normal and everyday with our cognitive needs. The ordinariness of the world is actually intricately attuned to our cognitive capacity. Introduce irregularities that overload our faculties and we would go mad. We couldn’t cope. So the neatness of the world is absolutely essential to our well-being. Our state of being would be unendurable. Yet we regard the familiar order of the world as no big deal so far as aesthetic quality is concerned. That deserves serious attention!!

On a lighter, retrospective note: the common sayings that beauty is a feeling, or what is beautiful is a feeling, will be explained by the role of pleasant feeling in the aesthetic value of states of being. Also, many seeming counterexamples to the consensus criterion (an improvement on the ideal observer formulation) will be neutralized by this larger view of aesthetic response. The oddity of bodily distortions being valued as “beauty,” as in lip plate stretchings, can be neutralized by locating the object of the valuation not just in tribal solidarity, in accessibility to marriage, and in the stateliness of the behavior that lip plates encourage in, almost force on, self-respecting wives, but also in the state of being enjoyed by wearers and companions.

The takeaway principle that ends the handout follows directly from the preceding. At any moment, in any context, the set of aesthetically significant objects present to any percipient is dizzyingly dense, forming a thick atmosphere of objects of possible regard. We tend to think of only a focal object being present, but actually we are immersed in a sea or space of many dimensions. There are objects vs. appearances, objects taken in isolation and objects in spatial or temporal contexts, which may stretch beyond episodes and stages to whole lives and epochs – all these along with objects vs. states of being. And more, so much more!

To me that changes the way I see myself as an aesthetically engaged being. It makes me think of my older, more conventional notion of the aesthetic life as naive, blinkered.

Hold in reserve in case of need
Remote and proximate objects of pleasure. All pleasures have “objects.” But it’s not so easy to plumb that. We don’t get far inside a pleasure until we identify the innermost, or what I will call its proximate, object. My aesthetic pleasure listening to music has the music coming from the performers or the boom box as its remote or distal object. But my pleasure or displeasure has nearer and more narrowly specific objects. For I am pleased (or displeased) not simply by the sounds but by certain musical properties of those sounds– In ordinary parlance they are what I find pleasing or displeasing in the music, what I take pleasure or displeasure in. My delight or distress at what I hear is responsive in the most intimate way to this proximate object.

Skepticism about disinterestedness. The difficulty in determining whether we take disinterested pleasure in music or anything else is not insuperable. Mostly skepticism about this is confusion about the role of desire in relation to aesthetic pleasure. It’s obvious that we do desire to have pleasure of this sort. That’s a standing desire, which it would be irrational not to want fulfilled. So when we have aesthetic pleasure, a desire is fulfilled. Skeptics may say, we would not have it if we lacked that desire. And from they conclude that the aesthetic pleasure is not disinterested but rather driven by desire.
But there’s a non-sequitur in this slide. A standing desire is one that we celebrate being fulfilled, whether or not we went looking for that fulfillment. Many aesthetic pleasures are not anticipated, not sought, just enjoyed when they happen. Many intrude where least expected and even when they are disruptive, diverting attention away from the dominant focus. All this is well-known. A similar non-sequitur is notorious in moral psychology, where pleasure at having done one’s duty is misconstrued as implying anticipation without which we would not have done our duty.
Curiously we have ample reason to hope that people will desire to do their duty, will derive some satisfaction from having done so, especially when they do it well, and will feel uncomfortable or ashamed for not having done their duty, especially when they act against their duty. These emotions are central to the moral life, not antithetical to it.

Additional thoughts

  1. The practical limits of discrimination of comparative pleasure is as vague as is that of comparative likeness. Is Beethoven’s Appasionata Sonata more like a thoroughbred or a pure Arabian?
  2. Like normal resemblances, all sorts of degrees of resemblance exist: just like, a bit like, in a way like, etc. The aptness of metaphor is likewise graduated.
  3. Crossmodals are agents of connectedness, hence of unification. They add to the pre-aesthetic connections. They add crucially to the coherence and depth of the pattern they qualify.
  4. There are endlessly many crossmodals of some degree for any given pattern. No appreciator will be interested in the great majority of them. The ensemble that figures in a person’s aesthetic response will be a particular selection.