The introduction to the 2007 draft included a philosophical exposition that wasn’t intended so much as a justification but more to illustrate how it fitted into the landscape of philosophical aesthetics in general. As it turned out, my area of concern was the same as that of Hume and Kant and my conclusions broadly in sync with Kant though I arrived at mine by independent reasoning and by considering aesthetics only as they relate to architecture. I owe no debt to primary sources however as I used none but I do owe a huge one to A.C. Grayling’s textbook Philosphy 1 for its general overview of the philosophy of aesthetics. I’ve always liked a bigger picture. In what follows, anyone familiar with the textbook may find echoes of some of its sentences, but only because I couldn’t say it better. I’ve underlined those sentences or any parts of anything similar I remember was particularly well said. I’ve left the text mostly as it is, altering only phrasing I wouldn’t use anymore. Any interruptions in the form of current reflections or additions I’ve placed in orange text boxes. Also, in order to illustrate the fluid subjectivity that this framework aims to come to grips with, I’ve added images of buildings that either had a mixed reception at the time, that have come to be regarded differently over time, or that even the one person might have mixed feelings about,
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Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what is conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and then dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create familiar qualities such as ʻharmonyʼ, ʻproportionʼ, ʻrhythmʼ, ʻscaleʼ and so on, with ugliness, blandness, mediocrity and so on defined only negatively as the absence of those qualities. This, the classic philosophical stance, assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. The usefulness of a concept of beauty has been questioned in modern times because even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it is hard to imagine a single quality common to them all. The challenge for the aesthetic pluralist is to find an alternative account of the unity of aesthetic experience – one that not only describes everything that is beautiful, but everything else as well.
Objectivist philosophers maintain that some works of art are inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them and this implies that beauty is governed by rules. A Subjectivist would disagree because
- There arenʼt any rules we all agree on,
- Someoneʼs aesthetic judgment is still valid even if it doesnʼt conform to a rule,
- Itʼs not logically possible to translate any truths that might exist, into aesthetic rules
- Such rules would be irrelevant in generating aesthetic responses,
- The creation of a work of art has little to do in conforming to rules and
- Consistency matters little in aesthetics anyway.
For Subjectivists, objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. Hume summed this up as “Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them.” Not wanting to allow a totally subjective beauty, Hume and Kant suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. This left them the problem of how to champion the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without allowing unqualified subjectivism.
Hume proposed a standard of taste stating that
- Some particular forms of qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric are calculated to please and others to displease,
- The aesthetic sensibility of individuals varies,
- We defer to certain individuals we regard as having ʻsuperiorʼ sensibilities,
- A correct aesthetic judgment is one that arises from a delicate sensibility operating under ideal conditions, and
- Aesthetic judgments do not identify aesthetic properties inherent in objects nor do they simply report the subjectʼs experiences, but that an objectʼs possession of an aesthetic quality consists in its being ʻfittedʼ to generate a certain response.
Kant rightly asked “why should one defer to the judgment of a critic?” He proposed that when we make an aesthetic judgment we should ignore everything that might pertain to our contingent, natural, individually variable constitutions and base our judgments solely on conditions which are ʻstrictly universalʼ, in the sense of being necessarily available and common to all persons. For Kant, this meant basing our aesthetic judgments on
- The bare perceptual form of the object, and
- Its interaction with our basic, universally shared mental powers of perception and understanding.
This is what I’ve done, going further into the nature of that interaction.
[16 May 2019]
Even if our our capacities for shared response were the same, the downside is that if everything not universal is excluded, then there’s not going to be much left to talk about. The problem remains that if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification.
Though it limits itself to architecture, this framework takes up that challenge. Its approach is pluralist in that it isolates attributes that can describe beauty, ugliness and, if those two are opposites, then everything else inbetween. This is not to say they necessarily will do one or the other, as one cannot create a prescription from a description. This framework is also pluralist in assuming that the attributes designers of buildings manipulate to create or, as case may be, not create beauty are common to all buildings whatever they are made of and wherever they are built. If we accept that our primary source of information about buildings is our eyes then those attributes are also tangible ones our eyes can sense and our brains can recognise.
I’m aware that this last sentence equates aesthetics with visual aesthetics and, though this is usually the case – and though I don’t agree that it should be – it’s important to come to grips with visual aesthetics – simply in order to make our peace with it – before even attempting to consider and comprehend other dimensions of aesthetic value such as performance beauty, for example.
[11 May 2019]
Visual perception is a solid foundation for a pluralist enquiry into aesthetics as it places all built objects and all people on the same level, providing a common basis for aesthetic judgments.
Still wanting to believe in a beauty inherent to a work of art, subjectivists objected to the fact an object could appear beautiful to one person yet ugly to another. This is of course what happens and this framework this book proposes explains why. It proposes that
- There are structures of thinking (rules) that can be agreed upon though we may disagree on their applicability to any given situation,
- All aesthetic judgments conform to these rules,
- It may not be possible to translate aesthetic truths into rules, but those truths can still be manifestations of a comprehensible structure of rules,
- Those rules generate aesthetic responses in that whilst an aesthetic response may appear spontaneous, it can still be the result of an interaction of describable elements,
- The creation of a work of art is the result of conforming to those structures of thinking – it is said that ʻrules are made to be brokenʼ but this book maintains that the rules are constant and how they are manifested is in a constant state of re-invention, or evolution if you will, and
- Consistency is paramount in aesthetics – it would matter little if rules were seen as prescriptive ones working towards some aesthetic objective but if rules are seen as describing the mechanism by which a particular aesthetic response is generated, then it is possible to have a consistent structure of rules describing multiple and conflicting aesthetic responses.
The aesthetic framework that will be described here makes it possible to translate any aesthetic truth into rules having a comprehensible structure. It is therefore in line with Humeʼs thinking when he says that
- “Some particular forms of qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric are calculated to please and others to displease”,
- “The aesthetic sensibility of individuals variesʼ, and
- “Aesthetic judgments do not identify aesthetic properties inherent in objects nor do they simply report the subjectʼs experiences, but that an objectʼs possession of an aesthetic quality consists in its being ʻfittedʼ to generate a certain response in usʼ,
but some qualification is required for,
4. “We defer to certain individuals regarded as having ʻsuperiorʼ sensibilities”, and
5. “A correct aesthetic judgment is one that arises from a delicate sensibility operating under ideal conditions.“
Firstly, the role of the critic in architecture has diminished in recent years as new buildings tend to come with press kits telling would-be observers what to think. A ʻcriticʼ may now be anybody presenting notions of how a particular work should be interpreted but Kantʼs objection “why should one defer to the judgment of a critic?” is still valid.
Secondly, Humeʼs notion of a ʻdelicate sensibility operating under ideal conditionsʼ is also questionable not so much for implying that there is a ʻcorrectʼ aesthetic judgment but for suggesting that most people will never be able to arrive at it.
The approach of this book therefore adheres to Kantʼs proposal that we base our aesthetic judgments on
1. The bare perceptual form of the object,
and the only change it would make to
2. Its interaction with our basic, universally shared mental powers of perception and understanding,
is to remove the qualifiers ʻbasicʼ and ʻuniversally sharedʼ for if we accept that an object can appear beautiful to one person yet ugly to another, we must also accept that an object can appear beautiful to groups of people having a certain, relevant degree of shared powers of perception and understanding (by virtue of them having a similar culture or education) and simultaneously different, or perhaps even ugly to those not.
The aesthetic framework that will be presented here is not empiricist for it assumes knowledge is derived from more than sensory experience but nor is it rationalist since it allows for knowledge to be gained by other than rational thinking. It is firmly Kantian in presupposing knowledge is based on a synthesis of the bare perceptual, tangible, form of objects, and its interaction with our powers of intangible association and understanding.
This aesthetic framework may synthesise subjective and objective judgments in a Kantian manner, but it is post-Kantian pluralist in allowing for any number of valid aesthetic responses without regard for the degree to which they are universally shared. This better seems to fit how aesthetic likes and dislikes operate in the real world.
Instead of attempting to justify particular aesthetic judgments or any particular class of them, this framework is a structure to which all aesthetic judgments conform. It categorises and (thus) describes them at the same time. The categorisation is the description.
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The Architecture of Architectures
The 2007 Draft: Preface
The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )