Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Socrates and the Pig


What follows is a guest post by Saam Trivedi. Saam was educated at universities in the US, England, and India, and is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He has published articles on such topics in Aesthetics as interpretation, musical expressiveness, ontology, Tolstoy’s aesthetics, and Indian aesthetics in such journals as Metaphilosophy, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and also in edited anthologies.  

Not being an avid follower of all the exciting things going on in the blogosphere, I honestly do not know who regularly reads this blog (and my ancient laptop’s spell-checker actually suggests “bog” and “blot” in lieu of “blog”).  Still, as this blog is run by Christy Mag Uidhir, I assume that at least some regular visitors to it are his students. Accordingly, I offer below three minimal conditions for doing philosophical aesthetics, absent fulfillment of which, while you may well end up earning more than some people on Wall Street some day or even become a Distinguished Professor at some footling place, nevertheless it is quite unlikely you will uncover insights (not to mention “the truth”) about the arts and beauty.

Note that these three conditions or requirements do not form an exhaustive list of desiderata for doing Aesthetics, and readers should feel free to come up with other conditions in addition to these.  And note that I am far from being the first to stress the first two of these requirements and I suspect I will not be the last; among many others, they have also been stressed before, if I remember correctly, by Clive Bell and Roman Ingarden (a philosopher by the way whose writings on such things as literature, music, ontology and the like we would do well to read more today, carefully and with an open mind, and getting past such quick and convenient labels as “Continental philosopher”, “phenomenologist”, “Polish” etc.). It is, however, the third of these desiderata that has not been stressed until now as much as it should be. So here goes.

1. Know the Arts

Of the many philosophers writing about the arts and beauty, there are some who are very good philosophers and who know a lot about other things in Philosophy outside Aesthetics, which they in fact bring to Aesthetics.  This is very welcome, as should be evident from my discussion of the second condition below.  However, when one reads and figures out their work, making one’s way through complex and often very clever arguments (not to mention jargon), one ends up ultimately learning very little about the arts and beauty.  This is because their work is very far removed from the arts and beauty, something that is to be avoided.  If memory serves right, writers such as Bell and Ingarden in fact urge that one know at least two different arts very well, and that is good advice we should all take to heart. 

2. Know Philosophy

Let me begin my discussion of the second condition by narrating a true story.  Some years ago, I attended a talk at an institution not too far from where I am based.  A very well established philosopher (who does not do Aesthetics) prefaced a question by saying that in 50 years of doing Philosophy, he had not read even 50 pages of Aesthetics.

Indeed, even though Aesthetics (along with Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Logic) is one of the five traditional areas of our discipline recognized by the American Philosophical Association (APA), most philosophers who work in other areas of Philosophy know and care very little about the arts and aesthetics, as exemplified by the story above. All that being said, however, I have actually heard many philosophers who work in branches of Philosophy outside Aesthetics sneer at the philosophical abilities of several aestheticians. Whether this disdain is justified is not something I will go into here, though I will mention that one very distinguished past President of the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) once advised me at an ASA meeting some years back to talk more to metaphysicians and philosophers of mind, advice we would all do well to ponder.  Indeed, if the kind of philosophers I mentioned in the previous section are one extreme, at the other extreme are some aestheticians whose writings are chock-full of wonderful examples from across the arts even though they are not the greatest of philosophers. It is, I would venture, necessary even if not sufficient for there to be more jobs in Aesthetics both (and these two things are not unrelated) that philosophers who work outside Aesthetics learn more about and respect the arts and Aesthetics, and also that aestheticians become better philosophers.

3. Explore Other Cultures

As you read what follows, ask yourself if this describes you or someone a lot like you or someone you know. You know all about music from Metallica to Miley Cyrus to Miles Davis, and the different kinds of music they exemplify. That is awesome! You might even know something about Monteverdi, Mozart, Milton Babbitt, and minimalism, and Western classical music more broadly (even though the audience for this kind of music is dwindling so much that if one sits in the last row at live concerts of Western classical music, one will see a sea of heads of gray hair or no hair, as someone I know once put it).  But, you have never heard (or even heard of) Mongolian throat singing, or Mali’s great kora players, or Mexican mariachi music. And you are not even curious about such things; in fact, you could not care less.

Lest it be thought that my point above applies only to music, let me turn to film as another example, music and film being the two arts that most everyone experiences and enjoys at some point. Lately, I have followed some recent discussions of film and ethics.While the philosophical arguments of many writers on the topic are admirable, what is striking is the very small range of examples of Anglophone films and filmmakers that one typically comes across. All the usual suspects show up: Chaplin, Griffiths, Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, Spielberg, and others in the pantheon of Anglophone filmmakers.  Don’t get me wrong here–I’d be the first to say these are all great filmmakers!  But, really, is there nothing in the collective output of non-Anglophone and especially non-Western filmmakers to merit discussion when talking about film and ethics? 

What about, to mention just a few examples, the great Japanese directors Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, or the Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, or the Indian director Satyajit Ray, or the Chinese Zhang Yimou and King Hu, or the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, or the Brazilian Glauber Rocha, or the Turkish Yilmaz Guney? You could easily add to this list, less neglected non-Anglophone European filmmakers such as Melies, Renoir, Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel, Almodovar, Rohmer, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Fellini, de Sica, Rossellini, Bergman, Lang, Riefenstahl, Fassbinder, and countless others. Some of these filmmakers make films that are indeed often set in cultures older than recorded Anglophone history, cultures that once flourished and then declined (and may rise again), cultures where ordinary folk these days often struggle with poverty, hunger, violence, corruption, political oppression, pollution, and disease, among many other things. Is there really nothing here for film and ethics, or are we collectively guilty of not being able to look very far beyond Anglophone culture?  

I urge readers to conduct a similar exercise across the other arts (literature, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, theater, dance, and so on), and also to notice something else.  At the time of writing this, our little planet is estimated to have about 7.2 billion people.  Of that, the total population of (majority) white or Caucasian Anglophone countries (the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) comes to something like 460 million people, and in fact less than 7% of the world’s population. Viewed in purely numerical terms and in numerical terms alone, those numbers are even lower than the numbers associated with apartheid, when a small minority (I seem to think the number was almost up to 20% in 1936) of South Africa’s population dominated the rest.     

To conclude, we all know John Stuart Mill’s famous comparison (in the second chapter of Utilitarianism) between Socrates and the pig: unlike the pig who only knows his side of the question, Socrates knows both sides of things and so is able to compare intellectual and bodily pleasures. The true aesthete is like Socrates in that she knows both sides of these dichotomies: Anglophone art and aesthetics, and non-Anglophone art and aesthetics; Western art and aesthetics, and non-Western art and aesthetics. I leave it to your imagination to figure out what we should say about the pig. And if you disagree, think about this. Very often at conferences, you see middle-aged and older philosophers of my gender. Perhaps changing testosterone levels with the passage of time has something to do with this, but many of them are grouchy philosophers, the ones who misunderstand you first and then yell at you. Exploring the art and aesthetics of other cultures may well enrich your life, preventing you from becoming grumpy as you grow older, and getting you closer to attaining that elusive thing called work-life balance which philosophers, lovers of wisdom, probably need more than anyone else. Maybe this can even become part of our new year’s resolutions!    


  1. Thanks very much for this, which raises so many interesting issues. I have a couple of points.

    1. What does 'knowing the arts' involve? Collingwood says the same thing as Bell and Ingarden in the preface to 'The Principles of Art', but goes further – even, in his early 'Outlines of a Philosophy of Art' (near the end, I believe), claiming that the philosopher of art needs to *practice* an art. I've tried to argue for this strong position, but I didn't get anywhere. Still, it seems to me that there's something to the thought; I wonder if anyone else agrees, and I wonder if they have any ideas as to what that 'something' is.

    2. One might read your 'know philosophy' dictum as betraying the 'aesthetics as periphery' prejudice that's been often noted, from Danto's 'The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art' to the point made on this blog that no aesthetics articles have made some top-ten-philosophy-articles list since 1989. What is it to be good at philosophy? I have seen plenty of very good philosophers who are not aestheticians give terrible talks about aesthetics; does being a bad aesthetician make one a bad philosopher less than being a bad philosopher of mind? Most of the aestheticians I have met and read are towering geniuses, just as much indeed as philosophers in other subdisciplines. I agree that aesthetics is in a bit of disrepute; but I think that what needs to change is how aesthetics is seen – those who disparage aesthetics need to have read more than fifty pages of it, for one; the philosophical acumen characteristic of aesthetics needs to be seen to be a philosophical acumen on a par with other sorts, etc.

    3. I agree with your third dictum, but we shouldn't treat Western culture as so homogeneous. (Again, this may not be something you actually do, but it's worth making explicit because one might read you in this way.) Jazz and classical music, for instance, come from deeply different places. Classical music comes from a very intellectual, religious, bourgeois polyglot Europe. Jazz comes from Africa, the U.S., and has long been the music of the downtrodden and uneducated. They could hardly be more different. The blues, whence jazz in large part comes, does not even quite use the Western twelve-tone scale! (Most notably, its thirds are often microtonal.) And classical music comes from a Europe which is hardly just a single culture. Similar points can be made with the literary canon, which has as perhaps its two most central works the Homer of a three-thousand-year-old culture with very little in common with our world, and the postcolonial James Joyce.

  2. Many thanks for your comments, and let me take this opportunity also to praise Christy's editing! I'm sympathetic to your first point, and inclined to agree that, time permitting, aestheticians should “practice” the arts and thus know them first-hand and not just in an armchair way. Put differently, one might invoke a distinction we owe to your great countryman, Bertrand Russell, and say that we should have knowledge by aquaintance of the arts and not mere knowledge by description. Bear in mind, though, that not all aestheticians will be good artists (e.g. I'm a terrible poet)! On your second point too, we're in agreement. When I said “Know Philosophy”, I didn't mean to cast Aesthetics as peripheral, but rather meant that we should know not just Aesthetics but also other things in Philosophy (or at least something of them) such as the five traditional divisions of Philosophy I mentioned the APA recognizes. And I fully agree with your third point that there's lot of internal diversity within Western art and culture. In fact, I chose my examples of 7 Western musicians and music (from Metallica all the way through to minimalism) to reflect this internal diversity. Likewise, the 26 Western filmmakers I mentioned (from Chaplin all the way through to Fassbinder), when taken as a group, have a lot of internal diversity within the group. I chose my examples with some care, but thanks again for your comments and for reading this piece! With best wishes for 2015.

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