Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #42: Acquaintance Principle


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #42:
acquaintance principle


LeVar Burton: famous defender of the acquaintance principle

Pronunciation: ah-KWAYN-tens… principle

Definition: Well, the acquaintance principle is a principle. About acquaintance.

Acquaintance is like direct experience. You’re acquainted with a person or a city or an artwork when you have met the person, been in the city, or seen/heard/whatever-ed the artwork.

The acquaintance principle is a thesis about when you’re licensed to make judgments about artworks and their quality, value, etc. It says: you’re only licensed to make a judgment about an artwork’s quality if you are acquainted with it.

In concrete terms: If your art teacher says that Picasso’s Guernica is magnificent, you couldn’t actually know that it was (it is) unless you’d seen it. If Rotten Tomatoes says that Black Panther is the best movie of all time, you can’t know that it is (it’s not*) until you’ve seen it yourself. If your bestie told you that they heard a funny joke, you couldn’t know whether the joke was actually funny unless you’d heard it for yourself.

Okay, you probably get it now. So some people accept this principle, and others reject it. But it’s a fun puzzle to think about! (But you can’t know that it’s a fun puzzle to think about unless you think about it yourself. Maybe.)

*No hate, but the best movie of all time?? Come on now.

Not to be confused with:
acquaintances – those people you sorta know but don’t really and have to say hi to on the street if you see them but sometimes look away and pretend you don’t see them so you don’t have to bother with the awkward small talk


  1. What kinds of thing do disagreements about the acquaintance principle turn on? The (constitutive) aim of aesthetic experience? The nature of knowledge? The nature of peculiarly aesthetic knowledge (if any)?

    I ask because aesthetics is not my bailiwick, and I have the following relatively untutored intuition: It seems to me that I can know, without being acquainted with it, that some sonata is an exquisite expression of melancholy, and I can know this to the extent that I can know it on good testimonial authority (where I have no reason to doubt the authority’s discriminatory and linguistic competence, sincerity, etc.). But knowledge-that doesn’t seem to be the proper aim when it comes to aesthetic cognition (if I may call it that), even if knowledge-that is a happy byproduct. The aim seems to be something more like understanding (though that might not be the right word for the aesthetic context). It seems to me that I can’t experience (understand?) the exquisiteness of the expression of melancholy unless I become acquainted with the sonata in the right way.

    Those who disagree with the acquaintance principle — what are they disagreeing with?

    • There are a few different issues. First, most people who defend the acquaintance principle defend it for overall value judgments about a work – e.g., “The sonata is beautiful,” rather than trickier ones like “The sonata expresses melancholy/is melancholic/etc.” Some people are more yielding about these; others not.

      Second, they say you couldn’t know these things even on reliable testimony (even on, like, perfect Oracle testimony, although most people don’t really get into those cases). But some variations defend only the view that you can’t *use* the knowledge (for like inferences or communicating it to others, etc.). And there are still other variations, ones sort of akin to what you suggest, but where instead of “understanding” people might say “appreciation”.

      And as you surmise, it is in some ways ultimately about the nature of aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment. Does aesthetic knowledge or something important about aesthetic judgment rest indispensably on first-personal experience? Etc.

      And fwiw I definitely share your intuition re: knowledge-that, but some people don’t!


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