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Aesthetic Experience and Moral Judgment.

Aesthetic Experience and Moral Judgment. A Rehabilitation. By JOSEF FRUCHTL. Suhrkamp. 1996. pp. 519. DM 78.00.

JOSEF FRUCHTL'S Habilitation is an attempt to illuminate the intricate relationship between aesthetics and ethics as it is tackled in various contemporary debates such as postmodernism, neo-Aristotelianism, and ecological aesthetics. He distinguishes between philosophical aesthetics and aesthetic philosophy. While philosophical aesthetics largely deals with aesthetic objects, aesthetic philosophy, dating back to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the early Frankfurt School, characterizes the aesthetic more generally as a form of thinking. The alleged rehabilitation of philosophical aesthetics within contemporary aesthetic philosophy, which Fruchtl takes as the starting point of his analysis, is presented as the result of three developments: (1) the postmetaphysical orientation of philosophical aesthetics emphasizes the plurality of rationality and language games; it acknowledges categories like `difference' or `sensitivity', and it insists on the sensual and the appearance. (2) The rehabilitation of philosophical aesthetics also has to do with the shortcomings of a universalist ethics which renounces a concept of the good life, and contents itself with merely formal conditions of justice. (3) The aesthetic appears as the specifically modern conscience of philosophy in that it serves either as a compensatory device to cope with modern society or as the form of life made possible by modern society.

Fruchtl's study is entirely devoted to continental and so-called `post-analytical' debates, which shape his reasoning as well as his approach to the topic. His analysis is characterized by the Habermasian attempt to get a grip on modernity without lapsing back into bad metaphysics, yet with a continued claim to justification and validity. It is historical and systematic in nature, since he tries to track down the historical development of aesthetic rationality in order to analyse its structures and derive from its shortcomings reasons to reconstruct it. His focus on the above-mentioned debates--which are themselves historical in that their object is to comprehend a certain tradition (be it that of Aristotle or modernity)--also narrows the scope of his analysis, however. He leaves out insights from the analytic tradition on the aesthetic as it pertains to ethical or political questions, but more importantly he fails to explore its capacity to illuminate an analysis of rationality with respect to both the ethical and the aesthetic domains. He concentrates on a diagnosis of the interplay of ethics and aesthetics in its various forms within a certain tradition, without providing further constructive tools to overcome the conceptual shortcomings of these very traditions. This is the realm where a more analytic orientation would have been more innovative. The scope of his study, therefore, is rather modest, in that he contents himself with outlining the problematic underpinnings of the selected theories with respect to the relationship between ethical and aesthetic reasoning.

Ethical questions, he maintains, are better tackled from within aesthetic philosophy as a result of the alleged shortcomings of universalist ethics. Aesthetic experience in particular and its moral implications become the focus of the new interest in the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical domain. The background of this interest, however, is the deeper question of how far aesthetic rationality and justification reaches, particularly with respect to practical rationality. In this regard, Fruchtl understands his study as a contribution to the theory of rationality. He tries to differentiate between the various possibilities of how aesthetics and ethics can be related to each other so that the strengths and weaknesses of the respective relationship can be assessed. Contemporary attempts to vindicate an ethical theory from an aesthetic standpoint confuse the various possibilities of an aesthetic ethics. A differentiated analysis, such as he claims to provide, should begin from the following: if aesthetics is assumed to have a bearing on ethical theory, four positions can be distinguished: (1) aesthetics serves as the basis of ethics; (2) aesthetics has a marginal impact on ethics; (3) aesthetics plays the same role in reason as ethics; and (4) aesthetics ecompasses ethics. Fruchtl openly favours the last of these as a form of `perfectionist aesthetics' which he tries to link to an integrated concept of aesthetic experience attributed partly to Schiller and Dewey. In his view, aesthetic experience integrates non-aesthetic experiences and forms of judgement without claiming either their epistemic privilege or levelling out the aesthetic altogether. Aesthetic reason derives its idea from the integration, the independent `play', of various forms of non-aesthetic reason. The specific rationality of aesthetic experience therefore consists in unifying other ways of justification into a harmonious interlude. Thus, aesthetic validity is the coherence of cognitive, moral, ethical, and sensual validity claims.

In the exposition of the different contemporary debates which Fruchtl considers to be exemplary in demonstrating various (however confused) forms of this aesthetic rationality, it becomes clearer what kind of ethical or practical reason he deems part of it. It is the `ethos' as it pertains to questions such as how we should lead our life, and what makes our life a good one. Postmodern or postmetaphysical theories, as Fruchtl prefers to call them, tackle such kinds of ethical questions either as `aesthetic of existence' (Foucault), in the sense of an art of living, or as ironic liberalism which tries to moralize art and aestheticize morality (Rorty). The `aesthetic of existence', with which Fruchtl has a greater sympathy, is geared towards the concrete individual, and comes either with a hedonistic slant (which lifestyle can make the best of one's life), a fundamentalist tone (how should I live), or a perfectionist connotation (invent yourself and make your life a work of art). Nietzsche, who stands for the last of these, shows that life and art belong together: the aesthetic form of life gives a unity to one's life in subjective, intersubjective, and objective dimensions, thus characterizing it with a unique style. Rorty's ironic liberalism vindicates art morally instead. He gives it an instrumental value, however, in that aesthetic sensitivity is seen as the vehicle to attain the good.

Fruchtl shows that neo-Aristotelianism--as different as its various representatives are--roots ethical questions directly in the `ethos': Gadamer attempts in his hermeneutics to bring back the cognitive and the moral function of the aesthetic. The validity of the aesthetic judgement is rooted in the `sensus communis' which spells itself out as good taste. Similarly, tact and politeness display a situational sensitivity which makes them ethically relevant. Fruchtl equally interprets good manners as the perfection of morality. They generate social relations in their consideration of the concrete other, and they do so as a form of a non-binding commitment.

He views Martha Nussbaum's Aristotelian ethics as an even more consistent version of an aesthetic ethics. Tragedy serves her as a model for moral action which incorporates luck. The more she emphasizes the importance of the tragic and thus tragic choice, however, the more she also has to exclude the aesthetic way of thinking which bases its reasoning on situational as well as deliberative considerations, and thus can take differences into account. The rigidity of the tragic choice, Fruchtl critically comments, undermines the aesthetic rationality for which tragedy is supposed to stand.

The German debate on an aesthetic-ecological ethics of nature, finally, shows that aesthetic arguments are not sufficient to make an ethical claim with respect to our attitude towards nature. Fruchtl therefore pleads again for a perfectionist aesthetic ethics of nature. Aesthetic experience of nature can only provide an additional reason to conserve nature.

In the final part of his book, Fruchtl attempts to reinterpret Kant's third critique in light of his various interpretations of the mostly problematic relationship of aesthetics and ethics as `post-rigorist'. In order to prove the validity claim of aesthetic judgement with respect to practical reason, Kant uses the aesthetic concept of analogy, which Fruchtl takes as a sign that Kant's ethics is more aesthetic than it is generally thought to be. The `sensus communis' serves him to prove this hypothesis. We communicate our (aesthetic) feelings and put ourselves into the shoes of the others with the help of the sensus communis. Something is only beautiful if we can imagine that everybody can find this object beautiful. The sensus communis helps us to decide whether an object can provide knowledge by imagining its intersubjective acceptance.

The third critique, as Fruchtl interprets it, also bears a `Copernican counterrevolution'. The aesthetic judgement works against the grain of anthropocentrism. It takes the particular as the particular, and in the experience of the sublime nature is conceived as nature `an sich', a better starting point for any ethics of nature Fruchtl maintains. It is a pity that Fruchtl's study ends here abruptly. His study provides an interesting interpretation of Nietzsche as well as of Kant. His analysis of an almost forgotten tradition on aesthetic forms of ethics like politeness and tact through the history of books on etiquette as well as through the neo-Aristotelian tradition proves to be very knowledgeable. But his interpretations and many insightful discussions of contemporary German aesthetic philosophy only tie together loosely. He might have succeeded in showing that there is a tendency within aesthetic philosophy itself to raise ethical questions, and that within this tendency the various ways in which ethics and aesthetics relate to one another can be carefully disentagled. He also might have demonstrated that this has much to do with problems of rationality and justification. Largely, however, what really follows from these insights remains open, given that Fruchtl favours a perfectionist aesthetic. The constructive part of this study Fruchtl initially promised to provide is left for the reader to figure out.


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Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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