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Real Beauty.

Real Beauty. By EDDY M. ZEMACH. Pennsylvania State U.P. 1997. pp. xi + 222. 40.50 [pounds sterling] (cloth), 16.50 [pounds sterling] (paper).

PROFESSOR ZEMACH'S book applies to problems in aesthetics a knowledge gained from a prolonged, and often highly original, engagement with a range of topics that are central to philosophical logic and metaphysics: topics such as reference, truth, identity, objectivity, realism, and ontology. I shall later ask a fundamental question, namely, whether this approach, the effect of which, intentionally or otherwise, is to make philosophical aesthetics a branch of philosophical logic, is well conceived.

The first part of the book argues `that there really are aesthetic properties and aesthetic facts in nature and that they determine whether a given aesthetic sentence ... is true or false' (p. x). Call this `Zemach-realism', in contrast, say, to what Zemach calls `internalist', or what I call, `Wright-realism' (p. xi). After an instructive demonstration, in the first two chapters, of the shortcomings of non-cognitivism and subjectivism, Zemach's conclusion is positively established by a demonstration, in Chapters 3-5, of the truth of aesthetic realism. At the heart of his argument is a commendably well-argued claim that we can distinguish between something's looking but not really being, say, green and looking and really being green, because property terms are pegged to standard observation conditions. That seems right. We simply do say things like `take it outside where the light is better'.

However, first, there is a lacuna in the argument to Zemach-realism. Although Wright's alleged relativization of truth to the practices assumed as warranted in a given community is slightingly referred to on p. xi, there is no direct discussion of his arguments. However, since the notion of standard observation conditions seems to yield the distinction between looking-but-not-being-F and looking-and-being-F, even if relativized to communities in which those observation conditions are the standard ones, the notion of a standard observation condition seems neutral between Zemach- and Wright-realisms. Indeed, the fact that the standard observation conditions for art might seem to be culture-relative (since different cultures do different things with their artefacts), Wright-realism has an obvious appeal. True we do have an argument for Zemach-realism `intended for scientific realists' (p. 64). Roughly we believe there really are electrons because we believe a scientific theory, and we believe that theory because it really is beautiful. So, `there is no real beauty' entails `there are no real electrons'. Unfortunately Zemach uses the formula: `an account which is beautiful is probably true' (p. 64). This allows that a theory could be beautiful and false. But then no realist need be forced to accept that only real beauty makes real things possible.

Second, to show that things are in fact, say, green and graceful is not to be done with subjectivism. For it seems coherent to say that something is graceful but that one happens not to like that kind of quality. Such differences rest on legitimate differences of temperament which in the end no proof of objectivity can subvert. Zemach seems to assume that any such subjectivity is a bad thing. But there are also legitimate differences between our aesthetic and other likings which celebrate our individualities. Moreover, we can confess our preferences in ways, investigated by Cavell and Cohen, that humbly and decently explore our patchy communality with others. Zemach-realism seems to me unduly difference-intolerant.

Third, any Zemach-realism has a problem related to the foregoing: the proof that things can indeed be graceful certainly gives people the right to believe that this or that thing has a property. However, as Kant well saw, this mere belief is not enough to account for our aesthetic engagements with things. For aesthetic engagement involves likings and dislikings as well as beliefs. (In the same way, Lenman, for example, has argued that any account of morality must add motivation to belief.) It is difficult to see how this sits easily with the kind of person-independent objectivism that Zemach is after. The problem is addressed in Chapter 5, where we are told that aesthetic properties are non-aesthetic properties `seen through a special medium: Desire' (p. 95). As he notes (p. 107), this seems to be anti-realistic: `aesthetic properties ontologically depend on human (or other sentient and conative) beings and cannot exist without them'. Zemach then adopts what seems to me an odd strategy. He takes his realist task to be to show that `noumena ... things whose existence is not perceiver-dependent' (p. 107) can have aesthetic properties. The only argument here, incidentally, is the `beauty is truth' argument mentioned above. Suppose the argument worked, and that what Zemach calls `the noumenal' really has person-independent aesthetic properties. Then it follows that there are properties which are aesthetic but which are not (contrary to p. 107) a matter of perceiving some non-aesthetic property or properties `through the special medium of desire'. Again that seems to leave out the human likes and dislikes involved in any judgement rightly to be called `aesthetic'.

Zemach's defence of aesthetic realism is, I think, the best that can be done for that view, and the book is worth commending because it so clearly sets out arguments for that position. That brings me to the second part of the book. Here, deploying recent work, notably in philosophical logic, Zemach addresses problems about interpretation, the ontological status of a work of art, reference to fictional entities, and artistic truth. Often his discussions seem absolutely on target, as when he comments adversely on Kit Fine's `creationist' treatment of non-existents. Like him I find incomprehensible the suggestion that Shakespeare `promoted Hamlet in the ranks of Being' (p. 185).

However, as I read this material, an uneasiness, which I have often felt during such discussions, came over me. To get one thing out of the way first: I do not doubt that philosophical aesthetics requires from us the highest standards of rigour in argument and analysis. Nor do I doubt that the development of a capacity for such rigour through good philosophizing of any sort has a utility far beyond the academy. Nor do I doubt that observation of these standards of rigour can be found in an exemplary way in philosophical logic. Nor do I doubt that philosophical logic can have a bearing on philosophical aesthetics. But it does not follow from that, that philosophical aesthetics is a form of philosophical logic. Now take Zemach's Chapter 8, `Referring to Non-existents'. It is a problem in philosophical logic how that is possible. But merely to take as one's stalking horses Hamlet, Anna Karenina, and Pickwick does not make it a problem in philosophical aesthetics.

In philosophical aesthetics our tasks include coming to an understanding of the power of art and nature to move us and to correct misunderstandings about our dealings with, including our talk about, art. Our target is art (and sometimes our responses to nature). If any material from philosophical logic or anything else in philosophy is intruded into our discussions we are entitled to ask `How does that help us to understand what art is about?'. Sometimes the answer is obvious, as when work in the philosophy of mind helps us better understand expression. By that test, things in the latter half of the present work are not philosophical aesthetics. I was told how fictional reference is possible, but I gleaned from that nothing that helps me with an understanding of the centrality of fiction to art, and through art, to my life. (Lamarque and Olsen, incidentally, seem to me in their treatment of similar matters to show precisely what are the possibilities of mating philosophical logic and philosophical aesthetics.)

Towards the very end, Zemach comes to these deeper questions about art. Like me he thinks the importance of art has something to do with its truth-revelatory function. But his treatment illustrates the worries I have been expressing. On the one hand we have obviously competent discussions of truth. But when we turn to the account of why truth should matter in art, disappointment sets in. One example must suffice.

The striking last sentence of the book reads thus: `In Mahler's music we meet Despair, a thing found in many places in the real world. Today it is in Bosnia, in Sudan, in India. Despair is present wherever there is someone who is desperate. Through music you sense it as it really is.' What is said here is, taken one way, seriously false, as if the hopeless passengers on the deck of the Titanic would somehow have been better informed about Despair had the orchestra played Mahler instead of `Nearer my God to Thee'. In another sense what is said is importantly true. Music can bring the inchoate in me to expression and to some sort of understanding. But these matters, to which I have no doubt that philosophical considerations about truth are important, are where we begin, not where we end.


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Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:Theorizing the Moving Image.
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