Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 5 – Thought Experiments in Aesthetics

My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”

Here is his summary of, and commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments dealing with aesthetics. It follows from a previous post on ethics. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.

5. Aesthetics

In #48 Evil Genius, we see now how ethics and aesthetics can be united. Beauty is good; it is that which promotes the long-term survival of life. Bad art, no matter how well it is executed, is blind emotion that purports falsehoods for truth. #37 Nature the Artist helps us understand that this idea of beauty is objective to reality, but the beauty of any object is subjective to the considerations of each specific observer. That is how we make sense of the confused and competing definitions of beauty and art that exist at present. But in #86 Art for Art’s Sake, we see that artistic objects have no intrinsic worth on their own; they are not a form of life. Art must provoke emotions in someone (even if it is just the artist) in order to be considered art. And therefore, as in #66 The Forger, a true connection to the emotions and knowledge of an artist undoubtedly adds an extra dimension to any work of art, and that dimension can even become priceless whenever such a connection is deemed irreplaceable and full of inspirational beauty. When such art impels us to grasp for good lives, we reach out to those around us in order to actually accomplish it. And that leads us to the final branch of philosophy in our worldview.

My brief reflections – I probably know less about aesthetics than any other branch of philosophy. Let me just say that there is something about beauty that is intrinsically worthwhile. Truth, beauty, and goodness are the 3 great ideas by which we judge things. Here I’ll quote from Bertrand Russell’s last manuscript:

“There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.”

(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with political philosophy.)

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4 thoughts on “Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 5 – Thought Experiments in Aesthetics

  1. In my recent talk to North East Humanists about my philosophy, I added the following passage about aesthetics too:

    [Aesthetics] is something that many philosophers have shied away from, preferring to stick with rigorous, analytical topics rather than squishy emotional ones. But recently the philosopher Denis Dutton gave a TED talk titled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” that had a quote in it that I really like because it goes a long way towards explaining my position here. He said:

    “The experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing or sustaining interest in order to encourage us towards making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.”

    A lot more could be said about this quote, but I just want to make one point about it. And that is that, although “the experience of beauty” may indeed be subjective and in the eye of the beholder, we now all know a lot more about “making the most adaptive decisions for survival.” And so, I think our understanding of what is beautiful ought to change accordingly.

    Sylvia Wojcik queried me about this long essay (of what I learned during my writing about 100 thought experiments), and wondered where my thoughts were about “the meaning of life.” I didn’t have anything specific in here because Baggini didn’t have any thought experiments about this elusive topic, and I’m not sure whether it fits naturally into this framework I’m using (of the 6 branches of philosophy), or if it rises above it as a sort of metaphilosophy. I have come to think of aesthetics, though, as that which motivates and inspires us to find and fulfil the meaning in our lives. As an expert on TMOL, I wonder what you think of this relationship between aesthetics and TMOL.

  2. Haven’t really thought much about beauty and TMOL although lives which seek truth, create beauty, and involve (moral) goodness seem to paradigms of the meaningful life. As I said, my background in aesthetics is non-existent but it does seem that beauty and meaning are very closely associated terms. The philosopher who has written extensively about this connection of truth, beauty, and goodness to the meaning of life is Thaddeus Metz. But a life creating beauty is almost certainly a meaningful one. JGM

  3. Any philosophical schema which does not include meaning-of-life seems suspect in my eyes. The measure of philosophical utility seems to me to be utility: how it helps us lead better, more effective lives, including coping with aspects of life we have yet to understand. The mystery of consciousness is one of those, of course, but meaning-of-life even more so. Otherwise, it’s just mere information, interesting perhaps, but peripheral to how we live in the everyday. I have never been able to understand why so many philosophical systems leave it out.

    Isn’t meaning properly part of metaphysics? If it’s proper to wonder how things began, it follows that it’s natural to wonder how they will end and therefore where we are going and why? The forces of evolution require animate beings to take life seriously which means that their actions are impelled by purpose in the interest of survival. But what if one of those beings, as part of its evolutionary development, discovers that there may well be no ultimate purpose and death is the end, period? How then can such a being, which requires purpose, go on?

    As for aesthetics, I’m going to go way, way out on a limb here by wondering out loud whether beauty is properly a central part of a philosophical system that has utility is its focus. Beauty is important but not anything close to a central concern when we get out of bed each morning. (I have elsewhere written at length that determination of what’s real, true, right, fair, and good are the foundational distinctions our welfare depends on.) I recognize Ayn Rand’s philosophy has many limitations but I think she hit the nail squarely on the head with her take on the purpose of art and therefore the role of beauty when she says:

    Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.

    We seek beauty because it both confirms and affirms the validity of our world view experienced as an emotional sense of life rather than being an end in itself. When we draw, paint, and sculpt we are making a statement about the world—how we see it and/or how we think it should be. We don’t do art because we want to create beauty, as such; we do it because we want to share our experience of life’s realities and our vision of its potential and do it as perfectly as we possibly can. To the extent it resonates with others in terms of idea and form it is said to be beautiful. We have a need for concrete expressions of values experienced as abstractions; e.g., the Statue of Liberty symbolizing America as a refuge of freedom and equal opportunity and Michelangelo’s David symbolizing the power of courage fueled by the “right” to defeat tyranny in the form of Goliath.

    I can’t help thinking that this controversy is more a matter of classification than substance. (I am aware that Rand, too, saw aesthetics as a fundamental branch of philosophy.) But the dispute seems important in the sense that without such precision we risk losing sight of the role of philosophy as primarily being about how to live everyday life. Otherwise, philosophy becomes sterile and devolves into a mere compendium of fact.

  4. “We have a need for concrete expressions of values experienced as abstractions; e.g., the Statue of Liberty symbolizing America as a refuge of freedom and equal opportunity and Michelangelo’s David symbolizing the power of courage fueled by the “right” to defeat tyranny in the form of Goliath”

    Animals, too. America’s premier symbol appears to be an eagle. Russians have a two-headed eagle and, naturally, the bear. The British have their lion– as David, symbolizing courage.

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