On Beauty (2009), ch. 1-4, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth. Scruton just died in Dec. 2020; he had taught aesthetics for more than 30 years, and this book provides an overview of issues in the philosophy of art. The chapters we read this time include an overview chapter, then treatments of human beauty, beauty in nature, and everyday beauty (e.g. decorations, fashion, etc.).
In ep. 288, we’ll finish the book, dealing with artistic beauty and Scruton’s polemical thesis about it. Scruton was well known as a conservative and scholar of conservatism, and his overall thesis and approach are anti-relativist: There is such a thing as good taste, and so beauty is not purely in the eye of the beholder, and it’s not true that everyone’s aesthetic opinions are equally valid.
Scruton gives a list of “platitudes” about beauty that any theory of the beautiful must accord with (or engage through argument), and we spend the majority of our discussion going through these:
- Beauty pleases us.
- One thing can be more beautiful than another.
- Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
- Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgment of taste.
- The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
- Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without judging for myself.
- [much later in the text he adds and refines one more] It is a non-accidental feature of human beauty that it prompts desire.
These principles mean that beauty is objective in some senses but subjective in others. It’s a judgment each of us makes individually, yet these judgments are not just about our own tastes, but claim some sort of universality. We seek consensus and want others to recognize what we see and share the pleasure we feel from beautiful objects. #2 about one thing being more beautiful than another is not just a statement about comparing great works of art, but about different ways in which we interact with beauty, from being wrapped in a transcendent, quasi-mystical ecstatic experience to the much more mundane concept of “fitness” that guides us in shaping our environment and activities.
Two of his ongoing points of connection to philosophical history are Plato’s Symposium and Kant’s account of beauty and “disinterested interest.” His view is also influenced by internal sense theories like Hume’s, which we’ll consider in ep. 289; it’s similar to Hume’s moral sense theory. He also refers to Burke’s theory of the sublime to help us distinguish between two concepts of beauty, the first of which is just “aesthetic success” of any sort and the second is a particular type of success: “enrapturing appeal.”