Aesthetic Pursuits is Jerrold Levinson’s newest collection of essays and is marketed as a complement to his 2015 volume Musical Concerns.1 Whereas Musical Concerns was comprised exclusively of essays on music, Aesthetic Pursuits consists of essays on a variety of topics. As the broad title suggests, these topics are relatively disparate and wide-ranging, including issues of film, humour, literature, beauty and the emotions. All the essays, with one exception, were written after 2006 and offer a view into Levinson’s thinking over the last decade. As a result, the collection features a more critical engagement with contemporary aestheticians than his previous volumes. The essays start with ‘Farewell to the Aesthetician?’, a short paper in which Levinson asks, tongue partly in cheek, whether aesthetics has been rendered redundant by other disciplines. Thankfully, Levinson concludes that the aesthetician is safe for now. He paints three caricatures of possible replacements—the cognitive scientist of art, the professional art critic and the practising artist—and argues in each case that the aesthetician has some additional worth. For example, the cognitive scientist may be able to address empirical questions about art, but they cannot address conceptual or normative questions, as the aesthetician can. In the case of the professional art critic, Levinson’s critique is not that they are not doing aesthetics, but rather that they are doing it badly. He argues that doing aesthetics well requires balanced and impartial theorizing, but art critics are inevitably biased and are thereby prone to being unbalanced. Similarly, the practising artist is criticised for not doing aesthetics well rather than not doing it at all. The question then arises of whether the critic or artist would be replacing the aesthetician if they improved their theorizing, or whether they would merely become aestheticians themselves. Regardless, by demonstrating the implausibility of three straw-man replacements, Levinson does not demonstrate that the aesthetician is irreplaceable. Perhaps a more interesting question for him to address would have been whether any discipline could ever replace aesthetics rather than whether any discipline does currently replace it. But, then again, that would have resulted in an essay less humorous in tone. The next essay, ‘Aesthetic Contextualism’, was written for publication in a postgraduate journal and is largely expositional in nature. The essay starts by drawing parallels between art and philosophy before focusing on aesthetic contextualism, which Levinson considers a principle theme of aesthetic theory in recent years. Aesthetic contextualism is defined as the view that an artwork is embedded within a cultural context, having been created by a particular artist(s) at a particular time in a particular place, and this cultural context determines the identity, value and meaning of the artwork. For the remainder of the essay, aesthetic contextualism is contrasted with competing views such as formalism, structuralism, and empiricism. This helps bring its central claims into sharper focus but does little to support the view itself. Rather the reader is directed to Walton for a defence of contextualism and to Danto for a critique of formalism. The previously unpublished ‘Toward an Adequate Conception of Aesthetic Experience’ aims to provide an account of aesthetic experience and thereby elucidate how it relates to aesthetic attitude, aesthetic attention, and aesthetic properties. To motivate his own account of aesthetic experience, Levinson first examines Noël Carroll’s content-oriented account and then Gary Iseminger’s valuing-based account (33–34). Levinson’s account characterizes aesthetic experience as the perception of the aesthetic properties of an object in conjunction with a positive affective response to that perception. In contrast, Carroll’s content-oriented account characterises aesthetic experience simply as any experience in which there is some perception of aesthetic properties. Levinson objects that this account fails to accommodate the intuition that aesthetic experience is valuable and that artworks are created with the aim of facilitating aesthetic experience. Hence, according to Levinson, Carroll’s account requires the addition of a positive affective response. However, it seems then that Levinson’s and Carroll’s disagreement is merely a terminological one. Surely both would agree that there is a difference between perceiving aesthetic properties and perceiving and appreciating aesthetic properties. Levinson wants to use the term ‘aesthetic experience’ to refer to the second and Carroll to the first. So they do not disagree on the datum—that perceiving is one thing whereas perceiving and appreciating is another—they disagree only on which phenomena the term ‘aesthetic experience’ should refer to. Within the confines of the essay then, their disagreement seems primarily to be terminological rather than metaphysical. The next essay, ‘Artistic Achievement and Artistic Value’, addresses how the artistic value of an artwork is determined. The position that artistic value consists wholly in the aesthetic experiences that an artwork makes possible, Levinson labels the ‘Experientialist’ position. In contrast, Levinson labels ‘Objectualist’ the position that artistic value consists at least partly in the artwork being a certain type of object, such as an embodiment of an artistic achievement. He then supports the Experientialist position by arguing that the artistic value of embodying an artistic achievement can only be explained with reference to the value of the aesthetic experiences made possible. Specifically, Levinson argues that artistic achievements, like solving a problem in a medium, inventing an original style, or positively influencing future artworks, are artistic achievements rather than intellectual achievements or technical achievements exactly because of the aesthetic experiences they make possible. However, at points, he seems to be presuming his conclusion by building the Experientialist position into his use of the prefix ‘artistic’, so that something has ‘artistic value’ or is an ‘artistic achievement’ only when it affords positive aesthetic experiences. Regardless, Levinson acknowledges that his argument at best provides some support rather than conclusive proof of the Experientialist position. After all, his argument does not preclude the possibility that other artistic values, such as cognitive values, cannot be explained in Experientialist terms. In ‘Artistic Worth and Personal Taste’ Levinson reviews his earlier essay ‘Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem’; specifically his defence therein of some artworks having more artistic worth than others and of ideal critics being a rational guide to determining which artworks these are.2 The rest of the essay reflects on the implications this defence has for the relationship between subjective personal taste and objective artistic worth. Levinson defines ‘the paradox of aesthetic perfectionism’ as when one’s personal taste conflicts with what is artistically worthy, leading to a tension of allegiances. For, although ideal critics may determine artistic worth, one’s own personal taste remains important as a partial constituent of one’s individuality. This is a paradox which is highly relevant to people’s aesthetic lives and Levinson surveys four real-world responses. Although he devotes the least time to the most interesting response, the essay nonetheless remains an illuminating guide on the issue. ‘Falling in Love with a Book’ examines what it means to fall in love with a work of literary fiction by comparing and contrasting the phenomena with falling in love with a person. The unpublished essay does not take a rigorous approach to the topic—no philosophical account of love is offered—but it is observant and engaging all the same. A chief insight is that one primarily falls in love with the inhabitable world of a book and so an author’s greatest works are not necessarily their most loveable. The essay closes with a cautionary note about the pitfalls of falling in love too intensely, whether with a book or a person. One of the most interesting unpublished essays is ‘Immoral Jokes’, which starts by claiming both that some jokes are immoral and that some immoral jokes are funny. First, Levinson roughly defines a joke to be funny when it elicits humorous amusement from its target audience. He then investigates whether immoral jokes are indeed funny in spite of (or even because of) their immorality. Levinson concludes that, in general, immorality negatively affects funniness. His reasons are similar to those offered by Noël Carroll, specifically that amusement faces resistance when a joke invokes attitudes one finds morally repugnant.3 However, Levinson’s account ultimately suffers problems by taking funniness to be a purely descriptive term. By defining funniness non-normatively in terms of amusement, Levinson precludes the possibility of criticizing cases of amusement. If a hackneyed joke amuses an unsophisticated audience, then, according to Levinson, that joke is funny. Yet, contra Levinson, it is possible to criticize such jokes as not funny. Failure to account for this fact means that Levinson cannot distinguish between what is found funny and what is funny. The next essay is ‘Beauty Is Not One: The Irreducibility Variety of Visual Beauty’. Here Levinson addresses the issue of whether objects of visual beauty exhibit one single thing or multiple different things. He argues that visual beauty is pluralistic and consists of multiple different categories which are not reducible to one another. This pluralism takes the form of at least seven categories: abstract beauty, artifactual beauty, artistic beauty, natural beauty, physical beauty, moral beauty and accidental beauty. These categories are helpfully explicated through plentiful examples and borderline cases. The final section of the essay highlights differences between the categories, such as how physical beauty is uniquely predicated upon sexual attraction and thus is best determined by genetically-apt mates. (I confess to having reservations about Levinson’s claim that the subject class, whose pleasurable reaction of sexual desire is the criterion for the correct judgement of sexual beauty, is those of the opposite sex and with the same ethnicity.) Overall, the case is successfully made that visual beauty is indeed not one. ‘Emotional Upheavals’ is an essay-long commentary on Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.4 Nussbaum’s book presents a cognitivist account of the emotions as highly discriminating modes of thought, beginning with an exploration of her own personal grief from the death of her mother. In particular, Nussbaum discusses the role of emotion in the arts, using a section of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder as an example. Although an admirer of Nussbaum, it is this application of her theory which Levinson focuses his disagreement on. His central objection is that Nussbaum does not include feeling as an essential component of emotion and thereby fails to capture the feature which distinguishes emotions from other mental states, such as evaluative ones. As a consequence, Levinson argues, the application of Nussbaum’s theory to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is missing something essential and cannot account for the emotional expressiveness of music without text. ‘Artful Intentions’ is another essay-long commentary, this time on Paisley Livingston’s Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study.5 In his book, Livingston surveys intentionalist psychology to develop a ‘partial’ intentionalism about the interpretation and ontology of artworks. According to this view, intentions are fallible but can also contribute to the determination of an artwork’s features, especially implicit meanings. So authorial intentions sometimes, but not always, determine the interpretation of an artwork. Levinson agrees with this view on some points but disagrees on others, in particular he puts forward a defence against Livingston’s three-fold criticism of his own view—hypothetical intentionalism. The next essay, ‘Defending Hypothetical Inten tion alism’, continues this thread. Hypothetical intentionalism is defined as the view that an artwork’s interpretation is determined by an optimal hypothesis of artistic intention rather than by actual artistic intention. First, Levinson defends the view from recent criticisms by Stephen Davies and Robert Stecker.6 Each of these criticisms present interesting cases which demand a response, but by some nimble clarifications Levinson manages to reply to both of them. In the latter part of the essay, Levinson aims to emphasise the appeal of hypothetical intentionalism via a detailed application to François Ozon’s La Piscine. The oldest published essay ‘Seeing, Imaginarily, at the Movies’ dates back to 1993 and seems incongruous amongst the other essays published within the last decade. It defends the ‘Participation Thesis’, which states that a viewer of a fictional film imagines seeing the characters and events portrayed rather than merely recognizing what is being represented on screen. The defence is against criticisms of the view raised by Gregory Currie.7 Currie’s criticisms are cases which seem to undermine the Participation Thesis, such as imaginarily seeing an unseen character or imaginarily seeing events from implausible angles. According to Currie, these cases constitute counter-examples sufficient for rejecting the Participation Thesis. Levinson’s defence consists of denying that these cases are indeed counter-examples, and in pointing out that even if they were counter-examples, they would not be sufficient for rejecting the Participation Thesis but rather reducing it to a default norm of film viewing. The final essay ‘Sound in Film: Design versus Commentary’ is the longest in the collection. It is part philosophy of film and part film studies, with an examination of sound techniques in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Feminin. The question addressed is: What is the supposed source of a film’s soundtrack when coupled with its image-track? Levinson explores the different ways to account for the audio component of a film, which is especially interesting given the previous essay’s commitment to the Participation Thesis with regard to a film’s visual component. In addition to employing existing distinctions (e.g. diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound), Levinson also proposes a fruitful distinction between sound as commentary vs. sound as design, where sound as commentary is fundamentally informative and sound as design is fundamentally aesthetic. However, though these distinctions allow for richer descriptions of sound in film, Levinson does not use them for any particular philosophical purpose in his lengthy description and analysis of Masculin-Feminin. Throughout Aesthetic Pursuits, Levinson is as perceptive and lucid as ever and, if a collection of new essays, the volume would be wonderfully substantial. However, focussing only on the unpublished material, it is questionable whether the experienced reader gets much bang for their buck. Levinson’s offerings are always engaging and stimulating, it is just a pity that this one is rather slight. 1 Jerrold Levinson, Musical Concerns (Oxford: OUP, 2015). 2 Jerrold Levinson, ‘Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 60 (2002), 227–238. 4 Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals in Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 3 Noel Carroll, Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2014). 5 Paisley Livingston, Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study (Oxford: OUP, 2005). 6 Stephen Davies, ‘Author’s Intentions, Literary Interpretation, and Literary Value’, BJA 46 (2006), 124-127 and Robert Stecker, ‘Moderate Actual Intentionalism Defended’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64 (2006), 428–438. 7 Gregory Currie, ‘Visual Fictions’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 41 (1991), 129–143. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 23, 2018
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