Aesthetic Experience: A Debate

From 1958 to 1982, two adept philosophers—Monroe Beardsley and George Dickie—debated each other through their books and articles about the nature of aesthetic experience. By seeing the different attempts at an understanding and their respective critiques, it helps us to work through our own notion of what it means to have an aesthetic experience. I present an overview of their exchanges below, focusing only on the main points.

Monroe Beardsley’s View in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958)

In 1958, Beardsley published a precedent setting book in aesthetics; it was the first systematic and comprehensive (about 600 pages) treatment of aesthetics in the analytic tradition of philosophy. I this book, Beardsley prefers using the term aesthetic object, rather than art, because aesthetics encompasses a wider swath of experience than art alone.

Since people have different kinds of experience, such as emotional and religious experiences, it is not surprising that these experiences could have some overlapping qualities. But the trick for someone trying to explain aesthetic experience is to find what makes this experience unique. Toward that goal, Beardsley offers four features of an aesthetic experience.

First, one must have their attention firmly fixed on an aesthetic object, by which the object can be said to cause the experience. Second, an aesthetic experience involves some degree of intensity. The third and fourth components are two aspects of unity. So, third, an aesthetic experience is coherent. Fourth, the other aspect of unity is completeness.

George Dickie’s Criticism in “Monroe Beardsley’s Phantom Aesthetic Experience” (1965)

Dickie dismisses most versions of the causal view of aesthetic experience. The basic idea of causal views means that an object (e.g. a painting, sculpture, drama, etc.) produces a particular kind of experience, which is usually thought to be valuable. Despite his aversion toward causal theories, Dickie believes that Beardsley’s view is worth attention.

Dickie focuses most of his critique on the last two components of Beardsley’s idea: coherence and completeness. Dickie points out that there are two things that could be unified: (1) the aesthetic object itself; and (2) the aesthetic experience which is the effect of the aesthetic object. He has no trouble believing that the object is a unified whole, both complete and coherent. His concern lies with whether the experience is unified in a similar way. A balanced painting does not cause the beholder to feel balanced, or at least not by necessity. Dickie believes that Beardsley only shows that the object possesses unity, not the experience itself.

Beardsley’s Response in “Aesthetic Experience Regained” (1969)

In response to Dickie, Beardsley writes, “I propose to say that a person is having an aesthetic experience during a particular stretch of time if and only if the greater part of his mental activity during that time is united and made pleasurable by being tied to the form and qualities of a sensuously presented or imaginatively intended object on which his primary attention is concentrated.” Beardsley now adds pleasure as an aspect of the overall experience, but he continues to focus on the unity (coherence and completeness) of an aesthetic experience.

A coherent experience, according to Beardsley, is more than simply experiencing the coherence of the aesthetic object. Throughout the duration of the experience, a given feeling may alter in intensity (either gradually or abruptly). So, Beardsley maintains that the continuity (or discontinuity) is quite relevant to the experience itself. And the continuity of the feelings account for the coherence of experience.

Concerning completeness, Beardsley divided it into balanced impulses and resolved expectations. Dickie’s critique devastated his notion of balanced impulses. An object could be balanced, but it isn’t clear how that applies to an experience. But he offers further explanation for resolved expectations as providing completeness. Beardsley’s paradigm case of completed expectations comes from music. A particular musical passage might invoke the expectation that a particular musical pattern (or event) will emerge, then, once the musical pattern has emerged, the expectation has been fulfilled. Experience is always of something (even if its only mental). When that something is completed, the experience naturally has a feeling of completeness as well.

Dickie’s Response in Art and the Aesthetic (1974)

As a minor critique, Dickie points out that Beardsley’s main examples focus on sequential arts, like music and plays, rather than static arts like painting and sculpture. Because the sequential arts have a beginning and ending, we tend to feel that the experience is complete. But this does not translate well into all kinds of art.

Dickie addresses the existence of affects, caused by the unified work of art. Many aesthetic experiences are not accompanied by affective content. Dickie writes, “I have in mind, for example, the experience of a certain kind of abstract painting which has a good but simple design and which can be taken in, as it were, at a glance.” He explains that a painting taken in at a glance cannot provide any kind of expectation that needs to be fulfilled; hence, it does not have the affect of expectation. It might be pleasant to look at an abstract painting, but this kind of pleasure is not necessarily an emotion (or affect). Thus, according to Dickie, one can be pleased by a work of art without having a feeling of pleasure. And if affects are not necessarily involved, then Beardsley’s view of unity suffers insofar as it requires that affects are part of aesthetic experience.

Beardsley’s Last Word in “Aesthetic Experience” in The Aesthetic Point of View (1982)

Beardsley died in 1985, so this was his last published attempt at explaining aesthetic experience. He proposes five criteria for the aesthetic character of experience. He writes, “an experience has aesthetic character if and only if it has the first of the following features and at least three of the others.”

(1) Object directedness. This feature is a necessary condition for the experience to be aesthetic. By object, he includes what most people would refer to as works of art, e.g. paintings, sculptures, musical performances, plays, and dance. But it also refers to natural objects and events that can be perceived by the senses. But that’s not all. Beardsley uses the word ‘object’ in a broad sense to include things that are purely ‘intentional,’ such as thinking about the imaginary world described in a novel, a poem in our memory, the symbolic significance of a figure in a painting, etc.

(2) Felt Freedom. This invokes an idea of being ‘present’ in the moment, being free from thinking about past and future. Beardsley admits that this feature is the most difficult to talk about with precision. But it basically is that feeling one might get when suddenly captivated by a work of art; for those moments, nothing else seems to matter. For example, one might completely forget the troubles of the day for a few moments.

(3) Detached Affect. This feature is present when the object(s) of one’s interest is a little at a distance from oneself in terms of emotions. This does not mean that the experience is deprived of emotion; it means we do not confuse our emotional reaction with the object itself. Beardsley’s example is the Gaetano Zumbo sculptures, which depict corpses. No matter how disturbing the images are, we do not confuse these sculptures with real corpses.

(4) Active Discovery. This means that the beholder is “actively exercising constructive powers of the mind.” Some works of art create tensions that the viewer must attempt to make cohere. If a work of art is too obvious in its ‘meaning,’ then the beholder will likely find it to be trivial. But if the work causes the beholder to wrestle with different interpretations and ideas, then the work has caused the beholder to be actively engaged with it.

(5) Wholeness (or unity). Beardsley thinks this feature could almost be as essential as the first feature, though he does not assert this view. Unity originally had two aspects: completeness and coherence. But, due to Dickie’s critique, Beardsley abandons unity as completeness, focusing on unity as coherence. This feature highlights the unity of coherence at two levels: the experience itself and the level of the self. The wholeness of the experience itself consists of the different mental acts going on inside one person’s mind for a duration of time. The wholeness of the self involves the mind’s sense that all of its perceptions, feelings, and ideas fit together in a single integrated personhood.

Concluding Remarks

I have greatly abbreviated the details of this debate for the sake of space. But I think it is still fruitful to see the basic moves that these two philosophers made while discussing a topic that often feels ambiguous. We all have had an aesthetic experience of some kind, but it is difficult to pinpoint with precision what makes that experience different from any other experience. I hope this overview demonstrated that many topics in aesthetics (and other contexts) seem simple at first blush, but they provide fodder for a depth of study and discussion that begs for communal engagement.

2 thoughts on “Aesthetic Experience: A Debate

  1. Hello and Gooday, I really enjoyed reading this and would love to potential chat more about your writings. I am a certified aesthetician studying the history of beauty and philosophy or aft and beauty, the best way to contact me is by email and I hope to hear back from you. Thank you, your time is greatly appreciated.

    Kind regards, Morgan


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