Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.

3. Aesthetic Qualities

A year after the first edition of this book, Frank Sibley published the first of three essays ("Aesthetic Concepts") that opened up a fresh and fertile vein of discussion and evoked (or provoked) more than a score of essays in English that were primarily directed toward his views. Out of the complicated history of these issues I shall select a few -- the most central and basic -- for comment.

Sibley suggested that the qualities of an artwork (but not only of artworks) can be significantly divided into two sorts, marked by two sorts of corresponding terms, in some of their senses as they are applied to certain sorts of thing. Thus "restless" and "dreamy," as applied to music or to paintings, are aesthetic terms; to say that the music contains six-part fugato passages or that the painting contains oval patches of light blue is to apply nonaesthetic terms. Sibley's numerous examples convinced many readers that an important distinction lurks here; but it proved difficult to articulate. Sibley's proposal was that the correct application of aesthetic terms (or the discernment of aesthetic qualities) requires the exercise of "taste" -- not in the sense of evaluating but in the sense of making fine and sensitive discriminations. This proposal was seriously questioned by a number of critics (see "What is an Aesthetic Quality?") -- notably by Ted Cohen in a detailed critical analysis ("Aesthetic/Non-aesthetic and the Concept of Taste"). Cohen argued that Sibley failed to establish any such distinction, that there is no use in aesthetics for one, and that there is not even any very clear or stable intuition shared by aestheticians and critics in terms of which people can be expected to converge in classifying proposed terms. He presented a long list of terms (p. 139) and challenged the reader to say whether they are aesthetic or nonaesthetic. But this part of his argument, especially, seems open to question, since we are not allowed to distinguish various senses of a term, including metaphorical senses which inevitably vary as they are applied to different kinds of thing (see Section 4 below). For example, "restful," one of his examples, is plainly nonaesthetic in "I had a restful vacation" but aesthetic in "Kandinsky's painting At Rest has a restful character."

But this does not give us a principle for making the distinction, and if Sibley's appeal to taste will not suffice, what alternatives are there? It seems to me that there are two distinctions that can be made quite clearly and that are very much worth making; the aesthetic/nonaesthetic distinction seems closely related to both, and perhaps it is a sort of compound of both. First, there is the distinction between regional and local qualities. and this must be recast from the first edition (Chapter 2) into a slightly weaker sense, as Robert Mathers and George Dickie showed some years ago (see "The Definition of 'Regional Quality'"). A regional quality is a quality that a complex has as a result of the characters of its parts and the relationships among them. Sibley noted (in "Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic") that practically all of his aesthetic qualities could be regarded as a subclass of regional qualities, and we get closer to making these classes coextensive if we substitute the term "human regional qualities." This concept probably needs more thought. Roughly, a human regional quality of an artwork (say) is a quality designated (perhaps metaphorically) by a term that also applies truly (in a related though not necessarily identical sense) to some human beings: "restless," "restful," and "dreamy," for example. Second, there is the distinction between qualities that count directly, and qualities that do not count directly, in support of an aesthetic value judgment (see Section 9 below), when present to a notable degree. It is, among other things, the pronounced or marked restfulness Kandinsky achieved in his painting that makes it good, though in another work -- e.g., Paul Klee's "Activity of the Port" -- it is the intense restlessness that helps to make it good. (See "What is an Aesthetic Quality?" -- and Goran Hermeren's doubts about this idea, in "Aesthetic Qualities, Value, and Emotive Meaning.")

Sibley had two central theses in his original essay: (1) that the presence of an aesthetic quality in an object is dependent on the presence of certain nonaesthetic qualities (as regional qualities depend on local ones), and (2) that aesthetic terms, or terms used in an aesthetic sense, do not have conditions of application and are not applied in accordance with rule-governed criteria. The second thesis was his main one, and has been much debated. Peter Kivy (Speaking of Art and several essays, most recently "Aesthetic Concepts") has argued ingeniously and forcefully for the view that aesthetic terms are analyzable into nonaesthetic terms -- to perceive the unity of Mozart's minuet (String Quartet in A, K. 464) is just to perceive the two motives in their melodic, harmonic, contrapuntal relationships and transformations. But it continues to seem clear to me that unity is an emergent quality, something possessed by the entire minuet, or some complex part of it, resulting from the numerous internal resemblances and combinations, but not reducible to them.

Sibley did not then feel the need to defend his subordinate thesis, although he did in later essays (see "Objectivity and Aesthetics"). In the first edition, I maintained the objectivity of human regional qualities, but did not come to grips directly with the sorts of challenge to their objectivity that were later broached. It is not hard to prove, I think, that the restlessness of a painting, for example, is a function of the local qualities and relationships in the painting; if we start altering those qualities and relationships by deleting, adding, substituting, we can affect the intensity of the restlessness or make it disappear. This is Mill's Method of Difference. The issue, however, is whether the presence of a regional quality is also a function of other factors, external to the artwork. If so, we are apparently driven to relativizing our "aesthetic" descriptions of artworks -- as restless or restful -- to those conditions. For a crude example to start, it is sometimes argued that whether you perceive restlessness in the painting, or how much of it you perceive, can be affected by your state of mind; if you happen to feel very laid back (if I may borrow a Marin County idiom), a painting that is only slightly or moderately restless may strike you as greatly so. Then, restlessness is not to be considered a simple quality of the painting, but a quality it has relative to the perceiver's emotional condition. Of course this particular argument is rather easily set aside, because we could say that although the perception of the quality may be affected by subjective factors, its presence is not affected!

Other sophisticated challenges to the objectivity of aesthetic qualities have been supported by interesting arguments. Kendall Walton has argued (in "Categories of Art") that each artwork must be apprehended as belonging to a category, which is defined in terms of standard and variable properties; the presence and intensity of its qualities are partly a function of the category it belongs or is assigned to. Relativism does not necessarily result, since generally there is one category to which it is correct to assign the work, and so it may be said to have the qualities it is perceived as having when so assigned. One of the important criteria for deciding which is the correct category is what the artist intended. The structure of this argument is complex; although it contains illuminating examples of the ways in which expectations and beliefs can influence perception, I think there are flaws in the concept of category, which seems to range over a variety of different forms of classification.

In another direction, Joseph Margolis ("Robust Relativism") has argued that sentences purporting to attribute aesthetic qualities to artworks have no truth value, although they may have some other "values," such as being apt, plausible, or appropriate. (A similar view has been advanced by Karl Aschenbrenner, The Concepts of Criticism, who uses the term "characterism" for attributions of aesthetic qualities.) Margolis has not given an account of these alternative "values," or explained what kind of "values" they all are. His main argument for this form of noncognitivism seems to be that, although with nonaesthetic qualities we can distinguish between having and seeming to have ("It is red" versus "It looks red"), this cannot be done with aesthetic qualities. But I think this is not so; I have seen many examples of critics retracting a judgment of aesthetic quality ("When I saw the play the first time, it struck me as cynical and flippant, but on second seeing I find it more profoundly ironic and genuinely comical"). In any case, critics would be hard put to it, I believe, to carry on their functions if their descriptions of artworks were neither true nor false; for example, such descriptions then could not be given as reasons to support critical evaluations, which they very frequently are.

Isabel Hungerland ("Once Again, Aesthetic and Non-Aesthetic") resolves the problem of objectivity by defining "A-ascriptions" (attributions of aesthetic qualities) as "not intersubjectively verifiable, at least not in the straightforward way in which N-ascriptions are" (p. 286). Because the "is/looks" contrast does not "literally" apply to aesthetic terms, she holds (p. 288), they cannot be used in practical situations or in a court of law. I question this.

Jeffrey Olen ("Theories, Interpretations, and Aesthetic Qualities") argues that (1) what specific aesthetic quality is present in part of an artwork depends on the interpretation we give the work as a whole (an interpretation, in this broad sense, being a unifying theory of how the work fits together); and (2) an artwork always admits more than one interpretation; thus attributions of aesthetic quality are inherently relative. I think a detailed analysis of particular cases will show, however, that the possible range of aesthetic qualities a figure, say, can have, sets limits on its contextual determination, so that the perception of aesthetic qualities and the choice of an overall interpretation can often be decided by a process of mutual adjustment, in which the potential qualities of various parts are taken into account.

There has also been discussion of the question whether, if there are aesthetic qualities, their mode of apprehension is ordinary perception or something epistemologically distinct or peculiar to them -- as maintained, for example, by Virgil Aldrich (Philosophy of Art, Chapter 1), who holds that we "prehend" the qualities of artworks as "animating" them. It does not seem to me that the case has been made for introducing a special mode of apprehension; as Sibley notes, we see the restlessness of the painting, we hear the restfulness of the music.


Aldrich, Virgil.
Philosophy of Art. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Aschenbrenner, Karl.
The Concepts of Criticism. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1974.
Beardsley, M. C.
"The Descriptivist Account of Aesthetic Attributions." Revue Internationale de Philosophie 28 (1974).
"On the Relevance of Art History to Art Criticism." In Thomas F. Rugh and Evin R. Silva, eds., History as a Tool in Critical Interpretation. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.
"What is an Aesthetic Quality?" Theoria 39 (1973).

Cohen, Ted.
"Aesthetic/Non-aesthetic and the Concept of Taste: a Critique of Sibley's Position." Theoria 39 (1973).
Hermeren, Goran.
"Aesthetic Qualities, Value and Emotive Meaning." Theoria 39 (1973).
Hungerland, Isabel.
"Once Again, Aesthetic and Non-Aesthetic." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 26 (1968).
Kivy, Peter.
"Aesthetic Concepts: Some Fresh Considerations." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37 (1979).
Speaking of Art. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.
Margolis, Joseph.
"Robust Relativism." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1976).
Mathers, Robert, and Dickie, George.
"The Definition of 'Regional Quality.'" Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963).
Olen, Jeffrey.
"Theories, Interpretations, and Aesthetic Qualities." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1977).
Sibley, Frank. "Aesthetic Concepts." Philosophical Review 68 (1959), somewhat revised in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
"Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic." Philosophical Review 74 (1965).
"Objectivity and Aesthetics." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplement vol. 42 (1968).
Walton, Kendall L.
"Categories of Art." Philosophical Review 79 (1970).