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

9. Reasons and Judgments

Differences of opinion continue to emerge, fruitfully and illuminatingly, about the nature of our value judgments about artworks and about the relevance (if any) of the reasons that we are inclined to give for such judgments. Like everything else, artworks (and their makers) can surely be judged in many different ways, from varying points of view, and according to diverse sets of criteria. But it can be argued that one of these forms of judgment or perspectives of evaluation is central and primary; and I am still of the opinion that the main line of thought in the first edition (Chapters 10 and 11) -- for all its now evident need of correction -- is sound. The critic's judgmental act is one of saying how good (or poor) ih artwork is in a context in which the artwork is primarily to be considered qua artwork -- whatever other kinds of consideration may be given it as well, then or later. It is an act of estimating the aesthetic value of the artwork (see The Possibility of Criticism, Chapter 3). (Aesthetic value is a problematic concept, too; and we will come to that in the following section.) Such estimations should be based on an accurate and adequate grasp of those features of the work that have some effect on its degree of aethetic value (this includes elements, sections, inner relationships, qualities, meanings, and references). And such features, when considered in this way, are used as criteria of judgment: that is, the fact that one is present is regarded as a reason for saying the artwork is this good or poor (see "On the Generality of Critical Reasons" and "The Classification of Critical Reasons").

A complication that arises very sharply in the case of literature -- and other artworks that have meaning or external reference -- is that they can also be judged from a cognitive, as well as an aesthetic, point of view; consideration of their potential contribution to our knowledge or understanding also bears on their total value. But the two forms of value are distinct, and only one applies to art as art and across the board; moreover, a high degree of aesthetic value by itself (but not a high degree of cognitive value in the absence of aesthetic value) suffices to make an artwork a very good one -- so it seems clear that in this context aesthetic value is prior and basic in the critic's judgment (see "The Name and Nature of Criticism").

This model of critical evaluation, in somewhat different versions, has met with some approval and acceptance, even among those who would perhaps have some doubts about the extent to which it treats critical judgment as a cognitive and rational activity. On my view, we can often have good reasons for praising or condemning an artwork, especially in comparison with another one -- such good reasons, occasionally, that the beliefs they support even amount to knowledge. Peter Kivy ("Aesthetics and Rationality") has argued that maverick critical judgments can be irrational just as other maverick judgments are. Michael Slote ("The Rationality of Aesthetic Value Judgments") has stressed the apparent "unidirectionality" of changes in aesthetic preference (that people move, say, from Tchaikowsky to Mozart) as an indication of objective difference in value. Donald Crawford ("Causes, Reasons and Aesthetic Objectivity") rejects this argument, and his examination of other arguments demonstrates the difficulties in refuting "subjectivism" -- although in the end he suggests that an objective defensible account of what makes some critical reasons acceptable, and hence the judgments they support, can be based on the importance of achieving "a shared affective response" to artworks.

Philosophers have reported finding various difficulties in the Supporting Reason model of critical evaluation (as it may be dubbed), and not all of these have been satisfactorily resolved. For example, it is argued that reasons must support either deductively or inductively; but critical reasons do not seem to connect with the judgments in either way, and in any case factual propositions cannot logically support normative propositions. This is a complicated matter; but if I am right in holding that a critical judgment contains an essential empirical element -- in attributing a certain kind of capacity to an artwork -- there is no bar to saying that the reason gives inductive support to the judgment (see the following section for further clarification). Second, it is argued -- as by Joel Kupperman ("Reasons in Support of Evaluations of Works of Art") -- that even if critics' reasons can support their evaluations, once decided upon, they cannot provide a "logic of discovery." But I say that, although the impact of an artwork as a whole can reasonably give rise to a provisional evaluation, analysis of features and the application of criteria are what make the evaluation sound and acceptable. Third, it is argued -- as by Bruce Vermazen ("Comparing Evaluations of Works of Art") -- that there are severe limits on comparative judgments, since valued features of artworks are of many sorts, not comparable with each other, and a composite judgment, bringing together the various "incommensurable" ways in which two artworks differ, is difficult. I concede the difficulties and do not maintain that we can make reasonably defensible comparative judgments for all pairs of artworks or even of paintings. (Is Picasso's "Girl Before Mirror" a better or less good painting that your favorite Renoi "Bather"?). But I think (and apparently Vermazen agrees) that we can make reasonable comparative judgments in very many cases.

Fourth, it is argued that critical judgments are special in that they can only be properly made by someone who has experienced and enjoyed the artwork judged. Thus Guy Sircello ("Subjectivity and Justification in Aesthetic Judgments") holds that "no one is entitled to put forth a judgment to the effect that work A is successful, say, until he has perceived A and perceived it as successful." Even apart from my uncertainty about the propriety of speaking of perceiving an artwork as successful -- or good or mediocre, or whatever -- I am unconvinced by the argument, beyond the point of admitting that it may be true that no one is so entitled unless someone has experienced the work. The neo-Kantian view has been developed further by Alan Tormey ("Critical Judgments"), who conlcludes, from a thesis like Sircello's, that critical judgments are "non-transmissible" (the critic's judgment cannot be passed on to someone else, since if the latter has not experienced the work he or she does not fulfill the requirements for making judgments), and so critical judgments cannot be genuine knowledge. But it seems to me that even if Tormey is right that it is incorrect to say that a person is judging a work he has never seen when he asserts that it is good (drawing, say, on the authority of critics he knows and trusts), it may still be the case that his assertion is true and that he can have very good reason to believe it (see "In Defense of Aesthetic Value"). Fifth, although cruder forms of value-relativism have thankfully become rare on the philosophic scene (they are far from extinct elsewhere), there is some support for a relativization of the Supporting Reason model. Sascha Talmor ("The Aesthetic Judgment and its Criteria of Value") argues that critical judgments can only be objective if they appeal to certain standards (or criteria); the standards themselves can only be justified by saying that they are the ones that are actually used, that are customary and accepted, in a society at a given time. But it seems to me that the acceptability of certain criteria rather than others rests on the conformity of those criteria with an (in part) independently defensible philosophical theory of aesthetic value, so we are not compelled to relativize that acceptability -- or the evaluations to which the acceptable criteria lead -- to social or institutional custom.

Joseph Margolis's "Robust Relativism" (see his essay) strikes more fundamentally. But trie consequences of conceding that critical judgments are neither true nor false, and hence cannot strictly be supported at all (in the logical sense) or themselves lend support to practical arguments for making important choices (as about which painters to award fellowships to, which paintings to hang in museums, and so forth) are rather drastic, and it is not at all clear how we could adjust to them.

Despite the controversial aspects of the Supporting Reason model, few alternatives have been offered, and none, I think, worked out in comparable detail. Hans Eichner ("The Meaning of 'Good' in Aesthetic Judgements") offers the view that to declare an artwork good is to make a prediction that the addressee (the reader or listener) will like the work "if you are seriously interested in the art form to which X belongs, if your experience of art is wide enough, if you are prepared to take trouble over X." Eichner's proposal is based on some surprising and dubious assumptions, such as that if brightness in a painting does not guarantee its goodness, then brightness cannot be a criterion of goodness in a painting. And it is to my mind implausible to think that a critic is generally in a position to predict what his readers, whom he does not even know, will like or not like -- although if he injects enough qualifications with weasel-words like "enough," he may succeed in saying something very hard to falsify. In contrast to this view, Brian Crittenden ("From Description to Evaluation") thinks that an evaluation expresses an attitude toward a work, a way of seeing it, and the reasons purport to justify the appropriateness of having this attitude. I cannot see, however, how you can show a favorable attitude (say) to be appropriate unless you can show that the object deserves to be regarded favorably -- i.e., that it has a distinct sort of value in virtue of having those features that then can be cited as reasons.

If there can be reasons for evaluations, then a host of questions arise about which kinds of reasons are relevant and telling. There has been some discussion along these lines. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Art in Action, Part III, Chapter 4) has drawn on my classification of primary reasons (or general Canons) and suggested improvements in their formulation. He has excellent discussions of unity, "richness," and intensity -- the last of wnich he analyses in terms of being "closely fitting" to some quality that ranks decisively to left or right on some scales that have a high loading on one or more of the Osgood factors of Potency and Activity (see The Measurement of Meaning). Intensity in an artwork's qualities enables it to escape "aesthetic blandness." Wolterstorff s proposal may provide a solutin to the problem of explaining the difference between those human regional qualities whose presence is desirable and enhances value (grace, dignity) and those "negative" qualities that are (properly) cited as defects (raucousness, awkwardness) (see The Possibility of Criticism, Chapter 4). This problem is also interestingly tackled in the carefully articulated account of beauty provided by Guy Sircello (A New Theory of Beauty). In this account, the concept of beauty is widened to include a wide range of other aesthetic qualities (see Section 3 above), and apparently excludes the formal notions -- such as order and proportion -- that have historically been ingredient in this concept (see review by Haig Khatchadourian, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1977): 361-63).


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"In Defense of Aesthetic Value." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 52 (August 1979).
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