article focuses on the question of whether the latest results achieved in
sciences such as evolution studies and brain research can help us understand
the nature of aesthetic judgments. It
suggests that such approaches may offer interesting insights for understanding
many problems in aesthetics, but for clarifying aesthetic judgments one needs a
philosophical point of view. Aesthetic
judgments cannot be proven right or wrong by scientific methods, and beauty or
other aesthetic qualities cannot be directly measured. The “method” of both making and analyzing
aesthetic judgments is discussion, and the article clarifies why this is still
the case, even if empirical, non-philosophical scientific methods are more
accurate than ever before.
judgment, brain research, evaluation, evolutionary aesthetics, measuring,
1. Introduction: Philosophical and
the academic context aesthetics is normally understood as a philosophical
discipline. In recent years, however,
more and more books and articles have been published in which aesthetic issues
are dealt with by methods and conceptual tools provided by natural sciences and
other non-philosophical disciplines. This
non-philosophical approach to aesthetics has a long history in experimental
psychology, started by Gustav Theodore Fechner, and the connection is
understandable in light of Alexander Baumgarten’s work, which paved the way for
the research of emotions and senses from many perspectives, even if his own
studies were still purely philosophical.
Later, new ideas were adopted from elsewhere: from anthropology as well
as from evolution, cognition, and brain research; and various types of
measurements, as well as interviews and statistical methods, have been used.
this article I will concentrate on the question of whether non-philosophical
approaches can help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgments. It is sometimes hoped that the natural
sciences and other non-philosophical approaches would take us closer to
judgments that could be proved right or wrong.
At the least, judgments could be expected to be better understood with
kind of attitude can be sensed on the web-page of the research project Braintuning (2006–2009). As the goal of the project is described, it
becomes clear that aesthetic judgments are approached by studying the brain
with neuro-cognitive methodology, and one aim is to find “neural determinants”
of music appreciation (italics added):
What are the
neural determinants of music appreciation and emotions? The Psychology of Aesthetics is an
old branch of Experimental Psychology that is currently gaining new momentum in
the light of neurocognitive methodology and paradigms. The Neuroaesthetics of Music is the field
that focuses on music processing within this framework. In this workpackage, we explore the knowledge structure underlying music
appreciation. The conceptual
structure of the aesthetics of music is investigated. These knowledge representations reflect music
training, expertise and cultural background.
This acquired background affects our emotional as well as aesthetic responses to music. Consequently, it also has an effect on the brain correlates of emotional responses
to music as well as aesthetic judgments of music. 
description is fairly modest and the role of cultural backgrounds in judgments
is also included. I will later return to
notions presented by one of the group members, Mari Tervaniemi, who refines the
basic points of the project description.
In some other psychological studies, however, the role of cultural
factors is left practically unmentioned and the focus is emphatically on neural
systems and the brain. This attitude
becomes clear in some texts by Colin Martindale, who writes that beauty
judgments are closely related to certain states in human beings’ sense organs
and the brain, and are also explicable with the help of these states. He summarizes: “According to the theory,
stimuli are judged as beautiful to the degree that they elicit similar states
in the brain.”
Wolfgang Welsch, who used to concentrate on philosophical aesthetics, has lately been interested in
non-philosophical approaches and makes strong claims based on the empirical
findings of scientists. He is looking
for universal explanations of beauty and finds them in the brain, which has
developed to its present state through the long process of evolution:
Rather, there are indeed universal
patterns of appreciation of beauty – aesthetic preferences valid for humans in
every culture. All humans evaluate
objects that correspond to these patterns as beautiful. /…/ Analogously, recent brain research also
teaches that the experience of the beautiful is determined by the internal
architecture of the brain, that our subjective neural disposition is decisive
for beauty – that beauty is indeed brain happiness.
addition to this brain research, Welsch, like Denis Dutton and Nancy Etcoff,
deals with some landscape and human body
preferences that can be seen as universal in a certain way that I will expand
upon shortly. Similar results and
numerous examples are also presented in the collection, Evolutionary Aesthetics. On
the back cover of the book it states that ”Evolutionary aesthetics is the
attempt to understand the aesthetic judgment
of human beings and their spontaneous distinction between beauty and
ugliness as a biologically adapted ability to make important decisions in life”
if brain research reveals something universal in the functions of the brain and
neural systems, or if it can be shown that because of the evolutionary history
of the species human beings tend to like certain kinds of human bodies, faces,
or landscapes, what does this signify for aesthetic judgments? Not much, and certainly not enough. The purpose of this article is not to deny
the importance of non-philosophical viewpoints for clarifying some aesthetic
issues, but to emphasize that they don’t work very well in others. Aesthetic judgments cannot really be
understood through them, and this situation has not changed even if empirical
research methods have become more and more precise. The aim of the article is to point out why
this is the case.
A Typical Case of Aesthetic Judgment
back yard looks good and I know it just by looking at it. I don’t doubt my own experience and that is
why I can make this aesthetic statement and be sure about it. I could describe the backyard by saying that
it is situated in the country and that the lot is medium-sized when compared to
others in the neighborhood. These would
be non-aesthetic descriptions.
situation when someone makes an aesthetic statement about a particular object
is the basic form of aesthetic judging. The
object does not have to be a clear-cut physical thing even if it often is (a
painting, a bicycle, or a cat); but it can also be a less defined area (a yard,
a village, or a landscape), an event, a story, or even a dream. In any case, aesthetic evaluation presupposes
one’s own, personal sense experience of the object evaluated.
the sake of comparison it is good to emphasize that, for example, the size of
my lot can be measured without seeing it, if one has a good map. Correct information can be achieved with the
help of a representation, which is not the case in aesthetic judgments. A map or any other representation is not the
lot itself. If one looks at a picture of
a lot, one can actually only evaluate aesthetic features of the picture,
although one will naturally get some idea of such features of the object
represented. But this idea may be rather
far from the object itself and one cannot really know how far without having
direct multi-sensuous contact with it.
two objects are different from each other in some respects, and thus particular
or unique, and in aesthetic evaluations one is typically interested in how
exactly the particular case in question looks, sounds or is felt in a given
situation. One pays attention to the
tiniest details and nuances. Anything
can be important, but one cannot know in advance what that may be. In art and design schools, students sometimes
have to train their sensibility by comparing two seemingly similar
mass-produced objects, and they always find differences between them: the particularity of the objects is noticed. If one doesn’t notice it, one is not making
an aesthetic evaluation, or it is, at best, a very superficial one. Sometimes, as in Nelson Goodman’s thinking, this kind of close and detailed attention is especially related to art,
but it can be seen to belong to a more general aesthetic attitude that can be
may make aesthetic judgments silently in one’s mind, but they typically become
more interesting and problematic when expressed in words to others. I agree with Aarne Kinnunen, to whom
aesthetics is necessarily a social construction. Aesthetic values, opinions, and ideas are developed in social interaction by
discussing, arguing, assenting, listening, doing art, dressing up, singing,
altering traditions, etc. The judgments
made silently in one’s mind are based on this shared and socially learned
activity. Aesthetic experience, in the
essential meaning of the term, is born and exists only in social interaction,
and it is eventually identified as its own cultural entity on the level of
talking and writing.
social existence as such does not suffice to make the aesthetic approach its
own kind of cultural entity because also other fields such as science and
religion are also socially construed. Rather,
it is a question of which issues are emphasized in this particular construction
and how the approach defined by such emphasis is identified. The aesthetic point of view is often
indicated by the use of certain language, such as talking about beauty, which,
in turn, has its own and many-sided cultural history and connections to other
cultural practices. Also, the importance
of direct sense experience and particularity, as mentioned above, are typically
accentuated. An object one pays attention to can be
interpreted and conceptualized in many ways, not only aesthetically, and this
means that emphasizing aesthetic aspects is a conscious choice. Aesthetic judgments are not simple,
unavoidable, and perhaps even unconscious causal reactions to stimuli. Such reactions do take place – an
unintentional cry when one gets frightened – but they are not aesthetic
judgments. This doesn’t mean that aesthetic
judgments have no ties to factors that are not culturally determined, such as
the structure of the brain, but these don’t suffice to clarify the nature of
we talk about our aesthetic opinions we reveal them to others. But will they agree with us? I believe that my opinions concerning
particular, individual cases can only be strengthened or disputed by discussing
them, and not even the most exact measuring results of my brain or the largest
statistical researches on other people’s opinions could prove or verify that my
opinion is worth supporting or not. Why
is this and how does this notion characterize the aesthetic approach in
relation to some others?
3. Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Approach
to Objects of Judgment
philosophical approaches to aesthetics it has often been said that discussions
between differing judgments cannot be settled by referring to characteristics
of evaluated objects. This conviction
has its roots in Plato’s Hippias Major,
and it was also dealt with in various ways in the taste disputes of the eighteenth
century. In modern aesthetics Frank
Sibley has probably provided the best-known formulation of the idea.
to Sibley, aesthetic concepts like ‘beautiful,’ ‘balanced,’ ‘serene,’ or ‘gaudy’
are not condition-governed. By this he
means that even if the aesthetic qualities of objects are dependent on
non-aesthetic ones – or that they are emergent – “there are no nonaesthetic
features which service in any
circumstances as logically sufficient
conditions for applying aesthetic terms.” Objects may have features everyone with normal sense abilities can detect –
their size, color, and form – but one cannot infer from them that the object must be aesthetically of some certain
kind. On top of that, it is quite normal
that one sees the non-aesthetic features of an object but may not see some
aesthetic ones, even if guided. Thus,
one cannot define aesthetic concepts on a general level. Let’s take ‘serenity’ as an example. There are many ways individual objects can be
serene. It is possible to list typical
features of serene objects but the list may not be of particular use when one
evaluates specific cases. A
monochromatic painting may be serene because it does not have a disturbing
amount of features, but it can equally well be dull.
idea that aesthetic concepts are not condition-governed also have to do with
another issue Sibley takes up: aesthetic evaluations concern totalities, not
singular features of them:
First, the particular aesthetic
character of something may be said to result from the totality of its relevant non-aesthetic characteristics. It is always conceivable that, by some
relatively small change in line or color in a picture, a note in music, or a
word in a poem, the aesthetic character may be lost or quite transformed.
slow tempo can create serenity in some cases but if the whole is changed even
slightly the piece may become boring. Also,
one has to notice the context in which the whole is received; changing the
context may have a strong impact on the eventual judgment.
approach to understanding aesthetic judgment has been broadly accepted for some
time, but will the latest and most exact empirical research change the
situation? Those who are convinced of the results yielded by so-called
evolutionary aesthetics can point out that it has been shown that people coming
from very different cultural backgrounds like similar things. For example, a large part of human population
values so-called savanna landscapes that have open views, preferably some water
elements and places in which to hide (trees, bushes). Also, a great number of men seem to prefer
women who have smooth skin, full lips, and thick hair, and whose hip-waist
ratio is close to 10/7. Moreover, Welsch
presents certain geometrical forms and other visual principles such as symmetry
and the golden section that have been shown to be universally appreciated. All such preferences have been explained with
the help of evolution: they are claimed
to be connected with adaptations that are or have been beneficial to the
survival of the species and that have thus gradually come about in the course
of evolution. Cannot it thus be said that the
aesthetic quality of a savanna landscape or a certain type of female body is an
objective fact that can be proved, even measured? If my backyard resembles a savanna, could one
statistically demonstrate that it is aesthetically pleasurable?
may assume that if any backyard is of
the savanna type, many would find it pleasurable. But this won’t tell us much about judgments
made about an individual backyard by specific individuals or about how their
opinions are seen by others in social interaction. And this is what aesthetic judgments are all
come from many directions. Often a yard
has nothing to do with savanna landscapes but it may still be considered
aesthetically rewarding. A Japanese
garden might be more interesting to some.
Also, not every beautiful woman has full lips and thick hair. In such cases one cannot refer to “universal”
characteristics, and reasons for one’s judgments must be given in some other
way. Everything that is beautiful is not
beautiful for the same reasons; the term is extremely elastic. Evolutionary-universal reasons for
preferences and judgments apply to some cases only.
Moreover, a yard’s resemblance to a savanna landscape
does not ensure its aesthetic value. There
might be several features in this particular case that compromise the overall
aesthetic value of the totality. There might be disturbing junk or an
unsuitable tree growing in the yard even if it is otherwise acceptable. It is not the general category but the
particular case that counts in the end.
When can one say that a yard is of the savanna type is
not a simple question either, or that a face has smooth skin and full lips? Even Nancy Etcoff, who supports the universal
conception of human beauty, admits that it has been shown that a tiny, even one
millimeter difference makes a face look very different, more or less beautiful. Such nuances are probably important in the
context of landscapes and other objects, too.
Also, it has been shown that exactly the same measurable features can be
found both in the faces many find beautiful and in the ones found to be less so. Defining universally valued objective
features exactly is extremely difficult, if not impossible. What is more important, however, is that
aesthetically significant qualities don’t need to be exactly defined or
measured. What one needs is sense-contact
with the object expanded upon through discussion, but even then categorization
as such is not enough.
It is also problematic that in landscape studies the
focus is often on the pleasurable features of landscapes. But aesthetic valuations are not necessarily
connected to easily and directly demonstrable pleasure, and indeed something
can be seen as aesthetically rewarding even if it is ugly, grotesque or
disturbing. This attitude is perhaps
more common in the arts but appears elsewhere as well. In such cases pleasure, if it is pleasure at
all, is not of the same kind as in classical and harmonic cases, and it is not
probable that similar features in the objects would be appreciated. So, do these different cases have different
evolutionary backgrounds and explanations as well? This might be possible, as
Randy Thornhill suggests,
but the idea would need more explication than she offers. Namely, it is very unlikely that all possible variations of aesthetic
value and judgment from harmony to camp and cheesy would have their own,
particular evolutionary explanations. Yet,
all these variations do have their role in aesthetic discussions. Evolutionary aesthetics tends to narrow the
scope of aesthetics down to a rather one-sided studying of beauty and ugliness,
which doesn’t tally with the almost limitless scope of aesthetic discussions,
and this is a problem that bothers even some of the evolutionary aestheticians,
such as Olaf Breidbach.
It is not always even clear whether something that is considered
pleasurable is aesthetically
pleasurable, and this is related to the above-mentioned notion that aesthetic
judgments are identified as such only through deliberate social interaction. A person whose appearance is found
pleasurable can be erotically so, and in some cases there might be good ethical
reasons to act from other than the purely aesthetic point of view. This means that pleasure as such is not a
sufficient indicator of aesthetic, or of erotic or ethical approaches but more
is needed, and typically this “more” is verbal judgments.
aestheticians who lean on evolutionary research do not normally do empirical
research themselves. It is often the
case that they don’t even present the empirical studies carried out by others
as carefully as could be done, although it would obviously be important if one
bases one’s philosophical arguments on such studies. Hence it often remains unclear what kind of
research methodologies produced the results in question, and what can thus be
inferred from them. For example, when
Welsch introduces the results of landscape preference studies he does not tell
how many people have been interviewed or studied in some other way, or whether
the researchers have used photographs or real landscapes when finding out what
people think of them. If one reads the
texts by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, referred to by Welsch, one finds more
detailed information. In their book The Experience of Nature, where the Kaplans analyze numerous studies more carefully than in their
shorter articles, it becomes evident that many of the
studies were actually based on a rather limited series of photographs and
sometimes the number of people interviewed or otherwise studied was only in the
tens. Moreover, a long section of the book
deals with cultural differences between various landscape preferences and not
with universal conceptions. The Kaplans themselves recognize their
methodological restrictions and potential.
Their point of departure necessarily results in simplifications and
generalizations that miss the particularity that, in turn, is the basis of
aesthetic judging. For example, as
objects of aesthetic judgment can be described in very many ways, the Kaplans
only use a five-level scale for their preference studies.
of taking only such points from the Kaplans or elsewhere to support their own
ideas, philosophers should rather question the results and research procedures
of empirical studies. They could ponder
whether the results would be different if preferences were studied in real
environments and in differing weather conditions and not with the help of
photographs. And how many people should
be interviewed before it is justifiable to make generalizations? The results
would probably also be different depending on whether people may freely choose
a landscape and their way of describing it or if they are guided to make
certain choices. If free choices are
made will we get aesthetic descriptions at all, and if so then who will
identify them as such? Not every
expression of preference is an aesthetic one.
And what if especially aesthetic descriptions are asked for? What if a list of aesthetic terms is given;
will they be used of the same things by different people? Analyses of such
issues should be done more often and carefully than has been typical for
aestheticians making use of empirical studies.
my opinion, aesthetic issues simply have to be discussed in order to be
defined, and there is no guarantee that a consensus can be found or that universal
factors would be very useful in such discussions. This does not mean that a consensus would
necessarily be found in, say, scientific discussions either. In them, however, many issues that often
relate to measurements can be generally accepted and even verified by a certain
methodology. Such scientific methods can sometimes perhaps
also be used in aesthetic judgments, as parts of them, but there they have a
less central role than in scientific discussions. Still, “aesthetic verifications,” if we can
speak of such a thing, are typically based on each evaluator’s direct sense
experiences of objects’ particular features, not on universally agreed-upon
procedures of interpreting them. In the
end, however, it is difficult to say whether the difference between aesthetic
and scientific judgments is an absolute one or one of degree; individual cases
differ from each other. In any case, for
the sake of clarifying comparison it is good to emphasize some differences
between typical aesthetic judging and the sort of measuring that is often made
use of in empirical research. Measuring
may have to do with features of objects, as well as with the opinions of a
certain human population, as was the case with the Kaplans.
in measuring, the right solution will be found if the measuring system is
understood and the instruments and procedures work properly. A professional land surveyor can tell the
exact size of a lot. Sometimes it is not
even important whether the measurement is based on a representation of the
object (a map) or on the actual object (the lot). Nothing like this is possible in aesthetic
changing the measurer does not affect the result of measuring, unlike aesthetic
judgments, which can vary to a great extent if the evaluator is changed.
the result of a measurement only informs us about certain features of the
object, and the objects that are on the same level and on the scale are equal
from the point of view of measuring. Aesthetic
judgments, in turn, may tell us about very many different features of the
object. Because of this, directing
action based on measurements is easier than giving aesthetically oriented
orders. An order to provide a one-foot
long piece of birch plank is much easier to understand than an order to provide
a beautiful piece of birch plank.
the result of a measurement does not change if one gets new information about
some other aspect of the object. The
size of the lot remains the same despite what might take place on it; on the
other hand, aesthetic quality may well change according to associated actions. For example, a yard that at first looks good
may suddenly turn gloomy and sad if one hears that extremely poisonous
substances have been used in fighting the weeds.
the unit or characteristic of an object being measured is normally clear, while
it is often somewhat unclear in conversation whether one is discussing
aesthetic or other features of an object.
For example, one may use terminology that does not make clear whether
one is making an aesthetic or some other kind of judgment. The much used term ‘awesome’ can mean
practically anything positive, not only aesthetic success.
lastly, in measuring one normally uses an evenly divided and hierarchical scale. The numbers tell if something is bigger,
stronger, or warmer than something else and they also reveal by how much it is
different. No such scale or instruments
based on it exists for aesthetic judgments.
also admits in the end that universal factors are not quite suitable for explaining individual
cases. There are probably cross-cultural
inclinations to aesthetically value certain kinds of things, but the ways in
which individual cases modify these general trends and how things may be
aesthetically valued in entirely different ways must be pondered on
case-by-case basis. There are no
measuring tools or rules for this. Such
pondering, which is typically verbal, is exactly the context in which and the
tool by which a judgment is identified as aesthetic in the first place. Through it, the judgment is connected with a
certain cultural tradition. This
pondering itself is, at least, proto-philosophical activity: questioning, discussing, analyzing and
comparing concepts, reflecting language with the help of language. Often in everyday life we simply have no
other choice than to turn to it; no exact measurements and empirical studies
can be done. This is why beauty still
cannot be measured, but must instead be discussed and philosophized.
4. Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Views of
aesthetic judgments cannot be proved right or wrong through studying the
empirical features of objects, would empirical study of receivers produce
better results? Colin Martindale believes in the value of this approach and
makes a comparison: ”It is impossible to
list the objective features shared by beautiful objects. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but
in the brain of the beholder.”
we saw, Welsch thinks that experiencing beauty is some sort of brain-happiness. According to him there are at least three
types of this phenomenon, and these types relate both to different objects and
different operational abilities of the brain developed at different stages of
When we perceive a body or landscape
as beautiful, the perception rests on the highly localized activation of a
specific neural pattern. When, by
contrast, we perceive forms of self-similarity as beautiful, the resonance of
contiguous cortical areas produces a significantly more far-reaching activation
of the cortex. The experience of great,
breath-taking beauty, finally, rests on an integral activation of our entire
aesthetic and cognitive architecture. Now
in each of these three cases the implication is that beauty is actually
in musicology it has also often been repeated that certain sounds typically
cause certain kinds of activations in the brain, and that this fact has an
evolutionary basis. Hence, it can be reasoned that probably
somewhat similar activations happen when we see beautiful people, enjoy a
landscape or listen to good music, even if there are variations in the
activation levels between different individual cases. Seen from this point of view the experience
of beauty always happens in the brain. In
the end, it might make no difference if the experience is caused by an object,
imagination, or a drug if only the brain is activated, i.e., certain local or
more integral electrochemical changes occur.
will the knowledge that such things happen in our brain help us understand
aesthetic judgments? I stand in my back
yard and claim that it looks good, and my friend disagrees. Could the disagreement be solved by finding
out what happens in our brains?
first problem is that in everyday life − where aesthetic judgments typically
take place − it is not possible to find out what goes on in the brain; no more
than it is possible to measure people’s faces for finding out whether they are
statistically beautiful. The only
“method” we normally have in such situations is to discuss. I can point out some features of the yard,
describe my feelings, and make references to other yards, and my friend can do
the same. After some time we may agree,
at least in the sense that we use the same terminology: the yard looks good. But we cannot get any further in finding out
whether we really agree or disagree. There
is no way we could test whether we really feel the same feelings even if we use
the same words, or determine whether there are similar things happening in our
brains. Even the knowledge of whether
the words we use have the same positions in our own vocabularies (relate in the
same ways to other words and ways of action) necessarily remains more or less
unclear. How could it even be possible,
in practice, to pinpoint such positions? But it is interesting that in everyday
life all of these obstacles are normally not a problem and that we can manage
very well with such uncertainty.
what if we were so lucky as to have a brain scientist with her equipment quite
unexpectedly come by? Could she show
that one of us is right?
is possible to compare this situation with cases studied in musicology. It is clear that music evokes strong feelings. But it is quite as clear that any particular
piece of music does not have the same impact on everyone; the same piece might
evoke different reactions in different listeners and leave some listeners quite
cold. Compare for instance the varying impact
of the music of Claude Debussy and the metal band Slayer. The experience of beauty or some other
aesthetic feature is not caused by any direct, uni-linear relationship to a
particular stimulus. But still, music
activates the brain and such activation can be measured quite independently of
the type of music. How should this be
understood? Is there something here that could clarify what happens when we
judge my backyard aesthetically?
is especially interesting is that the activation of certain “pleasure zones” of
the brain does not seem to be specific for experiencing musical or any other
kind of beauty. Mari Tervaniemi, who
worked for the above-mentioned Braintuning-project, summarizes:
It appeared that the stronger the
pleasure that the music caused, the stronger the areas of the brain (especially
striatum, midbrain, amygdala as well as orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex)
that play a part in general emotional and motivational activity were activated. It could be inferred that there is no specific
brain mechanism or structure for musical pleasure or musical emotions, but that
there is something very similar in all emotional processes independently of the
sense modality or the cause of such processes.
is thus the same pleasure areas that become activated when one is listening to
music, having sex, eating good food or perhaps imagining big business triumphs;
sometimes locally, sometimes more integrally.
Unlike the description of the Braintuning-project cited at the beginning
of this article, which could make one hope that “neural determinants” could be
found that would be specific for
music experiences, this is not the case, although much new information has been
discovered on the emotions connected with music and on what happens in the
brain as one is listening to it.
means that the activation of the brain that Welsch connects with beauty in
particular is in fact probably not specific to it but has to do with pleasure
and other positive emotions much more generally. The same is probably true of other modes of
the aesthetic: ugliness, serenity,
cuteness, and numerous other variations of the aesthetic do not have their own,
specific brain mechanism or structure. Similar
things happening in the brain are conceptualized and described in different
ways in different situations. If certain
objects do not necessarily result in same aesthetic judgments, neither do
certain states of the brain.
opens up further problems. First, it may
be that the same things are happening in me and my friend on the
electro-chemical level of our brains as we stand pondering my back yard, but we
might experience and conceptualize the situation differently on our conscious
level of thinking. I might think that it
is pleasurable and my friend that it is less so (when compared to some other
experiences), and this may result in different verbal judgments. But before this can actually be considered further,
we should seek to know how exactly similar are the states of our brains. There are no two absolutely identical
instances of brain development. So what
is similar, where and how? And what is not? What type of similarity is relevant
and why? There are, very probably, a great many possible answers, but Welsch,
for example, does not deal with this issue.
I may eventually arrive at a strong emotional state during our discussion of my
yard, while my friend simply makes an analytical and professional analysis of
the potential price of the lot if it were sold.
There are probably different things going on in our brains, but does
this mean that one of us is right and the other is wrong?
it could also happen that we experience the electro-chemical changes in our
brain as similar, as harmonic and serene, but I may value this state of mind,
whereas my friend would like to have a more extreme experience. Or for some reason, and this is by no means
trivial because of the social nature of aesthetic judgments, he wants to
distance himself from me and says that he disagrees even if all the things that
can be measured would make one think that we should agree. He might want to impress his new friend, who
is also there with us.
most important thing to notice, however, is that in normal situations of
aesthetic judging the agreement or disagreement is only perceivable and
realizable in our verbal and non-verbal actions, not in our brains. We cannot observe even the internal workings
of our own brain but only those things that are made explicit and brought into
consciousness, typically by language and action. We simply have to discuss whether we are of
the same opinion and ponder whether using the same terminology is a reliable
sign of agreement and whether using different words means disagreement. Agreement and disagreement may also have to
do with whether the judgment is aesthetic or of some other kind. This cannot be solved by measuring changes in
the brain because there seems to be no specific brain mechanisms or structures
for aesthetic judgments or experiences. Moreover,
similar brain states can be connected to different culturally developed
aesthetic descriptions and conceptions. By
measuring it can be shown that the brain is strongly activated, but how this
activation is described and how it is verbally related to a certain object in a
certain context is much more important for aesthetic judging. Punk, jazz, heavy rock, chamber music, and
tango probably cause similar brain states as activities as sex, a good meal, a beautiful
landscape, an interesting painting and a handsome human body, but the ways in
which all these are described in various situations vary widely. And it is exactly in such descriptions that
aesthetics as a cultural entity lives and develops. As electrochemical events, internal brain
activities remain hidden in our bodies while our verbal descriptions and
explicit actions do not.
5. A Taste of Rhetoric
ability to make aesthetic judgments and discuss them is one of the pivotal
skills of human beings. It is often
called “taste” and it is needed in social interaction all the time: in selecting objects, polite behavior, art,
science, fashion, politics – everywhere.
A wrong judgment may result in exclusion from a group; a correct one
opens doors and strengthens ties to a group.
Skillful use of taste affects our well-being and because, nothing, no
measurement or scientific experiment, can replace it, it must continuously be
rehearsed and practiced.
ability is evaluated by others whenever we make aesthetic judgments. David Hume stated that individuals who have
good taste must have “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by
practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” and they make
their judgments with the help of these faculties. Another way to see it is that they have
rhetorical skills, the abilities to speak and write persuasively and
convincingly. The point is to get others
to agree, not to find an absolute truth.
Whether we agree or disagree can be explained by analyzing the
situations where taste and rhetorical skills are used, not by measuring the
states of the brain or studying our evolution.
is also evident that taste and rhetorical skills have their own evolutionary
background and are not independent of the brain or the features of the objects
discussed. Rhetoric can be studied by
scientific, empirical methods, even measured. However, if one tries to clarify
aesthetic judgments from this perspective, one faces similar problems to those
I have described above. One would thus
probably be better off concentrating on studying the rhetorical uses of
language from a philosophical perspective.
This assertion is not a new one for aesthetics, as Ludwig Wittgenstein
already suggested in approaching aesthetic issues as cultural-linguistic ones,
but the approach is still useful and non-philosophical ones cannot replace it;
Sibley’s notions are still relevant. It
is clear that the philosophy used does not have to be based on Wittgenstein’s
thinking. Martin Heidegger, John Dewey,
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Rancière, for example, would open different
perspectives, and sometimes it is in order to emphasize that the
cultural-linguistic approach cannot only deal with written and oral language
but must also acknowledge physical, bodily experiences. However, if all this is analyzed
philosophically, we must necessarily use verbal language.
people produce different aesthetic judgments and interpretations or theories of
them. From the philosophical point of
view, such “meta-level” interpretations are actually very similar to judgments:
they are more or less convincing
conceptualizations of their objects and they are presented to other people in
social interaction. They both use natural
languages. Both are related to things
happening in the brain and the body, but studying such material-level events
does not make judgments or their interpretations understandable. Here, one has to analyze verbal language –
rhetoric and individual concepts – and this is only possible with the help of
this same language. This, in turn, is philosophical activity,
especially if one arrives at radical questioning of traditional ways of
thinking. It is quite possible that we
will never achieve the final and unquestionable understanding of aesthetic
judgments. We are doomed to discuss.
Naukkarinen is Head of Research, Aalto University, School of Art and Design,
Department of Art. His publications include the books Aesthetics of the Unavoidable and Art of the Environment, edited
collections, monographs, and journal articles in both English and Finnish.
Published on September 16, 2010
 Colin Martindale, “A Neural-Network Theory of Beauty,” in Evolutionary and Neurogocnitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity,
and the Arts, ed. Colin Martindale,
Paul Locher and Vladimir M. Petrov (Amityville: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., 2007),
pp. 181–194; ref. on p. 183.
 Wolfgang Welsch, “On the Universal Appreciation of Beauty,” in International Yearbook of Aesthetics, Volume
12, ed. Jale N. Erzen (International Association for
Aesthetics, 2008), pp. 6–32, ref. on pp. 7 and 29.
 Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct. Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009); Nancy
Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest. The Science of Beauty (New York: Doubleday, 1999); Eckart Voland and
Karl Grammer (eds.), Evolutionary
Aesthetics (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York:
Springer Verlag, 2003). See also
Ellen Dissanayakes publications such as Homo
Aestheticus. Where Art Comes From and
Why (Seattle: University of
Washinton Press, 1992).
 Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art.
An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Company, 1976); Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
 Aarne Kinnunen, Estetiikka (Helsinki: WSOY, 2000),
 Simo Säätelä has written an interesting interpretation of aesthetic
reactions: Aesthetics as Grammar. Wittgenstein & Post-Analytic Philosophy
of Art (Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1998) but even he does not understand
them as simple stimulus-reaction events but as intentional actions that can be
 Frank Sibley, “Aesthetic Concepts,” in Philosophy
Looks at the Arts. Contemporary Readings
in Aesthetics (Third Edition), ed.
Joseph Margolis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 29−52,
ref. on p. 31−32.
I don’t take a stand on the question of whether aesthetic concepts are
descriptive, evaluative or something else.
For a rather new account on this see Roman Bonzon, “Thick Aesthetic
Concepts,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67:2 (2009),
 Frank Sibley, “Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic” in Frank Sibley, Approach to
Aesthetics. Collected Papers on Philosophical
Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
2001), 33−51, ref. on page 35.
 Kendall L. Walton’s well-known
analysis of categories of art could further illuminate the importance of
context but the issue cannot be dealt with here. See his “Categories of Art,” in Philosophy Looks at the Arts. Contemporary Readings in Aesthetics
(Third Edition), ed. Joseph Margolis
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 53–79.
 Welsch, “On the Universal Appreciation of Beauty.” See also publications
mentioned in endnote 4.
 Etcoff, pp. 134 and 141.
 Randy Thornhill, “Darwinian Aesthetics Informs Traditional Aesthetics,” in
Eckart Voland and Karl
Grammer (eds.), Evolutionary Aesthetics,
pp. 9–35, ref. on pp.
 Olaf Breidbach, “The Beauties and the Beautiful – Some Considerations from
the Perspective of Neuronal Aesthetics,” in Eckart Voland and Karl Grammer (eds.), Evolutionary Aesthetics, 39–68, ref. on p.
62. The concept of sublime is
related to this question, too, but because of its complexity it would need its
 Rachel Kaplan & Stephen Kaplan, The
Experience of Nature. A Psychological
Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
 Stephen Kaplan, ”Environmental Preference in a Knowledge-Seeking,
Knowledge-Using Organism,” in The Adapted
Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the
Generation of Culture, ed. Jerome
H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 581−598.
 Kaplan & Kaplan, pp. 72–116.
 Martindale , p. 183.
 Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals. The
Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (London: Phoenix, 2006); Timo
Leisiö, “Musiikin yhdeksän evoluutiota,” Tieteessä
tapahtuu 1/2010, pp. 3–15.
 Mari Tervaniemi, “Miksi
musiikki liikuttaa?” Duodecim
Vol. 125 (2009), pp. 2579–2582, ref. on p.
2581. Originally in Finnish,
translation by the author.
Some new studies refer to the possibility that some music-related emotions
may have different brain-level basis than some others but the results are still
uncertain; Stefan Koelsch, “Towards a Neural Basis of Music-evoked Emotions,”
forthcoming in Trends in Cognitive
Sciences. This does not mean,
however, that all emotions would have their specific brain structure and
mechanism or that all aesthetic judgments or concepts would have theirs. According to some other recent studies it is
disputable whether music has its own evolutionary background at all; Aniruddh D.
Patel, “Music, biological evolution, and the brain,” forthcoming in Emerging
Disciplines, ed. C. Levander & C. Henry (Houston: Rice University Press, 2010).
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have used results of neurolinguistics in
their studies of language usage and rhetoric in their Philosophy in the Flesh. The
Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books,
 I thank Yrjänä Levanto, Risto Pitkänen, Mari Tervaniemi as well as the
anonymous referee of Contemporary Aesthetics for commenting the manuscript at its earlier