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Mud, a Comment

  Mary Bittner Wiseman

This short note raises invites two observations of interest to philosophers: one is about focused attention and the other about the role of judgment in the ascription of aesthetic properties.  We pay attention to artworks because that is what they are there for, for us to focus on, to engage on sensory, emotional, or cognitive levels, and to appreciate. We tend not to pay much attention to things in our daily lives, unless they demand our attention as exquisite gardens, stunning sunset skies, or raging storms do. Part of the brief of those who work in everyday aesthetics is precisely to encourage us to pay attention to what we encounter day by day, an attention that focuses on what it offers to the senses, touch, and kinesthesia among them.

When we do, we are apt to find the tea we are drinking, for example, to be not merely warm but smoky, where we find it warm and judge it to be smoky. This comports with Frank Sibley’s characterization of aesthetic properties as those for which there are no readily available criteria. It turns out that the criteria for most of the sense properties that have criteria are measurable. We measure temperature, identify color by the length of the light waves we see (the visible colors from shortest to longest wavelength are violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red), sound by the decibels of pressure of the sound waves, and so on. What we sense is also a function of the soundness of our sense organs, but the point is that there are criteria for calling something small or warm, but not for calling it delicate or smoky. It is on the basis of the delight that beauty affords that, according to Kant, we call something beautiful. In the same vein, I ascribe smokiness to the tea, beauty to the curve of a basketball player’s body as he jumps and turns, delicacy to a flower on the strength of how it strikes and delights me.

As a bonus, the author invites us to pay attention, and close attention it has to be, not only to mud itself but also to what the mud enables, like “violets with flowers no bigger than a quarter coin” and “the strange, blood-red flower of the sweet shrub.”

Mary Bittner Wiseman

Published March 15, 2017.