Wittgensteinian Aesthetics

Review discussion of David Best, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. London: George Allen and Unwin 1985

DAVID BEST has written his new book with arts educators in mind, and this explains many of the choices of topic and emphases of argument. Arts educators have often been prey to an easy subjectivism about both artistic creation and response, and to a scepticism about the possibility of assessment contradicted by their own practices. Best is well justified in singling out these views for discussion and makes some good points in attacking them. But Best's book is also an extended study in Wittgensteinian aesthetics. Though this is not foregrounded in the exposition no doubt because Best imagines himself writing for a non philosophical audience it is the Wittgensteinian emphases which I propose to single out for discussion in this review.

A few years ago we were all sociologists and Wittgenstein was read as a sort of philosophical sociologist of culture. Thus Peter Winch in The Idea of a Social Science (1958). Now we are all naturalists albeit naturalists who have arrived at their destination via relativism or Humean scepticism and Wittgenstein is read as a naturalist too. Thus Peter Strawson inSkepticism and Naturalism (1985). So `form of life' can now be developed as rather like the idea of species specific endowment and `agreement' heard as referring to a distributive fact about our natures (for example, that we all tend to agree that the lines are different in length in the M�ller Lyer illusion), rather than a collective fact about our cultures. David Best is both sociologist and naturalist and the question is whether these positions can be genuinely combined and not just opportunistically invoked now one, now the other.

In his opening chapter, Best argues that innate propensities to respond, common to the species, are the precondition of all learning; specifically, `With respect to the arts, the instinctive response on which the possibility of learning and of grasping the concepts of the arts depends would be, for instance, swaying to rhythm, reacting to sounds, colours and shapes' (p. 5). In addition, he wants to distinguish early learnt responses from later taught ones, specifically responses which are `assimilated by growing up in and emulating the practices of a social environment. Examples are learning to wave goodbye, smiling as a greeting, nodding in agreement or approval, and various other gestures and facial expressions which a child assimilates as the norms of behaviour' (p. 4). Training may be involved here, but not teaching; instinctive and learnt responses are, in fact, the natural basis of later conceptualizing and reasoning. It is because we agree in our responses and share a form of life, as a fact of nature, that we can come to share a form of life a culture in which argument over disagreements can be rational and fruitful. Best recurs to the arguments of this opening chapter again and again; for example, at pp. 177 80, he replies to Colin Radford's claim, that it is `incoherent' to be moved by the fate of a fictional character, in terms of the immediate, natural and primitive character of that response. `The response is ultimate; thus to talk of what is and what is not rational or coherent at that level makes no sense. There is no rational principle which underlies and justifies the response; it is rather that reasons given in justification derive ultimately from the response . . . One may justify particular responses within the arts, but the notion of justifying artistic responses in general, i.e. externally, makes as little sense as demanding a legal justification of laws' (p. 177).

The argument from nature is not without its difficulties, however. First of all, as a general philosophical response to scepticism, it does not distinguish between incompatible scientific positions. Skinner and Chomsky can both agree that learning is possible only if there are innate propensities to respond one way rather than another to stimuli; but behaviourist and nativist accounts of language development are magnificently incompatible where one sees shaping by stimuli, the other sees triggering of genetic endowments. The same possibility of divergent naturalisms arises in the arts: to say that there are instinctive responses to rhythm or sound does not in itself determine whether musical development is a matter of operant conditioning or the triggering of the schemas of an innate music acquisition device. Both views have their adherents and, educationally, it is the choice between naturalisms which will make a difference, not naturalism itself.

Secondly, it is rather unclear in Best, but clearly important, what is supposed to happen, in the course of development, to our innate or early learnt responses. For example, suppose neonates are (and they are) selectively attracted to the colour red: they respond to red with interest and excitement. What happens to this early response? Clearly there are a number of possibilities. One is that our response to red remains with us and inflects all our later aesthetic and artistic responses, no matter how enculturated we become. I take it that this is the view of proponents of a naturalist or psychophysiological aesthetics; in another domain, Julia Kristeva's theory of poetry (in particular, her distinction inLa revolution du langage poetique between the semiotic and the semantic) is just such a theory. But another possibility is that culture gets to work on the neonate's responses (it has to have something to work on, as we all agree), extinguishes the neonate's response to red, and substitutes its own preferred responses. The natural response then drops out of the picture as irrelevant. This position could be called behaviourist or sociological the two amount to pretty much the same thing.

At this point, Best might comment that he is doing philosophy, not psychology. And I would comment that psychology has always been the Achilles heel of Wittgensteinianism, and then add the more general question: Can we really do aesthetics without having a view as to how far the empire of natural response extends? It may be that Best has an implicit answer to this question in the interesting way in which in Chapter 11 he draws the distinction between the aesthetic and the artistic and which enables him to say this, for example: `Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic' (p. 157). Perhaps we could say that Best's aesthetic appreciation maps more or less directly in to natural response, taking the `exhilaration' he feels to be more like the exhilaration of skiing than the exhilaration of, say, seeing Fitzcarraldo.

I turn now from nature to culture, and to Best's deployment of the sociological Wittgenstein against subjectivists and expressionists. This involves Best in seeing art as a language game (p. 171), which is necessarily social (`a medium is a social institution' p. 13 1), which in turn is the source of the inner, the mental (`language and the arts create man') (p. 104) and is the condition of possibility of creativity (`individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice' p. 81). Neither the individual artistic message nor the individual artistic response exists independently of the collective artistic medium hence expressionism and subjectivism (chapters 5 7) are false, and the Intentional and Affective Fallacies (chapter 8) not fallacies at all. Because the medium is social, it is normative and standard setting, permitting assessment and rational discussion of competing evaluations. Behind these positions adopted by Best there stands, of course, Wittgenstein's private language argument, which would need to be taken on board in any further development of a Wittgensteinian aesthetics or critique thereof.

To begin with, consider art as a language game, an activity or praxis for which we are trained or into which we are socialized; something which is not discursively justified to us but rather forms the background to practices of discursive justification. Such is Wittgenstein's influence that such a way of thinking has become well nigh irresistible, and I do not want to resist it. But I do want to ask if all language games are alike, and this in two senses. First of all, are they hierarchically or heterarchically organized? Best writes about `language and the arts' in parallel and that seems right in respect of the young child. But do they remain in parallel? Is it simply a sign of bad music or painting that it is linguistically subordinated? For example, Best writes, `it is not simply a practical difficulty which prevents what is expressed in a symphony from being expressed and experienced in an alternative way, but rather a supposition which makes no sense. The "inner" experience is necessarily related to, uniquely identified by, the existence of that piece of music. The public medium is not merely the convenient but extraneous means of expression. If there were no such medium there could not be such an experience' (p. 69). But suppose instead of `symphony' we substituted `church or religious music'. Isn't there a sense in which a great deal of Western music is subordinated to religious experience or the linguistic formulation of that experience in Christian doctrine? Isn't such music often illustrative or representational in intent (there are many examples in Peter Kivy's Sound and Semblance) and no worse for that? My second reservation, leading into consideration of art as a social institution, is this: Are language games alike in developmental terms. Do scribbles become pictures in the same way that scribbletalk becomes talk? It seems to me that it would simply beg the question in favour of a non modular view of mind to assume an affirmative response to this question, and one can motivate a negative response quite easily. For example, early development in children's drawing seems to be much more independent of stimulus conditions than does talk and there are, or appear to be, surface rather than underlying cross cultural universals in drawing development. Again, the idea of the musical or drawing prodigy is commonplace; but the idea of a talking prodigy?

This may again sound too much like psychology to be relevant to Best's philosophical project, but it surely becomes relevant when we switch to the claim that art, like language, is a social institution. Best does not define a social institution; he appears to mean that art, like language, is a matter of convention, and convention might be understood as it is by David Lewis in his bookConvention. But if this is what is meant, then there is clearly plenty of non conventional and non social art about. When blind children do drawings of objects, they are not following any drawing conventions (they haven't seen any to follow), and if their drawings look alike this is because they share (distributively) certain cognitive strategies, not because they share (collectively) certain artistic conventions. (In parallel, there is plenty of non conventional language about; the home sign systems of deaf children, for instance.) What blind children do is public and shareable, but it does not follow that they can do what they do because there is something public and shared to which they are party. Best's local mistake is to equate the public with the social, the shareable with the shared: conflations to which Colin McGinn has recently drawn illuminating attention in his contribution to the private language and rule following literature,Wittgenstein on Meaning. The more general lacuna in Best's thinking is not to see that there are real problems in juggling with art as both natural response and social institution; unless you are very careful, one of the balls will get dropped. Certainly, the naturalist ball gets dropped the moment loose talk about language and the arts creating man is allowed to creep in, just as the sociological ball gets dropped in talk of man creating language and the arts.

Related cautions apply to Best's treatment of creativity, though all praise to him for not shirking the role of Sisyphus. For Best, `individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice' (p. 81). Now this is actually several theses rolled into one, depending on what you mean by `depends'. You could, for example, construe `depends' along Aristotelian lines and end up with four different theses corresponding to Aristotle's four `becauses'. So, first, creativity might depend on a social practice as a material cause; creativity needs a pre existent material to work on or transform. Second, it might depend on the social practice as a formal cause. I've never had a very good grasp of formal causes, and leave it to the reader to be creative here. [Added 2002: the social practice as formal cause might equate to what in my other writings on aesthetics I call 'the medium' in distinction from 'the material'] Third, the social practice might be treated as the efficient cause, responsible for provoking the creative act. Fourth, as final cause, the existence of the social practice might be held to provide the creative individual with his or her purpose. And so on. The point is that Best's claim runs together too many possibilities to really advance the argument. Best might like to think about this question: In some domains, your chances of producing something which will be judged creative appear to go up with your increasing familiarity with the domain or practice; in others, it appears to go down. What are the differences between these domains?

There are many other topics in Best's interesting book which are worth pursuing. He deserves his audience of arts' educators. I am sure they will pursue his topics, in theory and in practice.

Lightly revised from the version appearing in British Journal of Aesthetics, vol 26, number 2, Spring 1986, pp. 172-75. Copyright in the original, Oxford University Press.