Beauty, Art and Testimony: Subjectivity and Objectivity in Aesthetics
We acquire beliefs on the basis of what others tell us all the time. If you tell me that your house is painted red, chances are that I will simply believe you without question; and if someone asks me what color your house is, I will simply tell her that it is red. Yet we do not seem to accept others’ testimony about beauty and art in the same way. If you tell me that the Taj Mahal is beautiful, or that Middlemarch is a great novel, it would be strange for me simply to adopt your view, even if I have a lot of confidence in your judgment. In order for me to be in a position to believe or to claim that the Taj Mahal is beautiful, or that Middlemarch is a great novel, I must experience these things myself—by going to Agra, or by reading the book.
My dissertation explains this apparent resistance to aesthetic testimony. I argue that aesthetic claims carry what is known in linguistics as ‘evidential’ information, to the effect that they are made on the basis of the subject’s firsthand experience. I locate aesthetic claims amongst a slew of other kinds of claims—including personal taste claims, perceptual appearance claims and moral claims—that all carry evidential information of this kind. These claims are loosely connected by having content that is essentially subjective or perspectival in some way, even when, as in the aesthetic and moral cases, there is also some claim to objectivity in play. I offer a detailed explanation in the aesthetic case—specifically for claims about beauty—of how their content comprises both subjective and objective elements. I argue that the evidential information carried by aesthetic claims and the other ‘perspectival’ claims I mention is communicated as conversational implicature, in spite of initial appearances to the contrary. Our apparent resistance to aesthetic testimony thus turns out to be an artifact of the evidential implications of aesthetic language: we often do accept aesthetic testimony, but we must describe our beliefs in a way that does not convey misleading evidential information.