There's no disputing it

Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199559527

The Art Instinct
Dennis Dutton
Oxford University Press (UK)
Bloomsbury (US)
ISBN 9780199539420

The subject of beauty has vexed philosophers at least since Plato, perhaps primarily because philosophers love disputing that of which, according to the old adage, “there is no disputing”. In the eighteenth century, still referred to as the “century of taste” on account of the time spent and importance ascribed to discussions of artistry and sensibility, beauty was generally agreed, in the words of David Hume, to be “nothing but a form, which produces pleasure”; a power, in other words, that could only be measured by no other means than our responses to it. This, in turn, has led to two widely prevalent conceptions: that beauty is purely “in the eye of the beholder”; and thus, in failing to be a part of a reality external our minds, is entirely lacking in importance.

For the philosophers Roger Scruton and Dennis Dutton, authors of new books confronting the question of what beauty is and why we should value it, the importance of their subject is defended vigorously as something which relates to the very core of what it is to be human. At this juncture, however, the two writers part company. For Dutton, whose conceptual apparatus is borrowed from evolutionary psychology – and from Steven Pinker in particular – the desire to create and experience beautiful things derives from a universal instinct. For Scruton, on the other hand, beauty is “anchored in our rational nature”.

Scruton begins by dwelling on the few statements about the subject that do invite universal assent. “Beauty pleases us”, reads one. “Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgement”, reads another. The sixth of these axioms is that “there are no second-hand judgements of beauty”. One cannot, in other words, simply take someone else’s word for it that such and such a painting, view or piece of music is beautiful in the same way that one can information about the painting’s sale value, the view’s location, the music’s composer or key.

Scruton’s task becomes one of unpacking these statements, and the contradictions between them, in relation to the categories of art, nature, everyday life, sex and the sacred. These excursions are illuminating in themselves, particularly the chapter on everyday life, where the aesthetics of table-laying are related to the laws of hospitality. The most important aspect of the book, however, remains the philosophical task of accounting for the idea that judgements of beauty are rational but, unlike ordinary judgements, unsusceptible of direct communication. Here he shows how what exercises our aesthetic sensibility also demands us to ask of ourselves why we like it, what it is for, why it is as it is, etc. In consequence, Scruton argues, the beauty of things may be measured by the quality of our reasons for finding them to be so.

Unsurprisingly, Dutton’s book lacks this rationalist emphasis. In arguing that our interest in beauty derives, pace the book’s title, from an “art instinct”, he is committed to the idea that the reasons for our aesthetic preferences are biologically hard-wired. For example, he argues that we find those landscapes beautiful which answer to preferences – such as for blue skies, or commanding viewpoints – easily explained in evolutionary terms. The value of music, similarly, consists in the way it “arrests attention and keeps it focused by continuously positing possibilities for the next few seconds”, thus exercising an operation of consciousness upon whose fitness both our survival and quality of life have long relied.

Depending on one’s own background, Dutton’s evangelical Darwinism may appeal more than Scruton’s equally ambitious rationalism, and many will share the conservative judgement – common to both writers – that the avant-garde has cheapened art for 100 years at least. But the comparative value of each approach is perhaps best understood in relation to how much of our aesthetic experience is meaningfully explained. In Dutton’s reductive framework, art is a kind of expansion of the play that equips children and baby chimpanzees for the complexities of adult society. In Scruton’s view, by contrast, art and beauty are ends in themselves. Their value lies not in training us for reality, but in making that reality better.

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