Epistemology and
the Ethics of Aesthetics

by Roger E. Bissell

October 27-29, 1997

I think there are two significant reasons why aesthetics has more to do with epistemology than with ethics, as Rand conceives them. Our abstract knowledge of the world can be regarded as a value, i.e., as something "gained and/or kept," and this two-pronged formulation points out the two major connections between aesthetics and epistemology.

First of all, a large part of epistemology as broadly conceived has the task of studying the nature of abstractions and the way that they are formed or grasped. One's basic abstractions about oneself and the world can be examined analytically; but as one's sense of life and one's self-image (or evaluatively, one's metaphysical value-judments and one's self-esteem), they are formed accretively through a process of emotional abstraction, as Rand and Branden explain in The Romantic Manifesto and The Psychology of Self-Esteem, respectively. 

The parallels between the most basic aspects of one's experience of the object of cognition (the world) and the subject of cognition (one's self) are fascinating, and I think that Rand's and Branden's parallel contributions to this understanding in terms of the concept of "sense of life" are a major source of Objectivism's depth and explanatory power, making it more than just another logic-crunching exercise in armchair speculation, divorced from real-world concerns, as so much of philosophy seems to be. (This is one of my favorite areas of philosophy and one of the reasons I most deeply respect and appreciate the work of Rand and Branden did (mostly) back in the 1960s.)

Of course, one's basic abstractions must be validated, and for this process there is no substitute for conceptual analysis; but that they are formed through a special type of abstraction that operates more as an emotional, subconscious process than a rational, conscious process seems well-established, thanks to Rand's and Branden's diligent expository efforts. (I also must include Branden's The Psychology of Romantic Love in this assessment.)

Secondly, our abstractions must be retained ("kept") in some form as concretes, i.e., "concretized," and this is the task of symbols, which concretize abstractions in one of two basic ways, either through a process of automatized association or through a process of stylized embodiment. The former is the domain of linguistic symbols or language--the latter of aesthetic symbols or art and (for lack of a better term) "human visibility." Just as an artwork can be the "carrier" of one's basic abstractions about the world, so can another human being's reactions and responses be the "carrier" of one's basic abstraction about oneself. This symbolic function is a very deep, important reason why people need human relationships every bit as much as, and in exact parallel to their need for, art. Elucidating the nature of this symbolic function is a major task for epistemology and, again, it is a major virtue of Objectivism (including Branden's early work in psychology) to have highlighted this issue.

To me, it's helpful to view esthetics like linguistics, as having both a "theoretical" and a "normative" component. For instance, if you know what language is for--and who it's for (the intended audience being very relevant)--you can evaluate whether and to what extent it succeeds in its intended purpose. But first you have to know its nature, and that is where Rand shines forth as a philosopher in aesthetics.

Like all human tools, linguistic and aesthetic symbols can be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in performing the function for which they are needed. The basic questions to ask are: Do they enable us to use them successfully for the fulfillment of the need we have of them?--and--How well?
The primary need served by language and art is a cognitive, integrative one. 
They implement our system of abstractions. Without language and art, we cannot retain the conceptual integrations we have achieved, nor can we gain and retain new ones. To evaluate whether and to what extent a given symbol (or system of symbols, such as a language) enables us to grasp and retain abstractions, we must first identify the abstraction(s) being symbolized.

In the field of language, this is an easy matter. Language encompasses the full range of human knowledge. Various grammatical and syntactical forms, for instance, may be compared across languages--or even between speakers and writers in the same language -- according to criteria such as clarity, consistency, economy, etc.

Naturally, one's intended audience is a key factor in knowing how to evaluate, for instance, a given sentence's effectiveness as a symbol. A sentence may be perfectly clear to a college graduate. If, however, its structure is sufficiently complex, it may be complete gibberish to a sixth grader--even if all of its concepts and words are part of the child's knowledge and vocabulary. Obviously, we must always ask ourselves: "Clear--to whom?"

The principle behind this is known variously as information overload, exceeding cognitive channel capacity, failure to observe the principle of the "crow epistemology," etc. This principle merely identifies the fact that all consciousness, animal and human alike, is limited in the amount of material that it can retain and focus on at a given moment.

Thus, the sixth grader, with a smaller context of knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, and factual information will be more limited in the complexity of what he or she can grasp than the college graduate. Things one says to or writes for the sixth grader must be scaled down accordingly. (See my essay on how to write about the news for schoolchildren.) This requires not only smaller words and shorter phrases and sentences, but often much repetition, as well. Such repetition for the college graduate, however, would probably bore or irritate him, for the simple reason that he does not need the repetition.

This illustrates an important fact about the criterion of economy of means. And it must be emphasized that economy of means is not just a matter of how few times something is repeated or how few words are used to communicate a point.

The basic issues behind economy are instead:  "Repeated--to whom? Communicated--to whom?" How many times is it necessary to repeat something for which person, reader, or audience? How many words are necessary to communicate something to which person, reader, or audience?

These issues -- which are applicable by analogy to art, as well--may be summarized (paraphrasing Occam and/or Rand) in the form of a sort of linguistic "razor": linguistic communicative means should not be eliminated in disregard of necessity, nor should they be multiplied in disregard of necessity. In other words, true linguistic economy entails using all of the words, repetition, etc., one needs to communicate a point to one's chosen audience--but only those words, repetition, etc., that are needed. (Present essay not excepted!)

In addition to the linguistic evaluation of (for example) a sentence, there is also the factual evaluation of its content. In other words, one wants to know not only: is it (communicatively) good or excellent as a sentence?, but also: is it a true, factual sentence? Does the sentence represent a non-contradictory grasp of a fact of reality?

Even more basically, the sentence must be meaningful. Without meaningfulness, it has neither cognitive nor symbolic value. Such an utterance communicates no content and can thus be neither true nor false. And it communicates nothing and can thus be neither excellent nor poor. It's totally worthless--except, perhaps, as an example of linguistic pathology.

Human beings need not just meaningful sentences--nor just graspable sentences--nor just factual sentences--but meaningful and graspable and factual (true) sentences. Nevertheless, these three aspects of sentences are clearly distinct and must be kept separate when evaluating them.

The same is true in the field of aesthetic symbols or art. In art, however, only certain very basic abstractions pertaining to existence, consciousness, and our relationship to them are symbolized.

Before we can proceed with evaluating an artwork's effectiveness as a symbol, we must identify the fundamental abstraction that it represents. And if we cannot identify any basic abstraction embodied in an alleged work of art--and no one else, including the artist, can either--then it is properly regarded as meaningless. It is thereby outside the realm of evaluation of either content or means of presentation, as we saw in the case of language.

This is true even when the artist (or someone) alleges that there is a basic abstraction "in there" and you just have to "get it" somehow. You are entitled to say that if he cannot tell you how it's "in there" (embodied), he's at best inept. More likely, he's just trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes!  :-)

So, as you can see, there is a crucial issue of symbolic judgment--whether or not an abstraction is being concretized--that arises even before any consideration of aesthetic judgment of the effectiveness of concretizing the abstraction--let alone before any consideration of moral judgment of the content of the abstraction. This clearly shows the relative priority of the three distinct aspects of evaluation of artworks--or linguistic utterances. And, in contrast to the latter two aspects, the requirement that a work of art be meaningful is an issue over which there really ought to not be any debate, any more than there should be any question that language use ought to be meaningful. But of course there is. We're living in the 20th century, after all.  :-(

[BTW, for those who might be interested, I did a lot of work in this area back in the early 1970s, and a revised version of my thoughts on linguistic and aesthetic symbols appears in my essay "The Essence of Art," which was published in 1998 in Objectivity.

As for the connection of aesthetics to ethics, I think that in general we can ask what kinds of things ought people to perceive for pleasure (and/or abstraction-retention!), but the answer to this is highly contextual or "agent-relative." (Maybe "agent-centered" would be a better term.) As Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl have pointed out in various essays, you can't read the specifics of what ought to be perceived like the RDAs from the back of a box of cereal. It's easier to point to things that have a cognitively disintegrative effect and to say: don't perceive that! (Unless you're studying it as an example of pathology.) 

That is why the attempts by some Objectivists to pressure and judge others about their esthetic (and romantic!) preferences are so often misguided. They are imposing their own context of values and experience on the other person, sometimes accurately because there is some amount of congruence, but more often not. Rand herself observed that it is difficult, unless you know someone very well, to know what they might like to read for personal enjoyment, and that it was a real presumption and intrusion to give books as gifts, rather than simply to recommend them. On the other hand, she was not at all shy about letting people know that she thought certain music or literature or visual art was cognitively disintegrative or morally decrepit and should be avoided like the plague. 

This is not to sit in judgment of Rand for either of these attitudes--deserving though she may be!--merely to offer them as illustrations of my general point about what ought (or ought not) to be perceived. One might even want to think of this area of concern as "the ethics of aesthetics" or "the ethics of contemplation." And while it is undeniably important as an aspect of philosophy, I agree with Chris Sciabarra that it is posterior to the issues that connect aesthetics to epistemology.