Rebirth of Reason


The Foundations of Esthetics
by Joseph Rowlands

A topic that comes up fairly often is the relationship between the 5 recognized branches of philosophy. This include metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and esthetics. And this is the order in which these topics are often discussed, at least when esthetics is discussed at all. Does this imply a logical order? What dependencies exist, if any?


The most fundamental branch is metaphysics. This is the branch that deals with the nature of existence itself. It tells us what is.


The next most fundamental branch is epistemology. This branch deals with the relationship between consciousness and existence. It tells us how we know.


Metaphysics and epistemology are sometimes described as equally fundamental. I don't think this is right, though. Epistemology deals with how we identify reality, but it is dependent on metaphysics. How we learn is contingent on the nature of the world. If existence exists independent of our minds, then we can learn by looking out into the world. If existence were some kind of imaginary illusion, a product of our minds, then the nature of epistemology would change entirely. But this relationship goes in one direction. We wouldn't say that that the way we know something determines what that thing is (and if we did, this would be a metaphysical claim). We wouldn't say that the world must work in some way because it is easier for us to grasp it if it does. The world is what it is, and doesn't conform to our needs or wishes.


While metaphysics is more fundamental than epistemology, that doesn't mean epistemology is simply deduced from metaphysics. It can have new ideas or facts that are introduced about the specific nature of our lives and the world. It can include the limitations of our memory, our perception, and our ability to focus. It can include a theory of how our emotions work, and the fact that they are not mystical means of understanding. But part of the set of ideas epistemology relies on are those found in metaphysics.


From here, the branches diverge. On one path is ethics, followed by politics. Ethics rests on its own foundation of the need to act in order to live, life as the standard, and other facts like how emotions fuel our will to act. And ethics relies on epistemology, such as how we need a method of identifying values and needs and how we need to deal with abstractions in our decision-making. And of course, it relies on metaphysics as any identification does. Politics is a subset or branch of ethics, dealing with force and government.

One point of common disagreement is where esthetics fits into all of this. It is my claim that esthetics rests on a foundation of epistemology and metaphysics, but not on ethics or politics.


It should be obvious that esthetics, the nature and purpose of art, has nothing to do with politics. And still some people have tried to make the connection because it makes a clean and linear hierarchy for the branches. If esthetics were dependent on politics, we'd have a nice chain, with each earlier branch being more fundamental than all of the others. I recall one person trying to claim that esthetics as dependent on politics because the government could censor art. Straws will be grasped at, I guess.


What about ethics? The claim that esthetics depends on ethics is widespread in Objectivist literature. I believe that this is the official Objectivist position. But before discussing this, it is worth seeing the less controversial connections to the other branches.


Esthetics deals with the nature and purpose of art. But what is that purpose? Why do we need art at all? The answer is in our means of grasping the world. We deal with abstractions. We can't in live in the world with only concretes. Right now we can say things like "wood burns" or "balls roll down hill". But in a world of concretes, we could only say that this piece of wood is burning, or that ball is rolling down hill. If we couldn't abstract, we couldn't recognize commonalities. If we couldn't abstract, we couldn't infer future behaviors. We'd be stuck living in the range of the moment with no means of understanding or guiding our choices.


The need to use abstractions is real, but it comes at a cost. Abstractions are removed from reality. They are less real. We focus on attributes in common, which means ignoring the unessential details. To make sure we are reasoning correctly, we have to periodically look past the concept to the various concretes that they represent.


Even more significant is the fact that we can build concepts on top of concepts, or abstractions from abstractions. We can generalize colors like 'blue' or 'green' from objects that share them, but then we can generalize to the concept 'color', and we can generalize that with things like length or weight to form the concept 'characteristic'. The complexity of these derivative concepts can increase with each step. When we get to a concept like 'justice', it can rely on countless previous abstractions.


These are the starting points to understanding esthetics. These are all important ideas in epistemology. We have abstractions, concept-formation, concretizing abstractions, measurement-omission, and hierarchical theory of knowledge, to name some. But from these, we can grasp a need. Needs are often viewed in terms of ethics, but this is an epistemological need. It is a need in order to correctly identify reality. The need is that these complex abstractions from abstractions need to be grounded in order for us understand and utilize them effectively.


The same need exists with any abstractions. When you have grounded an abstraction well, it is very clear in your mind. You have the sense of it being real. You may respond emotionally to it. A person with an abstract description of 'justice' or 'love' can be disconnected from the reality of these ideas in a way that he views them as dry topics and not relevant to his life. But if he grounds them well, and sees them as clear and real, he can feel excitement about love, or angry about injustice.


The more complex the abstractions, the more steps it takes to arrive at it and the more complex the steps, the more difficult it can be to have this degree of grounding.


One more idea needs to be introduced. This is the idea of a worldview. An integrated view of existence. Everyone has one, although it may be less integrated than it could be, or even contradictory. But we live with some kind of awareness of the world and our place in it. This is a very wide and complex abstraction, and can be especially difficult to concretize.


And so we come to art. Art is a way of creating a concretization of these worldview abstractions. Art "recreates reality". The world it creates is more selective. It deals with the most essential qualities about the world. And depending on what qualities make the cut, it can convey very different worldviews. Art can create a world of suffering and failure, or a world where success is possible or even assured. It can present a world where you shape your own destiny, or where your life is controlled by outside forces, whether good or evil. And by creating this world, it allows us to concretize our widest abstractions.


The connection to epistemology, and metaphysics, should be clear. The epistemological connection is in the purpose of art. Art is needed because of the way we grasp reality. But the content of the art is metaphysical. Art provides a view of "what is".


Now we can go back to ethics, and ask what relationship it has to esthetics.


The first possible connection comes from the idea that art is valuable to us. It is. And values are a part of ethics. But this is a weak point. The value to us is primarily epistemological. It allows us to concretize our widest abstractions in order to more clearly understand them. The idea of "need" exists in epistemology because there is a purpose to it. Epistemology deals with identification and knowledge. And because the world is real and has a specific nature, certain methods are needed in order to properly identify. The fact that identification is valuable from an ethics point of view is secondary. And we wouldn't say that epistemology is dependent on ethics, simply because we value reason and understanding. Similarly esthetics is not dependent on ethics because we value art. The need and purpose of art is independent of morality. Ethics comes in after the fact and recognize it as valuable to life as well.


A different connection between ethics and esthetics is the idea that art recreates reality according to an artists metaphysical value-judgments. Does this imply ethics? No.   Metaphysical value-judgments don't refer to how you should act or live your life. They refer to characteristics of reality that may be interpreted as being good or bad. An artist may create a view of the world where identity doesn't hold, and it is a swirling, changing chaos. That kind of world would be frightening and impossible to live in. But it is a representation of a metaphysical view. The selection of details by the artist is based on what he considers important in terms of the nature of the world as he understands it or sees it. It isn't based on a view of what he thinks morally should be portrayed. It's not propaganda.


What about the idea that art expresses life as it could and ought to be? We should start by taking this as a goal that is not universally accepted. Nor is it required by the purpose of art. Art portrays a worldview in a concrete, essential form. There is no need for the artist to endorse it as an ideal. He is simply stating what is, or what could be.


Shouldn't art be inspiring? Not necessarily. Art solidifies our view of the world. That may be inspiring, if our view of the world is inspiring. It may be depressing. But the inspiration, if it exists, is not the goal. The goal is to present a view of the world.


Slightly different from inspiration is 'committed'. A more solidified view of the world can make us more committed to act within that view. By grasping the worldview more clearly, we can be more convinced by its truth and may respond by more readily relying on it. This might manifest as inspiration in some cases, but it could also encourage people to not act because they think it is futile. A worldview that appears more real, is grasped more concretely, is amplified. The results of the amplification depends on the worldview. A fatalistic worldview would not inspire action. It would inspire passivity.


A final possible connection between esthetics and ethics comes in the field of literature. Those familiar with Rand's writing will note a prevalence of moral themes and ideas in her writing. And it was probably because of her focus on literature that esthetics was considered dependent on ethics.

We should note that if this dependency were real, the connection would not extend beyond literature. If you look at other forms of high art, like painting and sculpture, morality isn't significant because they are snapshots in time. Their power is not in conveying choices and consequences, but in showing a vision of the world in essentials.


Music also can't be connected to morality like literature. Pure music, including melody, harmony, beats, etc., are too abstract. They deal with action and motion, but can only metaphorically be tied to moral choices. Again, they represent a kind of world. Maybe it's a world of action, of excitement, of sorrow, of anger.


Only literature has this connection to esthetics. The question is whether this connection is a dependency or not. Is literature possible without a code of values? It is certainly possible to tell stories, or write poems, that aren't concerned with morality. Stories about people, however, will always need some kind of values. They'll need some kind of purpose or motivation.


But the fact that values of some sort are needed is not enough. For other dependencies between branches, the conclusions of one branch are needed for another. But you can have art without an objective theory of value. You can have art without virtues, or without a standard of value. The need for literature to have values is incidental.


Esthetics, as a branch of philosophy, properly depends on epistemology and metaphysics. It's connection to ethics is minor and only applies in some cases. But this is expected. All branches are connected to all other branches, just as all knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. We use focus in order to reduce the scope of the analysis, and we keep in mind important dependencies so we don't lose context. The important context for esthetics is not ethics. It is epistemology and metaphysics.

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