- The Metaphysics of Beauty
The Metaphysics of Beauty is a collection of papers and essays first published in various journals of philosophy and aesthetics—and it shows. Right from the start one is confronted with fine-grained academic debates about what can or cannot be said about beauty, in a manner that makes little or no concession to the non-specialist.
The book has three sections, each made up of a group of essays themed around a proposition. The first section proposes that beauty has a pre-eminent place amongst aesthetic properties. It is odd that we should need to consult an expert in the field to learn this, but it is apparently a matter of some dispute as to whether beauty can be usefully considered an aesthetic category at all. Argument then proceeds at some length about the relation between two modes of aesthetic discrimination: "verdictive" and "substantive." Verdictive judgments are those referring to beauty or ugliness, while substantive judgments refer to qualities such as "daintiness" or "dumpiness." For the record, Zangwill argues verdictive judgments supervene, or depend on, substantive ones. I found it difficult to appreciate the practical difference, especially since we are offered few concrete examples and no illustrations. After lengthy discussion Zangwill arrives at the position that "substantive and verdictive judgements are inextricably locked together"—a position that causes one to question the value of the distinction in the first place. For all its scholarly rigor, the text seems to throw up an alarming number of seemingly obvious or banal statements, such as "we should not eliminate beauty from aesthetics" (p. 12), "it is necessary that the judgement that something is graceful or delicate is based on the experience of it" (p. 28), or "to ascribe to a picture the representational property of being a tree we must see it as a tree" (p. 31).
In section two, Zangwill defends his keystone concept, what he calls "moderate formalism." There is a debate between aestheticians as to whether or not the formal properties of an object (shape, color, texture, etc.) can be counted amongst its aesthetic properties. "Extreme formalists" such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell in the early twentieth century argued that the historical, social and cultural factors surrounding a work were irrelevant when judging its beauty. To them it was purely the arrangement of line, tone and palette that constituted aesthetic quality. More [End Page 164] recently the "anti-formalists," such as Kendall Walton and Jerrold Levinson, have held the upper hand. Briefly put, they hold that only the social, historical and cultural aspects of a work constitute its aesthetic value. That is, we cannot make judgments about a work based solely on its formal qualities but must necessarily consider the wider context in which we apprehend it. Zangwill's moderate formalism is a sort of halfway house between the two extremes. He argues that many works of art (and natural objects) have aesthetic properties that are dependent, at least in part, on their sensory qualities. To most of us thinking about the appreciation of a particular painting or opera, this would seem a sensible (and somewhat self-evident) position. Yet it takes the author almost 100 pages of tightly fought, largely abstract academic maneuvering to make the case and defend it from several counter-views. And all this to support the rather anemic claim that: "moderate formalism is the view that while some aesthetic properties of a work are formal, others are not" (p. 58).
More irritating, however, is the extent to which during this exercise the debate relies on a bewildering (certainly to me) amount of terminological distinctions and categories. As well as "formal" and "nonformal," we have "anti-formal," "dependent" and "free" beauty (from Kant who had a well-known disposition towards classifying); "aesthetic" and "nonaesthetic," "realist," "projectivist" and "response-dependent" theories; "absolute and nonabsolute" music; "qua" and "qualess" beauty, and I could go on. It gets to the pitch where Clement Greenberg, the esteemed art critic, is described as a...