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Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Experience of Self
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.4 (2005) 311-313

John S. Callender

aesthetic judgment, ethics, moral emotions

I am grateful to my colleagues for their thoughtful commentaries. These provide an opportunity to develop some of the themes in my paper.

Professor Hinshelwood describes some of the mechanisms that may have led to the creation of symbols in primitive humans. Symbols may represent facts about the world, for example, the passing of days and years. As argued in my paper, artistic representations capture not only facts, such as the appearance of a prey animal, but also attempt to communicate the emotional impact of the object on the artist. Cave paintings of animals such as bison were probably used by our forebears in communal rituals. The purposes of these might have included mastery of fear and the inculcation of feelings of solidarity, courage, and hope in the hunting party.

The ability to store symbols externally may have been the watershed development in human behavioral evolution. From the earliest times, symbolic communications have included those that we now call artistic artifacts. The creation of works of art is widely regarded as one of the defining characteristics of the modern mind (Wong 2005). Art, like mental illness, is inseparable from what it is to be human.

Professor Holm-Hadulla gives an intriguing account of a therapeutic technique based on aesthetic creativity. This entails an intimate interaction between the inner worlds of patient and therapist. This raises the interesting question of whether such interplay is possible for every therapist–patient pair or whether some degree of common sensibility is required. It is common experience that social affiliations often form around a shared aesthetic sensibility, for example, a taste for jazz or heavy metal rock music. This may indicate not only a shared interest, but also a general like-mindedness in areas such as emotional reactivity, perception, and information processing and hence a ready empathy with others of similar taste. A fan of modern jazz may respond with incomprehension and dislike to heavy metal and the same process may occur in reverse. In a similar way, the process described by Professor Holm-Hadulla may depend on a degree of aesthetic attunement between patient and therapist.

Professors Hinshelwood and Sadler draw attention to the overlaps but also the distinction between moral and aesthetic judgments. This is an issue of central importance and I will therefore expand on this and clarify the points that I was trying to make. The first problem that has to be resolved here arises from the fact that aesthetic and moral judgments are concepts that mean different things to different philosophers. They are also employed in nontechnical discourse, where their meanings may not be well-defined at all. If we are going to have a sensible discussion about the distinction between moral and aesthetic judgment and about whether the statements of a patient are one or the other (or something else), then we need to begin by defining as precisely as possible what we mean by these terms.

In my paper, I use the term aesthetic judgment in the technical sense, as set out in the Critique of Judgment (Kant 1790/2000). In a similar way, we need also to consider what we mean by moral judgment. In simple terms, this is about making a decision that something is right or wrong. The task of moral philosophy is to provide a solid intellectual basis for such decisions. In the case of Kantian ethics, this basis is the rational principle of the categorical imperative. One decides whether an action is right or wrong by considering whether its underlying principle can be universalized, whether it demonstrates respect for persons as ends in themselves, and so on. A consequentialist argues the issue on the basis of the balance of good or bad outcomes resulting from someone's action. Although the patients quoted in the paper use the language of moral condemnation, we also use such language when we judge art. Their statements are not, in the strict sense, moral judgments. They have done nothing that an outside observer would consider to be reprehensible. In fact, their personal conduct is beyond reproach. What is being described is...

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