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  • Does Taste Matter for Thomists?
  • Margaret I. Hughes

THE IMPACT OF modern philosophy's rejection of metaphysics on popular thought is readily evident when one tries to teach college students about aesthetics. Often they hesitate to express any reactions to, or opinions about, particular artworks, out of the conviction that in art "de gustibus non est disputandum." If taste cannot be disputed, then it cannot be examined by reason, and so we cannot discuss it. As a result, they are somewhat puzzled at having to study ideas about beauty at all. They have inherited the modern rejection of metaphysics, which reduces beauty to a merely subjective experience.

As a response to modern philosophy's influence on philosophical and popular aesthetics, the Thomist revival of the twentieth century emphasized the metaphysical and objective nature of beauty. Given Thomist realism, and the accompanying confidence that reason can receive reality as it really is, such that we all share in the same reality, the most immediate and pressing issue in Thomist aesthetics was to rescue beauty from the merely subjective realm in order to restore it to the metaphysical realm and to reestablish the objective, and so shared, foundation of beauty.

Even Thomists who agreed about the metaphysical and objective nature of beauty, however, had diametrically opposed views about the beauty of particular works of art. For example, Jacques Maritain said that Bach's music, while mechanically [End Page 107] correct, lacks inspiration; he called it "music without magic."1 On the other hand, Josef Pieper wrote that listening to Bach leads to a "new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence."2 While Paul Claudel was so moved by the beauty of the Magnificat chanted at Christmas Day vespers that he attributed his conversion to hearing it,3 Etienne Gilson wrote that plainchant "has not been written to build up sound structures that please the ear by themselves and deserve to be heard for their own sake."4 It is a common phenomenon: disagreements between generally well-disposed, well-educated people about which works of art are more beautiful. Even agreement about the objectivity of beauty does not quell disagreement about the appropriate subjective experience of the beauty of particular works of art.

The question I wish to begin to explore here is how, if beauty is a metaphysical and not simply an aesthetic category, we can explain that, among people of generally good formation and disposition, who agree about the objective basis of beauty, there can be conflicting—and often strongly felt—preferences in art. What response might a Thomist give to the prevailing conviction that "de gustibus non est disputandum" in art? Can Thomism account both for metaphysical beauty and the phenomenon of individual taste in art?

I. The Importance of Taste

At first glance, it may seem that the question of whether taste in art can be disputed is trifling and silly. There are so many [End Page 108] matters of seemingly much greater consequence on which we know we can dispute that worrying about whether we can dispute taste in art may appear to be, in the words of William Barrett, just another of the irrelevant "path[s] leading away from the urgent and the actual"5 to which contemporary philosophy is prone. It is worth pausing for a moment, therefore, to consider this question within the context of the history of philosophy in order to make a case for its importance, especially for the Thomist revival.

The history of the notion of taste in art shows that this is no trivial, merely academic question.6 The emphasis on taste in art grows out of eighteenth-century empiricism, its rejection of metaphysics, and its consequent revision of morality. Empiricist epistemology relies primarily on sensation and sentiment, and relegates reason to the role of constructing connections between those sentiments in the realm of the ideal, rather than the real. According to empiricism, we cannot know being, we can only know impressions and the ideas that we construct in order to connect those impressions. Therefore, this epistemology claims that the foundation of ethical thought cannot be metaphysics, since metaphysics is beyond the reach of...


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