Sunday, January 31, 2010

(CR) The Poverty of Aesthetic Relativism

From our current reading (Zangwill):

"...it may be worth saying something about “relativism”, according to which no judgments of taste are really better than others. It is common for people to say “There is no right and wrong about matters of taste.” Or people will express the same thought by saying that beauty is “relative” to individual judgment, or even that it is “socially relative.” Such relativism about value of all sorts is part of the Zeitgeist of a certain recent Western cultural tradition. It is part of the intellectual air, in certain quarters. And in particular, many intellectuals have expressed a dislike of the idea that judgments of taste really have any normative claim, as if that would be uncouth or oppressive. However, if we are describing our thought as it is, not how some think it ought to be, then it is important that philosophers should be persistent and insist — in the face of this Zeitgeist — that normativity is a necessary condition of the judgment of taste.

Two points ought to embarrass the relativist. Firstly, people who say this kind of thing are merely theorizing. In the case of judgments of beauty, relativist theory is wildly out of step with common practice. As with moral relativism, one can virtually always catch the professed relativist about judgments of beauty making and acting on non-relative judgments of beauty — for example, in their judgments about music, nature and everyday household objects. Relativists do not practice what they preach. Secondly, one thing that drives people to this implausible relativism, which is so out of line with their practice, is a perceived connection with tolerance or anti-authoritarianism. This is what they see as attractive in it. But this is upside-down. For if ‘it's all relative’ and no judgment is better than any other, then relativists put their judgments wholly beyond criticism, and they cannot err. Only those who think that there is a right and wrong in judgment can modestly admit that they might be wrong. What looks like an ideology of tolerance is, in fact, the very opposite. Thus relativism is hypocritical and it is intolerant."

6 comments:

  1. I wish I was taking this course. This expresses very well my precritical intuition about the objectivity of aesthetic judgment. Of course, we still need an argument, and a credible story, about what it is that makes beautiful things (objectively) beautiful.

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  2. I found this particular section of our reading rather disappointing for it does no justice to the legitimate position of relativism. (I, myself, am not)

    First, "merely theorizing" is not a derogatory phrase for a philosophical position, indeed positing a theory (as opposed to a mere hypothesis) would be a virtue.

    Second, though it is true that many relativists are not actually relativists for they do not practice what they preach, it is not fair to claim then that relativism itself is hypocritical. Because many relativists fall victim to this point does not mean they all do, does not mean the theory itself does.

    Lastly, I am unsure of this connection between relativism and intolerance. Perhaps I just did not follow his line of thinking.

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  3. Zangwill's simply having some fun at the expense of his opponents. Your points are well taken.

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  4. In regards to judgement and morality, relativism does not seem to lead us anywhere. On the other hand, I think the relativist approach achieves a positive value in a scientific context. It has gained a sense of reliability with such endeavors. This reliability might make relativism seem applicable to human capacities.
    Furthermore, I believe some relativists tend to think the existential forces of a social environment are equivalent to the physical forces of nature. They are analogous to each other, but analogy does not do much for real life circumstances; perhaps for creative purposes (e.g. writing literature or lyrics), relativism can be used entertainingly.

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  5. In regards to judgement and morality, relativism does not seem to lead us anywhere. On the other hand, I think the relativist approach achieves a positive value in a scientific context. It has gained a sense of reliability with scientific endeavors. This reliability might make it seem applicable to human capacities.
    Furthermore, I believe some relativists tend to think the existential forces of a social environment are equivalent to the physical forces of nature. They are analogous to each other, but this does not do much for real life circumstances; perhaps for creative purposes (e.g. writing literature or lyrics), relativism can be used entertainingly.

    ReplyDelete