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Les nuages… encore une fois

As I said earlier, the Midwestern sky is a nepheophile’s delight. A multitude of forms, gradations of color, perspectives, shadings, ever-changing as the sun travels across the sky & the winds reshape them & carry them off. A tranquil delight on a calm, clement morning like this.
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Yet why should the eye find pleasure in that sight? I know that evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this as for so much else. The æsthetic sense, if I may call it that, offers no doubt some benefit. I see in my cats a feeling for “rightness”, for the suitability of a place to nap in, survey the yard from, or wait for prey. If that feeling is reliably attuned to the fit between the cat’s ends and the means that, on the basis of its feeling, it chooses, then (working backwards) we may conjecture that having such a sense was “selected for”, that it gave to the proto-cats who had it some reproductive advantage.
Something similar guides our choices in arranging things around us (when we take the time to do so: it often happens, of course, that convenience or laziness is the principle), and likewise the hand in drawing, the ear in putting sounds together in music. SpencerHerbert Spencer (1820–1903). Best known as an early proponent of Darwinism to human affairs, although in his early work (Social statics, 1851) his theory of development was Lamarckian. The ten volumes of his System of synthetic philosophy (1862–1892) begin with a “developmental metaphysics” (anachronistically, a theory of the origins of complex systems) and then followed out the consequences of the “developmental” style of reasoning in biology, psychology, and sociology. Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, which was adopted by Darwin in later editions of The Origin of Species.
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thought that judgments of the beauty of the human form were effectively judgments of fitness to reproduce. There is probably something to that. But even if such explanations are sound, there seems to be a kind of surplus value attaching to natural beauty. Kant wrote of “beauty as a symbol of morality”, as an intimation that the moral order, the noumenal realm of freedom, was or could be realized in the natural order, the phenoumenal realm of physical law. I don’t think one must be a theist to acknowledge that something extra is given in experience beyond what a strictly scientific account provides for.
Consider poetry: however one accounts for language in evolutionary terms (there must be such an account), and even if one supposes that the devices of poetry, like those of the originally oral tradition from which the Greek epics arise, serve the purpose of making the message memorable, still there is no reason, it would seem, that messages formulated by way of mnemonically “fit” techniques should be appealing, delightful, beautiful too. That seems a kind of gift.
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You might say: yes, but a parallel argument could be made about sex. All evolution cares about is reproductive success. Sex didn’t have to be pleasant; there might have been other ways to bring about mating. (Is sex pleasant to a flea? Fleas are champions at mating, but it’s not clear that they have the neural equipment to take pleasure in it.) But given that sex is pleasant, we can understand why the disposition to find it pleasant should have arisen, and with that explanation in hand we need no other. Pleasure happens to be nature’s way of inducing us to mate, & beauty nature’s way of helping us notice & remember.
Does the question ‘Why pleasure?’ (or ‘Why beauty?’) make sense? The question ‘Why four legs?’ has, presumably, an answer based on the fitness of that design, together perhaps with contingent facts about extinctions. (The question ‘How many legs?’ has clearly been answered in several ways. So the answer to the quadruped version has to take into account the history of vertebrate evolution, & add something about the obstacles to adding major components to an existing design.) The question about pleasure, on the other hand, seems different. But perhaps ‘pleasure’ just means ‘whatever [feeling] inclines the animal to act’, with various bells & whistles to distinguish pleasure from fear. It would then be impossible that some feeling which was not pleasure should have the functions of pleasure.
I don’t have any great inclination either to agree or to disagree with that consequence. It’s true that a functional definition does not account for the quality of pleasure. But once we have begun to talk about evolution and the physiology of feeling we have effectively moved to a scientific mode of discourse; it’s not clear to me that in the scientific mode the quality of pleasure will figure either as explanans or as explanandum. In short, neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology may have nothing to say about it. But only if the standard by which you judge things to be real or not is that they be capable of being brought within the scope of scientific modes of discourse—only if science is the measure of all things—will there be reason to deny that there is indeed something extra. And though the phrase ‘something extra’ is vague, what it refers to is not.
Of course Spencer isn’t the last word in evolutionary æsthetics. Denis Dutton has written a nice survey of the issues for the Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics. Oddly enough he skips over the nineteenth century entirely. Gordon H. Orians looks at æsthetics from an ecological point of view. Dutton elsewhere argues that æsthetics should be naturalized (but isn’t everything supposed to be nowadays?). See also Eckart Voland & Karl Grammer eds., Evolutionary Aesthetics (Springer, 2003; find it at Best Book Buys or Bookfinder).
Here is a bit of Spencer’s essay on “Personal beauty” (Essays: moral, political and æsthetic, New York, D. Appleton, 1881):
On contrasting the European and the Papuan, we see that what the one cuts in two with knife and fork, the other tears with his jaws; what the one softens by cooking, the other eats in its hard, raw state; the bones which the one utilizes by stewing, the other gnaws; and for sundry of the mechanical manipulations which the one has tools for, the other uses his teeth. From the bushman state upwards, there has been a gradual increase in the complexity of our appliances. We not only use our hands to save our jaws, but we make implements to save our hands; and in our engine factories may be found implements for the making of implements. This progression in the arts of life has had intellectual progression for its necessary correlative. Each new complication requires a new increment of intelligence for its production; and the daily use of it develops the intelligence of all still further. Thus that simultaneous protrusion of the brain and recession of the jaws, which among lower animals has accompanied increase of skill and sagacity, has continued during the advance of Humanity from barbarism to civilization; and has been throughout, the result of a discipline involving increase of mental power. And so it becomes manifest that there exists an organic relationship between that protruberance of the jaws which we consider ugly, and a certain inferiority of nature.
It’s worth pointing out that the reasoning here is more Lamarckian than Darwinian, that the supposed correlation between brain size and jaw size doesn’t stand up, and that evolutionary change is too slow to have accomplished much in the time between “barbarism” and civilization.

LinkAugust 25, 2004 in Æsthetics · Psychology