Patrick Colm Hogan
The possibility of aesthetics
British Journal of Aesthetics 34. 4 (Oct, 1994): 337-50
(c) Oxford University Press (UK) 1994

AESTHETICS WOULD seem to have two tasks: (1) Adjudicating singular judgements of beauty, or 'judgements of taste', and (2) isolating systematic features of beauty. In other words, aesthetics is concerned with determining whether or not given works are aesthetically excellent (e.g., whether Elliott Carter's newest quartet or Attia Hosain's re-discovered novel is beautiful). It is also concerned with spelling out what makes aesthetically excellent works excellent (e.g., is it structural unity, expressive depth, verisimilitude?). The two tasks are related. Usually, it is the systematic features which are thought to provide grounds for singular judgements. For example, Beardsley's view that structural unity is a necessary condition for beauty -- a systematic feature of beautiful objects --provides a ground for judging the beauty of specific poems.

There are two ways of understanding systematic features. Specifically, following Kant, Mothersill and others, we may distinguish: (1) laws of taste or empirical generalizations concerning beauty; and (2) principles of taste or normative generalizations concerning beauty.(1) Laws of taste are like laws of nature: if I say one thing and the laws say another, then the laws are mistaken (or, rather, are not genuine laws of taste). Take, for example, the statement: 'We are aesthetically pleased by a tragedy only if it observes the unities of time, place and action'. This is false as a putative law of taste because many people are aesthetically pleased by, for instance, Shakespearean tragedies which do not observe these unities. Principles of taste, on the other hand, are like moral principles: if I say one thing and the principles say another, then I am mistaken. Take, for example, the statement: 'People should be aesthetically pleased only by those tragedies which observe the unities' (equivalently, 'Tragedies are [normatively] beautiful only if they observe the unities'). According to this principle, those who appreciate Shakespeare's disunified dramas are mistaken.

It is important to isolate one further concept important to debates over judgements of taste: the sensus communis, a sensibility, based on mental faculties, which guarantees universal agreement on judgements of taste, given identity or near-identity of knowledge and the absence of idiosyncrasy. Note that the sensus communis is not identical with laws of taste. Certainly, if there are laws of taste which provide necessary and sufficient conditions for judgements of taste then these laws constitute a sensus communis. However, the sensus communis may be ungoverned by rules of any sort, as Kant maintained, in which case it is only contingently related to laws of taste. More importantly, laws of taste may provide only necessary conditions for judgements of taste (e.g., 'We will find a work aesthetically pleasing only if it does not cause us severe pain, though absence of pain does not guarantee pleasure'). Or they may merely define probabilistically contributory factors (e.g., 'We are more likely to find a work aesthetically pleasing if we agree with its theme, though agreement does not guarantee pleasure'). Finally, laws of taste may make indexical reference to variable properties of aesthetic respondents (e.g., 'We prefer works which concern characters similar to us; hence men prefer works about men, women about women, and so on'); the existence of such indexical laws would ensure some disagreement in judgements of taste. Therefore, laws of taste, far from being identical with a sensus communis, may preclude its existence.

In the following pages, I shall consider the possibility of adjudicating judgements of taste and systematically studying beauty, by looking carefully at the nature and possibility of principles of taste, a sensus communis, and laws of taste. Specifically, I shall argue that: (1) There are no principles of taste. (2) Singular judgements of taste can be true or false only if there are principles of taste or a sensus communis. (3) There is no sensus communis and thus singular judgements of taste are neither true nor false. However, (4) judgements of taste are open to rational debate in terms of understanding and idiosyncrasy, precisely as exponents of a sensus communis would argue, even though such debate is valid only relative to shared general preferences of the disputants. And (5) the systematic study of beauty is viable because there are laws of taste or, equivalently, aesthetic universals (in the broad, linguistic sense of 'universals'). If valid, this argument indicates that the two major tasks of aesthetics -- adjudicating judgements of taste and isolating systematic features of beauty -- define possible and valuable projects. However, both must abandon the normative absolutism which has been dominant in the past, and the second must be empirically founded.

1. Principles of Taste

In Beauty Restored, Mary Mothersill defends the view, affirmed by Kant, that there are no principles of taste. However, her argument is weak, more or less reducing to the claim that no one has come up with any.(2) The relevant point about principles of taste is that they are like normative principles of any other sort, and there does not seem to be any way that norms can be true or false except relative to stipulated goals, goals which are themselves open to evaluation only relative to further goals, etc. Without positing a deity whose authority determines which goal is the universal telos, there does not seem to be any way of determining that certain ultimate goals are 'right' and others 'wrong'. All we can do is determine which goals we share and begin discussion based on these.

More exactly, the meaning of any 'content' word may be understood either through description or extension. 'Green', for example, may be understood through criteria which determine what sorts of things are to count as green, or through the direct enumeration of things which are to count as green. Thus, in telling someone what 'green' means, we may explain that it is the colour of any object which under white light reflects rays with 500-570 nanometer wavelengths, or we may indicate a number of green things (leaves, grass, etc.). Disputes about the criterion or definition ('No! Objects which reflect a wavelength of 500 nanometers are blue') are open to resolution only by reference to extension ('This patch of cloth reflects that wavelength, and it is blue') or by arbitrary stipulation ('It's a borderline case, but we've decided to count it as green'). Similarly, if a dispute arises about the extension ('This patch isn't green, it's blue'), it can be resolved only by reference to definitional criteria ('It reflects a wavelength of over 500 nanometers and thus falls within the range of green') or by arbitrary stipulation ('It's a borderline case, but we've decided to count it as green'). Note that extension and definition cannot be adjudicated simultaneously. Stipulations necessarily enter at some level, but stipulations cannot be justified by reference to the phenomena alone. They can be justified by further goals ('We want to allow maximum latitude in the dress code, so we'll just agree to count that as green'), but not by reference to 'absolute greenness' -- unless, again, there is some deity who has final word on these matters ('Well, excuse me, Adam, I'm God and I say that isn't green!'; recall how, in Paradise Lost, God congratulates Adam on having 'rightly nam'd' the animals).(3)

The same point holds for 'morally good'. We can say of an act that it is not moral because it does not fit our definition of moral goodness. We can say of a given definition that it is invalid because it counts such-and-such an act as moral when that act is not. But we cannot decide upon both the extension and the definition at once. In the case of 'green' and similar terms, this is not a problem. We merely stipulate -- or follow other members of our community whose use of the term is the result of a historical development which functions to provide such a stipulation. Indeed, this is fine for all non-normative terms. While there may be practical reasons to choose one stipulation over another, nothing else is at stake. In the case of normative terms, however, the situation is different. A normative term demands that definition and extension be determined simultaneously and non-arbitrarily. It is in fact this non-arbitrary character which makes normative terms normative. If we can merely stipulate something as good or bad, then we are no longer speaking of that thing as good or bad in any usual sense. This does not mean there is nothing worth while to be said about, say, moral evaluation. But it does mean that there is nothing ultimate to be said about them; there is nothing to be said beyond what can be premissed upon norms held in common by the discussants.(4)

Nothing changes when we move from moral principles to principles of taste. Any definition of beauty is genuinely normative only if it is nonarbitrary. But it is non-arbitrary only by reference to a set of normatively valued beautiful objects. But the set of beautiful objects can have normative value only if it is non-arbitrary. But it can be non-arbitrary only by reference to a definition -- and so on. Principles of taste are not merely contingently non-existent ('We haven't found any'). Without some norm-defining deity, they are impossible, like all normative principles in this sense. Again, for such principles to exist they must be stipulated and only a specifically divine stipulation, or something with that force, could establish ultimate evaluative validity.

Thus Mothersill and Kant are, I think, correct in rejecting principles of taste, whatever their reasons. Both go on to claim, however, that singular judgements of taste are, none the less, true or false. Clearly, neither means that we can stipulate such judgements individually to be true or false. This is trivial. But how can there be a set of non-arbitrarily beautiful objects if there are no non-arbitrary definitions of beauty, as the claims of Mothersill and Kant imply. First of all, normative judgements are 'relatively' non-arbitrary in so far as they are shared. That relative non-arbitrariness becomes absolute when it is non-contingently universal -- in other words, when it is noncoincidentally held in common by everyone, when it is the result of a sensus communis. It was Kant's contention that everyone shared such a common sense and thus that under ideal circumstances all our judgements of taste would necessarily agree.(5) It is this shared sensibility that makes such judgements true or false independent of principles -- which raises the obvious question of whether there is such a shared sensibility.

Before going on, however, it is worth pausing to consider why those who wish to defend the validity of judgements of taste need to accept either principles of taste or a sensus communis (or a deity -- in what follows, I leave aside this possibility). Suppose we wish to maintain that singular judgements of taste are either true or false. However, we reject principles of taste and a sensus communis.(6) In this case, we have no obvious way of defining criteria for 'beauty' which would make the sentence 'O [an object] is beautiful' true or false. For such a sentence to be true or false, the term 'beautiful' must have some sort of meaning. 'O is gerbadian' is neither true nor false because 'gerbadian' has no meaning. Usually, we define such predicates by reference to properties of the object itself. Thus we say that 'topheavy', 'spherical', etc., apply or do not apply to given objects due to specifiable properties in those objects. Again, there are no such properties which have normative force in judgements of taste or elsewhere.

On the other hand, given the relation between aesthetic pleasure and beauty, we may forgo objective properties and turn instead to subjective response. We may begin by defining 'beautiful' as 'that which causes aesthetic pleasure'. Aesthetic response will then determine what is beautiful. However, it will do so in such a way as to make singular judgements of taste true or false only if it is universal. In other words, lacking objective properties which determine that a given object is beautiful, the only evident alternative is universal subjective response. Without this, it seems that singular judgements of taste are neither true nor false (i.e., there is no fact about whether a given object is beautiful) or that such judgements are true or false, but only for given subjects (i.e., there is a fact about whether a given object is beautiful, but it varies from judge to judge), which comes to the same thing. Thus, those who wish to maintain that singular judgements of taste are non-relatively true or false, must accept either principles of taste or a sensus communis. We turn now to the second possibility, and the related issue of the degree to which singular judgements of taste are open to rational disputation.

2. Common Sense and Beauty

It may seem that Kant's view is obviously wrong -- clearly people differ in taste, so there can be no sensus communis. In fact, I shall argue that Kant is mistaken and that there are fairly clear counter-examples. But things are not as simple as might initially appear. Common sense results in commonality of evaluation only in ideal circumstances. Like a law of nature, it produces identical results only when relevant variables are held constant. The most frequently cited variables are: (1) knowledge and (2) idiosyncrasy.

2.1 Knowledge and Aesthetic Judgement

Knowledge is the clearer of the two. Suppose Sarmilla and Roy differ as to whether a painting is beautiful. It is possible that their judgements are based on different understandings of the painting. Indeed, it is almost certainly the case that they have understood the painting differently in certain respects and it is likely that this has affected their evaluations in some degree -- perhaps crucial, perhaps not. Advocates of a sensus communis are correct to point out that this is frequently the case. For example, I had a discussion with a colleague about Branagh's Henry V. He would have liked the movie, he said, were it not for the pro-war message. I had found the movie admirable in part owing to its anti-war theme. In this case, differences in understanding pretty clearly determined differences in evaluation.

One way of thinking about this is in terms of a constructive notion of reading, such as that developed by phenomenological critics.(7) When reading, we synthesize different aspects of the work -- thematic, referential, historical, etc. -- forming an intentional object which we take to be substantially identical with the 'real' object, somehow defined (for present purposes, the nature of this object is unimportant). Our aesthetical response to a given work is, then, a response to our intentional object -- or, less phenomenologically, to the work of art as we understand it. Our judgement is aimed at the object itself, but our responsive basis for the judgement is in the intentional object, which is to say our construal or understanding of the real object.

Clearly, diversity in intentional object is an important factor in accounting for diversity in aesthetic evaluation. And in this way the old saw, de gustibus non disputandum est, appears to be incorrect. Rational dispute may be undertaken about aesthetic issues at least in so far as rational dispute may be undertaken about interpretative issues. Even without a sensus communis or universal principles of taste, we can rationally debate the value of a given work on the basis of interpretative criteria which we share with our antagonists. Thus, in the preceding example, my colleague and I agreed that interpretation should be governed by Branagh's intentions, both conscious and unconscious. Given this, we were able to debate the value of the film rationally.

But of course intention does not define a universally accepted interpretative principle. There is a range of criteria which might be stipulated to guide interpretation, and here too a normative decision about the 'right' criteria is impossible. This complicates the issue, for two judges may be construing the work according to different criteria (e.g. author's unconscious intent vs. common readers' response). yet, even in these cases, rational debate is possible. While two judges may continue to use their own criteria, they may accept the validity of each other's evaluations, given the appropriate criteria. For example, I heard two friends discuss The Satantic Verses. One crucial interpretative issue was the degree to which the work misrepresented Islam in the context of anti-Arab racism. One maintained that various derogatory statements were ironic. The other maintained that a racist is unlikely to interpret those statements as ironic. While the two did not ultimately agree on the overall evaluation of the work, they granted each other a good deal. Both agreed that Rushdie probably did not intend to affirm the more grossly insulting statements, and both agreed that his insensitivity to possible social effects was a flaw. They continued to disagree on the relative importance of each, but they did engage in rational debate on evaluation -- by way of rational debate on interpretation -- even though they employed divergent interpretative criteria.

None the less, there are cases where differences in knowledge cannot account for differences in evaluation. When speaking of Mrs Dalloway or Sakuntala, it seems quite possible that different judgements of taste are the result of differences in intentional object, differences in understanding or construal. However, in simpler cases, this is less plausible. Take human beauty. While there is much agreement on human beauty, standards not only change with time, they vary across individuals for any given time. It can happen that we debate human beauty rationally. For example, I might claim that Roy is beautiful. Sarmilla might disagree. In response, I might explain that Roy had sunburn and the blisters on his nose are temporary flaws, that he was wearing unflattering clothes, etc. But it seems clear that there are moments when we do have much the same understanding of someone's appearance and still differ as to his or her beauty.

2.2 Idiosyncrasy and Aesthetic Judgement

Yet at least part of any disagreement over personal beauty may be owing to the interference of personal bias, which brings us to the issue of idiosyncrasy. Advocates of a sensus communis correctly point out that irrelevant personal factors may interfere in one's ability to appreciate beauty. In aesthetic appreciation, we seek to filter out such irrelevancies. However, particularly strong affective factors, along with certain cognitive factors, may evade our 'aesthetic filtration'. When that happens, idiosyncrasy results, idiosyncrasy in this sense being anything which prevents us from judging in accordance with our own taste -- whether or not this taste is governed by a sensus communis.

Obvious cases of such interference are incidental circumstances and memories. I am unlikely to enjoy a play when my clothes are too tight or while awaiting the outcome of an uncertain tenure decision, and someone who enjoys the play is justified in maintaining that my judgement has been biased by such factors. Similarly, if my evil step-mother beat me while playing Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge, it is unlikely that I will ever be able to enjoy that work. Conversely, I might enjoy a play because I have received tenure, am with friends, etc. More subtle forms of such idiosyncratic distortion enter regularly into singular judgements of taste and, again, form part of what is open to rational disputation in those judgements.(8)

However, other cases are more difficult. The most interesting of these are cognitive and concern the way we organize and weight the aesthetic virtues and vices of a given object. When construing a work, we structure and hierarchize various aspects, including those which we consider aesthetically good or bad. In doing this, we hypothesize that the work is beautiful or not, just as we might hypothesize that a character is dishonest, that a work is anti-war, etc. Typically, we do not falsify our hypotheses owing to single contravening instances. Rather, we class these as exceptions, and maintain our hypothesis. Depending upon how firmly we hold our hypothesis initially, we may come to abandon it, given enough counter-examples/exceptions.

This is our typical way of thinking, often referred to as 'confirmatory bias'.(9) A simple example might be found in human relationships. Roy believes that his girlfriend Sarmilla has certain good qualities and certain bad qualities. When in love, he counts the good qualities as the 'real' Sarmilla, and the bad qualities as exceptions. After a fight, he rethinks his evaluation of her character, and even her appearance. Before, her hair, teeth, eyes, all beautiful, were the standard features, exemplifying her overall beauty. Her ears, in contrast, somewhat too large (in his opinion), were exceptions. Now, her ears loom elephantine in his construal and displace other features as definitive. He sees her as unattractive -- her beautiful features now exceptions to an overall plainness. Here we have a paradigm case of idiosyncrasy. A friend would be right to chastize Roy: 'No, Sarmilla is beautiful. You keep harping on her ears due to anger'.

Yet there may be no way of rationally debating whether a certain hierarchy of properties and its consequent evaluation are idiosyncratic. For example, a friend and I recently discussed the central scene of Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, where an old aristocrat is bemoaning the loss of 'the good life' -- hunting, fishing, large houses with servants, etc. We agreed that the rhythm of the speech, the music and the various shots of the river created an exquisite visual and aural experience. We also agreed that the lament for the aristocracy was absurd and depressingly typical of Bertolucci's confused politics. For my friend, the flaw in content undermined the formal beauty; for me, it was merely a distraction. Cases such as this are hard to reconcile with the idea of a sensus communis, for it is difficult to determine that either hierarchy of properties is idiosyncratic.

Finally, and most damagingly, there seem to be cases where the rules which define our individual preferences -- the rules which guide our judgements of taste, the rules by reference to which we determine what is idiosyncratic -- differ irreconcilably. If Sarmilla and Roy disagree about a movie, but agree that advocacy of imperialism is an aesthetic flaw, then it is relevant for them to discuss the film's view of imperialism. If, however, one of them is indifferent to imperialism and sees it as aesthetically irrelevant, then it is not germane to any evaluative discussion between them, which may mean that they cannot productively debate the film's value. Such diversity of preference rules -- which are by definition non-idiosyncratic, in the above sense -- poses an apparently unsolvable problem for those advocating a sensus communis.

3 Patterns in Preferences

Our preceding discussion indicates that the first task of aesthetics -- the adjudication of judgements of taste -- is limitedly open to rational pursuit, primarily by debate over interpretation and idiosyncrasy. However, that discussion also indicates that no judgements of taste are true or false per se; they are negotiable on the basis of shared preferences and beliefs, but they are not objectively valid or invalid. Where, then, does this leave us with respect to the second task of aesthetics -- the isolation of systematic features of beauty? Neither principles of taste nor a sensus communis appears to exist. Moreover, the diversity of preferences in judgements of taste appears to argue against the possibility of any systematic study of beauty. Thus it would seem that there is no scope for aesthetics beyond limited negotiation on singular judgements of taste.

However, this is not so. The diversity of aesthetic preferences does not indicate that there are no laws of taste. Indeed, the existence of indexical laws of taste would predict diverse preferences. Take a simple example. It is probably a law of taste that a respondent must understand the language of a story in order to take aesthetic pleasure in its plot. This law involves reference to a property which varies across respondents -- knowledge of language -- and thus a property which will result in divergent preferences and judgements of taste. One respondent will require that stories be told in English, another in Thai, a third in Kinyarwanda. This is, admittedly, not a terribly interesting aesthetic universal. However, it illustrates the way in which indexical laws operate, and thus the way in which diversity in preference rules is not inconsistent with laws of taste.

Yet this particular example does not give us reason to believe that non-trivial laws of taste exist. Our linguistic competence law is little more than a specification of the knowledge criterion discussed above. It is more interpretative than aesthetic. The question, then, is whether there are laws of taste which are irreducible to matters of knowledge or idiosyncrasy as discussed above. The answer, I believe, is: yes, there are. It would go beyond the scope of this essay to present a full argument for even one non-rivial law of taste or aesthetic universal. However, it is important to indicate why it is plausible to posit aesthetic universals and to indicate what sorts of aesthetic universals we might seek.

One candidate for a law of taste can be stated as the following preference rule: We prefer sequences of rhythm, sound, meaning, event, etc., in which we may discern but not regularly predict patterns. While this rule needs some fine-tuning (e.g. it fails to distinguish between different sorts of prediction), it appears to apply to aesthetic tastes in all cultures at all times; therefore it is an 'absolute' universal. Moreover, it applies not only in all cultures, but to all works; it is, we might say, 'context-free'. Finally, since it concerns preferences, it has a normative element. Thus it is always an objection to say that a work of music is just the same thing over and over (think of complaints about Steve Reich) or that it is a chaos of noise (think of western objections to Japanese classical music). And it is always a legitimate response to say that the music is not mere repetition but a sequence of subtle variations, or that it is not chaos but a complex pattern.

A good example of a normative and (perhaps) absolute universal which applies only in limited contexts -- which is 'context-bound' -- may be found in our preference for realism in literature. We might formulate this universal in the following terms: when not explicitly signalled -- by elements in the work, genre conventions, etc. -- to expect non-realistic representations, we assume realism as the default value and, in those cases where the default is functioning, aesthetically prefer what we consider to be realistic plausibility. In other words, cross-culturally, people assume realism unless there is a reason not to. And when they assume realism, they partially evaluate a work by reference to its plausibility in light of what they consider realistic. (As some of what people consider realistic will vary across cultures, this is another indexical law.) Thus, for example, the ninth-century Indian theorist, Anandavardhana, wrote that the beauty of a work is harmed when 'in a passage dealing with a king who is a mere human ... one describes activities in which he leaps across the seven seas'. His tenth-century commentator, Abhinavagupta, explains that 'Matters should be so described that there may be no breach in the credence of the audience. That a mere mortal should leap over the seven seas ... is quite impossible and would strike the hearer's heart as a falsehood'.(10) Similar points are made by theorists in all the major traditions -- for example, Basho in Japan, Ibn Rushd in the Middle East, and Liu Hsieh in China. However, unlike the general patterning universal, realism is not an unexceptionable criterion. We may object to relatively small errors concerning the representation of regional dialects in one work, then happily accept flying chariots in another work which has signalled its fantastic character.

Aesthetic universals need not be absolute or normative any more than they must be context-free. A good example of a descriptive and statistical (i.e., widespread, but not absolute) universal is the very strong cross-cultural tendency for the standard line length in poetry to fall between eight and twelve syllables (cf. the ten in standard English pentameter).(11) This is not absolute in that not all literatures have a standard poetic line within these parameters and it is not normative because it is never considered legitimate to criticize a poem for having a standard line length of six or fourteen syllables. (Clearly, it is not context-free; even where it applies, it is specific to a genre or set of genres.)

A universal which is interestingly ambiguous in normative value may be found in identification. People believe many things about themselves. However, they do not count everything equally. For example, I now believe that I am a teacher, of average height, wearing brown trousers, etc. I consider teacher most important, average height less important, and brown trousers least important. My self-understanding is hierarchized. Other things being equal, we are more likely to identify with characters with whom we share many high-level properties, rather than those with whom we share few.(12) Identification based upon a hierarchized self-conception appears to be unexceptionably universal, as does a preference for works involving characters with whom we identify.(13) Clearly, both are indexical, as high-level properties vary from person to person. And, like most indexical universals, similaritybased identification is usually non-normative, at least for any specific instance -- that is, for any given property of someone's self-concept (e.g. 'teacher' or 'critic' or 'man'). Thus, 'It doesn't focus on a man' is not generally considered a legitimate argument against the value of a work. However, similar statements no doubt are and have been accepted as valid criticisms in particular groups. Moreover, they have been tacitly presupposed in a much broader range of evaluations -- primarily evaluations which normatively invoke identification as if it were not indexical (e.g. 'There is no one to identify with in this novel', spoken on the assumption that everyone everywhere identifies with the same character types). Thus while the self-conception/identification universal is standardly non-normative, it is not unexceptionably so. It would be worth while to examine the ways indexical universals come to be invoked normatively, whether this ever occurs when indexicality is recognized, etc.

The distinction between normative and non-normative aesthetic universals in many ways retraces the classical distinction between principles of taste and laws of taste, though within an empirical and non-normative context. Each is, of course, a type of law; neither is a type of principle. But the spirit and interest of the classical distinction are maintained. In addition, the study of universals leads to an analogue of the sensus communis also. After isolating and describing aesthetic universals, it is our task to explain them, individually and collectively.(14) This explanation, like the explanation of linguistic universals, is usually psychological, leading us from laws of art to laws of the mind. This complex of mental laws recalls the sensus communis, though, again, the presence of indexical and non-absolute rules prevents the possibility of its constituting a genuine sensus communis guaranteeing identical aesthetic evaluations.

An example of the psychological explanation of aesthetic universals may be found in connection with the cross-cultural tendency towards line lengths of eight to twelve syllables. This tendency may derive from the structure of our short-term memory, which is designed to process language in chunks of five to nine lexical units.(15) This is apparently a biological constraint on the amount of lexical information we can store (or 'rehearse') in short-term memory while interpreting a longer sequence. If so, the poetic line would be, in part, a formalization of this processing constraint. Five to nine lexical items will typically work out to between eight and twelve syllables -- see, for example, the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, lines of ten syllables, and seven words. Perhaps more importantly, this analysis predicts and explains exceptions to the syllable rule. For example, it follows that Chinese, a monosyllabic language, should have much shorter standard line lengths of between five and nine syllables -- which it does.

In sum, while there appear to be no principles of taste and no sensus communis, it is likely that there are laws of taste or aesthetic universals (normative and non-normative, absolute and statistical, etc.), as well as general psychological structures which underlie them. These universals should be isolable through cross-cultural comparative literary study, on the model of linguistics, along with experimental research, on the model of cognitive psychology. In addition, while singular judgements of taste appear to be relative, they are open to rational disputation; indeed, an awareness of laws of taste allows us to extend and deepen that disputation (e.g., our awareness of self-concept-based identification allows us to consider and debate the validity of objections such as 'There is no one to identify with in this work').

Thus there is considerable scope for pursuing the two traditionally definitive tasks of aesthetics: the adjudication of singular judgements of taste and the isolation of systematic features of beauty. But, the nature of these tasks turns out to be quite different from what has traditionally been thought, for principles of taste -- upon which both were previously believed to rest -- have dropped entirely out of the picture.


(1) See, for example, Mary Mothersill, Beauty Restored (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984), pp. 92 and 87.

(2) See, for example, Mothersill, pp. 369-71.

(3) See John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1957), 8.439.

(4) Which may actually be quite a bit. For a discussion of the possibilities for this sort of dispute, see Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge U.P., 1986), pp. 10-11; see also, Patrick Colm Hogan, 'Reading for Ethos: Literary Study and Moral Thought', Journal of Aesthetic Education 27.3 (1993), pp. 23-34.

(5) See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford U.P., 1952), Part I, sections 19-22.

(6) This may be Mothersill's position; see, for example, pp. 261 and 376.

(7) See, for example, Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973); Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Ontology, Logic, and the Theory of Literature, trans. George Grabowicz (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973); and Wolfgang Iser, 'The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach', in The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U.P., 1974).

(8) Mothersill discusses this issue brilliantly and at length in Chapter 10; she also relates this problem to the problem of knowledge-see, for example, pp. 331-5.

(9) See Michael Mahoney, 'Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System', Cognitive Therapy and Research 1 (1977), pp. 161-75; see also Patrick Colm Hogan, The Politics of Interpretation (Oxford U.P., 1990), pp. 21-22, 136, and references.

(10) The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta, trans. Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and M. V. Patwardhan (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard U.P., 1990), pp. 428, 430.

(11) See Jerzy Kurylowicz, 'The Quantitative Meter of Indo-European', in Indo-European and Indo-Europeans, ed. George Cardona, Henry M. Hoenigswald and Alfred Senn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970), p. 421.

(12) See Edith Klemenz-Belgardt, 'American Research on Response to Literature: The Empirical Studies', Poetics 10 (1981), pp. 367-8 and citations.

(13) See, for example, Ross Kidd, 'Popular Theater and Popular Struggle', in Cultures in Contention, ed. Douglas Khan and Diane Neumaier (Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1985), p. 56, on the preference of Gikuyu peasants and workers for drama about Gikuyu peasants and workers.

(14) Cf. Noam Chomsky on descriptive and explanatory adequacy in linguistic theory, in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1965), pp. 24-7.

(15) See, for example, the discussion of relevant research in Michael Garman, Psycholinguistics (Cambridge U.P., 1990), pp. 322-3.




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