Against the Science of Aesthetics

During my analysis of Wittgenstein’s critique of Rice, I came upon a very interesting paper on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It was appropriately titled Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics, and its reading and comprehension gave me insight into the whole nature of visual rhetorics, and helped to place some of our other readings (of which I have listed here).

Here are the most interesting points, in brief, of those readings. The dispute that I posed between Wittgenstein and Rice is resolved in this discussion of aesthetics, and will play a foundational role in understanding the Aesthetics.

Garry Hagberg, a Wittgenstein scholar and the author of this article, opens with a quick distinction of great importance. There is a difference between the scope of the aesthetic and that of the artistic—the former will encompasses the latter, as we believe art is an attempt at capturing some aesthetic value. But the shadows cast on a cloudy day may provoke very deep and poetic feelings, or a particular shade of red in a rose, or an empty building that is normally full of people and sounds, ad nauseam. This is the material of artistic composition.

As we discussed previously, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language posits the meaningof words is context dependent—the meaning is how we use a word in any given situation (so long as we play by the rules of that particular language game). Attempting to find the essential quality, i.e. an absolute definition, sheds some vital properties of language and the way we participate in discourse; in the same way, aesthetic experiences are not subject to essential definitions. There can be no Science of Aesthetics. This is a very subtle point, one that bears elucidation both as a metaphor for what his philosophy of language actually is doing, and to better explain the nature (hence, deepen our understanding) of images. Because this article applies to aesthetics generally, it also holds a place for the more artistic forms of composition, and makes clear what it is about these compositions that draws us to them (Hagberg, web).

What does it mean to say that there cannot be a science of aesthetics? Imagine a conversation between you and a friend; the two of you just got done watching Schindler’s List, and it was the first time you had seen it. Your friend notices you seem a bit despondent, and asks, “Why are you looking so sad?” You respond, quite naturally, “Well, because we just watched that movie.” Your friend takes your hand, smiles, and says, “Actually, that isn’t an explanation at all…”

Your friend has apparently been reading her philosophy late into the night. Your explanation does not work because you are giving the wrong sort of cause for your glum feelings. That is, you are assuming a cause and effect sort of explanation can capture the root of those aesthetic feelings—yet, upon scrutiny, it appears that there is something that science misses. If I step outside into a particularly beautiful afternoon, I might undergo all sorts of aesthetic pleasures, but there is nothing in that afternoon that can really explain to me the source of that feeling. The beautiful afternoon causes the exposure of sunlight to my eyes, birdsong to my ears and breeze on my skin—but there is nothing in it that is beautiful in and of itself. Even if, through technological innovation and progress, we should be able to get a precise statistical breakdown of the effects that listening to a certain piece by Debussy will have on me in any given situation, we still would have not done any work explaining why Debussy affects me so. The fact that we can use a word like ‘ineffable’ in our language games illustrates our tacit understanding of these sorts of inexplicable phenomena. It is why the philosopher has her reason, and the poet his muse (Hagberg, web).

This is also why, when I read two poems that give me similar feelings, I would not say that one may be substituted for the other and still mean the same. There is a personality behind each work of art beyond its effect. The same holds true of our language games—examine these sentences:

-You should arrive at nine.

-You should be here at nine.

Both sentences effect identical meanings, yet the former ‘sounds’ more appropriate for certain occasions (more formal, for example).

Wittgenstein also says this, as regards the nature of perceiving an aesthetic feeling:“It is a reaction analogous to my taking my hand away from a hot plate” (Wittgenstein 1966). It is very much faster than systematic analysis; in fact, it seems the feeling is there first, and then analysis of why that feeling follows.

So, philosophy aside for a moment—what do we do with this? For one, philosophy may investigate it, but the aesthetic (really, all life) is at some remove from philosophical inquiry. Rhetoricians and those who compose (us, in other words) have a theory that is certainly very interesting, but more important, our field covers the scope of this philosophy in a practical way. This ‘hot plate’ metaphor especially is of interest for persuasion—it is along the same lines, to my way of thinking, of why Aristotle claimed the rhetorician should be more concerned with enthymemes and less with fully drawn out proofs.

Second, the Rhetoric of Cool has everything to do with aesthetic composition. On the right side of the continuum the purpose of composition is achieved in systematic cause and effect; thesis statements, organization, and outlines will not be sloughed away by the digital age, not for these sorts of compositions. Passing center, however, and approaching left, as the influence of rational structure and science diminishes, we see Rice’s methods in practice.

And finally, we have reached the beginning of the nature of images, to be taken up here.

I apologize for the altered font size, I cannot figure out what it formatted this way.





Works Cited:

Hagberg, Garry, “Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Rice, Jeff. The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. Southern Illinois University: Southern Illinois University Press. 2007. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Ed. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1958. Print.


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