Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Aesthetic Memory

Jon Robson
This post is by Jon Robson, teaching associate at the University of Nottingham. He works on the epistemology of aesthetic, ethical, and religious judgements.

There is a prominent doctrine in philosophical aesthetics according to which aesthetic judgements are only legitimate if based on first-hand experience of their objects. In order to properly judge that a painting is beautiful or a work of music graceful, we need to have seen or heard the relevant items for ourselves. Much of my recent work has focused on arguing that this doctrine is mistaken. In particular, I have aimed to show that there is nothing illegitimate about forming aesthetic judgements on the basis of testimony (see Robson forthcoming). Here, though, I want to focus on a different source of aesthetic judgement: memory.

Memory may initially seem to present no problems for the orthodox view. Those who accept the ‘first person requirement’ (FPR) will doubtless, like the rest of us, accept that we can (in the right circumstances) legitimately hold that a work has a particular aesthetic property on the basis of our memory of experiencing the work. Still, given that a first-person experience of the work plays an essential role in the process, this does not seem to generate any immediate worries for their view. I think, however, that a consideration of memory does lead to a number of problems for FPR.

One thing that consideration of memory in aesthetics teaches us is that a number of the standard worries about forming aesthetic judgements on the basis of testimony are misleading. We are often told that aesthetic testimony is insufficient since it does not give us the same aesthetic experience as seeing the work for ourselves or because it cannot convey the full detail of the work (it cannot tell us precisely what made that brushstroke so graceful). As others have noted already (Budd 2003), though, such considerations also apply with respect to many (if not all) aesthetic judgements retrieved via memory.

Memories are rarely, if ever, as aesthetically rewarding as the original experiences and it would be highly atypical for anyone to remember all of the minute details of even a treasured work. If, then, such considerations provide us with good reason to reject testimony in aesthetics then they would also, by parity of reasoning, give us reason to reject appeals to memory. On occasion some defenders of FPR (most notably Scruton 1974) have expressed a little sympathy for accepting the consequent of this conditional but I assume that most would, rightly, find it completely unpalatable.


A second issue that I have discussed briefly in some previous work (see Robson 2014) finds its basis in some empirical work which has shown (see Loftus and Hoffman 1989), that we are remarkably bad at identifying the source of our memories (note that I am using ‘memory’ here non-factively). Most importantly for my purposes, we often think that we remember experiencing first-hand things that we in fact learned via testimony. If, though, it is the case that – as, again, I think empirical evidence shows – we often do as a matter of fact form aesthetic judgements on the basis of testimony then this means that we will have great difficulty identifying which of our aesthetic memories are based entirely on first-hand experience and which are based, at least partially, on other sources (such as testimony).

For those like me who reject FPR, this need not be problematic since we can accept that first-person experience and testimony can both serve as legitimate sources of aesthetic judgement. For proponents of FPR, though, there are good grounds for thinking that this inability to discern the source of the relevant memories will lead to a number of worrying sceptical considerations. In my view, then, a study of aesthetic memory shows that we have a choice between rejecting FPR and accepting a thoroughgoing scepticism concerning aesthetic judgements.

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