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.