Sibley on Objectivity and Aesthetics

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Frank Sibley. 
My personal comments are in red. 


Suppose someone says an object is dainty, or that a picture is balanced. Are these objective descriptions? Sibley's primary thesis is that they (the "remarks" that people make) are objective in the same way that describing something as green or orange is objective.

The key point is that a description is objective if it can have evidence in its favor or against it, and a remark is not objective if there's no way to decide for or against it. (That different topics allow for different degrees of objectivity doesn't render any of them "subjective.")

Suppose, then, that some words "connote" (or pick out) aesthetic properties, and these are the ones that many people regard as subjective. 

Aesthetic properties are EMERGENT in a way that color properties are not. But that alone doesn't make them any less objective. One property (e.g., gracefulness) emerges from other features of the object, such that if the other features change, it can be lost. (A small change in the shape of a "wet" piece of pottery preserves the color and the weight, but it can destroy the gracefulness.) With perceptible, emergent properties, you have to perceive other properties first, as the basis of perceiving the emergent ones.

Colors are not emergent in this way.

At the same time, aesthetic properties are like other perceptible properties, like color -- if you don't see visual grace, you don't see it. But that doesn't mean that it's not there! Yet we will expect more disagreement about gracefulness than redness.

Awareness of complex facts (a particular "mental condition" of being informed) can allow something to emerge aesthetically, too. (That "young goat" is a meaning of "kid" is objective, even if most people no longer know so.)

MOST people will agree on "generic" aesthetic terms (e.g., that something is "pretty") and fewer will agree on applications of more specialized aesthetic vocabulary.

As we know more, we'll shift our assessment. (You learn that what you called "pink" is really fuchsia.)

As color descriptions have borderline cases, so do aesthetic properties. Again, the cases that are hard to decide do not show any lack of objectivity.

With aesthetic properties, the primary proof that they are present in something is that qualified judges converge in agreement about it; long-lasting convergence is a very solid proof.


                        Last updated July 7, 2019 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk  (Background: William Morris wallpaper)