Only a Promise?

2007-03-19

In my copious spare time recently I've been reading some works by Alexander Nehamas, professor of philosophy at Princeton, expert on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, and author of several books on aesthetics and the good life. His most recent book is Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. A good summary of his thesis can be found in an essay he wrote in 2000 for The Threepenny Review. To my mind, the key paragraph is this:

I want to turn our common picture around. The judgment of beauty is not the result of a mysterious inference on the basis of features of a work which we already know. It is a guess, a suspicion, a dim awareness that there is more in the work that it would be valuable to learn. To find something beautiful is to believe that making it a larger part of our life is worthwhile, that our life will be better if we spend part of it with that work. But a guess is just that: unlike a conclusion, it obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness. We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess. Aesthetic pleasure is the pleasure of anticipation, and therefore of imagination, not of accomplishment. The judgment of taste is prospective, not retrospective; the beginning, the middle, but never the end of criticism. If you really feel you have exhausted a work, you are bound to be disappointed. A piece that has no more surprises left -- a piece you really feel you know "inside and out" -- has no more claim on you. You may still call it beautiful because it once gave you the pleasure of its promise or because you think that it may have something to give to someone else. But it will have lost its hold on you. Beauty beckons.

Even though I like some of the specific things Nehamas says on the topic of beauty, I disagree with his central claim: that beauty is only a promise of happiness.

First, I distrust any claim that X is only Y. Are you sure? Where is your proof? Is there no remainder? Can your thesis account for all the phenomena?

Second, it seems that Nehamas removes any basis in reality for saying that a work of art is beautiful, since the judgment of beauty is not based on the features of a work. He phrases it more carefully than that -- "features of a work which we already know" -- but as far as I can see the import is the same: there are no beautiful things or beautiful features thereof, only judgments of beauty. (Elsewhere he says that you can't argue for your judgment of beauty based on a specific feature, instead the judgment is based on a holistic appreciation for the individuality of the work and the way that all its features combine and work together and are integrated for the sake of the whole, which makes more sense; but as far as I can see, that's not what he's arguing for here.)

Third, I detect a strong whiff of Plato's old error that pleasure is driven by a lack and that pleasure disappears once a desire has been satisfied. The desires Nehamas talks about are more ethereal, but pleasures nonetheless. Yet he says the pleasure is the result only of anticipation and imagination, and that the pleasure is gone once you have come to know in fullness that which inspired your aesthetic pleasure -- just as, for Plato, the pleasure of eating is caused by the elimination of hunger: there are no positive pleasures, all pleasure is in some way negative (the removal of pain).

Fourth, Nehamas concentrates overly much on objects of art and gives short shrift to beautiful persons and experiences and activities. These are connected with the creation of beauty, not just the appreciation of beauty. And in my experience creation -- whether individual creation of art or co-creation of beautiful experiences in a personal relationship -- matters more than mere appreciation of something that has been created by someone else, because what's important is living rather than observing or making judgments.

But all I have done here is make judgments about what Nehamas has written. So one of these days I'll have to write something more positive, eh?


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal