A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)


3/ The last bastion of aesthetics: the concept of form


Aesthetics may refer to the concept of form as a last resort, in order to establish its legitimacy.

The (Kantian) argument is this: all objects have a matter and a form. These two ontologically distinct features produce a different pleasure: the pleasure of eating the matter of an apple is not the same as the pleasure of looking at his beautiful round form.
So it is because there is a specific pleasure, given by the form and not the matter of the thing, that something like an aesthetic sphere -and its respective discipline, aesthetics-, exists.

Has this couple of notions content/form a real meaning? Let us assume that I am drawing meaningless lines on a canvas, what is the content, what is the form? Let us suppose now that I am in front of the Mont Blanc. It amazes me, but one tells me that only the form must impress me. So I remove all that concerns matter. By the way, I do not know what is to be understood by ‘matter’, therefore on the off-chance I remove all colors. I only keep outlines, and I obtain a sequence of lines going up and down, in a drawing analogous to the growth and decay curve representing the benefits of a company. But then, I feel nothing anymore (no more than in front of such a graph in a company).

On the other hand, even if this opposition matter/form had a meaning, it would not be a real regulating element of our emotion in front of a thing or a painting. Indeed, we do not perceive anything by distinguishing content and form, no more than when we listen to a female chorus, we distinguish the vocal line which is sung by the dark-haired women, and that which is sung by the blonde ones. However, such a distinction really exists (there is really a vocal line sung by the dark-haired, and another one by the blondes, as there is truly a form and a matter of the art work). But as we want to give an explanation of the real aesthetic experience, and not of an abstract one, the couple content/form is useless.

Furthermore, we have already suggested that the spectator does not take into account the ontological status of the contents of meaning that he finds in the art work. The spectator does not ask this kind of question. Consequently, the esthete takes pleasure from the content of meaning that appears to him without wondering if it is a form or a matter.

Finally, even if a pleasure given by the form existed, it may be thought that this pleasure would come from the fact that a value has been attributed to this form, and so this pleasure is also axiological, rather than aesthetic. Since a matter is able to give an axiological pleasure as well as a form, this distinction is useless.


4) Questioning the exact significance of the Greek ‘kalos’


Is not my hypothesis in accordance with the experience of art that had the Ancients?

It seems to me that we must take seriously a certain kind of beauty that the Greek thought conceptualizes: that of beautiful actions, or beautiful souls, for instance in the Symposium of Plato. How to understand that in the Gorgias, Socrates says that the usefulness, the good – and other qualities- are beautiful1? Such a kind of beauty cannot be supported by aesthetics which considers beauty from the paradigm matter/form. Indeed, this paradigm leads us to consider as beautiful only that which is constituted with a matter and a form, viz. material and sensible things.

With the birth of modern aesthetics, since Kant, there is consequently an entire kind of realities (beautiful actions, etc.) which is excluded from the aesthetic appreciation.
It is therefore all the Greek experience of beauty that becomes incomprehensible for the mind which takes over the modern aesthetic postulates, and above all there is a reduction of the beauty of the reality, a wealth of real things being excluded from the “possibility of beauty”.
Now we must ask ourselves: what is the Greek experience of beauty?

It is to be noted that Greeks did not have terms that correspond to the modern concept of value. However, the problem of values was one of their main questions. We can say that the Greek thought was steeped in value, though they did not have the word, as we can see with their investigations about the 'supreme good'. As we have seen, the concept of value was supported by some greek concepts like ‘agathon’, ‘ariston’ or ‘beltistou’, conveying a great deal of disparate meanings. We also find the word ‘kalos’, commonly translated as ‘beauty’ by the modernity. In my view, this translation is an anachronism which does not do justice to the Greek experience of beauty.

Instead, I would contend that ‘kalos’ and ‘agathon’ are distinct words used to express, not some experiences of ‘different meanings’ (beauty and good), but ‘different experiences of the same one meaning’. For example, ‘agathon’ denotes our discovery of the value of something by our active relation to it: the ‘praxis’; ‘kalos’ denotes the discovery of the value of something by contemplation: the ‘theoria’.
Accordingly, the difference kalos/agathon is not equivalent to the distinction beauty/value, or beauty/good, as holds the modern translation, but to the distinction action/contemplation in the discovery of the value of something. In this view, there is for the Greeks no notion of beauty, this modern invention, but a notion of value, expressed by the notions of ‘agathon’ and ‘kalos’.

The poor modern translation, placed under the sign of the couple matter/form, has hidden this Greek experience of beauty, which is actually experience of value. We are now able to understand this idea in the Gorgias “virtue = usefulness = agreeable = beauty”. In fact, what is being said is: the value of the usefulness, of agreeable is revealed to us by the contemplation (of useful or agreeable things), by giving us an axiological pleasure.

Thus the famous Greek expression ‘kalos kai agathos’, that we commonly traduce by ‘good and beautiful’, the union of transcendentals, would rather mean ‘that whose value is revealed both by contemplation and action’.
I am unable to verify this hypothesis; to do that, I should have to examine the many texts that mention the notions of ‘kalos’ and ‘agathos’, to understand the common sense given to these in the Greek society, then the sense that they had for this or that philosopher. This task exceeds my ability. What precedes must therefore be understood like a simple suggestion whose scientific legitimacy is not assured. But I think it is possible to propose hypotheses, provided that they are explicitly presented as mere suggestions, and not as the result of an in-depth study.

If this new hypothesis were true, let us determine the resulting consequences for aesthetics.


1. For example here: « All laws and practices are beautiful because they are beneficial or pleasant or both » (474e-475b)