A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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


It is the concept of form that aesthetics can brandish as a last resort in an attempt to establish its legitimacy.

The - Kantian - argument is as follows: an object exists in terms of its matter and its form. These two ontologically distinct characteristics produce a different kind of pleasure: it is not the same thing to take pleasure in eating the matter of an apple as to take pleasure in contemplating its beautiful round shape.
So it is because there is a specific pleasure, taken from the form and not the matter of the thing, that there is an aesthetic sphere and a discipline that studies it, aesthetics.

Does this pairing of content and form really make sense? Suppose I draw meaningless lines on a canvas, what is the form, what is the content? Now suppose I'm standing in front of Mont Blanc. I am amazed, but I am told that I should only be amazed by the form. So I remove everything that has to do with matter (I do not even know what that means). By any chance, I do away with colours. I keep only the outlines. I find myself faced with a series of lines that go up and down, in a drawing similar to the growth and decline curve of a company's profits. I do not feel any emotion at all (any more than I would in front of such a graph in a company).

On the other hand, even if it did have a meaning, it does not function as a regulating element of our emotion in front of a thing or a painting. We do not perceive a thing by distinguishing between content and form, any more than when listening to a chorus of women we distinguish between the line sung by the dark-haired women and that sung by the blond women. Yet such a distinction really exists (there really is a line sung by brunettes and one by blondes, just as there really is a form and a content of the work). However, since we want to account for the real 'aesthetic' experience, and not one so abstract that it never existed, the content-form couplet is useless.

In fact, we have already suggested that the spectator does not take into consideration the ontological status of the content of meaning that he apprehends in the work. To do so would be to intellectualise the spectator, to make him ask questions that he is not asking himself. The aesthete therefore enjoys the content of meaning that appears to him without wondering whether it is a matter of form or content.

Finally, even if there were a pleasure in the form, we might think that this pleasure comes from the fact that we have attributed a value to this or that form, and therefore that in the end this pleasure is also axiological rather than aesthetic. Since both matter and form can give axiological pleasure, this distinction is unnecessary.


4) Questioning the exact meaning of the Greek "kalos"


We have to ask ourselves whether this hypothesis is not in line with the Greeks' experience of art.

It seems that we need to take seriously a certain kind of beauty that is conceptualised throughout Greek thought: the beauty of beautiful actions, the beauty of beautiful souls... for example in Plato's Symposium. How can we understand that in the Gorgias, Socrates says that the useful, the good - and other qualities - are beautiful 1? Aesthetics, which thinks of beauty in terms of the matter/form paradigm, cannot deal with this kind of beauty. This paradigm leads it to consider as beautiful only that which is made up of matter and form, in other words material, sensible things.

With the birth of modern aesthetics, since Kant, a whole genre of realities that until then had been considered as possessors of beauty (beautiful actions, etc.) are excluded and banished from aesthetic appreciation.
As a result, the entire Greek experience of beauty is incomprehensible to the mind that adopts modern aesthetic postulates, and so the beauty of reality is diminished, insofar as a host of real things are excluded from the "possibility of beauty".
So we have to ask ourselves: what then is the Greek experience of beauty?


It has already been noted that the Greeks did not have the modern concept of value. Nevertheless, solving or at least exploring the problem of values was one of their main concerns. It could be said that without having the word, Greek thought was steeped in value. This can be seen in its questioning of the "supreme good". Thus, as we have seen, the concept of value was 'taken over' by certain Greek concepts such as 'agathon', 'ariston' or 'beltistou', which carry with them a multiplicity of disparate meanings. There is also the word 'kalos', which modern Greek translates as 'beauty'. In my view, this latter translation is an anachronism that does not do justice to the Greek experience of beauty.

Instead, I propose the following idea: kalos and agathon are simply different words to translate not experiences of "different meanings" (beauty and virtue) but different experiences of the same meaning. For example, agathon refers to the revelation to ourselves of the value of a thing through our active relationship with it, through praxis; kalos refers to the revelation of the value of a thing through contemplation, theoria.
In this hypothesis, the difference between kalos and agathon does not mean the distinction between beauty and value, or beauty and goodness, as we believe modernity has translated it, but the distinction between action and contemplation in grasping the value of a thing. So the Greeks would not have a notion of 'beauty', which is a modern invention, but a notion of value, expressed by the notions of 'agathon' and 'kalos'.

The disastrous modern translation, based on the matter/form pair, has caused us to lose this Greek experience of beauty, which is in fact nothing more than an experience of value, the only condition for the intelligibility of the Gorgias formula "virtue=useful=pleasant=beauty". In fact, what is being said here is that the value of the useful, the pleasant, etc. appears through contemplation (of useful, pleasant things, etc.), giving us axiological pleasure.

So the famous Greek expression, "kalos kai agathos", which is commonly translated as "beautiful and good", a union of the transcendentals, would perhaps mean rather "that whose value is revealed through both contemplation and action".
I am unable to verify this hypothesis; to do so, I would have to examine the many Greek texts containing the notions of 'kalos' and 'agathos', in order to grasp first the ordinary meaning given to them in Greek society, and then the meaning they had for this or that philosopher. This task exceeds my ability. We must therefore regard the foregoing as a mere suggestion, the scientificity of which cannot be taken for granted. For all that, I think it possible to stick to hypotheses from time to time, as long as they are given explicitly as mere suggestions, and not as the results of an in-depth study.

If this hypothesis proves to be correct, it is now important to understand the consequences for aesthetics.


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