Josh Kortbein
Phil 4501
September 19

Jerome Stolnitz, "The Aesthetic Attitude"
George Dickie, "The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude"

Stolnitz attempts to explain a certain special kind of perceptual experience which he says is characterized by the "aesthetic attitude." He doesn't really give an argument - his essay is just meant to lay out the terms of his later inquiry. The strongest claim he seems to implicitly be making is that the aesthetic attitude, as defined, actually exists - is some kind of special thing.

Stolnitz' definition: the aesthetic attitude is "disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone." "Disinterested" means "no concern for any ulterior purpose," "sympathetic" means "accept the object on its own terms to appreciate it," and "contemplation" means "perception directed toward the object in its own right where the spectator is not concerned to analyze it or ask questions about it."

Dickie argues against the idea of the aesthetic attitude in all its forms. Turning to variously stronger or weaker formulations of it, he finds them all to basically involve distinctions between attentiveness, rather than interest, which he takes to be of primary importance for most definitions of the aesthetic attitude.

Furthermore, he argues specifically against the idea that "disinterested" attention makes sense at all. Whether or not one's attention is interested or disinterested is supposed to be a perceptual distinction. The idea of "disinterested attention" is only sensible if "interested attention" is, and it is not, because in all cases "interested attention" is not really a special kind of attention, but rather perception with different motivations or intentions - the attention remains the same.

Rambling speculation:

This suggests a way out for Stolnitz and other proponents of the idea of the aesthetic attitude. Stolnitz uses "disinterestedness" as a way of distinguishing between perception motivated by practical matters (what can this be used for, etc.) rather than that which has "no concern for any ulterior purpose." On its face, this sounds rather empty. It seems to me that an earlier aesthetician might have wanted to argue that the purpose of aesthetic perception is to perceive beauty, which is somehow removed from practical matters. But problems with defending an art-as-beauty stance led aestheticians to seek other explanations - since beauty seemed removed from practical concerns, aesthetic perception is then assumed to involve perceiving the thing "in its own right," or "on its own terms," or something similar. But weren't similar sorts of notions challenged in other fields in the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries? What would make things different in aesthetics - in virtue of what would we be perceiving aesthetic objects "on their own terms?" Clive Bell's "significant form" is a candidate, but his account is circular.

How can the idea of perceiving an object on its own terms be reconciled with the fact that this perception often involves a great deal of, e.g., fluency in the relevant artistic traditions, if the object is to be apprehended "well enough"? This makes me think that "its own terms" is a confused notion: such terms are not wholly the object's own, but related to a number of not always exactly the same terms set by similar objects in the tradition. (We can imagine a painting in a certain relationship to a tradition of painting, where the use of color is somewhat at odds with that tradition, yet made sensible and more appreciable when set against the background of that tradition.)

(Bell even offers the following criticism: the aesthetic emotion (which for him is the one we experience during aesthetic perception, i.e., when we would presumably be taking the aesthetic attitude) is so much more special than ordinary emotions that one thinks it would be pursued as an end in itself, so that during aesthetic perception, one would certainly not be perceiving without concern for ends - namely that very powerful, special end which is the aesthetic emotion.)