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The Revival of Interest

After a period of neglect, beauty has once again become a subject of interest for philosophers, especially Iris Murdoch (1977), Anthony Saville (1982), Eva Schaper (1983), and the theologians von Balthasar (1965-91), Gesa Theissen (2004), and David Hart (2004). Neglect of the topic by philosophers was the product of the desiccation that some logical positivists brought to the subject: linguistic analysis contributed much to our understanding but only “at ground level.” Lifting our eyes to take in the experience of beauty can open our minds to the wholeness of things while at the same time drawing attention to and taking life from the delightful or the disturbing, particularity of a situation, person, work of art, mathematical expression, or flower. Moreover, since the experience can take one by surprise, it is not something that one can guard oneself against; it can stimulate hard thinking about meaning that can be personally transformative. Kant puts it this way: when one’s attention is caught by a beautiful picture or the vastness of the heavens on a clear night sky, its aesthetic appreciation involves disinterested contemplation if the underlying form is to be realized and its true beauty discovered (Kant, 1952, p. 118).

Schopenhauer believed this to be the case too. For him, it is the sublime and the beautiful that liberate human beings from subjection to the suffering caused by their willing of the world to be—the endless desire for self-perpetuation: “Aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares, we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves” (Schopenhauer, 1969, p. 390). It opens up the world of the mystical, from which he does not exclude the possibility that the thing-in-itself may be apprehended “through the paths of ethics, aesthetics and asceticism” (Mannion, 2003, p. 245).

However, Schopenhauer’s thought that the experience of the beautiful may enable us to be “rid of ourselves” can easily be misconstrued. What Schopenhauer has in mind is that when contemplating a beautiful object, we may have our breaths taken away. We may, in this sense, be transported. But the self is not eliminated. On the contrary, the beautiful, as Donoghue avers, opens the self to deeper experience and connects a beautiful object with other related beautiful things. The self is transformed by the aspiration to know beauty from both an intellectual and moral perspective. The implication is that the person will be stirred to aspire to moral insight and just behavior. Beauty, on this account, is therefore both beyond and within our ordinary experience.

It was Wittgenstein who cryptically stated that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case” (Wittgenstein, 1961, para. 6.41). By this, Wittgenstein means that neither aesthetics nor ethics are values that can be pointed to or empirically identified per se. But he did not, of course, wish to imply that beauty was uninstantiatable without value or beyond experience. He appreciated art, but he was also clear that he could not describe what appreciation was: “It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation is, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.” Indeed, he goes further, “What belongs to a language-game is a whole culture” (Wittgenstein, 1966, pp. 7-8).

Mark A. McIntosh points to the experience of Dora in visiting the National Gallery as described by Iris Murdoch in her early novel The Bell: “Her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvelous generosity, their splendour . . . The pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her in kindly yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all” (Murdoch, 1962, pp. 191). McIntosh comments, “The real world and the good are found in the same place, and Dora’s practice of attention to beauty has made possible her liberation from her ‘dreary trance-like solipsism’—long enough at least for the reality of the good to gain a purchase in her life again” (McIntosh, 2004, pp. 202-3). Dora loved the pictures, and for this she is grateful. It seems that being in the presence of a beautiful object, person, or story evokes the virtue of gratitude and the desire for the good.

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