From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXII No. 1
by Ana Lita
|In her essay, "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,"
Iris Murdoch explains how it is that great art fosters aesthetic sensibility
by revealing the world as it truly is. "Of course great artists are 'personalities'
and have special styles ... But the greatest art is 'impersonal' because
it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which
startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the
real world at all."*
Iris Murdoch's creative new approach to ethics restores its link to aesthetics and arose from her dissatisfaction with previous developments (liberalism, romanticism, existentialism and linguistic empiricism) in the concept of the moral self which lacked, she felt, an adequate account of regard for others. She wishes to renew our sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life in dealing with particular persons. And to achieve this regard the moral self must perform an imaginative construal of the particular goodness and/or their suffering. Attentiveness to as well as acceptance of people in their particularity defines love.
Hence, love is a sensibility to others, which can best be explained, she argues, in terms of a close analogy between aesthetic perception and a morally adequate perception. Such a regard is not respect for a universal humanity in each person as Kant thought. But Iris Murdoch does reinterpret Kant's concepts of the beautiful and the sublime in an attempt to clarify the notion of "seeing" others in a morally suitable way.
Aesthetic perception involves sensitivity to beauty, both natural and moral, during contemplation of a particular object (thing, event, and other persons) as a unique whole. The object rises in sharp relief from the rest of the world and we appreciate it for its own sake. The object being contemplated (the thing of beauty) becomes - for the time being - our entire conscious world. Therefore, art transcends selfish limitations of personality and enlarges the sensibility of those who contemplate it. This aesthetic perception leads to a realistic vision of others that inspires compassionate love.
To persuade us of the importance of the connection between aesthetics and ethics, Iris Murdoch appeals to Kant's theory of art, which closely accords with his theory of morals. This may be surprising since Kant's aesthetics is well known for the view that judgments of taste are "subjective," but these subjective judgments are universal claims. Furthermore, in the case of dependent beauty, as defined by Kant, there is an objective orientation to the experience, which will justify her use of terms like "seeing", "vision" and so on, in her theory. Her analogy between moral sensibility and the sensibility of the novelist as manifested in his act of creation explains how the goodness of others can be revealed. This analogy is developed in terms of the writer's love unconditionally displayed toward his characters, a love that seeks to see goodness in them and understand their suffering. The novelist's sensibility disrupts his natural selfishness, thus releasing him from self-concern to make him capable of loving the real others from a detached, unsentimental and objective viewpoint.
Beauty is what attracts such an unselfish contemplation, be it for objects of art, nature, or human beings. This feeling of beauty takes the form of a spell which is not available to abstract, theoretical reasoning. It is important for Iris Murdoch that the beauty in question is not subjective but is objectively seen in the character of others, the particular virtues that exhibit their goodness. Thus, the respect for individuality in the sense of particularity and contingency becomes the virtue of love. The beloved is other and distinct from the loving subject. This is seen in the novelist who, tolerant in his endeavor to display a real apprehension of characters whose existence is separate from himself and crucially important and interesting in themselves, sets free his characters. Great art brings us, if only for a brief moment, into a world more real than our own and such an attitude is equally required, states Iris Murdoch, in our daily moral situations. Art is the only available, unbiased method that increases one's capacity for understanding and loving other people.
Kant's theory of "aesthetic perception" gives distinctively different accounts of the feeling of the beautiful and the feeling of the sublime and is not oriented toward perception of things as such; it is subjectively oriented. The beautiful is the experience of the conceptless harmony between the imagination's effort to grasp an object as a whole and the faculty of understanding. This feeling of harmony is, as Kant posits, the feeling of a purposiveness without purpose, the form of finality without finality. For Kant, art does not reveal impartial truths; it is rather the production of a certain quasi-thing with its own inherent justification. Kant's favorite examples of this purposiveness without purpose are drawn from nature. To see the beauty of a flower is not to see any perceptible quality in the flower but is instead to subjectively organize its perceptible features as if it were a thing with a purpose or defined in terms of a purpose. For Kant, the feeling of the beauty of a flower comes in the sense of a purposive unity in the lines, colours, shapes, fragrance etc. However, this is a feeling for which no concept can be supplied; rather, the unity is attributed symbolically or metaphorically.
Kant called this kind of beauty, "free beauty." The pure judgment of taste concerns free beauty. This feeling of beauty is truly disinterested and is not tied to an idea of the good or common sensory pleasure. The experience of free beauty is not driven towards some end and involves no emotion tied to desires. Flowers, birds, all music that is not set to words are examples of free beauty for Kant. The song of a bird can have more freedom in it than a human voice singing according to all rules that the art of music imposes.
On the other hand, dependent beauty, as defined by Kant, contains a purposiveness of form directed at or oriented toward an idea of the goodness of the object apprehended as beautiful. The beauty of a man or of a building presupposes a concept of the end that defines what the thing has to be and therefore a concept of its perfection. For example, in the form of a vase, the feeling of its beauty is to be oriented toward the idea of the fulfillment of its purpose as a vase. Thus a vase whose size, colours, lines etc. are so spectacular as to dwarf the bouquet of flowers which has been placed in it will be felt to be lacking some way. Either the bouquet calls for a different vase or the vase calls for a different bouquet.
This feeling of dependent beauty, for Iris Murdoch, is something very close to the feeling that we have for others in our loving regard for them. There is, however, an important difference: when we strive to see the goodness in others, we begin without a clear idea of their goodness that will critique their speech and actions; indeed, we seek out a purposiveness of form in their lives with respect to an idea of goodness we have not yet understood. Iris Murdoch does not present a strict standard of perfection by which to judge the purposiveness of all human actions, character and motives. Because no general pattern for morality exists, each person must struggle to form an idea of his own goodness, an idea that changes and is constituted in the very struggle of becoming a good person. Thus, regard for others does not refer to a concept of moral perfection as the ground of the goodness or virtue seen in the other.
In the case of "dependent beauty," the purposiveness of form in the lives of others is properly seen. While such qualities are objective and hence have an objective truth condition, this does not mean that one simply learns a rule for recognizing the virtues of others. As with beautiful vases, we should rather expect the virtues of persons to be unique and therefore uniquely realized. What is important is not learning to apply secondary moral terms as a matter of rule, but learning to extend moral language to fit ever new cases. Hence we can see why Iris Murdoch thinks that the novel is the art form which develops moral language, for when we read a good novel, we learn not rules but the art of seeing characters and by extension, the people around us. While reading novels, readers find some characters to be morally good, while others are not; additional characters might not appear to call either for moral approbation or opprobrium. But it is not the function of the novel, Iris Murdoch claims, to support rules of behavior, through which characters are evaluated. Instead, the novel applies Kant's concept of dependent beauty to evaluate characters based on a purposiveness they choose for their lives.
At this juncture it might be objected that a pure regard for others is not solely a matter of respect for their virtues. Common moral intuition tells us that perhaps the most important regard for others is that which we should have when people suffer or fail to come up to a supposed standard of virtue. This is where Kant's concept of the sublime should be brought to bear on the reflection about the regard for others, for with the sublime, Iris Murdoch thinks we can apply the concepts of fear and sympathy (which are considered to be traditionally "tragic") to our sense of the misfortunes, failures and blindness of others and of ourselves.
The feeling of the sublime should be viewed as a sort of negative image of the feeling of the beautiful, for when we find ourselves unable to synthesize our capacities and the specific contingencies of our lives within a sense of purposiveness oriented toward the good, we feel broken an defeated in the absence of such joyful harmony. Kant develops the concept of the sublime in a very different context which must now be examined before seeing Iris Murdoch's effort to make it the basis for understanding the "tragic" element in life. The feeling of the sublime is what we have when we are unable to exhibit by imagination a vision of the whole, as reason demands. As described by Kant the sublime is not connected with art at all. While the beautiful is an experience of the imagination and understanding in harmony, the sublime is an experience of the imagination and reason in conflict. The sublime is an emotional experience resulting from the overwhelmed yet revitalized attempt of reason to compass the boundlessness and shapelessness of nature.
When we look at the starry sky, reason demands that we comprehend the cosmos as a whole and indeed we are able to form an idea of the cosmos as a whole, but not a concept that can be empirically justified. What we cannot do as human beings is rationally comprehend the totality of the starry sky, as we experience it at some particular time, in order to truly see it or apprehend it as an "object."
In Kant's view, the sublime is connected with emotion. Thus, objects may be beautiful but no object is ever sublime. Some aspects in nature occasion feelings of sublimity in us provided that we are not actually afraid (For instance, the contemplation of Mont Blanc, the starry sky or Niagara Falls). Still, in our confrontation with the starry sky, the imagination fails to satisfy reason's requirement for systematic wholeness.
This inability to synthesize the object of our experience, as reason demands, engenders a challenge to our powers initially felt as fear, albeit a pleasurable one if we know ourselves to be safe. This experience, Iris Murdoch interprets, blends distress, given the failure of the imagination to cope with the demands of reason, with elation, which comes from realizing the powerful nature of reason, that goes beyond what mere imagination can achieve. This experience is very much like Achtung, a mixture of pleasure and pain we feel in our respect for the moral law. On one hand, we feel pain while contemplating a moral requirement; on the other hand, our rational nature, in the sense of freedom to conform to the absolute requirements of reason, makes us feel delight in our consciousness. The sublime therefore resembles moral experience because reason, that is the moral will, is active. On deeper reflection, the sublime brings us to focus upon reason itself - the power in us to form an idea of infinite wholes-- conceived as the capacity to give a law to our actions that explains the course of our lives to ourselves. Thus drawn, we experience, instead of fear, a respect for the law-giving power within us, which Kant holds is aesthetically pleasing.
Iris Murdoch views Kant's application of the concept of the sublime to nature as trivial. She disagrees with Kant's notion that the feeling of the sublime is fundamentally a respect for human self-confidence given by reason. On the contrary, for her, the sublime provides no occasion for pleasure, no impulse to elevate us above the world; rather the feeling of the sublime registers the frailty and sometimes even comical blindness of human life. It is filled with uncertainties and contingencies, which sometimes disrupt one's effort to give life purposive form with a view to goodness. Often one becomes pathetic when he blindly projects himself as a triumphant hero in his own life story and in the world of others. This is the mistake which both romantics and existentialists make in response to the "tragic" element in life. They presume that they can make sense of the tragic even if it is at the expense of monumentalising their own suffering (showing themselves as heroes against the world). Aristotle thought that the "tragic" emotions, fear and pity, provide a catharsis for the tragic in life, a temporary relief purchased by a few hours spent at the theater, but for Iris Murdoch the tragic emotions represent what ought to be a sustained readiness for the inevitable failure of some of our life prospects, ready also to be morally expressed in fear and sympathy regarding tragedy in the lives of others.
The moral regard for others fundamentally comes from attempting to see their goodness and their tragedy through the experience of the sublime. Seeing others properly incorporates emotions of respect and compassion that characterize love and such seeing is cognitive love. Love is a dual concept based upon the analogy between artistic sensibility and moral sensibility. Its two components are a contemplative one and Achtung. Iris Murdoch interprets Achtung as an expression of compassion towards the tragedy in people's lives. Thus for her Achtung is not only a mixture of pleasure and pain while contemplating the moral law; it is also part of the love we manifest for others in our regard for them. She connects the sublime via Achtung with Kant's ethical theory in that his theory of the sublime has to be a theory of tragedy, even though Kant's theory of ethics contains no place for the idea of tragedy.
Despite its apparent strength, her view of regard for others poses several interrelated problems which must be addressed. She claims that to see others through aesthetic perception is to see them as they really are. This "realism" contrasts to the deficiencies in sight or the illusions implied in previous accounts of the moral self, deficiencies of abstraction in the cases of liberalism and linguistic empiricism, or neurotic illusion in the cases of romanticism and existentialism. This claim about realism is also the way in which she would have us understand what constitutes true realism in the novel. Iris Murdoch's concept of love for others and the way in which she develops and applies this concept in her novels extends her concept of regard for others beyond what is merely a matter of aesthetic perception. This fact seems to undermine the claim that regard for others, as she conceives it, is fundamentally a kind of "seeing."
For example, characters presented by Iris Murdoch in a comical light are, almost always redeemed elsewhere in the novel by their good attitudes, such that even their moral faults are exhibited to some degree as re-describable in terms of goodness. However, one needs to ask whether these re-descriptions are actually realistic characterizations so much as expressions of forgiveness and hope for redemption. It may be that a truly loving regard for others includes such attitudes, that is to say, such as forgiveness and redemption. If so, though, it becomes difficult to see how such a view of regard for others is adequately characterized when it is spoken of as a kind of realism. A critic might go further and suggest that the effort to describe such regard for others as "seeing," simply masks an idealization, a determination to see the world through rose-coloured lenses. If it is, then Iris Murdoch's theory ironically falls under the weight of the very criticism that she makes of romantic and existentialist conceptions of the moral person. Instead of "seeing" a dependent beauty in a person, the kind of re-description she envisions may turn out to be a merely subjective projection of the form of a purposiveness which, as such, is not there in what is "seen".
Nonetheless, Iris Murdoch might be correct in thinking that a regard for others should be loving in the way she suggests, because loving others must involve also forgiveness and hope as long as we see them not only as they are, but as they might become. Her problem may lie in claiming that aesthetic re-description is a sufficient condition for revealing a virtue where before one had seen only fault or vice.
The essential challenge for Iris Murdoch is to ask, what does it mean to apprehend a virtue in oneself or in another? While this is too broad a question to answer completely, the answer encompasses something more than aesthetic description. It must include learning how to see which, according to Iris Murdoch, is also a kind of knowledge. The visual knowledge obtained through aesthetic perception that she is trying to persuade others to embrace is equally useful as a guide in the moral world. The insight we have into the other through love acts upon us and draws us to see goodness in that person, independent of the need to provide an evaluative rationale endorsing that person's behavior.
As a result of such insights, moral principles become something that we must ever learn anew, in and through particular cases. The other's goodness exists and can be grasped by our imagination. But it requires unconditional love in which attention and imagination play a crucial role. I am inclined to think that individuals have a fertile imaginative nature and can truly "see" despite the intrusion of bias or accident into their lives. Our systems of values alter to a lesser or greater degree but always in a potential harmony with what has gone before bringing into the focus qualities in a person that we did not previously recognize. For the novelist, the power of description and imagination is, of course, greater when it comes to developing characters. On the other hand, for real persons to develop moral character depends on more than a vivid, even plausible, aesthetic imagination of what the course of one's life is or might be like.
At the core of Iris Murdoch's assumptions about the moral
regard for others lies a reflective shift in developing moral sensibility
through an enhancement of aesthetic perception. Her account makes for the
concept of the particular individual as unique rather than for the rational
agent or citizen central to contemporary liberal theory. The moral perception
of the particular individual essentially involves an aesthetic component,
the imaginative construal of the goodness of others (a qualification of
beauty), and of their tragedy, as their free powers fail to fulfill a purposive
wholeness in life (a qualification of the sublime).
Address for correspondence: email: email@example.com
Further reading on Iris:
Conradi, P. J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, New York: Saint Martin Press, 1986.
Dipple, E. Iris Murdoch: Work for Spirit, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1982.
*The opening quotation is from Existentialists and
Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, edited by Peter Conradi
(New York: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1997, p. 352,).