The Epistemology of Beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 19

Another debate that has revolved around Thomas’s conception of beauty concerns the exact mental processes that are involved in individual judgments of beauty, or what Delfino refers to as the “epistemology of beauty.” As Delfino summarizes the debate,

[s]ome Thomists, like Jacques Maritain, have held that it [the perception of beauty] is an intuition, a direct, immediate knowledge of an object… [A] person perceives beauty through sense intuition, and that the intellectual act of abstraction is not present in aesthetic experience. Eco disagrees, noting that to know whether or not the things before us (for example, this cat) has clarity, order, and integrity requires us to have conceptual knowledge (in this case, of cat), which the act of abstraction furnishes. But Eco contends that abstraction by itself is not enough. Aesthetic perception occurs at the end of the intellectual act of judgment whereby we say something about the actual existence of the thing before us… [Armand] Maurer’s view overcomes the negative aspects of Eco’s view while remaining faithful to the basic structure of Aquinas’s epistemology. In agreement with Maritain, Maurer holds that our aesthetic perception of physical things is grasped through sense intuition and is non-conceptual, but, in accord with Eco, aesthetic perception is completed in the intellectual act of judgment. However, Maurer disagrees with Eco by contending that, in the aesthetic perception of physical things, the judgment is not the result of a reasoning process involving concepts. Maurer does not deny that the concept of the thing that we experience as beautiful is present in the intellect. The intellect’s nature is to abstract the concept. Still, in aesthetic experience, we do not give primary focus to the concept and rational analyses. Instead, we focus on the beauty of the thing. (Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom,” 42-3)

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