concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Aesthetic objectivity 

Objectivity in Middle Way philosophy does not mean an absolute God's-eye view. To fully understand the following article on aesthetic objectivity you may need to read the articles on objectivity in general and meaning first.

Aesthetic objectivity is the type of objectivity that applies to our responses to symbols. A symbol here means any object we experience to which we ascribe meaning, whether the meaning is primarily cognitive or emotional, and whether or not the object was intended by others to function as a symbol. For example, I could respond to my experience of reading a letter, viewing a painting, listening to music, or watching a passing cat, with more or less aesthetic objectivity. In Middle Way philosophy this aesthetic objectivity is incremental and dependent on integration of meaning.

A response to a symbol is more objective if it is more integrated. The integration of our responses to symbols is made especially complicated by the presence of both cognitive and affective kinds of meaning: for example, if I listen to a piece of music, the music may "mean" a technical analysis of the harmony, or facts about the composer or the performer, but it may also "mean" my emotional response of feeling stirred or saddened or bored. For my response to be more integrated I need to become more open to different dimensions of this experience and to stretch any dimension of my appreciation. For example, if my response is mainly technical and cognitive, I can integrate my response to it more by taking note of my feelings in relation to it. Alternatively I can refine either my cognitive or emotional awareness of what is going on in the music. In doing this I am simultaneously opening new aspects of my own experience, and potentially setting up more integrated habits for my response to other symbols.

Where symbols are intended to have a mainly cognitive meaning, as in this page, the degree of objectivity with which you respond to it will depend less on aesthetics than on cognitive features. If you read what I am saying carefully, reflect on it, and look up any further features you don't understand (as opposed to being impatient, dismissive, or completely uncritical), you will be responding with a fair degree of objectivity. Nevertheless your response to this page will have a degree of aesthetic objectivity, because aesthetic features form a basis for your understanding of it. You may have an appreciation of the quality of the English, the arrangement of the paragraphs, the visual presentation etc., which hopefully will at least not get in the way of your cognitive understanding. Integration of belief will be more important than integration of meaning in your appreciation of this page, but you will not be able to understand its meaning at all without some degree of integration of meaning, and that integration of meaning may also help you to appraise its incidental aesthetic features with a degree of objectivity.

On the other hand, some applications of aesthetic objectivity have a closer relationship to integration of desire. If the meaning of a symbol is mainly emotional, then it will stimulate certain desires in you. Your response to that symbol then depends on how integrated your desires are. For example, if you climb a hill and are impressed by the beautiful view from the top, your ability to appreciate what that view offers you will depend primarily on your habitual mental states, your ability to be in the present and your awareness of the feelings that the view evokes in you. If your desires are not very integrated, distractions may interpose themselves into your consciousness and your aesthetic appreciation can be impaired. Aesthetic objectivity here is mainly about mindfulness - see article on temporary integration. Nevertheless, the meaning of the view could still have a cognitive element for you - your appreciation might be heightened by considering the geology or history of the landscape, for example.

Aesthetic objectivity is thus a philosophical application of the integration of meaning to justify our judgements about the meaning of symbols according to the degree of integration with which they have been considered. The integration of meaning in turn can have primarily cognitive or primarily emotional aspects, but it is never purely one or the other, and they are always combined to some extent. The requirement for symbols to be meaningful to us makes a degree of aesthetic objectivity a necessary condition for the development of scientific and moral types of objectivity.

Links to related discussion

The arts (from a New Buddhist Ethics)

Moral objectivity (concept page)

Fragmentation of meaning (concept page)

Integration and meaning (from thesis: scroll down to section c)


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