British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. jg, No.

4, October iggg

THE AESTHETIC ATTITUDE
Gary Kemp

I
I shall first concentrate on what I am sure is the most plausible twentieth-century
version of the aesthetic attitude theory discussed by Dickie, that due to Stolnitz.3
This is the theory that when we are aesthetically engaged with a work of art, for
example, this fact is not to be explained in terms of the special nature of the
qualities perceived, but in terms of a special attitude which we take up, the
aesthetic attitude. Our normal attitude is pragmatic, driven by practical interest or
purpose; it thereby tends to select only those features of the object relevant to the
interest or purpose. Thus Schopenhauer speaks of relational and non-relational
perception: relational perception is that which is directed by a concern with
causal relationships between the object and something else (this is what Kant
means by saying that in aesthetic experience we care nothing for the 'real
existence' of the object). Because of this, normal, interest-driven attention tends
to be engaged only long enough to identify the interesting feature; it does not
dwell upon things, or contemplate them. It is restless. It notes the relevant facts
1
2

3

George Dickie, American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. I (1964), pp. 54-64.
There is a good book on the subject, 77ie Aesthetic Attitude, by David Fenner (Humanities Press,
1996); for discussion of Dickie, see pp. 98-110. Fenner is reviewed by Nick McAdoo in this
journal, vol. 37, no. 4 (October 1097). In the past three years, however, no article whose principal
concern is the aesthetic attitude appears in either the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism or the
British Journal ofAesthetics. This contrasts with the recent plethora of articles on aesthetic properties.
J. Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, i960),
pp. 32-42-

© British Society of Aesthetics 1999

392

Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics.oxfordjournals.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31, 2013

IT is now well over thirty years since George Dickie's 'The Myth of the Aesthetic
Attitude'.1 The paper continues to appear regularly in aesthetics anthologies and
course reading lists, but the issue has largely receded from view.2 This might be
because significantly many aestheticians have accepted that Dickie's criticisms
reveal the notion of the aesthetic attitude to be empty, a myth. I think they do not,
and suggest that their failure can be attributed to Dickie's having attempted to
evaluate the notion of an aesthetic attitude in isolation, in detachment from the
more general sorts of theoretical commitments that historically have provided its
most cogent motivation.

Whereas in the picture gallery. 104. It seems straightforward that there can be cases offull attention to a work of art which is not the sort of attention exercised in aesthetic experience. the aesthetic attitude is the attitude of disinterested attention—attention to the object which is not driven by an interest—which is also 'sympathetic'. then since there is nothing peculiarly aesthetic about the latter. Now in fact Dickie does consider examples of this kind. conversations. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics.oxfordjournals. It would be a diversion from the potential aesthetic experience but not diversion from the music. Yet it is not an aesthetic attitude either. a music student might listen closely to a piece in order to identify key modulations or rhythmic groupings. But if disinterested attention cannot be distinguished from undistracted attention.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31. We can certainly attend undistractedly to sumo matches. we stand arrested. instead. lack of attention. There is a distinction to be drawn amongst cases of full undistracted attention to the work of art that is too evident simply to be denied. there is no peculiarly aesthetic attitude. if cogent. What he says is this: Cf. This is clearest where the object attended to is a work of art. devastating. as the struggling music student will attest (we murder to dissect). at least sometimes. I shall follow him in ignoring the requirement that the attention be 'sympathetic'. you have to contrast disinterested attention with interested attention. but I shall return briefly to the idea that aesthetic attention is attention to the object 'for its own sake'. not a case of not attending to the music. what you describe is not 'interested' attention to the object but.GARY KEMP 393 II But Dickie's contention that the notion of interested attention collapses into that of distraction or partial attention is surely mistaken. . according to Stolnitz. So it is not the case that instead of giving the play his disinterested attention. according to Dickie. Thus the owner of the playhouse. if he is pleased by the play only because he is thinking of the profits that the excellence of the play will bring him. and. he gives it another. This is not a case of distraction.4 For example. But when you try to describe cases of that. which must therefore be accommodated or reconstructed in some way or other. transfixed: we gaze upon the object without our attention being motivated or directed by any identifiable practical concern. Dickie's objection to this version of the theory is simple. distraction. Dickie focuses on the disinterestedness requirement. To give content to 'disinterestedness'. is just failing to attend fully to the play. and 'for its own sake alone'. p. Thus. Fenner. attention to something else. interested kind of attention. 2013 and moves on. but this is inattention to the object. Aesthetic Attitude. or kisses without being tempted to describe the experience as peculiarly aesthetic.

But what exactly does Dickie infer from this? He does not say explicitly what conclusion we are immediately to draw. 365-371 and Dickie. But the present point simply does not support that conclusion. 'Back to Aesthetic Experience'. a preliminary quibble: that there is only 'one way' to listen to the music is a substantive psychological claim. Insofar as perceptions are interested or disinterested. quoted by Dickie. It is hard to agree that in these cases one can properly be described as being distracted from the music or picture. then there are certainly different ways of listening to it. Listening for modulations—as opposed not only to listening more generally for enjoyment but as opposed to listening for changes of metre or rhythm—is a case in point. pp. vol. it is probably more plausible to say that they are so only in virtue of the purposes which guide the perception. pragmatically motivated attention does nothing to show that there is no such thing as close attention which is not so motivated. but it certainly does not demand it). reply to Aldrich. That there are clear cases of close. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. vol. and I think should not be. no. XXV. perhaps the attention is the same. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. and reasons for doing so and a variety of ways of being distracted from the On this point see also Dickie's exchange with Elmer Duncan in the letters section of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31.394 THE AESTHETIC ATTITUDE Note that what initially appears to be a perceptual distinction—listening in a certain way—turns out to be a motivational distinction—listening for or with a certain purpose. See Aldrich. although the listening may be more or less attentive and there may be a variety of motives. is that the difference in purpose or motivation to which Dickie alludes is all that the aesthetic attitude theorist requires. That it is the 'attitude' that possesses the distinguishing feature of being disinterested does not imply that the perception is itself what possesses that feature. First. XXTV. . however. Journal ofAesthetics and Art Criticism.oxfordjournals. couched in terms of perception. and Dickie's Aesthetics: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1971). then Dickie's point does . 2013 That is. 48-61. pp. but the purpose differs. and substantively false as far as I can see. XXIII. Another might be searching a Jackson Pollock for faces. . In any case the main claim of the theory can without evident loss be put by saying that attention is aesthetic precisely when it is not pragmatically motivated. pp. T h e aesthetic attitude theory need not be. . vol. 1 (1967). intentions. H e thinks more generally that the aesthetic attitude is a 'myth'. 6 It might not even make sense to speak of perceptions qua perceptions as interested or disinterested. admits of being read that way. If what is being listened to is described simply as 'the music'. 89-91. There is only one way to listen to (to attend to) music. no. If that is how the aesthetic attitude theory is defined. pp. T h e crucial point. 517-518. as Dickie assumes (Stolnitz's formulation. The 1966 exchange between Dickie and Virgil Aldrich on this issue is frustrating because it is framed entirely in terms of perception. 4 (1965). no. that there is no such thing. if we want examples outside music. 3 (1966).

just by reflecting on the concepts attention and interested.8 But it is precisely the most basic commitment of the aesthetic attitude approach— especially understood as deriving from Kant—to avoid the notion of an aesthetic property. But in fact the case is worse than that. For the point now rests upon the assumption that we can replace the notion of a peculiarly aesthetic attitude with the notion of attention to aesthetic properties. it is no longer the narrowly logical point Dickie thought he could make against the very idea of an aesthetic attitude. when we think it through. With things put that way. I suspect. if it does not lapse altogether (this will depend crucially on how the notion of an aesthetic property is explained). 2013 nothing to undermine it. pp. that an attitude-theorist—at least one inspired by Kant—ought really to deny that the notion of an aesthetic property makes sense. All that Dickie can claim is that the notion of an aesthetic attitude collapses into the notion of undistracted attention to all but only the aesthetically relevant properties of the work (or perhaps: to as many of these as one can take in). and here is where the inadequacy of Dickie's criticism becomes more theoretically important. but it would not establish Dickie's conclusion: Dickie's claim was that the notion of disinterested attention.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31. the student gives his whole attention to the music.oxfordjournals. And we have just seen that that claim is not true.7 But this is now a substantive assertion concerning the nature of the aesthetic attitude. the notion of the aesthetic attitude is meant to' characterize a kind of experience. however. since it focuses so narrowly upon one aspect of the music. Dickie might say that the music student's attention. it does not matter if Dickie is right to say that the interested/disinterested distinction cannot be purely a perceptual distinction. necessarily excludes other aspects or properties which may be essential to an understanding or aesthetic appreciation of the piece. The point is no longer that. but not all experiential distinctions are pure perceptual distinctions. Kant held that beauty is precisely not a concept. The point now is that the attitude has been misdefined. It is certainly true that if we can have the notion of aesthetic property. then the importance and interest of the notion of the aesthetic attitude is significantly curtailed. To be sure. As it might be put. For it would be question-begging at rather a deep level to assume this alternative definition of the aesthetic attitude to be preferable. Fenner (/{esthetic Altitude. Alternatively.GARY KEMP 395 In his reply to Aldrich (see preceding note) Dickie acknowledges this. but not to the whole of the music. but takes the point as showing that if we have the notion of an aesthetic property. not a property. This may ultimately be the correct way to put it. we can see that the notion of an aesthetic attitude is empty. then there is no need to posit an aesthetic attitude. The proper task of . 104-105) aptly denies the cogency of such a move on the grounds that no demarcation of the class of aesthetic properties is possible that does not refer essentially to experiences of those properties. not something in terms of which objects can be literally described. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. collapses into that of full or undistracted attention.

especially beginning with Schopenhauer but prefigured in Kant's account of aesthetic ideas. . then it is no objection to the aesthetic attitude theory to point out that it would be logically adequate to define the attitude as generic attention to aesthetic properties. The cogent substance of the aesthetic attitude theory consists in its affirmative answers to both questions. His close attention is motivated partly by his natural aesthetic receptivity but also. but also to help explain the peculiar value of aesthetic experience. The sense of properly aesthetic description should be explained in terms of the mental propensities awakened by disinterested attention. 9 The basis of that judgement is subjective. is messier. something which can be activated at will. or need not be. A man attends his daughter's first concert performance as a solo pianist. 2013 a philosophy of beauty rather is to attend to the special features of aesthetic experience or judgement. Disinterestedness. The later tradition. British Journal of Aesthetics. which is precisely to say that aesthetic predicates do not express genuine concepts. not upon a disinterested attitude or experience. and if so. more efficaciously. but it does not seem as if it has to. i (January 1992). Aesthetic experience might be defined simply as that in which disinterested pleasure takes place. There is no reason to say that that kind of Nick Zangwill. by his concern for his daughter's career. in order that his attention be motivated by that concern. Aesthetic experience takes explanatory precedence in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. no. of course. hence to aesthetic predicates generally. in 'UnKantian Notions of Disinterestedness'. seeking to generalize it to all aesthetic experience. 32. vol. takes the point beyond beauty. Nothing could help it more than that she should perform well tonight. But his attention is not thereby distracted or partial. For more on the volitional question see Fenner (Aesthetic Attitude) and McAdoo's review of same (see n. I think that the philosophically most important aspect of the aesthetic attitude theory is independent of the volitional question: the philosophically most important question is whether there is a specially aesthetic type of experience. 2 above). Take a slightly different kind of case. and not in terms of the distinctive sorts of objects or properties apprehended in aesthetic experience. 533. Dickie's criticism of Stolnitz's theory of the aesthetic attitude pretty clearly fails.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31.396 THE AESTHETIC ATTITUDE Ill In this last section I want to develop a bit further this last point concerning the place of the aesthetic attitude in aesthetics generally. points out that Kant's claim is that aesthetic judgement is based upon disinterested pleasure. not the objects of experience. If so. I think. if by an attitude we mean not a type of experience but something like a stance. do not pick out objective properties or features of reality.oxfordjournals. was meant not only to explain the rationality of subjective presumptions of universality. whether it should be explained entirely from the subjective side. His listening is interest-driven: there is a clear sense in which he listens closely because of a practical concern. but it is not clear that Kant's account actually delivers the concept of an aesthetic attitude. not in terms of features literally possessed by the objects. The real problem with that theory. The thought of his daughter's career may come to mind during the performance. He listens intently and is pleased as she negotiates the intricate counterpoint of Mozart's K.

properly speaking. it seems. there is no clear and compelling reason to deny that his attention or experience is properly and purely aesthetic: he is not. listen very much as he would if it were not his daughter performing. but pragmatically motivated. or aesthetic value. like the music student. Now the cases of the music student and the father are similar: attention is full. like the music student. Stolnitz himself does not actually make use of this idea.GARY KEMP 397 Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. This does not seem to be the case with the pianist's father. one reason to say that the music student's attitude is not properly aesthetic is that. of course. in such a way that there is. and he does not elaborate on it or emphasize it as an independently significant component of his account.oxfordjournals. as it were. If the pianist's father is motivated as in the example. express concepts: they express rather aesthetic notions like beauty. The Stolnitzian aesthetic attitude theorist.). And with this in mind. there is no reason to say that the purpose must be held consciously before the mind. Purpose and motive surely guide our perception and behaviour in more subtle and complex ways than that. Insofar as he is doing this. Now at the close of the preceding section. Second. the predicates he seeks to apply are precisely those which the properly Kantian aesthetic attitude theorist claims do not. seeking to gratify a concern with knowledge. then we are not complaining that there is no substance to the notion of aesthetic attitude. he could. of course. then it is not aesthetic. for Kant.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31. Where attention is motivated or even guided by a purpose. not to acquiesce in Dickie's criticism. listeningjor any particular features. He is seeking knowledge: he is seeking to verify the instantiation of certain concepts (modulation-up-a-fourth. 2013 attention cannot be very intently focused. or not completely so. not enough room in consciousness for both the purpose and the object. then he is not. for if we are objecting that the attitude of the pianist's father is aesthetic despite being pragmatically motivated. he is listening for something for which he antecedently possesses a literally applicable concept. First. But this now looks like a mistake. assumes that when attention is full but purpose-driven. He brings straightforwardly factual questions to the music. I said that one sort of criticism of the aesthetic attitude theory cannot be sustained without disputing the more general and fundamental Kantian starting point for the theory. This is. no reason to say that it must be distracted. in listeningjbr particular features. I have so far ignored Stolnitz's requirement that the attention to the object be not only disinterested but 'for its own sake'. and he were simply a keen listener. Such are the qualities the father hopes his daughter's playing will exemplify. But a suitable analysis of . etc. pleases apart from a concept—aesthetic experience involves the free play of the cognitive and perceptual faculties—the aesthetic attitude of the father as opposed to the non-aesthetic attitude of the student is easily accounted for in Kant's theory. there are at least two rather obvious things to say about the above examples. If these are not really concepts or objective properties. Since beauty. We are denying that the notion of disinterestedness captures it.

Janaway._|oum<j/ ofAesthetics and Art Criticism. N. 1974). " Possibly this concern can be assuaged by distinguishing between knowledge of the subject-matter of a work and knowledge of the work itself: perhaps a properly aesthetic reader of Paradise Lost learns something about the moral universe. Roger Scruton says that an interest in an object X for its own sake is a desire to go on hearing. no. 'UnKantian Notions of Disinterestedness'. and normativity (together with disinterestedness these reflect much of the substance of Kant's Analytic of the Beautiful). Zangwill. then. 148. no.11 And if we were simply to define the aesthetic attitude as attention to the object for its own sake as defined by Scruton.oxfordjournals. Scruton's formulation vindicates the father's attention: there is a reason for his desire to go on listening.. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. In fact it can actually take over for disinterestedness itself. P. in any case. 2013 Set aside the concluding thought-requirement. As for the first. where there is no reason for this desire in terms of any other desire or appetite that the experience of X may fulfil.398 THE AESTHETIC A T T I T U D E the idea can help with the pianist's father. His motivating desire is not itself gratified by the experience. N. imagination. C. 189 (October 1997). Crowther. Whether Kant's or Scruton's exact account is ultimately adequate is not the immediate point. but does not read in order to learn facts about the work itself. for example. 1997). 'The Significance of Kant's Pure Aesthetic Judgements'. in the way that a literature student might in preparing for an exam. 47. vol.12 What I suggest rather is that the task for the aesthetic attitude theorist is . What is not to be missed. Now these ways of distinguishing the student from the father may run into other problems individually. 53. p. is that both lines of thought lead us back t • o Kant. 2 (April 1996). 2 (Spring 1995).P. and do the job better. That in pure aesthetic experience we are not concerned to apply determinate concepts is central to Kant's analysis of it (though it is only part of it). looking at. at least in the happier cases. and is accompanied ' • by. 'Kant's Aesthetics and the Empty Cognitive Stock'. which is meant to exclude the gratification of'desires arising out of animal appetite'. but this is not based upon a desire that the experience of the performance itself fulfils. vol. British Journal of Aesthetics. vol. Art and Imagination (London: Routledge. for the fact of his listening. the thought of X 10 10 R. In Art and Imagination. 36. for example. Kant and the Claims of Taste (Cambridge: Cambridge U.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31. 'Kant on Pleasure in the Agreeable'. Unlike the simpler idea of disinterested motivation. would seem to count as exemplifying the aesthetic attitude (though perhaps it is not positively a mistake that art and love should be brought together in some such way). Zangwill. and Scruton's characterization of the aesthetic attitude is part of a more general Kantian theory of aesthetic experience and judgement which involves concepts of pleasure. or in some other way having an experience of X. 12 Recent treatments of the issue within the framework of Kant's aesthetics include: P. no. the pleasures of love-making. Guyer. or that the aesthetic value of literature has nothing to do with knowledge. Scruton. Philosophical Quarterly. and where the desire arises out of. we do not want to be landed too peremptorily into the staunch formalist claim that art is totally non-conceptual.

70 (1995).ac.uk. It would be gratifying. assuming the internal coherence of such a view. More generally. As another. see A. . University of Glasgow. This would tie together the two explanations suggested above for why the father's attention is aesthetic but not the student's. and to require substantial philosophical premises of a more general kind. 1992).13 As part of this. UK Email: G. British Journal of Aesthetics. should sometimes turn out to be unfruitful. Kemal. For an excellent discussion of the importance of explanation in aesthetic theory.arts.GARY KEMP 399 Gary Kemp. Department of Philosophy. we need to be told why the subjective orientation is correct in the first place. But this sort of thing is likely to be heavy going. Equally. S. Glasgow G12 8QQ. such as Dickie's treatment of the aesthetic attitude. 36. if Scruton's analysis of disinterestedness—of 'for its own sake'—could show why only disinterested contemplation can be conceptually free. shows why they are justified or important. vol. we should want a definition which not only validates intuitions but one which grants them theoretical substance. For a recent historical treatment of the concept of disinterestedness which includes further references to the issue considered historically. vol. perhaps not without disputing the Kantian subjectivist starting-point in the first place.gla.org/ at Glasgow University Library on August 31. 'Beyond Disinterestedness'.Kemp@Philosophy. 2013 to regiment some version or derivative of Kant's subjective orientation in aesthetics—not only in order to yield the right answers but also to yield explanations with respect to cases. Kant's Aesthetic Theory (Basingstoke: Macmillan. 'Groundrules in the Philosophy of Art'. 3 (July 1994). no. Berleant. we should not be surprised if attempts at theory-free philosophical analysis. we would want to relieve the worry that there is no necessity in the way that the components of such a view are woven together. for example. see Nick Zangwill. Downloaded from http://bjaesthetics. as opposed to mere extensional adequacy. Philosophy.oxfordjournals. We should not assume that we can usefully pursue questions like 'is there an aesthetic attitude?' except in the context of a suitably rich theoretical atmosphere. the critic of the aesthetic attitude is unlikely to mount a cogent case without discussing those premises.