Do we have reasons to like a work of art? Philosopher Derek Parfit had an answer

Piero Bisello

2017 is the year where the philosophy community lost one of its acclaimed members, Derek Parfit, considered by many the most important moral philosopher of the late 20th century, at least in the English-speaking world. His very influential writings inspired generations of thinkers and even if he was hardly a specialist in aesthetics, some interesting reflections can follow from the arguments that he did write about art. After an extraordinary career that saw him holding a position as senior research fellow at Oxford and visiting professor at Harvard, Rutgers and New York University, Parfit is best remembered today for his ideas on personal identity and ethics, age-old matters to which he was able to contribute with original and striking theories.

In Reasons and Persons published in 1984, he proposed some strong arguments and thought-experiments to show that what really constitutes a person is but his or her psychological states and psychological consistency. For these reasons he considered that if these conditions change, one cannot be said to be the same person as he or she once was because there is nothing in the self that remains unchanged over time and gives identity to that person. Once personal identity is approached in such way, Parfit thought that the self becomes less important in a moral sense too, and our actions towards other people assume an entirely different ethical character. For example he asked why one would privilege his or her own future well being over that of another person right now if oneself doesn’t persist over time. Questions relating morality along with an investigation into what makes a person’s action grounded in reasons are the subject of his last book On What Matters, which contains a brief discussion about art.

What are Parfit’s views on art? He himself was an active photographer and poet in his youth, but did he think that art had any importance to explain our reasons to act as rational individuals? Not so much can be found but this brief passage seems to show that for Parfit art had little to do with rationality and morality, insofar as an artwork is taken for its mere formal qualities. As Vox journalist Dylan Matthews rightly points out in a recent article, this is quite an odd moment in the book:

“It is sometimes claimed that we have reasons to enjoy, or be thrilled or in other ways moved by, great artistic works. In many cases, I believe, this claim is false. We can have reasons to want to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these artistic works. But these are not reasons to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these works. We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express. But poetry is what gets lost in the translation, even if this translation expresses the same ideas. And we never have reasons to enjoy, or be moved by, great music. If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvellous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason. Modulations to distant keys are like the herbs, spices, or other ingredients that can make food delicious. When someone neither enjoys nor is moved by some great musical work, this person is not in any way less than fully rational, by failing to respond to certain reasons.”

In other words, Parfit claims that liking or disliking a certain artwork is never a matter of rationality and therefore it is nonsense to say that one ought to like or ought to dislike a certain work of art. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to those sensations that are beyond rationality such as hunger or lust and the philosopher seems to compare them with liking an artwork. However, Parfit is careful in recognising that some artworks are more than just hedonistic objects. He says that “we do have reasons to admire some [artworks] given the importance of some of the ideas that they express”.

Take for example Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. Perhaps we know nothing about the artist or the painting, and we simply approach the depicted scene neutrally. We might come to like it or dislike it and, as Parfit would say, we wouldn’t have any reasons to like it or dislike it. But what if we are told that the artist is depicting the decapitation of a mythological figure in such a way that she is in fact denouncing and condemning her own rape? The situation would morally change. We would be given reasons to be moved by the painting and we would fail to be rational if we were not.
Parfit continues by saying that the artwork is what ‘gets lost in the translation of that idea’, which is to say that the pleasure we might get from the mere formal qualities of a painting cannot be a rational matter. It follows that every rational discussion about art cannot limit itself to a discussion about formal qualities, a conclusion that matches what’s been done in art theory for the last century or so.

Even if Parfit’s work won’t especially influence departments of aesthetics in philosophy faculties, we have seen that his short argument about art appreciation from On What Matters clearly pointed to some relevant topics in today’s art theory debates. And beyond On What Matters, we are also convinced that some of his insights into the problem of personal identity in Reasons and Persons will be extremely helpful to better frame the conception of the artistic individuality as it exists in the contemporary art world.

November 25, 2020