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Beauty’s Difficulties: Subjective and Objective

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series

"Doxology: A Theology of God's Beauty"

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Perhaps the most frequent objection levelled at those wishing to see beauty restored to a central place in Christian thinking is that beauty represents “subjective” knowledge: inward experience known only to a perceiving subject. Thinkers in the modernist tradition still hold that some forms of knowledge can be known objectively, while transcendental values such as beauty, cannot.

Conversely, those in the postmodern tradition take subjectivism to its logical conclusion. According to them, whatever is outside the consciousness of the subject cannot be known independently or separately of that subject; indeed, any claim to “objective” knowledge would once again originate from within a subject, meaning the claim would be circular or incoherent. A claim to know anything comes from a subject; how then could any subject claim access to a knowledge independent of his or her own cognition?

Actually, the problem is mostly a 500 year-old Western problem. Premoderns did not wrestle with the question of the conflict between subjective and objective knowledge. The ancients understood themselves as participants in reality, and they understood that sense perceptions of the world outside the observer were conjunctions between reality and the perceiver. For example, the phenomenon of a rainbow is real and is perceived as such by a subject, but it does not represent a concrete object with independent existence outside of the observer. It requires a subject to perceive the phenomenon of a rainbow. And yet the phenomenon is not merely a psychological one; it represents something real in the world. Subject and object combine. Premoderns saw all sensory experience like the rainbow.

Plato’s theories were similar. Plato understood that knowledge of the external world is verified through access to permanent, unchanging universals. In other words, certainty is not obtained through an interrogation of particular phenomena, but by knowing to what ideal form or essence the material phenomena correspond. This view of “metaphysical realism”, that there are ultimate realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, prevailed through the Middle Ages.

The rise of nominalism in the thirteenth century changed all that. Originally an attempt to preserve God’s absolute freedom, nominalism severed the link between ultimate realities (such as beauty), and their presence in our world. All that remained were concrete instances of things, to which we gave the name (or the descriptor) beautiful. This would develop into the rationalism of Descartes. Descartes’ scepticism about the reliability of the senses leads to the idea that perception and reason are entirely different. The Cartesian view is one of the great disintegrating philosophies of all time, setting the mind against the sensory and the intuitive. Participation is all but dead: objects exist without observers, subjects perceive passively and then choose to interpret these perceptions. Meaning is moved from the world to the mind. Meaning no longer inheres in things, it becomes a property of minds who perceive or judge meaning internally. External objects may be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are self-generated by the subject.

You can see what this means for beauty. Beauty cannot be a universal or transcendant property instantiated in our world. Instead, all that exist are objects upon which we project the notion of beauty. Beauty exists not jointly between subject and object, but solely in the subject.

This would develop into the empiricism of Locke and Hume, where transcendentals like beauty are all but fictions we impose upon our experience. Immanuel Kant attempted to come to the rescue, suggesting a two-storey approach to knowledge: matters that can be empirically and rationally proved (phenomena), and those that cannot (noumena), such as morals and beauty. Unfortunately, Kant did not solve the debate; in many respects, he created a permanent wedge between subjective and objective knowledge. Positivists were willing to go beyond Kant to abandon the concept of the noumenal altogether. Whatever cannot be verified by empirical means may be, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Romantics, on the other hand, felt that science had discredited Christianity and saw Kantian noumena as the epistemological way out. Kant’s upper story of the noumenal could be safely protected from the lower story of empiricism, rationalism and materialism.

The result of the Enlightenment was a two-storey view of truth: an objective category for matter, subject to empiricism’s exacting methods; and a subjective category for mind and transcendentals, subject to an increasingly existential outlook. Beauty had gone from a real universal, to a property of objects understood by the mind, to a relational property sensed by those with taste, to a construct of the mind imposed upon objects. Kant’s early transcendental idealism would blossom into the existentialism of postmodernism: a full blown subjectivism and an anti-aesthetic. What are the Christian responses to this dilemma? We’ll consider that next.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

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