Yesterday in class, we considered John Stuart Mill’s hedonism, in which he maintains that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. I proposed that beauty (as well as truth) might also be an intrinsic good, and I wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts on that subject.
Intuitively, I consider some things to be beautiful and not pleasurable. For instance, when I read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or nearly any Russian author, I am really uncomfortable and on edge, inevitably leaving the book or play with the feeling that the world is terrible. And yet, there’s something still terribly beautiful about the way these authors portray the world.
I think there are two ways of explaining this idea. One simply reads this situation into the context of Mill’s philosophy, that in some strange sense, I actually enjoy feeling terrible, like a masochist. Perhaps this fascination is similar to horror movies, in which we, for some bizarre reason, enjoy being scared and uncomfortable. However, this still seems to misrepresent the situation somewhat, in that I frequently finish one of these works of literature and say, “I hated that, I never want to read it again, and yet it was good.” Maybe I just have weird sensibilities, but it seems like the aesthetic experience I have of these works are different than most other pleasures I have. I think a good Millian response is to take a position like Michael’s which defines pleasure more broadly as “positive mental states,” which include states like mental peace and meditation, which are not inherently “pleasurable.” Maybe aesthetic experience is like this.
I don’t think it is. (As we've seen, it’s dangerous to rely on intuitions, but here I stand!) I have a particular notion of beauty in that art (something that has beauty) expresses a truth about the human experience in a manner that the viewer/perceiver discovers that truth for themselves. It is the perception of this truth that makes it a good (or valuable) experience. When I experience conviction or the broader realization that the world is not a good place, I feel really crappy but am also satisfied that I now know the world better; it seems bizarre, though, to say that it is good because it gives me this small degree of satisfaction (compared to feeling terrible for the rest of the day).
Those are my thoughts- what do you think?