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Skip to main content. You're using an out-of-date version of Internet Explorer. By using our site, you agree to our collection of information through the use of cookies. To learn more, view our Privacy Policy. Log In Sign Up. Anna Bergqvist. Contemporary research involves two related yet distinct debates: i that between the particularist and the generalist on the status of moral principles; and ii that between holists and atomists on the nature of reasons. I argue that we should understand Sibley as subscribing to both particularism and a version of holism about aesthetic reasons. One has to look and see.

All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals. This is, of course, not to deny that these relationships could be principled, but simply that such principles would have no part to play in making an aesthetic judgement. As far as this claim goes, Sibley aligns himself with Jonathan Dancy who provides this articulation of particularism: A particularist conception [of ethics] is one which sees little if any role for moral prin- ciples.

Particularists think that moral judgement can get along perfectly well without any appeal to principles, indeed that there is no essential link between being a full moral agent and having principles. And this is because such properties are inherent merit-properties. It follows that if the work is valuable in virtue of possessing property merit-property p, the reason for this is that p is good-making when considered in isolation.

I return to his use of tout court in due course. Suffice it to say that the term means something quite different from in vacuo. The specific value-contributions of such merit-properties as humour and dramatic intensity may not actually be positive as so situated in the context of the particular work. Indeed, as we shall see, Sibley uses prima facie in much the same way as Ross and not in its legalistic sense , furthering this connection.

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With defeasibility, inherently positive features never become negative in a particular instance. But where there is possible interac- tion in a complex whole, as in art-works, what in vacuo is inherently an aesthetic merit may itself, in conjunction with other inherently positive features in that com- plex, become a defect. John Bender emphasizes the difference with Ross on exactly these grounds: that Sibley holds the polarity of an aesthetic reason may be reversed in suitable contexts is, for Bender, sufficient for ruling out any useful comparison between Sibley and 9 Ibid.

Within the ethical debate, theorists contrast two distinct views on the behaviour of rea- sons. Dancy puts it like this: Holism in the theory of reasons: a feature that is a reason in one case may be no reason at all, or an opposite reason, in another. Atomism in the theory of reasons: a feature that is a reason in one case must remain a reason, and retain the same polarity, in any other.


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More generally, we offer explanations of a great many things in everyday life by specifying the salient feature or features of the resultance base in virtue of which some feature or consideration of the particular circum- stances emerges as, say, graceful as a result. Ross, The Right and the Good [], ed. For Beardsley, the contribution of complexity, intensity, and unity does not vary in this way.

Sibley and the Prima Facie If this analysis of Sibley as a holist seems plausible, then his use of the notion of prima facie is brought into question. And the key thought behind prima facie reasons for Ross is that they are always relevant—they always count in the mix—even if they might ultimately be overridden or undermined. And likewise for Sibley, we can think of aesthetic reasons as forming a distinct subset of reasons, such that the only reasons relevant for aesthetic evaluations will be aesthetic reasons because the only way that the value inherent in the possession of a merit-property can be defeated or re- versed is through interaction with some other merit-property.

On the basis that the work does possess other merit-properties, one will have to look in order to see how the qualities interact with one another, which will reveal the actual reasons for making an evaluation, and whether the prima facie reason is, say, undermined or reversed.

This kind of holism if we can think of the theory as such is slightly different from that defended by Dancy since Dancy maintains that there is no way to apply restrictions on what might count as a moral reason in any particular situation. The first concern is that the inherent value of a merit-property is irrelevant for the mak- ing of an aesthetic judgement.

In response to this problem of relevance, it should be said that Sibley does not think that prima facie reasons are to be thought of as playing this kind of role in making aesthetic judgements, but as justifying or explaining such judgements. So if we value a work for being elegant, there is no further reason required that accounts for why we have made a positive judgement.

So, provided a work possesses only one merit-property, the valence of the corresponding reason can be established. The issue with this strategy is that it is unreasonable to think that other features of the context could not interact in the same kind of way. Suppose that w is harmonious, and possesses no other inherent merit-property, and that being harmonious is a prima facie merit. Now Sibley is committed to thinking that w must be valuable for being harmoni- ous. But suppose that w is a piece of futurist art. Would this not reverse the polarity of the prima facie reason, so that w is actually disvaluable for its harmony?

If this sounds plausible, then it means that we cannot restrict the relevant interactions to just those between merit-properties being a futurist work is not a merit-property , and so even works which possess only one merit-property may not be suitably isolated for establishing the polarity of prima facie value. This suggestion seems to cut against the current claim that the only relevant interactions are those between inherent merit-properties, in which case the value of a work which pos- sesses only one inherent merit-property cannot be a reliable indicator of the in vacuo value of that property.

Having made these criticisms, it is important to recognize the benefit of maintaining a non-flat aesthetic landscape whereby there is a difference between something being elegant and something being, say, blue, and until a satisfactory alternative can be articulated, it remains an attractive option to hold that what distinguishes the aesthetic from the non- aesthetic is the inherent value of the former.


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  • I think that he means holist rather than particularist here, although I am not sure why he thinks this point is overlooked by the holist or the particularist. Talk of tendencies has recently cropped up within the particularism—generalism debate in ethics. So why is this? Well, the inadequacy as I see it stems from issues surrounding the characterization of the conditions under which the relevant properties behave.

    Indeed, Bender writes that the value of certain features is: a result of how instances of those properties behave, on the whole, in the interactive contexts of the works that possess them—if elegance, e. However, normal conditions are such that fish eggs actually tend not to develop into fish the majority of eggs actually get eaten , and yet we do want to say that the presence of fish eggs counts as a prima facie reason for believing that we will get fish.

    For an aesthetic illustration, consider a world in which the Futurist Manifesto has been largely successful, so that most art that is 21 Ibid. Such generalizations are modal claims that are entailed by true generic statements that report a general feature of individual instances of a kind, which go beyond individual facts and thus tolerate exceptions.

    Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. II Oxford, Oxford U. It would then be tempting to think that the possession of harmony would not tend to be a reason for making a positive aesthetic judgement but, rather, would usually under the normal conditions of this Futurist world be a reason for making a negative aesthetic judgement.

    So on this understanding of defeasibility it looks as though Bender is committed to saying that in this Futurist world, being harmonious is a prima facie reason for making a negative judgment. The important point here is that there is a crucial distinction between background assumptions and background conditions.

    Knowing Art: Essays in Aesthetics and Epistemology (Philosophical Studies Series)

    Now, if there are such reasons that would entitle one to proceed a certain way in reasoning without any interfering factors, then the possibility of strange worlds may pose a problem for the view. For if we shift the initial background conditions, then it would seem that what would be an epistemic default with respect to reasoning under the background conditions of the actual world ceases to be one.

    Dominic McIver Lopes. Something went wrong. Please try your request again later. Dominic Lopes teaches philosophy at the University of British Columbia and writes on images and their value, computer art, and the nature and value of art. His work builds on the premise that works of art should be understood as artifacts of the human mind as well as of human culture.

    Aisthesis. Pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell’estetico

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