Nick Zangwill, “Formal Natural Beauty” (2001)


1.       Things with dependent beauty (non-formal beauty)

          a.       Have a function

          b.       A beauty that expresses/articulates that function

          c.       To judge its beauty must subsume it under a category that picks out the function

2.       Free or formal beauty

          a.       Beauty does not express a function

          b.       Depends entirely on how thing is considered in itself

3.       Why assume all beauty is one or the other?

          a.       In particular, why focus on function?

          b.       Categorization and knowledge might be necessary even if the focus is not a thing's function or even if it has no function (such as inorganic nature)


4.       Extreme formalism: all beauty is formal beauty

5.       (Extreme) Anti-formalism: All beauty is non-formal beauty

          a.       Carlson’s view about nature in “Formal Qualities in the Natural Environment”

6.       Moderate aesthetic formalism (and moderate aesthetic anti-formalism): Much beauty of both sorts

7.       “Qua thesis”(which he thinks Carlson holds): must subsume things under correct scientific or common sense natural category

          a.       Natural things have their aes properties qua the natural kinds they are members of

8.       Strong and weak qua thesis

          a.       Strong: must subsume things under sci or common sense natural category

                    i.        Carlson’s view

          b.       Weak: Must appreciate a natural think as a natural thing (and not as an artificial thing)

                    i.        Malcolm Budd’s view

9.       Zangwill rejects both weak and strong qua thesis as too general

          a.       He thinks in many cases we must app a thing as the particular natural kind it is, but he rejects we always must do this


10.     Category dependent thesis of Walton/Carlson: Aesthetic judgments should be made in light of some category

11.     For Walton, unlike art where there are correct cats, for nature there are not correct cats or incorrect cats category relativity, or a plurality of acceptable correct cats, is compatible with being some incorrect cats

          a.       And things are category relative: natural thing can be beautiful relative to one category and not beautiful relative to another cat

          b.       Both cats have equal validity

12.     Carlson rejects category relativity for nature, but accepts category dependent

13.     Zangwill rejects the category dependent thesis as a general one in both art and nature

14.     He thinks Carlson right to reject Walton’s category relative view of nature


15.     Zangwill rejects Carlson and others’ assumption that if aes judgment about nature not category dependant, then objectivity and correctness not possible

          a.       Can have objective correctness even if aes judgment about nature are category independent(212)

          b.       Does Zangwill explain how this is possible?


16.     Moderate formalism: many aes judge about art are not category dependent

17.     He thinks it sometimes matters aesthetically what kind of creature we are appreciation or what part of a creature we are app (qua thesis)

18.     But also cases of purposeless beauty

          a.       What is the relationship between category dependent and purposive?

          b.       Zangwill assumes they amount to the same, but this does not seem true.


19.     For inorganic or nonbiological nature, category is always irrelevant

          a.       It only has formal aes properties.


20.     Indiscernible examples count against the qua thesis

          a.       He thinks plastic flowers do not differ aes from real ones

                    i.        Part of the pleasure is thinking the flowers are real living things, but that “might be a nonaes pleasure”

          b.       Even if fjords turn out to be artificially constructed, eventually get same aes exp

          c.       Theist and atheist don’t aesthetically experience nature differently

21.     Qua thesis for biological things sometimes okay:

          a.       They are (sometimes) beautiful qua the biological kind they are:

          b.       Qua thesis most plausible for parts of creatures: part is plausibly a beauty relative to its function; may have to know what the part does, its function in the organisms to see its non-formal beauty

          c.       Whole organisms often have a free beauty (not qua beauty)

22.     How determine which kinds are relevant, for they fall under many natural kinds?

          a.       Is leopard beautiful as a leopard and as a member of cat family and as a mammal and as a land animal and as a living thing?

          b.       This could be a real problem if they have non-combinable conflicting aesthetic properties when categorized differently


23.     Zangwill rejects Carlson’s whale example

          a.       Claims that a giant shark is not different in its beauty form a whale on the grounds that one is a fish and the other a mammal.

          b.       But he fails to address the details of Carlson’s example (it might look oafish and clumsy as a fish and graceful as a mammal)


24.     Dainty beauty of polar bear swimming under water an example of purely formal beauty (not beauty qua a natural kind)

                    i.    P. 215    

          b.       It is a surprising, dainty beauty

          c.       If polar bear were to have aes properties qua polar bear, we would expect it to have aes properties such as strong, vigorous, powerful, not dainty and elegant

          d.       Our surprise shows that it is not a beauty that we took to be dependent on our grasp of its polar bearness

          e.       Its aesthetic character has nothing to do with its being a polar bear

          f.       It has a category-free beauty (formal beauty)

25.     Worries

          a.       Isn’t the surprise in part due to the fact we are expecting it to be lumbering (given that we conceptualize it as a big polar bear); so the surprise is category-related

          b.       Perhaps even its daintiness is category related: It is dainty and elegant for a polar bear (which is a big powerful lumbering animal), but perhaps not if we conceptualized it as a ballet dancer

                    i.        Zangwill explicitly rejects this claim when he argues that “a ‘schmolar bear’ which is graceful on land and looks in water like polar bears do would not be less graceful underwater than the polar bear”

          c.       Is Zangwill assuming that the information from ours senses as we view the bear swimming is irrelevant if we view it as a kind (qua polar bear)?


26.     Artifactual bear has same (formal) beauty

          a.       Might turn out to be an artfully choreographed swimmer (or a machine) dressed in a polar bear suit: No matter still a beautiful spectacle

          b.       Beautiful underwater movement would still remain if it was somehow an artifact

          c.       Rejects even Budd’s weak qua thesis (must view it as a natural thing)


27.     Carlson may be right that many aes properties are only revealed to us once we conceptualize nature in right way

28.     What Zangwill resists is that we must conceptualize nature according to natural kinds to appropriately appreciate it aesthetically, for the aes properties the thing really has

          a.       Carlson could agree and say such an appreciation is shallow

          b.       Matthews might argue that without the additional conceptualization and knowledge, we can’t correct or confirm our initial (formal) aesthetic response


29.     Carlson ignores that nature full of surprises, and has incongruous beauty

          a.       For Carlson, natural things are to be “categorically tamed”

30.     Many natural things have a beauty that seems incongruous to us given what we know of the natural kind into which they fall

          a.       Sea horses and sea cucumbers beauty flouts their categories

          b.       They are not beautiful by flouting those categories

          c.       Their beauty has nothing to do with those categories

31.     Often beauty of natural things at odds with their natural kind categories.


32.     Extreme formalism for inorganic natural beauty seems obvious

          a.       “Surely when a natural thing has no purpose we need only consider what we can immediately perceive and we need not know about its origin”(Zangwill p.216)

          b.       Anything else may be interesting but it does not or should not affect aesthetic appreciation

          c.       Here again, I don’t see the connection between purpose and categorization. Things can have categories that apply to them separate from their purposes (or whether or not they have purposes)

          d.       So even if it is true that inorganic nature is purposeless/functionless, that does not mean that it lacks concepts crucial to understanding what it is and how to appreciate it


33.     Hepburn’s beach/sea bed example is a worry for Zangwill’s formalism because it suggests that history and context matter (which formalism denies)

          a.       Zangwill responds by splitting thinks up

                    i.        Flat area of sand at time T1 and sea bed at time T2

                    ii.       Each has different aes properties (T1 wild glad emptiness),

                    iii.      The fact that when the area at T1 is considered in light of the area at T2 it gains a new or different aesthetic property (disturbing weirdness) does not show that it did not have original property at T1 or that we must appreciate it at T1 in light of T2 (in light of history and context)

          b.       Analogy to a brief jolly passage sounding strange in a funeral march

                    i.        Considered in itself, it is jolly, but as part of a funeral march it is strange or inappropriate

          c.       Considered as part of larger whole which has certain aes properties, the part may not have same aes properties it has considered in itself

          d.       No threat to formalism as long as thing still retains its own aes properties and these are not annihilated by the wider whole

34.     Worries:

          a.       The issue is the appropriateness of appreciating something in isolation from its context or whole

          b.       If we really should interpret the jolly passage as a jolly passage in a funeral march (and not just as a jolly passage) then it really is not funny or jolly or nice, but inappropriate.

                    i.        One should not ignore the fact that the jolly passage is part of a funeral march

          c.       Anti-formalists would argue that one should not consider the wide expanse of beach independently from the fact that it is underwater 50% of the time.

          d.       Zangwill wants to isolate a part and consider it in itself in a way that anti-formalists would argues is not allowable or appropriate


35.     Frame problem and mind-independent aesthetic properties

36.     Denies that there is a volatility in beauty of nature due to indefiniteness of frames

          a.       As one modifies the frame in nature appreciation, does beauty of the whole which is framed fluctuate wildly?

          b.       Possible, but Zangwill doesn’t think there are in fact radical fluctuations in beauty as we modify the frame of nature (not ugly in this frame, beautiful in that)

37.     Substantive aes properties surely do vary as frame varies

          a.       Many individually delicate things (flowers) might be magnificently powerful in concert (such as a hillside covered in flowering gorse)

38.     Should just accept that nature is aes complex


39.     Frame dependence compatible with realism (mind-independent of aesthetic properties)

          a.       Aes properties that are relative to a frame can still be genuine mind-independent features of the world

          b.       Frame dependence is not mind dependence, for the frames are not mind-dependent

          c.       Certain combinations of things (frames) exist whether or not we choose to isolate them in our thoughts

          d.       If these combinations exist, so do aes properties they determine


40.     Beauty is relative to kinds of sensory experiences (mind-dependence?)

          a.       So aesthetic judgments are universally valid only among humans

          b.       Unlike morality which would apply to angels or any rational being

          c.       So we do get a kind of mind-dependence of aesthetic properties


41.     Contradictory aesthetic properties in nature not a problem

          a.       In a sense nature has contradictory aesthetic properties, but not in the same place and the same time

          b.       One combination of things does not have contradictory properties, but different combinations can do so

          c.       Makes the same point about objects in nature at different levels of magnification can have different aesthetic properties (colors, spiral design/rectilinear design)

          d.       Nothing mysterious about that.


42.     Budd thinks because we choose level of magnification with which to view nature, this shows that nature’s aesthetic properties are dependent on us

43.     Budd’s argument:

          a.       It is arbitrary or indeterminate at what level of magnification we should view a grain of sand (or any natural object), and thus that what aes properties it has is also arbitrary or indeterminate.

          b.       It might be beautiful at one level and ugly at another

          c.       It might possess conflicting substantive aesthetic properties at different levels

44.     Zangwill replies:

          a.       Nature is enormously complicated and aes varied

          b.       A natural thing might be elegant at a high level of magnification and not elegant at a lower level, just as the top left-hand corner of a painting might be elegant but not delicate while the bottom right hand corner might be delicate but not elegant.

                    i.        That different aesthetic properties are revealed by where we look does not show they are relative to or dependent on us

                    ii.       If we place ourselves differently, different aes properties of nature become available

          c.       Appeals to notion of total aes nature of a thing–sum of all aes properties that it possesses at all levels

                    i.        What if they are non-combinable? Is this sum possible?


45.     Conclusion: Moderate formalism about biotic nature is plausible and attractive, as is extreme formalism about inorganic nature.

          a.       Anti-formalists (Carlson and others) want us to appreciate nature with eyes of a connoisseur, but I think childlike wonder is often more appropriate.

                    i.        This is exactly the same point as Noel Carroll