Aesthetic Decisions

There’s a picture of Rosalind E. Krauss that always makes me want to write. Some phrases, such as “stand by your text” and “to know, one must burn,” (Calasso, 2014) make me want to argue. Some paintings, such as The Minotaur by G. F. Watts, make me want to endure suffering. Thinking about certain people makes me want to read. Looking at pictures of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten makes me want to do research. What I want to show with this is how important aesthetics are for our decisions.

So what exactly do I mean by aesthetics? I could go through the etymology and the definition of aesthetics, but this won’t capture what I mean. The examples above should suffice since aesthetics is a family resemblance concept: aesthetics might not have a fixed essence. There may instead be a “network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” in the sense Nietzsche introduced and Wittgenstein developed (Wittgenstein, 1953/2010, p. 36). There are no exact standards for what counts as a sufficiently strong resemblance for the term ‘aesthetics’ to be applicable.

Our entire lives are, in a sense, governed by aesthetic categories. I admit that my view of what’s “good for me” is based ultimately on aesthetics (and probably, so is yours). I would follow Nietzsche in claiming that the good life is not ‘useful,’ ‘moral,’ or ‘authentic,” but admirable. To use Plato’s terminology, this is a very silver (Plato, Republic) way of thinking. And admiration is an aesthetic category (Geuss, 2009, p. 95).

Both admiration and disgust can be seen as powerful forces which move human beings to action. For Nietzsche, some of the most important characteristics of a person are her or his aesthetic preferences. Specifically, preferences concerning feelings of admiration and disgust (Geuss, 1999, p. 187).

What is instinctively repugnant to us, aesthetically, is what the very longest experience has demonstrated to be harmful, dangerous, suspect to man: the aesthetic instinct which suddenly raises its voice (e.g., when we feel disgust) contains a judgement. To this extent, the beautiful belongs within the general category of the biological values of the useful, beneficent, life-intensifying: but in such a way that many stimuli which very distantly remind us of and are associated with useful things and states arouse in us the feeling of the beautiful, i.e., of growth in the feeling of power. (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 201-202)

Yet different people experience what Nietzsche calls the “value feeling of the beautiful” through different things. The experience of beauty and ugliness cannot in any way be objective: “To experience a thing as beautiful necessarily means experiencing it wrongly” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 203). But there is one thing aesthetic categories have that ethical ones lack: they are almost always resistant to our will.

There are no ‘objectively’ admirable or disgusting properties, but it is also true that we can’t simply decide to feel admiration or disgust. These feelings aren’t subject to arbitrary decisions. I can’t ‘decide’ to no longer find a girl beautiful. You can’t ‘decide’ to find Scarpa’s Tomba Brion disgusting. How much you can control what arouses these feelings in you will depend partially on your personality.

To freely have or not have your affects, your pros and cons, to condescend to them for a few hours; to seat yourself on them like you would on a horse or often like you would on an ass: – since you need to know how to use your stupidity as well as you know how to use your fire. (Nietzsche, 1886/2002, p. 171)

  • Calasso, R. (2014). Ardor. Penguin UK.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2010). Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons. (Original work published 1953)
  • Plato. Republic.
  • Geuss, R. (2009). Outside Ethics. Princeton University Press.
  • Geuss, R. (1999). Morality, Culture, and History: Essays on German Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. (2003). Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. (2002). Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1886)

One response to “Aesthetic Decisions”

  1. […] So my system consists of two things: a notebook for reading and ephemeral notes and a folder on my computer for my permanent notes. The reasons I keep a physical notebook are as follows: (1) writing things down makes you remember them, (2) a notebook is more portable than a laptop, (3) I don’t have to worry about formatting, searchability, etc., (4) writing by hand forces you to make your notes more concise, (5) I don’t get distracted by a computer while reading, and (6) aesthetics. […]


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