Last summer I found this copy of a book I’d long been curious about on the “discard” shelves of the East Hampton Library. It had been inscribed 30 years before that to Priscilla and Jeffrey “with love” by its author, who passed away in 2008; tucked into the book was a photocopy of a review of it from the March 22, 1985 TLS, by Richard Wollheim, who was briefly my next-door neighbor in London. It’s hard to say why I sometimes enjoy reading works of philosophical aesthetics in the Anglo-American analytical tradition, since their sense of their ultimate subject matter — art, or the arts — is so far removed from my own as a poet and critic. Maybe it’s just that: such writings sharpen through contrast my sense of the specificity of my position. And when the writing is good, as it is in Mothersill’s case, it helps me remember how inseparable style and idea are. Like all good philosophy, Mothersill’s can only be conveyed by way of considerable artifice. Her style has a sort of 18th-century gentility to it, pitched at a curious midpoint between Hume’s clubbability and Kant’s knotty involutions. Her deadpan humor at times verges on the surreal: “to remark on the beauty of, say, a snowdrift one need not empanel a jury.” (Monty Python might have replaced the jury with the Spanish Inquisition.) Or this quasi-koan about a man fishing, who is informed, “This is a reservoir; there are no fish,” and replies, “It doesn’t matter; I‘m fishing for pleasure.” That’s sort of how I read philosophy books. Perhaps for this reason I wish she had gone more deeply into her brief discussion of what she calls “mindless pleasures” — daydreaming, rolling a piece of chalk between one’s fingers, lining up paper clips — and taken more seriously their relation to what we call art. Anyway, Mothersill supports but revises Kant’s Third Critique by attempting to show that there are no principles or laws of taste, but that judgements of taste are, as she puts it, “genuine” — not a roundabout way of talking about oneself, for instance, but really about specific things in the world. Her view that Kant was mistaken in making the sublime a separate category from the beautiful rings true. But I can’t help but think that she herself is tripped up by the 18th-century idea that the paradigmatic form of aesthetic judgement is “x is beautiful.” That’s just too limiting, and appears to be a byproduct of the desire to differentiate statements of morality (good), scientific knowledge (true), practical evaluation (useful), and aesthetics (beautiful). But most objects of aesthetic judgement are not meant to be beautiful; really, we just call them good (as in, “Read this book, it’s good!”). Also, I am unconvinced by her idea that aesthetic judgments are only ever for individual works, that “this rose is beautiful” is a valid statement but “roses are beautiful,” no. On the contrary: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, and civilization’s just another word for “where they hold that roses are beautiful.” Likewise, art is good, or beautiful, or whatever, and not just this or that work of art — not for Mothersill, but in reality, e.g., for me. I’ve long been aware that the downfall of philosophical aesthetics was its fixation on the object, and now I suspect that a fixation on the singular is part of the same problem.
Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored (1984) was published by Oxford University Press and is out of print.