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Beauty: A case for subjectivity

October 29, 2009

I’ve been having a very active conversation with shematwater in the comments of one of my posts: Verbal laziness and beliefs. My response comments have become outrageously long…so long that they actually deserve new posts.

I won’t address everything I was trying to get at in the comments because I think I have talked over and over about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity for me…and what they represent. (Although, maybe I have not…and I just think I have…perhaps I will have to write a post after all).

Many times, I get the impression that people think that subjectivity is “cheapening” or “demeaning”. If someone suggests morality is subjective, people think the worst. If meaning and purpose are subjective, then people have this gut reaction that they don’t matter (because if they don’t objectively matter, then they don’t ultimately matter. Right?)

I disagree. I don’t think we need to cling to objectivity as we so often want…and in some cases, I think that we make the case most stronger when we acknowledge subjectivity. I’ll give an example with beauty.

Please, listen to this song by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum:

This is a beautiful song. Don’t you agree? I mean, not only is it amazing, but it is beautiful. Right? You agree, right? If you don’t, you are wrong.

…obviously, that’s not correct. Just because you do not also perceive the song as being beautiful doesn’t mean you’re wrong. And if I do perceive the song as being beautiful, this doesn’t mean I’m wrong or right.

How is this the case?

The thing is that beauty is not an objective trait of music. Beauty is not a trait inherent to the music. Rather, beauty is a stunning example of subjectivity. Beauty exists because I or you are around to interpret and project it.

The fact is that when we are listening to a piece of music like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, we are interfacing with several different data sources.

The first source is the pattern of frequencies and vibrations in the air. If you look up the definition of sound, you get varying levels of sterile-sounding science babble…like:

Sound is a travelling wave which is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing and of a level sufficiently strong to be heard, or the sensation stimulated in organs of hearing by such vibrations.

This first part…the “oscillation of pressure,” is the first source. This oscillation of pressure is persistent and consistent, or perhaps even objective. The “oscillation of pressure” doesn’t depend on any individual to be around to subjectively perceive it.

…that being said, that isn’t the only part in the definition of sound. In that great riddle, “If a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” some people would argue no, because sound definitionally must be perceived to exist. So, even in our definition, we have the second level: a “stimulation of organs” (namely, ear, brain, and so on). This second source isn’t objective, because it does depend on a being to subjectively perceive, but we can generally say some things about this level of subjectivity. Namely, because the beings who perceive sound (say, animals, humans and the like) are somewhat similarly wired, they do subjectively perceive sounds in similar ways depending on the “oscillation of pressure.” This is still subjective though, because we can identify differences in perception that have nothing to do with the oscillation of pressure. If you can’t think of an instance with sound, think of an instance with vision. Normally, humans interpret the wavelength range of light from 630 – 740 nm as something around this:



But, as we know, some humans perceive this wavelength differently.

And across species things get weirder.

But this subjectivity is still different from the third level…but let’s get back to the music to point out.

From the relationship of the pressure oscillations (objective) and our perception of them (subjective, but relatively persistent, consistent…sound), we can have another perception…this perception is a reaction or interpretation. For example, we owe our perception of “music” due to our ability to interpret patterns out of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and texture. So, our ability to perceive of patterns from nothing makes music out of noise…but then we go a step further — all without having to think of it consciously! What we do next is react based on whether we perceive the sound patterns as being particularly pleasureful, meaningful, or satisfying…or…in our English word…beautiful.

Now, just as our subjective interpretation of “sound” meant that sometimes, different perceivers could perceive differently…our subjective interpretation of “music” and “beauty” get even hairier…because while most of us are similarly built as toward what pressure oscillations “sound” like what notes (in the same way most of us are similarly built as toward what wavelengths “look” like what colors), we are more divergent as to what we perceive as beautiful. And so, we have vastly differing tastes and senses of beauty.

If beauty is subjective…and “one size does not fit all,” does that cheapen it? After all, it may not objectively exist. So doesn’t that mean it is ultimately futile?

The answer is: who cares? The deal is that objectivity was never what it was cracked up to be. See…we really don’t care…because the subjective experiences are good enough to convince us. And, most of the time, we talk as if we understand the subjectivity…for example, we understand that different people will like different music, and don’t hold it against them. We don’t feel that we have objectively superior music tastes and that people who disagree are objectively wrong. We don’t even see in terms of “objectively superior or right or wrong!”

Beauty is not cheapened by subjectivity…in fact, it is heightened when we recognize subjectivity (because then we don’t get into silly arguments about what the best music “objectively” is, when truly, the perception of “beauty” and related concepts were never objective).

But my point isn’t simply with beauty. I use beauty because most of us recognize that beauty is subjective. However, many times we experience other things that appear to be just as subjective as beauty yet want to insist that they are objective without looking for the cold hard facts of objectivity.

I think that, in such a case, we should be humble enough to recognize that our subjective experiences don’t neatly bridge to objective realities and if we want to continue to insist that they do, then we take this on faith. If we want to establish objectivity for things like, say, divinity or God, then that’s fine, but we must realize that appeals to subjectivity don’t do it. Similarly, even though I’d like you to believe that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is objectively beautiful, I must realize that I can’t appeal to my subjective experiencing of it as so to establish objective beauty to the pressure oscillations. These certainly speak about my subjective interpretations (which are certainly very important to me), but they don’t say much to everyone.


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  1. Sofal permalink

    I actually kind of like that song. It’s creative, thrashing, and as a percussionist I’m a sucker for 5/8.

  2. my grand master plan is in effect. Exposing one person at a time to new music…

  3. Shem Atwater (shematwater) is a Mormon missionary, and not a very good one I might add.

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