Hedonic aesthetics, short version

21 januari 2011 | In academia Happiness research Hedonism Self-indulgence | Comments?

Sometimes I get the awful feeling that I’m the only one left anywhere who finds any fun in life

– Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s novel Travels with my aunt


The quotation above is from one of my favorite novels, one about which I could write volumes (and probably would have, if another post doc suggestion of mine would have gone through. No bitterness, though. But seriously: let’s put the ”fun” back in ”funding”, what?). It is also how I like to begin certain lectures, as a response to the alleged decline of hedonism. Sometimes, in moral, aesthetic, social and whatever theory, you do get the feeling that the fun is missing, nearly banished, dismissed as to shallow, perhaps. This is a mistake, I believe. Just as in some context, it is advised that you ”follow the money” to find the culprit, when it comes to matters of value, you’re well advised to follow the pleasure.

Let’s zoom in on aesthetics. It seems quite clear that how good a piece of music or literature is, is not just a matter of what piece of music causes the greatest amount of pleasure in the greatest amount of people. If it was true ”the Da Vinci Code” would be ranked unreasonably high and Billie Holidays ”Gloomy Monday” unreasonably low. Some works of art, we say, are good not in spite of the negative emotion the stir, but because of them.

Most people understand that the questions ”What is good music” and ”What music do you like” are not the same question. The sort of music you’ll put on when submerging in a bath is not always the same sort of music you would put in a pod and send to outer space to impress alien civilizations. (Btw, you should probably also fight the temptation to send whatever is normally used in science fiction soundtracks nowadays).

But, and here comes the point with hedonic aesthetics: Even if we agree that ”What is good” and ”What do I like” are different questions, how different are they? Are the closely related, perhaps?  How does what I like relate to my value judgments, and vice versa? Is there an explanatory relation, some mode of inference? Do we use our likings as evidence for aesthetic value? Perhaps we reserve the use of value to things we like that we are proud of liking, or for things we like and believe that other under suitable circumstances would like to? Perhaps it is not what they would immediately like, but what they would like eventually, on a second, third, fourth re-reading. So that value judgments are really judgments about what is worthwhile.

The motivational force of value judgments would thus stem from their hedonic, liking, component. Their ”normative” force, as it were, their recommending function, would stem from being universalized by weeding away irrelevant and temporary likings. Of course, it is open to stipulate any subgroup of values, due to which group you intend it to hold for, and what grounds are allowed as relevant.

The work cut out for hedonic aesthetics, and for hedonistic theory in general, is to demonstrate how we go from immediate, instinctive likings, via affective, associationist learning and conditioning, to the full-fledged domain of values as we know them from ordinary discourse.

Surely, there’s some fun to be found in that?

The post doc’s dilemma

19 januari 2011 | In academia Ethics Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience politics Self-indulgence | Comments?

For the past year or so, I’ve been writing applications to fund my research. Most of these applications concerns a project that I believe holds a lot of promise. In very broad terms, it is about the relation between meta-ethics and psychopathy research. The thing about the project, which I believed was the great thing about it, is that it is not merely a philosopher reading about psychopathy and then works his/hers philosophical magic on the material. Nor is it a narrowly designed experiment to test some limited hypothesis. Both of these modi operandi (I’m sorry if I butcher the latin here) have serious flaws. The former is too isolated an affair as, unless the philosopher holds some additional degree, he/she is bound to misunderstand how the science work. The latter is too limited, in that we have not arrived at the stage where philosophically interesting propositions can be properly said to be empirically tested.

What is needed is careful theoretical and collaborative work, where researchers from the respective disciplines get together and enlighten each other about their peculiarities. This stage is often glossed over, leading to the theoretically overstated ”experiments in ethics” that have gotten so much attention lately. My research proposal, then, was deliberately vague on the testing part, but very vocal on the need for serious inter-disciplinary collaboration. Indeed, establishing such a collaboration, I believe, is the bigger challenge of the project.

Turns out, this is no way to get a post-doc funded, not here at least. There is no market for it. Possibly, I could get funding for doing the theory part at a pure philosophy department, which I could certainly do, but it would be a lot less exciting and important. Or, I could design some experiments and work at the scientific department, which I could currently not do, as I lack the training. The important work, the theoretically interesting work that I happen to be fairly qualified and very eager to perform, can’t get arrested in this town. What I thought was my nice, optimistic, promising and clearly visionary approach to what arguably will become a serious direction in both moral philosophy and psychological research, can’t get started.

I don’t want your pity (alright then, just a little bit, then). I just got a research position in a quite different project, so I’ll be alright. And hopefully, I’ll be able to return to this project later on. It just seems like an opportunity wasted.