Rambling thoughts on random topics

New Cathedral, Salamanca

“Ethics and aesthetics are one”

The internal relation between ethics and aesthetics that Wittgenstein suggests in this statement is difficult to come to grips with. However, it is clear that whatever the commonality, there is also difference. 

To start with the latter, aesthetic judgements are expressible, in language, by means of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. But ethical judgments are not. Aesthetic judgments form a practice, a system of norms, actions, objects, that is shared by a community. With that comes relativism: over time, and also contemporaneously, over communities. But ethical values are universal. In these (and related) respects ethics and aesthetics are definitely not one. 

The counterpart of an aesthetic practice in the realm of ethics seems to be a moral practice. Moral judgements, too, are expressible, are based on norms that are shared in a community, and thus form a practice . And like aesthetic practices, moral practices, too, display relativism, over time and contemporaneously.

Now for the commonality. As we have argued elsewhere (World and Life as One, chapter 4), morality can be regarded as instrumental with respect to ethics: that is to say, moral norms are not expressions of absolute value, but are instruments that can be used to realise those values. If “being in harmony” with whatever way the world is constitutes the absolute ethical goal, then the moral norms of a community serve as the reflection of those contingent, but relatively stable aspects of the world that this community finds itself in that are morally relevant in that are conducive to the realisation of that ethical goal.

Could we construct a similar relationship in the domain of aesthetics between the absolute and the relative-instrumental? There are at least two reasons to think so. 

First of all, there is the short reference to the sublime in the Lectures on Aesthetics: the gothic cathedral, the Beethoven symphony. These are objects that transcend the rules of aesthetic practices, in much the same way as absolute ethical value transcends the rules of moral practices. It is the nature of the sublime, its absoluteness, that is responsible for that. From that angle, we can view an aesthetic practice as instrumental with respect to the sublime. Engaging in aesthetic practices is a way of preparing oneself for what transcends it, viz., the creation and experience of works that are sublime.  

Secondly, there is the discussion in Culture and Value of the expressive relation between civilisation (culture) and human value. A civilisation, Wittgenstein argues, is a contingent expression of absolute value, and the disappearance  of a particular such expression (much as we may regret it) leaves the absolute value untouched. What is important to note is that what Wittgenstein identifies as expressions of the sublime, of the absolute, are exactly that: expressions, not the thing itself. (Recall the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon.) 

Here we do well to recall Wittgenstein’s characterisation of his ethical experiences in A Lecture on Ethics: these, too,  are emphatically mere expressions, and not the values themselves. Thus, expressions may differ, and will differ, according to the moral or aesthetic practices that they are a part of. And the variation may even extend to the individual level. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2020