Frank Sibley "Aesthetic Concepts" selection from the article of the same name 1959



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Frank Sibley “Aesthetic Concepts” selection from the article of the same name 1959.
Frank Sibley (1923-1996) was a British philosopher who worked mainly in the field of aesthetics. He was a professor of philosophy at Lancaster University. Sibley is best know for his 1959 paper "Aesthetic Concepts" (Philosophical Review, 68), and for "Seeking, Scrutinizing and Seeing" (Mind, 64, 1954). Both papers (and some others) have been anthologized, "Aesthetic Concepts" multiple times. Sibley has been considered an important contributor to Aesthetics in the analytical tradition. His collected papers, including some posthumous, were published by Oxford University Press in 2001 as Approach To Aesthetics, together with a companion volume of critical and evaluative essays on his work.” Wikipedia entry accessed 2/10/09


  1. Aesthetic terms include: unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless, serene, somber, dynamic, powerful, vivid, delicate, moving, trite, sentimental, tragic, “telling contrast,” “sets up a tension,” etc.

    1. includes terms used both by laymen and professionals

  2. Often people with normal intelligence and senses to not have the sensitivity to apply such terms: and even intelligent people may not see that something is, for example, graceful.

    1. Taste or sensitivity (when it is wide-ranging and refined) is somewhat rarer than other human abilities.

    2. Maybe this is why disputes over application of aesthetic terms often go unsettled.

    3. Yet, almost everyone can exercise taste to some degree.

  3. We often support our attribution of aesthetic terms by referring to other aesthetic features: e.g., this is dainty because it is delicate

    1. This is like saying someone is intelligent because inventive, etc.

    2. Often we support attribution of the term by referring to things that do not themselves require taste: “delicate because of its pastel shades…”

      1. Here we are asking what non-aesthetic features make something delicate.

      2. The good critic often gives what seems the right explanation.

      3. Aesthetic qualities ultimately depend upon non-aesthetic features, e.g. curving or angular lines, color contrasts, placing of masses, or speed of movement. [Sibley seems not to think that this claim requires any argument: but I don’t think it is necessarily true: most philosophers disagree with me, however.]

      4. We are talking about the relation between aesthetic qualities and non-aesthetic features.

      5. But, [this is a major point] no non-aesthetic features are conditions for applying aesthetic terms. [i.e. you cannot prove that something is delicate or beautiful.]

  4. Being a good chess player can only count towards intelligence. For example, “I say he is intelligent because he is a good chess player.”

    1. In cases like this, some group of conditions is sufficient for a term to apply: for example if you have a number of such features then you must be intelligent.

    2. There is no definition of intelligence in terms of necessarily and sufficient conditions, however. [This would make “intelligent” different from “triangle.” In Sibley’s time, philosophers had become skeptical of Plato’s idea that everything could be defined like “triangle” and “water” in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Most philosophers are still skeptical of that idea, although many do try to come up with such definitions.]

  5. Aesthetic concepts are not even condition-governed in the limited way that “intelligence” is.

    1. There is no set of features that would warrant application of an aesthetic term such as “graceful.” [I agree with Sibley on this point.]

    2. We cannot say for instance “If the vase is pale pink, somewhat curving, lightly mottled, and so forth, it must be delicate.”

  6. It is not simply that there are no sufficient conditions for taste concepts. Taste concepts are not even as condition-governed as “defeasible” concepts.

    1. “Defeasible” concepts are ones in which we cannot state sufficient conditions since there is always a list of defeating conditions. [These concepts are sometimes found in law]. For example, certain things can only count towards “valid contract,” for example “offer” and “acceptance,” and certain other things can only count against it, for example that it was made under duress.

    2. Defeasible concepts are still condition-governed, whereas taste concepts are not governed by conditions at all.

  7. Although, in applying words like “lazy” and “intelligent” we need to use judgment, we do not exercise taste. Judgment involves weighing the pros and cons, and sometimes we have to decide about new features.

    1. Examples may be used here, but we are not out of the realm of general conditions.

    2. Although examples may help us to learn taste terms we cannot derive conditions from them.

  8. Someone knowing he lacked aesthetic sensitivity might, through intelligent guessing and formulation of rules, say the right things. But he could have no certainty. A slight change in the object might ruin his calculations.

    1. He can only think that an object is “very possibly delicate.”

    2. He would not even be beginning to show an awareness of what delicacy is, unlike the case with “lazy.”

    3. Indeed, we could easily convince him wrongly that something was delicate.

    4. He would have no more reason to choose tasteful objects than a deaf man would have to avoid noisy places. [He would be taste deaf or taste blind.]

    5. We could not praise him for having taste.

  9. By contrast, there is the critic. She supports her judgments and gets her audience to see what she sees. [Sibley didn’t use the feminine pronoun, but I thought I would since many great critics are women. Rosalind Krauss is one example.] But how?

    1. She may mention or point out non-aesthetic features. “Notice those flecks of color…”

      1. She gets us to see aesthetic qualities by mentioning non-aesthetic qualities.

      2. She may just point out features unnoticed by the untrained person.

    2. She may mention the very qualities she wants people to see: “how nervous and delicate the drawing is.”

    3. Most often she will link remarks about aesthetic and non-aesthetic features.

    4. She may use smiles and metaphors: for example, “as though he had thrown on the paint violently and in anger”

    5. She may use contrasts, comparisons and reminiscences.

    6. What is best depends on the audience and the work.

    7. The critic will often repeat what she says, for example the word “balance” in front of the same painting: “as if time and familiarity, looking harder, listening more carefully, paying closer attention may help.”

      1. She may also engage in variation: e.g. talk around what she said, using perhaps a barrage of near-synonyms.

    8. She may accompany her talk with certain tones of voice and gestures.

  10. These methods are the natural ones for taste concepts.

    1. Our ability to notice and respond to aesthetic qualities is cultivated and developed by our contacts with parents and teachers.

    2. The methods for teaching us how to use taste concepts are the same used by critics.

  11. Some people have taste that is more refined: “when someone can call bright canvasses gay and lively without being able to spot the one which is really vibrant…we do not regard his aesthetic sensitivity in [this matter] as particularly developed.” (477)

    1. The initial steps however are natural and easy.





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