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Andrei Pop reviews Beyond Speculation

Jean-Marie Schaeffer. Beyond Speculation: Art and Aesthetics without Myth. Trans. Daffyd Roberts. Chicago: Seagull Books, 2015. 372 pp.

Review by Andrei Pop

10 May 2016

Jean-Marie Schaeffer is a French analytic philosopher of art. But the label is bound to mislead: Schaeffer is as critical of American aestheticians, from Monroe Beardsley to Arthur Danto, as he is of French poststructuralists. In his view, art theory took a fateful turn with Immanuel Kant, whose (correct) emphasis on aesthetic experience, coupled with his (calamitous) view of a disinterested, conceptless cognition of aesthetic objects goaded G. W. F. Hegel and the romantics into wresting art from the aridity of modern aesthetics. The art theory they invented celebrates art as a vehicle of meaning but severs it from everyday life, pleasure, and natural beauty: aesthetics writ large.

It sounds like a tall order to overturn two centuries of aesthetic thought, but Schaeffer is both modest and methodical; after introducing the trouble with Kant, he treats the overrated concepts of artwork (chapter 1) and aesthetic judgment (chapter 3), interleaving positive accounts of aesthetic behavior (chapter 2) and aesthetic objects and the attention they receive or at least deserve (chapter 4). His style is not exegetical but direct and commonsensical. For instance, Schaeffer plausibly argues that even “pure” pleasures, being pleasures, will be sought out and cannot remain more than trivially disinterested (a point already made by Bernard Bolzano in 1843) (see pp. 96–97). And against Danto’s comparison of two basket-weaving cultures—whose objects are identical but in one case imbued with deep meaning—Schaeffer points out that Danto has described a religion rather than an art practice (see pp. 52–3). Other dogmas are punctured with pithy testimony from Stendhal, a cherry blossom connoisseur, or a turnip taster. The positive thesis Schaeffer builds on this varied evidence is that taste is fully one’s own and subjective, while aesthetic attention (whether confronting sonata or turnip) has to follow definite structures of light, sound, taste, and others, and thus constitutes knowledge, to count as experience of an object.

The book thus mirrors the division between Kantian aesthetics and Hegelian art theory as a division between incorrigible aesthetic pleasure and the shared world of reception and criticism. So Schaeffer, though down to earth, is hardly antimetaphysical. But he might reply that he has located the dualism where it belongs: between the perceiving subject and an object shot through with derived human intentionality. If this is true, the author has still some ways to go toward proving it. Instead of relying on the authority of Gérard Genette, Schaeffer should have provided his own account of how subjective taste is consistent with the structures we jointly find in artworks. The possibility of experience, and thus knowledge, accessible only to one observer threatens the whole edifice. And while he sets up no ringing aesthetic antinomies only to let them solve themselves (an amusing boast of the Critique of Judgment), in his cavalier overconfidence Schaeffer is just like Kant.