Monday, July 26, 2010

The Science of the Violin and the Subjective/Objective Distinction

Readers of this blog--especially those intrigued by the issues raised in the last couple of posts--may enjoy a recent article in Science, "Probing the Secrets of the Finest Fiddles." In it, accoustics engineer James Woodhouse is quoted as saying, "We know pretty well how to distinguish a really bad instrument from a really good one. What distinguishes a pretty good instrument from a stratospheric instrument, I think we still don't know."

What particularly interests me here is that scientists have been able to discern measurable physical properties that distinguish instruments whose tone most listeners find lovely from instruments whose tone most listeners find tinny or in other ways less than beautiful. While a similar achievement hasn't been realized with respect to the differences between good and truly great instruments, scientists are not without hope or resources for making headway.

One implication of this fact is the following: Our aesthetic judgments in this area have been shown to track scientifically measurable differences. In this respect, even if we set aside the question of whether there are any realities beyond the physical ones scientists study, it seems that aesthetic judgments can and sometimes do track differences in the physical world.

This raises some questions about the sharp line that is often drawn between "objective" and "subjective" claims. Aesthetic judgments are routinely classified as "subjective," especially by naturalists. But on naturalist assumptions, is this entirely right? After all, that an object has a certain color is usually taken to be an objective claim (asserting something about the object that is true of it), even though color is ordinarily understood to be something that exists only "in our heads." Despite this, we treat color attributions as objective because our color experiences correlate with physical realities, tracking changes in the physical world. By contrast, calling a pizza tasty is said to be a subjective claim--that is, a claim which is really saying something about the speaker rather than about the pizza.

Could it be that this distinction is far muddier than we usually treat it as being, more a matter of degree than of differences in kind, even from a naturalist perspective?


  1. I completely agree, though I am not sure how significant this muddying is. The sense of beauty responds to physical phenomena, at least in part. Most humans are similarly constructed and have similar responses to phenomena. Ergo, what they find beautiful may often be characterizable in some objective way. And such beauties could further be justified objectively by their evolutionary functions (physical beauty/symmetry, deliciousness, etc.) or by their simple physical properties (harmonics in musical systems, for instance, or the attractiveness of pure colors).

    This doesn't really necessitate models of objective aesthetics, such as some correlation with heavenly or seismic phenomena when one has an orgasm, etc.

    Another way to let empiricism into the subjective may come when brain functions are well-characterized and outside observers are able to know what someone else is experiencing subjectively, supposing that the precise correlates of conscious (and unconscious) experience are worked out. Such a technique could then be traced back through other organisms that have subjective experience, and we can see just what is going on out there in the inscrutable animal world, to which we have been so callous.

    All this is not to say that the reverse is as relevant- that subjectivity is somehow "veridical" for non-subjective questions. Hopefully we have higher standards than that.

  2. Eric,

    Beauty is a dynamic part of our experience of life. Therefore I wonder sometimes whether it may not be the case that beauty not only resonates with our mind, but also reshapes it. I have the impression that, for example, great artists do not create works that we perceive as great, but create works with the power to transform us into perceiving them as great. Or, perhaps I should say, with the power to inspire us to transform ourselves into perceiving them as great, for there is certainly the element of personal freedom in the appreciation of art. Which means that in the case of great art, we ourselves become an active part of the artist’s creative process, and thus in a sense co-creators.