Hunger-Striking and Ideal Judges

As some of you know, I have been on hunger-strike this week as a small token of solidarity with the detainees held without trial at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. During this week I have taken on only water, non-calorific flavoured water, and small amounts of salt. It’s been quite the experience.

There’s plenty to hate about being on hunger-strike. The weakness, the waves of nausea, the occasional vomiting, the broken sleep, the frustrating sense that one’s life is on hold, the coming and going of mental clarity, and, of course, the intense unabating hunger.

But there have also been some more pleasant surprises. The lack of energy brings with it a certain heightened consciousness of one’s embodied self. The body ceases to be a cage in which a bare Cartesian ego is imprisoned, instead revealing itself as a quite miraculous thing in which the mental and the physical are intimately befriended, even if, as with many friendships, there are occasional violent disagreements. Another surprise has been the way fasting has altered my sense of taste and smell. Following one bout of vomiting, water, plain Jane tap water, tasted sweet, literally sweet. As in, “who dumped sugar in my water?” sweet. This is an extraordinary experience. It led me to wonder whether it might explain why Germans call freshwater (as opposed to saltwater) Süßwasser—literally, sweet-water. Just a thought.

The experience with water was a one-off. But the most pleasant surprise is something that has persisted since around day 3; that is my heightened sense of smell. Not only has it been sharpened, but the smell of food in particular has become intensely pleasurable. I put it to you that you haven’t smelled food—really smelled food—until you haven’t eaten for a few days. A lot of people curious about the phenomenology of fasting have apologized for eating near me, or remarked that I “must dread passing by restaurants”, or something to that effect. But they’re mistaken. The smell, and to a lesser extent the sight, of food has been one of the few things bringing me sensory pleasure during this week of denial.

This, I think, raises an interesting philosophical issue. I can’t possibly do it justice in this short(ish) post, but I’ll sketch some of my thoughts out in what follows.

Many philosophers, following Hume, have thought that any standard of aesthetic goodness (or perhaps, merely for settling aesthetic disputes)[1] must be grounded in the notion of an ideal appreciator. This is someone whose set of abilities for appreciating artworks and other aesthetic objects make her an authority for others.

Hume describes the requisite abilities in a “true judge” as follows:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”[2]

Here’s a question: what if some of these standards, whether Hume’s or better ones, are in tension? I don’t mean in logical tension. There’s no contradiction between being free from prejudice and being well-practiced in appreciation, for instance. But what about what we might call human tensions—tensions in the joint realizability of abilities and characteristics in a human being.

My experience on the hunger-strike has made this troubling possibility acute. For, if we include the olfactory within the domain of the aesthetic (and I don’t see why paradigmatic artworks couldn’t include olfactory components, even if in fact they rarely do), then it seems to me that an ideal appreciator just might be someone who, among other qualifications, exists several days into a fast.[3] And here’s where the tension arises. For, a person on a fast is hardly ideal in many other respects. She isn’t comfortable, she’s less patient, and her mind is often foggy. All of these characteristics are ones we’d want to eliminate from our ideal appreciator, even if Hume doesn’t do so explicitly. Hume stressed that his true judges would be rare. But this suggests they might not exist at all.

The obvious response goes something like this: you’re missing the point. An ideal appreciator is just that: ideal. It’s nothing more than a theoretical construct. There’s no requirement that any person actually embody, or be able to embody, all the relevant abilities and characteristics.

The problem with such a response is that it flies in the face of the very human aspect of aesthetic appreciation. Superhuman aesthetic standards, it strikes me, are simply irrelevant on any plausible aesthetic theory. Consider piano flourishes that are literally too fast for us to hear, although a superhuman might appreciate them, or narratives that are so incredibly complicated no-one can follow them, although, again, a superhuman might. A plausible response to such cases, I suggest, is: who cares what the superhuman would think? If the art was created for human appreciation, then rococo complexity and indiscernible speed aren’t aesthetic merits. If anything, they’re defects.

One might, of course, have the rare person with the olfactory sensitivity of someone on hunger-strike, but who isn’t actually on hunger-strike. The possibility I’m raising is just that we might also not have such a person, and worse still, that we can’t (where the strength of this modal operator is suitably qualified, as above). To the extent that we want our ideal judges in the aesthetic domain to be realizable, not just in principle, this looks like a problem.


[1]  Something along these lines is pursued in James Shelley’s 2013 article, “Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges”, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

[2] David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

[3]  One might resist this on the grounds that such a person is apt to delight in every smell without discrimination. I don’t think this is the case. But in any case, I want to put this worry to one side.

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5 Responses to Hunger-Striking and Ideal Judges

  1. hypocrisykiller says:

    ..too many appeals to issues of a non-philosophical nature. What Exactly is the ethical issue HERE?

  2. druckerd says:

    Hey Nils, I’m a bit confused. Of course, if we’re making art for children, say, we’ll have to reckon with children’s limitations. It shouldn’t be too boring, say, where what counts as boring is drastically different for children from what it is for mature adults. Even so, we can recognize that a lot of art that is appropriate for children is worse than it could be, if just because you have to keep accelerating the plot and dumbing things down. Children themselves might be able to recognize this, by saying things like “When I’m older, I’ll be able to appreciate better stuff.” What this basically means is that children can see their own limitations and how those limitations constrain what they’ll like, but not what’s good. So why aren’t we like children with respect to odors? We can recognize that there are complexities and subtleties in smells that as humans we can’t discern, but that doesn’t mean there’s no beauty to be found there, or that an artwork that made use of them could or even would be better for it. We can recognize our own aesthetic limitations and what they constrain us to appreciate and like. I’m not seeing anything deep in here. So why does it make it sense in the case of children and not in the case of humans? (There might have been only children, and no adults. The adults just make it vivid to children that they could appreciate better stuff.)

  3. nilshennes says:

    Great question. There’s a separate and important issue about whether we should judge artworks with respect to the kinds of ends they serve. This is important for answering the related question, whether, in general, we should think of artwork for children as aesthetically inferior to artwork for adults for the kinds of reasons you cite. Those with Kant-like sympathies might think so on the grounds that pure aesthetic judgements don’t involve judgements of ends being served by the aesthetic object (in this case, a child’s enjoyment/enrichment etc.). I myself don’t find such a restriction on the aesthetic compelling, as I think it does too much violence to actual practices of appreciation (which I take, prima facie, to be something a theory of the aesthetic should accommodate). Nor is this tantamount to just jettisoning a unified aesthetic standard. I think a good case can be made that the best children’s literature, for example, has its own kinds of merits, that involve more than just the dumbing down of adult literature (N.B. I’m not claiming that you’re claiming the opposite).

    One possibility this opens up is that when children say “When I’m older, I’ll be able to appreciate better stuff”, which is certainly something they do, we needn’t read their words literally. It might rather be a report premised on the fact that we are, as a matter of contingency, creatures who develop into adulthood, an adulthood that is psychologically more sophisticated and in which our tastes are different to our childhood ones. Or, if we do read the words literally, we might think that the child’s claim is mistaken, albeit excusable. My suggestion is that, in spite of what the child says, the best works for adults needn’t, in general, be superior to the works for children. N other words, even if we stipulate that the best childhood literature is aesthetically as good (albeit different) from the best adult literature, we (and children) might still think of a shift of taste from one to the other as an improvement (although, ex hypothesi, it isn’t, strictly speaking).

    If that’s the case, then one might think that in the child-only world you imagined—that is, a world where there are only beings with the mental faculties, dispositions, characteristics etc. of children—would be one in which it would be false to say that the adult stuff is aesthetically better, for the reasons just described. We can run the same argument, mutatis mutandis, then for us adults, relative to aesthetic superhumans.

    Still, I’m not entirely satisfied by my response. Here’s why: just as we can adjust standards to the end ‘be aesthetically pleasing to kids’, so, one might worry, we might just do the same for superhumans—i.e. artworks designed to be aesthetically pleasing to superhumans. Would it then follow that the work with the absurdly complex narrative, or the piano performance with flourishes too quick for human ears to hear could be exceedingly good, aesthetically? Worse still, could we have works that are great because they successfully achieve the end of being awful? I think one can make room for some such cases. But it’s clear that, if we want to avoid Kant’s restriction to “pure” aesthetic criteria, we’ll have to suitably qualify the ends of artworks that get to count as aesthetic or aesthetically relevant. But that’s another topic altogether.

    What do you think?

  4. nilshennes says:

    Footnote on “shift of taste” passage, end of paragraph 2:

    I’ve shifted from talking about the works’ values to the respective groups of people’s tastes, which is a little sloppy. This is because, even granting my point, you might think that the adult is able to appreciate the excellence of childhood works in addition to the adult ones in a way that the child isn’t. If so, the tastes of the adult might be better (i.e. receptive to more aesthetically excellent things), even if the best paradigmatic works for adults aren’t better than the best paradigmatic works for children.

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