224. Clive Bell’s explanation for intrinsic value

Clive Bell (1881-1964)

We all value things: people, places, animals, things, and so on. When we think about the nature of our valuing we discover that we value some things instrumentally – we see them as a means to an end – and others we take to have intrinsic value – we value them simply for themselves. This distinction often applies in aesthetics where we find philosophers, most famously Immanuel Kant, making a distinction between interested judgments about things we think have use value and disinterested judgments about things we think have intrinsic value. For example, one might see an attractive body and make an interested judgment, based on one’s appetite for sexual pleasure, that the body could be used as a means to that pleasure. But one can also see the attractive body in an disinterested way that appears to remove it from all instrumental concerns. In doing so one would simply appreciate the form of the body for its own sake. According to Kant, this is the experience we have when we judge something to be beautiful.

Kant also famously connects this notion of intrinsic value to his moral theory. Consider his second categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means only. Here we see that any action that fails to recognize people’s intrinsic value by using them as a means only (e.g., rape, slavery, stealing, sexual trafficking, etc.) is categorically unacceptable.

But this notion of intrinsic value, despite the fact that it seems readily applicable to at least our aesthetic and moral experience, is not so easy to analyze. Indeed, in analyzing it we often find ourselves referring to instrumental value. We might say something like: “Intrinsically valuable things are valuable because our appreciation for them takes us past our self-absorbed lives and narcissistic tendencies.” In referring to the psychological benefits of a disinterested stance we would have moved beyond that stance. Michael J. Zimmerman, in his book The Nature of Intrinsic Value (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) thinks we can get around this common pitfall with this analysis: “a state’s being intrinsically good (or bad) consists in its being such that the contemplation of it as such morally requires that one favor (or disfavor) it for its own sake” (9). And, as Roger Scruton points out, any expression of this favoring should keep its focus on that which is held to be intrinsically valuable. He points out that we take an aesthetic interest in x, or an interest in x for its own sake, if and only if the answer to the question “Why are you interested in x?” consists in a further description of x (see his Art and Imagination, p. 143). And this point seems to apply to our experience of intrinsic value in general.

These are certainly helpful insights. But we can still wonder: how can anything have intrinsic value? How can anything have this value that requires us to favor it for its own sake and, when asked why we favor it, to give descriptions of it rather than descriptions that take us beyond it? What would remove something from all the instrumental forms of value that exist all around us?

I recently came across an interesting answer from Clive Bell’s book Art (1914; read it here). Bell was an English art critic best known for his participation in the Bloomsbury Group and his contributions to the aesthetic theory known as formalism. In chapter one of Art, he argues that all works of art have something in common. What is it? “Only one answer seems possible—significant form.  In each [of the works of art Bell discusses], lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.  These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.”

Bell surprises us by saying that this aesthetic emotion has nothing to do with everyday human experience and emotions that accompany love, morality, politics, and so on. Rather, it is an emotion that lies on the “cold, white peaks of art” far away from the “snug foothills of warm humanity.” He continues with a description that gives us a glimpse of his notion of inherent value:

“Significant form stands charged with the power to provoke aesthetic emotion in anyone capable of feeling it. The ideas of men go buzz and die like gnats; men change their institutions and their customs as they change their coats; the intellectual triumphs of one age are the follies of another; only great art remains stable and unobscure. Great art remains stable and unobscure because the feelings that it awakens are independent of time and place, because its kingdom is not of this world. To those who have and hold a sense of the significance of form what does it matter whether the forms that move them were created in Paris the day before yesterday or in Babylon fifty centuries ago? The forms of art are inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the same world of aesthetic ecstasy.”

Bell develops his aesthetic hypothesis of significant form as universal with a “metaphysical hypothesis” (part 3 of chapter 1) which maintains that the intrinsic value of art, and the emotion we get from encountering this value, transcends the means-end or instrumental relations of the physical world and, in doing so, puts us in touch with ultimate reality. He writes:

“Now the emotion that artists express comes to some of them, so they tell us, from the apprehension of the formal significance of material things; and the formal significance of any material thing is the significance of that thing considered as an end in itself. But if an object considered as an end in itself moves us more profoundly (i.e. has greater significance) than the same object considered as a means to practical ends or as a thing related to human interests—and this undoubtedly is the case—we can only suppose that when we consider anything as an end in itself we become aware of that in it which is of greater moment than any qualities it may have acquired from keeping company with human beings. Instead of recognising its accidental and conditioned importance, we become aware of its essential reality, of the God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm. Call it by what name you will, the thing that I am talking about is that which lies behind the appearance of all things—that which gives to all things their individual significance, the thing in itself, the ultimate reality. And if a more or less unconscious apprehension of this latent reality of material things be, indeed, the cause of that strange emotion, a passion to express which is the inspiration of many artists, it seems reasonable to suppose that those who, unaided by material objects, experience the same emotion have come by another road to the same country. That is the metaphysical hypothesis. Are we to swallow it whole, accept a part of it, or reject it altogether? Each must decide for himself.”

Bell’s claim that art can help us contact, if only emotionally, the ultimate reality behind the appearance of things makes art akin to religion (see chapter 2, part 1). He notes that “Art and Religion are, then, two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Between aesthetic and religious rapture there is a family alliance.” And “I call him a religious man who, feeling with conviction that some things are good in themselves, and that physical existence is not amongst them, pursues, at the expense of physical existence, that which appears to him good. All those who hold with uncompromising sincerity that spiritual is more important than material life, are, in my sense, religious.” Indeed, “In nowise does the value of aesthetic or religious rapture depend upon the physical satisfaction it affords. There are things in life the worth of which cannot be related to the physical universe,—things of which the worth is not relative but absolute.”

So we see that intrinsic value is explained with reference to a transcendent, non-physical, and spiritual source that, however we refer to it, lies behind the appearances of all things. For Bell, things that are enmeshed in the physical world and its causal nexus can only have relative value based on conditional human interests and practical concerns. This is a proposition many would accept who embrace evolutionary explanations which are typically functional in nature. Thus if we truly experience intrinsic value we are getting an intimation of what lies beyond the physical world.

This is certainly an interesting explanation but, as with all explanations that refer to transcendental forces, is bound to be controversial. So we wonder whether the experience Bell describes could be given a naturalistic interpretation that would keep intrinsic value in the physical world and allow for a less romantic and more scientific explanation. Interestingly, this article tries to do just that by giving an neurophysiological account of Bell’s significant form. In particular, it tries to give a firm biological basis for the universality of aesthetic experience which Bell and other formalists claim is so important.

Not surprisingly, Bell’s claim that art can help us contact, if only emotionally, the ultimate reality of things seems to be left unaddressed by this neuroaesthetic effort. So if we are open to Bell’s claims then we could say that the brain would naturally play a role in our experience of this ultimate reality – there would be neural correlates or neural activity that accompanies the experience – but we wouldn’t identify the experience with brain activity. If we follow this path then the brain, however involved in the process, would be a necessary and not sufficient condition for the “ecstatic” experience of inherent value.

In any case, it is interesting to ponder: could it really be that some non-physical encounters on those sublime white peaks are needed to truly unpack the mysteries of inherent value? Or would such encounters just compound the mystery of intrinsic value with yet more mystery?

Karl Eduard Biermann, The Wetterhorn (1830) 

For more on intrinsic value in aesthetics, see my post here.

For more on formalism and beauty, see my post here.

For more on Kant’s aesthetics and moral theory, see my post here.

For my post on the Kantian sublime, go here.

For my posts on aesthetics, go here.

For my argument for God’s existence, go here.

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