About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The beauty of the Daleks

by Massimo Pigliucci

RS collaborator Tunc Iyriboz,
having a friendly chat
with a Dalek at
New York ComicCon 2011
As I mentioned before, I'm making my way through the delightful (if redundant, in places) Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside. This time I have been intrigued by chapter 27, penned by Clive Cazeaux and entitled “Beauty is not in the eye-stalk of the beholder.” The chapter is about aesthetics, and the author begins by admitting that he finds the Daleks beautiful. So do I.

Before we get to the meat (or, as the case may be, the metal) of the matter I need to explain who the Daleks are, for those poor souls who have not actually watched the good Doctor battling them. The Daleks are an ancient race of aliens that was once proud and hopeful, just like humans. But an all-out nuclear war with their neighbors, the Thals, changed both their external form and their character (via radiation-induced mutations). They are now entirely emotionless creatures, shaped like an octopus and encased in a metallic armor, whose only purpose is to “ex-ter-mi-nate” anything that is not a Dalek. We encounter them for the first time in 1963 (you may remember, that was the peak of the Cold War here on earth), and have been (briefly) seen last in the season finale of the 2011 series, “The wedding of River Song.” I’m sure they’ll be back for more.

In his essay, Cazeaux explores what it could possibly mean to find a Dalek beautiful (to a human being), and in so doing takes his reader through a panoply of philosophical understandings of beauty, from the “it’s just in the eye of the beholder” view (which is actually historically very recent) through Pythagoras’ and Plato’s idea that beauty was respectively the reflection of universal harmonies or of immutable Forms, and proceeding by way of Kant’s and Hegel’s takes on aesthetics.

Cazeaux is careful in distinguishing between “beauty in art” and “beauty in nature,” and he tells us that when he thinks the Daleks are beautiful he is speaking not from within, but from without the Doctor Who universe — in modern aesthetic parlance he is referring to the Daleks as beauty in art. Now, according to Kant, perception of beauty in nature is “higher” than perception of beauty in art, because he related aesthetics to our awareness of how our minds fit with reality (i.e., nature). Hegel held to pretty much the opposite position, getting his starting point by his contention that there is no distinction between the world and mind (he was an idealist). For him beauty in art was superior because it involves the perception of ideas, not of simple matter.

Problem is, I’m no idealist, so Hegel resonates very little with me. As for Kant, he certainly had a point about our perception of beauty having to do with how we relate to nature (and, therefore, of artistic beauty being derivative, though I wouldn’t use the term “lower”), particularly because aesthetic perception surely has to do with the way our brains work (and evolved).

Still, I was more interested in Cazeaux’s discussion of the concept of beauty for the ancient Greeks, and particularly for Plato. In this case, to find something beautiful means to be fascinated by that something as an object that one engages with (remember, again, that we are outside the Whoverse, or we would most definitely not find the idea of engaging the Daleks particularly appealing). But of course for the Greeks beauty was opposed to monstrosity, and it is much easier to think of the Daleks as monsters than as things of beauty. Cazeaux here cites the 13th century thinker Alexander of Hales, according to whom monstrosity is indeed opposite to beauty, but it is a necessary condition for the latter — just like according to some theologians evil is necessary in order to have good.

Again, though, while I find the Greek notion of the relationship between beauty and monstrosity pretty sensible, it is hard to imagine why one needs the latter in order to appreciate the former (for reasons similar to why the above mentioned theological defense against the problem of evil also fails to convince). Besides, the Daleks would definitely qualify as monsters in this case, and it wouldn’t make much sense for Cazeaux and me to say that we find them beautiful.

Cazeaux mentions what to me sounds like the best answer, but dismisses it as untenable. According to the formalism school in aesthetics, judgments of beauty refer only to the form of something, quite independently of its function. The Daleks, therefore, can be beautiful because of their smooth metal construction (and, in the latest versions, splendid colors), quite independently of the fact that they are out to get people for no particularly good reason. (Incidentally, apparently formalism is actually traceable to Kant.) Indeed, Cazeaux mentions an observation made by Adrian Wiltshire a few years ago, according to whom the Daleks look a lot like the flying city designed by the Russian Constructivist Georgii Krutikov back in 1928. I guess I better look up constructivism.

Cazeaux doesn’t like the formalist approach because it is a way to deny the nature of the Daleks: they become like sculptures, devoid of all their characteristics as monsters. (I find that to be in contradiction to his suggestion of examining the issue from outside the Whoverse, but okay.) Still, he doesn’t really give his readers a more palatable alternative, leaving us with the puzzling question of why people like him and me can find the Daleks to be beautiful. I’d like an evolutionary psychologist to give this one a try, just to be able to make fun of their just-so stories. Seriously, though, to say that beauty is “subjective” (in the eye of the beholder, and so on) doesn’t really solve anything, it simply acknowledges variation about aesthetic judgment without really telling us what the latter consists of. We clearly do find some things beautiful and others ugly, and this is by far not limited to the sort of objects that made a difference for our survival and reproduction in the past. I suspect aesthetics is eventually going to be a major area of development of a more complex theory of human nature, one that takes seriously both our biological roots and our unique ability to evolve culturally. But for now the question then remains: why, exactly, are the Daleks beautiful?

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