Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics

Aesthetics as self-defeating enterprise: how theories of aesthetics make it their goal to exclude the aesthetic from consideration.

7. A characteristic thing about our language is that a large number of words used under these circumstances are adjectives -‘fine’, ‘lovely’, etc. But you see that this is by no means necessary. You saw that they were first used as interjections. Would it matter if instead of saying “This is lovely”, I just said “Ah!” and smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? As far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, [which is called ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’.-R.] don’t come up at all.

8. It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, etc., play hardly any role at all. Are aesthetic adjectives used in a musical criticism? You say: “Look at this transition”,Z or [Rhees] “The passage here is incoherent”. Or you say, in a poetical criticism, [Taylor]: “His use of images is precise”. The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’ (as these words are used in ordinary speech) than to ‘beautiful’ and’lovely’.

23.    We talked of correctness. A good cutter won’t use  any words except words like ‘Too long’, ‘All right’.  When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct-it plays an entirely diferent role with us. The entire game is different. It is as different as to judge a human being and on the one hand to say ‘He behaves well’ and on the other hand ‘He made a great impression on me’.

24. ‘Correctly’, ‘charmingly’, ‘finely’ , etc. play an entirely diferent role. Cf. the famous address of Buffon-a terrific man -on style in writing; making ever so many distinctions which I only understand vaguely but which he didn’t mean vaguely-all kinds of nuances like ‘grand’, ‘charming’, ‘nice’.

25. The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call  a culture of a period. To describe their use or to describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture. What we now call a cultured taste perhaps didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. An entirely different game is played in different ages.

26. What belongs to a language game is a whole culture. In describing musical taste you have to describe whether children give concerts, whether women do or whether men only give them, etc., etc.’ In aristocratic circles in Vienna people had [such and such] a taste, then it came into bourgeois circles and women joined choirs, etc. This is an example of tradition in music.

35. In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living. We think we have to talk about aesthetic judgements like ‘This is beautiful’, but we find that if we have to talk about aesthetic judgements we don’t find these words at all, but a word used something like a gesture, accompanying a complicated activity.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics (1938)

What Wittgenstein seems to elide, mostly, is the modern emphasis on deviancy, aka creativity. Application of positive aesthetic terms today requires a certain sense of originality or integrity in the work, some way in which a new work is not a recapitulation of extant instantiations of the positive aesthetic terms, but an elaboration on them or new development of them. This is not to say that these terms are qualitatively any different from “correct” and “nice” and “lovely,” or that there actually is a sense in which these “original” works are original in any substantive way, just that these terms make the sort of game that Wittgenstein is talking about considerably more neurotic.

[See also F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein for Wittgenstein interpreting William Empson’s poetry.]