Monday, November 1, 2010

Wicksteed and the Anatomy of Criticism

A week ago I briefly made note of the influence of Philip Wicksteed on 3rd and 4th generation Austrian economists. It turns out that Wicksteed's price theory also had an impact on the literary criticism of Henry Hazlitt.  Hazlitt, of course, went on to be an excellent economist and write the best seller Economics in One Lesson. His first career, however, was as a literary critic. In the 1930s Hazlitt spent three years writing criticism for The Nation and then left to succeed H. L. Mencken at American Mercury.

In 1933 he wrote his own treatise on the subject, Anatomy of Criticism. It is in the form of a trialogue between three critics, each with different aesthetic theories. One, named Young, is a hyper-subjectivist, an objectivist named Elder, and a third, cleverly-named Middleton, who seeks to convince the others that the truth lies somewhere in between. To solve the problem of aesthetic value, he posits what he calls the social mind. The social mind serves as sort of the universal  judgment of the civilized, thoughtful members of society. Using the concept of the social mind, Hazlitt sought to avoid the pitfalls of pure subjectivist aesthetics, while at the same time not being forced to accept a purely objective aesthetic standard that was transcendent above the minds of men. The concept of the social mind is proposed by Middleton.
We are now ready to consider the question of values. Values are determined by the social mind. The value of a good is not inherent in that good; it is not independent of the mind and desires of men. But it is in large degree independent of the mind and desires of any particular man. This fact is most clearly seen in the economic field, if only because values there are expressed quantitatively, and with mathematical precision, in monetary prices. To a given individual in the market, the economic value of a good is a fact as external, as objective and stubborn, as the weight of an object. A man may attach no value whatever to a diamond bracelet; so far as he is concerned such baubles could sell at $5 and he would not buy one; but this fact does not prevent diamond bracelets from selling in the market for, say, about $3,000 each. On the other hand, if the same man should step on a rusty nail, he might be willing, if forced, to pay several hundred dollars for carbolic acid or iodine rather than run the risk of infection, yet he would probably get his iodine for less than a dollar at the nearest drugstore.
Young. But from what I know of economics, the relative market value of diamond bracelets and iodine is not determined by any "social mind", but by relative costs of production.
Middleton. If I argued that question at length it would carry us too far afield. It would be better to refer you to some good economic textbook. Not even all economists, of course, think clearly on the subject, but you will find an excellent discussion of this particular point in Wicksteed's "Common Sense of Political Economy." It is enough to say here that what a thing has cost to produce cannot determine its value, but what it will cost may determine whether or not it will be made. There is therefore a constant tendency to equality between price and cost o£ production, though not because the latter directly determines the former. However, all this applies merely to reproducible commodities. Suppose we take something that is not reproducible. As a connoisseur of art you might personally prefer Rivera to Gainsborough, yet if you wished to acquire for yourself a painting by either artist, you would find that you would have to pay a staggering sum for the Gainsborough but that you could acquire the Rivera for a relatively moderate figure. Regardless of your personal likes and dislikes, you are obliged to adjust yourself to the values placed on goods by the community as a whole, in its organic functioning.
Hazlitt's theory is that while the aesthetic value of a work of art is not determined by something outside of the minds of men, and hence subjective, it is not the product of the mind of any one specific man, and hence, from the perspective of each individual in society, objective.

Ultimately I think Hazlitt fails in his attempt to desubjectivize aesthetics by appealing the the social mind because the concept still relies on the aesthetic judgements of subjectively evaluating people. Nevertheless it is an ingenious application of Wicksteed's price theory to aesthetics.

I think Hazlitt is closer to the mark when his character, Elder the aesthetic objectivist posits
We must assume the existence of God, or reinstate Him, if only that we may have a hypothetical standard for assessing literary and aesthetic accomplishment. For only on the assumption of His existence and His infallible judgments is it at all possible to think of absolute values and an absolute standard.
Unfortunately, Hazlitt rejects this when he has Middleton say,

I do not see that your hypothesis gains you anything after all. For even if your God or your Absolute Valuer exists, He will never reveal to mortals the real standing of the classics. No, Elder, criticism will have to reconcile itself to the fact that it has human limitations. The literary opinions of your God will remain forever inscrutable, and humanity—or, if you wish, posterity—must be both for the author and his critic the court of last appeal. But the concept of a social mind and of its valuations at least clears the air.
It seems to me that Elder is closer to the truth, except we do not have to merely assume the existence of a God to have a consistent aesthetic theory. However, we can, by faith, recognize that according to the Scriptures the Creator made all things very good and that the things he made are both useful and beautiful.

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