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Can we objectively say that one author is better than another? For example, could we say William Shakespeare is objectively a better author than E.L. James? If it is possible, how would we decide? Bonus points for walking through the example to show that Shakespeare is better than E.L. James.

This question is related to "Is it ever possible to objectively state that a piece of music or film, or a genre, is better, or more artistically valid than another except that I am asking about evaluations of the artist, rather than their product.


This question was motivated by discussion on a post over at Politics.SE.

  • Great pick of a contrast, that will work – K Dog Jan 25 '17 at 16:39
  • This is something of a "what is the meaning of life" question. As SEP says on a related subject:"Perhaps the most familiar basic issue in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective—located ‘in the eye of the beholder’—or whether it is an objective feature of beautiful things. A pure version of either of these positions seems implausible... and many attempts have been made to split the difference or incorporate insights of both". You'll have to narrow down what you take as "objective" in this context for us to answer. – Conifold Jan 25 '17 at 20:26
  • @Conifold - Is there a way to reframe this that leaves the definition of "objective" open to the answerer? Maybe something like, "Under what circumstances would it be possible to prove that one author is objectively better than another"? – indigochild Jan 25 '17 at 20:29
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    Relevant : Aesthetic Judgment. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 25 '17 at 21:13
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    I presume you've been through a standard education to at least secondary level, so the fact that you're having to ask means the answer is obviously no. If there were a set of objective reasons why Shakespeare were better than any other given author, learning those reasons would be Class 1 of any English Literature course, they're not, so we can safely assume they don't exist. Furthermore, unless we are to presume that Shakespeare was some genetic marvel, then all other authors would simply learn such a list and so all be as good as Shakespeare, in fact books could just be written by software. – Isaacson Jan 26 '17 at 7:47
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It is possible, at least, to establish a criterion for evaluating relative superiority in artists, for example:

Where x and y range over people, x is a better artist than y if artworks created by x are overall better than artworks created by y.

This criterion may seem dependent on the ability to evaluate artworks, but technically speaking, that is a different question. This question is specifically and narrowly about artists.

  • This is a non-answer. It just changes the question from "evaluating artists" to "evaluating artworks". And even then, it ignores the fact that being a good artist entails more than only producing good art. The idea behind philosophy is to shine a light on things, to tackle the underlying questions and assumptions in the world. In this case, *what do we mean when we say 'artist', or 'art', 'good'? A trivial answer is antithetical to philosophy. – Dan Bron Jan 26 '17 at 12:13
  • No, it doesn't change the question. It elucidates what it is for an artist to be a good artist, namely, to be a good artist it is sufficient to have created good works. Please explain where the triviality is. – n.r. Jan 26 '17 at 12:18
  • The triviality is in avoiding the question. "What makes Bob taller than Joe"? "One human is taller than another if he has more height than the other" (and you'll find, if you read the literature, that "producing superior works" is often not the only thing that "makes a superior artist"; that's a naive view, but we'll leave that aside for now). – Dan Bron Jan 26 '17 at 12:21
  • You're reading too much into the original question. Please don't leave the bat side, and please refute my answer. – n.r. Jan 26 '17 at 12:24
  • You're not reading enough into the original question, because you're not interested in doing philosophy. Which is why this is a non-answer. GOTO 10. – Dan Bron Jan 26 '17 at 12:25

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