The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims literature is a problem for aesthetic formalism (which says aesthetic value comprises perceptual properties):

Suppose you praise a short story for the eloquence of its prose and the beauty of its plot-structure. It seems arbitrary to count only the eloquence as a genuine instance of aesthetic value.

It seems the problem is much of what's aesthetic about literature is "global" features, e.g. character development, rather than "local" features, e.g. a sentence read in seconds. If I'm right then, insofar as we identify a work with the perceptual experiences people have when reading it, the allegation is AF thinks only small-scale observations count, not structural inferences from having read the whole story.

Surely a sufficiently mature version of AF would classify seeing global features as perceptual, even if only by remembering non-simultaneous perceptions. A painting can be seen at once (though fine details may be noticed later), but its parts combine in our comprehension so we know which objects it depicts, how they are lit, what event is shown for an instant etc., just as when we understand a real event from a photograph.

Why is AF expected to have a local understanding of literature? Or have I misunderstood the issue?

  • I do not think the problem is in "global" vs "local" features, but rather that plot unity, character development, etc., are plausibly conceptual rather than perceptual properties. What you suggest is, essentially, the alternative to aesthetic formalism described right after it by SEP section, the immediacy thesis:"Instead of holding that aesthetic value is perceptual because things have it in virtue of their perpetual properties, one might hold that aesthetic value is perceptual because we perceive things as having it." We happen to perceive some bundles of conceptual properties as well.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 2:38
  • @Conifold I've been wondering about that excerpt for some time: do they really mean perpetual, or is that a misprint of perceptual?
    – J.G.
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 7:16
  • It's a misprint.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 10:16


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