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Samuel Alexander on Beauty.



Samuel Alexander.

Perhaps one of the most famous Australian philosophers is Samuel Alexander. Born in 1859, he died in 1938. Although Jewish, his education started at a Methodist school in Melbourne. Wesley College had a significant number of Jewish students because it was located next to a Jewish enclave in St Kilda, and Methodism was less doctrinal than the Church of England or the Catholic Church.

With first class honours in everything he read, both at Melbourne and Oxford, he might have been a mathematician, a classicist, a physicist. Instead, he chose philosophy.

When Alexander came to Wesley, at twelve years of age in 1871, the Classics scholar Professor M. N. Irving, late of Melbourne University, was Head Master. Irving was not involved in the religious education of students—he himself was a member of the Catholic Apostolic Church—and was encouraged by an enormous salary of twelve hundred pounds. For this, he left the University and invigorated the school; he attracted large numbers of students compared to rivals—nearly twice as many as Melbourne Grammar—and, single-handedly, lifted the standard of matriculation to unseen levels. In this era, the role of Headmaster was not that of amateur repertory artist and fund raiser. It was scholar. As Irving demonstrated, the lifting of standards attracted students. It was a time when most teachers in Victoria had only a primary school education. The meeting of a highly gifted student, with an exceptional Head Master and teacher, sowed the seed. Alexander received three exhibitions at matriculation and scholarships to Melbourne University.1 In 1877, after two years study at Melbourne, he followed his mentor, Irving, and was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford. With first class honours in everything he read, both at Melbourne and Oxford, he might have been a mathematician, a classicist, a physicist. Instead, he chose philosophy.

By the time Alexander arrived in Oxford the central debate was between Idealism and Realism. His tutor at Balliol was the Absolute Idealist T.H. Green. Although Alexander subsequently joined the Realists, Russell and Moore, he understood the opposition. He graduated in 1881, with an unusual combination of Firsts in Classics and Mathematics. Coinciding with Green’s death, in 1882, he became, for eleven years, a Tutor in philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1893 he accepted the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. On two occasions he spent a year in Germany studying psychology. In 1882, immediately after his graduation, with the physiologically based psychologist Herman Von Helmholtz, whose expertise was the physiology of perception, and in 1890, at the laboratory of Hugo Musterberg, whose interest was the parallelism between mind and body. Over ten years the senior of Russell and Moore, by the time they made their mark—Bertrand Russel and A.N. Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (1910–13) and G.E. Moore’s essay, ‘Refutation of Idealism’ (1903) and his Principia Ethica (1903)—Alexander was a well-known Naturalist in the philosophy of mind, in ethics and metaphysics. In 1920, reflecting in the preface to his Magnum Opus, Space, Time and Deity, he remarked:

My work is part of the widely-spread movement towards some form of realism in philosophy which began in this country with Messrs. Moore and Russell, and in America with the authors of The New Realism.2

By then, Alexander had fame in his own right. In 1913, he became a Fellow of the British Academy. This was preceded by President of the Aristotelian Society from 1908 to 1911. He was again to become President in 1936 and 1937, just before his death in 1938. In 1916–1918, he delivered The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow. In 1930, he was conferred the Order of Merit. In this, he preceded Russell (1949), Whitehead (1945) and Moore (1951), and was the first Australian to join this coveted band, restricted to twenty-four living recipients.

Notwithstanding such success, as the twentieth century unfolded, Alexander was progressively swimming against the stream. Manchester was not Oxford; and although, in later life he had honorary Fellowships conferred at Balliol and Lincoln, a Chair in Philosophy was not forthcoming. This was for the same reason that he is largely a forgotten figure of the last century. After Hegel, systematic philosophy lost favour. Of Space, Time and Deity, Alexander prefaced:

This book is at any rate an attempt at system, but it’s fault in my own eyes is not that it is systematic, but that it is not systematic enough.3

For Alexander, … ontological questions were at the heart of philosophy. Conjoining his metaphysical system was a form of Naturalism…

Not only was Oxbridge philosophy now against Systems, it was also against Metaphysics. With the arrival of Wittgenstein, metaphysics was regarded as meaningless and could be dissolved through linguistic analysis. For Alexander, on the other hand, ontological questions were at the heart of philosophy. Conjoining his metaphysical system was a form of Naturalism, an empiricism, which was central to his treatment of mind and of values, and which included the study of aesthetics and ethics.

This flew in the face of G.E. Moore’s ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’, put forward in Principia Ethica. According to Moore, values are not facts, and the acceptance of this dichotomy characterised the study of morals for the rest of the century. Ethics became, following R.M. Hare, ‘the language of morals’. According to Ralph Ross, ‘As a young man in the Aristotelian Society’, Alexander ‘opposed Henry Sidgwick’s argument … that ‘ought’ could not be reduced to ‘is.’4

And when he was forty years older, he wrote scathingly of ‘ethical works’ that ‘pour out from Oxford and Cambridge in a brilliant reactionary flood to prove no account can be given of good and right’. 5

So, at least viewed from the Oxbridge consensus, Alexander committed the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ in his account of morality. As to his naturalistic treatment of mind, this was a ‘category mistake’. In The Concept of Mind, published in 1949, and ten years after Alexander’s death, Gilbert Ryle presents the Common Language philosophers’ objections to naturalism. ‘It represents the facts of mental life as if they belong to one logical type or category … when they actually belong to another.’6 Mental concepts are linguistic entities not causal or mechanical. Accordingly, the linguistic categories of mind cannot be reduced to the causal, just as the causal cannot be reduced to the linguistic. Logically absurd corollaries follow from both forms of reduction.


Out of synchronicity with English philosophy, it is perhaps not surprising that a Scottish philosopher, one who emigrated to Australia in 1927 to take the Chair of Philosophy at Sydney University, should credit Alexander with some of his closest and most detailed attention. This was because John Anderson also swam against the stream. He admired both Alexander’s systematic approach and the centrality he gave to ontology. In his writing and lectures, Anderson was a systematic realist. In his Lectures on Metaphysics from 1948 to 1950—published as Space Time and the Categories 7 in 2007—Alexander’s Space Time and Deity takes central stage.

In America too, there were kindred spirits. The tradition of Pragmatism and Social Behaviorism were more favorable to Alexander. Certainly, the philosophy department at Chicago, where John Dewey and George Herbert Mead were members, would have been congenial. Like Alexander, Mead had studied psychology in Germany and had developed a theory of mind that was remarkably similar. Both reject Watson’s behaviorism—a simple stimulus response mechanism—and Wundt’s psychological parallelism. For Mead,

Mind is socially constituted … [and] must extend as far as the social activity or apparatus of social relations which constitutes it extends; and hence that field cannot be bounded by the skin of the individual organism to which it belongs.8

Mead commends Alexander’s ‘quest of an unfractured universe’. This meant rejecting ‘the dualisms, the romantic idealisms, and the materialisms’ of the past. Mead goes on to remark that Alexander’s philosophy, as with Bergson and Dewey,

… is found in the interpretation of experience—that experience which is both the starting-point and the goal of research science and the field of all our values and all our meanings. … [Here] the individual and his world, are recognised as standing on the same level of reality, and the so-called process of experiencing is recognised as a natural process on the same level of reality as all other natural processes.9

Symbolic Interactionist theory in sociology arose from this foundation and was predicated on these principals of social psychology. The mind, or self, emerges in social interaction. Indeed, according to Mead, ‘language as made up of significant symbols is what we mean by mind.’10 When internalised, these gestures become the significant-other and that part of the mind termed the Me’,  in much the same way as the Super Ego plays in psychoanalysis.

And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind or thought.11

Alexander makes the same point when he remarks:

According to the … Herbartians, we get to know the ‘I’ by experience of the ‘We’. It is … through intercourse of all sorts including speech, that we come to know each of us has a self …12

Forms of Value.

The most complete statement by Alexander on aesthetics is found in Beauty and Other Forms of Value. It is based on a series of papers published towards the end of his life, between 1923 and 1933. Here he considers the three supreme values that underpin aesthetics, science, and ethics. Alexander’s treatment of them is in stark relief to the Oxford approach of Moore, and later Ryle. Notwithstanding some linguistic conventions, Alexander’s point is that ‘ought’ can be construed as an ‘is’.

Ought is … but a new sort of reality, made creatively out of natural impulses by the introduction amongst them of another natural impulse, which dominates, regulates and harmonises them. Ought is not the prescriptive set to the natural passions by some supposed non-natural element in our natures, not even by reason, but the arrangement or order established amongst them by another natural passion, and obligation is but the relation of any single element to the whole system. We ought to be virtuous because any single act of virtue is what is needed to maintain the system of sociality.13

Following Hume’s dictum that ‘reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions’, Alexander adds that in morals this passion is sociality.

Following Hume’s dictum that ‘reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions’, Alexander adds that in morals this passion is sociality. It is described, at various points, as a ‘gregarious instinct’, a ‘drive’, a ‘motive’. At any rate, it is a natural aspect of mind and arises through symbolic interaction with others. It is this which ‘impels’ us to form a group.

… and in virtue of … sympathy with each other’s impulses to avoid conflict and secure co-operation … establish an harmonious system of willing whose technique is the laws of morality.14

The values imbedded in science and aesthetics are similarly naturalistic. For Alexander, Hume ‘cannot be repeated too often’. With morality, virtue presupposes a motive in human nature that produces it. With science, the impulse of curiosity leads to the pursuit of truth. With aesthetics, the motive of material constructiveness leads to the discovery of beauty. Both share a disinterested motive; neither are concerned with practical ends. Art ‘treats the materials of its construction for their own sake’. Science is solely concerned with truth. However, the place of mind in these supreme values—of goodness, beauty, and truth—differs. Described in terms of the subject/object relation, morality rests solely with the subject. Virtue is contingent on the motives of the subject, not the consequences—as the Utilitarian might suggest—that follow in the object. In science, the situation is reversed. The object is primary, and the subject is required to get out of the way. In aesthetics, it is an amalgam of the two. The subject is constitutive, not contemplative, of the object. And beauty, so constructed, then resides in the object.

In art the control is divided between mind and the material, in truth control rests with the external material and the mind’s part in the result which as truth or science is not so much constitutive as instrumental. In goodness control rests with the mind itself …15

Making the point again, Alexander continues:

In fine art the mind supplied the form of the material and the form was embodied in the material itself … But science does not alter what it studies. It unpieces nature and repieces it again, and in doing so acts always at the bidding of the things themselves …16

It is this ‘unpiecing’ and ‘repiecing’ that makes the object intelligible.

Morality and Goodness.

From these conjectures on mind, Alexander posits a ‘social impulse’—‘sociality’—and it is the basis of morality. This replaces Kant’s a priori reason or Hume’s contingent sentiments and passions. As Alexander explains:

… no such thing as reason which claims to settle moral laws can be detected as a verifiable process in our minds … reason is hardly anything more than a name for the fact that there are moral laws … for which … this capacity of reason … was invented.17

How do these moral laws arise? According to Alexander, the genealogy of morals is best explained by the sociological workings of a committee. It is through deliberations in such a group, in its dynamics, that judgments of right and wrong and ultimately moral institutions come into being. Indeed, ‘human rights’—what is right or wrong—are no more than social demands. ‘The members of a committee are guided not by what they think is right, but by what they want.’ Decisions are simply the adjustments of different claims; ‘discussion itself a kind of discovery of what all come to desire’. In a workers strike, for example, he says, ‘When the adjustment of wishes fails, the issue is left to force, to poverty, and starvation, which means that the way of economic justice has not been found.’18

What the members of a committee might dress up as a ‘right’ is no more than what they might wish. ‘Rights’ are simply claims that have been recognised.

What is desirable does not exist in advance of the decision, but is determined by the capacity to sympathize with one another’s claim, a sympathy which is a means of carrying out the social impulse.19

Alexander supplements and qualifies this characterization of the origins and the contemporaneous working of moral principles. In a social group—in a committee—rights can be accepted. But those proclaiming rights, such as freedom or life, are,

… strictly guilty of a misdescription: there is no right to freedom or life. But each man does claim such freedom. And forecasting success in establishing his claim he helps to win assent for it.20

So, there are those who are successful in establishing their position, just as there are others who are excluded as recalcitrant. The former are the ‘successful reformers’, or the ‘prophets of wise change’.

Science and Truth.

Alexander’s understanding of science was not an insular Oxford view, waiting A.J. Ayer’s 1936 exposé of The Vienna Circle, in Language Truth and Logic. Having worked in Germany, Alexander appears perfectly familiar with European Philosophy of Science, though his main reference is The Nature of the Physical World, published in Cambridge, in 1928. At any rate, Alexander’s remit was not to address the issues raised by Ayer and other Logical Positivists. His was the nature of the values embedded in the subject object relation and the search for scientific truth.

According to Alexander, the value underpinning science is curiosity. It involves a ‘contemplation of objects for their own sake’.

According to Alexander, the value underpinning science is curiosity. It involves a ‘contemplation of objects for their own sake’. Although the mind has the ‘habit of intruding’ into the materials of the object to construct—this was the constructive motive of art—in science, arising from ‘disappointment, hesitation and doubt’, ‘curiosity produces unification of the information and experiences which are considered for its own sake.’ These are the values of disinterestedness and truth. Because science ‘humbles itself to the lordship of reality.’21

It is not strange … that in history of the race science should be much later than fine art. It needs a greater fetch of abnegation to keep oneself from interference than to interfere …22

As science develops—and this is most clearly seen in the quantum theory of physics—there is a ‘greater intrusion of artifice’. Quoting Eddington, Alexander continues. There becomes a certain artificiality of the object.

Our knowledge of the external world cannot be divorced from the nature of the appliances with which we have obtained the knowledge … ‘pointer-readings’ from various instruments of measurement.23

These are mental constructs employed by the subject that effect the object. As Alexander put it, ‘physical objects are metrical constructions which imply the action of mind, much as the shape of the statue implies the artist’s chisel’.24

Alexander’s point is that theoretical interpretations are logically prior to observations. Nevertheless, and here he is anticipating Karl Popper, these are subject to falsification by reality. So, although the most developed sciences—physics and mathematics—are ‘akin to fine art to a greater degree than seems’, there is always a certain ‘obedience’ to nature, or the object.

Physical objects would not then be mere symbols … but arrived at by this selective process, which makes science artificial or artistic; to which is superadded the extreme freedom of mind in manipulating its thoughts by the help of instrumental methods …25

The value of truth is embodied in science. Implicit reference here is The Vienna Circle. Truth is disinterested, communicable, and provides coherence. There is verification by correspondence with the facts. However, there are at least two important qualifications to Positivism’s correspondence theory of truth. As with Popper, science does not deal with ‘exact copies of the brute facts but interpretations of them’. As with consensus and intersubjective theories of truth, ‘qualified persons’ are

… the arbiters of true and false, and truth is a conspiracy of experts … Herein lies the social character of true knowledge. … Out of the process of adjustment between the deliverance of many individuals results the true, or science.26

Art and Beauty.

Of the three supreme values—truth, goodness, and beauty—Alexander’s principal concern is with beauty. Kant is the starting point. For Kant, the quality of beauty is a feeling of pleasure, a ‘free delight’, totally devoid of any interests.

… the judgment of beauty arises in respect of an object when the concept of it which is made by the understanding works in harmony with the imagination which it sets going …27

Of the three supreme values—truth, goodness, and beauty—Alexander’s principal concern is with beauty.

In remarking on these empirical processes, what Kant failed to do ‘was to ask for the impulsive basis of aesthetic apprehension’. Why does understanding and imagination work in harmony? In Kant, there is an a priori proof—in other words, a transcendental reason behind these empirical claims, and aesthetic judgment is worked out in the categories. In Alexander, on the other hand, this ‘impulse’—it is not dissimilar to McDougall’s ‘instinct’—is explored. As a behaviorist, he sidesteps the negative connotations associated with a theory of instincts. This impulse simply ‘signify internal tendencies to perform certain actions.’ In the case of beauty, it is ‘constructiveness’. By this he reconfigures Kant’s notion of imagination, as something in the mind, to something that Mead would describe as a social act. It is by social interaction with an object that understanding develops. ‘We know through doing’, in this case through ‘aesthetic production’ or constructiveness. ‘We cannot proceed from appreciation to creation. But we can proceed from creation to appreciation’. At this point, Alexander follows Croce, and draws the interesting implication that the

… appreciation of beautiful art is to repeat the creation of it, so far as the spectator can. The work of art throws the spectator back into the frame of mind in which the artist produced it.28

This conclusion is extended to our appreciation of beauty in nature. Now, this time, following Santayana, the contention is,

… every landscape … to be seen has to be composed. We find nature beautiful not because she is beautiful herself but because we select from nature and combine, as the artist does more plainly when he works with pigments.29

The beauty of a sunset is contingent on an impulse of constructiveness. It is an ‘unreflective construction on our part and an interpretation’. Even the artist is

… in the main unconscious or unreflective; and perhaps … the artist finds it difficult to reflect upon his art and recognise its real character.30

Alexander then proceeds by outlining five characteristics of beauty. The first recaps his starting point. Beauty is a ‘constructive impulse’. Because it is also disinterested—‘diverted from practice’—it can then ‘become contemplative’. Beauty pleases or satisfies this impulse of the subject. In Kant, this disinterested delight is not the upshot of satisfying an instinct, but the workings of aesthetic judgment based on reason. So, although the foundations for objectivity in each case differ, there is a similar intersubjective element. Alexander states the beautiful is ‘shareable’. Kant contends the free delight is ‘universally communicable’. Following from the category of Quantity, it is ‘valid for all men’.

Beauty is manifest by the constructiveness of the artist, and to certain extent by the spectator…

A second characteristic of beauty is that it ‘contains an element of illusion’. However, unlike Plato’s disparagement of the artist as an imperfect conjuror—where his work is at once three times removed from reality—the illusory sense of beauty, for Alexander, is not a mistaken interpretation of reality. It is the contention an object is beautiful ‘only if the mind is there which can add to the palpable material the features which the artist has embodied in it.’ The semblance of beauty—that is to say, the illusion from the material the artist is working with—requires a mind. Beauty is manifest by the constructiveness of the artist, and to certain extent by the spectator, such that ‘the features we impute in art to the material do not belong to it and are in general foreign to it.’ With sculpture, for example,

The marble which looks alive is itself a block of stone; the figures of Giotto … press upon the ground they tread on, as the figures of a lesser artist Duccio … do not.31

In poetry, the constructive mind is similarly present.

… rhythm and meter are dependent upon the co-operating mind; they do not belong to the words intrinsically, even though the words are regarded … as spoken sounds with their meanings. Their artistic value comes from the intelligence of the speaker or reader …32

These fine arts, along with painting, are also representative art. The material is formed into a subject matter. Formal art—music and architecture—on the other hand, ‘have no subject matter distinct from the material itself’.

… music is formal because its subject matter is exhausted by the tones themselves as the musician designs them; and … his design introduces into the tones tonal meanings which the tones do not themselves possess. It has a meaning which is tonal.33

Thus, music is the purest art, followed by architecture, where function and use can impinge on the formal exploration of mass, space, line and plane. Another way of expressing this is to say,

art is formal when there is no subject matter distinct from the material itself; it is representative when the designed material refers to a subject matter.34

Whilst accepting the distinction between form, material and subject matter, a more common view of music would be to stress its representational character. The emotion expressed in music, the tone poems, or the stories behind a ballet score. Alexander does not deny these attempts at representation. However, they are not the defining characteristic of a work of beauty. It is within the form the material takes where beauty lies.

… in pure music there is … no other meaning than is contained in the tones themselves. Music means nothing but the music.35

Music is an instructive case in the fine arts because the confluence of its form with the material reveals the workings of beauty. The material and subject matter of the plastic arts, by contrast, often conceal the beauty ‘hidden under wrappings which fall off in the highest art’. Two conclusions follow from this. Painting and sculpture, along with poetry, ‘are most art when they approximate music and become formal’. This form is a

… system of relations in which the parts of the material are unified; the form of a picture is dynamic as much as that of music, the form of the poem is not merely an arrangement of sounds, nor even of sounds with there meanings, but the interplay of them.36

The secret of beauty is revealed by uncovering this unification of the material with the form.

The third characteristic of beauty elaborates on the relation between mind and form. This is the significance or the meaning of form. The musician, ‘by design introduces into the tones tonal meanings which the tones do not themselves possess. It has a meaning which is tonal.’37

The movement between these tones, the flow of harmony, melody and rhythm, is an illusion introduced by the musician. The constructive act is the ordering of these tones; and, Alexander adds, ‘their order as tones exists only if it is noticed or experienced by a mind’.

The beauty accomplished in the finished work stimulates the hearer to hear it in such and such a way; just as the accomplished objects in nature, the landscape or the face, stimulates us so to select from them or add to them as to see their beauty.38

A fourth characteristic of beauty—based on the old precept of unity in diversity—is the unifying nature of form. This unity

… is made by the artist and is accounted for by the impulse or instinct of constructiveness … with its inherent sentiment or emotion.39

It is a property not of a mental state, but

… of the work of art … not something mysterious or indescribable … simply that formal disposition of the physical material in so far as it produces in the mind a special pleasure by satisfying a certain impulse in the mind to produce such external objects.40

Nothing is said about how this unity might manifest in a particular fine art, or how it might be employed to analyse their aesthetic character.

The fifth, and final, characteristic of beauty is that it is a ‘particular concrete thing’. Unlike science, it does not strive for universality. It is not conceptual, abstract, or intellectual. It is not allegorical ‘…for fine art is not thoughts or images, but individual material things, is made of words or tones or pigments or stone which are necessarily particular.41

Although the intellectual subject matter of poetry might present a difficulty, Alexander goes on say, the beauty of a poem is judged ‘according to the degree in which its thought are fused with its words’. It is not judged by the cogency of the thoughts themselves. It is ‘the charm of words’. The rhythm, meter, and rhyme.

In good poetry there always is this consonance of thought and song. Where either element is found alone we have defect—the tinkle of words or the aridity of bare ideas.42

Alexander later takes the distinction between prose and poetry as a metaphor for grading the plastic arts. Here, he asks the question: to what degree do they attain the poetic? If they are simply narrative, even an imaginative representation of things, they are called prose. Reynolds, he considers a prose painter; Gainsborough a poetic one. As in poetry, his painting is lyrical and dramatic. As in poetry, where the words acquire a life of their own, his brush exudes grace and charm. This metaphor gets somewhat convoluted, where imaginative prose paintings are judged superior to less than perfect poetic ones, and both are superior to simple illustrative works, however skilled. These are craft, not fine art. Indeed, in painting and in sculpture, he writes, ‘… there is a vast amount … of illustrative work which is neither prose nor poetry, but merely good (or bad) craftsmanship’.43

Beauty as a Relation.

At the very beginning of his discussion of values, Alexander reveals his hand. Siding with Spinoza, he answers Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro. Substituting piety for beauty, he suggests things are beautiful because we desire them; we do not desire them because they are beautiful. Unlike science, where the relation to truth is curiosity, and the object remains independent of the subject, in art the relation to beauty is a constitutive relation of constructiveness. This effects the independence of the object and introduces a form of relativism, which his discussion on objectivity must address. For Alexander is certainly not suggesting a barren subjectivism in his analysis of beauty.

For a realist, beauty is a quality that resides in the object. We desire beauty because it is beautiful.

For a realist, beauty is a quality that resides in the object. We desire beauty because it is beautiful. Following John Locke, if beauty is not a primary quality, it is at least a secondary quality—such as colour, taste, or sound—which requires a subject, though not an interfering one. The registering of colour, for example, involves certain receptors. Then colour, so imputed, is ascribed to the object. For example, the mind is stimulated by light of a certain wavelength, and it registers as yellow. This is a passive response, a ‘mentalistic’ doctrine of secondary qualities, which Alexander rejects. Of the subject, ‘there is no organ of beauty in the mind’ which might capture the beauty of an object in the same way as it might capture the colour yellow. Of the object, there is no quality of beauty comparable to sugar, for example, which registers in the mind as sweetness.

The difference between the work of art and the sugar is that sugar happens by its nature to please, while the beautiful is constructed so as to please. It contains … a relation to the mind which is to appreciate it. Its beauty is founded upon a relation to the mind.44

The commonality between art and sugar, however, is the registration of pleasure. It is an aesthetic feeling that pleases. The value of beauty is experienced as pleasure. Beauty is not a quality, but a ‘relation to mind’. This is a constitutive relation, an aesthetic impulse of constructiveness, which gives unity to the object. It reconstructs the object, so that it now ‘contains qualities not inherent in it.’ To find, for example, movement in a series of tones which uncovers ‘the harmonious arrangement of its elements’. It is harmony that pleases, it is the discovery of ‘unity in variety’. In explaining this ‘complicated situation’, and in following Bosanquet, beauty could also be described as a tertiary quality, even though ‘it is not strictly a quality at all.’ For Alexander,

The beauty of a beautiful object is not a quality of it, but is a character it possesses of satisfying in its material form a certain impulse of the mind.45

In one sense, Alexander’s position can be understood as a variation on Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument. The attempt to understand beauty by a single mind would prove incoherent. The experience of beauty by a mind occurs socially, through language, and its objectivity rests in the way that it is communicated and shared. This dependence on mind—such that beauty does not exist without it—is qualified by the point that it is not just ‘a mind’. It is ‘the common possession of many minds’, and this is why beauty is ‘said to have a social character’. ‘Beauty, being essentially public, excites the constructive interest of many persons.’46  The objectivity of these judgements, by many minds, appears to be the working through of a group consensus. There is still an individual subjective opinion, but it is always measured against a ‘standardized impulse to construction’. This standard is worked out within a group of aesthetic judges. As in ethics, the genealogy of aesthetics is like the workings of a committee of judges. Alexander elaborates:

The judges, as in virtue so in beauty, select themselves. The impartial tribunal is a conspiracy of the qualified against the unqualified, whose judgement they reject, and treat the work which satisfies them as ugly, that is, unaesthetic.47

An important implication of this intersubjective theory of objectivity—where value is conceptualized as a constitutive relation—is that there are ‘no fixed or eternal standards of the beautiful’. It is relative to an age and a people.

The constitutive relation of beauty is not simply the expression of any emotional feeling. It is the expression of an aesthetic feeling.

The constitutive relation of beauty is not simply the expression of any emotional feeling. It is the expression of an aesthetic feeling. Importantly, it is not the expression of a cacophony of other emotions that characterise social life. Quoting Wordsworth, Alexander remarks that although poetry arises from emotion, it is ‘recollected in tranquillity’. He further notes, the more provocative the passions incorporated within the material, the more difficult it will be to construct this beautifully.

Where the material and constituent passions tend to overpower the artistic unity, there is defect in the art.48

Citing the instructions of Hamlet to his players: “In the very torrent, tempest, and … whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness.” So, for example, in Tennyson beauty is secured easier with his thinner material, than Browning, where the weight of passion overpowers his artistry.

To be added to these considerations on expression and form is the subject and material with which the artist works. Change, development, and progress are possible as this material evolves. Beethoven is more complex than Mozart, just as both are more developed than the naïveté of primitive music. Alexander expresses this within a ‘scale of greatness’. The more complex, enlightening, or interesting this material the greater the work of art may be judged. But this does not make it more beautiful. Beauty and greatness are two different things. Indeed, as complexity of the material increases, the attainment of beauty becomes more difficult. Although judgements of form are disinterested, the selection and working of the material is based on interests, and what Karl Popper would describe as the problem situation of the artist. Classical Greek sculpture, primitive ‘native sculpture’, or the modernism of Auguste Rodin, attempt to ‘solve the problem of beauty’ within a different range of interests. The difference between classical and romantic art is a further illustration. However beautiful it may be judged, Greek sculpture did not ‘closed the history of sculpture’. In art, just as in science, there are progressive and regressive problem shifts, such that with the

… greatness in art of any one time, subject and skill … are allowed to compensate each other, so in assessing beauty as progressive or not, a relative failure in the attainment of beauty may be compensated by the difficulty presented by the enlarged range or subtlety of interest.49

Beauty and Morality in Modern Art.

Samuel Alexander never returned to Melbourne. Instead, his family joined him in Manchester. At home, his sister took the role of hostess for gatherings of students and colleagues. Towards the end of his life, his writing on aesthetics coincided with a time of great upheaval in art. Although he did not directly address any of these debates—on Dadaism, or conceptual art, for example—his theory of beauty is instructive. In Melbourne, these debates were long standing. In 1939, a year after Alexander’s death, Sir Keith Murdoch, the managing director of the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times, sponsored an exhibition of contemporary French and British art. The outstanding collection of 165 paintings, comprised two-thirds French Impressionist and Post Impressionist, and a third British. No German Expressionism, or later developments in contemporary art at the beginning of the twentieth century, were included. Curated by dealers and galleries in Europe, three quarters of the collection were for sale. And they remained for sale, unexpectedly, throughout the Second World War. Clearly safer in Australia, than being confiscated or destroyed in Europe. The exhibition in Melbourne was both a huge success—3,000 visitors a day and 48,000 in total—and marred in controversy. The exhibition was held in the Town Hall because the director of the National Gallery of Victoria, J.S. MacDonald, refused the Gallery, even though Murdoch was a director. MacDonald castigated the Herald’s advertising. It was no more than an ‘urge … to swallow this putrid meat’; they were ‘wretched paintings’. ‘We have been soused with one bucketful after another of jargon siphoned from Fry, Bell, Wilenski, Cluton-Brock, Freud, Jung’. His conclusion: ‘There is no doubt that the great majority of the work called ‘modern’ is the product of degenerates and perverts’.50 Although MacDonald subsequently lost the directorship after this outburst, virtually nothing from the collection was bought by the NGV, even though the Felton Bequest gave the Gallery enormous buying power. Established in 1904, the bequest exceeded the combined budget of London’s British Museum and National Gallery. It could have bought a large proportion on offer. The Contemporary Art Society urged the Gallery to buy at least nine works, and Murdoch himself bought 16—out of the 165 works, the NGV selected only 3. A Derain, a Van Gogh (the provenance of which has since been disputed), and a Vallotton. No Gauguin, no Seurat, Matisse, Modigliani, Cezanne, Bonnard, Picasso, or Braque.

In the twentieth century, the character of modern art changed dramatically. After the war, its epicentre moved from Paris to New York. In Melbourne, the NGV moved to palatial new premises in St Kilda Road. The 1968 opening exhibition reflected this shift from France to America. With a working title of ‘Conceptual Painting’, it was called The Field. By now art had become abstract, not figurative, international, not national. The director of the new gallery, Eric Westbrook and his curators, selected forty emerging Australia artists imbued with this new American wave. Most were in their twenties, and they produced seventy-four works, including some sculpture. Material developments in paint technology—acrylics and polymers—enabled an expanse of colour on the canvas.

The metaphor was a ‘field’, hence ‘colour-field painting’. These were large, flat areas of colour, forming abstract or geometric shapes. In America, this also involved a development in conceptual art, where, following Barnett Newman for example, very complicated, some might say bizarre, interpretations were made of these abstract forms. Just as Melbourne’s familiarity with Impressionism before the Murdoch exhibition was meagre, this opening exhibition was also, in its own way, a startling introduction to both a new gallery and a new movement in art. It was also another lost opportunity. Again, money had nothing to do with it, and again the NGV purchased only three works. Sydney, Brisbane, and the National Gallery in Canberra bought twice as many, with that number, also, going to regional galleries and private collections.51

Today, there is no doubt that the whole collection would have been not only commissioned but bought by the gallery. The NGV certainly needs to take steps to add to its modern art collection. Plans have been drawn up, by Angelo Candalepas and Associates, for a new 30,000-square-metre modern art gallery called The Fox NGV Contemporary. This will sit around the corner from the 1968 Roy Ground’s building. Forming an ‘arts precinct’, Lindsay Fox and his family having pledged $100 million to the estimated cost of $1.46 billion. The exhibition space of 13,000 square metres will be comparable to the Tate Modern.52 If attendance figures at exhibitions in Melbourne are the measure of success, modern art is flourishing.

Today, art is based on quite different precepts to those outlined by Alexander.

Held in 2023, Melbourne Now is a very large exhibition of more than two hundred Contemporary Melbourne artists and designers. Occupying all the NGV’s Australian Gallery—the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square—it follows an iteration ten years earlier. Many of the works were specially commissioned and will join the gallery’s collection. If there was some ambivalence to Melbourne’s reception to modern art last century, Melbourne Now is a mirror of everything international. It joins the consensus. Seen from the vantage point of Melbourne’s most famous philosopher, however, it sits less secure. Today, art is based on quite different precepts to those outlined by Alexander.

To begin, Alexander makes a clear sociological distinction between the social acts of science, morality, and art. All are concerned with an understanding of abstract relations—the subject matter of sociology—but a coherent account of each, in the first instant, requires an understanding of the distinction and the conflict between three impulses. The working out of a morality based on the impulse of sociality, is not the same as the constructiveness found in art. Indeed, one very often works against the other. To find beauty, requires disinterest. To establish a moral position, requires the interplay of many passionate interests. Science, on the other hand, is the striving for truth through the employment of universals, whilst beauty is a particular created thing. Beauty is not understood as an explanation of many things. All these distinctions would be a puzzle to a contemporary artist. Almost all modern art is an exploration of our conceptual understanding of things, or a prescription on a moral point of view. Today, art masquerades as science and ethics. And, if it does not get very far in this exploration, it is seen as an adjunct to, or emblematic of, these fields.

An installation greets the entrance to Melbourne Now. By Carolyn Briggs and Sarah Rees, ‘Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana’ is of mixed media. There are some logs of wood, but most are sawn sections of timber, of various species—myrtle, ash, ironbark, red gum, stringy bark, peppermint, wattle, black wood and many others—These are arranged in low stacks. There are also a few assemblages of rocks—basalt, sandstone, and quartzite. Placed on top of these stacks, on one of the three sides which form a triangle, are six kangaroo skins. Clearly, the meaning of this installation requires an ‘artist statement’.

The work brings together First Nations philosophical knowledge, design thinking and the built environment to answer the question: ‘If our public space were designed to represent the identity of Country though their materials, want would those materials be?53

There is also a ‘research document’ as elucidation. The work aims to bring

… people together for cultural practice, ceremony, and performance, giving us a place where we can create and find our own narratives. … The result is a topographical installation that reflects on the character of Country across Victoria … Visitors are encouraged to ask themselves not only upon whose Country they are standing, but also from whose Country are the buildings around us made?54

‘Gathering Space’ is primarily a work based on one reading of the anthropology. As well as addressing issues in social science, it is also a moral narrative on Indigenous identity. Is it, however, a work of beauty? This is not canvassed by the artists. Briggs has a doctorate—as with 20 of the other 200 exhibitors—and is a member of an ‘Indigenous research lab’ at Monash University; Rees is an architect and ‘co-chair of the Australian Institutes of Architects First Nations Working Group.’ The aim of these two artists is to ‘interrogate’. This is a much-used adjective in the exhibition. Their artistic method, in other words, is to examine and to analyse the material. Although Alexander would start with the premise that beauty is shareable—following Kant, as something ‘universally communicable’—these artists, and their ‘research labs’, are asking the audience to share their reading of the anthropology and their political and moral standpoint. They are not asking to share the beauty. For Alexander, on the other hand, beauty is found within the form that the material takes. It is the unification of the material—in this case ‘dispossession’, ‘rightful custodians’—with the form. Alexander would also go on to contend that the more provocative and passionate the material that is employed, the more difficult it will be to develop a form that is beautiful. This relates to Wordsworth’s notion that, although poetry might arise in passion, it is reconciled in tranquillity. The weight of Briggs and Rees’ passion overpowers their artistry.

For Alexander, on the other hand, beauty is found within the form that the material takes. It is the unification of the material—in this case ‘dispossession’, ‘rightful custodians’—with the form.

Morality, in the form of Indigenous Rights, is also explored in the sculpture of Matthew Harris. Big Love, takes the form of a heart, fabricated out of possum skins, stuffed with synthetic fur. A self-described ‘white bogan / Yorta Yorta artist’, Harris calls it a ‘gesture of love to mob’. With a family nickname of ‘possum’, his artistic practice, ‘seeks to debase normative hierarchies with a mix of queer sentimentality, cuteness, vulgarity and abjection’.55 There is a lot of moral baggage here. What is not clear is how all these ethical categories tie together. In Alexander’s terms, it is a work of rudimentary craft, deficient in form.

‘Indigenous Queer identity’ is also the basis of Peter Waples-Crowe’s Ngaya (I Am). A montage of photographic and drawn images, all within a video installation, Eugene von Guerard’s 1883 painting of Mount Kosciusko is the background. As the curator remarks, von Guerard painting perpetuates ‘the myth of terra nullius’. He continues:

Peter’s work dismantles the legacy of erasure and misrepresentation by interrogating the way non-Indigenous people construct images of Aboriginal land and people’.56

Although the ‘intersection’ of Queer and Indigenous identity is opaque, the critique of ‘non-Indigenous visions of Country … as something to be stolen, owned and exploited’ is transparent enough. Though humour, a white skier is seen to exclaim: ‘I’ve got the mountain all to myself.’

Morality might arise in the material that comprises function, but the form still speaks in its own voice as beauty.

In Melbourne Now, Indigenous issues are a reoccurring theme. They are not, however, the only morals that are canvased. There is a well-known roll call: on sustainability, pollution, climate emergency, border security, surveillance, politics, knowledge and power, and the problems of late capitalism. The list continues. But there are also sections on architecture, industrial design, and furniture, where form is less easily ‘hidden under the wraps of the material’. Alexander’s appraisal here would be not unlike that of Walter Gropius. Architecture, as with music, is non-representational; and, putting to one side function, can only be understood in its own formal terms, such as shape, mass, plane. Morality might arise in the material that comprises function, but the form still speaks in its own voice as beauty. As in the Bauhaus, Architecture and Industrial Design have a central place in a modern art exhibition.

Samuel Alexander’s analysis of values is an objective basis to challenge the trajectory modern art has taken this century. From his understanding, it appears the notion of beauty has been lost. The acceptance of this conclusion, however, strikes a difficulty with one aspect of his theory: that beauty is a relation. Alexander’s sociological explication is that the behaviour of the artist creating, and the viewer reimagining this creation, constitutes what is beautiful. It is not the object, in and for itself. As Alexander expresses it: ‘Beauty, being essentially public, excites the constructive interest of many persons.’ What is beautiful is the judgement of many minds who come together in agreement. These groups of aesthetic judges reach an intersubjective consensus on what is beautiful. This is the working of a certain type of connoisseurship. To understand this process would entail a sociological investigation of Colleges of the Arts, their doctoral programs, and degrees, of curators and gatekeepers, the galleries and auction houses. This social network—this series of ‘committees’—constitutes the ‘qualified’ as opposed to the ‘unqualified’. Today, there is largely a consensus amongst these connoisseurs. How, then, could Alexander’s ‘unqualified’ view prevail?

DR TRONN OVEREND is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019. An annotated archive of his Fortnightly work is here.


  1. Geoffrey Blainey, James Morrissey, and S.E.K. Hulme, Wesley College: The First Hundred Years (Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1967), 42–49.
  2. Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity, The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow. (London: MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1920), vi.The hyperlink provided yields the text.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ralph Ross, Introduction to Samuel Alexander, Beauty and Other Forms of Value (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. Apollo Edition. 1968), viii.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1968), 23.
  7. John Anderson, Space, Time, and the Categories, Lectures on Metaphysics 1949–50 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2007).
  8. George H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 223.
  9. George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Act (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 516–17.
  10. Mead, Mind, Self and Society (1967), 190.
  11. Ibid., 192.
  12. Ibid., 238. Herbart was a German psychologist well known to Mead’s colleague, Dewey. Although there is a close connection between Herbart’s ‘We’ and Mead’s ‘Me’, Mead makes no mention of him in his lecturers on Mind, Self and Society, and only passing reference in George Herbert Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
  13. S. Alexander, Beauty and Other Forms of Value (1968), 251.
  14. Ibid., 252.
  15. Ibid., 267.
  16. Ibid., 232.
  17. Ibid., 240.
  18. Ibid., 244.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 245.
  21. Ibid., 193.
  22. Ibid., 196.
  23. Ibid., 206–7.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 218.
  26. Ibid.; see also 227–29.
  27. Ibid., 28.
  28. Ibid., 29.
  29. Ibid., 30.
  30. Ibid., 31.
  31. Ibid, 36.
  32. Ibid., 41.
  33. Ibid., 77.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., 41.
  36. Ibid.; see also 45–46.
  37. Ibid., 77.
  38. Ibid., 44–45.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid., 50.
  41. Ibid., 51.
  42. Ibid., 42.
  43. Ibid., 115.
  44. Ibid., 183.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.; see also 172–75.
  47. Ibid., 176.
  48. Ibid., 131.
  49. Ibid., 179.
  50. Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art (Melbourone: Miegunyah Press, 2005), 229.
  51. See The Field and The Field Revisited. National Gallery of Victoria, 27 April–26 August 2018, Melbourne.
  52. NGV Magazine 35 (July–August 2022).
  53. Melbourne Now (Melbourne: NGV Publications, 2023), 90.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., 246.
  56. Ibid., 46.
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