Friday, February 14, 2014

The metaphysics and aesthetics of plastic


There’s a passage at the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel Foundation’s Edge which I’ve always found delightfully preposterous.  Referring to Seldon Hall on the planet Terminus, Golan Trevize says:

Is there any structural component visible that is metal?  Not one.  It wouldn’t do to have any, since in Salvor Hardin’s day there was no native metal to speak of and hardly any imported metal.  We even installed old plastic, pink with age, when we built this huge pile, so that visitors from other worlds can stop and say, ‘Galaxy!  What lovely old plastic!’

The very notion of “lovely old plastic” seems absurd on its face, and I imagine Asimov wrote the passage with tongue in cheek.  Aged wood, stone, or metal structures or furniture can be aesthetically appealing, but aged plastic only ever seems shabby at best and positively ugly at worst.  Now, why is that?

Of course, many regard aesthetic judgments as entirely subjective, and if that were the case then the question would be of limited interest.  But for the classical philosophical tradition and Scholasticism in particular, aesthetic judgments are not entirely subjective.  To be sure, Aquinas holds that “beautiful things are those which please when seen” (Summa theologiae I.5.4), and this characterization makes reference to a reaction in the beholder.  However, it is “the cognitive faculty” which responds to what is perceived as beautiful, and what it is responding to is something objective in the thing, namely its form (in the Aristotelian sense of “form”).  More specifically, Aquinas says, “beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind.”  That is to say, the “due” proportions of a thing are those that reflect the kind of thing it is, where what is definitive of a kind is, in the case of natural objects, something objective.  Hence a beautiful face becomes ugly when disfigured.

But things are much more complicated than that, especially in the case of human artifacts.  Is an automobile engine ugly?  The answer, of course, is that it depends.  Stored on the dining room table, on the front lawn, or next to an altar in a church it would be an eyesore or worse.  But in a smoothly running new car or even on a garage bench it is a thing of beauty.  In general it takes, I think, careful analysis to explain exactly what it is about artifacts and their natural and cultural contexts that accounts for our judgments about their beauty or ugliness.  And the right answers are not necessarily the ones that might at first glance seem obvious.

So, consider some paradigm cases of ugly old plastic: a piece of cracked and sun-bleached patio furniture; a child’s broken toy lying around the house or the yard; the depressing piles of garbage that collect on beaches.  (Put aside for the moment the environmental problems posed by such garbage; what matters for present purposes is that it would be ugly even apart from those problems.)  There are several possible accounts of their ugliness that might seem obvious but which I think are wrong or at least incomplete:  It might be thought, for example, that it is the damaged or non-functional character of such objects that makes them ugly; or that as man-made objects they seem out of place in a natural environment; or that qua “artificial” substance, plastic is ugly in a way natural substances are not; or that it is the chaotic, jumbled character of the debris tossed up on a beach or scattered about in the yard that makes it ugly; or some combination of these factors.

But on reflection none of this seems quite right, or at least not the whole story.  Ancient ruins can be beautiful despite being severely damaged man-made structures whose pieces are strewn about chaotically.  It might be thought that this is because the stone or wood elements from which the structures are made have a “natural” feel that makes them suitable to their surroundings.  But modern ruins involving the products of high technology can also be beautiful -- for example, the sunken ships, tanks, and other World War II era materiel of Truk Lagoon.  Is this because undersea forms of life have made a habitat of these ruins?  Surely not.  A rusted out but barren tank is no more or less beautiful than a rusted out tank covered with barnacles; it might even be a little more beautiful.  Furthermore, an old abandoned plastic sand bucket or Styrofoam food container which some form of sea life has made its home seems no less ugly than any other piece of plastic debris.  (It’s worth noting -- to underline how complex aesthetic matters can be -- that an abandon former weapon of war can have a haunting beauty that something as innocent as a child’s toy or a container for take-out cannot!) 

Is it the mass produced character of plastic items that makes a random pile of them ugly?  That doesn’t seem convincing either.  Imagine a sea floor or even a beach covered with 19th century glass bottles and tin containers.  Somehow that doesn’t seem as ugly as a beach full of plastic junk clearly is, or even necessarily ugly at all. 

That appeal to the “artificial” character of plastic is not a satisfying answer is also evidenced by the fact that there is a sense in which plastic is not artificial.  As I’ve noted several times (e.g. here), the traditional Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” does not correspond exactly to the distinction between what occurs in the wild and what is man-made.  For the Aristotelian distinction is ultimately concerned with the difference between what has a substantial form or inherent principle of its activity, and that which has only an accidental form.  And there are man-made objects that have substantial forms (e.g. new breeds of dog or of corn, water synthesized in a lab), and naturally occurring objects that have only accidental forms (e.g. a random pile of stones that has formed at the bottom of a hill).  Now as Eleonore Stump has pointed out, irreducible properties and causal powers are the mark of a substantial form.  Water has a substantial form insofar as its properties and causal powers are irreducible to those of hydrogen and oxygen, whereas the properties and causal powers of an axe (Stump’s example) are reducible to those of its parts.  But to take another of Stump’s examples, Styrofoam, though “artificial” in the sense of being man-made, also seems to have a substantial form insofar as it has irreducible properties and causal powers.  It is thus as “natural” in Aristotle’s technical sense as new breeds of dog or corn are.  And plastic in general seems no less “natural” in this sense.  (The metaphysics of substantial form is discussed in detail in my forthcoming book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.) 

Moreover, plastic, though in another and obvious sense “artificial,” is not ugly when new and functional.  Indeed, the plastic components of computers, automobiles, toys, and many other artifacts can all be aesthetically highly pleasing.  (And 3D printing may be the coolest thing ever invented.)

But old, broken plastic seems pretty much always ugly in a way old, broken stone, metal, wood, or glass need not be.  Why?  My answer is, I don’t know.  Plastic is a little mysterious, and philosophically interesting.  Who knew?  That guy in The Graduate was onto something…

51 comments:

Scott said...

"Now, why is that?"

What an unexpected, fascinating, and deep question. I don't know the answer either, but discussing it should prove very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to say this without sounding ugly. The plastic debris seems - seems - young, undeveloped, even retarded in development, yet debris.

Timotheos said...

I'm mostly spitballing here, but I think plastic looks aesthetically pleasing because of its smooth and clean
"futuristic" type look, along with its bright eye-catching colors. And thus if it ever looses its luster or shine or if it ever gets dirty, that effect is completely lost.

Also, I think plastic, while it's not exactly unnatural, dosen't look like anything we find in nature. Obviously wood and stone fit in with the rest of nature, and even glass looks much like ice. But plastic just seems distinct from all that, and thus looks out of place when it is exposed to the elements.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's the point, some sort of frozen arrested vibrancy or radiance. If that gets dulled, so much the worse.

Et iterum claritas, unde quae habent colorem nitidum, pulchra esse dicuntur. - Aquinas.

And again clarity [or brightness or, as Joyce translated it, radiance], whence things which have bright [or glistening or blooming] color are said to be beautiful.

Ian said...

Fascinating question... but I was hoping you'd have an answer for us!

Here's another aesthetic question I've wondered about: why do we find some animals aesthetically pleasing (e.g. a tiger, an eagle, a butterfly), but others we find repulsive (e.g. a rat, a cockroach, a snake)?

Scott said...

Logically, I suppose, the first (zeroth?) question here should be whether "old" plastic really is un-beautiful, or whether we just find it so because we fail to appreciate its objective beauty. I don't think the latter is the case, but offhand I can't clearly articulate any reasons for that.

Scott said...

@Timotheos:

I think you're on to something, but I'm finding it quite difficult to articulate just what it is.

However "natural" plastic may be in some Aristotelian sense(s), it not only doesn't look like anything we can find in un-humanly-assisted nature, it also, when exposed to the elements, doesn't (at least within our ordinary timeframe) turn back into anything we recognize as "naturally occurring." Does that have anything to do with it, do you think? (I'm mostly just spitballing here too.)

Anonymous said...

Plastic is homogeneous, so a white sphere, say, would be perceived as white all the way through with no internal structure. Except for their outer structures, plastic things are perceived as having no inner structure. The same thing is true of a lump of gray clay.

It's the lack of internal structure of plastic things that makes them so boring. And we do not perceive the beauty of the boring. There might be beauty there, but we don't perceive it.

Justin said...

My family has been in the antique business for quite some time. I've restored and refinished quite a few pieces of furniture, and like to build new furniture. I like stone, brick, and wood.

Maybe I can point out another aspect of plastic which, from experience, tends to reduce its appeal to me.

It is not easily restored. When I look at a broken piece of furniture, or one that has been left outside too long, it may be ugly. Or if I come across old pieces of cherry or mahogany, etc., I see the potential for beauty in the object, even if the potential in mind is for it to be another form of artifact.

When I look at an unkept yard, I see the potential for it to be mowed and put back to order, and thus have a higher aesthetic appeal.

When I see an old classic car or an old rusty rifle, or tarnished jewelry, I have dreams of restoring them.

When I see a broken plastic toy, ipad case, bottle, I have no such potential in mind. Even if I realize the plastic can be recycled, it seems there is nothing inherent in the plastic waiting to be renewed or set free which would restore beauty to it. There is no renewable order in the plastic waiting to be renewed. It must be purified again, essentially taken back to the raw materials and reformed. This seems fundamentally different than other materials.

My two cents anyway.

Sandymount said...

What appears ugly to you may not be to others or even your future self. Alain de Botton in his book architecture of happiness. Oted how the piblic hated the ugly Dutch windmills when they came out much as we do the modern ones today. s we now know, they are considered beautiful and are the subject of many of the Grand master paintings in many museums. Who is to say that old plastic wont endup being appreciated in thesame wayintime.

Interestingly De Botton also mentions that mountains used to be considered ugly... Representing cold barren places. How are we supposed to find beauty objective when there areso many examples when the same thing across time and peopls have opposite values?

Anonymous said...

Off topic! But think I would love to get a Prof Feser review of the new Robocop remake STAT!

Thanks in advance

Neal

Matt Sheean said...

"(Put aside for the moment the environmental problems posed by such garbage; what matters for present purposes is that it would be ugly even apart from those problems.)"

I'm not sure that the question of the ugliness of plastic can be divorced from the ethical issues related to it. I think plastic is a sort of portrait of Dorian Gray. It's easy to forget about it when we're having a good time, it makes our lives easier in a lot of ways. It's all good and well until we're confronted with the effects. That's to say it's either innocuous when we're not 'seeing' it, and ugly when its appearance outside of its proper context disturbs us. While I think questions of beauty in general can be reduced to questions about objective formal qualities, I'm not sure the question of the beauty of plastic can be divorced from the meaning of plastic (since it might be conformed to a formally pleasing shape).

When I think about it, though, (bouncing off Timotheos comment) I don't think a brand new plastic cathedral would be very appealing at all. For quite a long time, however, plastic has been a boon to the design of automotive interiors.

Perhaps the formal quality that makes old ruins beautiful is their purity? Plastic is a mix, and it is less appealing in a state of decay. The Roman ruins at Caesarea (which I was fortunate to visit) are all of one kind of stone, more or less, and still possess a rugged beauty. There are also places where the stone has been so weathered that it is difficult to distinguish from something naturally occurring. Plastic, on the other hand, quickly loses its structure, and does not decay with any sort of symmetry, and sticks out like a sore thumb. My rambling aside, it seems to me that plastic lacks purity of form. So long as the illusion is maintained that it is pure, it may be pleasing (as in a well-maintained car).

rank sophist said...

An excellent post and a nice break from nitty-gritty metaphysics. I can't solve this problem, either, but it's a great topic to consider.

Crude said...

I'll take a stab at it.

Maybe part of the problem is that plastic is largely (at least in my experience) treated as a substitute for a better but more expensive/inconvenient alternative, and even a large part of the actual utility it often has comes precisely from the fact that it's abundant enough to be disposable. That changes our relation to it in some way - a kind of innate garbage-y aspect to it.

Does anyone know of situations where plastic is used because it's the best option for a material, not owing to its cheapness or disposability? Maybe if there's something plastic is used for that it's innately superior for, it'll look better even when aged?

Glenn said...

Crude,

Does anyone know of situations where plastic is used because it's the best option for a material, not owing to its cheapness or disposability?

I've a friend who writes for a magazine in the injection molding industry. I'll pass on your question to him.

Glenn said...

Hmm. I suppose sometimes plastic might be preferred to other materials due to its relative lightness. But hopefully my friend will respond with a more knowledgeable answer.

Crude said...

Thanks, Glenn. The one situation I found from a bit of googling is with electronics, since electricity works well with it. But at that point it's playing second fiddle to the electronics.

Glenn said...

Dr. Feser: But old, broken plastic seems pretty much always ugly in a way old, broken stone, metal, wood, or glass need not be. Why? My answer is, I don’t know.

Scott: I'm finding it quite difficult to articulate just what it is.

Alan Novak, law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart, quoted in The Origins of Justice Stewart's "I Know It When I See It":

"Justice Stewart came to the office for a Saturday stint of opinion writing. I was there alone when he arrived, and we visited together to discuss his reaction to the [question]... I had been a Marines officer; he a Navy officer. We discussed our experiences with material we had seen during our military careers, and discovered we had both seen materials we considered at the time to be [ugly plastic], but this conclusion was arrived at somewhat intuitively. We agreed that 'we know it when we see it,' but that further analysis was difficult."

averageprotestant said...

I like this post.
Here is a link to a work by British artist Ian Kiaer, with a beautiful lump of old plastic.

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/art-now-ian-kiaer

DNW said...

Plastic, sort of ...

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/mailonsunday/article-1082316/Plastic-fantastic-The-pre-war-Bakelite-auction-expected-raise-thousands.html

Anonymous said...

In the past plastic was often used to make fake wooden and metal and other sorts of materials things, so much so that "plastic" was associated with fakes. I think this negative bias is still with us to some extent.

Also, we know that plastic is very pliable, which cognitively is close to spineless. Not a pretty picture. Again, it connotes a lack of inherent structure. Humans like to be sure about things.

Glenn said...

Crude,

Ford Motor Company claims here [1] that 3D printing of plastic improves quality in Ford vehicles by providing engineers more time and freedom to optimize and test parts.

As someone who remembers when people would joke that Ford stood for "Fix Or Repair Daily", and whose 2013 Escape has been recalled a second time, I hope they're serious about the improvement in quality, and that, ahem, quality isn't playing second fiddle to cost-savings.

Anyway,

Ford uses 3D printing to quickly produce prototype parts, shaving months off the development time for individual components used in all of its vehicles, such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents.

With traditional methods, an engineer would create a computer model of an intake manifold – the most complicated engine part – and wait about four months for one prototype at a cost of $500,000. With 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in four days, including multiple iterations and with no tooling limits – at a cost of $3,000.

“For the customer, this means better quality products that also can be weight-optimized to help improve fuel efficiency,” explains Paul Susalla, Ford section supervisor of rapid manufacturing.
[2]

While this mainly has to do with the economy of using plastic, it does make sense that the ability to proto-type more rapidly, even if via the use of plastic, may increase the chances of an improvement in quality.


- - - - -

[1] It'll be noticed that no mention is made therein of an increase in the aesthetic appeal of the plastic parts used.

[2] See [1] above.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, plastic is also quite strong, resilient, reliable, and can go in the dishwasher :-)

Maybe it just needs a PR person, the way American wines did in the past.

Yes, there is great prejudice in the arts. Great.

Glenn said...

Crude,

I've yet to hear from my friend, but another thing for which the use of plastic seems to be preferable comes to mind: toothbrush bristles. Toothbrush bristles are made of nylon, and nylon is a plastic. Imagine brushing one's teeth with a toothbrush whose bristles are made of wood, stone, steel, ceramic, etc.

(Indeed, imagine jumping out of a plane with a parachute made of wood, stone, steel, ceramic, etc. rather than nylon. Yikes.)

Crude said...

Glenn,

I admit, I cannot think of a suitable replacement for plastic in a toothbrush. Or parachutes. So my hunch could have been wrong.

I was hoping for something larger and more industrial.

tz said...

I think it depends on the pile more than the material.

I think a random pile of glass and metal is just as ugly, but there are few such (especially with recycling).

The corpses of old things still have an integrite, as in a junk yard - now called pick and pull. It was a functioning car. Or dishwasher. It is like the dessicated corpse of an insect that still has shiny colors and the wings are out. Of such you can say "it was".

Plastic piles tend to be heterogeneous. Trash mounds. Discards of things with no purpose or relation to each other heaped together in a common grave.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any of these speculations quite get at it, and I don't know if mine will, but here goes.

Plastic is used for disposable items meant to be thrown away sooner (like garbage bags) or later (like bleach bottles, toilet seats, old toys) so little attention goes into their design, perhaps excepting toys. But while plastic items deteriorate, they do not biodegrade, or not for so long that they might as well last forever. In a sense, plastic is a kind of category error.

All the other objects to which you refer will grow old in their time, deteriorating gently back into the earth. Plastic will do so too, eventually, but it takes so long that our Wonder Bread wrappers and Javex bottles, I've heard, may outlive all other artifacts of our civilization.

L. Legault

Glenn said...

Crude,

It seems likely that there a number of things for which no material other than plastic might be well-suited. For according to Professor Plastic, "there actually are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics." And according to Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, "The word plastic is itself cause for confusion. We use it in the singular and indiscriminately, to refer to any artificial material. But there are tens of thousands of different plastics. And rather than making up a single family of materials, they're more a collection of loosely related clans." (Although Professor Plastic points out that, "[E]ven though the number of plastics is unclear, plastics makers tend to group plastics into two general classes: thermoplastics and thermosets.")

As for something larger and more industrial, I'm also at a loss to think of something given the initial constraints.

- - - - -

The family just north of us when I was a kid had a fireplace in the living room. I remember we'd sometimes be over there, and the father would entertain us by tossing bits of wiring into the fireplace. The wire was copper, but the surrounding insulation was plastic. And he'd toss in bits of wire with different colored coatings, and we'd be delighted watching the resulting Technicolor flames. (Eye-candy before computers, it was.) So, in a not very practical, local way, old plastic sometimes might be put to (something resembling) good use without first recycling it.

Glenn said...

Btw, scene from The Graduate mentioned in the OP is also mentioned in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story:

It's hard to say when the polymer rapture began to fade, but it was gone by 1967 when the film The Graduate came out. Somewhere along the line -- aided surely by a flood of plastic products such as pink flamingos, vinyl siding, Corfam shows -- plastic's penchant for inexpensive imitation came to be seen as cheap ersatz. So audiences knew exactly why Benjamin Braddock was so repelled when a family friend took him aside for some helpful career advice. "I just want to say one word to you... Plastics!" The word no longer conjured an enticing horizon of possibility but rather a bland, airles future, as phony as Mrs. Robinson's smile.

It continues,

Today, few other materials we rely on carry such a negative set of associations or stir such visceral disgust. Normal Mailer called it "a malign force loose in the universe . . . the social equivalent of cancer."

But we already know that. We just don't yet have any clear-cut reasons as to why it's like this.

The Fez said...

I deal a lot with plastics as an architectural designer, and especially as someone who is focused more directly on the fabrication side of the process. Plastic, as a material, does posses morphological advantages that simply cannot be found in many other materials. The relatively low temperature at which it melts, and its ability to take on various forms based on the intelligent molds is nearly unparalleled.

It seems that we find plastic aesthetically displeasing whenever it A. ages (which it does not do well), and B. is essentially pollution. Where sunken ships are effectively reclaimed by nature, by virtue of steel or iron's tendency to oxidize and become and rust, the indefinite and (oftentimes) non-biodegradable qualities of plastic ensures that, as a material, it is effectively immune to meaningful decay.

I believe that people find it desirable when things are reclaimed by natural forces, or are part of a natural cycle of decay and renewal. Plastic is the odd-man out. It does not decay beautifully, and it can never be reclaimed by nature do in large part to its chemical composition.

That may be why we find it ugly. We know, even subconsciously, that plastic exists in kind of material anarchy. It does not submit to the natural order of things in the same way other materials do.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hijack this thread. I've been lurking, and very occasionally posting, on this blog for a while now. Many of my questions have little relevance to the blog post they're posted under. Other people seem to be doing something very similar.

What would be good is an online Aristotelian-Thomist forum; a centralised place where people can post questions without dragging comments on this blog (and on others) off-topic.

Does anyone know of such a thing?

Edward

Anonymous said...

Not certain where to ask you this Edward F.
But have you ever written about Aquinas's mystical experience? The one that lead him to make the comment about his work being like straw?

Crude said...

Regarding the OP on another note...

What I always found funny about that scene is that, as near as I can tell... it was actually really good advice the character was being given. It's a little like someone telling you 'McDonalds' in the 1970s.

Joe K. said...

I'm surprised that that incredibly pretentious scene from American Beauty wasn't mentioned. The one where they're watching the plastic bag "dance" in the wind. This one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB0th8vNLxo

I'm not sure, in that scene, if it's the plastic bag that's beautiful or if it's the Wind, the movement. I'm thinking it might be the wind and movement, as I think if the bag were paper (or anything else) the image would have been just as beautiful. That said, I'm not actually sure if the image Is beautiful, or if the director just wants to say that it is for the sake of the argument he's making.

I think maybe that's the exact reason why the director chose a plastic bag. That is, he chose it Because plastic bags are ugly, are necessarily Trash. The point of the movie being that beautiful things really exist, even within or among ugly things, if we look to see them. Or that beautiful things can be birthed within truly unbeautiful things.

PatrickH said...

Perhaps plastic's not aging well indicates that in some way it violates our expectation that it should, as a natural or artifactual body be subject to change, specifically generation and corruption. It is, I suppose, generated, assuming a plastic thing is a substantial form. But it seems somehow to resist corruption. It can break, get dirty, but it just keeps on keeping on, not able to let go, not able to become something else. It was generated from some previous form, as generation requires the corruption of something previous. But plastic doesn't have the good grace to let go, allow something else to be generated from its corruption.

Plastic is ugly when it refuses to corrupt gracefully and let something new come to be from its ending. It won't end...and so nothing new can be generated from it. Old plastic is like a kind of living death. It has the ugliness of something ungenerous, frozen, parasitical and ungiving.

Old plastic is selfish and barren.

PatrickH said...

Perhaps plastic's not aging well indicates that in some way it violates our expectation that it should be subject to change, specifically corruption. A plastic thing is not generated as a substantial form, but even as an artifact, it seems somehow to resist corruption, in the sense of its own ending (I know corruption does not mean the ending of an artifact).

So a plastic body can break, get dirty, but it won't somehow genuinely disintegrate. It just keeps on keeping on, not able to let go, not able to become something else. It was made from something previous, but it won't allow anything new to be made from it.

Plastic is ugly when it refuses to "corrupt" gracefully and let something new come to be from its own ending. It won't end...and so nothing new can come from it.

Old plastic is like a kind of living death. It has the ugliness of something ungenerous, frozen, parasitical and ungiving, past its due date, but still there, cluttering up the landscape.

Old plastic is selfish and barren. It's like it thinks that if it has no children, it will never die.

PatrickH said...

Sorry about the double post. Is there any way I can remove the first comment?

Scott said...

@PatrickH:

"Is there any way I can remove the first comment?"

Unfortunately it doesn't appear that you were logged in when you posted either of those.

On the comments page, you have the option to delete each of your logged-in posts, in the form of a clicky little icon at the very end, right after the posting time and date. Appropriately enough in view of the topic under discussion, the icon is a tiny trash can/rubbish bin.

But your two posts will stay on and on, never changing, never disappearing, like . . . plastic.

(Unless Ed deletes one of them, of course.)

Mr. Green said...

Scott: "Now, why is that?"
What an unexpected, fascinating, and deep question. I don't know the answer either, but discussing it should prove very interesting.


Intelligent design? Plastic excels in certain practical applications because, after all, that's precisely what is was made for. Wood and metal, on the other hand, were obviously designed to have valuable aesthetic as well as practical properties, and indeed to age in a deliberately beautiful way. Or at least potentially do so — it's easy to find ugly examples of rusty, misshapen metal or splintery, rotten wood.

Indeed, one of the reasons people are delighted when they find rusting hulks or other deteriorating masses that look pleasing is because most of the time, such things do in fact look ugly. (Frankly, I'm not that impressed with the shot of the sunken tank.) Even more relevantly, I think, is that many of the worthy instances look interesting rather than beautiful. That is, what we are appreciating is something more abstract than merely the way it looks visually. Misshapen rusting heaps may appeal in terms of geometry or symmetry — and such things can of course apply to piles of plastic, assuming some other consideration doesn't cancel that out. So flip Scott's question zero around: are old metal/wood/glass really beautiful, or only in exceptional cases? (Cf. TZ's point about random piles of glass and metal.)

I think the suggestions so far are on the right track. Plastic wasn't built to cope with getting dirty and broken... but wood grows in dirt, of course it copes better!


Glenn: (Indeed, imagine jumping out of a plane with a parachute made of wood, stone, steel, ceramic, etc. rather than nylon. Yikes.)

Well, parachutes used to be made out of silk. I guess it rots "better" than plastic, but as a fairly uniform, somewhat stuctureless, "boring" expanse of clean white cloth, I expect that an old silk parachute left lying around for years to get dirty and torn would not look very nice either.

Mr. Green said...

Ian: why do we find some animals aesthetically pleasing (e.g. a tiger, an eagle, a butterfly), but others we find repulsive (e.g. a rat, a cockroach, a snake)?

I think this is mostly down to the difficulty in viewing them in a purely aesthetic light — thoughts of plague and poison are too readily intertwined with any thoughts of rats and snakes (or perhaps thoughts of cold barren desolation with mountains). Is a healthy, non-mangy, non-flea-bitten rat really any less pretty than a hamster? And once you remove the dangerous head, lots of people find snakes quite fashionable enough to wear as belts. (Personally, I've always found snakes to be aesthetically pleasing — from afar. But bugs are just ugly, ick!)

Sandymount: Alain de Botton in his book architecture of happiness noted how the public hated the ugly Dutch windmills when they came out much as we do the modern ones today.

Interesting — I never understood why some people hated the newfangled windmills so much. Plastic doesn't "fit in" to the natural world the way wood and metal do (again, they were designed that way!), but anything natural — in the metaphysical, not ecological sense — of course fits in to some degree. And any kind of windmill looks beautiful to me, at least somewhat, because it has to fit the physics of aerodynamics. The curve of the blades has to be natural in order to work, and so there is an inherent elegance in their very structure. Of course, the dull colours don't help, but a nice paint job would help with that.

How are we supposed to find beauty objective when there are so many examples when the same thing across time and peopls have opposite values?

I don't think there are really that many. The exceptions stick out just because there is such a widespread baseline against which to measure them. (Similarly to the parallel argument re morality.) Aquinas says "the senses delight in things duly proportioned" — subjectively, because they are the senses of subjects — but he refers to "the senses", not "my senses" or "your senses" as though they worked differently; there are just "human senses". Of course, you or I may suffer this or that imperfection in our senses; or we may be subject to cultural biases, and so on; but none of this shows that there is not an essential objective foundation upon which the accidental differences rest.

Glenn: "we had both seen materials we considered at the time to be [ugly plastic], but this conclusion was arrived at somewhat intuitively. We agreed that 'we know it when we see it,' but that further analysis was difficult."

Which in one way, should not be surprising: when it comes to food, I can digest it when I eat it, but it hardly follows that therefore I have an ability to put an explanation into words of how digestion works. What would be surprising is if someone then argued that digestion didn't really exist, or was in the mind of the digester!

Joseph P. Martino said...

In response to where plastic is used because it's the best material. I have a rifle with a fiberglass stock. It's superior to the more conventional wooden stock, even though the latter is often considered more beautiful. The fiberglass stock doesn't warp from humidity, it doesn't expand or shrink because of temperature variations (wintertime hunting, for instance), it's lighter than wood or metal, and it's a "drop-in" fit for the rifle. From many standpoints, it's superior to alternatives.

Mr. Green said...

Ed: Water has a substantial form insofar as its properties and causal powers are irreducible to those of hydrogen and oxygen, whereas the properties and causal powers of an axe (Stump’s example) are reducible to those of its parts.

They are? What properties of water are irreducible in this way? Certainly some properties can be explained in terms of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up a molecule of water (e.g. why water expands when it freezes). If there were some property that contradicted the behaviour of atoms that happened to be stuck together, that would be a big blow to reductionism. (Well, lots of hands would be waving it off, but I would've thought it would make bigger news.) But there's nothing to stop a substance from having the same properties as its (ostensible) parts would, so surely we could never know for certain.


Neal: Off topic! But think I would love to get a Prof Feser review of the new Robocop remake STAT!

On-topic: Too much plastic, not enough metal.

(Maybe someone should try making a Wood-o-cop? People would go for that, right? Friendly, appealing, with a built-in truncheon...)

Figulus said...

I think that Justin and PatrickH have just about nailed it. I’m going to say the same thing in a different way.

Plastic, unlike glass and tin, is an organic material, and it decays. This makes it less easily restored, and more like an old banana, which is no longer a thing of beauty.

I say “just about”, because my explanation does not account for the beauty of drift wood. Nevertheless, I think that plastic’s decay is an important part of the explanation.

Jinzang said...

I'm surprised that that incredibly pretentious scene from American Beauty wasn't mentioned. The one where they're watching the plastic bag "dance" in the wind. This one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB0th8vNLxo

Easily explained. One of several subthemes running through the film is mystical experience. Actually, it's mysticism lite, the possibility of contemplation of nature evoking states of bliss. Everything is beautiful, because it is capable of evoking bliss when viewed in the right way. The plastic bag blowing in the wind was beautiful because it Ricky's first experience of viewing the world this way, not because of some special virtue of plastic bags. It could have been anything, that's the point.

Also, Lester's final monologue, after being shot.

Kiel said...

Anonymous Edward on February 16, 2014 at 10:38 AM said:

What would be good is an online Aristotelian-Thomist forum; a centralised place where people can post questions without dragging comments on this blog (and on others) off-topic.

Does anyone know of such a thing?


If you're on Facebook, head over to the Thomism Discussion Group.

Anonymous said...

Water water every where, including 60% of the human body.
The human body is essentially structured water.
Water contains and transmits information, as do homeopathic remedies.
Water also responds to human emotion and prayer too, as the work of Masaru Emoto has shown.
What are the implications of Emoto's work for human beings due to the fact that the human body is 60% water?
Water is of course an ancient symbol that has many associations with Spiritual Life.
The Japanese cosmology is very much associated with water. Many classical shakahuchi songs are about water.

It could be said that the principle of Spiritual Life has to do with the transformation of water, in which you free up your usual solid mortal consideration, and through which you become transformable, watery, alive, fluid in your breathing and gracefull in your movements, and your Spirit-Life begins.

The life force that animates human beings is water. Emotion is water. I is H20. I = H20.
I, meaning the sense of independent consciousness, or body-mind, equals water.
Wherever water can be discovered to be, if you engage a profound feeling level investigation on it, if you enter into its molecular and atomic domain, then there is only H or intrinsic Happiness.

Tom Gilson said...

I think Crude is on a good track. As with anything in aesthetics it's hard to find a principle with no exceptions, but there's a distinction between old plastic artifacts and the others Feser lists here: plastic was built to be cheap, and it was built to be discarded. The other items he names were not.

How would we regard plastic discards if we did not know that about them? It's impossible to say; we've been irreparably tainted with that knowledge.

Our revulsion may not only be against the plastic but about what it says about ourselves: that we have taken the route of building things for ourselves that are functional and cheap, but which we haven't cared for, not even from the very first use.

(Where it was not built to be cheap, or to be discarded, I doubt we would find it so ugly in the end. Is a child's discarded plastic doll really that awful?)

brandi abou-rakaban said...

Cool metaphysics topic! Plastic is used for disposable items hence making it "cheap and throwaway" and to some relates to garbage which associates the mind with germs and "dirtyness" if you will. While metals and the like are used for things we wouldn't dispose of after a couple of uses and hence cleaner and more valuable.

Matt Sigl said...

That's great PatrickH.

Less poetically, I think it probably has something to do with the way light refracts off the material; plastic doesn't seem to "absorb" light the way other more beautiful "substantial" substances do. It's telling that bad computer graphics in movies are usually described as looking like "plastic." In that field the designers are keenly aware that the issue is the subtleties of the way light bounces of real objects and materials. It's no coincidence Toy Story was the first and most successful computer animated franchise ever. But, why does the way light bounces off plastic cause it to seem ugly?

My guess it that it is the uniformity of the material; plastic doesn't allow for any subtle surface texture variation, creating an effect that looks inert and flat. Just as your ear actually prefers an environment of slight white noise to silence for focus, your eye enjoys a slight sense of "noise" in the surface of objects and materials. (In architecture, this is the purpose of ornamentation. It's why modern architecture, with it's slab-like aesthetic, was such a disaster.)

Plastic is the fluorescent lighting of materials. It's poetic justice of a sort that plastic has come to symbolize mass production and late capitalism in many ways: inert, cheap, lacking in subtlety, and seemingly indestructible. It all works together of course, the part reflects the whole.

Glenn said...

Mr. Green,

Well, parachutes used to be made out of silk.

This is true, and I was vaguely aware of it when I putting forward the parachute example. But if I had said, "Imagine jumping out of a plane with a parachute made of silk," then I wouldn't have been able to say, "Yikes."

Kiddin' aside, since making parachutes out of nylon is more economical than making them out of silk, the parachute example is dismissible as a poor example (for it ignores one of the two constraints Crude had mentioned).

cheyan said...

"How would we regard plastic discards if we did not know that about them? It's impossible to say; we've been irreparably tainted with that knowledge."

Here's a thought: benches made out of recycled plastic. If I saw a pile of discarded bus stop benches, I think I might find that an intriguing sight, even if I didn't think it was beautiful. I'd know they were plastic - metal would look different, wood would have aged differently - but there wouldn't be the "yuck! trash!" feeling like take-out boxes or plastic bottles (or tin cans or glass jars) would evoke.

On a building, aging plastic looks... dissonant, I guess? "That was supposed to look futuristic and modern and now it looks old and gross." I feel like I have a sense of what the original designer wanted, and the old plastic isn't living up to that. But if I see old, un-maintained metal, wood, or stone, I don't expect that it was supposed to never look different - of course metal, wood, and stone degrade.