Follow-up on aesthetics and information.

only makes sense with the first piece in mind/still clarifies less than I would have hoped

This is a further explication of a few things I introduced in my last essay. As such, it probably won’t make much sense without that/is not meant to stand as an actual essay.

A quick meta note: Now is as good a time as ever to explain how I categorize posts. Those on literature or politics or [other] will generally be placed under that. But for the longer essays, especially the ones that combine or steal better thinkers’ ideas, I’m using the category “attempts”. I mean the following by this: I’m not smart enough to understand the world, and I’m not currently pigheaded enough to stick by a set of axioms, so the positions proposed aren’t definitive. They’re meant as investigations if one accepts a certain premise. Needless to say, a few of these are going to conflict (sometimes a lot). This is not to say that they’re all equally valid: some of the axioms are much closer to my own views than others. Furthermore, some are more-or-less explicit discussions, whereas others are basically extended metaphors. There is hopefully a vague continuity: I obviously have my own biases and starting points, and even selecting which premises to start with will be part of that. I’m sure that my emphasis on nihilism and valuation brings to mind certain philosophers (…whom I’ve been trying to avoid). But the axioms will not necessarily be explicit, unless I make some weird decision about the truth and loudly note it. I also try to refrain from stating “this is an interesting thought that I don’t believe”, mostly because I’m afraid that will prejudice both myself and the reader from taking it seriously.

What are (hopefully) consistent are the problems. Valuation is one. I’m trying to examine it here using James. I may not entirely endorse James, but  “valuation” is a serious problem no matter what school you’re trying to answer it with. Different schools will bring out different aspects, but the central issue remains. (If I do have any biases here, it’s against schools that ignore valuation).


Dennett is worried about memes, but I take it that he’s worried about the actions of the infected, rather than their mere opinions. Taking action as our metric, I find his general definition of meme (“packet of information”) unimpressive. Further, it’s symptomatic of a more general trend in modernity to assume an efficacy of “fact” (or “post-fact”, which implies the same faith).

Instead 1. I’m using information as synonymous with the plural of “fact”.of that, I suggest that valuation underlies both action and manner of thought. Facts are plugged into this system. People react to those, but the “facts themselves” aren’t what predispose certain actions. One can imagine information[1] as stimuli, a fact as a psychical stimulus. A stimulus doesn’t contain its own response, somehow tucked away within in. The color red will be different for me than for someone with protanopia even if the stimulus is identical. This also goes for more complex stimuli: reponses to a given scene will be  very different culture to culture even if the strict physical stimulus is the same. You meet a soldier with PTSD, but are you a modern psychologist or General Patton (wiki article with unacceptably funny title)?

Analogously, “information” does not contain its own response. Imagine your “moral” response to the existence of pornography, then compare and contrast it with a medieval bishop’s. In other words, the interaction of information and some other, preexistent thing produces the specific reaction. But since we never see that “interior” thing, or more specifically we only see it mediated through response to stimuli, we can be mislead into thinking that the stimulus itself contained the response. [Person] responded this way because [factoid] – that [factoid] must do crazy things to people’s brains.

What that “interior thing is” is puzzling. Dennett implies that it is, itself, just more information. I think this is wrong: it’s a kind of valuation which serves to categorize information. If we’re talking about actions (good or bad), this is an important difference.


Consider the is/ought: “Witches cause mischief. Sophie is a witch. Sophie will cause mischief.” This is all well and good, and who am I to argue with the wisdom of the crowd? But moving to “We ought to burn Sophie” is very different. Is-statements can be added to one another, but suggestions for actions or moral conduct don’t necessarily follow.

You could adduce the statement “Burning witches reduces mischief”, and I’ll grant that people who happen to be on fire are generally less malicious than people who are not on fire. But that still does not get us to the desired action, to the ought of the problem. “Is” and “ought to” are categorically different types of judgment. One can list a wide variety of true properties (all “is” concepts), but cannot arrive at an “ought” from them. There has to be something else that takes us there.

“Aha! But you missed a critical step: mischief is bad. Now help me gather the kindling.” Philosophers love to mock this naive gotcha: just because something is bad does not imply that it should not be. Gravity is bad for people who fall out of airplanes, but great for Alfonso Cuarón’s career. Where is the ought?

The naive response (“mischief is bad”) points to a deeper problem. There are two motions, both confusing: “is” (empirical statement) somehow became “is bad” (value judgment), and “is bad” (value) became “ought to”. My question is not actually “what is the bad/good?”, but “how did we get that ‘is bad/good’ statement to begin with?” The purpose of the first is to find an objective good, the second’s is to determine the formation of value judgments. None of this is breaking new ground, of course,and I don’t pretend it is. I’m simply clarifying.

What I call a “fact” is much closer to the “is” part of an “is/ought” statement. Since I’m running off of a discussion about language, I’ll call a fact “the set relationship between various words”. Most facts are (explicitly or implicitly) simple propositional statements: “It’s a fact that x is y.” The “setness” is, of course, what makes a fact. F=ma – great fact! But it must be set to mean anything. If any of those definitions move, then the “fact” is gone. But this also makes facts static. By their very nature, they don’t produce anything else. They just sit there. And they especially do not produce valuations, which means they come no where near actions. Something has to be added to them. In other words: Dennett is trying to get an “ought” (action) from an “is” (information); moreover, he’s ignoring the “is good/bad” (value).

A common response to this line of thinking is to say: “You’re talking as though humans are rational. They aren’t – they’re making logical leaps and acting on them.” And sure, but all that does is boil the problem down to “people are irrational”, as though that were an explanation in itself. It’s not. It’s a word. As Faulkner put it: “just a space to fill a lack.” The leap may be irrational, but there’s surely something there, right? Because “burn the witch” does follow somehow, or it at least follows better than “witches cause mischief, mischief is bad, so let’s move to Portugal.” So… how?

I offered the beginning of a solution, relying on William James. In loose language: art moves us in a way that simple statements do not. The template provided by this “movement” then allows information to make us act in certain ways in response to it. I made a more technical argument in the essay this is following from, and don’t exactly wish to repeat it. Read that or something; this is meant to address a problem that arises.


In response to my post on memetics and aesthetics, TD strikes on a major problem:

From your III generally – how do you account for the fact that languages can be translated into and between each other? Surely, there must be some objective* substrate to the arbitrary grunting? Or, see below:

From your IV, third paragraph – is it really true that value is an emergent property? Or, if I write a poem about how beautiful my beloved is, mustn’t I have already thought she was beautiful even if the words/memetic phrasings/classical references didn’t exist yet? Abstract as appropriate; I thought it was a useful simplification.

I responded, but should be slightly clearer.

James is concerned with human cognition. The association between certain words (their fringe) naturally leads us to move from one to another. For James, this is how the mind “works”, the fringe from word to word (or concept to concept), allows original thought. Here are the axioms that James takes and I follow: i. we act (initially) based on cognition, ii. cognition is (roughly) based on language, iii. association of words is not always random. Here is one I added: iv. humans have a natural disposition towards “beauty” of some kind. Taking these, we see how value judgments “emerge”. I should probably say: James’s theory of human cognition is much more complex than I’ve made it appear, and he thinks that certain connections change synapses in the brain and make responses physical and automatic over time – he calls this a “habit”. This might actually make my point more strongly, but I don’t have the time to get into it.

Take “good” as a (stupid) example. “Good” means a different things for different cultures [citation needed]. If we use James’s theory of fringe, this “good” is not static (fact), but comes from the interaction of other fringes and connections.  Once one has a certain value judgment, then others may be adduced to it: Perhaps its initial fringe is with “freedom”. And imagine that someone has recently begun to associate “democratic rule” with “freedom”. Over time,  “democratic rule” is associated with “freedom” more clearly – that is, there’s a new connection on the node. “Democratic rule” no longer has to move from freedom to good, but is directly associated. But then what of “democratic rule”‘s associations? And those beyond?

This would be what I call the “productivity” of values. One starts to form new judgments based on old ones, as in the “good”->”freedom”->”democratic government” example. But it also means “more likely to cause action and further investigation”. It’s not an accident that “is/is good” leads to “is/ought” – all of our “oughts” tend to follow from (supposed) goods.

That example is straightforward, but I don’t want to give the impression that these are mathematical, as though they add new values only by rigorous and necessary associations. Valuations can be of all sorts of things, as our phrase “sacred cow” aptly demonstrates. Whereas information is constrained by certain rules of logic, valuation is not. Indeed – it stands outside of proposition itself (at least initially).

More importantly (and possibly controversially), one can even imagine that how one moves from one “fact” to another (i.e. what one chooses to do with a fact, how one categorizes it) can be based on value judgments. In politics, this is defining words, but the words we choose to define are ones that were already presupposed to be important. Scientific investigation might follow a similar path (someone is going to scream at me for that). In other words: categorization itself (and hence, thought) might be the result of value judgments.

For 2. “Meaning” here might be something like “the sum total of their other connections”.instance: whatever “democratic rule” means is irrelevant. It’s the word itself being associated with good that makes it important. Every politician uses the same words to describe their platforms, which leads to truisms like “terminal values are rarely different.” Under the current theory, this is misleading: the words for terminal values are rarely different. The underlying “meaning” of those words might be radically different, because the “meaning” is really their association with a series of other concepts. [2] We can go further: “defining words” becomes an important act only when they’ve been affirmed, valued as “good” or “bad”. Good, see: “freedom”; bad, see: “fascism”. Note that both of those will be defined by opposing parties quite aggressively, and they will be mutually contradictory. Calls to resolve “a definition” so that we can debate like adults misses the point. The “defining” is the debate.

I should clarify one thing: I’m neither against logic, nor facts. I think that we can have productive debates about information, etc. But the things we “value”, those which we inevitably are going to debate over, will have been decided beforehand. The valuation comes prior to its logical examination.


This leads us to a  major question: if this valuation is emergent, esemplastic, adds on new meanings, then how did we get the first connection? What moved “freedom” to “good”?

My response was aesthetics. Because James is talking about words, and I’m talking about James, then poetry is the most important element here. Poetry cements associations between two words quite strongly: one could say it defines a concept. This also goes for certain other connections (“democratic rule” with “freedom” might be one).

I’m being somewhat coy here, because I’m really talking about two different things when I say “aesthetic”:

  1. The way that a poem will associate words (“good”) with others (“freedom”); these are unique to poems, and we’ll call them that poem’s “aesthetic”. De Rerum Natura has a different aesthetic (towards the gods) than the Pslams do, etc.
  2. The underlying “beauty” of the language, and hence how strongly the poem might stick with us. I further presuppose that a particularly beautiful poem will predispose us towards concepts it praises without having to explicitly link them to words like “good”, etc.

(1) is somewhat obvious, and it’s entirely linguistic. This is the realm of myth, of religious texts, etc. But without (2), (1) would be useless. After all, reasoned arguments do make value judgments all the time. Why should poetry stick with us more than a Ted Talk? This latter I would call “information”, and I find it unpersuasive as an argument for valuations.

This should be obvious, but “information” does make people respond (as stimulus). But what we’re really talking about here is the pre-existent, [whatever] framework we use to interpret that information.

There are factual 3. When I think about the most influential works of writing and thought, they’re pretty much all poetry (in some form or another – religious texts are obviously included). I may not buy my own theory here 100%, but this definitely isn’t an accident. It should further be obvious that when I talk about “value” I don’t mean “anything important we use”; calculus is not a “value”, matrimony is. Matrimony may be socially useful (not getting into that debate), but that use explains its persistence more than its origin.statements about what is good or bad, see: Aquinas. Note that he’s relying on poetry to get there (the Bible), but whatever. My point is that this will not cement a productive association. It’s not beautiful enough to “stick” with us. As a response to Dennett: we shouldn’t be worried about “information packets”. We should be worried about the aesthetic we use to interpret them. What produces the “is good” is not a reasoned debate, or information, it’s an earlier value judgment. The most likely thing to have done that is poetry.[3]

Further: to even do such a thing, “information” would have to overstep a kind of logical boundary. It’s not easy to see how one moves from “is” to “is good” without getting smacked down by another thinker for violating a code.


Translation sheds light on the distinction between “information” and “poetry”, and thus on poetry’s subsequent “stickiness”. You can translate the “meaning” of a poem, which is to say: its underlying information, but that doesn’t get at the poem itself. The aesthetics, the most meaningful part, get left behind.  This information can even give us value judgments, but if poorly presented there’s no reason for them to productively weave connections.

Take an example, from perhaps the most famous piece of poetry in the English language:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

But what about this:

I wonder if I should die. Maybe not.
I could just mope about things I don’t like, I guess.
Or I could do something that might get me killed but it would be a thing against a thing I don’t like. Is that a better thing?
What a conundrum.
On the one hand, death is pretty permanent.
On the other, life is kind of a bummer.
But what if there’s something after death?
Ugh, that’s confusing and I don’t know how to respond.
Not knowing about what happens after you die makes life more difficult than if you knew what happened after you died, I think.

If all we cared about were rote facts, and not our responses to them, then that’s an accurate summary of Hamlet’s speech. That’s what Hamlet said in fact. Of course, anyone sane would say that that’s not what Hamlet said. Not at all. “They mean they same thing, though!” You’re broken.

So what of information? You can substitute any poetic expression of value in and translate it into strict information with the same result. Concepts of good or bad or justice or [whatever] can be transmitted that way, but they can’t necessarily inform how I’ll think about those. They don’t have the same “sticking” power, whatever that is. If they can’t transmit how I’ll feel, they definitely can’t make me act a certain way.


I wish that TD had chosen a word other than “beautiful”, because it somewhat confuses things. Beautiful might be subjective, as in cultural associations with the concept “beauty”. “This is beautiful” supposes an affirmation- beautiful, therefore good is a step beyond merely “this is beautiful”. But it might also be associated with other words: “moral”, “just”, “decadent”. In this way an aesthetic might even lead to a kind of feedback loop. In that sense, the “words” or “forms” are perhaps isolated, or atomic, or even “discovered” (here is a tree, that is a “moral” action), but the valuation comes after that, from their interrelation. If it approximates our thought, then it’s only fair that the thought should be equally confused.

I think that TD’s point is that there must be some objective version of these concepts underlying our use of them, an “objective” good, for instance. That is… a really hard question. Allow me to get at it obliquely.

When I talked about beauty in the context of “aesthetics”, I also meant it objectively, but I didn’t mean it to be an object concept like Good, or Just. I might argue that beauty is (strangely) the one objective thing underlying those. Of course, I have no idea what this is or why we find these things beautiful. Eh, I’ll write a treatise on aesthetics another day.

This is, of course, where we hit a real problem, and where we break from simple relativism. “Only facts are objective” and “aesthetics are subjective” are common enough statements, but both are completely insane. There’s something about Shakespeare’s words that makes them stick. It might be that certain turns of phrase, certain associations of words, are more “naturally” beautiful to human beings than are others. How that works is nearly impossible to figure out, but if it’s there, then it might also be the mechanism for “objective” good: that is, the fact that more beautiful things are more readily accepted might mean that certain concepts of good are more naturally aesthetic than others. This is a very weird way to think about it, because it means that there is a kind of “objective good”, but it has nothing to do with “good”. It only has to do with beauty.

Final statement on memetics: there probably are memetic outbreaks. Maybe we should consider them epidemics of (something like) Stendhal syndrome rather than just “shoddy info.”


All of the above is a further explication of the fringe concept. Although this is breaking my “don’t explicitly say what I think about the theory” rule, I find the following obvious/serious problems.

  1. It’s not clear to me that language is exactly how we think, although I find it more important than language.
  2. It’s not clear that “words” are as important as is grammar.
  3. I doubt very much that one can actually guess at what memes will be popular and which will not. I don’t think they’re random, but I do think that there’s enough noise to make prediction extraordinarily difficult outside of vague terms. To be honest, though, I’m also unsure about this qualification.
  4. Affirmation is my go to for thinking about valuation. I won’t get into it, because that’s a whole other (series of) essay(s). But it’s not clear to me at all that affirmation is the same as word-to-word correspondence.
  5. As much as I mock “facts”, this probably underplays their importance. Also, simple relativism is gross.

(3) deserves more space. Outside of James or this bastardization of his theory, I do think that art is of the highest importance. I also tend to give it more power than is popular. But for some reason, many people who share that view with me tend to then try and “create a new world” with new branches of art, or new great works. This will almost certainly fail. You are not a great artist (no one is). Further, these same people seem to think that they should convey their pet-theories in art, as though art’s main use is simply “better spreading ideas (that I want spread).”


Great works of art often have meanings that we can find. People confuse this information with the work itself, i.e “this work is important because it problematizes [social/political/philosophical issue].” But that’s not the art: bad art also tends to present information and theory. Indeed, bad art often tries to allay its flaws by being political or socially consciousness. Most of those works we forget after the issue is relevant, i.e. it’s inferior philosophy pretending to be poetry. Conversely, we remember time-specific works even after their main “issue” has passed us by. Though the Irish famine is not particularly pressing, I still recommend reading A Modest Proposal.

This is probably exacerbated by our education system. In high-schools (and college), children are taught Shakespeare by writing essays on the “meaning”, that is: the underlying information. I agree: information is important. I have written (and will write again) plenty on what works of art “mean”. But far too often these meanings ignore the langauge, the words themselves that don’t contribute to a more thematic “whole”. “Macbeth is about guilt.” Cool. Why is it different than just saying “Killing dudes makes you feel guilty?” People who think that the work of art is the same as its underlying “meaning” are implying that Hamlet’s soliloquy are my translation of it have the same value. I refuse to accept that, and I’ll go so far as to say that even considering that is similar to passionately insisting that 1+2=4. To take a line from Virginia Woolf: We murder to dissect.

If I had to, I’d probably define art as an “affirming activity”, a way to create values. But even that doesn’t really get at what it is. It sort of pushes back the question.

Perhaps more important than “which works we should read” is the question “how should we read them”?

Don’t start with concepts. Start with words and rhythm.

One day I’ll compile a list of blogs and sites that I like. Now is not that day. Still, I should mention that in my opinion the best blog for analysis of poetry is Ashok Karra’s.

Author: Lou Keep

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