It is hard, but not impossible, to disentangle the aesthetic from the meaningful. Clearly, aestheticism tries to drive a hard boundary between what is aesthetic and what conveys meaning. But since the aesthetic always entails a relationship between a perceiver and the thing perceived, it seems “natural” (i.e. to occur almost automatically and seemingly of its own accord, unwilled) to ascribe some significance to that relationship. When the thing perceived it itself “natural” (i.e. not human made, but—for example—a mountain landscape), we get the kinds of “oceanic” sensations of harmony or of the self melting into the non-self that are associated with romanticism. When the thing perceived is human made, an artifact, it is difficult not to view it as an act of communication. This thing is offered or presented by one human to another—and we presume that the offering has some meaning, is thought of as being significant.
Meaning and significance are not exactly equivalent. I can discern the meaning in a banal sentence, but deem it insignificant. When the artist presents something to an audience, she (it would seem) is making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of significance. This is worth paying attention to.
On what grounds can that claim to significance, importance, be made? Either the artist claims to have something important to say, some message we need to hear. Or the artist is offering a valuable experience. Now that word “valuable” has snuck in. “Meaning” and “significance” are synonyms when they refer to sense (i.e. what does that sentence mean; what does that sentence signify); but then both words move from reference to the sense something (a sentence, an event) makes to intimations of “worth,” of importance, of value. Something is meaningful as opposed to trivial or meaningless; something is significant as contrasted to not worth paying any mind.
The aesthetic, then, seems pretty inevitably engaged in pointing to something or some event as worthy of our attention—and then has to justify that pointing in terms of importance or significance or meaningfulness. It seems a very short leap from that kind of justification to making claims about what does or should hold value for us as humans beings living a life. It seems difficult to avoid some kind of hierarchizing here. These activities or these insights are valuable; they contribute to leading a good or worthwhile life. Those activities and beliefs are, at best, a waste of time, or, at worst, pernicious.
Yes, certain modern artists (although far less of them than one might suppose) wanted to get out of the value game. But it was awfully hard to present your art work in a “take it or leave it” way, utterly and truly indifferent as to whether anyone found it worthy of attention. A sense of grievance, a denunciation of the philistines, is much more common when the artist fails to find an audience. People have bad taste, have a misguided sense of what is valuable and should be valued.
I suspect that even as the arts were trying in the early 20th century to escape meaningfulness, to simply offer experiences that were their own end and carried no message, that the humanities were going in the opposite direction. The humanities are devoted to uncovering the meanings of cultural artifacts and events. This is partly because the humanities are an academic pursuit—and thus tied to models of knowledge that were developed in reference to the “hard” sciences. Just as science should explain to us natural events, the humanities should explain cultural ones.
But, as people (like Dilthey) quickly noted, scientific explanations were causal. It was not very clear how the explanations offered by the humanities could (or even should) be causal. You could say that, as a communicative act, the art work causes the audience to receive a certain meaning. And certainly that kind of approach to the problem of meaning has figured fairly prominently in the philosophy of language and in certain forms of literary theory. So, for example, the philosophers struggle mightily with metaphor and irony because it undermines any kind of direct mapping of semantic sense to conveyed meaning. And then someone like Wayne Booth, a literary theorist, comes along and tries to provide a list of the textual markers that allow us to see when irony is being deployed. Vague terms like “tone,” “implication,” and “connotation” are trotted out—and interpretation (even when given a jargony, snazzy name like “hermeneutics”) quickly begins to seem too seat of the pants, too ad hoc, to really qualify as science.
The alternative is to try to explain how and why “interpretation” is different from “explanation.” For starters, interpretation is not trying to explain how this thing we are perceiving was produced. (There are other branches of humanistic inquiry that do try to answer that question.) Interpretation is trying to suss out the meaning conveyed to the perceiver. The movement, we might say, is forward not backwards. The interest is not in the causes of this artistic artifact or event, but in its effects.
I don’t want to get into the tangles of trying to differentiate “explanation” from “interpretation.” This is mostly from cowardice. I do think there is a methodological distinction to be drawn between the sciences and the humanities, but I have not been able to draw that distinction in a way that is even minimally plausible or satisfactory. So I have nothing ready for prime time on that topic.
Instead, I want to end this post with two observations. The first is that the humanities, I think, are always pulling art works back into the realm of the meaningful even in cases where the artists themselves are determined to escape the nets of meaning. In such cases, the humanities will often then give us the meaning of the attempt to escape meaning. And it is worth adding here that history is one of the humanities when it considers the effects of events as opposed to trying to trace the causes of events. That history is pulled both toward causes and to effects is why it is often considered one of the social sciences. But, then again, it would be silly to say the natural sciences don’t, at times, pay attention to effects as well as causes. And, as I have already said, some branches of literary criticism (although not very prominent) do attend to causes. So the difference here can’t be grounded on whether causes or effects is the focus. (This is a taste of the muddle I am in about these things.)
Instead, perhaps the key difference is meaningfulness itself. The natural scientist tracing causes and effects of a natural process does not have to assign that process meaningfulness apart from what transpires. But the humanities, it seems to me, always consider the further question: how is this event or object meaningful for some group of humans? The “uptake” by some human community is almost always part of the humanities’ account of that event/artifact; that community’s paying attention to and its ways of elaborating, playing out, its relationship to the event/artifact and to the humans involved in the making of that event/artifact, is a central concern for the humanities.
The second point need not be belabored since I have already made it above. It seems to me only a short step (and one almost impossible not to make) from considering the meanings that people have made of an event or an artifact to considering what things are or should be valuable. At the very least, the humanities declare: this is what these people valued. But to look at what they valued is to think about what can have value, and to consider what I value. Furthermore, for many devotees of the humanities, that reflection on values is precisely what is valuable about novels, historical narratives, anthropological investigations.
This interest in questions of value can be formal or substantive. I think most teachers of literature (just to stick to that limited domain for the moment) pursue both. They are committed to what usually gets called “critical thinking,” which means a mode of reflection on received ideas and values, a way of questioning them in order to examine what I will still believe after doing that reflecting. The examined life and all that. But literary works often advocate for specific substantive values: sympathy, justice, the alleviation of suffering and/or of inequalities (or, on the conservative side, reverence for tradition and established authority). And teachers often choose to have students read works that promote values the teacher values.
I don’t think the humanities can get out of the values business (even if some of the arts can). There is no fact/value divide in the humanities—and, thus, the humanities are going to be embroiled in endless controversies so long as values themselves are a site of dispute. You can’t, I believe, wipe clean the substantive bits of the humanities, leaving only a formal method that has no concrete implications. As current controversies demonstrate, “critical thinking” and “open-mindedness” are themselves deemed threatening in certain quarters because they imply that various sacred cows are not sacred, are open to dissent. Any approach that refuses to take things on authority is suspect. The arts may (although usually don’t) sidestep issues of authority by just saying this is one person’s take on things—and you can ignore it as you wish. But the humanities don’t have that escape route; they are committed to the view that only things and beliefs that have been examined are worthy of authority and credence—and they, in their practice, are inevitably involved in considering what things/activities/beliefs about what is meaningful, what is valuable, one should adopt. Every formal methods, in other words, has substantive consequences, so formalism of any sort is never going to be value-free.